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Resurrection #13: Guards at the Tomb & Historiography

Resurrection #13: Guards at the Tomb & Historiography April 27, 2021

Michael J. Alter is the author of the copiously researched, 913-page volume, The Resurrection: a Critical Inquiry (2015). I initially offered  59 “brief” replies to as many alleged New Testament contradictions (March 2021). We later engaged in amiable correspondence and decided to enter into a major ongoing dialogue about his book. He graciously sent me a PDF file of it, free of charge, for my review, and has committed himself to counter-response as well: a very rare trait these days. All of this is, I think, mightily impressive.

Mike describes himself as “of the Jewish faith” but is quick to point out that labels are often “misleading” and “divisive” (I agree to a large extent). He continues to be influenced by, for example, “Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad” variants of Judaism and learns “from those of other faiths, the secular, the non-theists, etc.” Fair enough. I have a great many influences, too, am very ecumenical, and am a great admirer of Judaism, as I told Michael in a combox comment on my blog.

He says his book “can be described as Jewish apologetics” and one that provides reasons for “why members of the Jewish community should not convert to Christianity.” I will be writing many critiques of the book and we’ll be engaging in ongoing discussion for likely a long time. I’m quite excited about it and eagerly enjoy the dialogue and debate. This is a rare opportunity these days and I am most grateful for Mike’s willingness to interact, minus any personal hostility.

I use RSV for all Bible verses that I cite. His words will be in blue.

*****

Alter wrote:

CONTRADICTION #48 Christian Apologists Doubt Its Historicity

It is most noteworthy that even Christian apologists with impeccable credentials doubt the historicity of the visit to Pilate and the request of a guard. For example, Craig (1989b, 211) writes: “Matthew’s account has been nearly universally rejected as an apologetic legend” but then adds a personal apologetic, “though the reasons for this assessment are of unequal worth.” Jumping forward almost twenty years, Craig (1998, 211-12) was interviewed and specifically questioned about the controversy related to the guard at the tomb. His full comment bears sensible and thoughtful consideration:

“Only Matthew reports that guards were placed around the tomb,” he replied. “But in any event, I don’t think the guard story is an important facet of the evidence for the Resurrection.

For one thing, it’s too disputed by contemporary scholarship. I find it’s prudent to base my arguments on evidence that’s most widely accepted by the majority of scholars, so the guard story is better left aside.”

Similarly, John Wenham (1992, 79) openly and candidly admits that Matthew’s story of the Roman guard “bristles with improbabilities at every point.”

Plainly, these two Christian apologetic scholars raise doubt as to the veracity of Matthew’s account. (pp. 288-289)

CONTRADICTION #49 Historical Reliability

The visit of the Jewish leadership to Pilate on the Sabbath is doubtful. First, Matthew is the only gospel to record this remarkable event. In the eyes of Christian apologists, omission of facts by three of the four gospel narrators is considered to be a weak position by opponents of Jesus’s resurrection since it is an argument based on silence. (p. 289)

Unfortunately, for all of his fascination with and deference to “contemporary scholarship” William Lane Craig is not equally as enthralled with virtually universal Christian tradition regarding Christology and theology proper concerning God the Father. He’s been one of the most notable defenders theism against atheism. Yet (very sadly, as I, like many others, have enjoyed his work) he is indeed a heretic, from the perspective of historic Christianity; on three very serious counts:

1) He denies that Jesus has two wills, which is the heresy of monothelitism.

2) He denies that God is outside of time after the creation (writing, “God ought to be considered as timeless sans creation and temporal subsequent to creation.”: “God, Time, and Eternity”). That is rank heresy, too, because it means that God can change, which violates the dogma of His immutability.

3) He denies that Jesus is eternally begotten of the Father, which is a denial of what is called the monarchia or principatus of the Father — meaning that the Father is not “begotten”; the Son is, and the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Father and the Son (filioque).

 

These are all dogmas of the Catholic faith (agreed to by most traditional Protestants as well), but Dr. Craig appeals to his own (heretical) interpretation of Scripture, which for him trumps any apostolic tradition of the Church; thumbing his nose (in a 2007 article) even at “Nicene orthodoxy.”

Bottom line: Dr. Craig is not the final word in Christian apologetics. He’s not even a true Christian, so he doesn’t speak for us. He speaks for general theism over against atheism, and biblical inspiration insofar as he actually accepts the inspiration and infallibility of Holy Scripture. In this instant he doesn’t. His substitution for that is a head count of the scholars (which has also been Michael Alter’s constant — self-defeating — method in his book).

Likewise, Anglican John Wenham — though generally a “conservative” Christian scholar, didn’t always accept the inspiration of Holy Scripture, either. According to the Wikipedia article on him, he rejected the biblical doctrine of eternal hellfire and the eternality of souls:

Wenham . . . held to the position of “conditional immortality” – or the belief that the human soul is not by default eternal in nature; this belief goes hand in hand with the notion that sinners, once cast into hell, are at some point burned up and essentially no longer exist. (This doctrine is also frequently referred to as annihilationism.) In his book Facing Hell, An Autobiography 1913–1996, Wenham writes, “I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the Gospel. I should indeed be happy, if before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.”

Eternal torment in hell is unquestionably taught in the New Testament, as I have documented. Jesus Himself taught a lot more about hell than about heaven. But because it is an emotional topic and difficult to defend (in our rapidly secularizing, postmodernist age), it has become fashionable in recent decades for otherwise solidly traditional scholars to reject or seriously question it.

Other examples among evangelical Protestants are F. F. Bruce (who thought annihilationism was a permissible interpretation, without himself holding it) and John R. W. Stott, who wrote that “the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment” [source]. No one can reject the traditional Christian teaching on hell without rejecting biblical infallibility and biblical inspiration (in those places where the New Testament plainly teachings eternal torment in hell).

I repeat for the umpteenth time: scholars are not the final word, the final court of appeal, or the “magisterium” in any form of traditional, orthodox, historic Christianity. Christianity is a religious faith: not an academic field like geology or botany or astronomy. Rather, the “rule of faith” is inspired and infallible Holy Scripture for Protestants, and inspired and infallible Holy Scripture, interpreted in light of harmonious sacred tradition and authoritative Church teaching, for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

In a word, it is irrelevant to us, then, what William Lane Craig (not even a Christian) or John Wenham happen to think about guards at the tomb: seeing that they (at least at times) arbitrarily pick-and-choose what they will believe in the Bible.

For an opposing view, I will turn to a philosopher who actually believes — as far as I can tell — in the inspiration of Scripture and historic Protestant Christianity: Dr. Timothy McGrew. He responded to this very argument in Michael’s book in an article from 24 February 2019, entitled, “Was There a Guard at Jesus’ Tomb?” I shall now cite his words in the article almost in its entirety, and also further relevant combox comments:

Skeptical objections to the historicity of the Gospel narratives are numerous. They are also, for the most part, old news. When so many people have gone over the same ground so often, we should not expect much in the way of novelty. Still, every so often someone manages to state some objections so forcefully, or at least with so much bravado and so many footnotes, that they appear to be a new and devastating challenge to the basic factual accuracy of the Gospels.

Michael Alter’s book The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015) is certainly long enough to seem imposing, . . . [but] I am unimpressed by Alter’s arguments . . .

[V. J. ] Torley [following Alter’s reasoning] rejects the story that there was a guard at the tomb for the following four reasons:

A. It is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel, not in the other three.

B. This account fails to explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night.

C. We are not told why Pilate would agree to the Jewish leaders’ request. In particular:

1. The request concerned a purely religious matter, and we would not expect Pilate to care much about such things
2. Pilate had just been pressured into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, and therefore any further request would be unlikely to meet with a favorable reception

D. The Jewish rulers would not have made such a request of Pilate, since a gentile employed by a Jew would not be allowed to work on the Sabbath.

Let us consider these reasons in turn.

First, only Matthew’s Gospel mentions the setting of a guard at Jesus’ tomb. It is not clear how much weight Torley intends this fact to bear by itself. But as the argument from silence in such cases is generally terribly weak, it is hard to see why it should be significant just here. Many of the events of antiquity crop up in only one source. The conditions that have to be met for an argument from silence to be strong are rather stringent and are rarely met in historical work. (For details, see my paper “The Argument from Silence,” Acta Analytica 29 (2014), 215-28.) As Torley has not attempted to argue that the silence of the other evangelists meets the probabilistic challenge laid out there, I will not belabor the point.

Second, Torley objects that the account does not explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night. In making this objection, he assumes that the request was made on Saturday morning. For the moment, suppose it was; even so, the objection has little force. There are simply too many plausible ways for the rulers to fail to make the request on Friday. Pilate might have left pointed instructions that he wasn’t to be bothered further that evening. The Jewish leaders might have left someone of their own to keep an eye on the tomb overnight. Failing that, they might still have thought that it would be better than nothing to have a guard set for the remainder of the time period specified.

But it is not even clear from the text that the request was made on Saturday. The Jews reckoned the beginning of the Sabbath with sundown on Friday, so for all the text says, they may have made the request on Friday evening as soon as they ascertained the location of Jesus’ body. In his work The Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, According to the Four Evangelists (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1827), Johann David Michaelis argues that the language of Matthew, with its peculiar turn of phrase (ἥτις ἐστὶν μετὰ τὴν Παρασκευήν, hardly necessary after Τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον unless something more specific than the generic succession of days is intended) actually indicates that the request was made just past sundown on Friday:

Literally translated, on the following day, which is after Friday. As it is self-evident that one day must follow another, and it requires no author to tell us this, the meaning is, “on the following day, immediately after the end of Friday,” or in other words, immediately after sunset, with which, according to the custom of the Jews, the day ends, and the sabbath begins. This mode of speaking seems singular in Greek, but in Hebrew, from the same word [ערב] signifying “evening,” “holy evening,” or, as we should say, “vespers,” it becomes more intelligible. The meaning is, that from an apprehension the body might be stolen in the night, they did not wait until the following morning, they went immediately to Pilate that same evening, which now no longer belonged to Friday, but formed part of the sabbath, and requested a guard. [100; cf. the German edition, 83]

Various other New Testament scholars, not all of them conservative (Doddridge, Paulus, Kuinoel, Thorburn) concur in Michaelis’s analysis. Meyer dissents, but without adducing any reasons other than his disagreement with these authorities regarding the meaning of the expression τῇ ἐπαύριον. He does not engage with Michaelis’s point regarding the parallel Hebrew expression [ממחרת ערב השבת] at all.

The second objection, then, is either very weak (if Michaelis is wrong) or completely misguided (if he is right). This is hardly the sort of reasoning that should lead us to discard a contemporaneous narrative account of a public event.

The third objection is that Matthew’s narrative does not tell us why Pilate would acquiesce in the request of the Jewish leaders. On the face of it, this is a very odd way to object to historical evidence. Many narratives recount events without affording us an explanation for them, and sometimes we are left to guess what that explanation might be. So what?

But perhaps this problem is just a matter of wording; perhaps the real objection is that the two considerations Torley mention are supposed to make it unlikely that Pilate would grant a guard at the tomb. Is it so?

The first consideration is that Pilate, as a secular authority dealing exclusively with non-religious matters, would have had no reason to grant a request of this sort — perhaps also that the Jewish leaders would not have had the temerity to put it to him. But this consideration misses the mark entirely. The matter of Jesus’ death, though of religious importance to the Jewish rulers, had far wider ramifications. An imposture might well raise civil trouble in Jerusalem, particularly as it was swollen at this time with hundreds of thousands (Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.3 (Loeb #280), estimates three million) of Passover pilgrims. Jesus’ popularity with the crowds was well known. Unrest at Passover had led to disastrous results within living memory, notably on the death of Herod the Great, as Josephus describes in his Antiquities 17.9.3 (Loeb #213-18). Preventing civil unrest lay squarely within Pilate’s sphere of responsibility. On this count, the matter is exactly the sort of thing we would expect the Jewish rulers to request of Pilate. It is a mark of authenticity rather than of inauthenticity.

The second consideration is that Pilate, whom the Jewish leadership had (according to the Gospels) maneuvered into having Jesus crucified against his own better judgment, would have been unlikely to grant them a further request. This point deserves close consideration, because it has a significance that has escaped Torley and Alter. According to the Gospel narratives, Pilate did not believe Jesus had done anything worthy of death. He allowed the Jews to have their way on this matter only because he feared that they would send a twisted version of events to Rome, destabilizing his governorship and perhaps leading to his being recalled in disgrace. For the sake of their argument, Alter and Torley need to grant at least this much authenticity to the Gospel narratives. In a subsequent post, I will return to this point, as it substantially undermines a claim that Torley and others have made in support of the second and third objections.

But the consideration is relevant here only if there is no other reason that Pilate might have felt moved to grant such a request. And even assuming that Pilate was thoroughly unhappy with the Jewish leaders by this time, such a reason lies ready to hand. The theft of a body and proclamation that the individual in question was alive was the sort of scenario a Roman governor under Tiberius could not safely ignore. Some sixteen years earlier, one Clemens, a slave of Caesar Augustus’s grandson Agrippa Postumus, stole the ashes and bones of his murdered master and spread the rumor that Agrippa had in fact escaped the attempt on his life. As he resembled his dead master in age and physique, he went so far as to impersonate him in some of the towns at twilight. Tiberius, who had become sole emperor after the death of his adopted father Augustus in that very year, feared a conspiracy and had Clemens apprehended, interrogated, and slain in a private part of his palace. (See Tacitus, Annals 2.39-40.)

So this second consideration, as well, turns out not only to pose no problem for the authenticity of the narrative but actually to be a point in its favor. These are the sorts of details that modern critics, even those professing to examine historical matters very minutely, are apt to overlook because they are not intimately familiar with the historical context.

The fourth objection is that the Jewish leaders would not have asked Pilate to set a guard at the tomb, since it was the Sabbath day, and Jewish law would have forbidden them to hire a gentile to do such work on the Sabbath. Yet again, the objection seems to me to be fundamentally misguided, and in two ways. First, even supposing the objection to be fairly stated, there is no guarantee that the Jewish authorities would be particularly scrupulous in the matter of hiring a Roman guard to do their work, as they had already shown their willingness to hold a trial by night in prima facie violation of their own rules.

But as it happens, the text does not bear out the idea that they were hiring anyone. Rather, they were making a request to Pilate, as the civil governor, that he would secure the tomb with a guard. Nothing in Jewish law as interpreted at the time would prevent them from making such a request.

I conclude that on the first point, Alter’s argument, as summarized by Torley, completely fails to undermine the credibility Matthew’s account of the setting of a guard at the tomb where Jesus had just been buried. Indeed, some of the particular considerations raised against that account are actually points that count on the other side, showing a minute consistency with the historical context and recent historical events that have escaped the notice of these critics.

[from the combox, henceforth] There is certainly something ad hoc going on in Alter’s treatment of the matter, but the problem lies in the methodology Alter employs here rather than in the story as told in Matthew’s Gospel. Start with a surmise — “Maybe it didn’t really happen.” Faced with the fact that there isn’t much reason to doubt it, make up a purely hypothetical motivation that someone might have had for inventing such a story: “Maybe Jesus’ body really was stolen, and they had to create a cover story for that fact.” Faced with the further problem that this particular cover story is hardly what one would invent to answer to that hypothetical state of affairs and could easily be contradicted by people on the ground in Jerusalem who knew the guards, ignore the problem and instead double down on creating hypothetical rationales for other parts of the story. “The guards have to be gotten out of the way so the women can enter …” Okay, why not just have Jesus’ resurrection itself knock them out instead of resorting to the awkward fabrication of their falling asleep? Simple questions like this suffice to show how specious such reasoning is. What historical narrative, however faithful, could not be dissolved (at least in the imagination of the critic) by the application of such methods?

*

It is a matter of balancing probabilities and inclining to the most likely. There are three independent variables here: the prior probability that a guard was set, P(G), the probability of our having the Matthean account, given that a guard was set, P(M|G), and the probability of our having that account, given that a guard was not set, P(M|~G). I contend that, on the basis of such information as we actually possess, P(G) is not particularly low, and therefore the ratio P(G)/P(~G) is not significantly less than 1. I have disposed of Alter’s attempt to argue to the contrary. P(M|G) is not itself wildly low; if that is what happened, this is more or less the sort of account we might hope to have of it. P(M|~G), however, is very low; I cannot see why anyone would think it is even on the same order of magnitude as P(M|G). Therefore, P(G)/P(~G) ≈ 1, and P(M|G)/P(M|~G) >> 1; therefore, P(G|M)/P(~G|M) >> 1; therefore, P(G|M) is easily more likely than not.

*

[T]he only people who look gullible here are those trying to do a priori history in order to explain away the primary sources.

*

I might, with a great deal more justice, say that anyone who thinks such considerations as Alter and Best have offered carry weight in a historical argument is more concerned to reject the Gospel narratives than to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

*

I could name plenty of ancient historians, New Testament scholars, and classicists who do in fact take the Gospel narratives in general and Matthew’s account in particular very seriously. But I much fear that Eric would dismiss them all on the same ground that he uses to dismiss the extrabiblical writers who speak of the Jewish story that the disciples stole Jesus’s body – that they are Christians, or influenced by Christianity, and they are therefore not to be taken seriously. Those who appreciate circular reasoning in defense of a preestablished conclusion are welcome to derive whatever satisfaction they can from such a strategy.

*

Many real events seem far less probable on their face than this. The career of Julius Caesar is an instance — or far more incredibly, that of Napoleon Bonaparte. If we were allowed to use uncalibrated personal incredulity as a principle of inference, it would send a wrecking ball through the discipline of history, ancient and modern.

[Michael Alter replied directly to Dr. McGrew in the combox, and to his wife Lydia (also a credentialed philosopher) and others in the thread, six times: [one / two / three / four / five / six]

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Photo credit: Selva Rasalingam as Jesus in the The Gospel of Luke (2016, Netflix USA) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication]

Summary: Michael Alter contends that two Christian apologists (both of dubious orthodoxy) questioned the account of the guards at the tomb; therefore (huh?!), it’s a “contradiction.”

Tags: alleged Bible contradictions, alleged Resurrection contradictions, Bible “contradictions”, Bible “difficulties”, Bible Only, biblical inspiration, biblical prooftexts, biblical skeptics, biblical theology, exegesis, hermeneutics, Holy Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, Jewish anti-Christian polemics, Jewish apologetics, Jewish critique of Christianity, Jewish-Christian discussion, Michael J. Alter, New Testament, New Testament critics, New Testament skepticism, Resurrection “Contradictions”, Resurrection of Jesus, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, guards at the tomb

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