The Big Hole in the Guards at the Tomb Story

Image result for image of guards at the tomb of jesus

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.”   So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. 

…After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.   There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.   His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.   The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

…While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.   When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money,  telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”  So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

–Gospel of Matthew

Image result for image of roman guards report to the sanhedrin

The story of guards at the tomb is found only in the Gospel of Matthew (and the non-canonical Gospel of Peter).  There is zero mention of guards in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John.  The overwhelming majority of scholars do not believe that this story is historical.  However, most conservative Protestant Christians believe it is historical.  They believe it (and disregard the overwhelming majority scholarly consensus on this issue) because this story is critical to their core belief that Jesus was bodily resurrected.  Without guards at the tomb, any Tom, Dick, or Barrabas could have stolen or moved the body.   And they would have had plenty of time to do this, at any point between Friday afternoon after Joseph rolled the stone in front of the tomb and Sunday morning when the women came to anoint the body.

Some clever Christian apologists appeal to the appearance of this story in the Gospel of Peter as evidence that their was a pre-Gospel tradition of guards at the tomb, giving this story more believability.  I believe that this claim is weak as we know that the Gospel of Peter was not written until the second century, therefore it is possible that the Gospel of Peter simply borrowed this theme from Matthew.

Conservative Christian apologists frequently make the claim that it is implausible that crack Roman guards would have allowed anyone to break the seal of the tomb, roll back the stone, and move the body.

Image result for image of roman guards report to the sanhedrin

But there is one other big problem with this claim:  The excuse suggested by the Jewish authorities for the empty tomb was that the soldiers had fallen asleep!  But if everyone in Jerusalem knew that Roman guards would never sleep on the job or do anything else that would distract their attention from their duties, why on earth would the Sanhedrin instruct the guards to make such an unbelievable claim???  No one would have believed it, in particular Pilate!

This story reeks of fictitious invention.  It does not pass the smell test.

20 thoughts on “The Big Hole in the Guards at the Tomb Story

  1. I would agree totally — the account of the guards cannot be considered reliable.

    I don’t agree, though, that the story hinges on having “guards” assigned by Pilate or anyone else, as Matthew says.

    If Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was in Sanhedria – the location north-northwest of Jerusalem where there are numerous first-century tombs called “tombs of the Sanhedrin” or “tombs of the prophets” – then there might already have been the equivalent of night watchmen: the tombs are very elaborate, and were tombs of very wealthy people. And, Sanhedria was located on the very important road that led right to the Damascus Gate. My take on it, though, is that this location was too far away for the burial of Jesus.

    More likely: The vast majority of first-century tombs are on the southern end of the Mount of Olives, and on Mount Scopus, which is due north of the Mount of Olives.

    Either of these locations were likely to have been (temporarily) inhabited by Passover pilgrims due to their proximity to Jerusalem. One must remember that Jesus was arrested while he and his disciples were camped out on the Mt of Olives. Basically, there were people camped all over the place. The Mt of Olives was accessable via a bridge that crossed the Kidron from the Temple Mount, and Mt Scopus was accessable via the main road into the city, that ran right past the Pool of Bethesda, before entering at the Temple Mount. Both these areas – Mt of Olives, Mt Scopus – would have had potentially thousands of pilgrims camping in areas that were dotted by tombs.

    If the tomb was actually located in the “traditional Golgotha” spot, then almost assuredly, this location too would have been camping grounds for Passover pilgrims.

    Bottom line: At the Passover, in the three most likely spots for Jesus’ burial, it would have been a highly risky business breaking into a tomb and stealing a body, simply because the whole landside was dotted with Passover campers, and it was going to be danged easy to get spotted by somebody.

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    1. It is certainly possible that the area of the tomb was full of vigilant pilgrims who would have easily noticed a group of men sneaking around in the night with a corpse.

      -But that isn’t the only possible scenario. Maybe there was some form of ground cover near the tomb (olive trees?) so that someone in the dark of night could slip into the tomb and out without notice.

      -Maybe there was no one camped or hanging out in this area specifically because it was close to the Roman’s execution site…and no Jew wanted to be next on the execution list!

      -Maybe the whole burial complex was Sanhedrin property. Maybe they did have guards that would have prevented any pilgrims from being in the area. When the Sanhedrin came and took the body, no pilgrims were present to see the transfer of the body and the Sanhedrin guards kept their mouths shut about the transfer so no Christian ever found out about the Sanhedrin’s reburial of Jesus.

      -Maybe the body was not moved during darkness. There is still a considerable amount of light after sunset, fifteen or twenty minutes? That is plenty of time on Saturday evening to move the body before it gets dark, especially if the criminal grave had been dug on Friday afternoon (the body was not buried there on Friday because there was not enough time to move it to the criminal plot which was further away than the nearby Sanhedrin rock tomb or tombs before sunset).

      -If this area was a common burial plot, which most rock quarries were, then it is possible that bodies wrapped in burial linen (of elderly and the sick who had died late Friday afternoon or even on the Sabbath) from all over the general Jerusalem metropolitan area, which had been stored in temporary graves during the Sabbath, were now being moved to their permanent burial sites. There may have been several “burial parties” passing through the garden area that evening, or early the next morning (Sunday), so no one paid any attention that one group was leaving the area with a corpse.

      -Maybe the Sanhedrin burial party passed the women headed to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning (or had arrived at the tomb five minutes earlier and were already gone when the women started out for the tomb). The women of course would not recognize a shroud covered corpse and would not have considered a couple of men moving a body unusual as many corpses were being carried around now that the Sabbath was over.

      -Bottom line, any of the above scenarios are much more probable to explain the Empty Tomb, based on cumulative human experience, than that a three day brain-dead corpse was reanimated and later levitated into the clouds.

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  2. If there is a God who does miracles, “probability’s” got nuthin’ to do with it. Not one single thing.

    But, all your “what if’s” boil down to “someone stole the body” or “someone moved the body”.

    The Sanhedrin, being responsible for the burial of the body, would hardly have had any interest in stealing the body, thus setting up a scenario in which Jesus’ followers could claim “resurrection”. And, even if the Sanhedrin stole the body, they could then produce the body, putting all such claims to an end.

    Same thing with the Sanhedrin moving the body: they could easily have put claims of resurrection at an end by simply producing the body, since they would have known where it was.

    Basically, any scenario that involves the Sanhedrin is a “no go”, as far as real-life plausibility is concerned: The Sanhedrin was responsible for the body, and, they could have accounted for it, and most assuredly would have, once resurrection rumors had started. And the reason I say they could have accounted for the body is that when the Sanhedrin buried a criminal, the family had the right, after a year, to come and get the bones and entomb them elsewhere. So, they had to keep track of it.

    That leaves us with someone else stealing the body.

    But, first, you gotta find the tomb. Then you can make a detailed analysis of how someone did it. Once you’ve done that, then let’s talk about “probability”. Then we can see just how probable your theft scenario is, in and of itself.

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    1. If there is a God who does miracles, “probability’s” got nuthin’ to do with it. Not one single thing.

      This is very true. However, if one is going to raise this objection then there is no point in our discussing “evidence”. Evidence is irrelevant in a world governed solely by the whims of an all-powerful, all-mighty, supernatural deity. Evidence is irrelevant because the evidence that exists may be FAKE evidence, such as creating a young earth to look like an old earth just to confuse and to humble “the wise”; fake evidence of sediment layers which do NOT indicate a world wide flood just to confound the wise who claim this disproves the Bible’s claim that there was a world wide flood. And on and on…

      Evidence is irrelevant in a universe governed by magic.

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    2. Basically, any scenario that involves the Sanhedrin is a “no go”, as far as real-life plausibility is concerned: The Sanhedrin was responsible for the body, and, they could have accounted for it, and most assuredly would have, once resurrection rumors had started.

      We skeptics scratch our heads in disbelief when Christians make claims like this.

      Even if the Sanhedrin put the body of Jesus in the rock tomb mentioned in Mark with no intention of transferring it later (which even Raymond Brown states is within the realm of plausibility); and even if they placed Roman guards at the tomb; and even if there were pilgrims in the area…it is still more probable in the worldview of practically every person on the planet who is not a Christian, including theists of other religions, than that an invisible middle eastern, Bronze Age deity breathed life back into a three day brain-dead corpse.

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      1. I totally agree with you! As an agnostic person, I’m totally baffled how often Christian apologists argue, that certain scenarios which try to explain the missing body rationally within the confines of natural sciences, are totally impossible 😉 Different rational explanations may have varying degrees of plausibility – but each rational explanation is still far more plausible than the official church doctrine of a dead body which was miraculously filled with life again and was then physically transported into heaven! For me one of many proposed natural explanations has to be correct – if the story of the empty tomb is even true. Unfortunately we cannot know for sure, although there’s a certain degree of plausibility to that specific narrative: all four canonical gospels mention it, and emphasize that the idea of a resurrected Christ arose initially because of the missing body. And it is important that the alleged sightings didn’t start before it was discovered that the grave was empty and the idea of a physical resurrection had been planted.
        My personal money is on the stolen-body-hypothesis. The perpetrators may have belonged to a small inner circle of followers, although they may not have necessarily belonged to the 12 traditionally known disciples, who quite often appear to be strangely ignorant, uninformed and out-of-the-loop. Interestingly there are accounts of the presence of (a) white-clad man/men near the tomb who talk to the alarmed women and thus start the rumor in the first place that the missing body is a sure sign of a physical resurrection! If we reject the idea that these white-clad persons are a supernatural phenomenon (angels or spirits – and at least Mark never even hints into such a direction), then these guys must’ve been in on whatever has actually happened. I’m surprised that the presence of persons at the tomb who planted the idea of a physical resurrection in the first place, hasn’t been discussed more thoroughly. If these accounts are true ( a big IF of course), they are IMO a dead giveaway, that the body must’ve been taken away by dedicated followers precisely in order to start the rumor of a physical resurrection. Grave robbers or peddlers of body parts wouldn’t have left any helpers behind who conveniently take on the duty of informing the next-of-kin.

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  3. Nonetheless, we still need to see if any of your scenarios is actually plausible, in and of itself.

    What if you found the *actual tomb*, verified 100%, and it was in a spot that was *known* (and verified 100%) to have been inhabited by hundreds of Passover campers? My guess, in that case, would be that the “theft scenario” wouldn’t be terribly plausible…

    so, it really depends on your coming up with a truly plausible scenario. It’s just a total cop-out to say “anything is more probable than a miracle”. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But, in every case, your own scenario *has* to be shown to be plausible, in and of itself…

    so, get to work on that. I’ll be looking forward to hearing your report once you’ve found that tomb….

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  4. Like I said – if there’s a God who does indeed work in Nature, then probability’s got nuthin’ to do with it…

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    1. Our discussion proves to me that non-theists and theists should stop discussing probability when it comes to the Resurrection. If one’s world view includes the supernatural and the other’s worldview does not, there will never be agreement regarding whose view is more probable. But we can talk about possibility. I believe that the supernatural is possible, but since I don’t see any evidence that the supernatural has ever been active in our universe since the beginning of our universe, this possibility is very small in my worldview.

      Can you agree that it is possible that someone moved or stole the body from the Arimathea/Sanhedrin tomb?

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          1. It always gets down to whether there’s a God who works in nature (or not). In particular, the God of Theism, which is a personal God, the Creator, etc.

            thing is, this is a determination that can be made only philosophically. It can’t be made theologically, because theology *depends* on there being a God in the first place. and, it can’t be made scientifically, simply because science, as a discipline, does not venture outside of nature.

            So, it’s strictly on a philosophical level that one can even attempt to determine whether there’s a God, or gods, and what the nature of God or the gods might be.

            The problem with agnosticism is that it’s inherently always weak on philosophy. I’ve found that so very many agnostics in this culture have no philosophical underpinnings at all. Most of them are theologically opposed to God as understood in Judeo/Christianity, but then they’ll turn right around and say “…but I don’t know if there’s a God or not”. And this, then, is not followed by, but indeed has been preceeded by a total lack of philosophical thought on the topic.

            As far as stealing Jesus’ body goes, my best guess wouldn’t be *anybody* on your list. It would be four drunk teenagers stealing the body on a dare. That makes infinitely more sense to me than anybody on your list…

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                1. I believe that philosophy has played a critical role in the advancement of western culture, from Socrates and Plato to Descartes and Hume. Western philosophy has helped free us from most of our primitive, superstitious thinking. Today, unfortunately, philosophy has become the crutch of the last bastion of superstition—religion. Religionists feverishly utilize respected philosophical principles to prop up the respectability of their ancient superstitions.

                  I encourage all non-religionists/secularists/non-theists/atheists/agnostics to respond to theists’ attempts to use philosophy to defend religion by doing the following:

                  Ask the theist this question: Do I need to understand the principles of philosophy to reject the claim that demons are the cause of disease?

                  Hopefully, a rational theist will respond, No. You do not need to understand philosophical principles to reject the claim that demons cause disease. Science has proven that bacteria, viruses, and cell mutations cause disease.

                  Dear theist: For similar reasons I reject the claim that a first century corpse, which had been brain-dead for three days, was reanimated (resurrected) by an ancient middle eastern deity and later levitated into the clouds. I do not need to understand one single principle of philosophy to reject this claim.

                  And what about the existence of the supernatural? My response: I do not reject the existence of the supernatural, gods, devils, demons, angels, fairies, or goblins. I simply choose not to believe in their presence and activity in my universe due to a lack of evidence. If better evidence comes along, I will be happy to reconsider.

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                  1. And, this is exactly what I’ve pointed out before: Agnosticism requires little, if any actual thought. It’s the hallmark virtue of agnosticism.

                    But, when it come down to a simple question like “is there an afterlife”, the answer is either yes or no. There either *must* be, or there *must not* be. Either this is all there is, or it’s not. It’s a binary. It’s going to be one way or the other. But there’s no “evidence” whatsoever. There’s only “reason”.

                    This is where the Atheist and the Theist have a great deal in common: each comes to a conclusion based on the use of reason.

                    The agnostic? The agnostic sidesteps reason altogether. And, that’s why I say one of the hallmarks of agnosticism is it’s remarkable non-reliance on thought.

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                    1. You are certainly welcome to your opinion. My belief is that it is wise to remain uncommitted on questions regarding universal truths about which the experts have not yet reached a consensus. You are free to make a precipitous decision based on your personal non-expert reasoning, feelings, and perceptions, of course.

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        1. My bet would be that someone moved it, in this order of probability:

          -the Sanhedrin
          -Pilate
          -family of Jesus who were not believers
          -Mary Magdalene (who was rich—she could have bribed the Romans or the Jews)
          -the Beloved Disciple (who was rich, according to the Secret Gospel of Mark—he could have bribed the Romans or the Jews)
          -Wise Men from the East (They were loaded—they could have bribed everyone, including Caesar!)

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          1. The mysterious “beloved disciple” having been in on it, is a good bet IMO. Money and connections would certainly help. And the beloved disciple may have been accustomed to the concept of physical resurrection anyway, if we can trust the truncated account of his own resurrection by Jesus given in the alleged Secret Mark Gospel.
            The fact that according to Mark and Matthew the women/Mary Magdalene reported the presence of one or more unnamed white-clad young men, who started to peddle the idea of a physical resurrection in the first place, is IMO a hint that the body has been deliberately removed from the tomb by a group of helpers in order to start the resurrection rumor. Neither Pilate, the Sanhedrin or anonymous grave robbers would leave helpers behind. If the presence of the white-clad young men at the tomb is based on facts, it’s a very important detail.

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