The Guard at the Tomb

by William Lane Craig

Matthew’s story of the guard at the tomb of Jesus is widely regarded as an apologetic legend. Although some of the reasons given in support of this judgment are not weighty, two are more serious: (1) the story is found only in Matthew, and (2) the story presupposes that Jesus predicted his resurrection and that only the Jewish leaders understood those predictions. But the absence of the story from the other gospels may be due to their lack of interest in Jewish-Christian polemics. There are no good reasons to deny that Jesus predicted his resurrection, in which case the second objection becomes basically an argument from silence. On the positive side, the historicity of the story is supported by two considerations: (1) as an apologetic, the story is not a fail-safe answer to the charge of body-snatching, and (2) a reconstruction of the history of tradition lying behind Jewish-Christian polemic makes the fictitiousness of the guard unlikely. – “The Guard at the Tomb.” New Testament Studies 30 (1984): 273-81

Of the canonical gospels, only Matthew relates the intriguing story of the setting of a guard at the tomb of Jesus (Mt. 27. 62-66; 28. 4, 11-1 5). The story serves an apologetic purpose: the refutation of the allegation that the disciples had themselves stolen Jesus’ body and thus faked his resurrection. Behind the story as Matthew tells it seems to lie a tradition history of Jewish and Christian polemic, a developing pattern of assertion and counter-assertion:2

Christian: ‘The Lord is risen!’
Jew: ‘No, his disciples stole away his body.’
Christian: ‘The guard at the tomb would have prevented any such theft.’
Jew: ‘No, his disciples stole away his body while the guard slept.’
Christian: ‘The chief priests bribed the guard to say this.’

Though Matthew alone of the four evangelists mentions the guard at the tomb (John mentions a guard in connection with Jesus’ arrest; cf. Mk. 14. 44), the gospel of Peter also relates the story of the guard at the tomb, and its account may well be independent of Matthew, since the verbal similarities are practically nil.3

According to Matthew’s version, on Saturday, that is, on the Sabbath, which Matthew strangely circumnavigates by calling it the day after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees ask Pilate for a guard to secure the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body and thus ‘fulfilling’ Jesus’ prediction of rising on the third day. Pilate says, ‘You have a guard; make it as secure as you can.’ It is not clear if this means that Pilate gave them a Roman guard or told them to use their own temple guard. The Gospel of Peter uses a Roman guard, but this is probably read into the tradition and may be designed to emphasize the strength of the guard. If one might mention a psychological consideration, Pilate would probably be by this point so disgusted with the Jews that he might well rebuff them; but legends know no psychological limits. If Pilate rebuffed the Jews, then one wonders why this part of the story be told at all; but if the Jews really did go to Pilate, then perhaps this detail was remembered…

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