A Curious Key to a Historical Jesus (Part 1 of 9)

Part 1: Key Evidence?

The particular (and quite limited) argument of this series has certainly been made before, in more scholarly fashions. But it may be worth looking at again, from the perspective of a realistic sceptical minimism, as an example of how far evidence can go even in such minimism, when implications of the evidence are kept in mind.

So, to begin with just about the most minimal historical fact possible:

It is a historical fact, that sometime between 30 CE and 150 CE, the document known as "kata Maththaion" was written.

I am not saying anything (yet) about who wrote it (authoring and/or compiling and/or redacting it). I am not saying anything (yet) about why it was written. I am not even saying anything (yet) about the date, or dates, of its composition (aside from the ultra-extreme range given that I have provided merely as a starting point for consideration).

Its title translates literally as "down-to/by Maththai"; or as we know it more commonly in English, "(The Gospel) According to Matthew." (Which I will tend to abbreviate as GosMatt.)

It is, I repeat, a certain historical fact that somebody wrote the material we find in this document. And it is a certain historical fact, that at some time during its composition (and/or editings etc.) somebody wrote these words (which I am reproducing as a translation and comparison of several different translations directly from the Greek) near the end of this text:

"Some of the guard-detail [from the watch on the body of Jesus of Nazareth], having gone into the city, reported to the chief priests all things that occurred. And the elders, having assembled and discussed, took silver and gave enough to the soldiers, and told them: ‘You are to say, “His disciples, coming by night, stole him as we rested.” And if the governor hears of this, we will persuade him and free you from worry.’ And taking the money, they did as they were told. And this saying has been spread by Jews until today." [Note: Matthew 28:11b-15]

We may also be entirely historically confident, that his little tale serves at least one purpose, for somebody.

So far this is very straightforward, if not terribly illuminating. But next we reach what may be considered an absolute minimum dichotomy of possibilities.

1.) The verses have absolutely no bearing whatsoever to anything historical, having been totally invented by the writer;

2.) The verses have at least some relation to actual history.

In point of fact, even in option #1 the verses must have some relationship to actual history; because it is an ironclad historical fact, that somebody who actually lived in history wrote them.

The more specific question is whether the story reflects any remotely accurate relationship to events purported to have taken place during the Passover holiday in Jerusalem, Palestine, in some particular year within the range of (say) 28 to 33 CE.

Let us try the first hypothesis: our writer completely invented the narrative details in those verses. (They were not 'verses' in the original documents, of course; chapter-and-verse notation was introduced by scribes much later as an aid to reference. They certainly aren't 'verses' in the popular sense of rhythmic metrical stanzas, either.)

Those verses do not stand alone, however. They are a concluding scene of a story (one unique to GosMatt among the canonical Gospels, as it happens): the story of the guards of the tomb of Jesus. This (larger) story says these guards existed, and explains why they were put, and who put them, and what happened to them early that morning. The story then goes on (in these verses I've quoted) to say what the guards did for some period of time afterward, with direct historical results (claims the writer) even to the time of GosMatt's writing.

We can divide the adventures of the guards. Let us call their story up to their stationing at the tomb "Adventure-A"; and their story after the tomb is opened as "Adventure-B". (We may include the angel rolling away the stone in either half; but since I am being sceptical in my analysis, I will ignore it for now.) If AdvA is total fiction, then AdvB must be total fiction. If AdvA is (to one or another extent) a fact of history, then AdvB may or may not be the fictional sequel.

Now: why would our writer simply invent this story, either whole or in part?

Perhaps the answer simply involves inventiveness in fictional writing. I happen to be a novelist myself; I can easily imagine inventing such an anecdote so that I and my readers may enjoy watching the Sanhedrin fail even more utterly than they otherwise have.

Or, to be more nuanced: having invented (as a novelist writing a fictional story) the first half of the guard’s adventures, I would not be under any obligation to invent the second half; but if I did decide to continue the story, then it would make rather good narrative sense for the Sanhedrin to behave this way. I can hardly have them becoming public converts--that would be too great a shock to the established facts in the memory of my readers (unless my readers have no relationship at all to Jewish culture). And unless I have the chief priests secretly slay the guards, then they must find a way to keep the guards quiet. Bribing them to stay quiet would be one way. But, no, I will be ending my story (whether I myself consider the ending to be fiction or not) with the command by Jesus for His followers to go out and make disciples; and unless we simply dissociate this story from all other early Christian tradition (in whatever way we define 'early', especially if 'early' means 'post-70 CE and later'...), this evangelization includes the claim that Jesus rose from the grave. In fact, now that I think of it, I will be including express commands in my story to the first female witnesses, from an angel and from Jesus Himself; to (respectively) go tell the disciples that He has risen from the grave, and that He will meet them personally in Galilee. So someone will be told something about this, in my story.

Consequently, the guards (even from a merely narrative standpoint) will need to have a counter-story. I will give them a humorously weak counter-story!--while they were asleep, or even just lounging around in the garden (the Greek, I understand, can be read either way), a crew of disciples with tools came along, and moved the stone, and took the body, and did all of this so secretly that the guards ten feet away were not disturbed! After all, we're at the end of the story now, and it wouldn't do for me to invent some truly plausible charge for the Sanhedrin to give to the soldiers for a story. Besides which, maybe I can't think of anything better than this weak explanation, either.

There. Everything is just so.

This is the sort of explanation we can accept for the existence of this little story, as a complete fiction--so long as we are willing to divorce our writer from virtually all connection to Jewish, and even (as we will soon see) to Christian life.

But of course, even the most radically sceptical scholar is not willing to do this.

Scholars may have drastically different interpretations about what Christian life was, for the audience of GosMatt; but even the most sceptical ones will admit--even insist--that the writer was borrowing at least some material from an established pool of tradition. The writer may not have borrowed that particular anecdote (unique as it is), but he borrowed the majority of everything else. (Note: The conservative and moderate scholar will also agree that GosMatt's writer is borrowing, in one degree or another, from an established pool of story--whether the pool is firsthand eyewitness, secondhand testimony, oral tradition, previously written documents, divine inspiration, or whatever combination.)

Furthermore, as the projected date of GosMatt falls later and later in whatever theory of composition we consider, the political situation becomes more dicey. There is a better and better chance that whoever writes GosMatt is risking a messy death by doing so. And under even the most radically sceptical theory, the later the date of composition (putting it ever more comfortably--for some people--out of living memory of any actual events that might throw a wrench into the acceptance of the story as history), the higher regard the audience will have for Jesus and the events surrounding His life. This is also an unavoidable historical certainty; because we know, as a historical fact, this devotion is how history did actually play out.

Inserting this anecdote out of sheer artistic amusement (onto bulky scrolls?--for bookbinding is not prevalent in the Empire until early 2nd century) becomes less and less probable.

It comes down to this: it is possible, technically, that the writer simply for invention's sake invented the story (or, with more precision for my current purpose, invented the B-Adventure) of the guards. But even the faintest wisps of relevancy to the writer's own existence in an actual historical context, begin to steadily undermine the plausibility of his having simply invented it as an artistic lark--the way a novelist such as myself might do.

And if I am going to consider the question historically (and not simply be making a sceptical lark myself), then I had better be prepared to recognize much more than the faintest wisps of relevancy to the writer's own existence in an actual historical context.

Historically speaking, if he did completely invent this little anecdote, it is overwhelmingly probable that he invented it for a practical purpose.

But, what practical purpose?

To snipe at the Jewish opposition to GosMatt's Christian audience? This little story could hardly add to that in any fashion; for if (according to the hypothesis we are considering) it is entirely fictional, then of course nobody was going around in GosMatt's time saying that the disciples stole the body! It is meaningless to attempt to invent a reply to a charge that does not exist, even to help bolster 'belief'. It is worse than meaningless--in this case it is positively harmful! It raises a doubt that (per our current hypothesis of absolute fiction of Guard Adventure-B) was not an issue: maybe the disciples stole the body!

Furthermore, this little anecdote has no merely devotional or illustrative properties concerning the goodness or propriety of 'belief' (in Jesus, or God, or whomever or whatever). If the writer has included it to help bolster belief, it can only have been in response to some perceived pressure against belief.

A candidate for the perceived pressure is not very difficult to suggest. The perceived pressure is mentioned in the story itself: to this very day (of the writer), Jews spread the story that the disciples stole the body. Except (says the writer) they're lying; or (more precisely) they have been lied to by their leaders. And here (says the writer) is how and why.

Why invent this for no reason?

There is no plausible reason to invent it 'for no reason'.

Then, for what reason would the story have been invented?

All the probabilities indicate this story was told (invented or otherwise) because of an existent historical pressure: Jews were saying that the disciples stole the body.

We may accept this as a virtual certainty.

The moment we grant the writer of this little story any shred of real connection to existence in any remotely plausible historical setting--and he certainly did exist and he certainly did write this anecdote within a real historical setting of his own--then one fact shines out with clarity as a result:

At the time this little story was written into GosMatt--by whomever wrote it, wherever he wrote it, whenever he wrote it--a certain prevalent number of Jews were saying to GosMatt's intended audience, "the disciples stole the body."

But once this fact has been accepted, a growing avalanche begins rushing downhill--released by this one tiny diamond of positive (yet still sceptically minimal) historical analysis.

Part 2 next.


Jason Pratt said…
Just a comment-tracking registration.

Anonymous said…
The problem I've always had with the story is the idea that the guards were bribed to say that they were NOT doing their job.

In the previous chapter, we have the chief priests requesting the tomb be made secure in the first place, to which Pilate replies, "Ye have a watch:, go your way, make it a sure as you can."

Now there is debate as to whether the guards were Roman soldiers or part of the Temple guard. If it were Roman guards, the story makes no sense, for it is my understanding that sleeping on watch is a capital offense. I do not know what penalty the Temple guard would suffer in such case, but one would imagine that if it weren't death, it would still be a severe enough offense to warrant some kind of punishment, in which case the bribe would have to be sufficient for the guards to agree to their deliquent admission.

The reason for believing in the traditional rendering that the guard was Roman it the fact that the stone was sealed, usually indicating a Roman practice of using a signet ring to make official the seal a symbol of power and authority that any unauthorized breaking of that seal would be met with the penalty of death.

How do you address these issues?

Jason Pratt said…
Hi Dondi! (He's visiting from the EU forum, btw.)

I'll be addressing these issues later. (Starting in Part 5, according to my notes. {g})

Since I don't address the "Roman signet ring" issue directly, though, I'll point out here that there are other reasons given in GosMatt for why the tomb might be sealed, even if Roman guards aren't involved: namely, the Sanhedrin thinks disciples might try to steal the body and fake a resurrection. (Which is why they go to Pilate asking for guards. Whether he actually does give them guards is far more debatable, for reasons I'll cover later.)

It's worth noting that the story in GosMatt thus undermines itself a bit, as presented. The story would work a lot better in some ways if Jesus started appearing to people and then the sealed tomb was opened (with the seal still intact) to find the body gone. Instead, duh, the seal is broken!--and then afterward the appearances start. True, the seal is broken in a flashy way (indeed GosMatt is the only canonical to feature the tomb being opened; the others have the tomb already opened as a fait accompli offscreen.) But it isn't even broken by the resurrecting Jesus.

Consequently, the seal ends up in any case as a sort of MacGuffin. {g} It doesn't contribute anything useful to the plot, and if anything it may actually be slightly problematic for GosMatt's apologetical thrust! He would have been better off not mentioning it at all.

(I discuss the notion of sealing later, from a rather different plot angle, but it's mostly outside the scope of my argument for this series since what I'm doing is focusing on what can be inferred from the existence and narrative deployment and content of Guard Adventure-B.)

Anonymous said…
Hey Jason,

Thanks for those insights.

In defense of my ignorance,if I can defend it at all, I didn't realize that this was just one of many in a series you are producing. I should have held comment until I read further along.

On to Part 2...


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