NT Scholar Raymond Brown: Supernatural Features in a Story Should Not Automatically Disqualify Its Historicity

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“I do not deem it methodologically sound to let such an a priori rejection of the supernatural determine historicity, and indeed that principle would rule out the discussion of any resurrection narrative.  In my judgment the possibility or plausibility of this story [The Guards at the Tomb of Jesus Story] must be discussed on the same basis as that of any other Gospel story.

Other a priori principles have been invoked to deny historicity.  For example, the observation that this is a late and popular story (found only in Matt, not in Mark), or that it has an apologetic bent, would cause many to dismiss it out of hand as a fabrication.  I argued above that apologetics is not the primary thrust; and even if it were, why are apologetics and historicity incompatible?  After all, an argument based on something that really happened may have been advanced against the Jewish opponents of Christianity.

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As for the late appearance of the story in the Gospel tradition, there are other possible reasons besides fictional creation that could supply an explanation (e.g., that the presence of a guard was unimportant until enemies advanced the lie that the body had been stolen).  Similarly, circulation in popular circles rather than in public preaching does not always point to non-historicity.

Having refused to treat this issue on such a priori grounds, I am not always impressed by the force of the a posteriori arguments against historicity.  For example, the lie that the soldiers are bribed to spread (“His disciples, having come at night, stole him while we were sleeping”) is sometimes dismissed as absurd.  It is claimed that to sleep on duty was a capital offense in the Roman army; and so the soldiers would have known that they were contributing to their own demise, despite the promise that the chief priests would persuade the governor and thus could deliver them from worry.

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On the level of storyline, however, as I pointed out, the chief priests are corrupt; and readers are meant to assume that they would lie to Pilate and probably bribe him not to punish the soldiers.  On the level of background facts, it is not clear that sleeping on duty was always punished by death.  Tactitus (Histories 5.22) tells of careless sentries whose sleeping on watch almost allowed the enemy to catch their general; but they seem to have used the general’s scandalous behavior (he was away from duty, sleeping with a woman) to shield their own fault.  In other words, bargains could be struck; and it is not implausible that Pilate might not have been so strict about the behavior of troops temporarily placed at the service of the Jewish authorities if those authorities chose not to push for punishment.

Yet there is a major argument against historicity that is impressive indeed.  Not only do the other Gopsels not mention the guard at the sepulcher, but the presence of the guard where would make what they narrate about the tomb almost unintelligible.  The other three 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 other Gospels the stone is already removed or rolled back when the women get there.  How can we reconcile that with Matthew’s account where, while the women are at the sepulcher, an angel comes down out of heaven and rolls back the stone.

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…Even some minor precaution should have left a trace in the other Gospels as an obstacle to the women on Easter.

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

-Mainstream Roman Catholic NT scholar, Raymond Brown,  in The Death of the Messiah, pp. 1310-1312


Gary:  It is statements like this that cause me to have a great deal of respect for the work of Raymond Brown.  He let’s the evidence interpret the facts not his personal agenda.  He very much believed in the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and of other miracle stories in the Bible but he could admit that some of the stories were very probably fictitious inventions.

But this raises a very important issue.  Conservative Christians often brush off claims that the majority of scholars doubt the historicity of the Guards at the Tomb Story because they say that the majority of scholars are biased against the supernatural.  But Raymond Brown (deceased) was not biased against the supernatural.  And neither is scholar NT Wright.  So how do conservative Christians explain that the only scholars who believe the historicity of the Guards at the Tomb Story (and the traditional/eyewitness authorship of the Gospels) are fundamentalists, evangelicals, and other very conservative Protestants?

I believe it is very obvious who it is that has the bias.

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2 thoughts on “NT Scholar Raymond Brown: Supernatural Features in a Story Should Not Automatically Disqualify Its Historicity

  1. re: “I believe it is very obvious who it is that has the bias”.

    Yep, scholars that have a bias against the supernatural do indeed have a bias. Just like those that have a bias in favor of it.

    And readers who tend to agree with those authors that have a bias against the supernatural also largely have that same bias. Just like those that tend to agree with the authors who are biased in favor of the supernatural also tend largely to share that same bias.

    So, yeh, it IS obvious: There are biases on both sides.

    However, in terms of “scholars”, overall, who concern themselves with pure “historicity” of the biblical texts, the majority treat the subject with a distinct bias against the supernatural.

    And, in terms of “readership”, my guess is that those scholars with a bias against the supernatural outsell those with a bias in favor of it. I’d have to look up the stats, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to find that Ehrman (for example) has outsold Brown many times over. I could be wrong, but I’m too lazy to look up the sales figures..

    MY QUESTION: Why is any of this an important issue? And, important to whom? To you??? It sure ain’t important to me, in the slightest.


    1. It is important to me (and to other ex-conservative Christians) to demonstrate that the evidence for the historicity of the two thousand year old claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus (and that eternal damnation awaits all those who refuse to believe this tale and refuse to be “washed in his blood”) is nothing more than assumptions, conjecture, and faith (wishful thinking). There is no good evidence for this tale being true. Yet millions of people on earth live in fear of the consequences of rejecting this story.

      I am part of a movement to debunk all fear-based religious superstitions. I am concentrating my efforts on my own former fear-based religion. I see myself as an evangelist…an evangelist of the truth, whatever that truth may be, no matter how painful and ugly that truth may be. It is a truth that can be found using reason and the Scientific Method, the most successful method of determining truth claims in the history of humankind.

      As an evangelist, I cast the “seed” of truth where I can. What happens with that seed is out of my hands (literally).

      If this topic is of no interest to you, there are about a billion other websites for you to choose from.

      Liked by 1 person

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