Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Guards!

Let me return to looking at Jonathan MS Pearce’s criticisms of the Resurrection, this time looking at a chapter where he talks about guards on Jesus’ tomb, that only appear in Matthew.  Surprisingly — or, I guess, not so surprisingly given that there’s enough content there to talk about it — the argument that it only appears in Matthew is only a minor argument given against it, and so a lot of time is spent on other arguments.  I’m actually going to have to quote from a book directly here, which frequent leaders will recall that I rarely do.  However, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that those arguments are particularly good, because obviously I could summarize good arguments but would need to directly quote poor arguments to make sure that everyone can see what I’m replying to in order to make sure that I’m treating the arguments fairly.  So the arguments that I will quote are not all that great.

Let me start, though, by quoting the relevant section, Matthew 27: 62 – 66 from the New International Version (which differs from Pearce’s, but I’ll get into that later):

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

The first thing to talk about is an argument that was given by the Alethian Worldview that Pearce thinks is a really good argument.  I’ll quote the argument as Pearce quotes it (pg 184):

They’re too late!  Jesus’ body has already been unguarded all night.  Considering that one of the things that Jesus was executed for was his relaxed attitude towards Sabbath prohibitions, there has been ample opportunity for some small group of unnamed disciples to get to the unguarded tomb, remove the body, and get away before the Sanhedrin even asked for a guard.  Even if they had posted a belated guard, once the body was gone their excuse would be “disciples took it before we got there” not “disciples took it while we were sleeping on the job”.  Matthew screwed up again.

It’s just not a plausible story.  We know it’s intended to deny that disciples took the body, because that’s what Matthew tells us it “proves”.  And as a form of denial, it’s psychologically effective for believers.

As reliable history, though, it really sucks.

I will say that I had a temptation to be really snarky that I was indeed going to resist but that also has been tamped down by the fact that the quote does actually manage to in some way catch the really simple counter to their argument, but not in a way that recognizes how devastating a claim that is:  the idea that the Sanhedrin would, in fact, obviously check to see if the body was in the tomb before posting a guard there.  So let me posit this sequence:  they didn’t think of this the night before, but the next morning either remembered or, more likely, heard people talking about the possibility that Jesus’ words might be taken to suggest that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead after three days and they decided that they wanted to preclude that from happening.  So they’d go to arrange for guards and as part of that check to see if the tomb was empty.  For the first part of the quote, that’s not considered, but the article does hint at that by saying that if the tomb was empty they would have said that it was empty then instead of saying that their guards fell asleep while it was stolen.  But even this is prompting a temptation to snark because there’s an obvious answer to this:  the tomb wasn’t empty then.  Because if it was empty then surely they wouldn’t have posted a guard for the next couple of days, but would have immediately said that the tomb was empty and accused the disciples of stealing the body.  Remember, as stated what they are worried about is the claim that Jesus rose from the dead after three days, and if the body is missing on Day 1 then it couldn’t have been raised after three days, and an accusation that the disciples stole the body would have much more force on Day 1 when it a) could have been checked by people and b) when it being missing there would not fulfill the prophecy than on Day 3 when even people who would verify it would have to wonder if it was really stolen or if the authorities were lying and saying it was stolen just to try to hide the fact that this miracle occurred.  Which, in fact, is exactly what Matthew accuses them of:  bribing the guards and promoting the idea that the disciples stole the body.  Which, of course, they wouldn’t have to do if they could produce the body.

The next thing to talk about is Pearce’s attempt to discuss how the argument about the guards likely entered the debate in the first place, using this invented dialogue:

Christian:  Jesus resurrected from his tomb.
Jew:  No, he didn’t.  Anyway, how do you know his body didn’t get stolen — this is a more probable explanation.
C: … Um, aah, because there were guards outside the tomb on the insistence of the Pharisees.
J:  Okay, but what if the guards were asleep?
C:  The guards were not asleep.
J:  How do you know?
C:  We know because they saw it.
J:  But why didn’t they tell anyone?  Why is this not known everywhere since this is the Resurrection of the Messiah?
C:  Because the guards told their superiors and were bribed to keep silent and then disappeared.
J:  That’s … suspiciously convenient.

The thing I noticed on writing all of this down was that J really, really seems to be trying desperately to come up with any reason to reject the idea.  I mean, when it is raised that there were guards their reply is to say, without any reason, that the guards might have been sleeping and so were not, in fact, actually doing the one job that they were to do and that they were trained to do.  Pearce later talks about how guards who fell asleep on the job were harshly punished as a reason to claim that the guards wouldn’t have accepted a bribe to say that they fell asleep, so it’s also not that likely that they actually would have fallen asleep.  So no one could just toss that out as a reply to an argument that there were guards.

Which reveals the flaw in this entire chain:  each step in the dialogue assumes that J actually accepts the arguments presented by C before moving on to the next one.  But why would J do that if it was just being asserted at the time the criticism was being made?  If the idea of an empty tomb was just being raised to head off a comment that C doesn’t know if Jesus was really raised from the dead and that his body might indeed still exist, then the dialogue should have stopped at J’s first line with “No, he didn’t”.  So what this means, then, is that if the response of “The body was stolen” was being commonly raised, it had to be the case that the empty tomb was already a part of the Christian narrative.  Thus, if J was simply saying “No, it wasn’t” C would be replying with “Then how do you explain the empty tomb?  That’s been a part of the histories since the beginning!”, forcing the move to “It was stolen!”.

But there’s another interesting wrinkle here, which is about the guards themselves, because the same reasoning applies.  Why wouldn’t the critic simply say in response to “There were guards!” that C has no reason to think that there ever were any kind of guards on the tomb?  By the same reasoning as above, then, it could be implied that there already was a narrative in many of the histories that there were guards and they were sleeping on the job, justifying a claim that the body was stolen by the disciples.  This, in fact, is what Matthew asserts:  there was an empty tomb and the Sanhedrin spread a story that the disciples had stolen the body while the guards they had posted there were asleep.  The chain of arguments that Pearce himself outlines makes far more sense if this narrative was already part of Christian lore — although perhaps not universal — and so the critic can only appeal to the “asleep” narrative to counter it instead of simply rejecting it wholesale.

Pearce raises the issue that this is only mentioned in Matthew and not in the other accounts.  However, there is an explanation for that:  it’s not that important to the other accounts and so they don’t bother to mention it.  As per my assessment, Mark is minimalist and so won’t talk about things that are not universal, and this account may not be (as it might only be mostly referenced in debates between Christians and Jews), John is disciple-focused and so wouldn’t find these details that necessary, and Luke is appealing to non-Jews and so again doesn’t have to care that much about a story about the specific Jewish politics here.  Moreover, none of the ones who talk about Jesus appearing after being resurrected — Mark is left out here by Pearce’s previous notes that Mark in his original work, at least, doesn’t have such events — actually need to address the “body was stolen” argument, because they can say that the appearances prove that Jesus was resurrected and so get from there to “and so the tomb must be empty”.  Matthew, noted as writing for a Jewish audience, is the only one who would need to address that and relate that story if that was a common counter among Jewish skeptics.

Another minor point that Pearce raises is that if the guards were paid off to claim that they were sleeping, how can we know about it?  This is a rather poor argument, as anyone who knows anything knows that if you pay someone off that really doesn’t mean that they won’t mention it to anyone else ever again.  It’s entirely plausible that one of them was talking to a Christian at some point, or got drunk one night, and happened to spill the real story.  The official — and their sworn — testimony would be that they were sleeping, and so if rumours get out that something miraculous happened it can still be rebutted with the official testimony — if the Sanhedrin were considered reliable.  This is another reason why the “It’s too late!” argument fails, because the Sanhedrin’s account would be less trustworthy if it came after the three days and so as a weak rebuttal to “He is risen!” than if it came on the first day with a “Don’t let them fool you!” rebuttal.

But there is a point that is more of a concern, and I was originally relying on my memory — which is really quite good — and thought it a very poor argument until I tried to gather up the quotes and found that things are a lot more complicated than I thought.  The point is:  given that being asleep on the job is a terrible crime for a soldier, if these were Roman soldiers why in the world would they being willing to accept even a bribe from the Sanhedrin to make a public statement that they were?  The Sanhedrin couldn’t forgive them their crime, and the Romans were known to punish that harshly.  What in the world could the Sanhedrin offer to make that in any way appealing to them?

Now, why I thought this was a very poor argument is that in my recollections from Sunday Mass — and I was a voracious reader so I would in general take the complete edition and read all the Gospels for all masses week over week — was that the guards weren’t Roman.  My impression was that the Sanhedrin came to Pilate and asked for a guard, and Pilate told them that they had their own guards and so if they wanted the body guarded to do it themselves.  In the quote I gave above, it really sounds more like Pilate did say for them to take one of his guards, making the guard Roman.  In Pearce’s quote, it says this “”You have a guard”, which is a lot more vague, at least in English (it could mean that you have a guard already and to use it, or a really, really awkward way to say “Take my guards”).  In the Revised Standard Version, it says this  “You have a guard of soldiers”, which is equally vague.  In looking up the issue, I came across this site, which assumes that the guards were Roman and argues that Pilate was as concerned about the possibility as they were.

Given what I’ve talked about earlier, I don’t find the idea that Pilate was overly concerned about the potential for fraud here all that compelling, and it doesn’t seem to line up well with the other accounts with Pilate not thinking that Jesus had done anything wrong.  So if Pilate gave guards to guard the tomb, it likely was just to get them out of his hair.  This is why I also find it far more probable that the Sanhedrin used their own guards rather than Roman guards, which would make Pearce’s objections moot (as Sanhedrin guards have a lot of reasons to go along with what their superiors have said).  I do agree that it’s an issue that Roman guards would claim that they were asleep at the time unless their superiors put them up to it, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the Romans to do that and care at all about this minor religious spat.  So I will agree with Pearce that there is a bit of an issue here.  Again, I prefer the idea that the guards were Sanhedrin guards since it seems to fit with almost everything except the specific words used there, which could be distorted.  But because of that I can’t claim my explanation is the better sourced.

That being said, it’s not a big issue for Christians because of what I said above:  if Jesus made bodily apparitions, then He was resurrected and the idea that the body was stolen cannot get off the ground.  So we could indeed drop that story without impacting how reasonable a Christian is in believing that Jesus was resurrected.


8 Responses to “Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Guards!”

  1. GJ Says:

    In the Greek, “You have a guard” is “Ἔχετε κουστωδίαν”, and as far as I can tell, “ἔχετε” is “you have” in the sense of “you possess” rather than “here, take this”.

    Though even if we understand it to mean “Here, let me lend you some of my soldiers to keep guard over the tomb,” I’m not sure that the harsh punishments for sleeping on watch would necessarily be a serious problem. For one thing, not all Roman commanders were equally strict — “Bad commander lets discipline slacken, then good commander comes along and tightens things up again” was a common literary trope, and presumably happened at least sometimes. Even if sleeping on the job theoretically merited death, then, Pilate might not have been the sort of person to actually enforce this — particularly given that he seems to have been browbeaten into the whole executing Jesus idea by the priests, was probably feeling rather resentful towards them, and may not have been inclined to execute perfectly good soldiers just for slacking off on a job he regarded as a pointless irritation anyway.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      The full claim is that the guards were bribed to officially say that they were sleeping on the job instead of saying what they really saw. Pilate had no reason to bribe the guards to do that, since he wouldn’t really care about the issues around Jesus (especially in my interpretation) and even if he did care would just order them to stay silent instead of bribing them. But if the chief priests bribed them, then Pilate would have no reason to exclude them from the normal discipline for such an action, so the guards would be unlikely to risk it, especially given that if it got out that they were bribed to lie by the local authorities there would be hell to pay. And one of the main issues with the whole thing is that Pilate is not known as someone who was merciful or easily browbeaten, which is why I prefer my interpretation of the earlier events, which fits well with the idea that Pilate told them to guard the tomb themselves instead of giving them Roman guards, but not so well with him giving them guards.

      You can make Roman guards work, but it’s a lot harder to do than guards from the religious leaders.

      • GJ Says:

        Pilate wasn’t very merciful, but I don’t think that necessarily translates into being a martinet.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        It does mean that he’d need a reason to let these guards that he lent to the local authorities off the hook for sleeping on the job. and had no reason himself to want the lie spread. And while one can posit reasons for that, it’s a lot harder to do than if the guards belonged to the local authorities.

  2. Jonathan+MS+Pearce Says:

    So the guards thing IS a big thing, and here’s for why. This, to me, is solid.

    The guards polemic is a counter-counter-apologetic invented by Matthew to counter claims made by JEws (that we know 100% Jews were making) that it is more likely the body was stolen.These were to counter the claims made in Mark, the earlier Gospel.

    So the question is why Mark didn’t include this claim.

    This is because Mark made up the Empty Tomb claim. We can infer this from three data points.

    a) Paul says absolutely nothing about the ET even though he would have had good reason to do so.
    b) Mark’s last original uninterpolated claim is that the women witnesses left the tomb and told no one.
    c) he has no need to invent the guards because no counter-polemic existed yet from the Jews because the Jews did not know this claim yet precisely because Mark is inventing it.

    This second point is super important. All the other Gospels flatly contradict this claim. Very obviously. They have the women leave the tomb and STRAIGHT AWAY tell people.

    Mark needs to explain to his audience, in just after 70 CE, why none of his audience have ever heard the story of the ET. This si because he (or his community he is drawing from) created the narrative, It didn’t exist before this, so Mark had to explain why no one knew about the ET: the women told no one.

    The next three Gospels, writing from 15 to 50 years after Mark and his claims no longer NEED to explain why the ET is not known because it IS known, due to Mark. Everyone now knows about the ET, so they don’t need the women telling no one. Instead, they have the women going straight out to get verification, further supposedly proving the ET.

    Let’ look at point 3). Mark mentions nothing of the guards at the tomb because there is not yet a counter argument. Imagine Mark writing 40 years after the Jesus narrative. If the ET story had been about for 40 years, there would have been Jewish counter-claims all over the shop. But there are no claims, so MArk needs no counter-counter-claims. This is the only thing that makes sense of the lack fo 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 with the counter-arguments to deal with.

    Luke and John don’t include them at all – possibly the only witnesses to the actual resurrection. Presumably because they see it for what it is – an obvious polemic mechanism.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      So the guards thing IS a big thing, and here’s for why. This, to me, is solid.

      The guards polemic is a counter-counter-apologetic invented by Matthew to counter claims made by JEws (that we know 100% Jews were making) that it is more likely the body was stolen.These were to counter the claims made in Mark, the earlier Gospel.

      So the question is why Mark didn’t include this claim.

      You’ve ignored why, if I recall correctly, I said it wasn’t important: because the evidence for Jesus being resurrected comes from the visitations afterwards and from the works done in His name, not from the specific physical evidence of an empty tomb. This would also explain why Luke in particular and also why John don’t bother with that or with any explanation, because it’s irrelevant to the real grounds of their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. As you note, Matthew writing for a Jewish audience might indeed want to use it, but the others don’t need it at all. And so I say that it’s unimportant because Christians can leave it out entirely and simply appeal to the visitations afterwards, and if the visitations are not to be believed then the guards and empty tomb narratives aren’t going to matter all that much.

      Also, I DID respond to your conversation, showing that that is almost certainly not how it happened. What you say here is a bit more credible in that it starts from Mark and then is added to by Matthew — empty tomb in Mark, guards in Matthew — but again the former must be established BEFORE the criticisms of the Jews started or else the Jewish critics would have simply stuck to “There was no empty tomb and you’re making that story up!”. Given that, it isn’t clear that Mark invented it then, especially in light of my comments in an earlier post that following the explicit statement of Luke the authors might reasonably be held to be following and recording specific threads that they followed instead of making things up out of whole cloth, which means that Mark may have recorded that precisely because that’s what the tradition he followed and gave credibility to said, and Matthew because that’s what the tradition he followed said, and so on.

      So it seems reasonable to me that the “empty tomb” narrative, if it was born out of criticism or skepticism, was born from the skeptic challenges of people that the early Christians were trying — and presumably often managed to — convert. I can’t say that the guard narrative is the same, because I don’t know what evidence you have for that as being a specific Jewish complaint, but that it only appears in Matthew who I think we can all admit was aiming at a Jewish audience while the others were not trying so much for that makes that credible, at least.

      Mark needs to explain to his audience, in just after 70 CE, why none of his audience have ever heard the story of the ET. This si because he (or his community he is drawing from) created the narrative, It didn’t exist before this, so Mark had to explain why no one knew about the ET: the women told no one.

      But it is incredible that he would make that up to make the explanation, because any audience skeptical enough to ask the question would easily point out what you pointed out: if they told no one, then how does Mark know about it? At a minimum, Mark would want to be able to point to the tradition he was following and say “Don’t blame me; that’s what I was told”. Given what I said earlier, my suspicion on this is that this reflects Mark’s minimalism, as he seems to be more critical and so leave more events and stories out than, say, Luke and Matthew do. He couldn’t find a tradition that he considered valid who agreed on who they told, so he simply said they told no one ignoring the obvious contradiction in that. But, again, if he was trying to convince someone who was questioning why they hadn’t heard that story saying “Well, they didn’t tell anybody!” would not satisfy skeptics at the time, and you cannot presume that his audience was just waiving all skepticism because then he wouldn’t have had to invent that line at all.

      a) Paul says absolutely nothing about the ET even though he would have had good reason to do so.

      I haven’t and am not going to go through and work out the entire Paul line in this because theology is something like seventh on my list of philosophical interests (after luge!) and so I have other things to do [grin]. But as I think I’ve noted we have to be very careful when saying that Paul has good reason to appeal to the corporeal line of Jesus and so it is odd that he didn’t do so, because Paul also have very good reason NOT to justify anything in his theology by that: the fact that doing so would place his theology under the authority of the Disciples and he thinks that his tradition is just as valid as theirs DESPITE not following from what Jesus actually taught while alive. One example of this, if I recall correctly, is that Paul appeals to scriptures and not to the empty tomb to show that Jesus was resurrected, but that is actually easy to explain by showing that Paul wants to be able to claim that he, who did not learn about Jesus from the Disciples, can indeed know that Jesus was resurrected without having to have had access to that evidence or to hearing it from those who did. He thinks he can know this from his own visions and that that should be equally authoritative to what the Disciples have. So appealing to that tradition always risks making his view less authoritative than theirs, which we know he absolutely did not want. So he would obviously be very careful about when he used that, so cases where he doesn’t use it where others might must be considered in that light.

      Luke and John don’t include them at all – possibly the only witnesses to the actual resurrection. Presumably because they see it for what it is – an obvious polemic mechanism.

      Or because the traditions they were attached to don’t need it and don’t care. Luke, obviously, has the appearances and Acts of the Apostles to appeal to to show that Jesus was resurrected, and John, focused on the Disciples, had their actions to fall back on. If this really was a criticism that the Jews were raising, Matthew’s the only one who needed to include it, and so again Luke and John’s traditions might not have included it, while Matthew’s might have had to to address Jewish criticism, being aimed at a Jewish audience.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I thought of a way to make my point more succinctly while finishing the dishes:

      If the visitations and theology of Christianity do not require Jesus to have risen bodily, then whether there was an empty tomb or not is irrelevant.

      If, on the other hand, they DO require that then if they are true then there MUST have been a bodily resurrection, and so all we need to do is find out if those things are true (which is what the major focus of the rest of the works are).

      You can argue that the argument above is ignoring skeptical challenges in favour of maintaining a belief, but I submit that it would be like finding that the last piece of pie is gone from your fridge. If it is the case that someone must have been in the house since the last time you saw it for that piece of pie to disappear, then someone must have been in the house since the last time you saw it, no matter how strange an idea that seems. And once we establish that then we can start hypothesizing ideas for who was in the house and why.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      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 with the counter-arguments to deal with.

      And another point that I thought of on my walk this morning: it’s important to you because you’re trying to show that the evangelists made stuff up and so attack their credibility. I already argued in the first post in this series that finding things that are “made up” doesn’t do that, because it might have been made up by those who were preserving the original traditions and not the evangelists at all. After all, Luke is explicit that he’s following the stories he’s heard, and it is reasonable to think that the other authors are doing the same thing, and it is just as likely that the traditions evolved to insert explanations for problematic passages as that the evangelists invented them out of whole cloth. ESPECIALLY for ones that seem obviously problematic when we examine them, since authors that were deliberately inventing stories and had the time to craft and edit their works would have come up with better ones, while verbal histories would include things added off the cuff.

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