Beyond Tradition

The Evangelists

Part II of III (click here for Part I):

 
Galilean red neck

It was no accident that Paul openly declared he was from the city of Tarsus -- Roman citizen of a prominent city -- at a critical time when he wanted to be heard (Acts 21:39, 22:3), and he clearly used it as clout to gain credibility with the Roman centurion. His citizenship signified a high honor ranking for the person who laid claim to it. Nazareth was a puny and insignificant Jewish village of commoners in Galilee undoubtedly labeled am ha-arez "people of the land," without much respect or adherence to the Torah -- analogous to country folk or red necks.[1] Nathanael (Bartholomew), one of the twelve disciples, directly acknowledges this incongruous link to any supposed messianic claimants…

John 1:45-46 "Philip found Nathanael and said to him, We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Nathanael said to him, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"

Jesus' hometown Nazareth was obviously an inconvenience to them and is simply an inexplicable black mark in this culture left uncorrected, not just because of any reputation Nazareth had or did not have, but because Nazareth paled in comparison to other more desirable locations the supposed embellishers and redactors could have declared about their Messiah. Naturally, this is easy to dismiss because it's simply impossible for those of us who have had our worldview shaped by 21st century cultural relativism, political correctness and the inability to conceptualize the shame and discomfort of a Messiah raised in obscurity and insignificance. However, even today, we can still somewhat conceptualize the disparity between two public figures: one being an alma mater of a University in Massachusetts versus an alma mater of a University in Tijuana.

Nazareth, oddly once thought of as a Christian myth creation, was confirmed by archeological discoveries that settled the argument.[2] However, even before this discovery was made, the silence about it in other extrabiblical records would attest to its insignificance prior to its prominence established by Christianity. Ironically, not only does the silence logically support the paltriness of the location, but this fact backfires for the Jesus-mythicist, not just the unlikeliness fiction artists would have invented this obscure location from scratch, but attests to the historical honesty of the Jesus-traditions.

If we are to assume fiction artists, embellishers, or that the traditions evolved into legend over time, how easy it would have been for their Savior Messiah to rise from a more prominent place like Jerusalem, Capernaum, Bethsaida, or of course Bethlehem, a city people were apparently already expecting the Messiah from which to come (John 7:42), and the location obviously touted as Jesus' original birthplace by Matthew (2:1) and Luke (2:4-7). Of course, Markan priority proponents might be inclined to point out that since the gospel of Mark states Jesus was from Nazareth (Mark 6:1), the subsequent authors who supposedly used him as a source reference didn't want to contradict the "earliest" written source, or because the tradition was already firmly ingrained in the Jesus-tradition, hence didn't have the luxury of contradicting this tradition. However, critics can't have it both ways.

If we assume the supernatural elements throughout the gospel stories "evolved" into later myth and legend by the adherents driven by their adoration, which is what form and redaction criticism implies, then conservatism with the tradition under any circumstance is absurdly inconsistent. Yes, they were obviously intent on being consistent with tradition about Nazareth, which only bolsters the argument that the traditions were preserved in a conservative manner. Not even Markan priority saves them in this case, being that Mark says nothing about Jesus' actual childhood or even early adulthood. Moreover, since we know nothing of Jesus prior to his adulthood other than his birth in Matthew and Luke, and a brief incident with Jesus as a preteen in Luke (2:41-50), it would have been only natural for Matthew, Luke, John or the movement of Judeo-Christians that preceded them who told and retold these traditions before they were even transcribed to written text to have corrected this aberration or spruced up the tradition as we would expect them to.

We certainly would not expect John to actually broadcast the insignificance of Jesus' upbringing (pointed out in the verse above). At the very least, Matthew and Luke could have emphasized his true birthplace in the narrative, which was Bethlehem. They could have created instances where the crowd acknowledged the fact Jesus was born in Bethlehem to aggrandize this fact, such as the reference: "in his own hometown" (Matthew 13:54-57, 21:11, 26:71); or "where he had been brought up" (Luke 4:16, 4:34, 24:19); or where some doubted Jesus was the Messiah because they thought Messiah would come from Bethlehem (John 7:41-44), a passage that oddly implies  they didn't know Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Accounts like these within the traditions are details we would expect to have been easily told and retold differently, edited or just emphasized differently.

There were a lot of stigmas against Christianity that early Christians just couldn't avoid, particularly the way he died, but Jesus of Capernaum, Jesus of Jerusalem, or Jesus of Bethlehem as opposed to Jesus of Nazareth would have been only natural, smart, effective, technically legitimate in Matthew and Luke's story, and as easily fixable as a simple stroke of the pen or slip of the tongue as the early traditions were circulating and supposedly evolving during this time.

Fact is, this shows us that the Nazareth tradition was consistent in all the earliest traditions we know about Jesus because this was a fact of his history they obviously were not inclined to tamper with in spite of plenty of reasons and opportunities to do so. This is one of many inconsistencies with the idea that they went wild with the traditions based on their own evangelistic purposes, theological agendas or creative whims.

Son of… da man?

Son of man is a self-proclaimed term Jesus used to address himself exclusively, about 80 times in the gospel records. Since it is directly connected to many of Jesus' fantastic claims about himself, it is a title that has probably caused more perplexity among scholars than any other claim of Jesus in the gospels,[3] especially since it is the complete opposite in how it's used outside the gospels. At times, it was used in other literature to represent an apocalyptic eminent being, and other times it was used to denote "children of Israel" or to identify mortal prophets, particularly Ezekiel, and was also used in Psalms to distinguish between God and human beings in general. In fact, at the end of Psalm 146:3 the human "son of man," ben adam, is given a rather disparaging impression. Ben Adam's divine counterpart, ben enos, used once in the Old Testament book of Daniel (7:13-14), and also used in apocryphal texts such as the book of Enoch and The Song of Solomon,[4] had clear royal and even supernatural connotations. Margaret Barker comes to the conclusion that the apocalyptic Son of man references should instead be identified as an angel, and her reasoning is because angels in scripture are often identified as men.[5] Even though, for the most part, son of man always implied someone derived from human origins, one thing that is plainly clear is that the divine connotation was exclusively rooted in the Semitic culture.[6]

To an ordinary Gentile, Son of man had absolutely no divine significance whatsoever, and not only do we find evidence outside the gospels that early Christians used this title sparingly, if at all to identify Christ, whether from the early church fathers or the apocryphal works, but its ambiguous connotation is probably why it isn't a popular title used by today's modern church. Hence, as a result, modern scholars have racked their brains with theories trying to figure out the implications of its meaning, where it was derived, by whom and why because such a title used only on the lips of Jesus is in contrast to the idea of evolving and embellished Jesus tradition.

Since the term is directly associated with many of Jesus' divine claims about himself (examples: Matthew 9:5-6; Mark 10:45; Luke 9:26; John 3:13-15), some have tried to unsuccessfully downplay the term all together. For example, since Jesus spoke Aramaic, some have argued that the word had no mystical or divine implications specifically in the Aramaic language. This is not a very convincing argument not only because very little is known about the exact Aramaic spoken in first century Judea,[7] thus is merely speculatory, but the word obviously had little use among most of the other New Testament early Jewish writers, such as Paul, Peter, James or any other Christian works of the first century. Some have also tried to pluralize the term, claiming it denotes a more generalized word for "mankind" or some abstract spiritual connotation of the church as a whole with even less success. Though the title always has a definite article where it is used in the Hebrew texts, Jesus also always used it with a definite article in the singular form in the Greek,[8] and in each case, it's more than obvious in the context it is used by Jesus that he was referring to himself and only himself. Since Son of Man is clearly a Semitic concept thus presents major problems to the embellishment premise -- or that the traditions were being redacted, reshaped and embellished during the time they reached Greek audiences -- these explanations become little more than desperate attempts to try and solve this problem. 

More puzzling is the fact that Jesus used it sporadically, sometimes with lowly or humanly connotations, and sometimes with heavenly and divine connotations. It is virtually excluded in every other canon New Testament work, and is only used a total of three times of all the books combined, two of which are found in the book of Revelation, one mention in the book of Acts and in Hebrews (2:6), though Hebrews clearly doesn't use it as a reference to Jesus.

It's used 32 times in Matthew, 15 times in Mark, 26 times in Luke, and 11 times in John, so there really is no specific pattern here other than they are the only first century works that exclusively illustrate the title. Though it is also used in the later apocryphal works, it is used much more sparingly, suggesting merely a reflection of the earlier canon works. Whatever the intended meaning, scholars are essentially left with an unsolved enigma. If Jesus did not claim the title himself, the question of where the gospels authors got it from, what purpose they used it for, why it was used to identify Jesus and why only he used it to address himself in their written works remains a complete mystery.

It certainly is not out of the question, in fact, the only logical conclusion here that Jesus used the term because he knew it was both unique and specific with the messianic theme he wanted to convey. In fact, it's interesting to note that, though the title is used 26 times in Luke's first work (the gospel), it's used one time in his second work (Acts). This suggests that the early Christians, even the Jewish Christians, weren't using this title very often themselves likely because of its theological ambiguity to a Greek audience. It's also why Paul and the other epistle writers, also catering to an exclusively Greek audience, never used the title to identify Jesus. This supports the fact that Jesus exclusively used the title himself to identify himself at the time Jesus was obviously dealing with an all Jewish audience that had no problem understanding the divine and messianic significance of the title.

In the context of the embellishment and redaction argument and assuming it was as common among the gospel writers as is claimed, it's very strange that the authors didn't omit or change it with another more common or preferred title. There is no other explanation for this other than the fact that not only did the early church not invent it themselves, but chose not to strike out an ambiguous title Jesus frequently used by himself for himself, in spite of the fact the later writers were clearly catering exclusively to a Greek audience.

Oddly, the authors never used Son of man to identify Jesus themselves (another clear strike against invention or interpolation), nor did anyone else in the gospels who interacted with Jesus use the term. The authors personally used more Christian-familiar terms in their narratives like "Christ," "Son of God," and "Lord" (kuvrio) to identify Jesus, yet conversely, never record Jesus directly claiming these alternative titles himself with the exception of John, and in only two cases does Jesus indirectly confess that he is the Christ in all four gospels. Although "Son of God" was a theological term everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, clearly understood, it only appears as a self-designated title on Jesus’ own lips four times and only in John's gospel. The general populace who interacted with Jesus in the four gospel narratives exclusively used the title "Son of David" (a messianic title used by Christian adherents even to this day), yet Jesus also oddly never used this to identify himself.

This is probably the most direct evidence against an argument that the traditions evolved, were embellished or reshaped because self-proclaimed titles are typically where redactors show their true colors. Titles that adherents of a religion use to identify the one they revere will naturally flow on the lips of him whom they're promoting in their traditions and writings, in addition to it being the easiest, convenient and most effective way to stamp theological precedence on doctrine, particularly in the case of Christian theology that was centered around Jesus from the beginning.

What difference does it make whether others proclaimed him Son of David, the Christ, or Son of God or he proclaimed it himself if they believed these titles were true? They apparently were not inclined to stick claims and titles directly in the mouth of Jesus that he never -- or rarely ever -- claimed himself. Nor were they inclined to change claims and titles he exclusively used himself for himself, titles that weren't as commonly used by his followers, and titles that may have been antithetical to their evangelism and what could have caused unnecessary confusion about his theological and messianic role in the later Gentile church.

Jesus vs. John the Baptist

Christianity apparently wasn't the only first century sect that heralded its leader a Jewish savior. Apparently John the Baptist, with possible links to the later Johannites and Mandaeans,[9] may have been in a list of candidates that were actually in competition with Christianity as early as the first century (see Matthew 9:14-15; Mark 2:18,11:29-32; Acts 18:24-26; 19:1-5; also see Josephus, Ant. 18.5.2). In Mark (1:9), Matthew (3:14-16) and Luke (3:21), Jesus is baptized by his predecessor John the Baptist instead of the other way around. This could have raised problems and issues of spiritual rank because the baptizer was typically the one in authority, and this is even indicated to us in John the Baptist's reluctance to perform the baptism. Some have suggested Luke tried to solve the issue by implying that John the Baptist was placed in prison before Jesus was baptized (Luke 3:18-21). However, it's highly unlikely this was an intentional editorial for a few reasons. If Luke himself viewed it as a problem, it would have been more logical for Luke to leave the baptism of Jesus out all together, especially considering that the baptism served no clear evangelistic or messianic purpose (which I'll discuss in a bit). On closer examination it becomes clear that Luke was merely pointing out the "wicked things Herod had done" by reminding the reader that Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist (an account that Luke left out of his gospel) at some point in Jesus' ministry, but not with a specific intent to mislead the reader into thinking it had occurred before Jesus' baptism. In other words, Luke was merely making a side note of John's eventual imprisonment. We also know that side notes were common with Luke. He did it with an earlier account of John the Baptist when he describes how John grew up and lived in the wilderness before Luke even describes Jesus' birth (Luke 1:80). He also does it with Jesus' genealogy, which came after Jesus had already grown up (Luke 3:23-38).

Also, if we assume the conflict actually drove Luke to carefully redact it so that John would have been conveniently out of the way before Jesus was baptized, it's unlikely Luke would have recorded the incident where Zacharias, John's father, makes the declaration of the "horn of salvation" during John's birth before Jesus was even born (Luke 1:67-75), implying that Zacharias was identifying his son John as the horn of salvation instead. It's also pretty absurd to assume Luke would have dedicated a whole story about John's miracle birth in the beginning of his work and even aggrandized God's special hand on John if Luke had this much of an issue with Jesus' baptism precedence (Luke 1:65-66).

Lastly, the baptism was undoubtedly solidly ingrained in tradition at the point of Luke's composition, and even if Luke's intention was to mix up the chronologically this way, he still follows the basic outline of the other gospels in regards to Jesus' immediate baptism (Luke 3:16-21). This leads the reader to the obvious conclusion that Jesus was baptized by someone, and everyone would have known from the earlier traditions that that someone was obviously John, and from the context of Luke's work, it makes it pretty clear.

Others point out that this rivalry between John the Baptist and Jesus' followers is evident in the gospel of John. This I do agree with because it's much more demonstrable. The writer of the gospel of John spends quite a great deal of space overemphasizing Jesus' role over John the Baptist in the beginning chapters of his gospel (see John 1:6-36, 3:22-36), making this rivalry seem more than apparent. Luke does more of the same only not as excessively (Luke 3:15-17). In fact, that Matthew (3:13-14) records John's confusion about the matter, seems to further support this rivalry issue that they were all irrevocably faced with. 

As I mentioned, there was really no significance for Jesus' baptism, in fact, this was not technically how a Jewish king or priest was anointed in the Old Testament scriptures (see Exodus 29:1-9, 30:22-25; 1 Samuel 10:1, 16:13; 1 Kings 1:39), nor did Jesus' baptism fulfill any messianic prophecies (not even Matthew could find a prophecy to fit this event). Moreover, not only do none of the authors give a specific reason why it was necessary other than Matthew (3:13-15 -- though vague at best), since the purpose of it being for his messianic duty and role as Savior remains racked with varying views by theologians as to its significance.[10] Moreover, baptism was for remission of sins (see Mark 1:4; Matthew 3:6; Luke 3:3), a requirement that would have been presumed unnecessary for Christ (examples: 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22-23, Hebrews 4:15, 1 John 3:5).

One might argue that the baptism really occurred, therefore they were obligated to keep the tradition intact, yet laced it with supernatural elements anyway -- the Heavens opening, heavenly voices declaring Jesus' supremacy, Holy Spirit guised as a dove resting upon him, etc. -- to underscore Jesus' role over John the Baptist. However, since changing who baptized whom or omitting the account all together would have been just as easy, we would then have to concede these were traditions firmly rooted beforehand, thus already too firmly established for them to make these changes. This just suggests such supernatural editing would have made them vulnerable to dispute by others, which only self-defeats the supposition they were in a position to freely embellish the traditions. In other words, if they couldn't just omit the baptism because it was already firmly grounded in tradition, then what makes us think they could have so easily edited it with spectacle falsities?

Another thing to note here is that Jesus is somewhat vague and subtle about his own claim to messiahship throughout the traditions, and the fact the gospel authors didn't record Jesus directly asserting this role when John the Baptist himself sent inquisitors from prison to verify it is extraordinarily puzzling in the context of this whole rivalry issue (Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 7:18-23). 

Assuming they are carefree embellishers of such stories as the virgin birth, miracles, empty tombs, audible heavenly voices, yet when it comes to other instances like John the Baptist, we must suppose everyone was strangely bound by unmovable tradition that required them to stay consistent and conservative with how they handled the traditions. We can't have it both ways. If we are dealing with carefree editors with embelished traditions, it makes little sense they didn't leave out the baptism all together or just as easily had Jesus baptize John instead to settle the score, and this is further enforced by the glaring factors we already noted about the baptism tradition, such as:

 

  • It could have been an inconvenient underscore of John the Baptist's supremacy.
  • Baptism had no clear messianic or salvific purpose in regards to Jesus.
  • Baptism was done for the remission of sins (a theology firmly expressed by the gospel authors themselves), thus a non-requirement for Jesus.
  • We would expect a clear vindication of Jesus' supremacy over John in other areas, yet Jesus is strangely indirect about his claim to messiahship when asked by John's followers to affirm his authority.
  • The supernatural spectacle during the baptism could have been illustrated elsewhere, such as at the end of his temptation, after John was killed by Herod, Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, during the Passion just before his crucifixion when he prayed in the garden, etc. 
  • There was further no need for the supernatural spectacle surrounding the baptism if the baptism was a problem when similar spectacle during the Mount of Transfiguration could have easily sufficed; an event where Jesus is visibly glorified and his divine position once again established by a voice from heaven above (Mark 9:2-7; Matthew 17:1-7; Luke 9:28-35).

 

There is no logical reason why the three authors stuck with this tradition, especially in light of the probable controversy between Jesus and the Baptist. Once again, this only attests to the fact they either desired to stay consistent with the tradition or were under external pressure to stay consistent. Either case contradicts the supposition of evolving traditions, redactors and embellishers freely editing these traditions as they saw fit.

The Messiah reject

Matthew 11:2-3 "Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?'"

 

One thing you don't want to do when building up a persuasive case for your candidate Messiah is to record accounts of people who had doubts, especially doubt expressed by a first century rival like John the Baptist, previously covered. While Luke also records this incident (Luke 17:18-23), oddly enough, the scene seems to contradict a previous scene in the beginning of Luke where he records an incident during the Nativity scene. John the Baptist as an unborn infant leaps for joy in his mother's womb when in the presence of pregnant Mary (Luke 1:39-45), signifying that even John as an embryo recognized who Jesus was. It also contradicts instances before John baptizes Jesus, where John heralds the coming of one "more powerful" without any doubt expressed by him during that time (see Luke 3:15-17; Matthew 3:7-12).

It's somewhat amusing how critics actually capitalize on the situation where John began to doubt Jesus in order to exploit an argument against Jesus' messiahship. In other words, I've heard critics actually say "See? If Jesus was the true Messiah why did John doubt him?" I couldn't agree more! It remains inexplicable why the authors included this incident when it not only raised issues about Jesus' messiahship, but could have easily been misconstrued as a blatant contradiction in terms with some of the earlier accounts they recorded. When this is coupled with what we discussed earlier about a possible issue of ranking between John and Jesus, the lack of embellishment and redaction becomes even more of an inconsistent argument. Moreover, they don't just record that John the Baptist doubted, or that Jesus' townsmen doubted, but that his own family rejected him...

 

John 7:3-5 "Therefore His brothers said to Him, 'Leave here and go into Judea, so that Your disciples also may see Your works which You are doing. For no one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.' For not even His brothers were believing in Him."

 

They record that others, including his own family, thought he had gone mad…

Mark 3:20-22 "And he [Jesus] came home, and the crowd gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. When his own kinsmen heard of this, they went out to take custody of him; for they were saying, he has lost his senses. The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, 'He is possessed by Beelzebul,' and 'He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.'" (compare with: Matthew 9:34, 10:25; John 10:20).


Matthew 12:46-50 "While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, 'Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You. But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, 'Who is My mother and who are My brothers?' And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, 'Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.'" (compare with: Luke 8:19-21; the fact Jesus implied his family was not his "true" family or spiritual family -- i.e. those who believed Jesus' message -- indicates that his family may not have been too sympathetic of his ministry at first).

Not only does this also contradict Matthew and Luke's Nativity scene, where Jesus' messianic title is a direct annunciation made by the angel directly to Joseph and Mary, but this certainly was not the way to sell your candidate as the Messiah to your readers or boost his ranking above his rival contemporaries. These types of family issues made this exceptionally problematic in a culture where one's standing with the family determined one's honor or dishonor.

Contrary to popular belief, Jesus in fact had many disciples than the twelve specifically highlighted in the gospel narratives, yet the gospel of John even records that some of these disciples also rejected him (John 6:66-67). Others record he was rejected by whole cities like Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15). The fact that the Jewish establishment rejected him, his townsmen rejected him, whole cities rejected him, some of his disciples rejected him, John the Baptist doubted him, in addition to apparent family issues makes it increasingly problematic to argue that the traditions evolved this way or that these issues were not easily corrected. In fact, all that was required was omission.

The form and redaction theory proponent might argue that they included these accounts to teach Christian societies that their own rejection was admirable because it paralleled the rejection experienced by their Master. However, once again, this is a contradiction in terms. Being rejected by the establishment is certainly expected, but being ousted by his own countrymen, his followers, and questioned by his own family is clearly overkill.

Jesus' abandonment by his twelve intimate followers during his arrest and his humiliating execution, which they also recorded, would have sufficed and was a lesson of rejection that was unheralded without the need of all the other additional accounts. If the conveyors of these traditions had no constraints fabricating such wild tales as a virgin birth, miracles, divine claims, heavenly proclamations, a resurrection, and an ascension to elevate their Messiah, then covering this up becomes consistent and as natural an instinct as we would expect in such a scenario.

They undoubtedly used these as factual accounts to teach humiliation and perseverance, but the conclusion here is that they preserved and recorded these patterns of rejection because this was the unfortunate historical legacy of the beginnings of their Messiah and felt no obligation to change it otherwise, which is not consistent with a pattern we'd expect if the traditions were saturated with embellishment and redaction used to make the stories more spectacular and desirable.

Matthew's harebrained scheme?

There are those who readily wave the flag of embellishment in regards to Matthew's account about the guards placed at Jesus' tomb and the stone sealed shut (a special imperial seal of Rome) prior to Jesus' resurrection as a convenient attempt by Matthew to explain away accusations or speculations of grave robbery by the skeptics of his day. Let's look at the passage...

 

Matthew 27:62-66 "The next day was the day after Preparation Day. The chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 'Sir,' they said, 'we remember something that liar said while he was still alive. He claimed, 'After three days I will rise again.' So give the order to make the tomb secure until the third day. If you don't, his disciples might come and steal the body. Then they will tell the people that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This last lie will be worse than the first.' 'Take some guards with you,' Pilate answered. 'Go. Make the tomb as secure as you can.' So they went and made the tomb secure. They put a seal on the stone and placed some guards on duty."

 

Of course, not only could one argue that this in some ways bolsters the fact there was an empty tomb (a fact some skeptics readily deny) which presumably made the supposed fabrication necessary, but the argument that this passage was made up by Matthew is once again an argument from silence, being that none of the other gospel authors confirm the story (which would be considered part of the "M source, or a unique Matthean tradition). First of all, it in the bigger scheme of things, the argument that it exists only in Matthew is pointless for the critic to use against its authenticity. If Mark and Matthew had mentioned it, critics would argue Mark made it up and Matthew copied him. The same argument would apply to Mark and Luke. If Matthew and Luke both mentioned it, they'd argue the author of the hypothetical Q source made it up and Luke and Matthew copied it. So, clearly the criterion of multiple attestation has no bearing on whether a critic will accept the story as genuine or not. Nonetheless, since none of the other writers mentioned this detail about the burial, they insist it must be dismissed as a fabrication, particularly since it obviously works in Matthew's favor. However, does it really work in Matthew's favor?

Aside from the blatant assumption that the writers were easily and freely this dishonest with accounts they were passing off as historical to their readers, there would have been no point for Matthew to invent it if his readers, who were clearly Jewish Christians (discussed here: The Q Conundrum, Problem #1), didn't care whether the rumors about grave robbery were true or not. However, if they did in fact care, which made the supposed invention necessary, Matthew risked the potential of them verifying the account (remember this was an oral culture), and if it had been proven a false account, it would have just backfired and worked against Matthew's credibility and his trustworthiness all together.

We could assume Matthew's gospel was written too late for the event to have been historically scrutinized if it wasn't true, but this clings to too many presuppositions. Not only does it assume Matthew's gospel was written that late (which is not a certainty), but we're not talking about an account centuries removed from the event. The maximum possible late date of Matthew's gospel, based on a scholarly consensus (even the post-70 crowd) would be 60 years (around 90 CE) after the event. There is no way to reasonably conclude that they could not have verified this from public records or eyewitnesses even if we assume it was 60 years after the event. The risk Matthew took involving official authorities at Jerusalem in his story, including Pilate and an official seal of Caesar himself (something that would have undoubtedly been verifiable) only adds an unreasonable historical element that makes fabrication here extremely iffy. 

But the essential question is: why would Matthew make up such an absurd story about sentries being bribed to say they were asleep when everyone knew they wouldn’t buy such a story since sentries didn’t sleep on duty? Roman sentries followed strict protocol, typically consisting of a guard of four men, duty shifts between a company of sentries, and a commander that made periodic inspections of the guard posts.[11] Polybius stated that the system of the Roman guard was "most scrupulously kept," and described severe consequences against guards suspected of being lax on duty, including death.[12]

Disregarding the historicity issues about the guards, it still would have been absurd to believe the disciples could have been stealth enough to actually move the stone and remove the body under the noses of the sentries undisturbed even if they were asleep. If Matthew made it up, it would have been more historically and logically ideal for Matthew to simply record the guards being placed there, then have the Jewish authorities deny that the guards were there after the fact and then bribe the guards to say they weren’t there if asked. Such an obviously implausible story creation about sleeping sentries further supports an authentic account since we can assume the reason the authorities themselves came up with this cockamamie explanation is because everyone at the time knew the guards were there, so the idea that the sentries were asleep was the only story they could put forward at the spur of the moment regardless of how absurd it was.

I suppose one could just dismiss it as Matthew being lax or sloppy in his storytelling ability, but the burden is already on the one who assumes it to be a blatant fabrication to prove this without forced contrivances, so they certainly don't need anything that presents additional doubt as a fabrication on top of what already exists. We need to not only assume an unreasonable amount of gullibility on the part of Matthew's audience, willing to just accept the validity of a writtien story without further inquiry in spite of their doubt or assume they had no way to confirm the story one way or the other, and then assume a type of sloppiness in the details that usually isn't the case when someone is crafting something for a specific purpose, all of which requires more effort to believe than just giving the story the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, let's look at some additional information Matthew gives his readers about the event…

 

Matthew 27:61-65 "And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave. Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, "Sir, we remember that when he was still alive that deceiver said, After three days I am to rise again. Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,' and the last deception will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.""

As I pointed out, Matthew's supposed creation is historically improbable based on what we know of sentries and how they performed their duty, yet, oddly, it's historically accurate in regards to the exchange between the Jewish authority and Pilate. In a fictional story, one might expect Pilate to dispatch troops himself, yet Pilate tells them to use their own guards. Josephus confirms that there were guards specifically stationed at the Temple during the Passover, which we could assume was under the authority of the Jewish leadership that ran the Temple.[13] Such minute and unnecessary detail just adds another layer of historical credibility. However, it's the bolded details in the passage above that give us pertinent insight into Matthew's supposed invention logic.

When you have someone inventing an account in order to refute suspicions of grave robbery or just bolster its overall validity, the intent would obviously be to close any and all open windows of potential opportunity for such an act. Matthew indicates this was all arranged and appointed on the second day of the burial (no mistake about the Greek word epaurion) instead of the same day. This is something you would think one might be inclined to exclude even if they were telling the truth in order to quell any potential speculation, let alone someone fabricating an event for this sole purpose. It's just a matter of changing "next day" to "same day," or excluding what day it occurred all together.

What's worse is Matthew points out that Jesus' most loyal adherents -- the two Marys -- were hanging out at the tomb the day before the guard placement. These were the very same ones who discovered the empty tomb later in his story (Matthew 28:1), thus the prime suspects! Matthew inventing all this to cover up suspicions of illicit body removal makes absolutely no sense. At this point, such sloppiness renders it beyond reason at this point not to just accept the genuineness of the account.

It was the Jewish authorities, privy to the claims of Jesus' resurrection that approached Pilate with the concern. Pilate was indifferent about executing Jesus from the beginning, indicative that Pilate had nothing to lose or gain from Jesus' execution. It was indeed the Jewish authorities that had more to politically lose than the Romans if the disciples stole the body, undermining the Levitical priesthood by continuing Jesus' influence over the Jewish populace. Pilate continued to express the same indifference we would expect and leaves the task up to them. The account is not only historically accurate concerning Temple guards but naturally and logically flows as a genuine account, until we get to the explanation of sleeping sentries. Once again, this is logical as a true account, being that this was the only off-the-cuff explanation they had for the empty tomb in spite of the guards.

Looking at it as a true historical account, even the detailed honesty Matthew displays about it, details that were quite unnecessary, is a remarkable attestation of a writer recording the facts as it happened regardless of any complications or misunderstandings that could have been derived in how he recorded it.

Angels? Or suspicious men?

Mark 16:5 "Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed."
 

Luke 24:4 "While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing."

 

One man or two? Contradiction? This isn't the point of our discussion here, something I covered in another article (here: Those Darn Contradictions, The Resurrection conundrum). The point here is that Matthew (28:2) and John (20:12) specifically identify the post-resurrection sightings as angels, while Mark and Luke refer to them as men (noted in the passages above). However, it wasn't at all uncommon in Semitic tradition to refer to angels as men. In the Old Testament they clearly do not fly or have wings (in Jacob's vision, they were actually climbing a ladder to get to heaven: Genesis 28:10-16). They are portrayed in stark human likeness, physically interacting with people throughout Jewish scripture, possibly even able to mate with human women (Genesis 6:4), and are directly identified as men on a few occasions in scripture (see Genesis 18:2, 32:24-30; Joshua 5:13-15; Daniel 3:25; 10:13; 12:1).

Problem is, Mark and Luke were presumably Gentile. Mark and Luke were probably not eyewitnesses, therefore did not have the same authority to change the traditions themselves as Matthew and John, presumably apostles and direct eyewitnesses. According to the early church father Papias, Mark was using Peter as a source who was Jewish, and Luke was using an accumulation of sources, most likely oral, that were handed down to him from Jewish eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3).

How do we know for sure they meant angels? The Greek word Luke used for "men" is aner, which denotes a male and is specific about the sex, as opposed to the Greek word anthropos which is more generally used for a human male or human in general. Mark used the word neaniskos for "man" which is just how it's translated above -- "young man." The Greek word Luke used for "dazzling clothes" is astrapto esthesis which means "glowing apparel." The Greek word Mark used for "white robe" is leukos, and is the same word Matthew and John used to describe the clothes of their angels. Any guesses what that word means? You got it -- "glowing." However, what makes this extraordinary is not only that the traditions didn't evolve from just men, but that Mark and Luke were probably writing to Gentiles who may not have been accustomed to Jewish tradition that used angels as men and men as angels interchangeably.

Moreover, if there were rumors or even hints floating around about potential grave robbery as an explanation for the empty tomb (Matthew 28:11-15), it's even more inexplicable that they didn't simply change it to angel(s) in order to clear up any misconceptions. After all, the term was perfectly accurate based on their description. This firmly attests not just to the discrepancy of the argument that the traditions evolved where such an evolution would have been natural and even technically accurate, but the honesty of Mark and Luke who abstained from free license and stayed true to the primitive traditional sources that were handed down to them from Jewish eyewitnesses.
 

Resurrection ambiguity

The apocryphal New Testament legends, written before about half a century after the canon gospels of the first century, played off the resurrection story and reflect the type of creative visual spectacle we would normally expect of evolving legend, especially religious legends like the Questions of Bartholomew, where there are visuals of Jesus descending into hell after his death; or the Gospel of Peter, where they actually witness Jesus come fourth from the tomb, tall as a skyscraper and partnered with a talking cross; or the Ascension of Isaiah, where Isaiah witnesses Jesus ascend into the different levels of heaven disguised as an angel.

The only thing similarly spectacular about the resurrection, in a purely visual sense, is how Matthew (28:2-3) illustrates the descending angel during the resurrection. The problem is trying to figure out what to make of the resurrection stories of the canon gospels from a perspective of evolving legend. True, the stories in all four do diverge in some areas, which works against the idea of mutual collusion, but lack the religious visual spectacle we would expect, which works against fabrication or embellishment.

If we assume the traditions were fabricated legend, we would have to imagine more evidence of this because the stories would have reflected the visual spectacle aspects much like the later apocryphal legends reflect. The resurrection accounts also are a clear regression of miracles that were performed by Jesus pre-resurrection (i.e. walking on water, calming a storm, raising the dead, sweating blood, toppling over crowds with his voice, et al.). The only miracle, and a rather common one, Jesus performs post-resurrection is recorded in John (21:5-6). Moreover, the only thing fantastic about the post-resurrection event is Jesus' ascension recorded only in Luke's account (the ascension in the ending of Mark was not the original text of Mark), though, again, not anywhere near as visually dazzling as other ascensions illustrated in common literature of that era, both New and Old Testament (i.e. Elijah, Isaiah, Moses, Enoch, the apostle John, Jesus' ascension in other literature works, etc.).

There are also no visuals of Christ's resurrection or him exiting the tomb like we see illustrated in the gospel of Peter. All we really see is an empty tomb (no visuals of how it actually occurred or what happened), and then a man that had been killed appears alive again to his followers in and around Jerusalem and Galilee without any visual spectacle of him traveling into hell or through the heavenly realms as in the other works. This is the first problem with supposed legend and story embellishment, because legend always evolves into fantastic visual and descriptive religious spectacle, as illustrated in other legends of this time.

You also wouldn't expect to find elements that were unnecessary and had the potential to shed doubt about the resurrection story itself. Example:
 

Matthew 28:16-17 "Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshiped him: but some doubted."

 

Luke 24:13-16 "Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him."

 

John 20:14-15 "'They have taken my Lord away,' she (Magdalene) said, 'and I don't know where they have put him.' At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 'Woman, he said, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?' Thinking he was the gardener, she said, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.'"

 

John 21:4 "But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus."
 

Detailing the fact that Jesus was not easily recognizable in some cases are elements about the story that don't help your evangelistic cause all that much. Not only do these elements raise potential questions and speculations of mistaken identity, but had no clear theological or spiritual purpose for its inclusion, could have been misconstrued in many different ways, and are elements that just further made the disciples themselves look bad and thus negative elements that we would expect not to have been added or changed during the supposed development or redaction process of the traditions.

It is clear that they were kept from the cutting floor and lacked religious visual spectacle we see in the later apocryphal legends because the authors of the earlier canon gospels are recording eyewitness accounts of extraordinary events and kept them that way as they were told and preserved; the same traditions passed on from the eyewitnesses from day one. 

 
Click here for Part III, or go home.

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Source References

1. Jewish Encyclopedia, Am ha-arez (www.jewishencyclopedia.com). 

2. James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp.111-117; 2007.

     James H. Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology, p.693; 2006.    

     Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus, pp.113-114; 2008.     

     Jonathan L. Reed, Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, pp.115-117; 2002.

3. Donald E. Gowan, The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, p.481; 2003.

    Emil G. Hirsch, Son of Man, Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com).

    Also see Son of Man.

4. Book of Enoch, The Parables (www.ccel.org).

     The Song of Solomon (www.carm.org).

5. Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God, pp.77-78; 1992.

6. A. J. B. Higgins, Jesus and the Son of Man, pp.15-17; 2002.

     Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pp.298-303; 2005.

7. Gowan, ibid., p.481.

8. Hurtado, ibid., pp.291-292, 303. 

9. See Mandaeism: Chief Prophets.

10. See Matthew 3:15.

11. R. W. Davies, Peace-time routine in the Roman army, (pdf) pp.21-27; 1967.

12. Polybius, The Histories: VI The Roman Constitution, chap. 36-37 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu).

13. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 15, chap. 11:4 (www.ccel.org).