Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 17: Events Unique to Matthew

Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 17: Events Unique to Matthew December 29, 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)

This objection rests on an historical assumption:

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 claim was FALSE or DUBIOUS, then Objection #6  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), Kreeft, as usual, FAILS to disprove the Swoon Theory and FAILS to disprove the Survival Theory.

However, another Christian apologist named William Craig, has (unlike Kreeft) made a serious attempt to present evidence and arguments in support of (RG).  But Craig does NOT claim that (RG) is clearly true, nor that the evidence makes (RG) very probable.  Craig only claims 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) leaves us with the truth of (RG) being UNCERTAIN, at best as being only somewhat probable.  That is NOT a sufficient basis for “refuting” the Swoon Theory and the Survival Theory.

Furthermore, Craig’s case for (RG) is flawed because he does not give serious consideration to three crucial questions:

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 does not give serious consideration to these three very important questions, his case for (RG) is weak and flawed.

In Part 16 of this series, I argued that, concerning Question 1,  Matthew’s account of the guards at the tomb does NOT fit well with the other Gospels, and that there is good reason to suspect that the presence of the guards at Jesus’ tomb was a fictional detail that the author of Matthew added to the account of the women visiting the tomb found in the earlier Gospel of Mark.

I also argued that, concerning Question 2, based on the scholarly evaluations of the Jesus Seminar about 100 alleged events in the Gospel of Matthew, we have good reason to believe this gospel is historically UNRELIABLE.  Because we have good reason to suspect that the presence of the guards at Jesus’ tomb was a fictional detail added by the author of Matthew, having a good reason to believe that the Gospel of Matthew is in general historically UNRELIABLE leads to the conclusion that the historical assumption (RG) is probably FALSE, and thus to the conclusion that Kreeft’s Objection #6 FAILS, just like all the other objections we have examined by Kreeft against the Swoon Theory and the Survival Theory.

 

MATTHEW IS VERY UNRELIABLE CONCERNING EVENTS UNIQUE TO THAT GOSPEL

The most damning evidence against (RG) comes from consideration of Question 3:

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

Most NT scholars agree that the author of Matthew used three main sources:

  • The Gospel of Mark
  • The Sayings Gospel Q
  • M (traditions unique to a specific community of Christians to which the author of Matthew belonged)

Most of the events in the Gospel of Matthew are based on the Gospel of Mark.  So, if someone disagrees with the skepticism of the Jesus Seminar about the unreliability of the Gospel of Mark, and holds the view that Mark provides an historically RELIABLE account of the life of Jesus, then that view of Mark implies that many of the passages and events in Matthew are also historically RELIABLE, because much of Matthew is based on Mark.

However, the specific events in Matthew about the presence of Roman guards at the tomb of Jesus are clearly NOT based on Mark, because there is no mention of such guards in Mark.  These specific events also do NOT appear to be based on the Sayings Gospel Q.  That leaves us with two likely sources:  either M or the imagination of the author of Matthew.

This places the events in Matthew about the presence of Roman guards at the tomb of Jesus  into a special category of events in that Gospel:  events that are NOT based on Mark or Q, events that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew.  There is a handful of such events in the Gospel of Matthew, but most (or all) of these events are historically dubious.

Here are the events in the Gospel of Matthew that are NOT based on Mark or Q, color-coded in accordance with the evaluation of the Jesus Seminar:

  • Birth of Jesus – Matthew 1:18-25
  • Astrologers from the East – Matthew 2:1-12
  • Flight to Egypt – Matthew 2:13-15
  • Murder of the Babies –  Matthew 2:16-18
  • Migration to Nazareth – Matthew 2:19-23
  • Two Blind Men – Matthew 9:27-31
  • Man with Mute Demon – Matthew 9:32-34
  • Private Interpretation – Matthew 13:36-43
  • End of the Parables Discourse – Matthew 13:51-53
  • Temple Tax – Matthew 17:24-27
  • Castration for Heaven – Matthew 19:10-12
  • Two Sons – Matthew 21:28-32
  • The Death of Judas – Matthew 27:3-10
  • The Guard at the Tomb – Matthew 27: 62-66
  • Appearance to Mary of Magdala – Matthew 28:9-10*
  • The Bribing of the Guards – Matthew 28:11-15
  • Appearance to the Eleven in Galilee – Matthew 28:16-20

(The Acts of Jesus, p.558-564)

*The gospel of John also has a story about the “risen” Jesus appearing to Mary of Magdala (John 20:11-18).  But the gospel of John was composed after Matthew, so the gospel of John was NOT a source used by the author of Matthew.

All but one of these events is marked as BLACK by the Jesus Seminar.  The one exception is marked GRAYThere is not a single passage in this category that was marked PINK or RED.  So, of these 17 events/passages that are UNIQUE to Matthew, 100% of them were judged by the Jesus Seminar to be probably NOT historical, probably fictional.  The UNIQUE events in Matthew, the events that do not appear to be based on Mark or Q, are judged to be EXTREMELY UNRELIABLE by the Jesus Seminar, more unreliable than the rest of Matthew.

It is not just the judgment of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar that many of the events in this category are probably fictional; this is a widely-held view among NT scholars.  Most NT scholars doubt the historicity of the birth and childhood stories about Jesus found in Matthew; that is the first five events in the above list of seventeen events.  Most NT scholars doubt the historicity of the death of Judas story in Matthew, and the stories about the guards at the tomb in Matthew.  If we set aside the two events/passages about guards at the tomb, that means that NT scholars in general have serious doubts about at least six out of the remaining fifteen events, or 40% of the fifteen events.

The first appearances of the “risen” Jesus probably did occur in Galilee, according to many NT scholars, so the accounts in Luke and John of the first appearances of the “risen” Jesus occurring in Jerusalem are probably fictional.  This gives the end of Matthew an historical advantage over the end of Luke and of John.  However, even if Matthew is correct in placing the first appearances of the “risen” Jesus in Galilee, this does not mean that the specific story in Matthew about Jesus appearing to his eleven remaining disciples is factual and historical.  

Do leading NT and Jesus scholars, in addition to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, seriously doubt the historicity of the following two events/passages in Matthew?

  • Appearance to Mary of Magdala – Matthew 28:9-10*
  • Appearance to the Eleven in Galilee – Matthew 28:16-20

If leading scholars have serious doubts about the historicity of these two events, then we have good reason to believe that at least eight out of the fifteen events UNIQUE to Matthew (setting aside the two guards-at-the-tomb events) are probably NOT historical, which is 53% of those events, which means that OVER HALF of these events UNIQUE to Matthew are probably fictional.

 

EUGENE BORING DOUBTS THE HISTORICITY OF MATTHEW’S UNIQUE STORIES IN CHAPTER 28

In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, there is a scholarly commentary on the Gospel of Matthew by the NT scholar Eugene Boring.  In his “Overview” of Chapter 28 of Matthew, Boring indicates that the first of the four stories in this chapter is based soley on Mark (in terms of sources), and that the other three stories, including “Two Marys Encounter the Risen Jesus” (Matt. 28:8-10), “The Guards are Bribed” (Matt. 28:16-20), and “The Great Commission” (Matt. 28:16-20) are “Matthew’s own composition”.  This conclusion is based in part on the “Matthean style, vocabulary, and theology”  in those three stories.

Boring clearly doubts the historicity of “The Guards are Bribed” (Matt. 28:16-20) story:

The fact that the Roman soldiers would report to the chief priests is one of the indications that the story is not literal history, but part of Matthew’s theological understanding of the resurrection.  (p.501, emphasis added)

Boring clearly doubts the historicity of of “The Great Commission” (Matt. 28:16-20) story as well:

Acts 1-15 narrates the gradual process in which the community of Jesus’ disciples after Easter came to realize…that the risen Lord wills that the church be a universal, inclusive community of all nations.  This process is here concentrated into one scene, composed by Matthew on the basis of traditions alive in his church.  The scene represents Matthew’s theological interpretation of the mission of the church in obedience to the command of the risen Christ.  There are traditional elements reflecting the Christian prophetic activity in Matthew’s community, but the composition is Matthew’s.  If the scene were merely a report of a scene in which Jesus had literally commanded all the disciples to carry on a Gentile mission, it would be difficult to understand their struggles in Acts 1-15. (p.503, emphasis added)

Boring is less straightforward in expressing his doubts about the historicity of the “Two Marys Encounter the Risen Jesus” story (Matt. 28:8-10), but he does repeat his earlier point that “This scene was composed by Matthew (see Overview).”, which appears to imply that there is reason to doubt the historical reliability of this story (presumably because there is no eyewitness testimony or early written source that is the basis for the story).  Boring goes on to make comments that also suggest that this story was created by Matthew, rather than being based on eyewitness testimony or an earlier written source:

They [the two Mary’s] are already en route on their mission when they are joined by the risen Christ, a paradigm of Matthew’s understanding of the reassuring presence of the risen Christ in the missionary activity of the church… The scene is almost a doublet of the encounter with the angel: Jesus too tells them not to fear–a standard element of angelophanies and theophanies–and he repeats the angel’s commission to carry a message to the disciples. (p.500, emphasis added)

The story too neatly fits with Matthew’s theological points, and it is so easily generated on the basis of previous passages/stories in his Gospel.  So, it appears that Boring also doubts the historicity of the “Two Marys Encounter the Risen Jesus” story,  just like he doubts the historicity of the other two stories that Matthew adds onto what he found at the end of the Gospel of Mark.

So, Boring doubts the historicity of all three stories in Chapter 28 that Matthew adds onto the “Two Marys Discover the Empty Tomb” story (Matt. 28:1-7), which Matthew had learned from the Gospel of Mark.  Clearly, in relation to Chapter 28 of the Gospel of Matthew, Boring concludes that the stories added by Matthew are probably UNHISTORICAL creations of the author of that gospel.  Boring is NOT a member of the Jesus Seminar, but he agrees with the negative assessment by the Jesus Seminar of the historicity of the stories that are UNIQUE to Matthew, at least in relation to the UNIQUE stories found in the final chapter of Matthew.

 

SOME EVANGELICAL NT SCHOLARS DOUBT THE HISTORICAL RELIABILITY OF THE GREAT COMMISSION PASSAGE

Evangelical Christians tend to believe that there are NO ERRORS in the Bible, and thus that every word attributed to Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is historically correct and accurate.  But some Evangelical NT scholars doubt that the words attributed to Jesus in “The Great Commission” story (Mattew 28:16-20) are historically correct and accurate.  After quoting a number of comments by Evangelical NT scholars about “The Great Commission” story, Robert Thomas draws this conclusion:

From the above citations, it is evident that certain evangelical scholars have sided with radical historical critics in raising questions about whether Jesus ever gave the Great Commission. In trying to find a middle point between the orthodox position of the early church and recent radical opinions, they have compromised the basic historical accuracy of this Commission.

( “HISTORICAL CRITICISM AND THE GREAT COMMISSION“, TMSJ, Spring 2000, p.52, emphasis added)

Evangelical NT scholars quoted by Robert Thomas to support this point include: Robert Gundry, Donald Hagner, Francis Beare, Craig Blomberg, and D. A. Carson.  These Evangelical NT scholars are clearly NOT members of the Jesus Seminar.  Clearly, doubts about the historical reliability of “The Great Commission” passage in Chapter 28 of Matthew are NOT limited to the liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar.

 

THEISSEN AND MERZ DOUBT THE HISTORICAL RELIABILITY OF MATTHEW 28:8-10

Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz are two NT scholars who doubt the historical reliability of the “Two Marys Encounter the Risen Jesus” story (Matt. 28:8-10).  They believe that there was an early tradition about the first appearance of Jesus occurring to just Mary Magdalene by herself, and that the author of Matthew modified this early story to make it fit better with another story about the discovery of the empty tomb:

The recollection of an appearance to Mary Magdalene is older than the Matthean redactional combination of the tomb story (several women) with the christophany (originally, to one woman, Mary Magdalene). 

(The Historical Jesus, p.498)

Theissen and Merz are NOT members of the Jesus Seminar, but they are prominent NT scholars who doubt the historical accuracy of Matthew’s story about “Two Marys” encountering the risen Jesus.  They think it is probably the case that the author of the Gospel of Matthew based this story on an earlier tradition that spoke of the risen Jesus appearing to just Mary Magdalene by herself.  They think that the author of Matthew changed the story to be about an appearance to two Marys, and that this change was NOT made on the basis of historical information or facts, and thus that this key detail of this brief story is probably FALSE and UNHISTORICAL.  Therefore, it is not just the scholars of the Jesus Seminar who have doubts about the historical reliability of this UNIQUE story in Chapter 28 of Matthew.

 

CONCLUSION ABOUT STORIES UNIQUE TO THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

According to the Jesus Seminar, ALL of the stories that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew are probably UNHISTORICAL.  This gives us good reason to doubt the historicity of the stories about Roman Soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus, stories that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew.

But it is NOT just the scholars of the Jesus Seminar who have doubts about the stories that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew.  The NT scholar Eugene Boring doubts the historicity of the “Two Marys Encounter the Risen Jesus” story (Matt. 28:8-10), and so do the NT scholars Theissen and Merz.  Boring also doubts the historicity of “The Great Commission” story (Matt. 28:16-20), and even some prominent Evangelical NT scholars have expressed doubts about the historical accuracy of this story.  So, doubts about the historical reliability of the stories UNIQUE to Matthew in Chapter 28 of that gospel, are NOT limited to the liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar.

I have previously pointed out that many NT scholars, beyond just the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, have serious doubts about the historical reliability of a number of the UNIQUE stories found in earlier chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, specifically to SIX out of FIFTEEN of the stories UNIQUE to Matthew, not counting the two stories about Roman soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus.  We now see that at least two more of those FIFTEEN stories UNIQUE to Matthew are doubted by serious NT scholars who are not members of the Jesus Seminar, meaning that at least EIGHT of the FIFTEEN stories UNIQUE to Matthew are viewed as UNHISTORICAL or historically unreliable, by the scholars of the Jesus Seminar and by some prominent NT scholars who are not members of the Jesus Seminar.  Those frequently doubted UNIQUE stories constitute 53% of the 15 UNIQUE stories in Matthew (excluding the two stories about the Roman guard).  So, it is reasonable to view UNIQUE stories in Matthew as being probably historically unreliable.  Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the stories about Roman soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus are PROBABLY UNHISTORICAL or UNRELIABLE, because they are among the stories that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew.

If we set aside the events in Matthew that are based on the sources Mark or Q, what we are left with are events that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew, and we have good reason to believe that most of these events are historically dubious.  This provides us with good reason to believe that (RG) is probably FALSE, because the events/passages in Matthew that support (RG) fall into this category of events that are UNIQUE to the Gospel of Matthew, as opposed to stories in Matthew that are based on stories found in the Gospel of Mark or in Q.


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