Side Comments on Response to Torley on the Guard at the Tomb

Continuing the discussion from McGrew: Response to Torley on the Guard at the Tomb

This is a substantial and convincing response by Tim McGrew. I personally didn’t think the guard at the tomb was an important point to defend, given that the “disciples stole the body” scenario just seems implausible by itself to me. (And I think the guard at the tomb is regarded as non-historical by a large portion of NT scholars.)

Still, even though McGrew’s original background, like @vjtorley, is in philosophy, he gives us a better example what careful and informed scholarly engagement looks like, which echoes some of my criticism of Vincent’s methodology earlier:

First, instead of appealing to nebulous notions of a hypothetical “impartial historian,” he uses objective methodological criteria which are also applied in assessing other events in history:

First, only Matthew’s Gospel mentions the setting of a guard at Jesus’ tomb. It is not clear how much weight Torley intends this fact to bear by itself. But as the argument from silence in such cases is generally terribly weak, it is hard to see why it should be significant just here. Many of the events of antiquity crop up in only one source. The conditions that have to be met for an argument from silence to be strong are rather stringent and are rarely met in historical work. (For details, see my paper “The Argument from Silence,” Acta Analytica 29 (2014), 215-28.) As Torley has not attempted to argue that the silence of the other evangelists meets the probabilistic challenge laid out there, I will not belabor the point.

Next, he analyzes the text in the original language and compares interpretations of multiple NT scholars (not just a conservative or liberal one that happens to say what we want):

Various other New Testament scholars, not all of them conservative (Doddridge, Paulus, Kuinoel, Thorburn) concur in Michaelis’s analysis. Meyer dissents, but without adducing any reasons other than his disagreement with these authorities regarding the meaning of the expression τῇ ἐπαύριον. He does not engage with Michaelis’s point regarding the parallel Hebrew expression [ממחרת ערב השבת] at all.

Finally, even McGrew thinks it is odd for Vincent to be appealing to arguments based on what Pilate’s mental state is supposed to be:

The third objection is that Matthew’s narrative does not tell us why Pilate would acquiesce in the request of the Jewish leaders. On the face of it, this is a very odd way to object to historical evidence. Many narratives recount events without affording us an explanation for them, and sometimes we are left to guess what that explanation might be. So what?

I’ll be interested to see McGrew’s next two posts, although again, the second argument (standing at the foot of the cross) seems to me to also be another puzzling example of obsessing on minor details in the gospels. The third issue (the burial of Jesus) is more important, although as @Freakazoid has pointed out, Ehrman’s view that Jesus’ body was left to rot on the cross is not a majority view, and this paper by John Granger Cook gives ample reason to think the burial story to be culturally and historically plausible.

Although these three posts are great, I wish that McGrew would respond to Alter-Torley’s contention that the disciples probably never rigorously cross-checked their experiences with the post-risen Jesus, so they were drawn into it by some combination of groupthink, gullibility, rationalization, sunk cost fallacy, and/or guilt. We learned (in Torley on The Resurrection: Take Two) that Vincent views this as one of the strongest of Alter’s arguments. It seems to me that this type of psychological explanation would be the most common favored alternative theory advanced by skeptics today. For example, the two new alternative explanations lately mentioned by Vincent use this element heavily (Komarnitsky’s Rationalization Hypothesis and Eisenberg’s guilt leading to body stealing theory).


I’m sorry, about the guards. I can’t remember, does the Bible ever specify whether those are Roman guards or Temple guards?


It seems that scholars disagree on how to interpret the passage. McGrew seems to believe that it was a Roman guard, but Craig argues a temple guard is more plausible:

According to Matthew’s version, on Saturday, that is, on the Sabbath, which Matthew strangely circumnavigates by calling it the day after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees ask Pilate for a guard to secure the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body and thus ‘fulfilling’ Jesus’ prediction of rising on the third day. Pilate says, ‘You have a guard; make it as secure as you can.’ It is not clear if this means that Pilate gave them a Roman guard or told them to use their own temple guard. The Gospel of Peter uses a Roman guard, but this is probably read into the tradition and may be designed to emphasize the strength of the guard. If one might mention a psychological consideration, Pilate would probably be by this point so disgusted with the Jews that he might well rebuff them; but legends know no psychological limits. If Pilate rebuffed the Jews, then one wonders why this part of the story be told at all; but if the Jews really did go to Pilate, then perhaps this detail was remembered. If Pilate gave them a guard it is strange that Matthew does not make this explicit, like the Gospel of Peter, as this would strengthen his apologetic. The fact that the guards return to the chief priests is evidence that a Jewish guard is intended; contrast the Gospel of Peter, where the Roman guard report to Pilate the events at the tomb. The mention of the governor in v. 14 might indicate a Roman guard, but then it would not be clear how the Jews could do anything to keep them out of trouble. The fact that Roman guards could be executed for sleeping on watch and taking a bribe would further point to a Jewish guard. In the Gospel of Peter the bribe and the sleeping story are eliminated; Pilate simply commands the Roman guard to keep silent. If one gives the story the benefit of a doubt, one would assume that the guard is Jewish; but if one is convinced the story is a worthless legend then nothing could prevent one from taking the guard as Roman.


Yes, I agree with Craig on this one. But my first reason was not as good as Craig’s was. It seems to me more plausible that it was a temple guard because the first place they went after Jesus’s body disappeared was the High Priest. Roman guards would probably go to Pilate.

Just to note: I’m by no means an expert on history or NT scholarship, so take what I said with a grain of salt.


Thanks to @structureoftruth’s pointing out additional aspects to @vjtorley’s arguments, Tim has added more comments. He explains well what I had a hunch was wrong about those arguments:

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?

That last line really expresses it well! It’s in the same vein as the “lack of imagination” argument that I responded to Vincent earlier. Vincent is unwilling to use his common sense imagination to fill in the blanks for the missing details in the historical gospel narrative. Yet he’s oddly very willing to use his imagination about the psychology of the disciples when proposing skeptical theories to explain the facts of the resurrection.

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Factors to consider (most mentioned by McGrew or his commenters).

1 The Jews ask Pilate for a guard (would have been no problem with simply installing their own, without recourse to Pilate). Suggests Roman guard.
2 Pilate says “You have a guard,” which may be his suggestion that they provide their own, or may be agreement to provide one.
3 Guard reports disappearance to Jewish leaders - suggests Jewish guard BUT since they were appointed by suggestion of Jews, could be a Roman guard reporting to immediate bosses - especially to say “You’ve got us into this mess - what do you suggest?”
4 Jews suggest cock and bull story to report to Pilate, and suggest they’ll make sure it sticks. That strongly suggests Roman guard, who would be accountable with their lives for losing their charge.


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