by Dr. Ron Galloway
In part 1 of this blog series, I stated and elaborated on the central problem facing the fringe scholar or radical critic: He or she must find an alternative explanation and motivation for the life of Christ, the resurrection, the forty day appearances, and the ascension of Jesus, one better than the ones given by the early Christians and the New Testament writers.
Here I offer a study of some incredible about turns that the early Christians’ and their opponents’ writings record.
Mathew, Mark, and Luke, very early Christian writers[i], record that after Jesus was crucified on the cross and was placed in His tomb, everyone thought He was dead; this applies not only to the women who visited the tomb and the disciples of Jesus, but also the religious leaders who had posted a guard around his tomb.[ii]
The Religious leaders heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus, who was undeniably dead. They also heard, on more than one occasion, that Jesus was God[iii].
This, in fact, was their official reason for crucifying him. Despite the illegality of the trial,[iv]He was found guilty of blasphemy as one who claims to put himself on a par with God. Jesus did seem to be guilty of blasphemy. He did tell them that he was God. But because He was God, He was not putting himself in the place of God. That is what it means to blaspheme. Despite the claim by some that Jesus never actually said he was God, Jesus made this clear on numerous occasions.[v] The author of Mathew reports that these same religious leaders who crucified Jesus got Pontius Pilate to post a Roman guard around the tomb so that the disciples could not steal the body and claim Jesus had been resurrected.[vi]This posting of a Roman guard brings us to the first incredible “about turn.”
ForAn event occurred which motivated the military guard to not only leave off guarding the tomb, but some of them returned and reported what had happened to the religious leaders who had sent them. What the soldiers reported was that the tomb was empty. They likely reported that while they were guarding the tomb an angel came down, removed the stone from the tomb, and sat on it while they were watching. They likely did not report that they were scared out of their tree when this happened. Mathew reports that they became like dead men.[vii]
For a Roman Guard to stop guarding a post of this kind, especially one appointed by Pilot, and admit the body was gone is in itself telling evidence not only for the reality of an unoccupied tomb, but also for the resurrection.
ForEvery Roman guard knew that if his prisoner escaped he would be imprisoned himself.[viii] In the case of Jesus, they knew they would take His place in that same tomb. This may explain why only “some of the guards” reported back to the religious leaders (tives tas koustodias – some of the guards, in the original Greek). Very likely the others simply fled. If they didn’t flee, they obviously did not want to be the ones to report the bad news. One thing is certain. A Roman guard would never leave his post unless his prisoner escaped. There is, therefore, no way these Roman guards would leave that tomb unless Jesus was no longer there.
Here then the critic is faced with an “about turn” that requires that he come up with a better reason for the guard abandoning the tomb than that the tomb was truly empty because Jesus was truly risen.
Immediately after this, Mathew records another “aboutturn” by the religious leaders themselves. First, they persuaded Pilot, the Roman ruler in Jerusalem, to guard the tomb. Now they make a complete “about turn and bribe the soldiers to spread to the populace the lie that the disciples had stolen the body.[ix]According to all four Gospels there was no motivation whatsoever for the women or the disciples to steal the body. All four accounts make it clear that all of His followers were certain He was dead before they saw that empty tomb.[x]
Therefore this is indeed a highly significant “about turn”, for when the solders reported this lie it was bound to spread like wildfire and assure that virtually everyone in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions would hear that the tomb was empty, a tomb which had been guarded by trained military personnel. From there the lie would continue to spread to Jewish and Roman leaders across the Roman Empire, and eventually to Jews from every nation. A Roman guard abandoning his post and being defended by Jewish leadership was no small issue. Normally, the soldiers would simply be put to death. Imagine the embarrassment of Pilot who, despite whatever efforts he may have made to keep the news quiet, would not be able to do so now that the soldiers had announced the event to all, including of course their fellow soldiers. There is little or no doubt that something this controversial would soon reach Pilate’s superiors as well as regional Jewish leaders across the
Ironically enough this means that the military guard and the religious leaders were, in effect, and still are to this day, strange heralds, announcing to everyone in that time and ours the reality of the empty tomb. This of course provided scads of support to the report of the early Christians that Jesus had risen. For surely everyone would wonder how the disciples of Jesus could steal the body out of a sealed tomb right in front of a Roman guard appointed by Pilate himself.
As for the claim that the disciples stole the body, it is highly unlikely that the disciples of Jesus could slip past a Roman Guard and steal a body. After all, there was a stone over the tomb, so the thieves could hardly quietly slip in and steal the body without being noticed. Why would they risk their lives in what would have undoubtedly been a costly battle if they somehow succeeded? If they had succeeded, after a pitched battle, the Jewish leaders would have had no hesitation in reporting that the Roman soldiers had been bested by Jews and claimed their prize. There would be no need to bribe the Roman soldiers or even defend them.[xi]This is a very different scenario than thievery.
Furthermore, what purpose would it serve? As mentioned in Part 1, how are the disciples going to proclaim the resurrection of Christ if all they have is a corpse? There is no valid reason to question that the women who visited the tomb were telling the truth when they said that these Roman soldiers encountered supernatural men clothed in white, and that their faces turned as white as death amidst their trembling.[xii]
To add even more profusely to the difficulties of a fringe critic trying to come up with a better explanation, we note the fact that Mathew makes clear that at the time he is writing his account (maybe twenty to twenty five years after the event), the lie about the disciples stealing the body was still being “spread about.”[xiii] What we then witness in Mathew’s own words is this same evidence for the empty tomb as well as for the resurrection. We see that the lie was still circulating. Of course, if Mathew was written earlier than is usually supposed, perhaps only ten years or less had passed.
If in fact no such story first announced by a Roman guard was being spread abroad, Mathew would quickly be brought to account by the Jewish and Roman authorities, for claiming that a story about the stolen body of Jesus was circulating which actually never did. Even if Mathew wrote thirty years later, the authorities would know Jesus body was still in the tomb. Anyone who claimed that Pilate had ordered a guard he did not order, especially one that dropped the ball, would not escape the notice of officials that were in charge ten or twenty years later. For a story of this kind, if false, would be viewed as a major insult to the Roman military. The same applies to the Jewish leaders. Mathew would have to be a fool to record this in a widely circulating book if it was a lie, and to what end? His fellow Christians would know such a report was never spread by the Jewish leaders. What writer would make such a claim when the lie could be so easily exposed? It is more than mildly probable that Mathew is saying nothing new, but simply making mention of what was, by then, a matter of common knowledge, nothing new either to the Romans, the Jewish leaders, or the early Christian world.
With these two “about turns” we see the difficulties magnifying for the fringe critic who must now formulate a different motivation and explanation for the resurrection than the one given by those who are recorded as knowing Jesus intimately, and who were with him for forty days after his resurrection. Yet we are still not finished with the implications of this second “about turn”. We’ll pick them up again in the next post in this series.