A Curious Key to a Historical Jesus (Part 4 of 9)

Part 4: They Ain't Got No Body

The most recent inference I have drawn from the Key (in Part 3), is that Jesus' body must have been missing (not only that some opponents to Christianity were admitting it was missing, which was how I ended Part 2 instead). But was it always missing? Was it perhaps found?

I can only recall one claim more-or-less contemporary with GosMatt (within a hundred years anyway), to the effect that the body of Jesus was found in a well near the tomb; and was carried to Pilate for identification. Unfortunately, I cannot remember where this story was reported; and although I have done some research I haven't been able to find it again. But it will serve well enough, even in its secondary hearsay position, for some purposes of illustration.

One thing we may be certain of: this body-in-the-well story, or any similar story, fact or fiction, must either not have been known or not have been accepted by the official opposition in contact with GosMatt’s audience at the time of GosMatt's inclusion of Guard Adventure-B. Otherwise, those opponents would not be saying “the guards testified that they fell asleep and the body was gone the next morning.” They would be saying that the body was found.

Again, it is not the case that something wasn't said, but that something was said--something that positively excludes the other type of story being either known or accepted at an official level. Whenever we date GosMatt's composition, the body had not at that time been found--by the writer's opposition at any rate.

And this is still the situation throughout Christian history, past any feasible point in time where an opponent might be able to find an identifiable body, up until the present day--except for a brief little jab such as the (late) body-in-the-well story.

We do admittedly find tales outside Christianity regarding Jesus showing up alive and healthy elsewhere in the world. But these tales require him not to have died in the first place. (Note: the Mormon stories of Jesus appearing in America to its inhabitants are an exception, because they claim he died and then appeared in a resurrected body. The Mormons would also say these stories are an exception, because they are not outside Christianity! In any event, despite some major differences between us regarding metaphysics, I think a Mormon would be prepared in advance to agree with the end-goal of my argument in this series.) The Key testifies, however, that people in authority at least thought Jesus had died and that his body had been put somewhere that it could be 'guarded'.

Maybe these officials were wrong about the body having been put where they thought; the first goal of a stage magician is misdirection, especially in regard to timing, and it would make good sense (if someone was planning ahead for this) to snatch the body before anyone knew the body was gone. The Key doesn't exclude this as a possibility.

Or, maybe these officials were wrong about Jesus being dead. The Key doesn't exclude this either, although something else might later: if we can conclude he was crucified by Roman soldiers competently going about their job for instance (though this is certainly not directly attested to by the Key).

Nor am I saying, by the way, that the apocryphal story of the Well-Body's discovery is entirely fictitious! Why would an opponent, in direct dispute with a Christian, invent such a rebuttal? The other stories, Hindu or Muslim or whatever, were not presented as rebuttal in direct dispute; in the case of the Muslim story, for instance, it was claimed primarily (or solely?) on the authority of direct religious revelation. But this Well-Body story was presented as a rebuttal, not as a claim of positive importance to the establishment or reinforcement of a religious belief. By contrast, Christ must have survived the cross (or even not have been crucified at all) according to Muslims; because a specifically Islamic theology requires it: they recognize him to have been a great prophet of God, and God (they think) doesn't abandon such great prophets to such disgraceful deaths.

The Well-Body story wasn't presented in such a fashion, though. Either someone made it up in order to 'troll' the Christians (as we might say today on the internet); or the person who was presenting it thought there were historical reasons for doing so.

Maybe it was a 'troll' claim, for no other purpose than to create a hostile reaction among Christians; that might (or might not) be historically anachronistic, but I suppose it is still technically possible. Certainly, that would explain why the story never gained much credence even among the early opposition to Christians.

But I am willing to think there is some probability, simply in what was claimed and how it was claimed, that it reflects a real historical fact. I think there is a real probability that someone did find a body in a well, near an unused tomb in Jerusalem. And I think there is almost as good a probability (however much that may be) that the body was taken to Pilate for identification.

I am as certain as I can be, considering the details of the case, that no body was recognized as being Jesus', by anyone in official position in Jerusalem at any time when opponents to the resurrection were in control. The shape of the surviving polemic, and (on a larger scale) of the positive Christian testimony as exemplified in the canonical Gospel texts (and even of the noncanonical Gospel texts!), would be substantially different than what it positively is.

But it would be fairly easy for rumors to circulate that this was Jesus' body, especially if it was taken to Pilate for examination. Similarly, a stir was (briefly) created early in the year 2002 when a body wrapped in a shroud, dating to the first half of the first century CE, was found in an opened tomb in what is recognized to be a graveyard of the superwealthy of Jerusalem from that period. The stir died down quickly when the body was exhumed, and discovered to be that of a man who had died of tuberculosis. It would not be unrealistic, however, to expect this story of a body's discovery to show up on rare occasion in dispute against Christians, by someone who knows just enough information to think he is dangerous! Nor would he be inventing the story; there would be a real historical core to it, not very different from what he would be claiming.

I think something of this sort may not-implausibly be suspected to have happened early in the history of the missing body. The found body simply turned out not to be Jesus'.

I am tempted to use this fragmentary recollection of the Well Body, as a ground for deducing the confirmation of a tomb burial, and Pilate's connection to the man in life. But there are too many factors mitigating against such a use; not least being that I cannot remember where I myself saw the fragment mentioned! (I suspect it was in a discussion of the medieval Toledoth Yeshua text, but...)

So, having presented it simply as an illustration of some principles (not as historical evidence of itself), I lay it aside.

Speaking of a tomb, though: I have been careful so far not to mention a tomb, in definite relation to the Key.

The Key, remember, is what I otherwise labeled Guard Adventure-B: the story by GosMatt's writer, about the guards reporting to the chief priests, presented as a reply to something the writer's Jewish opponents were saying. Adventure-A does mention a tomb, but I am not discussing AdvA right now; and I have not attempted to hang the tomb's historical existence upon the Key (AdvB). At the moment, as far as I have gone, the GosMatt writer may have invented the existence of a tomb.

Nevertheless, the existence of the Key does require the factuality of a few points which would be handily satisfied by a tomb.

As I have said, the story being circulated by the guards (and thence with official sanction to the Jewish opposition against GosMatt's writer) indicates that the body must have still been capable of being identified: identified as being Jesus, identified as being present (so it could be stolen), and identified as being missing.

As historians of the Roman period are well aware, the common fate of criminals crucified by the Roman state, was to be thrown into a common grave: the Romans only executed rebels against the state by crucifixion, and those people didn't deserve a better burial from the state. And of course there are a few scholars who claim that Jesus was just thrown into the common grave, rather than buried in a borrowed tomb.

However, I'm not even at the crucifixion yet. I am only at the body, being guarded from theft, and then missing later with the guards claiming they failed.

Consequently, at this point, we cannot say where the body would normally have been, nor whether the body was where it would have normally been. Can we even say that the guards must have been where the body actually was?

This 'theft' reportedly happened at night, according to the Key (other timing issues being outside the Key). Would a guard normally set watch over a dead body in the dark? (I will consider later the implications of having a guard over the body at all!) Even if the notion of theft was entirely a surprise to the guards, I think they would have had lights--torches, lamps, whatever. They would be able to either see what they were guarding, or at least be able to see relevant approaches to it.

Similarly, the body was evidently in a condition and place where a thief could be expected to identify it. It cannot have been decomposed yet--the disappearance must have taken place not too long after the death, within a few weeks at the outside.

Now imagine a common grave, tamped down with earth and other decomposing bodies, food for night scavengers (even ones being encouraged to go about their business...!): does this seem like a probable location for reasonable identification of the body by thieves hurrying to complete their work before the sleeping (or merely bored and lounging) guards recognized what was happening no more than twenty feet away (and probably less than ten)?

I suggest, that even before we have brought in the crucifixion, we may already with much confidence rule out a common shallow grave (assuming there would be guards on such a grave at all--which doesn't seem a safe assumption anyway). The body was probably in some state of display; on a pike, or in a gibbet, or just sitting out on a shelf somewhere. Maybe even lying on a shelf within a narrow tomb behind a rolled stone, which is how Jews of the period often decomposed the bodies of the respected dead before placing their bones in ossuaries.

It had to be somewhere semi-exposed, too. Consider this: if someone wanted to set a secure watch on a dead body--a really secure watch--why leave the body out in the night air? Why not take it with them into a house somewhere? The odds of the opponents’ theft-story even being remotely believed--and remember, it is polemically important for the opponents that people believe a story of theft--decrease radically the more difficult the soldiers made the job of the 'thieves'. But why wouldn't they have made the body as secure from theft as it could be?

Here is the strange and paradoxical problem: there are plenty of ways for a squad of soldiers to make a body secure enough from common theft by night, especially in 1st century Palestine (where thieves had no benefit of modern technology--and I am aware of no reliable tradition saying that Jesus had ninjas as disciples!) And guards would have tried to make it as secure as possible, within the limitations of whatever their situation was. (After all, it isn’t as though this would be a mundanely usual thing for them to be doing, which they might plausibly slack off on due to having done it a thousand times already!)

This means they would be where they were able to see the body, if possible, while standing watch. Either that, or they were standing watch where, once having established the body was safe, no feasible entry could be made to the body except through them.

Or, the body was so secured already that they never saw it to begin with, but thought they had sufficient grounds for believing it to still be present to be guarded.

They are sent to guard a body. They arrive: the body is there, they can see it, they make their preparations and stand their detail.

Or, they arrive and they cannot see the body. Would they not check for it?

Either they would, or they would not. If they would, then a stone can be rolled away, or wallowed back, from a tomb by a squad of soldiers (for instance) without much hassle. And there is the body. If not, then they must have been given assurances by people they trusted (meaning the officials) that the body was certainly there even if the guards themselves couldn't see it. (Notably, Guard AdvA in GosMatt says that the guards themselves, with some authorities nearby, sealed the tomb after checking on the body; but I am not considering that portion of narrative yet, and so cannot properly refer to it as testimony.)

Two of our options imply, or at least fit, a tomb situation. Or the body was left out in the open, where it could be easily and immediately identified by the guards.

This leads, in a couple of ways, to the next point: the guards had to be able to know the next morning that the body was gone.

Which means, some physical sign must have been available to alert them of this.

Possibly, it was the simple fact that the body they had been standing nearby, in plain sight, for 'x' number of hours, was now missing! Although, once that possibility has been stated, it does seem rather inherently improbable.

Obviously, something like 'the stone was rolled away from the tomb' (by whoever or whatever--earthquake, visitors, etc.) would be a sufficient clue as well, that the body ought to be checked upon. And something like a tomb would allow the body to disappear without the guards noticing until some event required them to check more directly on the body.

But, having worked the math of the possibilities, the Key still doesn't necessarily imply a tomb--unless we theorize that the body was already gone when they got there; in which case we would need some reason for thinking they couldn't easily check the body. A common grave burial might fit that sufficiently well, perhaps, but a common grave burial wouldn't facilitate a remotely plausible 'thief identifies the body' scenario. More importantly, in this scenario, the guards must be reasonably assured by their officials that the body (despite being already gone) certainly must be there (despite the fact they cannot ascertain its existence--until later when they can ascertain it is missing). And that scenario practically requires something like a sealed tomb.

Most of the scenarios so far, either fit or require a tomb situation. But as I have said, the Key of itself does not strictly require the tomb. Not yet, anyway.

But the inferences available from the Key, and from its implications, are far from over.

Next up: the trouble of the guards


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.
Eliyahu said…
Tomb of Ribi Yehoshua found in Talpiot. Tomb of Jzeus fictional. Never existed, just like the mythical, fictional Jzeus.
Jason Pratt said…
Thanks for that insightful critique of the article, Eliyahoo.



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