What about the Guards at Jesus’ Tomb?

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 884 10

In two previous articles, I taught that Jesus’ body could not have been stolen or moved. In these two articles, I willingly left out one piece of evidence – the guards. According to Matthew 27:62-66, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders had guards placed at the tomb because the religious leaders believed that the disciples may have had ideas to steal the body. The fact is that if there were guards, it would have been even more difficult for someone to have come along and either stolen or moved the body.

Arguments against the guards

Yet many skeptics love to talk about the guards. Many believe that the guards did not exist, and that they were invented by Matthew. The reason why this is believed is because the guards are only mentioned in Matthew’s gospel, “an impossibility if there was such a detachment,” according to atheist Robert Price.[1] Surely Mark, Luke, and John would have mentioned the guards if they were real. Since only Matthew writes about them, he surely made them up. It is believed that during the time he was writing his gospel, there were rumors of the body being stolen by the disciples so Matthew made the guards up to explain away the rumors.

But what if the guards really did exist? These same skeptics give some very interesting scenarios as to what might have happened if the guards were real.

  1. There was an entire night before the guards were posted, so someone may have stolen or moved the body during that time. Along with this, it is argued that the gospels do not mention that the guards or religious authorities checked to see if the body was still there (Matthew 27:66).[2] So the body may have been stolen before the guards had been posted.
  2. Historian Richard Carrier thinks that it is not improbable that someone stole the body while the guards slept, since this is the story that Matthew has the religious leaders make up. Otherwise the story of the sleeping guards would have been useless if someone stealing the body was not possible.[3]
  3. The guards took a bribe to allow the disciples to steal the body.[4]
  4. Price thinks that it is possible that Jesus never even died on the cross. Instead, he swooned (passed out) and the guards found him barely alive and either: 1) fled in superstitious fear (thinking that Jesus had come back to life); or 2) they helped Jesus.[5]

Admittedly, these are some very creative solutions to the problem that the guards pose to the empty tomb. But do they stand up against close scrutiny? Let’s take a look.

Only Matthew mentions the guards

The argument “since Matthew is the only gospel to have mentioned the guards so he must have made them up” is an old argument that has been worn out. Each gospel writer had a different purpose for writing and felt free to pick and choose from the available traditions that he would use to tell Jesus’ story. Even modern historians will not present every single detail about the topic that they are writing about. Since there is so much information available about any topic, a writer must pick and choose what they will and will not present to their readers.

But why didn’t the other gospels tell about the guards? Quite simply, there may have been no reason to. Remember someone writing about a topic cannot include every detail, so the guard story may not have been important to the audience that Mark, Luke, and John were writing to. However, the situation was clearly different where Matthew was. There seems to have been rumors going around in Jewish circles that the disciples had stolen the body. So naturally Matthew had to deal with those rumors.

But doesn’t this show that Matthew invented the guard story to deal with the rumors going around? No. Could we not turn this argument around and say that Matthew may have selected the guard story from authentic history? Christian writer James Patrick Holding makes a good point when he says, “If ‘motive’ is used as an argument here [that Matthew had a motive to invent the guards] then it [can be] used [in all arguments], and we can also accuse Matthew’s opponents of inventing the ‘stolen body’ argument (because they had a motive to do it).”[6] Quite simply, Matthew chose to use the account of the guards because it was relevant at the time and place of his writings. This is how historians (and other writers) do their work.

Lastly, we should not doubt something just because it is not found in multiple sources. Most events in history are only mentioned by one source, and even when an event in history does have multiple attestations, sometimes those multiple sources go back to only one source. It is also interesting to note why skeptics even argue about Matthew being the only source for the guards. If multiple sources were really important to them, then why don’t they believe that Jesus resurrected? All four gospels (more than one source) mention that.

Scholar N.T. Wright makes a great point:

“The story, obviously, is part of an apologia for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is an attempt to ward off any suggestion that the disciples had in fact stolen the body, which must have seemed the most natural explanation for the emptiness of the tomb. But, while the historian is always cautious about accepting obviously apologetic tales, there are further considerations which make it very unlikely that this one was actually invented from scratch within the Christian community.

For a start, it is implausible to suppose that the whole story would have been invented in the first place, let alone told and finally written down, unless there was already a rumour going around that the disciples had indeed stolen the body. If nobody had suggested such a thing, it is difficult to imagine the Christians putting the idea into people’s heads by making up tales that said they had.

Furthermore, a charge such as this would never have arisen unless it was already well known, or at the very least widely supposed, that there was an empty tomb, and/or a missing body, requiring an explanation. If the empty tomb were itself a late legend, it is unlikely that people would have spread stories about body-stealing, and hence that Christians would have employed the dangerous tactic of reporting such stories in order to refute them.

Finally, the telling of the story indicates well enough that the early Christians knew the charge of stealing the body was one they were always likely to face—and that it was preferable to tell the story of how the accusation had arisen, even at the risk of putting ideas into people’s heads, rather than leave the accusation unanswered.”[7]

Was the body stolen or moved before the guards were posted?

There are also a number of problems with skeptics arguing that the body was stolen on Friday night before the guards were posted. First, the night between Jesus’ burial and the posting of the guards was a part of Passover. No Jew would have touched a dead body to steal or move it. Second, as D.A. Carson says, “If Matthew [was] trying to prove Jesus’ body was not stolen, why does he not have the guard posted immediately, instead of waiting till the next day (v. 62)?”[8] If Matthew had invented the guard story he would have placed the guards at the tomb right after the burial of Jesus to prove his point, not wait until the next day.

But about the guards not checking the tomb to see if Jesus’ body was still there? Lita Cosner says, “All of this is simply speculation. And it relies on the assumption that the Jewish Temple police and the high priests were too dumb to check the tomb before they sealed it. Lack of modern forensic handling of evidence or not, it stretches credulity to think they would have been that stupid.”[9]

The body was stolen while the guards slept

But couldn’t someone have stolen the body while the guards slept? Maybe Joseph of Arimathea moved the body over night between the burial and the posting of the guards? First off, the guards would not have fallen asleep since this would have meant severe punishment. Second, let’s assume that they did (which has a very slight possibility). Whoever was taking the body would have had to move a stone weighing thousands of pounds, unwrap the body, fold the clothes, and then carry the body through a holy city during a holy festival where there were possibly millions of people in attendance. All of this and never waking up the guards? Good luck with that. As for the lie that the religious leaders made up about the guards falling asleep, it was naturally a silly lie, and that is probably the reason why it never worked on anybody.

Did the guards take a bribe?

This argument shows just how desperate skeptics are getting. Why would the disciples bribe the guards, steal the body, then go out and be persecuted and die for what they knew was a lie? (Read “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: The Evidence” for more on this kind of argument).

Did the guards flee or help Jesus?

Robert Price and others have argued that Jesus may have survived the crucifixion. The argument goes: Jesus passed out on the cross, woke up on the third day, and then appeared before the disciples and lied about being resurrected. (I’ll discuss this topic more in-depth in a future article, so I’m not going to debunk it here). The guards then found him alive and either ran away or helped him.

This is a bad argument. First, when the disciples began preaching that Christ had resurrected, all the guards and religious leaders would have had to do was tell everyone that Jesus had survived the crucifixion and that the guards helped him. Yet there is no evidence of this happening. Second, where does Price get his evidence that the guards would have ran away. Could not the guards have entered the tomb and checked out the situation?

Conclusion

When all the evidence is examined it is clear that skeptics have no reason to reject Matthew’s account of the guards. Their alternative scenarios to the guards are bad, and it seems that the only reason why they reject the guard story is that it shows us that no one could have taken the body.

What do you think? Do the skeptics make good points, or do you agree with me? Leave a comment below.


[1] Robert Price, “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle.” In The End of Christianity. ed. John Loftus. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2011. Pg. 226; Also see Richard Carrier, “The Plausibility of Theft.” In The Empty Tomb. Eds. Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder. (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005. Pg. 358.

[2] Carrier, 358.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Price, 226.

[6] James Patrick Holding, Defending the Resurrection. Xulon Press. Pg. 395.

[7] N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Pg. 638.

[8] D.A. Carson. Matthew 13-28, Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Quoted in Lita Cosner, “Did Joseph of Arimathea move the body?” http://creation.com/joseph-of-arimathea.

[9] Cosner.

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10 thoughts on “What about the Guards at Jesus’ Tomb?

  1. Brandye Dague

    Wow! This is amazing! Thank you for all your time in writing your blogs. I’m a Jesus believer so maybe that’s why I’m convinced, but to me you’ve made a lot of good points that I would think would make “non-believer” think again. Great post!

    Reply
  2. Rev. George Blair

    The most obvious conclusion is that Mark invented the story (Paul does not mention the empty tomb) and the story became well-enough known for detractors to poke holes in it. So the young man becomes an angels, guards and sealed tombs are added. Most likely none of this happened–it was a poetic way to describe and experience of the risen Lord which was happening in the hearts of his followers.

    Reply
  3. mmcclellan2

    George, thanks for your comment.

    -Mark invented the story of the empty tomb

    Why do you say this? It is hard for me to have an answer to this since you do not say why you believe that Mark invented the empty tomb. Let me know why you think this; I would like to discuss this further with you.

    -Paul does not mention the empty tomb

    This is an argument from silence. Paul believed that Jesus physically rose from the dead. This naturally implies an empty tomb since Jesus took his body with him when he resurrected. Writer J.P. Holding offers some additional insights on this issue in this article: http://www.tektonics.org/tomb/kirby01.php. He notes that people living in the time period of Paul would have naturally assumed that the tomb was empty. I highly suggest reading that article. It is long; however, the most relevant part is towards the beginning under the section titled “Argument from Silence.”

    -Young man becomes angels

    You seem to be implying that the resurrection accounts grew and changed over time. I have to disagree with you. Here is an excellent article refuting this idea: http://www.tektonics.org/guest/barkblund.html

    -Guards and sealed tomb added

    I already dealt with this in this article.

    -None of this happened/It was poetic

    The Gospels and the rest of the New Testament (especially 1 Corinthians 15) clearly present the resurrection account as historical, not some kind of poetic event. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:14 that if Jesus did not actually resurrect, than faith is useless. This seems to imply that the resurrection account was considered truth/history to the early Christians, not poetry. Can you supply me with some literary evidence in favor for the resurrection accounts being poetry and not history?

    Reply
    1. Rev. George E. Blair III

      Paul describes Jesus appearing to him in a vision, not bodily. The testimony in Acts is similar. The bodily resurrection only became important to those who had not experienced the spiritual resurrection.

      The Bible is full of stories intended to be poetic and not literal. Jesus’s parables for one.

      The young man became an angel for Matthew and two angels for Luke.

      How many women were at the tomb? One? (John); many (Luke) three (Matthew)? What were their names?

      To accept the stories as literal does too much violence to each individual gospel account.
      Christianity has never been about what happened to the bones of Jesus.

      Reply
      1. Jason

        Romans 8:11 (NKJV)

        11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

        Clearly Paul believes that Jesus had risen in an actual body or this verse wouldn’t make sense as he is equating the same resurrection (mortal body) to both Jesus and His followers by the same Spirit.

        John 20:27 (NKJV)

        27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

        Clearly John in his gospel believed in an actual bodily resurrection for Jesus (and so did Thomas).

        John 21:12-13 (NKJV)

        12 Jesus said to them, “Come and eat breakfast.” Yet none of the disciples dared ask Him, “Who are You?”—knowing that it was the Lord. 13 Jesus then came and took the bread and gave it to them, and likewise the fish.

        Again clearly Jesus had a physical body as it would be difficult to pass out bread and fish as a spirit.

        John 20:19-20 (NKJV)

        19 Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled,[a] for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

        If Jesus was merely spirit then why would he still have a hole in his side and holes in his hands?

        Lastly, you have presented no evidence that Paul’s meeting with the risen Lord was a vision. While it does seem to be a supernatural event, there is nothing in the passage that says it was a vision. From Acts 9:

        3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
        5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?”
        Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.[a] It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
        6 So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?”
        Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
        7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. 8 Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one.

        However, just a few verses later Ananias does see the Lord in a vision because it says so:

        10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, “Ananias.”

        The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important event in history, providing irrefutable evidence that Jesus is who He claimed to be – the Son of God.

        Reply
  4. Gary M

    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.

    Reply
    1. Jason

      The Pharisees were very concerned about someone stealing the body. Since it was the Passover no Jew would’ve done work so they went to Pilate for a guard the following day. It was so important that they troubled the Roman Governor to post a guard, do you not think they would’ve had the tomb checked? And, if grave robbers stole the body would they not have had to roll the large stone (requiring several robbers) from the entrance? Would they take time to roll it back? Would they take the time to unwrap the linen and the 100 pounds of spices and fold the handkerchief that was wrapped around his head? And, how does grave robbers explain the claim that the apostles saw the Lord? What about the 500 at one time that were eyewitnesses of His resurrection of which many were still alive at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (15:6)?

      Reply
  5. Aron Featherf00t

    Simply put Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are the only two who had the motive, means and opportunity to move the body. As to the objection of the Pharisees not being stupid enough no to check the tomb: well they were. I’m I suppose to believe that it was more probable that a first century decomposing dead guy came back to life and survived more than thirty seconds with a hole in his heart or that the Pharisees were too stupid to check? I think the answer is obvious.

    Reply
    1. Jason

      Both Nicodemus and Joseph were strict Pharisees and would observe the Passover which is a major event in the life of a Jew. They would not be moving dead bodies late at night. Please do some research about Passover before you make such a flippant argument.

      Reply

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