A Curious Key to a Historical Jesus (Part 6 of 9)

New to the series? I recommend tracing back through previous entries to catch up. Part 5 is here.

Part 6: The Backhanded Strength of a Weak Story

Jews had been replying, to GosMatt's Christian audience, that guards had been 'witnessing' (so to speak) that they had fallen asleep, or otherwise rested (to the point of inattention), during the night and the body had been stolen then by Jesus' disciples.

This story, however, is very weak.

I already have considered one of these weaknesses--the chief weakness, in fact.

Here is a detail of guards, charged by someone in authority to guard a dead body at night. Even if they were Temple guards coming off a hard duty (and thus somewhat likely to fall asleep during a boring watch in the middle of the night, especially if it's in a nice quiet graveyard garden outside the city walls as indicated by the story prior to the Key), what must we believe to accept their story?

We (or anyone) must be prepared to believe that a set of soldiers who could expect this body might be tampered with (otherwise they wouldn’t be guarding there at all!), all fell asleep within the same frame of time, and all fell so deeply asleep, that no less than two men (or one extremely large and strong man?), who were hoping for something like this to happen, could tiptoe into the area and pick up the body (just lying out for anyone to take?) and leave without making enough noise to awaken any of them.

This is at the bare minimum. The more details we acknowledge to be accurate in GosMatt's story, the less likely this already-unlikely explanation becomes.

Now, if I heard this story, and was inclined (on other grounds) to accept it was true, the first thing I would think of is: they were drugged.

Drugs of that sort did exist in early 1st century Palestine--there have been drugs of this sort in virtually every society known to history!

We may suspect that the Temple guards were not as rigorously disciplined as Roman guards (although that might be an uncharitable supposition) and so might accept drinks from someone (a cute Magdalen??); or that being fools they had brought alcohol to drink on duty ('drunk' might conceivably do as well as 'drugged', depending on the level of drunkeness and/or prior exhaustion from previous duties); or that every hot drink they had brought with them to help keep themselves awake had been spiked secretly before they got on duty.

But, this wasn't what they were saying. They were testifying that they had fallen asleep, or even had merely just lapsed in their attention (depending on how we wish to translate the verb). And this story was still being spread, as such, through at least some Jews, at the time our writer wrote his counter-rebuttal.

Obviously, it hadn't occurred to someone, somewhere, to claim "drugged" (or "drunk")--even in their own defense! This is even more amazing, when we come (later) to some other implications of the story.

I can see, to some extent, a group of adversaries, even decades afterward, not considering the subtle possibility that the body had been stolen before the guards arrived. Maybe; there are problems with this proposal, too. But drugs are not subtle. The story virtually screams 'doped'.

But 'doped' is not what is being said.

Again, I am not presenting an argument based on silence, but an argument based on what is actually being said. The guards (or at least some guards) were testifying that they were all grossly incompetent--and even more incompetent the more we consider other factors of GosMatt's story to be accurate. ("Yeah, we all fell asleep at the same time, and then some guys must have come and used a crowbar to muscle away the stone we were all asleep ten feet away from...")

Of course, gross incompetence may be the preferable explanation: stupidly improbable possibilities still beat outright impossibilities. Still, stupidly improbable possibilities are also not historically probable. (Although to be fair, I should also point out that in one sense 'historically improbable' events happen all the time...) Be that as it may: my point for the moment is that the testimony of the guards is obviously weak as it stands in its simplicity in the Key, and may be even weaker once we move outside the Key (where we have such things as sealed tombs).

In fact, one part of the story within the Key weakens the explanation even further.

Our writer is presenting a nestled quotation from the guards: the key of the Key, so to speak. The guards (says our writer) were told to say this-and-that. This (says our writer, to his audience) is what they proceeded to say. Which is why our Jewish opponents (implies our writer, pretty clearly) say that the guards have testified to this.

We may be reasonably certain, then, that at some time before the composition of GosMatt, those guards were saying "the disciples stole the body."

How do they know that? They were all supposedly asleep at the time!

This can only weaken an already flimsy story, if it is accepted at face value. I myself think it points to another implication of immense importance to a study, not only of the resurrection, but of early Christian doctrine. But I will get to that later.

Meanwhile, we have a weak story, that only looks weaker the more we poke at the surrounding details. Despite what some scholars would have us believe, Roman Empire citizens were not universally credulous; our Jews certainly weren't malignantly naive in this case, or else they would have simply accepted whatever GosMatt's people were saying about the disappearance of the body! Against whatever GosMatt's readers were saying, the Jews were providing this weak rebuttal instead.

But it wasn't, evidently, perceived as being too weak. The fact that our writer goes to the trouble to invent or report (or whatever) his Guard Adventure-B anecdote, tells us this securely.

My point is this: GosMatt's writer thought this weak rebuttal was worth spending some real effort nixing--interrupting the narrative flow of his story otherwise in order to do so, too! And he wasn't nixing it with a simple explanation of probabilities combined with a historically charitable attitude (as I did for the Well-Body story). He was attempting to nix it with a story (a 'mere' story, if we wish to put it that way) that casts even more aspersion on the chief priests than he has already done!

I think the evidence is sufficiently clear, to warrant this conclusion: the reason these Jews (and Christians) were giving credence to this weak explanation, was because it had official backing. By whom?

Is there any real doubt? By the Sanhedrin: GosMatt's chosen target. All the probabilities are for it.

I am tempted to go further: the Sanhedrin must have been still active to sanction this claim!--thus dating this part of GosMatt (at least) prior to 70 CE. But while I do think there is some reason to accept GosMatt's material as dating this far back (or further!), I would not hang a dating on this inference. I do think it is a little improbable (and proportionately more improbable the later we try to date GosMatt) that the officialness of the story could be effectively sanctioned by a system that had very evidently failed in such a cataclysmic manner that even rabbis (as successors to the previous system--headed by their opponents, the Sadducean party) were saying the nation (and by extension those opponents of theirs!) had been judged by God. But it is not overly improbable, I suppose. In any event, I will not press that point.

We may conclude, at any rate, leaving aside its implications for dating of GosMatt’s authorship, that the chief priests--the most probable authorities that Jews would accept, especially for lending credence to an otherwise a weak story--were the ones originally backing the testimony of the guards.

Which means that, regardless of when the Key was included in GosMatt (which, per the evidence of textual criticism, looks to have been no later than the final official edition of the text--it isn't an addition by scribes reproducing the text afterward), the testimony of the guards is an exceedingly early story. Maybe even as early as GosMatt's own explanation says it was: the day after the body disappeared.

Next up: hints of a particular person and place.


Jason Pratt said…
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Metacrock said…
Good article. When you start talking Passover plot stuff to me we are in Jerry Lewis Territory. The situation is perfect for Jerry to stumble into the middle of the guards trying open the tomb and knock over a bunch of shields the guards wake up and he's going "O no hoiting! I was, waaa, where's the body?"

When I was an atheist I thought the much stronger argument was just that there were no guards, that just grew up with legend. In fact I didn't think of it at the time but it would be have been simpler to say the whole tomb was a fiction. There was no tomb, no guards or any of it.

Gee if only was a second independent old tradition of the guards that might date even earlier than GMat. that would be something hu? might figure in at this point hu? ;-)
Jason Pratt said…
It would!--though note that the historical liklihoods indicate the guard story does drastically predate GosMatt's composition in any case. {g}

(Meta is referring to an argument that the guard story details in GosPete, despite being in a late 2nd century text at best, are independent of the GosMatt narrative and go back to pre-Gospel material. I still don't know how I would integrate it into the tight implicative format of this analysis, but it's worth looking at as an auxiliary argument--or worth comparing to this one as an independent argument! Joe will be contributing a chapter on the GosPete guard story for JPHolding's new book on the Res.)

Metacrock said…
I know Jason, I was just giving you a hard. I couldn't resist bringing it up. ;-)

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