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#654 The Women at the Tomb

October 27, 2019

How is it that the women who went to the tomb were prepared to go inside if there was a roman seal on it forbidding entry under penalty of death?


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Dr. craig’s response


Matthew, who alone relates the story of the guard at the tomb, may have wanted to stave off just such a question as yours, Tracy, by leaving out the women’s intention to anoint Jesus’ body, of which Matthew was aware from the Gospel of Mark 16.1. Matthew reports merely that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher” (Matthew 28.1), so that your question would not arise for Matthew’s readers. (No need to complicate things!)

But suppose, as seems likely, that the women did go to the tomb to anoint the body, just as Mark says. Then what? The answer that most scholars (i.e., those not committed to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy) would give is that there was no guard at Jesus’ tomb and so no Roman seal on the tomb to prevent the women’s access. The stationing of a guard at the tomb is mentioned only in Matthew’s account, and most scholars would take that addition to the earlier, simpler account in Mark to be a later, unhistorical development. So there’s just no problem.

Note that this conclusion does not lead critical scholars to deny the historicity of Jesus’ interment in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea nor of the women’s visit to the tomb on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body. The historicity of Mark’s account, independently attested in John, is unaffected by Matthew’s later adding the story of the guard out of a motivation to answer the widespread Jewish accusation that the reason the tomb was empty was because the disciples had stolen the body (Matthew 28.15).

That would solve the problem. But suppose that there was a guard and the tomb was sealed, as Matthew says. Would that have kept the women away? Well, maybe so, but only if they knew of the guard. But did they know? When you read Mark and Matthew’s accounts of the women’s observation of Jesus’ interment (Mark 15.46-47; Matthew 27.57-61), what you find is that the guard was not posted on Friday when the women watched Joseph inter the body in the tomb. The guard was something of an afterthought on the part of the Jewish authorities, who went to Pilate on the following day (Saturday) to ask that the tomb be sealed and a guard posted before it.

Saturday was, of course, the Jewish Sabbath, and Luke records of the women that “On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23.56). Like the male disciples, they may have remained in seclusion all that day (cf. John 20.19). So there’s no reason at all to think that when the women set out for the tomb at early dawn on Sunday morning, they expected to find that the tomb was guarded and sealed. That’s why “they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?’” (Mark 16.3). They didn’t know if anybody would be there.

So I see no problem in affirming the compatibility of Matthew’s guard story with the women’s intent to anoint Jesus’ corpse.

- William Lane Craig