A Resurrection Sub-Tale: The Tomb-Guard-Conspiracy Tale

This is a little out of sequence in my long series on the historical credibility of the resurrection of Yeshua, but it is on topic. If you are interested in a critique of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” (a Discovery Channel documentary) or the resurrection in general, look on the right margin and click on the category “Jesus-Tomb” or “Resurrection.” Start reading the entries from the bottom up to read them in order.

There are some aspects of the resurrection narratives that seem problematic. The lack of witnesses among the powerful and influential is one potential problem. The discrepancies in the accounts are mildly problematic. The strange story of the earthquake, the tearing of the veil, and the raising of locals from the tomb (Matt. 27:51-54) seems a strain on credulity. Finally, there is a story that seems too convenient an explanation — the story of a conspiracy to guard the tomb, of a concern about body-stealing and a bribe to have the lie of body-stealing spread, the story of Matthew 27:62-66 and 28:11-15.

Someone could make a case that Matthew is conjuring evidence for a non-existent resurrection:

1. The resurrection never happened — the disciples stole Yeshua’s body from the tomb to fake a miracle.

2. When the resurrection story was doubted by others, Matthew concocted a tale of a Roman guard over the tomb, of a conspiracy bringing together priests and Pharisees and Pilate, and that the body-stealing was a lie told by those who had an interest to supress the truth of the resurrection.

N.T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God,argues just the opposite. The tomb-guard-conspiracy tale is a confirmation rather than a problem for the historicity of the resurrection. Wright asks the question: why did Matthew write this story?

1. There must have been a rumor that the empty tomb was a fake, that the disciples had stolen the body. Otherwise, why attempt to address and false rumor that never existed. It would only weaken the case for faith in the resurrection message.

2. Since there must have been such a rumor, then the fact of the empty tomb must have been known. That Yeshua’s tomb turned up empty must have been widely enough known to be a problem requiring an explanation. This confirms the credibility of the empty tomb story itself.

3. For there to be a rumor of body-stealing, it must have been known that the resurrection story was about a bodily resurrection and not some alleged spiritual resurrection. A story of body-stealing only makes sense if people understood resurrection to be something that happens to physical bodies.

4. Early Christians must have known that body-stealing would be a recurring excuse not to believe in the resurrection. Therefore, Matthew’s story should be seen, not as a too convenient explanation, but as a necessary corrective.

To put all this another way, in a very early account of Yeshua’s resurrection, we have evidence that the empty tomb of Yeshua was known by a substantial number of eyewitnesses, some friendly and some hostile. We know that no one at that time believed in a spiritual resurrection as opposed to a bodily one. And we know that the empty tomb was a credible enough problem for those hostile to Yeshua for a conspiracy and cover story to result.

It is amazing, then, when early eyewitnesses found the resurrection of Yeshua so credible, that moderns can find the story historically incredible. Is that sort of skepticism really sound historical reasoning or is it modernist hubris — as though we are too smart to believe what fooled the ancients?

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About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, Jesus-Tomb, Messianic Jewish, N.T. Wright, Resurrection, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Resurrection Sub-Tale: The Tomb-Guard-Conspiracy Tale

  1. Pingback: The Servant | My Blog

  2. Gary M says:

    The only author in the Bible who mentions anything about guards being at the tomb, Matthew, says that the guards were not posted until the next day after Jesus body had been placed in the tomb, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb, he had not sealed it. So, the tomb of Jesus was left unguarded and unsealed the entire first night, in the darkness, and probably part of the next day. That would provide ample time and ample opportunity for someone to have moved or stolen the body.

    So even if the biblical account of the “guards at the tomb” story is correct, the fact that there is a time period when the tomb was left unguarded, blows a hole in the Christian claim that a resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb and the disciples’ belief that Jesus had been resurrected. For instance, if grave robbers had taken the body, the Jews would say that the disciples took the body and the disciples would say that Jesus had fulfilled his prophecy and had risen from the dead.

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