McGrew: Response to Torley on the Guard at the Tomb

Skeptical objections to the historicity of the Gospel narratives are numerous. They are also, for the most part, old news. When so many people have gone over the same ground so often, we should not expect much in the way of novelty. Still, every so often someone manages to state some objections so forcefully, or at least with so much bravado and so many footnotes, that they appear to some people to be new and devastating challenge to the basic factual accuracy of the Gospels.

Michael Alter’s book The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015) is certainly long enough to seem imposing, and somewhat to my surprise it has thrown my acquaintance V. J. Torley into a bit of a tailspin. Torley has written a very long, detailed, glowing review of Alter’s book – a review that is practically a monograph in its own right – in which he claims that the book is a “bombshell” that “demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the resurrection.”

Since I am unimpressed by Alter’s arguments, I asked Torley to pick three particular arguments as test cases. He readily obliged, and in this series of guest posts I will evaluate the arguments that seem to Alter and Torley so powerful and convincing. Torley chose the three following points for this test:

  1. Was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb?
  2. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the cross?
  3. Was Jesus buried in a new rock tomb? (specifically, a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea)

In each case, he believes, Alter has mounted a powerful argument that the Gospels get the answers to these questions wrong, and he has recapitulated those arguments that he finds convincing in the linked blog post. I think there is far less to this case than meets the eye.

In my subsequent posts, I will examine Torley’s two remaining challenges.

@vjtorley and @dga471, you might want to see this. (thanks @structureoftruth)


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 image 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, imaged 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.


PS Please note that this response was earlier posted at the Skeptical Zone.Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb | The Skeptical Zone