Did Scholar Raymond Brown Believe in the Historicity of the Guards at the Tomb Story?

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“There is a major argument against the historicity [of the Guard Story] that is impressive indeed. Not only do the other Gospels not mention the guard at the sepulcher, but the presence of the guard there would make what they narrate about the tomb almost unintelligible.

The three other canonical Gospels have women come to the tomb on Easter, and the only obstacle to their entrance that is mentioned is the stone. Certainly the evangelists would have had to explain how the women hoped to get into the tomb if there were a guard placed there precisely to prevent entry.

In the other Gospels, the stone is already removed or rolled back when the women get there.  How can we reconcile that with Matt’s account where, while the women are at the sepulcher, an angel comes down out of heaven and rolls back the stone? There are other internal implausibilities in Matthew’s account (e.g., that the Jewish authorities knew the words of Jesus about his resurrection and understood them when his own disciples did not; that the guards could lie successfully about the astounding heavenly intervention);but they touch on the minor details of the story.

The lack of harmony with the other Gospels touches on the heart of the story, i.e., the very existence of a guard. Can one save historicity by going back to a preGospel situation and contending that the Jewish Sanhedrin member who buried Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, may have taken some precaution to protect the sepulcher, and that this developed into the story that Matthew now tells? That is a very hypothetical suggestion, however, for neither Matthew nor The Gospel of Peter connects the guard to Joseph, and even a minor precaution should have left a trace in the other Gospels as an obstacle to the women on Easter.”

–Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, p. 1311-1312

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4 thoughts on “Did Scholar Raymond Brown Believe in the Historicity of the Guards at the Tomb Story?

  1. I very seriously doubt – and, in fact, do no accept – the historicity of the guard at the tomb. In fact, I think it raises far more questions than it answers, and introduces a level of complexity that is both unnecessary and undesirable. To me, it has all the “look and feel” of a very contrived mechanism.

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    1. Brown goes on to say:

      “That, of course, does not mean the story [of the Guards at the Tomb] is without value. …Truth conveyed by drama can at times be more effecttively impressed on people’s minds than truth conveyed by history.

      …In [William Lane Craig’s] attempt (unsuccessful in my judgment) to defend the historicity of the guard story, it is disappointing that he seems to see worthless legend as the alternative to a historical account (“Guard” 274). The Bible is a collection of literatures of many different genres, and we devalue it if we emphasize history in a way that would demean other types of biblical literature. Jonah is an OT book of extraordinary value even if no man bearing that name was ever swallowed by a large fish or put a foot in Ninevah.” RB, “Death”, p. 1312

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  2. Interesting… I had just read Craig’s attempted defense a very short while ago, and I too felt it was entirely unconvincing.

    It appears to me that Matthew is trying to provide some answer to the question “how do we *know* the body wasn’t stolen?”

    The other gospels don’t bother with it. They all say Mary Magdalene (and maybe others) simply showed up (Luke & Mark, “with spices”), and saw the stone had been rolled away.

    That, of course, could have been due to theft. In fact, I’d figure that “theft” would be the first explanation most would think of.

    For some reason, though, none of the other gospel writers felt it necessary to even provide some explanation as to how it *couldn’t* have been theft. They totally leave it to the reader to wrangle with the “theft” question, but the other gospel writers aren’t *relying* on the “empty tomb” as any kind of proof of anything at all. Luke and John are relying on the “sightings” of Jesus, by Peter and the others.

    And Mark doesn’t even go that far. He says the stone was rolled away, the women saw that, and after a brief conversation with an unknown “young man”, ran away terrified. At that point, Mark is (evidently) relying on the reader to already know “the rest of the story”, which is presumably the reason they’re even reading his writing in the first place. OR, as some have suggested, the earliest manuscript we have of Mark simply had a page missing, or, was damaged, so we never see Marks “real” ending. In any case, though, Mark – like Luke and John – don’t even see a reason to explain “how it could *not* have been theft”. They’re all OK with the reader questioning that, because they’re all relying on *other* info (the “sightings” recorded in Luke and John, or, for Mark, just assumed to be “general knowledge that anyone reading this would already know”) to answer the question.

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    1. Here is what Brown says on his guess as to the literary purpose of the “Guard Story”:

      “I have suggested that the polemic and apologetic functions [of the Guard Story] were probably secondary, and that the more fundamental thrust was an apocalyptic eschatological dramatization of the power of God to make the cause of the Son successful against all human opposition, no matter how powerful. John has a partially similar dramatization in [John] 18:6 , where in the garden across the Kidron a cohort of Roman soldiers under a tribune and Jewish attendants fall to the ground before Jesus when he says, “I am”. Truth conveyed by drama can at times be more effectively impressed on peoples’ minds than truth conveyed by history.” –RB, “Death” p. 1312

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