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The Burial: Matthew's Interlude

Matthew added a further episode between the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb. In Matthew 27:62-66 he tells us that the chief priests and the Pharisees asked Pilate to place a guard on the tomb so that the disciples cannot steal Jesus' body and claimed that he was resurrected. To further ensure against the expected theft, they sealed the tomb.

This episode is not found in any of the other gospels. We need only to compare it to the other synoptic accounts to show the falsity of this episode.

Mark 15:47-16:3Matthew 27:61-28:1 Luke 23:55-24:1
47. Mary Mag'dalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

1: And when the sabbath was past, Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salo'me, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
2: And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.
3: And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?"
61: Mary Mag'dalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre.
62: Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate
63: and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, `After three days I will rise again.'
64: Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, `He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first."
65: Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can."
66: So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.

1: Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Mag'dalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre.
55: The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid;

56: then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
1: But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared.

A comparison of the three accounts will show that Matthew's insertion is not a straightforward addition of more historical facts. For in inserting this episode Matthew had had to alter the straightforward account of Mark, which was supported by Luke. In Mark (and Luke) the women went to the tomb on Sunday morning to anoint the body of Jesus (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1). Matthew had changed this to say that the women simply went to look at the tomb (Matthew 28:1). This change was not accidental. The writer of Matthew was probably aware of the inconsistency in his story had he left it the way it was recorded in Mark; for it was most unlikely that the women would have been unaware of the fact that a guard had been put on the tomb.

In fact it can be seen that Matthew's insertion serves a purely apologetic purpose. For after relating the account of Jesus appearance to the women, he adds another little episode:

Matthew 28:11-15
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, "Tell people, `His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

Now the purpose of Matthew's earlier insertion becomes clear. It was meant as a defence against stories that were circulating among the Jews around the last decade of the first century; i.e. that the disciples stole the body of Jesus.

Not only is the account of the guard at the tomb incompatible with that of the other gospels, the story itself is ludicrous. How is it that Pilate, himself no friend of the Jews, could so readily agree with posting a guard at the tomb? How could the chief priests convince the Roman guards of their ability to get them off the hook with the Roman governor?

Matthew's story is fundamentally incompatible with the other gospels and is written for a very clear apologetic purpose. Furthermore the internal logic of the story does not sound plausible. In short, we have every reason to believe that Mathew's interlude is pure fiction. [1]

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1.Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p206
Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p403
Guignebert, Jesus: p493

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