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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Part 2: A List of Pauce Possibilities


As an experiment in historical criticism (starting back in Part 1), I have begun considering the material of GosMatt 28:11b-15, the second half of the adventures of the guards at the tomb of Jesus (i.e. where they go report what happened), from a position of feasibly minimal scepticism--not in the sense of going out of my way to do anything I can think of to reject the historicity of the material, but in the sense of slowly and carefully considering, one step at a time, the absolute minimum I might reasonably accept as historical facts. In part one, I reached this result as one tiny diamond of positive (yet still sceptically minimal) analysis: 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."

So, let us fit his little story to this one evident fact and see what happens. (Remember, though: I am still supposing as a hypothesis, for now, that our writer is completely inventing his story of the guards.)

If we keep our fact as pure as one single snowflake, we have this situation: GosMatt's Christian audience (and by the certain facts of the type of claims being made in GosMatt, especially near Guard Adventure-B, we may be entirely sure his audience is “Christian” of some kind) have Jewish opponents who are saying only that the disciples stole Jesus' body. How did this come to be?

Possibility #1.) Our Christian audience has been publicly making no “Christian” claims at all, including nothing about a missing body, and also privately have no beliefs along this line. The Jews in this region have nevertheless decided to pick a fight with these Christians by themselves inventing a story about a missing body and an explanation for this body in total disregard to whatever the Christians might be believing, even privately. GosMatt’s author somehow considers answering this charge to be important to include in his own total fabricated innovation about a missing body, and adds some more fabrications of his own to the story of these trollish Jews (as we might call them in today’s internet parlance). His audience, instead of wildly laughing off these rolling waves of fabrication which have nothing to do with what they privately believe, accept GosMatt as “the Gospel truth”, so to speak.

While this may be technically possible, I don’t think I could be blamed for considering it to be wholly implausible.

Possibility #2.) Our Christian audience has been publicly making no “Christian” claims at all, including nothing about a missing body, but they do have secretly private beliefs about Jesus and his (or His) missing body--beliefs which are only mystically metaphorical in nature, though, not historical. Some Jews in this region have nevertheless decided to pick a fight with these Christians by completely inventing a story about how that body went missing--a story of mundane (and on the face of it merely historical) facts, not cosmic mythologizing. GosMatt’s author somehow considers answering this charge to be important to include in his own totally fabricated innovation about how this missing body went missing historically. (Maybe the Jews heard he was going to try this and launched a pre-emptive counter-campaign among his audience??) Along the way he adds in some more completely invented details, which he is passing off to these cosmic myth believers, because what the heck why not. His audience, instead of wildly laughing off these rolling waves of fabrication which they certainly didn’t ask for, and maybe being insulted that someone would try to take their precious cosmic myth and re-set it in mundane dirty normal historical life, accept GosMatt as “the Gospel truth” anyway.

This might be slightly more plausible than Possibility #1 (since at least our hypothetical Jews are responding to some detail our hypothetical Christians privately believe), but we might have to be pretty desperate to accept this in lieu of anything more historically plausible.

Possibility #3.) Our Christian audience has been publicly witnessing (where our Jews might hear about it), concerning a purely mythical person who did not exist, and so who of course did absolutely nothing historically. A missing body somehow factors into this cosmic non-historical myth, but not in any way which is actually being presented as though for historical acceptance. Some Jews in this region, being apparently idiots, feel religiously threatened by these claims, or maybe just want to pick fights for the entertainment of it. They do so by completely inventing a story about how that body went missing--a story of mundane (and on the face of it merely historical) facts, not cosmic mythologizing. The details of Possibility #2 play out from there.

Again slightly more plausible, since at least our Christians are now making public claims about what they believe, maybe even with an implied or explicit request that other people ought to believe this, too; and so might aggravate a response of some kind from some nearby Jews. This possibility still involves their response being completely ridiculous and inappropriate, and still involves the author of Guard Adventure-B taking their completely ridiculous response and explaining it away with an even more ridiculous and unnecessary explanation, which is somehow supposed to be impressive to these cosmic-myth proponents. Thus, only slightly more plausible for us to believe as a historical explanation for how and why that Adv-B gets into the received text.

Possibility #4.) Our Christian audience has been publicly witnessing about a man who did not exist, and so who of course did absolutely nothing our Christians are claiming he did, but they are making historical claims about him anyway (not only cosmic-mythological claims). The claims they are making, however, are very different from the kinds of things found in GosMatt’s account.

These Jews in the region do not therefore simply say: "Who is this Jesus? Surely he never existed!"

Nor do they have the total historical naivety (itself an a-historical proposition, by the way) of our Christian GosMatt audience; they do not say: "Ah, then he must have been a great man/the Messiah/God Incarnate/whatever."

Instead, they say something like this: "If he did exist, and if he said what you claim he said, and if he died as a result of what he said, tried and executed by our own duly appointed religious authorities in a way cursed by God, then of course God did not raise him from the dead. What must have happened instead, is that his disciples stole the body. You have been deceived: whether he existed or not."

Our writer, instead of laughing his head off at these Jews coming up with all these narrative details which have nothing to do with what his target Christian audience is claiming, says to himself, "My God! That’s a great story! Why didn’t we go with that?!" After suffering a brain aneurysm over how awesome his opponents' story is by contrast to whatever historical claims he and his group had been making instead, the author decides the reason why they didn't go this route to begin with was, "Oh, right, because then disciples would have stolen the body." Having accepted this bizarre conclusion, the author then continued with a resolution something like this: "Guess I’d better explain why these Jews are saying that if I decide to use this story instead. That makes sense."

He henceforth invents a story much more in line with what these oppositional Jews totally made up to oppose whatever ostensible historical claims the Christians were making instead, and along the way he adds a further completely invented explanation to explain why Jews in contact with his Christian audience were themselves deceived. So there!

Struck by the superiority of these historical details they’ve never really heard of before, his audience decides to accept them instead, thus completing the Pythonesque sketch of utter ridiculousness by making GosMatt the most popular early Christian text. (And apparently the Ur-Gospel from which others took their cue, most notably the other canonical three.)

At least this Possibility has the slight advantage over earlier suggestions, that the Christians were making public historical claims of some sort involving the missing body of Jesus. Still, it looks like we may be going backward in proposing plausible possibilities.

Possibility #5.) Similar to #4, except that our Christians have been making public claims about historicity which, though they don’t involve a body missing from a tomb, otherwise do actually fit the sort of explanation our Jews come back with; which, according to our developing sequence of possibilities, does not involve them replying, “Who is this Jesus? Surely he never existed!” but rather the (now far more reasonable) response: “If he did exist and said the things you claim, and was tried and executed by our duly appointed religious authorities as a result, of course God did not raise him from the dead. What must have happened instead, is that his disciples stole the body. You have been deceived: whether he existed or not.”

Our writer, in reply, henceforth invents a story of guards who did not exist; taking (newly) invented orders to guard a (newly) invented tomb; who witnessed the (newly) invented breaking of the non-existent seal and the rolling of the non-existent stone; and who, when making their (newly) invented report, were bribed by (existent!) Sanhedrin officials with non-existent money to spread a (newly) invented story (newly invented by our writer, remember) about how they fell asleep at their non-existant posts.

He is (per our current hypothesis) inventing details that have absolutely no bearing on the issue at hand. Will his Jewish opponents not merely shrug and say: "What guards? We never said anything about guards! We don't even admit this man existed!"

How are we to explain the immense subsequent popularity of GosMatt after this grotesque failure?

I submit that if this had happened, we would have heard little of anything, if at all, about this purported biography. The writer would have exposed himself as not only writing total inventions presented as history; not only blasphemous total inventions presented as history (accepted by people who have very little care, in 1st/2nd c. Mediterranea, about committing blasphemy??); but as being a completely inept man in doing these things--because he couldn’t even address the reply of his opponents with any accuracy.

It is an adamantine fact, that a (wildly!) positive success occurred, in the acceptance and propagation of this document, instead of this failure. The certifiable historical fact (the success of the document) does not match up with plausibly expected results from this hypothesis--a hypothesis, which while technically possible, is still pretty freakishly implausible in itself.

Possibility #6.) Our Christian audience has been witnessing about a man who did exist, of whom our Jews can now have some independent knowledge of. (If they have no independent knowledge of him, then the result is the same as Possibility #5, at best.) In total disregard of whatever their own independent knowledge may be, however, our Jews only reply: "The disciples stole the body." And that is all they say.

In answer to which, our GosMatt writer fabricates all the details of the adventures of the guards, to explain where our Jews-who-have-independent-information-of-Jesus'-existence-but-are-disregarding-that-information got this theory.

Whereupon we are thrown back onto the results of Possibility #5; with the added implausibility that our Jews, despite having their own independent attestation to the existence of this man, have made no positive use of it whatsoever as part of their reply to the Christians (to which our GosMatt writer is counterreplying).

Considering that the details and results are actually more historically implausible than Possibility #5, I think I am being reasonable to say we ought to try accepting some other possibility instead.

Possibility #7.) Our Jews do make use of their independent attestation of a man whom they also believed to exist; but say nothing about guards or any of that.

In reply, our writer fictionalizes the incident with the guards, explaining that this is where our Jews are getting their independent attestation.

The results of possibility #5 commence again, exposing the author to his own target audience as a liar who fabricates fantasies that don't even have connection to his current historical situation and pressures. GosMatt subsequently becomes the most popular of the Gospel accounts anyway.


I submit that these are all technically possible.

But as historical hypotheses, I think we should disregard them. Unless, of course, following out the notion that our writer is somehow connecting with real history, when writing his story, leads us to an even more unacceptable conclusion.

Consequently, I would be willing, on these grounds, to accept as a historical fact (unless as a sceptic I was willing to credulously accept freakishly improbable propositions instead), that at least one response by Jews to Christian witnessing, wherever and whenever that happened, was this:

"The disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep."

Since the obvious retort by the Christians would be something like "You're just saying that!", I think we may properly continue by recognizing a further component: it must be a historical fact that those Jews were saying, "The guards who were set as watch-detail over the body of Jesus, testify themselves (as real people) that they fell asleep while on guard. And that is when the disciples stole the body."

Shall we return to a totally implausible (not to say uncharitable) scenario by supposing that our Jews were making this up out of thin air?? I refuse to do so. Instead, I infer that this was an officially ‘historical’ response given by the representatives of the Jewish population who lived near GosMatt's Christian audience: a response they gave based on some kind of historical information they themselves had, to some kind of historical claim being made by GosMatt’s main audience--a historical claim close enough in content to the response of the nearby Jewish opponents that the Jews wouldn’t seem insanely foolish (and so easily disregarded) for making it.

Now, I do not say that this therefore must have been a (much less the) stock official response by all Jews to all Christians everywhere during the time GosMatt was composed. I would agree that proposing such a widespread defense may be going beyond the existent evidence (including a rather prevalent silence or two in the data--more on that much later, though). Let it be just this one population, or even one section of this one Jewish population. That will be fine for my purposes.

I will not even claim from this that GosMatt's writer must therefore be correct in his claim that the Sanhedrin bribed the guards to say this. Let that still be considered a pure invention on the part of the writer, if you wish. I would be going beyond my purview, at the moment, to claim otherwise.

What is left over, is powerful enough.

What we have here, is a total agreement between total opponents, about historical facts they both believe are crucial:

A dead man named Jesus had disciples.

He was important enough to his disciples, that they might want to steal his body.

More specifically: the vanishing of the body must in some fashion have been important for the purposes of GosMatt's Christian audience (because this is what the polemic of Guard Adventure-B is about).

His dead body was treated in some fashion that his body could be identified for removal.

Some authorized power set guards over his body at night.

Some authorized power had reason to set guards over his body at night; this authority had reason to prefer the body not to be tampered with.

These guards lived after the events of that night, long enough to spread a story of what happened. This is the story that has reached our Jewish population, in contact with GosMatt’s audience, with some kind of official force.

These guards said the body was missing one morning.

The time between Jesus' death and the claimed removal of his body was such that his body could be identified as 'missing' (i.e. he had not decomposed sufficiently yet to be unidentifiable as "the body of Jesus").

The guards also claimed that they were all asleep (effectively or actually) when this happened.

The guards claimed that the disciples of Jesus stole the body while they were asleep at their posts.


I have been careful to distinguish between what the guards claimed, and what their claim (and the existence of their claim) must necessarily imply. But because these points are agreed to by opponents, who are each in a position where they cannot wave off what the other side is saying in some simpler fashion, then we have strong evidence for these to be considered the core facts of the case--we can establish them by solid historical reasoning, from the actual existence of a real document written by a real person to a real audience with real opponents who were (evidently) reporting real testimony by other real people.

But of course, there are some consequences, even some immediate consequences, of the acceptance of these points as inferred historical facts.


Next up: a shape of results.

5 comments:

Just registering for comment tracking.

I have read all nine parts of this series, although perhaps not all in great detail. So there may be an easy argument against the possibility I propose below for the guard adventure in GosMatt.

Possibility #8) Sometime after Jesus' death, before GosMatt was written, Christians told stories about the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of a real person named Jesus. To make the resurrection story seem more plausible, Christians invented some parts of the story about guards guarding the tomb (and perhaps the tomb itself). Everyone knows the only way a guarded body in a tomb with a big stone in front of it turns up missing is through resurrection.

By the time the story about the resurrection reached the non-Christian Jews, their initial brush-off response, since they had no eyewitnesses and everything was hearsay that many months or years after Jesus' death, was that the disciples stole the body while the guards slept. Both sides continued embellishing their counter-arguments and theories over the next several years, such that neither side knew what was fact and what was fiction by the time GosMatt was written.

Well, I'm not sure it counts as an easy argument. {g} But your comment was good enough to deserve its own appendix post; which I have now put up here.

JRP

Jason, thanks for the detailed response to my comment. I am honored you found it worthy of its own appendix post. It will take me awhile to absorb it all, and I doubt I'll have a response since it would be an understatement to say my knowledge of the subject is limited.

As an aside, can you point me toward a source (web site or book) where I might learn about ex-Biblical sources (first or second century) that refer to Jesus' death, burial or resurrection? Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ" has me convinced that Jesus was likely a real person, but I found the chapters on the resurrection less convincing.

Brap,

A good standard reference at this time is Robert E. Van Voorst's Jesus Outside the New Testament, which was released in 2000. Its treatment of early non-Christian sources of reference are pretty detailed and particular; his treatment of non-canonical Christian sources ('orthodox' or otherwise) is much more general, so the book isn't especially good for that purpose, but you don't seem to be asking for that anyway.

The work is presented in a scholarly format, not an evangelical one. (Unlike Strobel's work, or Habermas' somewhat similar The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ.) I would have no reservations about suggesting Voorst's work to a secular folk anthropologist as a handy resource for her research, for example.

(Note: it's possible there is a more up-to-date standard now, that I haven't heard of yet, although as you probably know the number of extra-canonical classical references to Jesus is pretty limited so it isn't like there's much more to be said in simply reporting on that topic. But Voorst does a good job reporting on analysis of the sources, too, and that could be updated on occasion.)

The short answer is that Tacitus is aware of Christ having been executed in the reign of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate; ditto Josephus (who might also be aware of Christian's belief in the resurrection of Jesus). Mara bar Serapion, a Stoic pagan writing as a Roman prisoner in early 70s CE, knows Jesus was unjustly killed and that the Jewish leadership had responsibility for this. The Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, writing shortly after 165 CE in mockery of the gullibility of Palestinian Christians in his day (though his main target is actually the pseudo-convert Peregrinus), accepts in passing that Jesus was a Palestinian man executed by crucifixion, now worshiped as a god. (He accuses them of doing the same to Peregrinus, too, before that man's subsequent de-conversion to Cynicism.) Celsus, in the first known largescale attack on Christianity (written in 175) accepts the man's existence and death by execution, and that there were resurrection experiences of some sort (though he derides them). (A much better summary of Celsus' material, however, can be found in Robert Louis Wilken's The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2003.)

Voorst doesn't comment much (if at all) on the ultra-counter-apologist Porphyry, probably because his work dates from the middle of the 3rd century; is only recoverable now from scattered (and debatable) fragmentary sources; and seems from what can be ascertained to be entirely dependent on Christian literary sources anyway. But he does take those literary sources seriously as to the existence and death of Jesus (also admitting some kind of resurrection experiences). Wilken's book has much of what information we can still glean about Porph's approach and beliefs on the topic. (Porphyry believes Christians messed up Jesus' history in the Gospel accounts but quite admires the man as being the best of sages.)

JRP

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