Monday, November 23, 2009

The guarded tomb

Unbelievers dismiss the account of guarded the tomb (Mt 27:62-66; 28:11-15) as a made-up story. But there are two basic problems with this dismissal:

1.Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it was a made-up story. What would motivate the disciples (or Matthew) to concoct such a story?

Well, since the story is intended to forestall or squash rumors about a stolen body, the only motivation for such a story is in case the disciples did, in fact, steal his body, and then invented this explanation as a preemptive cover-story, conveniently backdated by Matthew, to anticipate and defang rumors about a stolen body.

It’s a way of getting in front of the story. You state a potential objection before your opponents have a chance to state it, then come up with your own explanation. That preemptive maneuver weakens the potential objection.

2.So, what’s the problem with objection? It only works for unbelievers who think the body was stolen. It doesn’t work for unbelievers who endorse different conjecture (other than the stolen body) to explain away the empty tomb.

If, for example, an unbeliever espouses the wrong tomb conjecture, then he undercuts the motive for the disciples (or Matthew) to fabricate a cover story about the guarded tomb, since that presupposes a stolen body, which the wrong tomb theory rejects.

You can only dismiss the account of the guarded tomb if you grant the presupposition which (allegedly) motivated the disciples (or Matthew) to come up with that explanation. If you reject that presupposition, then you thereby reject the incentive which would give rise to that (allegedly) fictitious story in the first place.

So the only unbelievers who can consistently dismiss the authenticity of this story is the subset of unbelievers who espouse the stolen body conjecture.

Therefore, to dismiss the account of the guarded tomb, they must also dismiss every alternative theory to explain away the empty to–except for the stolen body conjecture. Unless you subscribe to the stolen body conjecture, that cancels out your objection to the guarded tomb.

2.Matthew’s account is psychologically realistic. The reason the Roman authorities and Jewish authorities wanted Jesus dead is because he’d become a threat to the establishment. He was a rival to the religious establishment. Likewise, he was an indirect threat to Pilate because the Jewish leaders implicitly threatened to denounce Pilate to Caesar unless Pilate executed Jesus.

So both Pilate and the Sanhedrin would have a vested interest in securing the tomb to retain control over the body, since that is how they’d retain control over the story. If you control the body, you control the way the story ends. Jesus died. End of story. No more threat to the religious or political establishment. So both centers of power had a personal stake in doing just what Matthew attributes to them.

However, their elaborate precautions were foiled by an unforeseen contingency–the Resurrection.

1 comment:

  1. It's seldom noted that Matthew's claim that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus' disciples of stealing the body is corroborated by a passage in Justin Martyr in which Justin seems to quote from a Jewish source on the subject. In section 108 of his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin seems to cite a Jewish document or tradition, in which Jesus is referred to as a "deceiver" and reference is made to Jesus as Him "whom we crucified", apparently speaking from the perspective of non-Christian Jews ("we"). Justin is familiar with many Jewish responses to Christianity and "shows acquaintance with rabbinical discussions" (Michael Slusser, ed., Dialogue With Trypho [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003], n. 9 on p. 33). This passage in Justin contains multiple details not found in Matthew's gospel. For example, Slusser's edition of Justin has him referring to how the Jews "chose certain men by vote and sent them throughout the whole civilized world" (p. 162) in order to argue against Christianity, including by accusing the disciples of stealing the body. It's not as though people would have been dependent solely on Matthew for information on such subjects. Justin had more than Matthew's account to go by, as other early sources would have.

    One of the best resources on the historicity of the guard at the tomb is William Lane Craig's article here.