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The gospel of Matthew records that after Jesus’ death, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law went to Pilate to ask for a guard, since they remembered that Jesus said he would rise again on the third day.

“The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”” ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭27:62-64‬ ‭

However, part of the whole surprise of Jesus’ resurrection was that despite Jesus telling everyone he would rise again, the disciples still didn’t understand it.

Further, the concept of a resurrection like the one of Jesus being physically resurrected was basically a new and radical concept that was not widely believed at all.

So:

How is it that the Jews would be aware of Jesus’ resurrecting on the third day when the disciples weren’t?

And how can they have been so aware of it to the point of sending guards to the tomb? Was sending a guard to the tomb of a dead person even a common thing during that time if people don’t even rise from the dead?

What happened to all the guards? If the tomb stone had been rolled away and people spread the rumour that Jesus’ body had been stolen, would the guards not have faced strong discipline for letting Jesus’ body be “stolen”? (in accordance with what Matthew writes about people believing the body was stolen)

I don’t understand why a guard would be sent to the tomb of a dead person (especially since the Pharisees believed Jesus was just a human!), and I don’t understand how the Pharisees could remember that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day (when the disciples couldn’t), yet also still spread a rumour that his body was stolen, especially if they knew they had guards there in the first place.

I hear skeptics talk about how Matthew made up the guard story as an apologetic resource to defend the empty tomb, so if I could get some defence/ clarification on this and the questions above that would greatly help.

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    They didn't anticipate that he would rise from the dead, they thought his disciples might steal the body and claim he did. The disciples didn't anticipate that he would rise from the dead, but also weren't interested in faking it.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jul 30, 2022 at 4:54
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    @curiousdannii but even the concept of “rising again” seemed to be not fully understood by people, since Jewish thought around that did not believe in the physical resurrection of any man during their time on earth. Therefore, it seems hard to understand how the Pharisees could have still took Jesus’ words to be a physical rising from the dead, and thus anticipate the disciples stealing the body to promote this idea. Whilst Jesus certainly foretold his resurrection over and over again, I don’t think many people believed in a physical resurrection.
    – ellied
    Commented Jul 30, 2022 at 5:08
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    @curiousdannii and part of the key argument apologists make is that around that time nobody believed in the type of resurrection that happened with Jesus, so it seems hard to understand how the Pharisees can understand Jesus’ resurrection to be a physical one that warrants the disappearing of a body when the disciples themselves didn’t.
    – ellied
    Commented Jul 30, 2022 at 5:11
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    "since Jewish thought around that did not believe in the physical resurrection of any man during their time on earth." The Saducees did not believe in resurrection, but others Jews did. I don't know which was the most dominant position. In any case, it doesn't matter, because the priests/Pharisees explained their thinking in the passage you quoted.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jul 30, 2022 at 5:15
  • @curiousdannii the Pharisees believed in a resurrection yes, but a resurrection in the sense of Jews being resurrected on the “Day of the Lord” and being with Yahweh, not an earthly, bodily resurrection, hence why Jesus’ resurrection is a surprise to people. I do understand what is being said in the passage, but I don’t understand how they can suddenly anticipate a bodily resurrection before the ‘Day of the Lord’, to the point of sending guards.
    – ellied
    Commented Jul 30, 2022 at 5:25

3 Answers 3

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The Pharisees did not believe that a crucified Jesus of Nazareth would ever rise from the dead. Had they believed he was the foretold Messiah, they would have taken the possibility of that seriously. Given that they wanted this Jesus out of the way due to his claims, they wanted him to stay out of the way once they'd got the Roman authorities to crucify him. That was when they remembered that one of Jesus' claims while alive was that he would rise from the dead, and that made them think of tricks his disciples might employ to deceive people into thinking Christ was now alive.

The verse you quote is very clear in showing their reasoning behind asking for a guard at the tomb: "his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first." They'd also called Jesus "that deceiver" to Pilate, so they did not believe Jesus would actually arise (vs.63).

This categorically proves that these men did not believe Jesus would rise from the dead. But given that, while alive, Jesus three times stated to his disciples that he would arise, the simple reason why the disciples were not full of faith about that was that Jesus' arrest and sentence to crucifixion was a bombshell, and they no doubt thought they could be rounded up next, hence the way they kept out of sight behind locked doors. They supposed Jesus would triumph over the Romans, not that the Romans would kill him!

The Pharisees, however, knew that if a trick was played, with the corpse of Jesus taken away in the night, the disciples could then spread a story that he had been resurrected, and that deception would be far harder for them to deal with. So they asked Pilate for permission to set a seal and a guard over the tomb, that happened, and when the guards reported the miracle of the resurrection, they were bribed to spread the lie that, while they were asleep, the disciples came to do just that.

It's very plainly stated in the gospel account. Why would skeptical disbelief about Matthew's account require more consideration than Matthew's account, for Matthew saw with his own eyes the resurrected Christ? There's no way Matthew would need to invent "an apologetic resource to defend the empty tomb," when the empty tomb was the proof the disciples needed to restore their faith in Jesus' promise that, on the third day, he would be raised! Proof substantiated shortly after by the followers then seeing the living Christ, and even touching his wounds, and eating with him. Then when they went to the mountain specified in Galilee, he met with them to give parting instructions, and they saw him literally ascend, bodily, up into the sky till clouds hid him from their sight.

So, the answer to your main question is that the Pharisees did not anticipate Jesus' resurrection (at any time, let alone before the disciples started to believe in it). The Pharisees never, at any point, expected Jesus to arise from the dead. They did expect the disciples to do a trick to deceive the populace that that had happened, and that was the reason for them getting a Roman guard placed, with a sealed stone over the tomb. Their actions were those of total disbelievers who wanted to second-guess the disciples. They guessed wrong, for the resurrection happened before any of the women followers even got to the tomb, to then tell the disciples they'd seen the risen Christ. The strange thing is that the last two sentences of the text you quote answers your question. And Matthew 28:11-15 deals with your other question about the guards.

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The Pharisees' reasoning

The Pharisees did not believe Jesus would rise on the third day. They knew that Jesus had prophesied it would happen, and they wanted to prevent anyone from believing the prophecy had been fulfilled through deception on the part of the disciples (by stealing the body).

The Pharisees did not simply want to kill Jesus, they wanted to destroy His movement. Having Him put to death by crucifixion would be humiliating, and having Him put to death by Rome would intimate that His teachings were opposed by the might of Rome. The slow, tortuous death by crucifixion also afforded ample opportunity to mock Him as He suffered (see Matthew 27:39-43).

They realized that if Jesus were thought to have risen from the dead, it could further strengthen His movement (it did). This is what is meant by "This last deception will be worse than the first".

If the Pharisees genuinely believed Jesus was the Son God who would conquer death...of course they wouldn't have posted a guard! What chance would the guards have against the power of God? It was because the Pharisees did not believe in Jesus that the posting of the guard (to prevent theft of the body) made sense in their twisted, doubting minds.

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The disciples' struggle to believe

That the promised Messiah would be put to death by Rome, rather than conquering Rome, was so foreign to contemporary thought that many of Jesus' followers genuinely entertained doubts when they saw Jesus arrested and put to death. Forasmuch as He had told Him it would happen, they were shocked and grieving.

It is not that the Pharisees understood Jesus' prophecy and the disciples did not, rather:

  • The Pharisees didn't believe in Jesus before He died and still didn't believe after He died
  • The disciples did believe in Jesus before He died and were struggling to believe after He died

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The apologetic value of the story of the guards

Posting a guard at a tomb was not standard practice; it was specifically to prevent the theft of Jesus' body--which the Pharisees realized could fuel Jesus' movement--that guards were posted in this case.

Although the Pharisees did believe in the resurrection (the Sadducees did not), they believed it would happen only at the end of the world, and certainly not begin in their own lifetimes.

As William Lane Craig (and others) have pointed out, the argument between the Pharisees and the believers in Christ presupposes the empty tomb:

Christian: 'The Lord is risen!'

Jew: 'No, his disciples stole away his body.'

Christian: 'The guard at the tomb would have prevented any such theft.'

Jew: 'No, his disciples stole away his body while the guard slept.'

Christian: 'The chief priests bribed the guard to say this.' (source)

As Craig further points out:

The sleeping of the guard could only have been a Jewish development, as it would serve no purpose to the Christian polemic (ibid)

The argument would have never progressed this far unless both sides agreed:

  1. The tomb was empty &
  2. There was a guard posted

The Pharisees had no reason to agree to those points unless they were incontrovertibly true.

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The reliability of Matthew

My work on the Synoptic Problem & the authorship of the Gospels leads me decisively to the conclusion that the Gospel of Matthew was written in or near Judea within a few years of Easter. If this is true, Matthew's defense of the resurrection would be ineffective--as his evidence could be easily rebutted by people who were there and knew what really happened--unless the claims he made about the tomb & guards were actually true.

This is why the account of the guards is found only in Matthew--Matthew's audience (in/near Judea) has the ability to fact check this part of the story. Mark's audience in Rome, Luke's audience in Greece, and John's audience in Ephesus, would have no ability to validate the story about the guards, so the account about the guards would at best be a distraction from the main point they were trying to make. But for Matthew, writing to the local population, the story about the guards was potent, verifiable evidence of the veracity of his claims.

The Jewish leaders had every incentive in the world to produce a crucified body and squash the nascent Christian movement. The fact that they were unable to do so stands resolutely in favor of the view that Jesus really was buried in a tomb and the tomb really was found empty a few days later.

Matthew could only get away with his claims about the empty tomb & the guards if:

  1. Everybody in the area knew it was true OR
  2. The text was written so long after the fact that the people familiar with the events were dead.

This is why atheists work so hard to claim that the Gospel of Matthew was written a generation or more after Easter. For my work demonstrating that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew well within the lifetime and geographic reach of eyewitnesses, see this video series: Who When & Why - the Writing of the Gospels

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The leaders of the people requested a guard be posted because they listened and understood what was spoken to them. They identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, and wanted him dead. Once dead, they where concerned an event would happen.

They likely where unsure what exactly would happen. Jesus mentioned he would raise up the Temple in three days, and the statement confused them. But they would have known the Christ would be cut off, yet live.

  1. Though the birth of the Christ can't be predicted from reading the Prophets, his approximate lifespan can be identified in advance.

  2. All Jerusalem was disturbed at the arrival of the Magi. It was now known the Christ was born, his family and location identified. At his birth, Joseph had registered with the tax and cencus, as being of the House of David.

  3. Jesus opened the eyes of the blind. A sign.

  4. He healed lepers, and instructed them to present themselves to the Priest. The Priest where required to preform the Offering for the Leper in the Day of His Cleansing. Never before preformed by the Priesthood, it was a sign.

  5. He raised the dead.

  6. The leaders could predict the Christ's entry into the Temple to an approximate one hour window.

  7. When examined by the Priest, Jesus told the leaders in person, the Parable of the Husband Men. He stated the men knew who the Heir was, planned to kill him, and seize the inheritance. The leaders listened and understood Jesus was referring to them.

These are only a few selected items of evidence condemning the leaders of the people. They understood they were killing the Christ. The Christ was not a mere mortal, as the Son of God, he is simply not going to stay in a tomb. He would not see corruption, as foretold of the Holy One.

The Sign of Jonah was mentioned to the leaders, as a Sign to their generation, just as Jonah was dead for three days and three nights. The leaders would have known any resurrection would occur around dawn on Sunday.

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