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Matthew: Editorial Aside
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: July 25, 2003
Matthew does not provide us with a Statement of Purpose at the beginning of his gospel, as Luke does. He starts by listing Jesus' genealogy, and then plunges into the story. There is, however, one editorial 'aside' that is fascinating. It is the kind of thing you would ordinarily pass by as merely an innocent comment. It is the story that the Jewish leaders bribed the guards to say the disciples had stolen Jesus' body.
Disciples Stealing Jesus' Body
The writer is telling a story about the aftermath of the stone-rolling incident. The guards have apparently failed in their mission, and have to go back to the leaders and report this failure. In the story, the leaders promise to keep the guards out of trouble, secure their cooperation with some money, and instruct them to say, "The disciples stole the body while they slept." Here is the text:
While they were on their way some of the guard entered the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had occurred. They, deliberating in session with the elders, gave the soldiers considerable money, telling them, "Say 'His disciples came by night and stole Him while we were asleep.' And if this reaches the governor's ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble." So the guards accepted the money and did as they were instructed,
and this story has been current among the Jews until the present day. (Mt 28.11-15)
Notice that the writer suddenly steps out of the story and tells us that this story has persisted, in real life, until the current time. A great deal of information is packed into this editorial aside.
First, we see - unless the writer is simply lying - that one of the defenses used in the first century against the Christian resurrection claims is that Jesus' disciples stole the body. This implies that the resurrection claim (of Matthew, at least) entails an empty tomb.
The apologetic tale of the guard at the tomb (vv. 62-6) refutes the criticism of 28:15, that is, rebuts Jewish slander against the disciples by showing that they could not have stolen Jesus' body (Oxford 884)
And this implies that Matthew's view of the resurrection is indeed a bodily one ... which implies that his account of the resurrection is not a metaphorical story but "sober truth." Even the Jerome Commentary, certainly no fundamentalist publication, draws this inference:
What can be concluded from the story is that the Jews charged the disciples with the theft of the body of Jesus. What can also be concluded is that Jews and disciples both agreed that the body of Jesus was missing from the tomb on the third day. (Jerome, 113)
But whether or not we can conclude that the tomb was really empty goes way beyond our aim here. What is most telling for us is the editorial aside that this story has persisted until the gospel composition. It has not only persisted, but it has (according to Matthew) been 'spread widely':
"The story concocted by the Jewish authorities 'was spread widely' (used elsewhere in Matthew only in 9:31 where it refers to the news about Jesus' power to heal), as the explanation of the empty tomb and the disappearance of Jesus' body--'a type of antigospel' (R.E. Brown, Death of the Messiah, 1298)." (Word 877)
We are looking for clear meta-gospel statements, and this one really does seem to comment about the gospel from an exterior standpoint. This is not a statement from 'within the story', but the narrator's voice and standpoint.
And the implication, of course, is this - If the narrator informs us of a then-contemporary dispute about the reason the tomb was empty, the logical inference is that there was common agreement that the tomb was empty, at least between the disputants. And this presupposes a non-metaphorical gospel.
Objections and Answers
The commentaries tend to just lightly touch on this passage, without a lot of comment or analysis. They certainly do not question whether the author is (a) claiming that this bribing really took place, or (b) claiming that this story - the disciples stole the body - really is a 'current' objection to Christianity which has had a history going back to Jesus' death.
It seems inconceivable that one would doubt that this is indeed what the author means.
1. Later Scribal Insertion
It would be possible to take the position that this (and possibly other 'asides') is not the work of the author of the gospel, or even of a final redactor, but a comment inserted by a (much later) scribe, which then got carried into the text with MS transmission. In fact, we could say that the original story in Matthew was meant metaphorically, but a much-later scribe (mis-)interpreted it literally.
If we place the scribe in the mid-second century, then it's no wonder that a non-MG view is being presented. Furthermore, if this scribe writes at this late date, he can't be expected to know the entire transmission history of the story - for all he knows, the story might have been first told well after the completion of the gospels.
Answer. It's possible that it is a scribal interpolation, but how can we tell whether it truly is? How can we tell whether any passage is a later addition? - for certainly, if we find a part of the text we don't like, we can always appeal to 'interpolation.' This turns out to be a crucial question for meta-gospel statements, but they are just the ones that comment on the story.
1. We can't use a prior viewpoint regarding the meaning of the immediate or wider context, especially in cases such as we are considering, for we are looking at these specific passages as clues to the meaning of the context - and so, that would be circular.
2. It's difficult to appeal to actual MS evidence - either way - because first-century MSS (needed for such an arbitration) are not extant (yet).
3. A pragmatic guideline, I think, should be two-fold: (1) the burden of proof is on the one who wishes to claim later interpolation, and (2) we should be cautious of choices which are 'too congenial' to our views (to paraphrase the Jesus Seminar).
Therefore, until a compelling case is made proving that this statement is most likely a later interpolation, we must conclude that it is part of the original text, and thus that a non-metaphorical understanding of the empty tomb was shared by both Christians and their opponents alike.