Saturday, June 15, 2013

Matthew's Guards and the Evolution of William Lane Craig

In a discussion over at Parchment and Pen, Rob Bowman cited William Lane Craig’s 1984 article The Guard at the Tomb which defends the historicity of Matthew’s story about guards being posted at the tomb of Jesus to prevent the disciples from stealing his body. Perhaps it is because it is an early effort, but it seems as though Craig wasn’t even trying to disguise his apologetic purposes. No argument for accepting the truth of Matthew’s account was so weak that Craig wouldn’t advance it.

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.
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.


  1. There are numerous historical issues regarding the Tomb guards, including:

    1) Only in Matthew, directly conflicting with Mark;
    2) Luke abandons, directly conflicts;
    3) Oddity Jewish leaders understood Jesus’ predications and not disciples (imagine if Mark thought of that irony! Mark would have been ecstatic to inject guards!)
    4) How does author become aware of bribe?
    5) Conforms to Matthew’s bios polemic.

    The questions raised in your link amount to, “Why would someone make up the guards unless it was to respond to skeptics questioning Christians’ claims of an empty tomb?” In other words, the conversation imagined is:

    Christian: Tomb is empty.
    Skeptic: So what? Disciples stole the body.
    Christian: Nu-uh—there were guards preventing it!

    The core question is this: When did skeptics first learn of an empty tomb story?

    Assuming (best case scenario) 1 Cor. 15 was referring to a physical resurrection, the earliest record we have for an empty tomb would be around 50 C.E. But it should be noted, this is a letter from a Christian (Paul) to Christians (Corinthians) citing an unknown source (one most apologists likewise claim is Christian.) Go back to our imagined conversation. When was the empty tomb story told to a skeptic! (Curiously, Peter’s Pentecost sermon of Acts 2 makes direct reference to David’s tomb, yet fails to mention Jesus’ tomb! No mention is made to potential skeptics then.)

    Prior-conversion Paul (a potential skeptic) makes no mention regarding an empty tomb.

    When was a skeptic first told?

    Additionally, pre-70 CE Palestinian burial practices would have resulted in an “empty tomb” with little notice. (Hence the reason pre-70 CE writing makes no mention of it! Indeed notice Mary Magdalene in John 20 sees the empty tomb and simply presumes the body has been moved. She doesn’t gasp and scream “Stolen!” or cry “Resurrection!” She says, as expected, “Hey, you guys moved the body, let me go see it.”)

    Assuming Jesus was buried in a tomb rather than a mass grave. Typically the tomb would be opened one year later to put his bones in an ossuary anyway. But it is also very probable the family would have moved the body (or ossuary) to a family tomb. The Jerusalem tomb would be expected to be empty within one year at the most. Realistically our imagined conversation would be:

    Christian: Jerusalem Tomb is empty.
    Skeptic: Um…yeah. Common practice? What about the Nazareth tomb?

    Matthew introduces the guards NOT because of an empty tomb. Matthew introduces the guards as necessary to establish Jesus physically rose on the third day. They are witnesses, not apologetic polemics!

    Matthew has the priests recognizing Jesus’ accurate prophecy. (Matthew loves prophecy.) Has the guards there as additional witnesses. Earthquakes, angles, guards, seals—Matthew has taken Mark’s secret, fairly uneventful empty tomb and created a mass audience to this glorious event. Again, conforming to Matthew’s polemic. (Great signs at birth, death and equally resurrection.)

    Of course, once introduced, he has to complete the plot point, and has them bribed to stay silent about the whole affair, but we—the readers—know what is really going on.

    1. I've always found the apologetic claim that 1 Cor. 15 implies the empty tomb particularly lame. Paul had a vision of the risen Christ. What more proof did he need? He may well have thought that Jesus's body was no longer where ever it had been buried, but I cannot imagine that he had any need to check.

      As the appearance stories were told and retold, however, some skeptic would suggest that the appearance claimants had been drunk or crazy. Naturally elements of physicality would be added to the story and the empty tomb story was just one more addition to emphasize that Jesus had been resurrected physically.

      The idea that Matthew uses the guards as witnesses is an interesting idea. Being the most Jewish of the evangelists, maybe for him the women finding the empty tomb first actually was embarrassing. Why not put some men there too?

  2. I wonder...have you ever thought of contacting Craig directly with your concerns? Just a thought. Despite being a busy guy, he might take the time. You never know.

  3. If Matthew added the guard as witnesses, it's odd he didn't have them witness the resurrection.

    1. They saw as much of it as the women did.

      Of course we can always think of ways a story might have been told differently. I can think of lots of ways that Joseph Smith might have improved his tale of the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates, but that doesn't give me any reason to think that the story as Smith told it was true.

  4. "Fortunately, this is of little significance to the empty tomb of Jesus..."

    Why a little significance? Wouldn't the guard legend have no relation to the story of the empty tomb?

    Let's not forget that, like most conservatives, Craig is an inerrantist. Admitting that the story of the guards is a legend (which the evidence assuredly suggests) the Bible would be fallible and that is the last thing Craig wants for the purposes of his apologetic ministry. That might be another reason why he defended it like he did in 84.