Matthew’s "Guards at the Tomb" story is a Christian Tall Tale

Copied from:  FreeThoughtBlog

Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb


At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there’s an interesting story that appears nowhere else in the Bible. According to Matthew, the chief priests were worried that the disciples might steal Jesus’ body to fake a resurrection, so they went to Pilate and got permission to post a guard on the tomb. When Jesus rose from the dead, the guards reported it to the priests, and the priests bribed them to claim that disciples stole the body while they were asleep. And thus, says Matthew, the Jews were reporting “to this day” that the body was stolen by the disciples.

Cool story, bro, but if you look at it a bit more closely, there’s something kinda fishy about it…
Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that disciples really did take the body, and everybody knew it. Suppose you were a Christian, and it really upset you that all the Jews in Palestine were telling people that disciples took Jesus body. How would you answer that? Could you deny it? Could you just make up a plausible-sounding story that would convince people (or at least yourself) that it was a lie?


If you’ve had a bunch of theological debates, then you’ve probably seen this happen: you back somebody into a corner, and instead of being convinced, they just make stuff up to solve the problem. Not all believers do this, of course, but some do, and it’s not all that uncommon. It’s not even limited to believers: anybody caught in a jam is prone to invent whatever he or she needs to invent in order to justify whatever they feel the need to justify. (Ask a traffic cop some time.)

Now look at Matthew’s account here and here. 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. It just poof, shows up spontaneously, to meet the need. And Matthew himself tells us what the need was: too many people were saying the empty tomb had a perfectly ordinary explanation.
Then too, look at the story itself.

And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’”

Christian apologists themselves will give you all kinds of reasons why this story is false. If the guards were asleep, how would they know who stole the body? Duh! But apologists try to say this means that the guards were lying, when a moment’s thought ought to show that it’s really Matthew who’s telling a whopper. Seriously, all these master plotters and conspirators matching wits against the Roman Empire and God Himself, and the best they can come up with is an obviously stupid story like that?

The problem Matthew is facing is that by putting the guards around the tomb, he’s creating a narrative in which the guards are the only actual eyewitnesses to the resurrection itself. He can’t write a Gospel in which the only eyewitnesses are giving plausible testimony about the disciples stealing the body. So he gives them a stupid testimony instead, sacrificing realism for agenda.

But back up a page. Why are the guards supposedly there in the first place? 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?

And does this story really make sense? You believe that Jesus is the true Messiah. You believe he’s God Incarnate. Then you see him die. You’re really going to get together, at a time like this, to fake the resurrection of an obviously false Messiah? Yet Matthew wants us to believe that the Sanhedrin was seriously worried that this might happen—worried enough to go to a Gentile governor during the Passover just to get someone to guard a dead man.

Not only that, but look at the timing:

Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate…

They’re too late! Jesus’ body has already been unguarded all night. Considering that one of the things Jesus was executed for was his relaxed attitude towards Sabbath prohibitions, there has been ample opportunity for some small group of unnamed disciples to get to the unguarded tomb, remove the body, and get away before the Sanhedrin even asked for a guard. Even if they had posted a belated guard, once the body was gone then their excuse would be “disciples took it before we got there,” not “disciples took it while we were sleeping on the job.” Matthew screwed up again.

It’s just not a plausible story. We know it’s intended to deny that disciples took the body, because that’s what Matthew tells us it “proves.” And as a form of denial, it’s psychologically effective for believers.

As reliable history, though, it really sucks.

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