Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb

Christian apologist Professor Tim McGrew recently defended the historicity of Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb, in a post put up by his wife, Dr. Lydia McGrew. Professor McGrew’s post was written in response to a challenge he issued to me, in response to my (generally positive) review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015), which was published at The Skeptical Zone last year. Not wishing to address the bulk of Alter’s arguments, which he considered unconvincing, Professor McGrew challenged me to narrow the focus of our discussion, by listing three of Alter’s arguments which I had found particularly convincing. The first topic on my list which Professor McGrew chose to address was the question: was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb? However, it turns out that McGrew’s argument for the historicity of Matthew’s story of the guard is based on faulty math – a surprising flaw, coming from a man who has written extensively on the subject of Bayes’ Theorem and its role in Christian apologetics. Before we have a look at the math, though, I have a special announcement: Michael Alter himself has decided to weigh in on the controversy, and I have included his remarks in this post.

Curious, that!

Before I continue, let me begin by pointing out four curious facts, which may be of interest to readers.

First, I actually wrote a comment in reply to Professor McGrew’s post, which was never published. Funny, that. Now, I don’t wish to complain about this – after all, the people in charge of What’s Wrong With the World (the blog on which Professor McGrew’s post can be found) have every right to make their own rules, as it is their blog. However, I will note for the record that since the tone of my reply was entirely civil and (I believe) in keeping with the blog’s stated posting rules, I had a reasonable expectation that it would be published.

Second, in his post, Professor McGrew only quoted the first half of my argument, omitting the second half, which I consider to be by far the stronger half. Let me be clear that I am not accusing Professor McGrew of making a deliberate omission, as he subsequently attempted to rectify his omission with a comment attempting to address the second half of my argument. Nevertheless, the original omission betokens a certain carelessness on Professor McGrew’s part: a dangerous failing, when one is engaging in controversy.

Third, the list of three “test cases” displayed in Professor McGrew’s post which we agreed to debate is not the same as the list which I originally provided him. Here is his list of the three topics to be covered:

Since I am unimpressed by Alter’s arguments, I asked Torley to pick three particular arguments as test cases… 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)

However, in actual fact, I offered Professor McGrew a choice of two topics for the first test case: (i) Were Jewish saints raised at Jesus’ death? or (ii) Was there a Guard at Jesus’ tomb?

Professor McGrew then chose the former option, in an early response to my review of Michael Alter’s book. I am therefore a little puzzled as to why he has suddenly changed course, and chosen the latter option instead. Now, Professor McGrew has a perfect right to change his mind, and I presume he has done so for tactical reasons. That is his privilege. Nevertheless, a public acknowledgment of this change of tack would have been courteous to his readers.

Finally, Professor McGrew made no attempt to notify either me or Michael Alter about the post which he had authored. I stumbled on it by accident a short time after he had written it, as I occasionally peruse the What’s Wrong With the World blog for its articles of topical interest. Michael Alter heard about the post from Professor Joshua Swamidass, who thought he might wish to respond – which he did. I hereby invite readers to carefully examine Michael Alter’s response, which I have included in this post. Here it is, in full. Below Michael Alter’s response, I have written my own detailed, mathematical response to Professor McGrew’s defense of the historicity of Matthew’s story of the guard.

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CORRECTED and UPDATED RESPONSE TO TIM MCGREW’S “Was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb?” by Michael Alter

Recently, Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass kindly sent me an e-mail providing information that Dr. Tim McGrew had published a guest post response to Vincent Torley’s review of my text, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015) in his wife’s group blog: What’s Wrong With the World. First, I am honored that a respected, knowledgeable, and published authority has taken time out of his busy schedule to respond to Vincent Torley’s review of my text. His time is respected.

Now then, let me respond to several points addressed by Tim:

  1. Tim wrote: Since I am unimpressed by Alter’s arguments…

RESPONSE: Tim is unimpressed of Vincent’s review / summary of my text. His opinion is absolutely respected. However, it is significant that presumably, Tim has not examined my text. At least this is my gut feeling after having read his introduction. In my opinion, if Tim has read my text, he should have made this point clear to his readership. If I am in error, please correct me and excuse me. Therefore, it must be repeated for emphasis that he is only responding to Vincent’s review of my text. Perhaps, it might be harsh, but imagine a movie critic critiqued a movie without seeing it. Or, imagine that a music critic published a review of the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony without having heard and seen the actual performance. Finally, imagine that a chess expert analyzed a chess match without having witnessed or seen the chess notations of that match. In the three examples just identified, the evaluation was merely based on an earlier reviewer’s published review. Question: Do you think that the evaluation is fair?

2. It [the guard at the tomb] is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel, not in the other three… the argument from silence in such cases is generally terribly weak… 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.

RESPONSE: To the contrary, numerous bible commentators (on both sides of the religious aisle) doubt or question the historicity of Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb (Dale Allison, C H Dodd, Raymond Brown, R H Gundry, The New Catholic Encyclopedia, etc. On pages 297-299, I offer several “SPECULATIONS” for Matthew’s rationale for inventing the Guard Episode. Although various explanations are possible, I elected to focus on, and explore the rationale discussed by Elaine Pagels. Unfortunately, in my opinion, you did not evaluate her writing.

Most significant, the historicity / veracity of the tomb itself is a point of contention and discussion. On pages 337-339, I identified at least fifteen scholars, theologians, and historians. Numerous times, I include their commentary. Yet, you chose not to belabor the point. Your decision is respected, however, it is NOT fair to my text.

3. Torley objects that the account does not explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night.

RESPONSE: On pages 340-343, I specifically presented William Lane Craig’s discussion on this specific topic. After presenting his apologetic, I offer my rebuttal. Your essay responds to Vincent’s rationale, it does NOT respond to my rationale. Once again, this is not fair, and disingenuous to your readers.

4. You wrote: “The third objection is that Matthew’s narrative does not tell us why Pilate would acquiesce in the request of the Jewish leaders.”

RESPONSE: Pilate’s rationale is subject only to scholarly speculation. And yes, you offer several thoughtful ideas on this topic. Thank you! But, these too, are just scholarly speculations. However, here too, these speculations are depended upon the historicity / veracity of a tomb burial. Furthermore, there is scholarly speculation as to the meaning of Pilate’s words: “Take a guard,” or “You have a guard.” That topic, too, is discussed on page 294.

5. You wrote: 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.

RESPONSE: You added: “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.” To be one hundred percent honest, this statement makes me cringe. Is it possible that this invented episode (and the trials) is/are, in fact, an argumentum ad hominem against the Jewish leadership (Jewish people)? If you excuse me, you continue the myth of the degradation of the Jewish leadership. I will be the first to admit that not everyone is “wonderful”… And, the Tenakh is clear that numerous times the Jewish people have fallen short of the mark / not been Torah faithful. However, numerous commentators, on both sides of the religious aisle frankly discuss plentiful examples of anti-Semitism recorded in Matthew, and elsewhere in the Christian Bible. Unfortunately, since you presumably (again, I could be in error) have not read my text, you did not comment on pages 343-344. Not to hit a dead horse, but this failure on your part is not fair and it is disingenuous to your readers.

In closing you write: “I conclude that on the first point, Alter’s argument, as summarized by Torley”… This reminds me of a famous quote by the Jewish poet Haim Nachman Bialik. Hopefully, the analogy will be self-evident. “ Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil.” Those who understand, will understand…

Take care.

Mike

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I’d like to thank Michael Alter for his well-written response to Professor McGrew. I’d now like to address the substance of Professor McGrew’s argument for the historicity of Matthew’s story of the guard at Jesus’ tomb.

A preliminary observation

First of all, I’d like to draw Professor McGrew’s attention to a remark I made, in the same comment where I posed my challenge to him:

In what follows, the question I’d like to address is not whether these claims are true, but whether or not they are probable, when judged on purely historical grounds, by a fair-minded historian with no anti-supernaturalistic bias. [The emphases have been added by me – VJT.]

In his post, Professor McGrew concludes that “Alter’s argument, as summarized by Torley, completely fails to undermine the credibility [of] Matthew’s account of the setting of a guard at the tomb where Jesus had just been buried.” But all that goes to show is that Matthew’s story of the guard is possible, not that it is historically probable. More is needed.

I should also note that Professor McGrew’s post contains no less than four instances of “might have” or “might still have.” Once again, this is not the sort of language one employs when attempting to build a probabilistic case.

So where’s the beef?

Surprisingly, the real substance of Professor McGrew’s argument for the historicity of Matthew’s story of the guard at Jesus’ tomb is not contained within his post, but in a comment he wrote four days later, in response to a critic. Here’s the relevant excerpt:


It is a matter of balancing probabilities and inclining to the most likely. There are three independent variables here: the prior probability that a guard was set, P(G), the probability of our having the Matthean account, given that a guard was set, P(M|G), and the probability of our having that account, given that a guard was not set, P(M|~G). I contend that, on the basis of such information as we actually possess, P(G) is not particularly low, and therefore the ratio P(G)/P(~G) is not significantly less than 1. I have disposed of Alter’s attempt to argue to the contrary. P(M|G) is not itself wildly low; if that is what happened, this is more or less the sort of account we might hope to have of it. P(M|~G), however, is very low; I cannot see why anyone would think it is even on the same order of magnitude as P(M|G). Therefore, P(G)/P(~G) ≈ 1, and P(M|G)/P(M|~G) >> 1; therefore, P(G|M)/P(~G|M) >> 1; therefore, P(G|M) is easily more likely than not.

That’s all.

Professor McGrew’s mathematical reasoning is sound, given his three premises, which are that:

(i) the prior probability P(G) of a guard being set over Jesus’ tomb is not particularly low;

(ii) the probability P(M|G) of our having Matthew’s account, given that a guard was set, is not wildly low – indeed, M is something we might expect, given G;

(iii) the probability P(M|~G) of our having Matthew’s account, given that a guard was not set, is very low – in fact, orders of magnitude lower than P(M|G).

In a nutshell: the premises which I contest are premises (ii) and (iii). I think P(M|G) is very low, while P(M|~G) is low, but nonetheless greater than P(M|G) – even on the assumption of an empty tomb.

Why Matthew’s story actually makes more sense if there were no guard

Let’s address Professor McGrew’s premises in reverse order, and start with premise (iii). Why do I contest McGrew’s claim that P(M|G) is massively greater than P(M|~G), while conceding that P(M|~G) is low? Briefly, there are two probabilities we need to consider when looking at the story of the guard in Matthew’s gospel: the probability of such a story being created in the first place, and the probability of its being circulated. The latter is of vital importance, because even a true story will never end up in anyone’s gospel, unless it circulates well enough to reach the ears of the gospel’s author. Now, if there actually were a guard at Jesus’ tomb, then the creation of the story poses no problem: Matthew is simply narrating what actually happened. However, the circulation of a story like the one we find in Matthew’s gospel is extremely unlikely, since it would have been counter-productive for the guards to spread it, as they would have been putting their lives in danger by doing so, for reasons we’ll discuss below. And even if we throw in the additional fact of the empty tomb, and grant that the tomb of Jesus was mysteriously opened while the guards were on duty, one would still not expect them to circulate the story which Matthew claims they did: “His disciples stole the body while we were all asleep.” To quote Alter, “it would have made much more sense for the Sanhedrin to have told the soldiers to say nothing at all or to report that everything was in order and that they had left at the proper time (Schleiermacher 1975, 430).”

On the other hand, if there were no guard at Jesus’ tomb, then there would have been no obvious motive to invent the story of the guard, in the first place. In his book, Alter suggests possible motives, but they are simply that: possibilities. (Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of possibilities, I should mention another interesting hypothesis for the origin of the guard story in Matthew, suggested by Alter in his book (2015, p. 342): “Matthew creatively and skillfully weaves a legendary account incorporating passages from Joshua 10 and Daniel 6 that are supposedly fulfilled by Jesus.” Make of it what you will. All I will say is that the account in Joshua 10:16-27 resembles Matthew’s account in several respects: it features a cave whose mouth is covered up with large rocks, with bodies inside [live ones, in the book of Joshua], and several guards posted outside.) However, once the story of a guard at Jesus’ tomb had been invented (for whatever reason), there would have been no powerful reason not to allow it to circulate freely, as it would have jeopardized no-one, meaning that no-one had any motive to suppress it.

In short: the main hurdle for P(M|~G) to overcome is its creation: why invent such a story in the first place? Once created, however, it could freely circulate. P(M|G), on the other hand, faces no creation hurdle, but a massive circulation hurdle, for two reasons: (a) circulating the story posed a real danger to the guards, who were allegedly the first people to propagate it, since (as we’ll see below) spreading the story put their lives at risk, and (b) the guards would have been better served by spreading another story, instead: “Nothing happened.” Had this lie been too difficult to sustain in the face of contrary evidence, then how about this one: “The earthquake [which Matthew 28:2 tells us was a violent one] broke the seal of the tomb and also caused the body of Jesus to disappear down a crevice.” And even supposing there had been a public clamor for Jesus’ dead body, in order to quell the rumors of its having been resurrected, the guards could have stolen the body of another executed criminal from somewhere (say, a burial pit), and placed it in Jesus’ tomb. Would this have been difficult to carry out? Not at all. We need to bear in mind that according to Jewish religious law, corpses were deemed to be no longer legally identifiable with any certainty if they were more than three days old (see here). The apostles didn’t start publicly preaching Jesus’ Resurrection until seven weeks after the Crucifixion – which means the guards would have had plenty of time to organize their fraudulent scheme, before word of Jesus’ Resurrection got around. There are lots of other stories, then, which the guards could have told, to spare themselves public embarrassment and punishment at the hands of Pilate.

To sum up: the flaw in Professor McGrew’s claim that P(M|G) is massively greater than P(M|~G) stems from the fact that he considers only the probability of the account we find in Matthew’s gospel being created in the first place, while ignoring the much greater problem of its being circulated, initially by the guards themselves, and subsequently, throughout the wider community, over a period of decades.

Is Matthew’s account what we would expect, if there were a guard at Jesus’ tomb?

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Hans Multscher (1437). Wurzacher Passionsaltar, left panel inside: bottom right .

I’d now like to explain why I contest premise (ii) of Professor McGrew’s argument, that
the probability P(M|G) of our having Matthew’s account, given that a guard was set, is not wildly low: indeed, McGrew thinks P(M|G) might appear reasonably high, if we only had the first part of Matthew’s guard story in front of us (Matthew 27: 62-66), in which the chief priests ask Pilate to give the order for Jesus’ tomb to be made secure. If there actually were a guard, then that’s the kind of historical record we might expect. But there’s more to the story than that. An angel comes down from heaven, rolling away the stone and causing the guards to faint; the guards subsequently report what has happened to the chief priests, who bribe them to spread the story that they fell asleep, and that the disciples stole the body while they were asleep. Once we include this part of Matthew’s guard story, P(M|G) drops dramatically, as it rests on a massive psychological implausibility, which has nothing to do with miracles. Put simply: nobody in first-century Palestine would believe the story peddled by the chief priests, that all of the guards fell asleep at the same time, and none of them woke up while the disciples broke the seal of the tomb, rolled back the stone, and removed the body of Jesus, despite the fact that the penalty for guards falling asleep was crucifixion upside down! That story just wouldn’t wash. Even if there were a guard at Jesus’ tomb, one would not expect an account of the guards behaving in such a silly fashion: first, accepting a bribe, and then spreading a story which would put them all in mortal danger.

At this point, P(M|G) appears to be very low indeed. Let’s have a look at the apologetic attempts to reinflate it.

At the very end of Matthew’s account of the guard, the chief priests try to allay the guards’ fears of being executed on a charge of falling asleep at their posts, by promising to persuade Pilate not to punish them. One commenter on Professor McGrew’s post proposed that the chief priests thought they could convince Pilate to (at least publicly) go along with the false story that they were peddling for public consumption, even though he would have known perfectly well that it was false. This commenter was fair enough to acknowledge the inherent unlikelihood of Pilate listening to the Jewish leaders’ advice and agreeing to “hush up” the issue and let the soldiers live, but then argued that he would have reluctantly agreed to do so, in order to avoid an even greater evil: public insurrection. On the scenario proposed by the commenter, the Jewish leaders may have said to Pilate: “A story that Christ’s followers stole his body will help quell his faction, and a story that some supernatural power overwhelmed the soldiers will foment unrest, so it is in your interest as well as ours to back the version we put out.” Professor McGrew then contributed a clarifying remark of his own, in response to the commenter’s suggestion (emphases mine – VJT):


We are not told whether the move to shield the soldiers worked; we are told only that this is how they were induced to acquiesce in the tale.

Many real events seem far less probable on their face than this. The career of Julius Caesar is an instance — or far more incredibly, that of Napoleon Bonaparte. If we were allowed to use uncalibrated personal incredulity as a principle of inference, it would send a wrecking ball through the discipline of history, ancient and modern. Donald Trump, anyone?

So where are we now? Has Professor McGrew succeeded in restoring P(M|G) to the level of reasonable probability? Not at all: the examples he cites merely demonstrate that highly improbable events sometimes happen – like a dead whale ending up in a mangrove forest. But that does not render these events any less improbable.

Professor McGrew also objects that arguments from personal incredulity would undermine the study of history. But the difference here is that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection is not just any old historical account: it is avowedly biased (being written from a Christian perspective), heavily supernatural in its subject matter, and contains what appear to be numerous dramatic embellishments which the other Gospel accounts lack – such as Jewish saints coming to life at Jesus’ death and subsequently appearing to people, or an angel rolling back the stone. I put it to my readers that a responsible historian would be grossly remiss in accepting these accounts at face value. They deserve to be subjected to a more skeptical kind of scrutiny than most other historical accounts. Allow me to quote from the words of a real historian: Dr. David Miano, Lecturer in History at UC San Diego. In his blog article, How Historians Determine the Historicity of People and Events (June 10, 2018), he writes:


Some general rules of thumb that can be used in evaluating a source would be: (1) the closer in time and place that the source is to the historical event, the better. This makes sense, because the longer the gap in time between the event and the writing, the more time there is for the story to be embellished, confused, doctored, misunderstood, or exaggerated. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, because it is possible for a later source to be more reliable than an earlier source, but generally speaking, time allows a story to pass out of memory and to be transformed into legend. (2) separate the core testimony from the biased presentation. Oftentimes the wording that a writer may use to tell a story employs loaded language designed to sway the reader in a certain direction. A historian is wise to wade through the rhetoric to get to the basic witness of the document.

When we examine the testimony given in any written source, we first try to ascertain plausibility, and then probability. A claim that is plausible might not be probable, after all.

“A claim that is plausible might not be probable, after all.” Words well worth remembering. And let us add: the scenario we are considering here isn’t even a plausible one: the most one could say is that it’s possible, despite its massive implausibility.

Is there any other plausible way of boosting the probability P(M|G)? The commenter whom I quoted above nominates the publicly known fact of the empty tomb: in his opinion, “the probability that given an empty tomb fact, they [the chief priests] could convince Pilate to allow the theft account to go out for public consumption… is indeed quite reasonable.” But as I’ve argued above, even if the fact of the empty tomb became publicly known, the earthquake would have served as a convenient excuse for the body’s absence. Additionally, it would not have been difficult for the guards to substitute the body of an executed criminal for the missing body of Jesus, had they wished to: they had seven weeks to do it.

One last possible way of boosting P(M|G) is by supposing additionally that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and that an angel rolled back the stone. The flaw in this assumption should be readily apparent to everyone: it assumes the very thing which it sets out to prove: the Resurrection. I am forced to conclude, then, that the attempts to render P(M|G) reasonably probable are all failures.

Too incredible to invent: Professor McGrew appeals to Aristotle

Roman copy of a bust of Aristotle, after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos.

In a comment attached to his post, Professor McGrew also chides me for expressing incredulity at an attempt by a Christian apologist (Wenham) who argues from the improbabilities in the story (conceived as a story) that the best explanation for why it is told is that it was notoriously true. As I put it in my review: “Wenham is inclined to credit the story of the guard, precisely because it’s so full of obvious holes that he thinks no-one would have made it up in the first place.” McGrew contends, quoting Aristotle, that I am being grossly unfair to Wenham. But even if I am, that, in and of itself, does nothing to establish that the story of the guard is probably true – a story which Wenham himself concedes “bristles with improbabilities.” Surely a fair-minded historian would take note of these improbabilities, and evaluate accordingly. Once again, I ask: are we to believe Matthew’s claim that the chief priests and the guards (Mt. 28:12-13) deliberately circulated the story that all of the guards fell asleep, which would leave them liable to a capital charge? Is that historically probable?

But let us examine Aristotle’s argument. Does he say what Professor McGrew claims he says in his Rhetoric 2.23.21 (1400a)? Aristotle writes: “For the things which men believe are either facts or probabilities: if, therefore, a thing that is believed is improbable and even incredible, it must be true, since it is certainly not believed because it is at all probable or credible.” This argument deployed here is very similar to Tertullian’s “certum est, quia impossibile” (which is often misquoted by skeptics as credo quia impossibile).

Professor McGrew seems to be interpreting Aristotle as arguing that a claim is more credibly true if it is prima facie incredible, on the grounds that its very incredibility militates against its having been made up: no-one would be dumb enough to make up a story full of holes. With the greatest respect, I don’t think that’s what Aristotle is arguing in the passage quoted above. Instead, I think that the point he is making is that a claim is more credibly true if it is widely accepted (“believed”), despite its prima facie incredibility, as such an incredible-sounding claim is unlikely to be widely believed by men unless it has strong independent support, which nobody can gainsay. As I read him, Aristotle is putting forward something like Nachmanides’ kuzari argument, which features heavily in Jewish apologetics.

Assuming my interpretation is correct, the question we need to answer is: was the story of the guard at the tomb ever widely believed by the Jews? Aside from Matthew’s Gospel, we have absolutely no grounds for thinking that it was. All we know, from later Jewish polemics against Jesus, is that the Jews believed the disciples had stolen his body. For instance, Justin Martyr, in chapter 108 of his Dialogue with Trypho, mentions the Jewish claim that Jesus’ disciples “stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.” But that polemic proves absolutely nothing about the existence of a guard.

So it seems that Aristotle’s weighty authority does not support Wenham’s argument, after all.

Where Professor McGrew and I more or less agree

Professor McGrew will be delighted to learn that I am prepared to concede the first premise of his argument. (I would be happy to set P(G) at 0.1, or 10%, for the sake of argument. Certainly I would put it at more than 1%, after carefully weighing the arguments which Professor McGrew marshals in his post.) Premise (i) is of course predicated on the assumption that Jesus was actually buried in a tomb. I had previously maintained that an independent historian would conclude Jesus’ body was most likely thrown in a common burial pit for criminals, having been influenced by Professor Bart Ehrman’s spirited defense of this view. Since writing my review of Michael Alter’s book, I have examined the literature on the subject more carefully, and I now think the matter is far from settled. Jesus’ burial in a tomb remains a strong possibility, although I continue to vigorously maintain that it was not a new tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, as three of the Gospels claim. (Mark’s Gospel doesn’t say if it was new or not.) I would also maintain that John’s account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea (and Nicodemus) is heavily embellished. However, I am now prepared to grant that the prior probability of a guard being posted at Jesus’ tomb, as Matthew narrates, is not as low as I had previously thought.

What prompted my change of mind? Let’s examine some of the key arguments I brought forward in my review of Alter’s book. Professor McGrew has helpfully summarized these arguments under four points, which I have listed below (with very slight modifications in the interests of clarity), along with his responses and my counter-responses. (Of these four points, C and D relate directly to the prior probability of a guard being set over Jesus’ tomb – in other words, P(G).)

A. The guard at the tomb is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel, not in the other three. [McGrew’s response: “the argument from silence in such cases is generally terribly weak.”] [My reply: fair point.]

B. Matthew’s account fails to explain why the body could not have been stolen on Friday night. [McGrew’s first response: some scholars have argued that when properly interpreted, Matthew’s account actually implies that the chief priests could have made their request for a guard on Friday evening, which means that if Pilate promptly granted the request, Jesus’ body could not have been stolen on Friday night, after all.] [My reply: the scholars McGrew cites (Doddridge, Paulus, Kuinoel, Thorburn) all wrote in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Is this the best he can do? In his book, Alter mentions another source dating from 1893, making the same claim, but goes on to note: “Most commentators presume that the visit was held on Saturday morning” (2015, p. 288).] [McGrew’s second response: even if the Jewish leaders had to wait until Saturday to obtain a guard from Pilate, they “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” (italics mine – VJT.)] [My reply: McGrew is clearly reaching here. “Might have” establishes mere possibility, not probability.]

C. We are not told why Pilate would agree to the Jewish leaders’ request for a guard over Jesus’ tomb. In particular:

1. The request concerned a purely religious matter, and we would not expect Pilate to care much about such things. [McGrew’s response: “An imposture {on the part of Jesus’ disciples} might well raise civil trouble in Jerusalem… 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.”] [My reply: if we assume for the sake of argument that the Jewish leaders were actually aware of a rumor that Jesus had claimed he would return to life after his death, then McGrew has a valid point here. However, the assumption McGrew is making here does not enjoy a scholarly consensus: it is possible, but has not been shown to be probable.]

2. Pilate had just been pressured into ordering Jesus’ crucifixion, and therefore any further request would be unlikely to meet with a favorable reception. [McGrew’s response: “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.”] [My reply: the example McGrew cites to support his case relates to a conspiracy which the Roman Emperor Tiberius feared, against his own life. Jesus posed no such threat, although McGrew could perhaps urge in reply that Jesus was crucified as the “King of the Jews,” making him a pretender in the eyes of Rome, and hence someone whose resurrection would be bad news for Pilate.]

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. [McGrew’s response: “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.” In any case, nothing in Jewish law prevented them from “making a request to Pilate, as the civil governor, that he would secure the tomb with a guard.”] [My reply: the first part of the response naively assumes that the negative portrait of the Jewish authorities in Matthew’s gospel is historically accurate. The second part of the response is more substantial, and makes a valid point.]

When all is said and done, I’m prepared to concede that McGrew’s responses to my foregoing arguments at least show that the prior probability P(G) of a guard being set over Jesus’ tomb is not as low as I had imagined. However, nothing in his responses suggests that this prior probability would be especially high, either. For argument’s sake, I’m prepared to accept that P(G) = 0.1.

Summing up

As we saw above, Professor McGrew’s reasoning was as follows:
“P(G)/P(~G) ≈ 1, and P(M|G)/P(M|~G) >> 1; therefore, P(G|M)/P(~G|M) >> 1; therefore, P(G|M) is easily more likely than not.” I, on the other hand, would argue that
P(G)/P(~G) ≈ 0.1, and P(M|G)/P(M|~G) is considerably less than 1; therefore, P(G|M) is quite unlikely, after all. I leave it to readers to decide who has the better of the argument.

I would like to conclude by thanking Professor McGrew for this exchange of opinions. He is welcome to comment on this post. What do readers think? Over to you.

APPENDIX

The following is an excerpt from Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection (2015, pp. 340-342), in which Alter proposes a scenario as to how Matthew’s story of the guard might have originated. After presenting this scenario, I’ll briefly examine Professor McGrew’s criticisms of it. I hope this information will help readers form a better evaluation of the probability P(M|~G), discussed by Professor McGrew above – i.e. the probability of Matthew’s account being composed if there were no guard at Jesus’ tomb. Without further ado, here’s Alter’s scenario (emphases are mine – VJT):

…An obvious argument by doubters is that anyone could have removed the body before the tomb is discovered early Sunday morning by the several women. To circumvent this objection, Matthew is forced to invent a guard at the tomb. However, the presence of a guard will require a rational explanation. Consequently, Matthew is forced to invent the account of the Jewish leadership going to Pilate. But when is it possible for this visitation to have occurred? The earliest possible day would have been the Jewish Sabbath. However, a visit by the Jewish leadership on the Jewish Sabbath will have seemed unlikely to most knowledgeable readers or listeners to the text. Consequently, Matthew 27:62 obscures from its readers and listeners that this visitation occurs on the Sabbath: “Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate.” This lie is necessitated because of Mark’s chronology (Mk 15:47; cf. Lk 23:54-56). That is, there is not enough time for the Jewish leadership to return to Pilate before the Sabbath and request a guard.

But why did the Jewish leadership need to see Pilate? There has to be a reason. Consequently, the previous lie necessitates Matthew inventing the idea that the Jewish leadership knew about Jesus’ prophecy that he will rise again after three days, “Saying, Sir, we remember that the deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again” (Mt 27:63). How the Jewish leadership knew about this prophecy is not provided by Matthew.

Up to now, Matthew has explained why a guard is at the tomb, and he also provides information for his readers and listening audience that the guard stayed there for an undetermined length of time until the women arrive. This scenario now creates an even bigger problem. How can the women examine the tomb and verify that the tomb is empty if it is guarded by a Roman watch? Somehow these Roman soldiers must be eliminated from the scene. To resolve this problem, figuratively speaking, the angel descending from heaven and removing the stone, this terrifying the guard into a state of paralysis, kills two birds with one stone. Matthew has now explained how the tomb is open for the women to verify that Jesus’ body is missing and how the guard became immobilized to permit the women’s investigations at the tomb.

However, Matthew has now dug an even deeper hole for himself. Given that there is a guard at the tomb, why is there no record of what they saw? That is, why is there no record that the guard saw both the angel descending from heaven and the removal of the stone? To take care of this problem, Matthew invents the bribe: “And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers” (Mt 28:12). However, this bribe creates yet another loophole. Would all the guards accept such a bribe, knowing that, if they were found out, it would mean their certain execution? Consequently, Matthew needs to invent another lie to protect his narrative. Thus, Matthew 28:14 states that the Jewish leadership will come to their assistance: “And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.” [Note: Cassels (1902, 828) posits: “The large bribe seems to have been very ineffectual, since the Christian historian is able to report precisely what the chief priests and elders instruct them to say.”]

In brief, Matthew could have created a better lie. Every time he tells a lie it requires another and bigger lie to cover up the problem created by the previous lie. All these lies are ingeniously interwoven.

Professor McGrew read only my abbreviated version of the foregoing scenario, which did not impress him greatly. Here’s how I summarized it in a single paragraph (see also here):


…Alter suggests (2015, pp. 340-342) that the story was originally created in order to forestall an anti-Christian explanation for the empty tomb: maybe the reason why it was found empty is that Jesus’ body was stolen. To forestall that possibility, someone concocted a fictitious account of the Jewish priests going to Pilate and requesting a guard, in order to quell popular rumors that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day. But that created a problem: if there were a guard at the tomb, then the women wouldn’t have been able to enter and find it empty. So in the story, the guard had to be gotten out of the way. This was done by inserting a terrifying apparition of an angel just before the women arrived at the tomb, causing the guards to fall into a dead faint, and conveniently providing the women with the opportunity to enter the tomb. And in order to explain why there was no public record of the guard seeing the angel remove the stone, the story of the guards being bribed into silence by the Jewish chief priests was invented. In short: the lameness of the guard story cannot be used to establish its authenticity. The story is an ad hoc creation, designed to forestall a common objection to the empty tomb accounts.

Professor McGrew is having none of it. He writes (emphases mine – VJT):


There is certainly something ad hoc going on in Alter’s treatment of the matter, but the problem lies in the methodology Alter employs here rather than in the story as told in Matthew’s Gospel. Start with a surmise — “Maybe it didn’t really happen.” Faced with the fact that there isn’t much reason to doubt it, make up a purely hypothetical motivation that someone might have had for inventing such a story: “Maybe Jesus’ body really was stolen, and they had to create a cover story for that fact.” Faced with the further problem that this particular cover story is hardly what one would invent to answer to that hypothetical state of affairs and could easily be contradicted by people on the ground in Jerusalem who knew the guards, ignore the problem and instead double down on creating hypothetical rationales for other parts of the story. “The guards have to be gotten out of the way so the women can enter …” Okay, why not just have Jesus’ resurrection itself knock them out instead of resorting to the awkward fabrication of their falling asleep? Simple questions like this suffice to show how specious such reasoning is. What historical narrative, however faithful, could not be dissolved (at least in the imagination of the critic) by the application of such methods? 

Professor McGrew asks a fair question: why did Matthew feel the need to introduce an angel, rather than have Jesus himself roll back the stone and in so doing, knock out the guards? The reason, I would suggest, is that the story of the angel at the tomb was already part of the Christian tradition, as it is found in all four Gospels, in some form or other. Even in Mark’s Gospel, the young man dressed in a white robe, whose presence alarms the women, is meant to be an angel (compare with Luke’s description of two men in dazzling clothing). So the logical thing for Matthew to do would be to give the angel a more dramatic role – that of rolling back the stone – and an intimidating appearance (“like lightning”), so that the terrified guards fall into a faint and become “like dead men.” (Matthew does not say that they fell asleep; that was the lie they supposedly agreed to circulate.) So to my mind, Alter’s scenario is not as fanciful as Professor McGrew evidently thinks. It sounds plausible to me. The only caveat I would add is that we don’t know who invented the story: it could have been Matthew, or it could have been some members of an early Christian community, who composed it in to counter objections by hecklers.

Finally, in response to Professor McGrew’s objection that any historical narrative, even a reliable one, could be dissolved by the universal acid of Alter’s fanciful speculations, I would remind him of the point I made above: Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection is not just any old historical account: it is biased, heavily supernatural, and contains what appear to be numerous dramatic embellishments. Such an account therefore invites a special kind of scrutiny, which we would not normally subject other historical accounts to.

I shall lay down my pen here, as I have written enough. Over to you, readers.

310 thoughts on “Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb

  1. I think that what happens with folks like keiths who abandon Christianity is that they never really trusted God. They trusted that some event happened or that some book was true or what their parents told them or some feeling that they had.

    …says fifth, while offering no evidence whatsoever for his claim.

    The “perseverance of the saints” — in other words, once saved, always saved — is Calvinist dogma, and fifth swallows it uncritically.

  2. fifth,

    It’s all a package deal, you can’t break it up into pieces and argue one point in isolation as if the rest does not matter.

    That’s silly. Of course you can argue pieces in isolation. “This is 100% right” and “this is 100% wrong” are not the only possibilities.

  3. keiths: That’s silly. Of course you can. “This is 100% right” and “this is 100% wrong” are not the only possibilities.

    God can’t be 99% right.
    If he is not 100% right he is not God by definition.

    Our understanding of God can be incomplete or partially incorrect of course.

    But you are not discussing your understanding of God

    You are discussing the accuracy of one sentence in a book that you already reject in it’s entirety.

    That is why Bible studies with Atheists are a waste of time

    Peace

  4. keiths: …says fifth, while offering no evidence whatsoever for his claim.

    The bible is pretty clear on this one

    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
    (Pro 3:5)

    At some point you decided to disobey God by leaning on your own understanding instead of trusting Him.

    You would have had to do that before not after you doubted the accuracy of certain sentences in the Bible because in order to doubt these pasages you needed to lean on your own understanding .

    Therefore since you stopped trusting God before you doubted scripture you either never trusted God or what ever caused you to stop trusting God was not the supposed inaccuracies in scripture.

    peace

  5. fifth,

    God can’t be 99% right.
    If he is not 100% right he is not God by definition.

    You are assuming that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Vincent has examined the evidence and come to the conclusion, as I have, that it isn’t.

    The books of the Bible were written by many people over a span of hundreds of years, and only much later assembled, by various committees and councils, into what we now regard as the Bible. (And even now, believers disagree on which books are canonical.)

    It’s goofy to assume that none of those authors and none of those committees and councils ever screwed up.

  6. fifth:

    The bible is pretty clear on this one

    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
    (Pro 3:5)

    At some point you decided to disobey God by leaning on your own understanding instead of trusting Him.

    Again, you are (foolishly) assuming that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and that by questioning the truth of the Bible I was thereby mistrusting God.

    That’s far from the truth. I continued to believe in and trust God long after I gave up my inerrantist views. There are many believers who are not inerrantists, including Vincent, and to assert that every one of them mistrusts God is pure arrogance on your part.

    My trust in God was, ironically, one of the things that motivated me to question the Bible. I thought it was important to seek the truth, and I trusted that a loving God would not punish me for doing so.

  7. fifth,

    You are discussing the accuracy of one sentence in a book that you already reject in it’s entirety.

    I don’t reject the Bible in its entirety. I think parts of it are right, and other parts are wrong. That’s far more sensible than the inerrantist approach.

    As an inerrantist, you claim that Matthew 27:51-53 is correct:

    51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

    You dismissed my interpretation of that passage as “twisted” before you had even heard what it was.

    Let’s hear your interpretation, and then readers can decide whose interpretation is the “twisted” one.

  8. Vincent,

    For my part, I think the plausibility of the Resurrection rests on a subjective assessment of the character of Jesus, in addition to an impartial assessment of the evidence relating to Jesus’ burial and post-mortem apparitions. For someone who believes in God and who believes that Jesus was not deluded in his cosmic claims about himself, the question boils down to whether God would have deemed Jesus resurrection-worthy. My own answer is in the affirmative.

    I will say, though, that if Jesus had never made any exceptional claims about himself, and had never claimed that he would be vindicated after his death, then it would be prudent for an impartial historian to set aside the fact that his body was never found, and that some of his disciples claimed to have seen and spoken with him after he died. These claims only make sense against the larger background of what Jesus did during his ministry, and what he said about himself.

    That raises an issue. If the Gospels aren’t historically reliable in their reports regarding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, as you acknowledge, then we can’t assume their reliability with regard to what Jesus said and claimed. That would need to be established independently.

    Also, the Gospels attribute problematic sayings to Jesus, including his failed prediction regarding the timing of the Second Coming. In that sense, the truth of the gospel accounts would actually be inimical to claims regarding Jesus’s divine status.

    Third, I notice your phrasing here:

    For someone who believes in God and who believes that Jesus was not deluded in his cosmic claims about himself, the question boils down to whether God would have deemed Jesus resurrection-worthy. My own answer is in the affirmative.

    Your phrasing leads me to wonder: You believe that Jesus was resurrected, but do you still believe that Jesus was/is God?

    I ask because Jesus claims to be God in the Gospel of John. If you trust John’s account of Jesus’s words, and you believe that Jesus wasn’t deluded, then your question amounts to asking “Would God have deemed God resurrection-worthy?”

  9. Michael Brown a Messianic Jew gives one of the best challenges to those of the Jewish faith. Name one Jew who has done more to bring awareness of the Old Testament, Moses, the prophets than Jesus Christ. This is strong evidence Jesus is the promised Messaiah of the Old Testament.

    Consider all the others who claimed to be specially anointed of the Hebrew God, but have been since forgotten. As Gamaliel said, if this is of God, nothing will stop the spread of the Apostle’s message.

    Of course, one could complain that they want more evidence that Matthew is authentic. What might count as evidence? Well, the Lord appearing in the Sky and with mighty power affirming every word of the gospel of Matthew. I can sympathize with that standard of evidence. And many might understandably, in the absence of such evidence decide not to believe. But then why should I believe. Compare what these same people who demand so much evidence choose to put their faith in instead?

    With respect to finding meaning and purpose of life and how we should live it, which science cannot do (much as I respect science), how does the gospel of Matthew stack up to any other idea with respect to validation? Each person decides for himself as God provides inspiration to that effect.

    Would one regard the miracles of Fatima more authoritative than Matthew? How about personal miracles and visions?

    It appears God hides evidence to see what people will pursue on incomplete information. If someone’s treasure is with the Christian God, they will pursue the Christian God even at the faintest hint that the gospel will be true.

    “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”
    Matt 6:21

    People who have little evidence that socialism will actually work follow it with all their heart. Whereas, there are probably more changed lives for the better because of the Gospel of Matthew than all the writings of Karl Marx and the rest of them. Same for all the Rabbi’s who rejected Jesus, the one true Rabbi who has brought more respect for the Old Testament and the law of Moses than any Rabbi.

    So I agree, we have far less facts then we would want to settle such weighty matters. But perhaps, that is by design.

  10. For Jews like Michael Alter, Micheal Brown (a Messianic Jew) points out that 75% of the forever commandments in the law of Moses cannot be fulfilled since Jerusalem was destroyed as Jesus prophesied. This again points to Jesus inaugurating the New Covenant, and approved of the God of the Old Testament.

    https://youtu.be/Rl92IYQc9hI

  11. Sal,

    If someone’s treasure is with the Christian God, they will pursue the Christian God even at the faintest hint that the gospel will be true.

    And if their treasure is with the truth, they’ll pursue the truth, whether or not that leads them to the Christian God.

    Of course, one could complain that they want more evidence that Matthew is authentic. What might count as evidence? Well, the Lord appearing in the Sky and with mighty power affirming every word of the gospel of Matthew.

    It would help if Matthew didn’t contain whoppers like that batshit account of a mass resurrection. Do you believe that story, Sal?

  12. stcordova: Of course, one could complain that they want more evidence that Matthew is authentic. What might count as evidence? Well, the Lord appearing in the Sky and with mighty power affirming every word of the gospel of Matthew. I can sympathize with that standard of evidence.

    Why should that be the evidence that convinces anyone? In fact some here have even said that still wouldn’t do it, they could just say they can’t explain that.

    So the claim that evidence is required is bogus

  13. phoodoo: So the claim that evidence is required is bogus

    Quite so. After all, you believe what you believe despite the evidence and not because of it.

  14. phoodoo: Why should that be the evidence that convinces anyone? In fact some here have even said that still wouldn’t do it, they could just say they can’t explain that.

    So the claim that evidence is required is bogus

    For those people who claim that no evidence could convince them, sure, their demand of evidence is bogus.

    That, however, does not excuse anyone else for not providing evidence to the people who don’t claim no evidence could ever suffice.

  15. Hi keiths,

    That raises an issue. If the Gospels aren’t historically reliable in their reports regarding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, as you acknowledge, then we can’t assume their reliability with regard to what Jesus said and claimed. That would need to be established independently.

    Fair point. And yet, in recent years, several scholars of a secular humanist persuasion have argued that we can glean quite a lot from the Gospels, both about what the historical Jesus taught and who he claimed to be. I suggest you have a look at Maurice Casey’s biography, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching, as well as Bart Ehrman’s blog articles on the historical Jesus in February 2019.

    Also, the Gospels attribute problematic sayings to Jesus, including his failed prediction regarding the timing of the Second Coming. In that sense, the truth of the gospel accounts would actually be inimical to claims regarding Jesus’s divine status.

    Good point. As it happens, the Gospels themselves don’t agree about what Jesus said concerning the Second Coming. Read straightforwardly, Mark 13:24-27 and Matthew 24:29-31 would seem to imply that the Second Coming would occur immediately after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But most scholars now date Matthew to around 85 A.D., fifteen years after the fall of Jerusalem, which raises the question: why didn’t the early Christians see this passage in Matthew as discrediting Jesus’ message? I’d suggest that maybe they read it differently from the way we do.

    You believe that Jesus was resurrected, but do you still believe that Jesus was/is God?

    Yes. However, I would also acknowledge that he didn’t claim to be God during his lifetime on Earth. Nevertheless, he apparently claimed to be a grand cosmic figure, who would come at the end of time, at God’s right hand, to judge the world. After the Resurrection, he may have revealed certain things to his disciples about his mission, which he hadn’t stated previously. At any rate, it is interesting to note that a mere 25 years after his death, St. Paul was writing that “there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6), which is but one step away from a Logos Christology.

  16. VJ,

    Relating something you said in your review of Alter’s book earlier:

    far too little for a Christian to base their belief in the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection on the historical evidence alone. I now believe that only the grace of God could possibly justify making such an intellectual commitment.

    I sympathize with the above, actually, but with a major qualification. Relative to the experience of gravity and the air we breathe, historical claims of miracles are of necessity provide far less than what most would want as far as evidence. For example, it would be far more convincing to me personally if God would heal the blind today when prayers are made in the name of Jesus and God would incinerate blasphemers instantly. THAT would be a convincing evidence.

    The problem is pastors and apologists advertise the historical and archaeological evidence as so absolutely convincing, that one would be flawed not to accept. I have a problem with that approach. It doesn’t agree with human experience as to what should count as convincing.

    The historical and archaeological record HINTs, it whispers, it doesn’t shout.

    So why do I believe? First I believe there is a creator. The fine tuning, the origin of life. Next if there is a Designer, it certainly looks like the world was RE-designed by a curse whereby death and suffering entered. The Designer (aka God), could have made a world free of suffering, but he apparently RE-designed the world to be cursed with suffering and death. This at least metaphorically agrees with Genesis.

    Then miracles of answered prayers. Why God answers some and not others is a mystery. The one miracle that has haunted me most of my life was the account of Astronaut Charles Duke:

    https://www.reddit.com/r/CreationEvolution/comments/a6v4vt/creationist_astronaut_charles_duke_healing_a/

    Added to that is seeing lesser miracles in other people’s lives…

    So YES, for a change I’m glad a believer in Jesus is admitting the historical record doesn’t exactly deliver a convincing case. To say otherwise is to lose credibility in the eyes of sympathetic skeptics. God bless you for doing what you are doing and being fair minded!

  17. keiths: I don’t reject the Bible in its entirety. I think parts of it are right, and other parts are wrong.

    How about you provide a list of all the parts you think are right and your reasons for doing so.

    That would give us a baseline for deciding if you are being consistent in this case.

    Then give us a percentage of the text you would need to accept before you say that the entire text is more or less trustworthy and the reasons for your number.

    That at least would be a lot better than looking at one single verse in isolation.

    peace

  18. keiths: My trust in God was, ironically, one of the things that motivated me to question the Bible.

    At what point did you decide to stop trusting God and instead flagrantly disobey him by leaning on your own understanding in these matters?

    I ask because your decision to disobey him is directly related to your decision to begin trusting your own understanding in these matters so it had to happen before you questioned the Bible

    peace

  19. Vincent,

    And yet, in recent years, several scholars of a secular humanist persuasion have argued that we can glean quite a lot from the Gospels, both about what the historical Jesus taught and who he claimed to be. I suggest you have a look at Maurice Casey’s biography, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of his Life and Teaching, as well as Bart Ehrman’s blog articles on the historical Jesus in February 2019.

    There’s also Ehrman’s Teaching Company course How Jesus Became God, which I’ve watched, and his book by the same name (the Kindle version is currently only $2.99 here in the US).

    Read straightforwardly, Mark 13:24-27 and Matthew 24:29-31 would seem to imply that the Second Coming would occur immediately after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But most scholars now date Matthew to around 85 A.D., fifteen years after the fall of Jerusalem, which raises the question: why didn’t the early Christians see this passage in Matthew as discrediting Jesus’ message? I’d suggest that maybe they read it differently from the way we do.

    I’d suggest that they were as good at rationalizing as today’s Christians are. Plus, they might have cited another verse from Matthew to give them some wiggle room:

    “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

    Matthew 16:28, NIV

    Vincent:

    However, I would also acknowledge that he didn’t claim to be God during his lifetime on Earth.

    That’s Ehrman’s conclusion, as well. And it’s an important one, because it wipes out the credibility of the Gospel of John, throughout which Jesus affirms his divinity.

    Nevertheless, he apparently claimed to be a grand cosmic figure, who would come at the end of time, at God’s right hand, to judge the world.

    Raising the question: If Jesus is God, then why on earth (pun intended) would he fail to mention it along with his other grand claims?

  20. keiths: And if their treasure is with the truth, they’ll pursue the truth, whether or not that leads them to the Christian God.

    So at some point you disobeyed God and leaned on your own understanding and then decided that the truth could be separated from God and that the truth was a more worthy pursuit for you.

    It seems like you were directly disobeying Jesus’ first Commandment (Mark 12:30) at that point.

    How could you claim that you were a Christian and yet disobey Jesus’ very first Commandment?

    remember he said

    “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
    (Joh 14:15)

    peace

  21. Fifth,

    You are the one claiming that the Bible is inerrant, which means that you are the one claiming that the mass resurrection story is true.

    You are squirming mightily to avoid giving us your interpretation of that story. As someone who loves to quote the Bible at us, why you are tiptoeing around that passage? Are you ashamed of God’s word as expressed in that passage? Do you doubt its truth, as any sensible person would do?

    If not, then give us your interpretation of it. Don’t hide your lamp under a bushel. Defend that passage instead of trying to sweep it under the rug.

  22. keiths: You are the one claiming that the Bible is inerrant, which means that you are the one claiming that the mass resurrection story is true.

    I’m not making any claims here

    keiths: You are squirming mightily to avoid giving us your interpretation of that story

    I have been commanded not to cast pearls before swine. I’m a Christian. Christians try to obey Jesus’ commandments. You should know that.

    This sort of careless disregard for Jesus’ commandments is why I doubt you were ever a Christian.

    peace

  23. keiths: As someone who loves to quote the Bible at us, why you are tiptoeing around that passage?

    I’m not tiptoeing around anything. It just is not relevant to any of the points I’m making.

    I haven’t quoted this passage here lately either

    And his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering;
    (Num 7:13)

    That is mostly because it would not make a lot of sense to look at it in isolation.

    That is what Bible studies are for.

    peace

  24. keiths:

    You are the one claiming that the Bible is inerrant, which means that you are the one claiming that the mass resurrection story is true.

    fifth:

    I’m not making any claims here

    These are claims…

    God can’t be 99% right.
    If he is not 100% right he is not God by definition.

    …as is the assertion that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

    This is also a claim:

    The Bible is inerrant Because the Christian God exists.

    Spare us the “I’m not making any claims” crap.

  25. keiths: These are claims…

    God can’t be 99% right.
    If he is not 100% right he is not God by definition.

    …as is the assertion that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

    Nope that statement is about God not a book. By definition God can’t be 99% right

    keiths: The Bible is inerrant Because the Christian God exists.

    So every single thing we have mentioned at this site is active in every single thread??

    My statement was an entailment of the presupposition that the Christian God exists since you don’t except the presupposition I don’t expect you to accept it’s necessary entailment.

    In light of that I will discuss inerrancy as soon as you post a list of tenants of your newly adopted faith.

    Or If you want to talk about scripture in isolation perhaps we can compare the accuracy of the Bible to the Rumracketiean scriptures

    peace

  26. fifth:

    I’m not making any claims here

    keiths:

    These are claims…

    God can’t be 99% right.
    If he is not 100% right he is not God by definition.

    fifth:

    Nope that statement is about God not a book.

    As if claims concerning God weren’t claims. By the way, did you notice that you just made three more claims? “That statement is about God, not a book” is itself a claim, as is “By definition God can’t be 99% right,” as is “My statement was an entailment of the presupposition that the Christian God exists”.

    Oops.

  27. keiths:

    This is also a claim:

    The Bible is inerrant Because the Christian God exists.

    fifth:

    So every single thing we have mentioned at this site is active in every single thread??

    That belief of yours is still active, even in this thread, isn’t it? Or are you telling us that you’ve given up on inerrancy? If so, congratulations. I’m sure your pastor will be delighted.

  28. keiths:

    You are squirming mightily to avoid giving us your interpretation of that story. As someone who loves to quote the Bible at us, why you are tiptoeing around that passage? Are you ashamed of God’s word as expressed in that passage? Do you doubt its truth, as any sensible person would do?

    fifth:

    I have been commanded not to cast pearls before swine. I’m a Christian. Christians try to obey Jesus’ commandments. You should know that.

    If my fellow atheists and I are “swine”, then you’ve been casting pearls before swine for years at UD and TSZ. Including in this very thread, where you wrote the following to me:

    fifth, to keiths:

    The bible is pretty clear on this one

    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
    (Pro 3:5)

    And:

    remember he said

    “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
    (Joh 14:15)

    Funny how you’re perfectly fine with casting pearls before swine until someone asks you to defend a difficult passage. Then you suddenly get the vapors and say “I can’t do that! It would be casting pearls before swine! The Lord commands me not to do that!” That’s awfully convenient — and awfully hypocritical.

    This sort of careless disregard for Jesus’ commandments is why I doubt you were ever a Christian.

    Then, by your own standards, we have reason to doubt that you’re really a Christian.

    Physician, heal thyself.

  29. Fifth,

    You’re making a lot of excuses for not defending the mass resurrection story in Matthew. You’re beginning to remind me of Peter, before the cock crowed.

  30. fifth:

    The bible is pretty clear on this one

    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
    (Pro 3:5)

    At some point you decided to disobey God by leaning on your own understanding instead of trusting Him.

    keiths:

    Again, you are (foolishly) assuming that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and that by questioning the truth of the Bible I was thereby mistrusting God.

    That’s far from the truth. I continued to believe in and trust God long after I gave up my inerrantist views. There are many believers who are not inerrantists, including Vincent, and to assert that every one of them mistrusts God is pure arrogance on your part.

    My trust in God was, ironically, one of the things that motivated me to question the Bible. I thought it was important to seek the truth, and I trusted that a loving God would not punish me for doing so.

    fifth:

    So at some point you disobeyed God and leaned on your own understanding…

    Once again, you’re assuming that the Bible — including that verse from Proverbs — is the inerrant word of God. I let go of that assumption when I realized that it might be preventing me from discovering the truth about God. You still cling to it.

    …and then decided that the truth could be separated from God and that the truth was a more worthy pursuit for you.

    Not at all. I didn’t separate the truth from God; that didn’t come until much later. I realized that the Bible might not be wholly true, and I was unwilling to elevate a mere book above God himself. I wanted to know the truth about God, whether or not that truth could be found in the Bible.

    Note the palpable irony. You wrote:

    I think that what happens with folks like keiths who abandon Christianity is that they never really trusted God. They trusted that some event happened or that some book was true or what their parents told them or some feeling that they had.

    All of those things are Idols when we put our faith in them in the place of God.

    [emphasis added]

  31. It’s telling that of all the believers here, only J-Mac has stepped forward to defend the kooky story in Matthew 27:51-53.

    Vincent, to his credit, doesn’t seem to believe it.

    Fifth, Sal, and colewd refuse to say.

    And even J-Mac seems to have abandoned his interpretation.

  32. keiths: That belief of yours is still active, even in this thread, isn’t it? Or are you telling us that you’ve given up on inerrancy?

    A belief is not the same thing as a claim.

    peace

  33. keiths: Once again, you’re assuming that the Bible — including that verse from Proverbs — is the inerrant word of God.

    what do you make of this verse?

    All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
    (2Ti 3:16-17)

    Did you let go of that one while you still were a Christian?

    Just exactly what did you base your supposed Christianity on if you rejected the Bible?

    Were you already into Rumracketism at this point?

    peace

  34. keiths: I let go of that assumption when I realized that it might be preventing me from discovering the truth about God.

    So you disobeyed God by leaning on your own understanding because you thought that would help you discover the truth about God?

    Sounds like you were already an apostate at that point.

    What was it that made you abandon your faith because it obviously happened before you questioned scripture?

    peace

  35. keiths:

    That belief of yours is still active, even in this thread, isn’t it? Or are you telling us that you’ve given up on inerrancy?

    fifth:

    A belief is not the same thing as a claim.

    Who said it was? Here is the claim in question:

    The Bible is inerrant Because the Christian God exists.

    No one forced you to write that. Are you ashamed of that claim? If you want to retract it, be my guest, Peter.

    As for this…

    I’m not making any claims here

    …I’ve already shown that you’re making claims left and right in this thread.

    Even this is a claim:

    I’m not making any claims here

  36. fifth,

    So you disobeyed God by leaning on your own understanding…

    For the third time, you are assuming that the Bible, including that verse in Proverbs, is the inerrant word of God. It’s funny how you keep returning to that notion while claiming that it isn’t ‘active’ in this thread.

    Also, the following juxtaposition is funny:

    fifth, here:

    So you disobeyed God by leaning on your own understanding…

    fifth, in the other thread:

    God reveals stuff through my senses and reasoning.

    I trusted God enough to believe that he would guide me, through my senses and reasoning, to the truth about the Bible. If God is truth, as you say, then by seeking the truth about the Bible, I was seeking God.

    I trusted God to guide me. You’re trusting a mere book, and not a very good one.

    You might want to heed your own warning:

    I think that what happens with folks like keiths who abandon Christianity is that they never really trusted God. They trusted that some event happened or that some book was true or what their parents told them or some feeling that they had.

    All of those things are Idols when we put our faith in them in the place of God.

    [emphasis added]

  37. fifth:

    What was it that made you abandon your faith because it obviously happened before you questioned scripture?

    Do you realize that you are arrogantly accusing Vincent, and all other Christians who aren’t inerrantists, of being apostates?

  38. keiths: Do you realize that you are arrogantly accusing Vincent, and all other Christians who aren’t inerrantists, of being apostates?

    Inerrancy has nothing to do with it.

    If a Christian is leaning on his own understanding rather than trusting God my advise to them is to repent.

    Doubting that a particular sentence here or there is from God is not the same thing as leaning on your own understanding rather that trusting God.

    keiths: For the third time, you are assuming that the Bible, including that verse in Proverbs, is the inerrant word of God.

    No, I’m assuming that a Christian at minimum will trust Christ rather than his own understanding.

    peace

  39. fifth,

    You’ve tripped over your own shoelaces again.

    Above, you wrote:

    The bible is pretty clear on this one

    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
    (Pro 3:5)

    At some point you decided to disobey God by leaning on your own understanding instead of trusting Him.

    You would have had to do that before not after you doubted the accuracy of certain sentences in the Bible because in order to doubt these pasages you needed to lean on your own understanding .

    Therefore since you stopped trusting God before you doubted scripture you either never trusted God or what ever caused you to stop trusting God was not the supposed inaccuracies in scripture.

    By that reasoning, Vincent (and every other Christian who isn’t an inerrantist) no longer trusts God, because they’ve all “leaned on their own understanding” and questioned scripture.

    Way to go, ace.

    Also, here’s another funny juxtaposition:

    fifth, now:

    Doubting that a particular sentence here or there is from God is not the same thing as leaning on your own understanding rather that trusting God.

    fifth, earlier:

    You would have had to do that before not after you doubted the accuracy of certain sentences in the Bible because in order to doubt these pasages you needed to lean on your own understanding .

    Oops.

  40. keiths: By that reasoning, Vincent (and every other Christian who isn’t an inerrantist) no longer trusts God, because they’ve all “leaned on their own understanding” and questioned scripture.

    Vincent doesn’t question scripture as far as I know. He questions whether a particular sentence here or there in our extant text qualifies as scripture. As he doubts he prayerfully ponders the opinions of fellow believers and the parts of scripture he does not doubt. All the time looking to be lead by the Holy Spirit.

    It’s pretty much the opposite of what you are doing as an apostate.

    keiths: Also, I’m interested in hearing your explanation of how it’s okay to “cast pearls before swine” with abandon, until someone asks you about an embarrassing passage and it’s suddenly not okay and you decide to obey Matthew 7:6 after all.

    It’s not casting pearls before swine to quote scripture at a reprobate. Jesus did it all the time.

    It is casting pearls before swine to exegete a passage to a person who is only looking to poke holes in the exegesis and not understand the passage.

    peace

  41. fifth,

    Your attempts at word-lawyering are noted.

    Vincent doesn’t question scripture as far as I know. He questions whether a particular sentence here or there in our extant text qualifies as scripture.

    He doubts things which, according to you, are scripture. As do many Christians.

    So again, by your standards, he is “leaning on his own understanding”:

    You would have had to do that before not after you doubted the accuracy of certain sentences in the Bible because in order to doubt these pasages you needed to lean on your own understanding .

    You backed yourself into a corner, fifth.

  42. Also, it isn’t a mere “sentence here or there” that Vincent questions. It’s large swathes of the Bible.

    For example, he writes:

    But the difference here is that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection is not just any old historical account: it is avowedly biased (being written from a Christian perspective), heavily supernatural in its subject matter, and contains what appear to be numerous dramatic embellishments which the other Gospel accounts lack – such as Jewish saints coming to life at Jesus’ death and subsequently appearing to people, or an angel rolling back the stone.

    And:

    Good point. As it happens, the Gospels themselves don’t agree about what Jesus said concerning the Second Coming.

    And:

    …I would also acknowledge that he [Jesus] didn’t claim to be God during his lifetime on Earth.

    And concerning a long speech by Moses to the Israelites:

    …he [Moses] probably didn’t give the speech in the first place. The Bible is basically putting words in his mouth which we don’t know he uttered…

    Other commandments [in that speech] relating to the worship of God and to public morality were subsequently composed by the Israelite religious leaders and retrospectively ascribed to Moses, hundreds of years later.

  43. keiths: He doubts things which, according to you, are scripture. As do many Christians.

    I’m not the authority as to what qualifies as Scripture. Neither are other Christians. That is God’s department.

    keiths: You backed yourself into a corner, fifth.

    You crack me up keiths,

    You are an apostate, you did not become an apostate because of passages like (Matthew 27: 51-53). Instead you were an apostate long before you came to that passage and things like that passage only proved who you already were.

    You found a ready excuse to fall away and you jumped at it. You said yourself that you had concluded that doubting scripture would get you to the truth about God before you doubted scripture.

    That is not what Christians do ever.

    Christians often doubt whether certain sections of scripture belong in the cannon. Martin Luther for instance doubted that the entire book of James was part of the Bible. The difference is in how these doubts are handled.

    God often uses difficult and confusing utterances to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    When encountering difficult sayings Apostates run away from Christ trusting in their own judgments.

    While Christians always run to Christ as the only secure shelter in the storm, despite their doubts.

    The Gospel of Luke has a great example of this phenomena.

    Jesus uttered a “hard” saying that seemed to imply that he was advocating cannibalism and this was the predictable result

    quote:

    After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
    (Joh 6:66-69)

    end quote:

    That is the difference between Christians who doubt and apostates like you.

    peace

  44. fifth:

    So you disobeyed God by leaning on your own understanding because you thought that would help you discover the truth about God?

    Sounds like you were already an apostate at that point.

    What was it that made you abandon your faith because it obviously happened before you questioned scripture?

    And:

    At some point you decided to disobey God by leaning on your own understanding instead of trusting Him.

    You would have had to do that before not after you doubted the accuracy of certain sentences in the Bible because in order to doubt these pasages you needed to lean on your own understanding .

    Therefore since you stopped trusting God before you doubted scripture you either never trusted God or what ever caused you to stop trusting God was not the supposed inaccuracies in scripture

    So again, by your own standards, Vincent disobeyed God, stopped trusting him, leaned on his own understanding, and became an apostate.

    And you’re now trying to walk that back.

  45. keiths: So again, by your own standards, Vincent disobeyed God, stopped trusting him

    If Vincent has stopped trusting God rather than merely doubting that a particular sentence here or there was from God he needs to repent for his unbelief. I have no evidence that is the case by the way.

    He can repent because he has not rejected Christ.

    On the other hand if you ever truly trusted God then I don’t think repentance is possible for you.

    quote:

    For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
    (Heb 6:4-6)

    end quote:

    peace

  46. keiths:

    So again, by your own standards, Vincent disobeyed God, stopped trusting him, leaned on his own understanding, and became an apostate.

    And you’re now trying to walk that back.

    fifth:

    If Vincent stopped trusting God rather than doubting that a particular sentence here or there was from God he needs to repent.

    According to your own standards, expressed in your own words, Vincent had to stop trusting God before he could doubt even a sentence here and there, much less the large chunks that he actually doubts.

    These are your words, not mine:

    At some point you decided to disobey God by leaning on your own understanding instead of trusting Him.

    You would have had to do that before not after you doubted the accuracy of certain sentences in the Bible because in order to doubt these pasages you needed to lean on your own understanding .

    According to your own words, one can’t doubt certain passages except by disobeying God, leaning on one’s own understanding, and not trusting God.

    You’ve inadvertently indicted Vincent (and many other Christians) because you were too quick in trying to score a point against me. Making stuff up on the fly is not a good idea.

    You could always fix things by retracting your words.

  47. keiths: Also, it isn’t a mere “sentence here or there” that Vincent questions. It’s large swathes of the Bible.

    I’m not defending Vincent’s minimalist understanding of the Bible. I’m defending his decision not to reject Christ.

    The difference between you and him is that he did not reject God dispite his doubts.

    peace

  48. keiths: According to your own standards, expressed in your own words, Vincent had to stop trusting God before he could doubt even a sentence here and there

    I would say his doubt is evidence of a lack of trust. But at the same time and unlike you he still affirms his trust in God.

    This sort of conflict is par for the course with Christians

    quote:
    Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
    (Mar 9:24)
    end quote:

    Often we doubt and at the same time trust.

    Vincent would probably say my more conservative approach is naive or perhaps fideism.

    That is OK in addition to being conflicted and full of doubt Christians often disagree among ourselves about stuff like this.

    On the other hand your approach to scripture is entirely different from his or mine, you don’t just doubt that everything we have is the word of God you conclude that if everything we have is not obviously the word of God then God does not speak or God does not exist.

    That is the approach of the apostate and it was yours from the very beginning as you yourself grant.

    peace

  49. fifth:

    The difference between you and him is that he did not reject God dispite his doubts.

    Your own words betray you:

    So you disobeyed God by leaning on your own understanding because you thought that would help you discover the truth about God?

    Sounds like you were already an apostate at that point.

    What was it that made you abandon your faith because it obviously happened before you questioned scripture?

    So not only do your words indict Vincent and many other Christians for disobeying God, not trusting him, leaning on their own understanding, you’ve also labeled them apostates, because they “obviously” must have abandoned their faith before questioning scripture.

    You were trying to score a cheap point, and it backfired on you.

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