March 3, 2020 (Steven O’Reilly) – In Part I of this series (here) I argued for the historical nature of the account of the guards at the tomb (cf Matt. 27:57-66; 28:2-4; and 11-15). An examination of the account of the guards in Matthew’s gospel we see that the Jewish claim “the disciples stole the body during the night while the guards slept” provides corroboration of several aspects of the Gospel accounts of Jesus.
The most ancient and organized response by skeptics of the Resurrection was not that of modern day hyper-skeptics, i.e., “Jesus never existed.” Rather, those closest in time to the events in question did not doubt the existence of Jesus. Rather, these first skeptics accepted as historical truth that (1) Jesus lived, (2) had prophesied his death and resurrection, (3) was crucified under Pontius Pilate, (4) suffered, died and was buried, and (5) his tomb, though guarded, was empty on the third day.
I will provide a link to the original article which argues for the historicity of the account of the guards in Matthew’s gospel. Following that, I give a number of objections (see further below) found either on the blogs of skeptics, or objections I’ve encountered over the years in informal debates on internet discussion groups. I then offer my replies to the objections. I’ve tried to fairly present the objections offered by skeptics, quoting them verbatim as possible. Over time, I may add to this list as I come across other objections or as additional objections are suggested to me by email or in the comments section.
The argument for the historicity of the guards account: The Historicity of the Resurrection: The Guards at the Tomb on the Third Day
Objections to the Arguments made above, and the Replies to those Objections
“What’s the source for this story? Matthew doesn’t claim that God miraculously revealed it, either to himself or to someone else. It’s not a dream or a vision that someone had. Nor is it likely that either the guards or the Sanhedrin came knocking on Matthew’s door and confessed their crimes to him.” (source: here)
Reply to Objection 1:
Ancient historians and writers did not regularly or even generally provide sources for accounts in their narratives as is now the practice of modern academics and professional historians. Even so, it would be wrong to say it would have been unlikely or even impossible for Matthew to have had either direct or indirect access to reliable sources for the account of the guards at the tomb. Rather, I think we can have confidence that Matthew had one or more good sources, and that we have a good idea of the sort of individual he was. With this in mind, we can address the skeptic’s question: “What’s the source for this story?”
In response to that question, I think we can consider two categories of potential sources who would have had access to the account of the Roman guards. Certainly, a Roman guard, perhaps one who subsequently converted, might have been Matthew’s source. Alternatively, Matthew’s source might have included one or more other Roman soldiers or officers both (1) with access to the account of the guards, and (2) with the sympathies to share the information with the disciples. Matthew gives the account of the Roman centurion who says near the cross: “indeed this was the Son of God” (cf Matt. 27: 54). This centurion would have been of the same garrison in Jerusalem as the guards at the tomb. There is also the story of the centurion whose servant was healed by Jesus at his request in Capernaum (cf Matt 8:5-13). This is not to say these centurions were necessarily the sources. Rather, these accounts at least demonstrate there were Romans within the local military establishment with sympathies toward Jesus and his disciples which could have inclined them, or others like them, toward being potential sources.
Another possible category of sources is to be found among the chief priests and elders present when the guards gave their account (cf Matthew 28:11-12). Perhaps one the “elders” was Matthew’s source, or someone close one of the elders. We know there were wealthy and influential Jews sympathetic to Jesus, such as Joseph of Arimathea (cf Matt. 27:57-58). Further, we know there were those sympathetic to Jesus within the Sanhedrin, such as Nicodemus (cf. John 7: 45-53). Again, this is not to say these men were necessarily the source. However, this illustrates there were those sympathetic to Jesus’ teachings among the “elders” who either could have learned of the guards’ report directly or through contacts.
All the above considered, the question of sources is not a valid objection to the account of the guards in Matthew’s gospel.
“According to Matt. 27, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’” Think about that. Over and over, we’re told that Jesus made veiled remarks in public, and explicit declarations in private, predicting his death and resurrection—and nobody understood. The New Testament is quite explicit: they thought he was talking about something else, and even mocked him on the cross, still misunderstanding him. Even after the resurrection (according to the story), it took the disciples a long time to catch on that Jesus was supposed to die and rise again. Yet here Matthew is telling us that the unbelieving Pharisees, using only misunderstood metaphorical references to a resurrection, figured out before any of the disciples did that someday there was going to be a resurrection story. Anachronism much?” (source: here)
Reply to objection 2:
While Jesus did make some references to the resurrection that were “veiled”, e.g., raising up the temple after three days (e.g., John 2:18-22), Jesus made other statements which were quite explicit and clear.
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Matt. 16:21-22)
The skeptic’s objection above, citing Jn 2:18-22 for example, was from an earlier time in Jesus’s public ministry. The verses cited above make clear that at a certain point in his ministry (“from that time on…”) Jesus was more explicit on the course of future events (see also Mark 8:31). The objection that the apostles did not understand Jesus is overstated. Peter clearly understood Jesus spoke of his own death in the same moment, as is obvious from his protest cited above, even if he and the other apostles had difficulty understanding how and why this must be (e.g., Mark 9:31). While these examples are recorded as having been made only to the Lord’s inner circle of apostles, it may be that he had on other occasions spoken more openly to larger audiences — or that word of it had spread from the apostles to the other disciples.
However, even if we were to assume that only the inner circle of apostles was aware of the Lord’s explicit statements about suffering, dying, and rising from the dead, this would not be a major obstacle to understanding how the chief priests and elders learned of it (cf Matt. 27: 63-66). The Object does not appear to consider the possibility the chief priests and elders learned of Jesus’ prophecy of his death and resurrection directly from Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, who — as one of the twelve — was present on those occasions where Jesus spoke of it. Soon before his crucifixion, Jesus had reminded his apostles of these prophecies (cf Matt 26:1-2) and indeed it was very soon after that Judas sought out the chief priests to betray him (Matt. 26:11-12). Consequently, it seems plausible if not probable the chief priests learned of Jesus’ prophecy of rising on the Third Day at this time if not at some point before. Then, recalling these words after the crucifixion, the chief priests understandably brought their concerns to Pilate and requested a guard to be placed on the tomb.
The guard was set some time on Saturday, allowing a night to pass during which time there was an opportunity to steal the body of Jesus. Perhaps the body was not even in the tomb when the guard arrived and the seals were set.
Reply to Objection 3:
On first glance, this objection may appear to raise a valid question. After all, there seems to be a gap in the chain of custody of the Lord’s body. Might it have been stolen before the guard was even set on the tomb, or perhaps never placed in the tomb at all?
This objection fails in that Matthew’s account makes clear the chief priests and pharisees went straight from Pilate with the guard to secure the tomb and set a seal upon it (cf Matt. 27: 63-66). While Matthew’s account does not explicitly say the rock was rolled away to verify the body was still there, this would have been the obvious, common sense thing to do before setting the seal on the tomb.
While the answer above is sufficient, I also would point out what I argued in the opening of this article. An examination of the historicity of Matthew’s guard account demonstrates the original Jewish polemic was not a generalized “the body was stolen during the night” argument, where the theft could possibly have happened any night such as posited by the Objector. Rather, the polemic made a specific claim that the body was stolen while guards were present — and asleep; thereby excluding the theory suggested in the objection.
“There are, however, any number of problems with Matthew’s account regarding the tomb guard. First and foremost is the fact that none of the other gospel writers mention it. If it were a truly historical event, the other three evangelists would certainly have reported it. It staggers the imagination to think that they wouldn’t if Matthew’s account is to be deemed historically accurate. The guard would have served as “proof” that Jesus did indeed arise from the dead.” (Source: here)
Reply to Objection 4:
The objection asserts that the other gospels certainly would have included the account of the guards if it was historically accurate: “It staggers the imagination to think that they wouldn’t if Matthew’s account is to be deemed historically accurate. The guard would have served as “proof” that Jesus did indeed arise from the dead.”
The objection is fallacious on the following grounds.
First, the account of the guards is at best only a proof of an empty tomb. Matthew does not allege the guards saw the resurrected Christ. In Matthew’s account, the guards saw only the angel and an open tomb. Therefore, the account does not provide testimonial proof of the resurrected Christ, as do the other witnesses described in the Gospel of Matthew, and in the resurrection accounts found in Mark, Luke, and John. The value of the guard story, and therefore its unique purpose, is in refuting the claim the body of Jesus was stolen during the night.
Having recalled the account of the guards does not “prove” the resurrection, we now consider the question: why does Matthew only and not Mark, Luke, and John include the account of the guards? In considering that question we should remember the obvious fact that it is often the case historians and writers covering the same general event may describe it differently, and without including particular events found in another writer.
There are various reasons why this might be so, one of which being the felt need to address concerns of the unique audience being addressed. Matthew’s gospel was originally written in the “Hebrew tongue” for an audience with a Jewish background. In his gospel, Matthew tells us the claim the ‘disciples stole the body’ was still in circulation at the time he penned his account (cf Matt. 28:15). Justin Martyr states Jewish authorities sent representatives throughout the empire to spread this story (cf Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr, Chapter CVII), and this effort would have been directed toward other Jewish communities. Therefore, given the story circulated among Jewish communities, we can understand why Matthew — whose gospel was written for a Jewish reader — found it necessary to address this claim; where as the other gospels, written in Greek, were intended for different audiences.
“The second revolves around John’s description of Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb on Saturday “while it was still dark” (See here and here). No guard is guarding the tomb! What happened to them? Where did they disappear to? Had Jesus already arisen and the recovered guard back in Jerusalem by then?“(Source: here)
Reply to Objection 5:
While it is true that the four gospel accounts of the resurrection differ in some respects — such as the inclusion of the guard account in Matthew’s gospel only, there are no real contradictions between them in this or any other respect.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary setting off for the tomb (cf Matt. 28:1) simultaneous to which and before their arrival at the tomb there occurs the earthquake, the descending angel, the rolling away of the stone, and the departure of the guards (cf Matt. 28: 2-4, 11). This is not inconsistent with accounts of the women arriving at the tomb in Mark (cf Mark 16:1-4), Luke (cf Luke 24:1-2), and John (cf Jn 20:1) in which all women find the stone already rolled away and there being no mention of the guards.
As the focus of this article is the account of the guards, I only focus here on that account, and not on providing an overall harmonization of the four resurrection accounts in the gospels — particularly the various and potentially complicated movements of the different groups of the women who arrived at the tomb (NB: I may at some point provide such an article). That said, we might reconstruct events broadly and generally say — for our purposes here — that the earthquake occurred while one or more groups of women were on their way to the tomb (see earlier citations). Before the arrival of any group of women, an angel descended and moved the stone (cf Matt. 28:2-4). The terrified guards departed the area before any of the women arrived. Certainly by the point in time Mary Magdalene and the other women had met Jesus (e.g., Matthew 28:9-10), and continued on their way, “some of the guards” reported what had happened to the chief priests (cf Matt. 28:11).
In sum, the account of the guards in Matthew does not contradict any of resurrection accounts found in Mark, Luke, or John.
“Another issue is the fact that Matthew states that the guards were struck unconscious after an earthquake eruption and witnessing a radiant angel come down from Heaven, roll back the stone from Jesus’ tomb and promptly sit atop it (Matt. 28: 2-4). Whether they witnessed the actual resurrection or were already unconscious by then remains unclear. But they did behold the angel and the rolling back of the gravestone according to Matthew. So why wouldn’t they have reported this remarkable encounter to their superiors? They had at least four different witnesses to the event!” (Source: Here)
Reply to Objection 6:
Before replying, it must be remembered, as I pointed out earlier, that Matthew does not say the guards saw the risen Jesus. He does say they saw the angel, and presumably the stone move. At the sight of all this, they were terrified and “became like dead men” (cf Matt. 28:2-4). With this in mind, we can address the objector’s fair questions: “why wouldn’t they have reported this remarkable encounter to their superiors” as they “had at least four different witnesses to the event“?
Clearly, considering the question, the Objector’s obvious premise is that the guards would have reported the remarkable encounter to their superiors as they had multiple witnesses to that account — at least four, but probably many more (i.e., some estimate there might been as many several dozen guards). It may come as a surprise to the Objector but I agree with his premise. I believe with the Objector that the Roman soldiers would have reported “this remarkable encounter to their superiors.” Furthermore, in my analysis of the account, I believe the Roman guard did report the “remarkable encounter” to their superiors (i.e., their superiors in the Fortress of Antonia, and their tactical ‘superiors’ — the chief priests — to whom they had been assigned to guard the tomb).
Why should we believe this? First, the guards in the account had no other real options but to describe what had happened to them — even as unbelievable as it would seem to their superiors. What other options did they have? Saying they fell asleep and the body was stolen was not an option because falling asleep on duty was punishable by death. The Roman guards could possibly have claimed they had been attacked by disciples of Jesus and the body stolen but then they’d have to explain why no Roman soldiers were killed or severely wounded in the melee.
As the Roman soldiers had been given over in a sense to accompany the chief priests who set them over the tomb, it makes sense that “some of the guards” (cf Matt. 28:11) reported the events to chief priests — just as Matthew describes. We should also believe the rest of the guards reported the same “remarkable encounter” to their Roman superiors. Matthew says “some” of the guards went to report to the Chief Priests (cf Matt. 28:11), which means, presumably, the rest of the guards, returned to their barracks in the Fortress of Antonia in Jerusalem. There, the rest of the guards would have been expected to give a report to their Roman “superiors.” There is no reason to suppose they would give a report that differed from the one given to the Chief Priests, and every reason to believe it must have been the same one, i.e., it would make no sense to give conflicting and contradictory accounts that could only land them trouble.
Therefore, I believe it most reasonable to conclude that the first report Pilate heard was the same “remarkable encounter” that “some of the guards” had reported to the chief priests on the morning of the Third Day (i.e., Matt. 28:11). Further, it appears possible that Pilate’s report of this “remarkable encounter” made it into the Roman archives as suggested in the writings of Justin Martyr (cf First Apology, XXXV) and Tertullian (cf Apology, XXI). Both of these writers referenced such a document in their apologies addressed to Roman emperors.
To sum up, in response to the Objector, I agree that the Roman guards would have reported the “remarkable encounter” to their Roman superiors — just as they had reported it to Chief Priests. The questions of how they could be induced against self-interest to claim they “fell asleep” and how it would be possible for the chief priests to “satisfy Pilate” to keep the guards out of trouble will be addressed in my Replies to Objections 7 and 8.
“Nonetheless, we are to believe they all remained completely mum regarding so extraordinary an event. We are to believe that they took bribe money instead of reporting the astonishing and spectacular event they had all witnessed. Matthew claims that the guards were bribed into reporting they had fallen asleep. But as we have seen, this amounted to a certain death sentence for each of them without question. Why lie and put their very lives in such extreme peril?” (Source: Here)
Reply to Objection 7:
To be clear, the Objector makes two important points.
Point One: it is crazy to suggest we should “believe that they (the Roman guards) took bribe money instead of reporting the astonishing and spectacular event they had all witnessed.”
Point Two: The Roman guards wouldn’t have reported “they had fallen asleep” because this would amount to a “certain death sentence for each of them without question.”
Again, as with the prior objection and reply, it may come as a surprise to the skeptic, but I agree with the Objector above — on both points. Indeed, a Roman soldier could not be bribed into taking a course of action that would lead to certain death, like taking a bribe to tell his superiors he had fallen asleep on duty “instead of reporting the astonishing and spectacular event they had all witnessed.”
Clearly, Roman soldiers would not take a bribe to admit to their superiors they had fallen asleep on duty. Here I agree with the Objector to a point. Yet the Objector has missed the point by a wide mile. A clarification is necessary here, and it is this: the Roman guards weren’t being bribed to make such an admission to their Roman superiors.
Remember, as argued in the Reply to Objection #6, there is every reason to believe that the Roman guards, in two separate groups, reported the same “remarkable encounter” with the angel to both the Jewish authorities and to their own Roman “superiors” on the morning of the Third Day. Surely the chief priests had surmised that only “some of the guards” had come to them to report (cf Matt. 28:11), and the rest of the guards had returned to the Fortress of Antonia where they would have reported the same “remarkable encounter” to their Roman superiors.
Therefore, we see, the Chief Priests were not asking the Roman soldiers to tell their superiors ‘the body was stolen while we slept.’ That the Chief Priests did not intend this lie for guards’ superiors is clear from their words when they offered to bribe them to say “the disciples stole the body during the night as we slept.” The chief priests stated: “If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble” (Matthew 28:14). If the chief priests had intended the guards to report the lie to their own superiors, there would be no question of “if this report gets to the governor!!” Pilate would certainly hear of it! What’s more, in such a case, there is absolutely no way that the chief priests could “satisfy” Pilate and save the soldiers (NB: I will address the statement “we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble” more fully in my Reply to Objection #8). Furthermore, once Pilate heard the report coming up the chain of command, the guards would have surely revealed the bribe in all likelihood before their own executions, thereby implicating the chief priests as well. Therefore, given how nonsensical such a ‘plan’ would be, there is no way the Chief Priests were really asking the Roman guards to tell their superiors they had fallen asleep — just as it is abundantly obvious to all that the Roman guards would not have acquiesced to such a “plan.”
It is clear. The chief priests were not bribing the guards to tell their own Roman superiors “the disciples stole the body during the night while we slept.” The chief priests and elders would not have been concerned with what the Roman authorities knew or thought about the events of the Third Day at this point. Rather, they would have been concerned first and foremost with what the people in the street thought — i.e., their fellow Jews in Jerusalem. Looking at events from this perspective, one can imagine the dilemma the chief priest and elders saw themselves in on the morning of the Third Day.
- They knew Jesus had prophesied his resurrection on the Third day.
- Now, on the Third Day, the soldiers guarding the tomb are telling a strange story of a “remarkable encounter” and the tomb now being open, and presumably empty.
- Who knows what the chief priests made of the guards story. We might suppose they considered it either the work of Satan (e.g., see Matthew 12:22-27), some sort of dark magic or sorcery, or perhaps some trick or ruse played on superstitious pagans (e.g., see Josephus’s story of Paulina, Antiquities 18. 3. 4.) by the disciples in order to steal the body from under their noses
- Regardless, the chief priests and elders certainly did not believe Jesus truly resurrected. Yet, they were sure that by now that Jesus’ body had been whisked away by the disciples. They undoubtedly surmised the disciples, having stolen the body of Jesus, would now spread reports of their crucified Master’s resurrection in the streets of Jerusalem. The chief priests and elders had to ‘get ahead of the story’ as they say — and quickly, without time to lose. They had to create their own story that debunked the imminently expected resurrection story.
Thus, with these sorts of things in mind, the chief Priests and elders “devised a plan” whereby the Roman guards would be offered a bribe “to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep'” (cf Matthew 28:12-14). Fearing the disciples would imminently proclaim the “false” resurrection of which they had warned Pilate, they bribed the Roman legionaries to spread the story (“they stole the body while we slept”) to the Jews they might meet along the way in the streets and markets of Jerusalem — probably that very same morning. The chief priests and elders probably hoped this story told by the Roman soldiers might seem a more credible tale, and one which would spread like a virus among the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
Given the soldiers were not reporting this story to their own superiors, they were not immediately risking the death penalty. It was possible Pilate might not hear of their role in spreading the false story in the streets of Jerusalem — at least not for some time. Still, it was possible Pilate would eventually find out about this rumor, and even possibly trace the tale back to the specific guards who spread the lie. However, even if this later possibility were to occur, the guards had credible grounds to believe the chief priests could in fact “satisfy Pilate” and keep them out of trouble — as I will argue in the Reply to Objection #8.
“The story makes no sense because how could the Jews keep the soldiers out of trouble with Pilate?”
Reply to Objection 8:
As outlined in the replies to the objections above, the Romans — in two separate groups — most likely reported the true story (i.e., of the terrifying angel, etc) to both their own Roman superiors and to the chief priests.
Contrary to what Matthew says the chief priests promised the guards, the Objector claims that the chief priests could not really keep the “soldiers out of trouble with Pilate” — thus their promise to the soldiers could not have been accepted as a basis upon which to accept the bribe. Thus, for the Objector, Matthew’s account could not be true, and is rather abject nonsense.
In reply to this objection, I would first note it is clear that the Objector fails to account for the motivations in play, i.e., those of the legionaries, the chief priests and elders, and Pontius Pilate.
The motivations of the Roman legionaries are clear enough. They know the true report of their “remarkable encounter” has been reported back to their own Roman superiors, just as they had reported it to the chief priests. In this at least, they have satisfied their duty. More importantly, they have not falsely reported to their superior that they had fallen asleep on duty. But now they are enticed to accept a substantial bribe to lie — not to their own superiors, but to passersby they might meet along the streets and in the markets of Jerusalem on the morning of the Third Day. In so doing, they become the spark which ignites the rumor. The benefit is clear. The risk of discovery may appear low considering Pilate might not ever hear of this street rumor, and even if he does, he might not trace it back to the specific Roman legionaries responsible for spreading it. The latter risk might be mitigated if the chief priests could plausibly “satisfy Pilate” and keep them out of trouble, should Pilate hear about it.
Could the chief priests plausibly “satisfy Pilate”? I think they could. Consider, the following:
- The chief priests and Pontius Pilate shared the belief that Jesus was a threat either to Israel or to Rome. It matters not that Pilate’s hand had been forced on the question.
- The chief priests and Pilate shared a common interest in seeing the end of the ‘Jesus movement,’ certainly now that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried.
- The chief priests and Pilate shared a common interest in preventing the possibility that Jesus’ disciples might steal his body and thereby create a narrative that Jesus had resurrected as he had prophesied.
Keeping the above in mind, now imagine Pilate’s reaction upon hearing rumors are circulating in the streets and markets of Jerusalem that Roman legionaries said “the disciples stole the body during the night as we slept.” Imagine further that Pilate even traces the spread of this rumor to the Romans guards who began this rumor. What might he have done? Of course, Pilate would have interrogated the legionaries. How might that have gone?
Pilate might have confronted the soldiers with the “street narrative” that “the disciples stole the body during the night while they slept.” The soldiers could have tried to deny the “street narrative,” claiming it false in all respects. However, in their response to Pilate, I think it makes more sense that (1) they would stick to the original account of the “remarkable encounter” that they had reported to their Roman superiors and the chief priests, and (2) they would also admit to subsequently spreading the false rumor in the streets of Jerusalem at the request of the chief priests. The guards could even admit that they spread the false rumor at the suggestion of the chief priests, who had convinced them it was in the interest of Rome and of Pontius Pilate they did so. Of course they would make no mention of the bribe.
At this point, either the soldiers would request the chief priests be summoned as witnesses on their behalf, or what’s more likely, Pilate would summon the chief priests to explain themselves. What could the chief priests say that would now “satisfy Pilate” and keep the soldiers out of trouble? Well, of course we do not know for certain but it is not difficult to imagine what might have plausibly satisfied Pilate.
Consider, the chief priests might first remind Pilate of their common interest with respect to Jesus and his followers following the crucifixion of a man Pilate himself had labeled “King of the Jews”, i.e., that a pretended resurrection most now be prevented at all cost. From this vantage point, the chief priests could plausibly convince Pilate that spreading the lie (“the disciple stole the body while the guards slept“) was better than the truth (i.e., the guards’ original report of an angel). While they might even apologize for presuming to convince Pilate’s legionaries to spread a false rumor; the chief priests could credibly suggest both they and the soldiers should be excused for this presumption given (1) the exigency of the moment wherein the imminent appearance of a resurrection rumor was expected in Jerusalem, and (2) the public lie was, in fact, in Rome’s and Pilate’s own best interest.
In sum, the above scenario is certainly speculative. However, I believe it shows that there is at least one plausible scenario wherein the chief priests could plausibly “satisfy Pilate” in order to keep the guards out of the trouble. Given there is at least one plausible scenario, there is no reason to reject the possibility the guards could have accepted the bribe under the conditions described in the Gospel of Matthew.
Final Thoughts and Conclusions
This article has considered the testimony of the Roman guards in the gospel of Matthew. This account speaks of a story ‘circulated to this day’ (i.e., till the time Matthew penned his gospel – possibly as early as 42 AD) which in its earliest form alleged ‘the disciples stole the body during the night while the guards slept.’ The account of the guards at the tomb was included in the gospel in order to respond to this story which had circulated among Jews in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the empire beginning the very morning of Christ’s Resurrection. The evidence strongly supports the case that the account, as related in the Gospel of Matthew, is not a fiction invented by Matthew or some other early Christian writer. Rather, the account is true history.
This article has attempted to fairly present various objections to this thesis (NB: I may add and reply to a few more objections — either those I find or which might be submitted by readers). However, each of these objections fail under close examination. The guards in the account are not said to have witnessed the risen Christ. Therefore, in this sense, the account of the guards is not testimonial evidence of the Resurrection. However, an examination of the account does provide evidence from ‘hostile witnesses’ (i.e., the chief priests and elders) in support of the historical truth of the Resurrection. These ancient ‘hostile witnesses’ by claiming ‘the body was stolen during the night‘ admit by implication what many modern skeptics deny today; namely that (1) Jesus lived, (2) had prophesied his death and resurrection, (3) was crucified under Pontius Pilate, (4) suffered, died and was buried, and (5) his tomb, though guarded, was empty on the Third Day.