Some believe the Biblical stories were myths or exaggerations. At worst, everything is an invention. At best, just the miracle claims were invented. When you examine the Gospels, however, you find plenty of evidence that the authors were being faithful to what really happened, even when it was embarrassing. Examples abound, including Peter’s denial of Jesus, Jesus calling Peter “Satan,” the disciples not understanding Jesus’ predictions of His resurrection, etc. This is called the principle of embarrassment, and is one of the key principles historians use to judge the historicity of a report.
While reading Matthew the other day, another example of this principle stood out to me in a way it had not before. We are told by Matthew that the chief priests went to Pilate “the next day” after Jesus had been crucified and buried to ask for guards to be posted at the tomb (Mt 27:62-63). Why? Because Jesus had predicted that He would rise from the dead, and they feared that the disciples might come and steal his body from the tomb and then claim Jesus’ prediction had come true (Mt 27:64).
If the disciples were making this account up, surely they would have had the chief priests asking for a guard before Jesus’ death, and had the guard posted immediately after Jesus was entombed. That is the only way to guarantee that the disciples could not have stolen Jesus’ body. In the story Matthew penned, however, there is a gap of at least 9 hours between Jesus’ entombment and the posting of the guard. That was plenty of time for Jesus’ followers to pull off a heist. By refusing to close this loop, Matthew opened himself up to be charged with the very thing the chief priests claimed would happen. Why didn’t Matthew close that loop, then? He didn’t close the loop because the loop was real. Even though the history was not apologetically advantageous, it was what happened, so Matthew reported it. This shows that Matthew was more interested in what really happened than he was advancing an apology for Christianity. When one displays integrity of this nature in the small matters, it is difficult to claim that they lacked so much integrity elsewhere such that they would invent entire histories out of whole cloth.
Another interesting feature of this story is that it reveals how Jews thought about the resurrection. Some scholars want to claim that resurrection was something that happened to the spirit rather than the body (i.e. a spiritual resurrection). For them, even if Jesus’ body was still in the grave it is still intelligible to say Jesus was raised from the dead. N.T. Wright has offered a devastating critique of this view in The Resurrection of the Son of God, so I will not attempt to refute the notion here. The statement of the chief priests, however, shows how the Jews in Jesus’ day thought of resurrection. They understood that the disciples could not claim Jesus had been raised from the dead if His body was still in the tomb. That is why they sought to protect Jesus’ body. If they could ensure that Jesus’ body remained in the tomb, they could ensure that Jesus’ disciples could not proclaim that Jesus was resurrected. A dead body proved there was no resurrection. The notion of a resurrection while the body remains in the tomb was as inconceivable as water that’s not wet. Indeed, for them, an empty tomb alone (without appearances of the risen Jesus) was enough to proclaim the resurrection.