(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)
A guest post by Timothy McGrew
… ἡ δὲ κρίσις χαλεπή
Skeptical objections to the historicity of the Gospel narratives are numerous. They are also, for the most part, old news. When so many people have gone over the same ground so often, we should not expect much in the way of novelty. Still, every so often someone manages to state some objections so forcefully, or at least with so much bravado and so many footnotes, that they appear to be a new and devastating challenge to the basic factual accuracy of the Gospels.
Michael Alter’s book The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015) is certainly long enough to seem imposing, and somewhat to my surprise it has thrown my acquaintance V. J. Torley into a bit of a tailspin. Torley has written a very long, detailed, glowing review of Alter’s book -- a review that is practically a monograph in its own right -- in which he claims that the book is a “bombshell” that “demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the resurrection.”
Since I am unimpressed by Alter’s arguments, I asked Torley to pick three particular arguments as test cases. He readily obliged, and in this series of guest posts I will evaluate the arguments that seem to Alter and Torley so powerful and convincing. Torley chose the three following points for this test:
1. Was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb?
2. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the cross?
3. Was Jesus buried in a new rock tomb? (specifically, a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea)
In each case, he believes, Alter has mounted a powerful argument that the Gospels get the answers to these questions wrong, and he has recapitulated those arguments that he finds convincing in the linked blog post. I think there is far less to this case than meets the eye.
Here is Torley’s summary of the argument that there was not a guard at Jesus’ tomb.
This story, which is found only in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:62-66), is a transparent invention, and a very silly one at that. In Matthew’s account, the chief priests and elders go to Pilate on Saturday and ask for a guard to secure Jesus’ tomb, in order to prevent Jesus’ followers from stealing Jesus’ body and proclaiming that he had risen from the dead. Pilate accedes to their request. But this story fails to explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night, before the guard was posted over the tomb. Nor are we told why Pilate would have agreed to the Jewish leaders’ request, which concerned a purely religious issue that was of no concern to a Roman prefect. And how likely is it that Pilate, whom the Gospels depict as being pressured against his will by the chief priests into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, would have turned around the following day and granted their request for a guard? Finally, the story is at odds with Jewish law, as it involves the chief priests and Pharisees ordering people to work on the Sabbath, which was forbidden in the Ten Commandments given to Moses: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exodus 20:9-10). Even Gentiles employed by Jews were not allowed to work.
Torley rejects the story that there was a guard at the tomb for the following four reasons:
A. It is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel, not in the other three.
B. This account fails to explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night.
C. We are not told why Pilate would agree to the Jewish leaders’ request. In particular:
1. The request concerned a purely religious matter, and we would not expect Pilate to care much about such things
2. Pilate had just been pressured into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, and therefore any further request would be unlikely to meet with a favorable reception
D. The Jewish rulers would not have made such a request of Pilate, since a gentile employed by a Jew would not be allowed to work on the Sabbath.
Let us consider these reasons in turn.
First, only Matthew’s Gospel mentions the setting of a guard at Jesus’ tomb. It is not clear how much weight Torley intends this fact to bear by itself. But as the argument from silence in such cases is generally terribly weak, it is hard to see why it should be significant just here. Many of the events of antiquity crop up in only one source. The conditions that have to be met for an argument from silence to be strong are rather stringent and are rarely met in historical work. (For details, see my paper “The Argument from Silence,” Acta Analytica 29 (2014), 215-28.) As Torley has not attempted to argue that the silence of the other evangelists meets the probabilistic challenge laid out there, I will not belabor the point.
Second, Torley objects that the account does not explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night. In making this objection, he assumes that the request was made on Saturday morning. For the moment, suppose it was; even so, the objection has little force. There are simply too many plausible ways for the rulers to fail to make the request on Friday. Pilate might have left pointed instructions that he wasn’t to be bothered further that evening. The Jewish leaders might have left someone of their own to keep an eye on the tomb overnight. Failing that, they might still have thought that it would be better than nothing to have a guard set for the remainder of the time period specified.
But it is not even clear from the text that the request was made on Saturday. The Jews reckoned the beginning of the Sabbath with sundown on Friday, so for all the text says, they may have made the request on Friday evening as soon as they ascertained the location of Jesus’ body. In his work The Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, According to the Four Evangelists (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1827), Johann David Michaelis argues that the language of Matthew, with its peculiar turn of phrase (ἥτις ἐστὶν μετὰ τὴν Παρασκευήν, hardly necessary after Τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον unless something more specific than the generic succession of days is intended) actually indicates that the request was made just past sundown on Friday:
Literally translated, on the following day, which is after Friday. As it is self-evident that one day must follow another, and it requires no author to tell us this, the meaning is, “on the following day, immediately after the end of Friday,” or in other words, immediately after sunset, with which, according to the custom of the Jews, the day ends, and the sabbath begins. This mode of speaking seems singular in Greek, but in Hebrew, from the same word [ערב] signifying “evening,” “holy evening,” or, as we should say, “vespers,” it becomes more intelligible. The meaning is, that from an apprehension the body might be stolen in the night, they did not wait until the following morning, they went immediately to Pilate that same evening, which now no longer belonged to Friday, but formed part of the sabbath, and requested a guard. [100; cf. the German edition, 83]
Various other New Testament scholars, not all of them conservative (Doddridge, Paulus, Kuinoel, Thorburn) concur in Michaelis’s analysis. Meyer dissents, but without adducing any reasons other than his disagreement with these authorities regarding the meaning of the expression τῇ ἐπαύριον. He does not engage with Michaelis’s point regarding the parallel Hebrew expression [ממחרת ערב השבת] at all.
The second objection, then, is either very weak (if Michaelis is wrong) or completely misguided (if he is right). This is hardly the sort of reasoning that should lead us to discard a contemporaneous narrative account of a public event.
The third objection is that Matthew’s narrative does not tell us why Pilate would acquiesce in the request of the Jewish leaders. On the face of it, this is a very odd way to object to historical evidence. Many narratives recount events without affording us an explanation for them, and sometimes we are left to guess what that explanation might be. So what?
But perhaps this problem is just a matter of wording; perhaps the real objection is that the two considerations Torley mention are supposed to make it unlikely that Pilate would grant a guard at the tomb. Is it so?
The first consideration is that Pilate, as a secular authority dealing exclusively with non-religious matters, would have had no reason to grant a request of this sort -- perhaps also that the Jewish leaders would not have had the temerity to put it to him. But this consideration misses the mark entirely. The matter of Jesus’ death, though of religious importance to the Jewish rulers, had far wider ramifications. An imposture might well raise civil trouble in Jerusalem, particularly as it was swollen at this time with hundreds of thousands (Josephus, Jewish War 2.14.3 (Loeb #280), estimates three million) of Passover pilgrims. Jesus’ popularity with the crowds was well known. Unrest at Passover had led to disastrous results within living memory, notably on the death of Herod the Great, as Josephus describes in his Antiquities 17.9.3 (Loeb #213-18). Preventing civil unrest lay squarely within Pilate’s sphere of responsibility. On this count, the matter is exactly the sort of thing we would expect the Jewish rulers to request of Pilate. It is a mark of authenticity rather than of inauthenticity.
The second consideration is that Pilate, whom the Jewish leadership had (according to the Gospels) maneuvered into having Jesus crucified against his own better judgment, would have been unlikely to grant them a further request. This point deserves close consideration, because it has a significance that has escaped Torley and Alter. According to the Gospel narratives, Pilate did not believe Jesus had done anything worthy of death. He allowed the Jews to have their way on this matter only because he feared that they would send a twisted version of events to Rome, destabilizing his governorship and perhaps leading to his being recalled in disgrace. For the sake of their argument, Alter and Torley need to grant at least this much authenticity to the Gospel narratives. In a subsequent post, I will return to this point, as it substantially undermines a claim that Torley and others have made in support of the second and third objections.
But the consideration is relevant here only if there is no other reason that Pilate might have felt moved to grant such a request. And even assuming that Pilate was thoroughly unhappy with the Jewish leaders by this time, such a reason lies ready to hand. The theft of a body and proclamation that the individual in question was alive was the sort of scenario a Roman governor under Tiberius could not safely ignore. Some sixteen years earlier, one Clemens, a slave of Caesar Augustus’s grandson Agrippa Postumus, stole the ashes and bones of his murdered master and spread the rumor that Agrippa had in fact escaped the attempt on his life. As he resembled his dead master in age and physique, he went so far as to impersonate him in some of the towns at twilight. Tiberius, who had become sole emperor after the death of his adopted father Augustus in that very year, feared a conspiracy and had Clemens apprehended, interrogated, and slain in a private part of his palace. (See Tacitus, Annals 2.39-40.)
So this second consideration, as well, turns out not only to pose no problem for the authenticity of the narrative but actually to be a point in its favor. These are the sorts of details that modern critics, even those professing to examine historical matters very minutely, are apt to overlook because they are not intimately familiar with the historical context.
The fourth objection is that the Jewish leaders would not have asked Pilate to set a guard at the tomb, since it was the Sabbath day, and Jewish law would have forbidden them to hire a gentile to do such work on the Sabbath. Yet again, the objection seems to me to be fundamentally misguided, and in two ways. First, even supposing the objection to be fairly stated, there is no guarantee that the Jewish authorities would be particularly scrupulous in the matter of hiring a Roman guard to do their work, as they had already shown their willingness to hold a trial by night in prima facie violation of their own rules.
But as it happens, the text does not bear out the idea that they were hiring anyone. Rather, they were making a request to Pilate, as the civil governor, that he would secure the tomb with a guard. Nothing in Jewish law as interpreted at the time would prevent them from making such a request.
I conclude that on the first point, Alter’s argument, as summarized by Torley, completely fails to undermine the credibility Matthew’s account of the setting of a guard at the tomb where Jesus had just been buried. Indeed, some of the particular considerations raised against that account are actually points that count on the other side, showing a minute consistency with the historical context and recent historical events that have escaped the notice of these critics.
In my subsequent posts, I will examine Torley’s two remaining challenges.
[UPDATE: See the comments thread below for an argument of Torley's on a related point.]