March 3, 2020 (Steven O’Reilly) – Being now in the Lenten season and drawing closer to Good Friday and Easter, Christians recall especially that part of the Creed in which we affirm of Jesus Christ: ‘for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures.’ These things are not just declarations of faith — these are affirmations of historical facts.
Needless to say but skeptics argue the crucifixion and or resurrection of Jesus Christ, and some or all the events surrounding each, are not historical. I have previously addressed the Historicity of the Crucifixion Darkness reported in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Over the years in informal debates in various internet discussion groups in which I participated, the subject of the guards at the tomb in Matthew’s gospel would naturally come up when discussing the historicity of the Resurrection. Skeptics will often blog on the topic. Here, I plan to address the historical nature of the account of the guards at the tomb (cf Matt. 27:57-66; 28:2-4; and 11-15). The goal is to do this in two parts. This article (Part I) will argue for the historicity of Matthew’s account of the guards, while a separate article (Part II) will address objections offered by skeptics.
That all said, beginning in chapter 27 of Matthew’s gospel, there is the account of the burial of Jesus and the placing a guard at the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus. Beginning at verse 57:
57 And when it was evening, there came a certain rich man of Arimathea, named Joseph, who also himself was a disciple of Jesus.
58 He went to Pilate, and asked the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded that the body should be delivered.
59 And Joseph taking the body, wrapped it up in a clean linen cloth.
60 And laid it in his own new monument, which he had hewed out in a rock. And he rolled a great stone to the door of the monument, and went his way.
61 And there was there Mary Magdalen, and the other Mary sitting over against the sepulchre.
62 And the next day, which followed the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate,
63 Saying: Sir, we have remembered, that that seducer said, while he was yet alive: After three days I will rise again.
64 Command therefore the sepulchre to be guarded until the third day: lest perhaps his disciples come and steal him away, and say to the people: He is risen from the dead; and the last error shall be worse than the first.
65 Pilate saith to them: You have a guard; go, guard it as you know.
66 And they departing, made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting guards.
(Source: Matthew 27:62-66)
After the securing of the tomb, Matthew’s account continues into chapter 28:
28 And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre.
2 And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.
3 And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow.
4 And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men. (Source: Matthew 28:1-4)
Matthew continues with the angel addressing the women and then how they met Jesus (Matthew 28: 5-10) after leaving the tomb. Matthew then resumes his account of the guards:
11 Who when they were departed, behold some of the guards came into the city, and told the chief priests all things that had been done.
12 And they being assembled together with the ancients, taking counsel, gave a great sum of money to the soldiers,
13 Saying: Say you, His disciples came by night, and stole him away when we were asleep.
14 And if the governor shall hear this, we will persuade him, and secure you.
15 So they taking the money, did as they were taught: and this word was spread abroad among the Jews even unto this day.
(Source: Matthew 28: 11-15)
Having provided the context, the remainder of this article will address three questions: (1) were the guards Roman or Jewish (i.e., the Temple guard), (2) was there really a guard at the tomb–or was this account a Christian invention, and (3) what does the account of the Roman guards tell us?
With that as background, let’s proceed.
Were the guards Roman or Jewish?
There is a question of whether or not Matthew intended the guards to be understood as being Roman soldier, or perhaps instead members of the Temple guard. Various arguments have been put forward on either side. My intent is not to dwell long on this particular question. In my opinion, the case for the guards being Roman is the stronger one. I will not go into great detail here, but I would make a few brief observations on the question. As others have pointed out (I do not know Greek), the guards are called “soldiers” at one point, and in the Greek, it seems, the sense is “infantrymen” — which the Temple Guards were not. Further, while Pilate’s statement to the chief priests that “you have a guard” seems to suggest the priests use their own Temple guard, that reading is uncertain. The chief priests offer to “satisfy Pilate” to keep the guards “out of trouble” suggests the guards are Romans. If Pilate had not cared or thought it important enough to secure the tomb with his own men, it makes little sense he would punish the Temple guards for falling asleep on duty. Furthermore, if we were speaking of Temple guards, there would not have been any need for the chief priests to bribe men under their own command. Given the evidence, it seems to me that Matthew described a unit of Roman guards at the tomb.
Was there really a Guard–or was this account a Christian invention?
This is an interesting account within Matthew’s overall narrative of the resurrection. Within the Gospel of Matthew is evidence that the Jews of the time acknowledged at least certain elements of the Christian account. The earliest counter-arguments to the gospel accounts of the resurrection were not that “Jesus never existed!” but that “his disciples stole the body.” Thus, the counter-argument on its face implicitly concedes the historicity of Jesus and his crucifixion, as well as the fact that the tomb was found empty. There are a few basic questions:
- Did Matthew include a factual and accurate account of the guards in his gospel to counter an actual accusation that claimed the disciples stole the body while the guards slept?
- Did Matthew invent the story of the guards in whole or in part to try to counter an actual accusation in circulation that claimed the disciples stole the body while the guards slept?
- Did Matthew invent both the story of the guards and the story there was a claim the body was stolen?
Skeptics regard the account of the guard as a Christian invention, and would probably hold to some form of questions #2 or #3 above. However, simply treating the question as a historical one, such interpretations of the guard account as an invention in whole or part are improbable. I believe this is so for at least the following seven reasons:
First, if the origin of the Jewish polemic against the Christian claims of a bodily resurrection was based upon a mere supposition, such as “if the tomb was empty as you say my dear Christian-believer, well, perhaps, the disciples of Jesus stole his body at night,” such a claim would be no more than mere speculation without even prima facie evidence. As such, the proper response such to such an argument is not to introduce previously unknown facts but rather to point to the positive testimony of witnesses to the resurrection as found in the gospel accounts. However, if there were in fact an actual claim in circulation based on some authority that the ‘the disciples stole the body at night while the guards at the tomb slept,‘ such a claim would require a more substantial refutation with sufficient detail. This more substantial refutation, as we know, is found in Matthew’s gospel.
Second, had there not really been such an accusation in circulation, Matthew’s account of the guards — if an invention — would have been counter-productive to the Christian goal of winning and keeping converts as it unnecessarily introduces the potential for grave doubt into the mind of his readers where perhaps none had previously existed. The guards in Matthew’s account are not said to have seen Jesus, and so were not witnesses to the risen Christ. That Jesus was seen alive by many disciples is strong testimonial proof for the Resurrection. Thus, there would be no other sufficient reason for Matthew to include it, other than that the account of the guards was intended to refute an actual claim in circulation that the ‘body was stolen during the nights as the guards slept.’
Third, the Gospel of Matthew records that the accusation the ‘disciples stole the body during the night while the guards slept‘ had “spread abroad among the Jews even unto this day” (cf Matt. 28:15), i.e, up to the time Matthew had written down his gospel. Clearly such as statement strongly suggests that (1) ‘the body was stolen‘ story was fairly well-known, and (2) Matthew assumed his readers either knew of it or might hear of it. That such a story was really circulating as Matthew claimed is supported by the writings of Justin Martyr and Tertullian. Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) in the 2nd century wrote that the Jews were still alleging the disciples “stole the body by night.” Justin reports the Jews saying: “...a Galilaean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven” (Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr, Chapter CVII). Tertullian (155 – 240 AD) also provides evidence that the story the disciples “stole” the body was still circulating as late as the 3rd century AD (cf De Spectaculis 30, Apology, XXI).
Fourth, Pontius Pilate would have likely written a report to the emperor of any key events involving someone as notable as Jesus who had the potential to create difficulties for him with the emperor (cf John 19:12-15), especially one who Pilate had executed as being “King of the Jews” (cf Matt. 27:37). Such a document would have found its way into the Roman archives. Justin Martyr (cf First Apology, XXXV) and Tertullian (cf Apology, XXI) appear to have been familiar with such an archived document, which they each pointed to in their separate apologies addressed to Roman emperors and officials. It would certainly be unwise, and certainly poor debating tactics for either Justin or Tertullian to reference such a document if their claim could have been easily falsified by a simple check of the archives. Yet, they made the tantalizing claim, and this certainly suggests at least they had reason to believe a search of the archives would have supported their claims regarding Pilate.
Fifth, Matthew’s gospel was first written in the “Hebrew tongue,” and thus for a Jewish-Christian audience. Now skeptics, and regrettably a number of scholars (Catholics and otherwise) would date Matthew’s gospel after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. However, the reasons to accept such a late dating of the Gospel of Matthew are dubious. There are good reasons to date the Gospel of Matthew much earlier, perhaps even as early as 42 A.D. (see my article on the authorship and dating of the Gospel of Matthew here). Thus, with Matthew writing within 10 years of the Resurrection, this would be evidence many of Matthew’s Jewish-Christian readers had independently heard the claim ‘the body was stolen during the night as the guards slept.‘ Indeed, some of these readers may have been still living in Jerusalem, and had even heard the report from those who had. Given the proximity in time to the actual events, some of the readers had firsthand knowledge of the events, e.g., some might have heard the Roman legionaries (i.e., the guards), chief priests or elders proclaiming possibly days or even hours after the Resurrection on the Third Day: “the disciples stole the body during the night while the guards slept.” Given many of his readers would know if such accounts were really circulating and in what detail — even if Matthew’s gospel had been written decades later, it is improbable Matthew would have invented an account that could be so readily falsified if it did not, in fact, align with what was known to his audience.
Sixth, recall, the account of the guards does not provide testimonial evidence of the resurrection in as much as the guards are not said to have seen the risen Jesus. Of course, had Matthew included the claim the guards had witnessed Jesus emerging from the tomb, this would not in itself prove the account a fraudulent invention. But if invention had been Matthew’s motive, he could have made even greater claims in his account than he had, such as saying the guards saw the risen Christ. Therefore, the fact the account of the guards is modest in this respect redounds to the historicity of the existing narrative.
Seventh, and finally, another factor pointing to the historicity of the account is that there is a seeming hole in the narrative as to when the guards were placed at the tomb. Matthew’s gospel says the guards were not placed at the tomb until sometime on Saturday, the day after the Crucifixion. This timing left as much as day when the tomb and body was unguarded. This would seemingly leave open the possibility the body was stolen the before the guard was even placed. That is to say, if Matthew’s account was a fictional invention, we might have expected Matthew to set the guard at the tomb on Friday evening, immediately following the burial to exclude this theory. William Lane Craig makes this point in his article on the topic (see The Guard at the Tomb). This all suggests that Matthew’s account was not a response to a generalized “the body was stolen during the night” polemic but rather the accout was a response to a specific claim the body was stolen while their were guards present, and asleep. Again, this supports the historicity of the account.
While the seven arguments above support the historicity of the Matthew’s account of the guards, I would offer another point for consideration. The evidence, it seems to me, clearly demonstrates that the claim “the disciples stole the body during the night while the guards slept” was the original Jewish counter-argument to the Christian proclamation of the Resurrection. Yet, even skeptics acknowledge the claim the body was stolen “while the guards slept” is an absurd argument for a number of reasons (NB: considered in more detail in my Replies to Objections in Part II). But the reason for the very absurdity of the argument chosen as the initial Jewish counter-claim is best explained by Matthew’s account which is historically true. If the counter-claim had been a later Jewish invention–perhaps one originating even decades later, one might have expected a less absurd-sounding argument, such as, ‘the disciples attacked, overwhelmed, and killed the Roman guards and made off with the body.’ The use of the absurd argument that the ‘guards slept‘ through the theft of the body points to the historicity of Matthew’s account. The failure to produce a compelling counter-claim to the Resurrection was not due to a lack of imagination. Rather, the chief priests and elders were constrained in their invention of an anti-Resurrection polemic by the exigencies of one particular moment in history and the set of facts before them; and the limitations of their options on the morning of the Third Day.
What does the account of the Roman Guards tell us?
Taking all the above into consideration, the case for the historicity of Matthew’s account of the guards is strong — indeed, I believe it is overwhelming. Matthew included the account of the guards in order to respond to and refute an actual claim in circulation, of which certain details were generally known to Jews a the time, i.e., that a Roman guard had been placed at the tomb of Jesus following his crucifixion, and that a rumor, seemingly originating from these guards, claimed ‘the disciples had stolen the body during the night while we slept.’
Examining the account of the guards at the tomb in Matthew’s gospel we see that the Jewish polemic provides corroboration — as if from a ‘hostile witness’ in a court — of several aspects of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. The most ancient and organized response by skeptics of the Resurrection was not the sort of pablum offered by modern day hyper-skeptics, e.g., “Jesus never existed!” Rather, those closest in time to the events did not question the existence of Jesus — they did not have the lazy luxury to do so. Rather, these first skeptics accepted as 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 found empty on the third day.
Please see link below for the objections: