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I’ve written before on why the guards at the tomb of Jesus, included only in the Gospel of Matthew, are almost certainly invented by the author of that Gospel. Today I will tell you how they fit into a larger narrative construction of the Jesus story, and that their invention tells us an awful lot more than you might think.

Let’s go back to the beginning. What does Matthew tell us?

62 Now on the next day, that is, the day which is after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, 63 and they said, “Sir, we remember that when that deceiver was still alive, He said, ‘After three days I am rising.’ 64 Therefore, give orders for the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise, His disciples may come and steal Him, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” 66 And they went and made the tomb secure with the guard, sealing the stone.

11 Now while they were on their way, some of the men from the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and [e]keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews and is to this day.

Matthew 27 & 28

The standard criticism of this passage is that it appears in no other Gospel, which is odd because these guards are arguably the first (or only) witnesses of the actual Resurrection of Jesus. It is odd because they have just seen the resurrected Godmanspirit first hand and, rather than convert and believe in the most amazing thing they have experienced, they go back to their superiors, tell them of what they have seen, and are bribed to keep quiet.

I could bore you with details about whether these were Roman or Sanhedrin (Jewish Council) guards, and other more nuanced arguments, but I don’t want to distract from my main point. Please see my book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story.

Suffice to say that Matthew’s guards are a polemic created by the author to answer criticisms (that Matthew himself expresses, but that we also see elsewhere in early church writing) from Jews that it is more likely that the body was stolen. Matthew’s inclusion here is a counter-counter-argument.

So the questions are: Why Mark didn’t include this claim? Why does the guard narrative only appear in Matthew?

And this is where it gets really interesting.

The simple answer is that Mark made up the Empty Tomb claim. We can infer this from three data points:

  1. Paul says absolutely nothing about the Empty Tomb even though he would have had good reason to do so. There is a stark absence of pretty much any Resurrection anrrative detail in Paul’s writings implying that he did not know those details (they had not been invented yet). If he had known them, they would almost certainlky have appeared as supporting evidence for his claims in his epistles. Instead, he uses Hebrew Bible quotes to support his claims.
  2. Mark’s last original uninterpolated claim is that the women witnesses left the tomb and told no one. (Mark’s original account ends at 16:9—everything after that is an interpoklation and appears in most bibles in brackets).
  3. Mark has no need to invent the guards because no counter-polemic existed yet from the Jews because the Jews did not know this claim yet precisely because Mark is inventing it.

This second point is very important. All the other Gospels flatly contradict the claim that the women run off and tell no one. Very obviously. They have the women leave the tomb and straight away tell people.

…this is evidence of a far larger narrative creation throughout the Gospels. It shows that Mark made up the whole Empty Tomb narrative.

What purpose does the “telling no one” motif serve for Mark?

Mark needs to explain to his audience, in writing just after 70 CE, why none of them have ever heard the story of the Empty Tomb. He is introducing the idea of the Empty Tomb to them for the first time. This is because he (or his community he is drawing from) created the narrative, It didn’t exist before Mark’s Gospel, so Mark had to explain why no one knew about the Empty Tomb: the women told no one, he explains.

The next three Gospels, written from 15 to 50 years after Mark and his claims, no longer need to explain why the Empty Tomb was not known because it was now known, due to the already-circulated Mark. Everyone now knew about the Empty Tomb due to the circulation of Mark’s Gospel throughout the early church communities, so the later Gospel authors (Matthew, Luke, and John) didn’t need the women to leave telling anyone. Instead, they had the women going straight out to get verification, further supposedly proving the Empty Tomb narrative.

Their women promptly told all the right people as soon as they could!

Let’s look at point 3. Mark mentions nothing of the guards at the tomb because there is not yet a counter-argument. Imagine Mark writing 40 years after the Jesus narrative after Jesus had died. If the Empty Tomb story had been about for 40 years, there would have been Jewish counter-claims all over the shop. Mark would need to be dealing with them in his own writing. Matthew reports these claims, and he is writing some 55 years after Jesus’ death. We also hear such claims from early church fathers.

Yet Mark mentions nothing. There are no Jewish counter-claims, so Mark needs no counter-counter-claims. The lack of a pre-existing empty tomb narrative is the only thing that makes sense of the lack of guards in Mark, and their addition in Matthew.

In other words, the guards’ claim is far more important than you might think. It shows that Mark made up the empty tomb, and Matthew was the one left to deal with the counter-arguments.

Luke and John don’t include them at all, which is a very good argument for their lack of authenticity. After all, they were possibly some of the only witnesses to the actual resurrection, or at the very least the angels rolling the stone away and announcing it. Presumably, Luke and John omitted them because they saw it for what it was—an obvious polemic mechanism.

Matthew’s guards aren’t just evidence that Matthew made up an element of the story (just as he did with the zombie saints parading around Jerusalem that many people supposedly saw, and an earthquake—two things not recounted anywhere else inside or outside of the Bible). Rather, this is evidence of a far larger narrative creation throughout the Gospels. It shows that Mark made up the whole Empty Tomb narrative.

Thus Matthew’s guards are more important than people give them credit for.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...