A Curious Key to a Historical Jesus (Part 5 of 9)

Note: at this point it's easier for me to just point back through previous entries in the series (Part 4 is here with links going back to Part 1), than to try to summarize it.

Part 5: No Body Knows The Trouble They Seen

Guards don't spring into existence out of nothing to guard bodies. Guards work for someone.

The Jews near GosMatt's writer had evidently been saying something about these guards: namely that the guards had testified to their own failure to keep the body from vanishing, which they explained by claiming they had fallen asleep on the job (or had been so lazy they might as well have fallen asleep. The Greek of GosMatt’s counter-counter-polemic report could be read either way, or so I understand.)

It would be ridiculous for the Jews to care enough about the GosMatt Christians' resurrection story, to provide such a refutal, if the Christians’ story did not concern something that touched them as Jews. GosMatt's author evidently thought it did this; which is why he says "Jews say" rather than "Syro-phoencians" or "Samaritans"--those weren't the counter-Christian polemicists he was answering. This Key is directed against an explanation for the missing body, presented by Jews.

So, from whom are our Jews, as Jews, going to accept an official rebuttal story, as sanctioning the testimony of these guards? (A testimony that is rather weak on the face of it, as I will discuss later, and so would benefit proportionately from official sanction anyway...) Whom did the GosMatt writer think would make the most sense to tell his story about--the most sense to his listeners, both Christian and Jew?

Really, there are only two historically plausible possibilities: the guards were set either by Romans or by Jews. Which happens to be what GosMatt's writer (outside the Key) says, too.

If we agree the guards could have been set only by Romans and/or Jews, then there can be only three further possibilities.

a.) The writer's Jewish opposition was saying nothing at all about the relationship of the guards to authority figures. In reply, the writer invents the whole scene (even inside the Key) with the chief priests and scribes; perhaps presuming that the Jews meant this connection even though they never once said it.

b.) The writer's Jewish opposition was saying that Roman authorities were responsible for setting the guard. In reply, the writer not only invents the whole scene with the guards reporting to Jewish authorities (and being promised protection by them against Roman authorities!), but he does this in direct contradiction to the rebuttal tactics of his opponents with not even an explanation why it must be his way and not the other. Despite this complete failure to engage his opponents, GosMatt becomes the most popular Gospel anyway in a 'market' that eventually (or maybe already?) uses GosMark and GosLuke, much moreso GosJohn which is sooner or later attributed to the beloved disciple himself, instead of to a former Roman tax-gatherer! (May I add that we know for a certainty that Roman tax-gatherers did not become more popular as a class in the decades and even centuries after Jesus' death?)

I think we can reject this second option as having zero historical plausibility.

c.) The writer's Jewish opposition was saying that the guards were set by the Jews, on Jewish authority, for (primarily) Jewish reasons. This happens to be the authority the Jews would most likely trust (especially to sanction an otherwise weak story, as I will show later); and it certainly fits the counter-strategy devised by our writer of the most popular Gospel of Christianity's subsequent Patristic period.

Options a and c are the ones to bet on.

But in further regard to option a: Would our author likely insert such details if they bore no relation at all to something his opposition was saying? Is it even humanly probable (much less historical) to suppose that the Jewish opposition never once gave some sort of official sanction or explanation for who authorized the guards? Not even a hint for our writer to latch onto?

More importantly: stories of this level of detail (invented or otherwise) are presented during a polemic in order to attempt to match some perceived (or real) strength of the opponent. We could merely suppose that our writer was only filling out the narrative logic of his previously established story (whyever he chose those previous details), and this was what he came up with. But his opponents already admitted the guards existed and had failed to keep the body in check. And our writer is making claims in this Key, that have a direct bearing on something he expects his readers to find relevance in: Jews are saying even today (at the time he is writing) that some guards have testified this-n-that.

I suggest, that whatever may be decided about our writer's power (and/or motivations) for invention, every historical probability is in favor of the notion that he is responding to a Jewish claim, about Jewish official sanction, of the story of the guards. That provides a threat of some significant force, for him to spend time and energy on inventing an answer to (if inventing he is).

The detail of what he relates the chief priests as promising, comes to mind as further evidence of this.

In the Key, our writer presents a conversation (imagined or otherwise) where the chief priests promise to protect the guards from Roman reprisal if the governor ever decides to prosecute the guards for their failure.

Now, I am very tempted to conclude from this: there was a reason why these guards might possibly be threatened by Roman reprisal for letting the body get away. I mean that this would indicate (as it certainly does in connection with the prior narrative details) that the Roman governor might perhaps (not certainly--there's an "if" in the Key regarding his potential involvement) have his own reasons for why the Roman state would be interested in the disappearance of this dead body: if the dead man had been executed as a rebel against the state, for instance (for which there was generally only one capital punishment, I think--crucifixion).

But I don't think this can be implied directly from the Key. The 'key' of the Key, so to speak, is what the guards had been testifying ('we fell asleep, or were otherwise lazy, while guarding the body; and the disciples stole it then'). As we move away from this, and its direct implications, the inferences we can legitimately form become fuzzier. And in the case of this dialogue, presented by our writer, we have no evidence from the Key, or the context in which he was writing the Key, that he wasn't simply inventing this promise--perhaps for literary unity with his previous story elements.

(Remember, I'm trying to be as sceptical as feasibly possible, for purposes of this exercise.)

Still, the fact is that our writer did think he was being consistent in some fashion by putting this element into his story. And I don't think he was merely being consistent with his previous story details (although he succeeded at doing this, too, to some large extent at least.) This story was going to be read at least by Christians--and not just any Christians, but Christians who had been told a story about the guards by non-Christian Jews--and not just any story from those Jews, but a story with enough official backing to overcome its on-the-face weaknesses--overcoming them enough to be worthwhile not only being used against the Christians but worth our writer's time and effort replying to.

Yet again: notice that conditional "if" in the Key. This implies that there's only a possibility that Pilate will learn about their failure and even be concerned by it--only a possibility, despite their instructions to testify publicly about their own failure. There is no way this could possibly make even literary sense, if the story is supposed to be about Roman guards, regardless of whether they were under assignment to someone else or not.

Add to this, the fact that the Key represents the guards as going first (even though after some delay) to the chief priests to report their failure--not to a Roman authority.

But even if the Sanhedrin had the authority to send Roman guards somewhere (either as a general detachment allowed for the Sanhedrin's own general use, or as a specific promise from Pilate for this one task), and even if we suppose that the failure of those Roman guards might possibly not come to the attention of Pilate (despite their instructions to publicly defame themselves), the Sanhedrin had zero authority to protect a Roman guard (and a Roman guard who had received money under the table from Roman client rulers at that!) from the wrath of Rome. This is sufficiently obvious from mere common sense (not even counting historical evidence of how the Romans operated). If we latter-day observers can be reasonably sure of this, we would have to be attributing a virtually supernatural ignorance on the part of GosMatt and his readers, for them not to know of it while living their whole lives under the Roman Empire.

We aren't talking about something uniquely unusual, the acceptance of which might (perhaps) be chalked up to normal beliefs of their culture--such as the resurrection itself. We're talking about a fairly mundane everyday fact being referenced off the cuff here: guards who fail, get in trouble with someone. These guards, evidently, could be expected to be possibly protected by the Sanhedrin, from Roman punishment for failing their duties. Audiences today might be ignorant enough not to know anything more about this, but we can have no legitimate reason to suppose the writer's audience would be so ignorant: not in their own time, place, and culture.

The situation is admittedly confusing; because outside the Key, Pilate replies to the chief priests' request: "You have a guard. Go! Make it as secure as you know."

There are some clues that Pilate is refusing their request, though, and reminding them they have their own Temple guards.

First, GosMatt introduces this with "{de} Pilate 'replied'". {de} is a Greek minor-transitional word that can mean many things, including "yet" and even "but". More importantly, the word often translated 'replied' or merely 'said', has a quality of positive urgency; it can be translated 'averred'. Pilate may be interrupting them with a strong declaration: "you certainly have guards!".

Also, the command 'go' is presented with emphasis: "you go now!" or even "go away!"

When we combine this, and the Key evidence, along with Pilate's insistence on thwarting the plans of the Sanhedrin earlier in GosMatt's story (an attempt he failed at, thanks to these men, putting himself in some jeopardy regarding his own security in relation to an Emperor who crucifies rebels and friends of rebels, which would hardly endear these men to him!); the fact that GosMatt has presented Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin) as already accepting responsibility for the body out of Roman hands with Pilate's permission; and the fact that this sub-story is presented as taking place during the tail-end of a rambunctious Passover festival, when the Temple guards would naturally be worn out already (and so more likely to be believed about falling asleep on duty--however likely that is); then I think we may conclude with virtual certainty that our writer intended to be writing about Jewish (probably Temple) guards.

I am not concluding (yet) that our writer was in all those details passing on reliably accurate history. But if he thought he was talking about Jewish guards, and if we combine this with his certainly intended audience (Christians who have been rebutted with a story about guard testimony, by Jews), then I think we can be as reasonably certain as anything, that our Jewish counter-apologists were talking about Jewish guards, too.

And if Jewish guards were testifying that the disciples must have stolen the body while they were asleep-or-resting, then there is only one remotely probable source for where those Jewish guards came from: the same source our writer expected his readers to believe those guards came from. The Sanhedrin. Publicly testifying to such failure on their part would have immediately gotten them into too much trouble with the Roman authorities, had the guards been Roman soldiers.

This conclusion can be reinforced by the fact that our writer thought this rebuttal by his opposition was strong enough to require some detailed explanation to defeat.

After all, as we will see next, the explanation from these Jews was not really very credible by itself.

Next up: the backhanded strength of a weak story


Jason Pratt said…
As a footnote extension:

Even though I've argued that the weight of narrative evidence falls on the side of Matthew intending readers to understand the guards as being Temple soldiers (not necessarily Levites, maybe, since they might be defiled by doing guard duty there, but then again I'm not sure the Sanhedrin would care overmuch if Levite grunts got
temporarily defiled during a state of emergency), I do understand there is more ambiguity in the texts than is easily explained by this argument.

Specifically, Matthew could have just said "Temple guards", or done other things to make their identity more explicitly explicit. It doesn't help that he uses a term for them that he had used for Roman soldiers previously in his text.

One explanation to reconcile the shape of the data, is that Matthew (i.e. the final author/editor/redactor/whatever of GosMatt) may not have known for sure one way or another himself! So rather than make an explicit incorrect guess he "builds-in" the guess by relating the details he had heard.

Still, the narrative-historical contexts are entirely against Pilate actually assigning Roman guards for this task. First, Pilate would not have been inclined to waste them on mere (dead) body guard duty Saturday night, especially since the Sanhedrin were permitted official guards under their own command already, when he might need them to help quell rebellion in the city.

True, preventing a fake-resurrection of a Messianic claimant might pre-emptively stop such a rebellion from happening, too--which, admittedly (and notably) is the rationale offered by the chief priests when they ask for a Roman guard. But then we have Pilate's personal character to deal with.

A sizable military contingent (meaning the Temple Guard) under more-or-less autonomous command of a group of local leaders would have been irritating to Pilate to begin with (even though necessary as part of honoring the political legacy of Herod the Great). That such a group would exist for leaders of a nation and culture he despised, would not irritate him less!

But now these men who already have a guard, which he would naturally resent them having, have just recently dangerously outmaneuvered him in thwarting his desire to please his wife: Claudia Procula, who was reportedly who got him this job as governor and who was the only person who could protect him from trial by the Emperor if he screwed it up one more time. (Pilate was already under warning from the home office that he if messed up one more time he would be recalled--to a court where political enemies had recently gotten into the habit of claiming treason about each other in order to provoke the increasingly paranoid Emperor Tiberius into executing them and giving over the "traitor"'s property to the ones who "exposed" them. It should be kept in mind that the Sanhedrin had also been the ones to tattle on Pilate the last time he had screwed up his job of keeping peace among the locals! None of the canonicals are directly interested in these details, but they're well-established in other historical documents about the era.)

And now these same men have come to him afterward asking for troops to guard the body of the man they maneuvered into killing, against the wishes of his politically connected wife (relative of the Emperor)!?

Even without the accusation "You are no friend of Caesar!" (which GosMatt doesn't include, but which would be totally in keeping with the lethal political situation of that time), Pilate would already be in "Bleep you" mode (as also testified to in other Gospel accounts when he puts up the sarcastic title "King of the Jews" over Jesus.) He wouldn't have been more inclined to help those men with this request. Helping JosArim, yes--because Joseph
HADN'T BEEN INVOLVED IN KILLING JESUS and so wouldn't have been involved in politically screwing over Pilate.

Helping Caiaphas and company? Not likely.

Jason Pratt said…
For further in-depth notes of mine on the underlying narrative and historical unity of the events represented by the four canonical accounts of the trials of Jesus, please see this and subsequent entries of my Gospel harmonization project here on the Cadre Journal, The King of Stories.


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