Saturday, June 29, 2013

Guarding the tomb

I'm going to comment on a statement attributed to William Lane Craig, concerning the guards at the tomb of Jesus. It had been posted on YouTube, but apparently that's no longer available. However, there is a transcript floating around. Assuming the transcript is accurate, that will form the basis of my comments:

Well now this is a question that I think is probably best left out of the program, because the vast, vast majority of New Testament scholars would regard Matthew's guard story as unhistorical.

I don't look to NT scholars to tell me what really happened. They don't know something I don't know.  They don't have an independent source of knowledge. They weren't there. They don't know anybody who was there. They have the same source of information I have.

Even if we bracket the inspiration of Scripture, who's more likely to know what happened–a scholar writing 2000 years after the fact, or a 1C author of a 1C Gospel? Matthew is in a far better position to know what he's talking about than "scholars" who are 2000 years removed from the events.  

I can hardly think of anybody who would defend the historicity of the guard at the tomb story. 

It's incredible that Craig would say that. Just off the top of my head, scholars who defend the historicity of this account include Darrell Bock, Craig Blomberg, D. A. Carson, Knox Chamblin, R. T. France, Craig Keener, Leon Morris, John Nolland, Grant Osborne, Robert Stein, David Turner, David Wenham, and N. T. Wright. I can't quite tell what C. A Evans' position is, but he takes the account seriously enough to supply a lot of corroborative material. 

And the main reasons for that are two: One is because it's only found in Matthew and it seems very odd that if there were a Roman guard or even a Jewish guard at the tomb that Mark wouldn't know about it and that there wouldn't be any mention of it.

i) I find Craig's objection very odd. Our primary evidence for what Mark knew is what Mark recorded. Although Mark may well have known some things he didn't write down, the only hard evidence we have of what he actually knew is what he actually wrote. By definition, whatever else he may have known he kept to himself. 

ii) Moreover, why assume that he would have included this incident in his gospel even if he knew about it? The gospels are selective accounts. Maybe it didn't interest him. Maybe it didn't interest his target audience.

iii) Conversely, Matthew, Luke, and John all record things you don't find in Mark. So why would this be exceptional? 

The other reason is that nobody seemed to understand Jesus' resurrection predictions. The disciples - who heard them most often - had not an inkling of what he meant and yet somehow the Jewish authorities were supposed to have heard of these predictions and understood them so well that they were able to set a guard around the tomb. And again, that doesn't seem to make sense.

That fails to distinguish between what the disciples understood and what the disciples believed. Although the disciples sometimes misunderstood Jesus, oftentimes their problem was not a failure to understand him, but a failure to believe him. They found many things he said hard to believe. This is a common theme in the Gospels. Jesus frequently reprimands the disciples for their lack of faith.

So, most scholars regard the guard at the tomb story as a legend or a Matthean invention that isn't really historical. Fortunately, this is of little significance for the empty tomb of Jesus, because the guard was mainly employed in Christian apologetics to disprove the conspiracy theory that the disciples stole the body. 

It may not be significant to Craig, but it's clearly significant to Matthew. And shouldn't Christians calibrate their faith by Matthew rather than Craig? 

But no modern historian or New Testament scholar would defend a conspiracy theory, because it's evident when you read the pages of the New Testament that these people sincerely believed in what they said. So, the conspiracy theory is dead, even in the absence of a guard at the tomb.

Unbelievers regard any naturalistic explanation, however unlikely, as more likely than a miracle. 

The true significance of the guard at the tomb story is that it shows that even the opponents of the earliest Christians did not deny the empty tomb, but rather involved themselves in a hopeless series of absurdities trying to explain it away by saying that the disciples had stolen the body. And that's the real significance of Matthew's guard at the tomb story.

But if the account is unhistorical, then how is that account a historical witness to belief in the empty tomb? 

I'd like to close with a few general observations:

i) To some extent, Craig's position is surprising. After all, he used to defend this very account. However, that was about 30 years ago, so maybe he's changed his mind. 

ii) But at another level, this is consistent with Craig's apologetic strategy, which stresses scholarly consensus and a minimal facts approach.

iii) However, Craig's reply seems to go beyond apologetic strategy. He doesn't seem to be confining himself to a hypothetical fallback position. He isn't merely saying that even if, for the sake of argument, this account is fictitious, that would still be of "little significance" because it doesn't impinge on the core facts about the Resurrection. Rather, he seems to be openly denying the historicity of the account. 


  1. That's very generous of you Steve,

    And I think that Elliot's evaporated comments (over at TF's blog) were very generous to Craig's position as well.

    However, I watched the video and contrary to Elliot- I didn't see the 'imaginary interlocutor' argument there. I couldn't imagine this being a mere recommendation from Craig regarding which verses are more 'effective' for apologetics.

    Along with TF, I saw Craig suggest that these verses are 'errant'- a weak argument from Craig that fails internally as well as externally. An argument that would deny the King Herod conspiracy story as well.

    As you say Steve, this seems perfectly consistent with Craig's apologetic strategy... he is just being more consistent now.

    And as I called for in my evaporated comments- I would like to see a retraction of that "vast, vast majority" claim by William Lane Craig (Craig Evan's skepticism notwithstanding- with his weird zombie denial :)

    A mere retraction from You Tube is wholly inadequate.

  2. God bless you Steve. More wisdom upon you in JESUS name.

  3. I saw the video before it was taken down. As I recall, it was dated to 2001 or some other time more than a decade ago. Craig affirmed the guards at the tomb prior to 2001, and I remember seeing him affirm the passage's historicity in at least one place since then. I doubt that he intended to deny the account in that 2001 video. Even if he did intend to deny it, he seems to have changed his mind since then. What he says in the video is unwise and misleading, for reasons like the ones Steve has mentioned, but we need to keep the larger context in view. The video might have left out some significant context, and we know that Craig has defended the guards at the tomb account on other occasions. In fact, given that he published an article defending the passage and has been pointing people to that article for decades, I would say that Craig has done more to defend the passage than the vast majority of other scholars working in relevant fields. My guess is that the 2001 video was a poorly handled effort on Craig's part to try to persuade people to focus on other arguments for Jesus' resurrection. He didn't intend to deny the historicity of the guards passage.

    Here's a 2008 review by Craig of one of Dale Allison's works. In that review, he brings up the guards passage, and he seems to still hold the view he defended in his 1984 article. And that 1984 article is still posted at his web site.

  4. The gospels are selective accounts. Maybe it didn't interest him. Maybe it didn't interest his target audience.

    Great point. Wasn't the gospel of Mark written to demonstrate to a primarily Roman audience that Jesus was the perfect example of swift alacritous obedience and fulfillment of one's duties which were some of the greatest ideals of the perfect Roman [and Roman soldier]? Therefore, if the gospel of Mark was written primarily for a Roman audience maybe Mark left out the guard story so as not to offend his Roman audience. It would have unnecessarily offended their sensibilities because it would portray them in an embarrassing light.

    It may be that W.L. Craig believes the guard story is true, but that he can't defend the truth of the story historically. That is, using historical standards common to both Christians and non-Christians, the guard story cannot be defended (or difficult to defend) as historical but rather looks more like a legendary embellishment (using standards common with secular scholars [something which Van Tillians would have something to say about *G*]).

    He doesn't seem to be confining himself to a hypothetical fallback position. He isn't merely saying that even if, for the sake of argument, this account is fictitious, that would still be of "little significance" because it doesn't impinge on the core facts about the Resurrection. Rather, he seems to be openly denying the historicity of the account.

    Here's a link to a video from one of Craig's lectures in England during the recent Reasonable Faith Tour. In it he addressed the guard story from 47 minutes and 8 seconds to 50 minutes and 22 seconds. Here's the LINK already cued up.

    At least in the instance of this video recording, Craig says the guard story may or may not have happened. So, he doesn't seem to dogmatically believe it didn't happen or that it's merely legendary. Also, I get the subjective impression that he says what he does as a "hypothetical fallback position." You all can decide for yourself.

    1. Here's the Link again:

      Here's a link to a video from one of Craig's lectures in England during the recent Reasonable Faith Tour. In it he addressed the guard story from 47 minutes and 8 seconds to 50 minutes and 22 seconds. Here's the link already cued up.

    2. Also, Craig has repeatedly asserted in the past that he believes in Biblical inspiration and inerrancy. If we take him at his word, then to be consistent he would have to believe in the truth of the guard story. Though, it's logically possible that he secretly believes in Biblical errancy but claims inerrancy to please his Evangelical supporters.

  5. Looks good to me Jason,

    Thanks for doing the heavy lifting!
    I can see the 'imaginary interlocutor" in that article you linked to- though I couldn't see it in the video.

    So, when Craig says "the more serious difficulties" it doesn't mean a serious difficulty at all... it's just a relative thing.

    Yet when Craig says, "Matthew's account [of those guards] has been nearly universally rejected as an apologetic legend by the critics"- are these critics "the vast, vast, majority of New Testament scholars" as stated in the video?

    Weird, it sure sounded like he was including himself among those scholars in that video... my apologies.

    This is where I think that the majority of New Testament scholars at ETS (where he is included) deserve an apology from Craig... unless of course, Craig is right.

    Looks like a good question for a referendum at their next meeting in Baltimore... where their theme will be, "Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, and the Evangelical Theological Society: Retrospect and Prospect"

  6. For anybody who's interested, I've started a new thread on this topic here, in which I argue that Craig probably affirms the historicity of the guards material in Matthew.

  7. Critics often suggest that the other gospel authors should have mentioned the guards at the tomb because of the evidential significance of the guards. But the gospels aren't primarily apologetic literature. They're Greco-Roman biographies. And even in the context of apologetics, it's not as though the early Christians had a lack of evidence for their position. Rather, they had far more than they reported in the gospels (John 21:25; the resurrection appearance to James; etc.). It's not as though evidence like an empty tomb and resurrection appearances are insignificant and must be accompanied by guards at the tomb in order for a convincing case to be made. Even after Matthew's gospel became widely accepted, the guards weren't often brought up when Christians were arguing for their religion or the resurrection in particular. The guards at the tomb are a significant piece of evidence for the resurrection. But they're one significant piece among many others.

    Ancient non-Christian sources are likewise highly selective in what they report. The same is true of modern sources. If a modern Christian made a case for the resurrection without mentioning something like the guards at the tomb, the appearance to more than 500, or the Shroud of Turin, we wouldn't assume that such evidence is unknown to that modern Christian or rejected by him. Even if the evidence were unknown to him or he rejected it, that evidence could still be valid. I frequently see modern Christians argue for Jesus' resurrection without mentioning some of the evidence they're aware of or evidence they're unaware of that's highly significant.