Perhaps the most bizarre argument Craig made is that the story of the guards at the tomb is true because the truth would have been better than a lie.
Matthew's account has been nearly universally rejected as an apologetic legend by the critics. The reasons for this judgment, however, are of very unequal worth. For example, the fact that the story is an apologetic answering the allegation that the disciples stole the body does not therefore mean that it is unhistorical. The best way to answer such a charge would not be by inventing fictions, but by narrating the true story of what happened.Towards the end of the article Craig wrote
Lies are the most feeble sort of apologetic there could be.But of course, quite the opposite is usually the case. The truth is rarely as one sided as we might like it to be. While the weight of the evidence might favor one side in a dispute or disagreement, there are almost always a few facts that the other side can cling to. A lie on the other hand, can be concocted to favor one side of a dispute overwhelmingly.
Craig’s most amusing argument advised historians to ignore the fact that Matthew’s gospel is the only one to report the story of the guards at the tomb.
And the evangelists often inexplicably omit what seem to be major incidents that must have been known to them (for example, Luke's great omission of Mk. 6. 45 - 8. 26) so that it is dangerous to use omission as a test for historicity.In other words, if we consider the inconsistencies in the accounts, we would be forced to concede that parts of the stories are fiction, so we had better not consider them.
Craig was somewhat troubled by the fact that the disciples never understood what Jesus was saying when he predicted his resurrection, but it was so clear to the Jewish authorities that they figured they better post a guard at the tomb. At the time, Craig was quite willing to ignore this inconsistency, too.
It is possible that the actions of the Jews were not motivated by any knowledge of resurrection prophecies at all, but were simply an afterthought to prevent any possible trouble that could be caused at the tomb by the disciples during the feast.Craig's ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth was on full display in the article.
[T]he gospel of Peter also relates the story of the guard at the tomb, and its account may well be independent of Matthew, since the verbal similarities are practically nil.and
For the way an apologetic legend handles this story, see the Gospel of Peter....:Thus, the apocryphal Gospel of Peter was an apologetic fiction that nonetheless independently corroborates Matthew.
Interstingly, Craig seemed to think that Matthew’s writing was informed by modern scholarship.
Guard or no guard, no critic today believes that the disciples could have robbed the tomb and faked the resurrection. Rather the real value of Matthew's story is the incidental -- and for that reason all the more reliable -- information that Jewish polemic never denied that the tomb was empty, but instead tried to explain it away.I.e., since twentieth century scholars don’t believe that the disciples stole Jesus body, Matthew wouldn't have reason to invent a story to answer first century critics who did.
Apparently, Craig eventually realized that there was a limit to the stupid apologetic arguments he could make if he wanted to pass himself off as a legitimate scholar. In a 2001 interview by John Ankerberg, Craig was quite willing to acknowledge the reasons for doubting Matthew's story:
[T]his is a question that I think is probably best left out of the program because the vast majority of New Testament scholars would regard Matthew’s guard story as unhistorical. I can hardly think of anybody who would defend the historicity of the guard at the tomb story, and the main reasons for that are two. One is because it's only found in Matthew and it seems very odd that if there were a Roman guard or even a Jewish guard at the tomb that Mark wouldn't know about it nor would there be any mention of it. The other reason is nobody seemed to understand Jesus's resurrection predictions. The disciples who heard it most often had not an inkling of what he meant and yet somehow the Jewish authorities were supposed to have heard of these predictions and understood them so well but they were able to set a guard around the tomb. And again that doesn't seem to make sense so most scholars regard the guard at the tomb story as a legendary Matthean invention that isn't really historical.
Fortunately, this is of little significance for the empty tomb of Jesus because the guard was mainly employed in Christian apologetics to disprove the conspiracy theory that the disciple stole the body. But no modern historian or New Testament scholar would depend on a conspiracy theory. It's evident when you read the pages of the New Testament that these people sincerely believed in what they said so the conspiracy theory is dead even in the absence of a guard at the tomb. The true significance of the guard at the tomb story is that it shows that even the opponents of the earliest Christians did not deny the empty tomb but rather involved themselves in a hopeless series of absurdities trying to explain it away by saying that the disciples stole the body and that's the real significance of Matthew’s guard at the tomb story.Naturally, Craig doesn't say that he rejects the story. He merely chooses to limit his use of the story to proving that the Jews never denied that the tomb was empty.
Of course, the story only proves that the the Jews never denied that the tomb was empty if we presuppose that the tomb was in fact empty. If the story of the empty tomb was a later invention, it could have been someone without the slightest knowledge of what happened in Jerusalem who first raised the possibility that someone had stolen the body. At a time when grave robbing was a common problem, it would have been a perfectly natural hypothesis. The story of guards at the tomb would have been a natural invention regardless of who raised the possibility.