Pearce’s Potshots #57: Matthew & the Tomb Guards

Pearce’s Potshots #57: Matthew & the Tomb Guards January 28, 2022

Including the Analogy of Xenophon and Plato as Biographers of Socrates

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page from his former site states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” 


This is a reply to his post, “Why Matthew’s guards at Jesus’ tomb are so important” (1-27-22). His words will be in blue.

The central plank of his argument (the only thing he has to work with that is not disputed by all parties) is reiterated three times:

. . . the guards at the tomb of Jesus, included only in the Gospel of Matthew, . . . 

The standard criticism of this passage is that it appears in no other Gospel, . . . 

So the questions are: Why Mark didn’t include this claim? Why does the guard narrative only appear in Matthew? [his bolding]

He then goes on to construct (literally out of thin air) an entire elaborate story of deceit and intent to deliberately lie about the events surrounding Jesus’ death (recycled, of course, from standard atheist mythology and polemics concerning the NT), to account for why only Matthew includes the story. “Whodunits”are great. I like them as much as anyone (my favorite current TV show is The Murdoch Mysteries). But they make for — sans fingerprints and DNA evidence — lousy and hyper-subjective historiography and historical analyses and hypothesizing. More on all this as I proceed . . .

My reply to this line of argument is threefold:

1) First and foremost, arguments of this type are arguments from silence (the logical fallacy, argumentum ex silentio), and as anyone familiar with logic and/or philosophy, and/or debating strategies in general knows (and Jonathan calls himself “a philosopher”), they carry little or no force at all. Christian philosopher Dr. Timothy McGrew responded to this argument about the guards in an article from 24 February 2019, entitled, “Was There a Guard at Jesus’ Tomb?” He noted about arguments from silence:

[T]he 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.)

In his Abstract for this article, Dr. McGrew wrote:

The argument from silence is a pattern of reasoning in which the failure of a known source to mention a particular fact or event is used as the ground of an inference, usually to the conclusion that the supposed fact is untrue or the supposed event did not actually happen. Such arguments are widely used in historical work, but they are also widely contested. This paper surveys some inadequate attempts to model this sort of argument, offers a new analysis using a Bayesian probabilistic framework that isolates the most problematic step in such arguments, illustrates a key problem besetting many uses of the argument, diagnoses the attraction of the argument in terms of a known human cognitive bias affecting the critical step, and suggests a standard that must be met in order for any argument from silence to have more than a very weak influence on historical reasoning.

Wikipedia’s article “Argument from Silence” describes the technique as used in historical discussions:

[I]n historical analysis with an argument from silence, the absence of a reference to an event or a document is used to cast doubt on the event not mentioned. While most historical approaches rely on what an author’s works contain, an argument from silence relies on what the book or document does not contain. This approach thus uses what an author “should have said” rather than what is available in the author’s extant writings.

The salient point is how one determines “what an author ‘should have said'”: particularly in the case of one who wrote over 1900 years ago. And that leads to my next point.

2) Lacking any concrete historical evidence for why Matthew alone mentioned the guards and why Mark and Luke didn’t, Jonathan does what all Bible skeptics, writing about the Resurrection do: he (in effect, since he is no doubt drawing from the atheist playbook) invents a story out of thin air, out of whole cloth. He pulls it out of a hat like a rabbit; invents an entirely (merely subjective) groundless, fictitious myth about Matthew’s interior motivations and intentions. It’s ridiculous enough to do that to people today, but to someone 1900 years ago?!

Of course the high irony is that he ends up doing precisely what he falsely accuses Matthew of doing: spinning whoppers and tall tales for the purpose of polemics and defense of one’s prior biblically hostile beliefs. Here is an example (from his article’s conclusion) of Jonathan’s vacuous, literally content-less material: purely speculative, with no substantiation whatever:

Mark mentions nothing. There are no Jewish counter-claims, so Mark needs no counter-counter-claims. The lack of a pre-existing empty tomb narrative is the only thing that makes sense of the lack of guards in Mark, and their addition in Matthew.

In other words, the guards’ claim is far more important than you might think. It shows that Mark made up the empty tomb, and Matthew was the one left to deal with the counter-arguments.

Luke and John don’t include them at all, which is a very good argument for their lack of authenticity. After all, they were possibly some of the only witnesses to the actual resurrection, or at the very least the angels rolling the stone away and announcing it. Presumably, Luke and John omitted them because they saw it for what it was—an obvious polemic mechanism.

Matthew’s guards aren’t just evidence that Matthew made up an element of the story . . . Rather, this is evidence of a far larger narrative creation throughout the Gospels. It shows that Mark made up the whole Empty Tomb narrative.

Since it is a subjective fairy tale with exactly zero historical evidence or any concrete reason for anyone to believe it, other than the fact that it corresponds to existing hostility to the Bible and Christianity, there is absolutely no point or compulsive necessity in engaging it. It’s literally meaningless and epistemologically bankrupt. And this is, sadly, the nature of the vast majority of atheist skeptical “arguments” regarding Holy Scripture. I know, because I’ve refuted them scores and scores of times.

That said, one can choose to make a counter-argument for why Matthew’s sole use of the assertion should not cast aspersions upon his motivations and truthfulness. At least that’s no longer an argument from silence. It’s a defense of a person Christians believe to be falsely accused: or at least (a more agnostic position) unjustly accused due to utter lack of evidence. Dr. McGrew brilliantly makes such an argument in his article above, if someone wants to pursue that. I have no such interest myself, but I’m glad that there are sharp folks out there, like Dr. McGrew — blessed with infinite patience — doing it.

Atheists and other biblical skeptics who argue in this fashion are literally conspiratorialists. And that is clearly not a respectable or sufficiently thoughtful thing to be. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

3) Since such a big deal is made out of Matthew alone mentioning this detail, it is relevant to note that there are no less than 135 instances where one Synoptic Gospel includes something not present in the others (Luke:68, Matthew:41, Mark:26). I found this in a very helpful summary by Julian Spriggs. In other words, it’s no big deal.

Some of the more notable (of many) single appearances are the visit of the wise men (Mt 2:1-12), Peter walking on the sea (Mt 14:28-31), Judas’ suicide (Mt 27:3-10), command to baptize and the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20), the Sabbath being made for man, and not vice versa (Mk 2:27), Jesus objecting disciples sending children away (Mk 10:14), The Annunciation of Mary (Lk 1:26-38), Angels appearing to shepherds at Jesus’ birth (Lk 2:8-20), the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Lk 7:11-17), the story (not parable!) of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), and Jesus’ Ascension (Lk 24:50-53).

What does a person afflicted with a conspiratorial bent do with all this information? Well, it’s simply fodder for all manner of additional conspiracies, of course! Now the nefarious net grows even wider. Every unique instance is “proof” of yet another wicked, evil conspiracy to promulgate lies, etc. This is how that stunted mentality works. Atheist anti-theists (the ones who relentlessly tear down the Bible) do this all the time; being conspiratorialists almost by nature.

But (back to actual rational thought, which attempts objectivity), I think an instructive analogy to this business of pitting one Evangelist against another is the question of dual biographical accounts of Socrates (c. 470-399 BC), the great philosopher, by Plato (bet. 428-423 to 348 or 347 BC) and Xenophon (c. 430-c. 354 BC). It’s been a longstanding dispute.

Some folks accept both as of equal validity, others choose one or the other, for various reasons. But why must they be pitted against each other? Why can’t it be “different strokes for different folks”? Xenophon was an historian, Plato a philosopher (so philosophers usually favor him). This accounts for some differences and variant emphases.

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review in June 2019 did a bit of a comparative study of the two biographers. Vincent Renzi, Clinical Professor in the Foundations of Contemporary Culture and of Classics at New York University, did the review:

Of rather more value here, I believe, will be to give some overview of several related issues that run through the papers: . . . [including] methodological concerns that arise in the comparative approach especially to reading Plato and Xenophon against one another. . . .

In his introduction to the first of those volumes, Dorion argued at length for the need finally to recognize the “Socratic problem” as a false issue . . . In the variety and quality of the contributions, the present volume amply demonstrates the value of once again taking Xenophon seriously as a philosophical thinker without need of apology, as well as the merits of a comparative approach to the study of the Socratic literature. Likewise, I believe Dorion has been vindicated in his judgment that the “Socratic problem” is a false one, . . .

Two authors wrote about one man. They differ in details and emphases (just as the Gospel writers do). It’s not a matter of contradiction (as I have proven countless times). To me it’s a big “so what?!” and a ho hum; a yawner; “what else is new!” But to those who wish to tear down the reliability and integrity of the Gospel writers as part of a larger attempt to discredit Christianity itself, and God, it’s a big deal: a trumped-up “big deal.” Theirs is the agenda (if there must be one at all); and they appear to project their desire to create fictitious tales and conspiracies as the primary / propagandistic motivation of the Gospel writers. It’s quite the pathetic and absurd spectacle to observe.

4) Another possible counter-argument would be to establish that the ancient Romans guarded tombs in other instances. This would make it more plausible that Matthew’s account is correct. It would be some sort of hard evidence that has a relation to the topic at hand (rather than mere arbitrary and self-serving atheist tale-weaving). And in the case of a perceived Messiah (real or false) or one thought to be an imposter “king” one can see the pragmatic reasoning of such an approach among the Romans: who liked nothing more than to nip in the bud any disorder or upsetting of the apple cart.

I did some searching and could find nothing about such guarding, but there may very well be evidence along these lines out there somewhere. I did find that the Romans had a death penalty for grave-robbing (recorded by Cicero; see also the Nazareth Inscription), thus showing that they had a significant concern over such occurrences, which is arguably consistent with Matthew’s story. The ancient Egyptians also posted guards at tombs (they still do today):

Paweraa (alt. Pewero) was the Mayor of Western Thebes during a series of tomb robberies that occurred in the Valley of the Kings during the late New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. In official transcripts of a Tomb Robbery report from Year 16 of Ramesses IX [c. 1113 BC], Paweraa was accused by Paser, the Mayor of Eastern Thebes, of either being involved in the series of Tomb robberies or being negligent in his duties in protecting the royal tombs from incursions by marauding Libyan bands or conventional Egyptian tomb robbers. (Wikipedia)


With all due respect, and I am not being rhetorical here, but that is a really bad article.

I guess I’m refuted then! Simply pronounce it as “bad” and be done with it . . . Nice and easy. I think very little of yours, too, and have said it is conspiratorial nonsense and fairy tales. But at least I gave a thought-out reply; worked many hours on it yesterday. Agree or not, it has content, and it does address your argument. You dismiss mine with one line and no counter-argument.

Those are pretty preposterous claims. Your piece is devoid of any substance. I’m writing a follow up piece.

Good! An actual reply! Good for you . . .

And I hope you are feeling better from COVID. We disagree on everything, but it’s not personal at all.


Further comments of mine in the combox:

He has no evidence whatsoever for such a hypothesis. It’s a mere conspiracy theory with no concrete, verifiable, falsifiable basis whatever, a la “the Passover Plot” or the ridiculous Swoon Theory. This is the “Gospel writers are deliberate liars and deceivers with a nefarious purpose” conspiracy theory.

All of it is sheer speculation, with no support for it at all in terms of actual historical evidence. When will you atheists ever tire of indulging your fairy tale imaginations?

At least with all the pseudo-alleged Bible “contradictions” you are within the realm of the text: something concrete to grapple with. It’s something both sides can intelligently discuss. But here you are far beyond that: inventing motivations and plots and designs that are strictly products of your own imaginings.

It’s a non-issue. So only Matthew mentioned it. So what? It’s irrelevant. It only is “relevant” and of supreme, earth-shaking importance when atheists want to build huge ridiculous conspiracy theories around simple facts like this.

Moreover, we regard the New Testament as a trustworthy document because it has been proven zillions of times by archaeology to be historically accurate in details. So we can trust it in places that don’t have express historical evidences in its favor.

It’s the same manner in which we trust the demonstrably credible, reliable witness in a court trial. There’s lots of other ancient literature that has supernatural or very odd elements that isn’t dismissed just because of that. Thus, this “standard” isn’t applied by atheists across the board.

We need to have a fair approach to ancient authors. We give them the benefit of the doubt that they are sincere and of good will, unless we have compelling evidence otherwise. And of course Jonathan has offered no compelling reason or evidence for his regarding Matthew as a deliberate deceiver and a liar. For example, Herodotus. Wikipedia states about him:

Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BC) was an ancient Greek writer, geographer, and historian . . . known for having written the Histories – a detailed account of the Greco-Persian Wars. Herodotus was the first writer to do systematic investigation of historical events. He is referred to as “The Father of History”, a title conferred on him by the ancient Roman orator Cicero.

The Histories primarily covers the lives of prominent kings and famous battles such as Marathon, Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale. His work deviates from the main topics to provide cultural, ethnographical, geographical, and historiographical background that forms an essential part of the narrative and provides readers with a wellspring of additional information.

Herodotus has been criticized for his inclusion of “legends and fanciful accounts” in his work. Fellow historian Thucydides accused him of making up stories for entertainment. However, Herodotus explained that he reported what he “saw and [what was] told to him.” A sizable portion of the Histories has since been confirmed by modern historians and archaeologists.

So, for example, we have an article in The Guardian: “Nile shipwreck discovery proves Herodotus right” (3-17-19).

Now, is his entire body of work discounted, and is he regarded as a wanton liar because he has some supernatural elements? No. What has been confirmed by archaeology and subsequent historiography is accepted, while atheists who don’t believe in the supernatural simply discount those sections.

But you guys treat Matthew quite differently: with irrational disdain and a relentless double standard.

Speculation of the sort Jonathan has been indulging is not evidence. This is my whole point. This mere speculation, filled with existing profoundly hostile bias, simply isn’t evidence. I won’t charge y’all with intellectual dishonesty (I don’t play that game, that I’m constantly accused of by run-of-the-mill “angry” atheists), but I will say that such an approach is the height of what might be called “epistemological naivete.”

Luke is not anonymous. He was a real person, and a physician, alluded to as Paul’s companion and fellow worker three times (Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Phlm 1:24). He lays out his motivations (they aren’t lying and deception) quite openly:

Luke 1:1-4 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, [2] just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, [3] it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph’ilus, [4] that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.

I might add that Luke’s trustworthiness as an accurate reporter of all kinds of things in the book of Acts has been rather dramatically verified by archaeology, again and again. So if he can be trusted there, he also can be in his Gospel. This is the criterion for any other ancient historian: are the things they report independently verified or substantiated?

There are good arguments for the disciples Matthew and John being the author of the Gospels that bear their names. Mark (aka John Mark) is also a real person, mentioned several times in Acts and the epistles. He is thought (early reliable tradition) to have drawn his Gospel from Peter. 


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Photo credit: The resurrected Christ appears before terrified soldiers. Etching by B Bartoccini after F. Overbeck, 1848 [public domain / Look and Learn History Picture Archive]


Summary: I provide several reasons for why Matthew’s being the only one to mention tomb guards, does not prove some massive nefarious, deceitful conspiracy on his part.

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