Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 16: The Roman Guards are Probably Fictional

Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 16: The Roman Guards are Probably Fictional November 6, 2019

OBJECTION #6: THE GUARDS AT THE TOMB 

In Chapter 8 of his Handbook of Christian Apologetics (hereafter: HCA), Peter Kreeft has raised nine objections against The Swoon Theory, as part of his case attempting to prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  In previous posts I have argued that his Objection #1, Objection #2, Objection #3, Objection #4, Objection #5, and Objection #8 all FAIL as objections against The Swoon Theory, and also FAIL as objections against the more general view that I call The Survival Theory.

We are currently in the process of analyzing and evaluating Kreeft’s Objection #6, to determine whether this objection is sufficient to refute The Swoon Theory and The Survival Theory.  Objection #6 focuses on the presence of guards at the tomb of Jesus:

How were the Roman guards at the tomb overpowered by a swooning corpse?  Or by unarmed disciples?  And if the disciples did it, they knowingly lied when they wrote the Gospels, and we are into the conspiracy theory, which we will refute shortly.  (HCA, p.183)

The three sentences in this objection can be broken down into four main points:

P1. The Roman guards at the tomb could not have been overpowered by Jesus (by himself).

P2.  The Roman guards at the tomb could not have been overpowered by the disciples of Jesus. 

P3. If the disciples of Jesus removed Jesus from the tomb, they knowingly lied when they wrote the Gospels.

P4. If the disciples of Jesus removed Jesus from the tomb, that implies the conspiracy theory, which Kreeft refutes.

In Part 15 of this series, I pointed out that Point 1 and Point 2 imply a key premise of an argument against The Swoon Theory (and against The Survival Theory):

1. It is NOT the case that either (a) Jesus overpowered the Roman guards at his tomb by himself or (b) the Roman guards at Jesus’ tomb were overpowered by the disciples of Jesus.

A. IF the Swoon Theory is true, THEN either (a) Jesus overpowered the Roman guards at his tomb by himself or (b) the Roman guards at Jesus’ tomb were overpowered by the disciples of Jesus.

THEREFORE:

2. It is NOT the case that the Swoon Theory is true.

I previously raised the objection that premise (A) of this argument consists of a FALSE DILEMMA .  There are MANY WAYS that Jesus could have left the tomb without being detained or killed by the Roman guards besides the two ways that Kreeft mentions in premise (A).  Because premise (A) is FALSE,  this argument against The Swoon Theory (and The Survival Theory) is UNSOUND and thus FAILS to refute The Swoon Theory and FAILS to refute The Survival Theory.

 

KREEFT’S  FAILURE TO PROVIDE HISTORICAL EVIDENCE

Peter Kreeft continually makes historical claims and historical assumptions without making ANY EFFORT WHATSOEVER to provide historical EVIDENCE for those claims and assumptions.  This is intellectual malpractice for a professional Christian apologist, and this is the main reason why  Chapter 8 of HCA is a steaming pile of dog crap, and why Kreeft FAILS to prove anything of significance about Jesus.

Objection #6 is no exception to this rule.  Kreeft assumes the following historical claim, without making any effort to provide historical evidence to prove this key claim:

RG: Roman guards were posted outside of the tomb of Jesus to prevent the tomb from being opened and to prevent Jesus’ body from leaving the tomb or from being removed from the tomb.

If this historical claim was FALSE, then premise (A) would clearly also be FALSE, and the above argument based on Point 1 and Point 2 of Objection #6  would be UNSOUND, and would FAIL to disprove or refute the Swoon Theory, and FAIL to disprove or refute the Survival Theory.   Because Kreeft, as usual, makes no effort whatsoever to prove the key historical claim (RG), premise (A) of his argument remains questionable and dubious.

 

PASSAGES IN MATTHEW ABOUT THE GUARDS AT THE TOMB ARE PROBABLY FICTIONAL

There are two main passages in the Gospel of Matthew that relate to there being guards present at the tomb of Jesus (Matt. 26:62-66 and Matt. 27:62-66).  But these passages are probably fictional; there were probably no guards placed at the tomb of Jesus.  It is important to note that none of the other three canonical gospels mention anything about guards being requested for the tomb of Jesus or about guards being present at the tomb of Jesus.

The scholars of the Jesus Seminar have examined the stories about Jesus in the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), plus a few other non-canonical gospels, and have divided those stories into particular events, and they identified a total of 176 alleged events in those various writings about Jesus.  They have carefully reviewed and discussed each one of those 176 alleged events and the various passages in those various gospels that relate those events, and they arrived at an evaluation of each one of those 176 alleged events in terms of the probability that a particular event was an actual historical event.

The events that were determined to be very probable were marked as RED; the events determined to be somewhat probable but not very probable were marked as PINK; the events that were determined to be somewhat improbable but not very improbable were marked as GRAY; the events that were determined to be very improbable were marked as BLACK.

Here are the two relevant events related to the guards at the tomb:

Event #100: The Guard at the Tomb (Matthew 27:62-66)

Event #154: The Bribing of the Guards (Matthew 28:11-15)

Both passages of Matthew were marked as BLACK by the Jesus Seminar (The Acts of Jesus, p.562 and 563), meaning that it is very probable that the events in these two passages are fictional rather than historical.

Here is what the Jesus Seminar says about Matthew 27:62-66:

The guard at the tomb. Matthew reflects the view that in some quarters the empty tomb story backfired as an attempt to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.  Unbelievers countered the story of the empty tomb with the charge that the body had simply been removed from the tomb by the disciples.  Matthew creates a story to counteract that charge and to buttress the account of the empty tomb. The posting of the guard is reported only by Matthew among the canonical gospels, but it is elaborated in the Gospel of Peter (8:1-11:7).  (The version in Peter may well be based on the information found in Matthew.)  The exchange between Jews and Jewish Christians involved the charge of deception on both sides…

The implausibilities of the scenes about the guards at the tomb are so notable that even Raymond E. Brown acknowledges the complete lack of either internal or external evidence that would affirm their historicity.  Brown concedes that they belong in the same category with the massacre of the children in the birth narrative and the flight to Egypt.  Since he seems to regard none of these events as historical, we may conclude that he would have cast a black vote had he been a member of the Jesus Seminar.

(The Acts of Jesus, p.265-266)

Someone might object that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar are very skeptical about the Gospels, and so their conclusions are heavily biased towards finding particular events in the Gospels to be fictional rather than historical.   

While it might well be the case that the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are more skeptical than the conclusions of the typical N.T. scholar or of the typical Jesus scholar, my experience is that the degree of skepticism of the Jesus Seminar about particular events in the Gospels in NOT significantly greater then the skepticism of leading N.T. or Jesus scholars (such as the great Catholic NT scholar Raymond Brown).   In other words, the degree of skepticism of the Jesus Seminar is exaggerated by critics of the Jesus Seminar.  The skeptical conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are very often in line with the conclusions of leading NT scholars and leading Jesus scholars.

As concerns this particular issue about whether there were actually guards placed at the tomb of Jesus, the Christian Apologist William Lane Craig, who himself defends the view that the presence of the guards at the tomb was historical, admits that his view of this issue is out of sink with most critical NT scholars:

Matthew’s account has been nearly universally rejected as an apologetic legend by the critics. 

( “The Guard at the Tomb”)

It is the view that the story of the guards at the tomb is probably historical that is the minority view, not the view of the Jesus Seminar that the story of the guards at the tomb is probably fictional.

 

WILLIAM CRAIG ARGUES FOR THE HISTORICAL CLAIM (RG)

Although Peter Kreeft makes NO EFFORT WHATSOEVER to prove his key historical assumption (RG),  another Christian apologist named William Craig has made a significant effort to defend the historicity of the presence of the guards at the tomb of Jesus.   You can read an article by Craig defending (RG) on Craig’s website; the article is called:  “The Guard at the Tomb”  .

Craig’s article, however, fails to discuss three crucial questions:

The front side of Papyrus 37, a New Testament manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew.

 

Q1. How well does Matthew’s account of the guards at the tomb fit with related stories in the other Gospels?

Q2. To what degree, if any, does the Gospel of Matthew provide an historically reliable account of the life of Jesus?

Q3. To what degree, if any, are the accounts of the events that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew historically reliable

Because Craig fails to discuss these three very important questions, his positive conclusion about the historical claim (RG) is dubious, because it is based on only a modest slice of the relevant evidence.

It should also be noted that Craig does NOT claim that (RG) is clearly true, nor that the evidence makes (RG) very probable, only that there is significant evidence both for and against the truth of (RG):

So although there are reasons to doubt the existence of the guard at the tomb, there are also weighty considerations in its favor. It seems best to leave it an open question.

Craig’s defense of (RG) which is based on only a modest slice of the relevant evidence still leaves us with the truth of (RG) being UNCERTAIN, and at best as only somewhat probable.  That is NOT a sufficient basis for “refuting” the Swoon Theory and the Survival Theory.

 

THE STORY OF THE GUARDS AT THE TOMB DOESN’T FIT WELL WITH OTHER GOSPELS

One crucial question that Craig fails to discuss is this:

Q1. How well does Matthew’s account of the guards at the tomb fit with related stories in the other Gospels?

The first passage of Matthew about the guards at the tomb that is evaluated by the Jesus Seminar is labeled event # 100 (Matthew 27:62-66).  In that passage there is a request made for guards to be placed at the tomb of Jesus, to prevent anyone from stealing the body of Jesus (and later claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead).  The second passage of Matthew about the guards at the tomb that is evaluated by the Jesus Seminar is labelled event # 154 (Matthew 28:11-15).  In that passage the guards are persuaded to explain their failure to keep Jesus’ body in the tomb by saying the disciples of Jesus stole his body from the tomb when the guards had fallen asleep.

However, there is also a brief but crucial mention of the guards at the beginning of Chapter 28 of Matthew:

1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 
2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 
3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 
4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 
5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 
6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 
7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 

(Matthew 28:1-7, New Revised Standard Version)

No other canonical Gospel mentions anything about guards being requested to watch the tomb of Jesus, nor does any other canonical Gospel mention anything about guards being present at the tomb of Jesus.

How well does the above account in Matthew fit with the related account in the earlier Gospel of Mark?  Here is the parallel passage from Mark:

1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.
7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

(Mark 16:1-7, New Revised Standard Version)

Both accounts agree that Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary went to the tomb around sunrise on the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday). Both accounts agree that the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb had been rolled back.  One obvious difference is that there is no mention of guards being present at the tomb of Jesus in Mark’s account.

Matthew’s account suggests that there was “a great earthquake” at about sunrise, when an angel descended from heaven and rolled back the stone from the entrance of the tomb.  The combination of “the great earthquake” and the sight of the angel with an appearance “like lightning” descending from heaven frightened the guards so much that they “became like dead men”.  If this actually happened as described in the Gospel of Matthew, then we would expect that the women would have SEEN the guards there at the tomb of Jesus, and that since these empty tomb stories, if they are actually historical, were originally told to others by the women who came to the tomb that first Easter Sunday at sunrise, the women would have mentioned the terrified guards in their stories about this event.

The fact that there is no mention of guards being present at the tomb of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is evidence that there were no guards at the tomb when the women arrived at the tomb.  But given the description in the Gospel of Matthew that “the great earthquake” and the descent of the angel and the rolling back of the stone all took place at about sunrise,  and since the guards “became like dead men” (which implies that they froze in place or fell to the ground and lay still on the ground), it seems likely that the women would have seen the terrified guards when they arrived on the scene at sunrise.

It is, of course, possible that the guards froze in place or fell to the ground at sunrise and lay still on the ground for five or ten minutes and then ran away, and that the women arrived at the tomb fifteen minutes after sunrise and never laid eyes on the guards.  But then in that case there would have been no followers of Jesus who observed the guards at the tomb and what they did, so it is unlikely that this story of the guards is grounded in the memories and stories of the first followers of Jesus.

Furthermore, if there had been a “great earthquake” at sunrise, and if an angel with an appearance “like lightening” had descended from the sky at sunrise, then we would expect the women who visited the tomb on the first Easter Sunday to have REMEMBERED those striking events and included them in their stories about finding the tomb of Jesus empty.  But there is no mention of a “great earthquake” at sunrise on Easter Sunday in the Gospel of Mark, which implies that this was NOT a part of the original stories told by the women who visited the tomb at sunrise on the first Easter Sunday (if there actually was such a visit by Mary Magdalene and another Mary on the first Easter Sunday).

There is no mention of an angel descending from heaven with an appearance “like lightening”.  And the women do not freeze in place or fall to the ground in terror at the sight of such an angel. But in that case, the author of Matthew appears to have added fictional details to Mark’s account of the women visiting the empty tomb on the first Easter.  Indeed, this is what many NT scholars believe to be the case.

So, if “the great earthquake” and the descent of the angel from heaven with an appearance “like lightening” are fictional details added by the author of Matthew to Mark’s account, then this gives us good reason to doubt other details added to Mark’s account by the author of Matthew, namely, the presence and reaction of guards at the tomb of Jesus.  Because Matthew’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb by women at sunrise on the first Easter does NOT FIT WELL with the account of this event found in the earlier Gospel of Mark (which was a primary source used by the author of Matthew), we have good reason to doubt the historicity of the presence and reactions of guards at the tomb of Jesus as alleged in the Gospel of Matthew.

Furthermore, there is no mention of “the great earthquake” on the first Easter Sunday morning in either the Gospel of Luke or the Gospel of John.  There is also no mention in Luke or in John of guards being present at the tomb of Jesus.  This is further evidence that the original stories of the women who visited the tomb did NOT mention “the great earthquake” or the presence of terrified Roman guards at the tomb.  This is further evidence that the author of Matthew added fictional details to earlier accounts of the women visiting the tomb, such as the account found in the Gospel of Mark.  This is further evidence that casts doubt on the historical claim (RG).

 

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW IS HISTORICALLY UNRELIABLE

If, however, we knew the Gospel of Matthew to be a highly reliable account of the life and ministry of Jesus, then we might reasonably overlook the apparent discrepancies between the accounts of Jesus’ entombment in Matthew vs. Mark.  Alternatively, if we knew the Gospel of Matthew to be a very unreliable account of the life and ministry of Jesus, then the discrepancies between Matthew and Mark related to the presence of guards at Jesus’ tomb would be sufficient reason to conclude that the historical claim (RG) is probably false.

So, a great deal depends on how one answers this question:

Q2. To what degree, if any, does the Gospel of Matthew provide an historically reliable account of the life of Jesus?

This is, of course, a difficult question to answer properly.  One would need to carefully study all of the alleged events in the Gospel of Matthew, and consider what various NT and Jesus scholars have said about the historicity of each of those alleged events, and attempt to arrive at informed and well-considered evaluations of each event (i.e. Is it “very probable” or “somewhat probable” or “somewhat improbable” or “very improbable”). 

This could easily take a year or two of serious and dedicated intellectual investigation.  So, it is understandable that William Craig does not attempt to address this crucial issue in his article about historicity of the presence of guards at the tomb of Jesus.  The question is a very LARGE question that requires a great deal of intellectual effort to address properly.

I too do not intend on engaging in a two-year-in-depth study of the Gospel of Matthew in order to provide a well-informed and well-considered answer to this question about the degree to which the Gospel of Matthew is historically reliable.  However, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have already performed this very demanding task, so it is worth considering what their conclusions were about all of the various alleged events described in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Jesus Seminar distinguishes 102 events/passages in the Gospel of Matthew.  Two of those passages are specifically about the guards at the tomb, so we should set those two passages aside and focus on the evaluations of the other 100 events/passages. 

Of those 100 events/passages, the Jesus Seminar scholars marked 15 as either RED or PINK, indicating that those passages were probably historical, the other 85 events/passages were marked as either GRAY or BLACK, indicating that those passages were probably fictional.  So, 85% of the events/passages in Matthew (setting aside the 2 passages specifically about the guards at the tomb), were evaluated as probably fictional or probably NOT historical.  In other words, if you pick any of the 102 events in Matthew at random, it is very probable that the event is one that the scholars of the Jesus Seminar have concluded is probably NOT historical, but is, rather, probably fictional.

The evaluations of historicity of the events in the Gospel of Matthew by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar provide significant evidence that the Gospel of Matthew does NOT provide an historically reliable account of the life of Jesus, but rather provides a very UNRELIABLE account of the life of Jesus. 

So, in view of the fact that we already have good reasons to suspect that the particular stories in Matthew about Roman guards being present at the tomb of Jesus are fictional details added by the author of Matthew to the earlier account in Mark of the women visiting the tomb on the first Easter Sunday, and in view of the fact that we now have good reason to view the Gospel of Matthew as a generally UNRELIABLE source, it is probable that (RG) is FALSE, and thus we have a second good reason to conclude that premise (A) is FALSE (in addition to the fact that this premise asserts a FALSE DILEMMA ), and that the above argument by Kreeft against the Swoon Theory (and against the Survival Theory) is UNSOUND.

To Be Continued… 

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