Sunday, October 30, 2005

Matthew, Part III

This is the last of a three-part look at the Book of Matthew. Here I will look at some curious features of Matthew's account of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The four gospels each include versions of these events, and the versions are not entirely consistent. But of particular interest here are a number of events that are included only by Matthew.

Matthew includes in his account, not one but two earthquakes, one when Jesus died and one on Sunday morning when the angel rolled the stone away from the tomb. Earthquakes and eclipses and other such natural phenomena were widely regarded as signs or portents in those days, and it is unusual that none of the other gospel writers thought to mention such significant events. In fact, there were Roman scholars of that time period (e.g., Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger) that collected reports of such events. No earthquakes at all, let alone two so close together or associated with an unnatural three hour darkness were reported by anybody else in any of years that Jesus is thought to have died.

Matthew states as well that as a result of the first earthquake tombs were opened in Jerusalem and the bodies of dead saints were raised, entering the city and appearing to many people. This is another magnificent event that somehow escaped the notice of everybody but Matthew. None of the other gospel writers mention it. No contemporary or near contemporary historians like Josephus mention it. This would be a tremendous sign, but nobody else even hints of its occurrence. Like the supposed fulfillments of prophecy, it appears instead to be a fabrication.

The next curious set of events relate to the chief priests. Again it is only Matthew who records the meeting of priests and Pharisees with Pilate, who authorizes them to place a guard at the tomb. Some people, notably Josh McDowell, make a big deal about how the Roman soldiers were such disciplined, quality soldiers that would not have fallen asleep, and so on, but note that in Matthew 27:65 Pilate says "You have a guard, go and make it as secure as you know how." The guard, if there was one at all, was a temple guard, not soldiers from the Roman legions.

But I don't think there really was a guard. I think that fragment of the story is there to prepare for a later fragment, found in Matthew 28:11-15. There, Matthew claims that the guards return to the chief priests to tell them what happened, and the chief priests bribe them to say that the disciples came in the night and stole Jesus' body while the guards were sleeping. And Matthew concludes this little scene with the comment: "... and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day."

So there were stories going around that the disciples stole the body. You can imagine the dialog going something like this:

"Jesus rose from the dead."

"No he didn't - the disciples stole his body."

"They couldn't steal his body. See, the priests expected the disciples would steal the body, so they posted a guard."

"Well, yeah, I've heard that, but the guards could have fallen asleep. In fact, some people say the guards told people later they did fall asleep."

"Yeah, but what you don't know was that there was this secret meeting between the chief priests and the guards where the priests bribed the guards to say that."

How was it exactly that Matthew knew about this secret meeting? I hardly think the priests invited him. No, Matthew's purpose here is to try and defuse some of the rumors then in circulation by inventing an explanation.

Is it possible that there really were two earthquakes, and a supernatural darkness, and zombies, and bribed guards, and that nobody else mentioned them (except for the darkness mentioned by other gospel writers), and that Matthew (or whoever it was that wrote the Book of Matthew) learned of a secret meeting? Yes, it is possible. But the more likely answer is that these things were not reported by anybody else because they never happened. Matthew has already demonstrated a willingness to exaggerate and fabricate, and these are just more of the same.

Let me return to my thesis: If God is going to punish people eternally for unbelief, then reasonable disbelief should not be possible. While I don't pretend to have absolutely proven the falsehood of significant elements of Matthew, I do claim that the weight of evidence is against Matthew, and that disbelief is therefore entirely reasonable.

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