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. 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.
- 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). So the body may have been stolen before the guards had been posted.
- 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.
- The guards took a bribe to allow the disciples to steal the body.
- 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.
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).” 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.”
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)?” 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.”
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?
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.
 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.
 Carrier, 358.
 Price, 226.
 James Patrick Holding, Defending the Resurrection. Xulon Press. Pg. 395.
 N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Pg. 638.