The Allegation of the Stolen Body. Another peculiar feature
of Matthew is that it addresses accusations that the resurrection was a hoax perpetrated by the disciples. As background,
in Mark and Luke, Jesus' body is laid in a tomb and a stone rolled in front of the entrance to close it. On the morning of
the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb to find the stone rolled back and the body of Jesus
gone. No one witnessed Jesus come back to life as in the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:41); no one saw Jesus emerge
from the tomb as in the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:44). Jesus’ body was simply not there when they arrived at the already
Matthew claims that a common accusation was that the disciples had come at night and stolen Jesus’
body in order to fabricate the resurrection story, although there is no hint of this anywhere else in the New Testament. To
rebut this accusation, Matthew introduces this encounter which occurs the day after Jesus died:
Next day, that is,
after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember
how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' Therefore order the sepulchre to be
made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,'
and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, 'You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as
secure as you can.” So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matt 27:62-66)
Here Matthew spotlights the stolen body theory, describing it in exceptional detail. It is an accusation
to which he clearly wants to draw the reader’s attention. After establishing that the allegation was being made, he
adds the account of the sealed and guarded tomb to refute it. Yet, having introduced this story, he has created another complication.
For now he cannot follow the accounts of the other three Gospels on the morning of the first day of the week. Since the stone
was sealed, a supernatural force is required to break it. Since the guards are watching, they must see the tomb actually open:
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn
of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake;
for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like
lightening, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel
said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen,
as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” (Matt. 28:1-6)
Note that, though they are watching as the stone is rolled back, Jesus still does not emerge from
the tomb. His body is already gone before the tomb is opened, just as it is when the women arrive at the tomb in the other
Gospels. The fact that the resurrected Jesus does not emerge from the tomb is a telling omission. Matthew embellishes the
story enough to defeat the stolen body theory, while retaining the essence of earlier Gospel accounts which say that the body
of Jesus was gone by the time the women arrived.
Matthew is not finished at this point. The reader has already been told that the authorities feared the perpetration of a
hoax, that Pilate had accordingly ordered the tomb to be sealed and guarded, and that a miraculously timed earthquake was
required to open it. The story as presented thus far establishes that the stolen body theory was circulating, and that under
these circumstances there was no possibility that the disciples could have stolen it. This could have concluded this portion
of the narrative. Yet Matthew does not relent:
. . . some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And
when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell
people, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' And if this comes to the governor's ears, we
will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story
has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matt. 28:11-15)
None of the Matthean
material related to the stolen body theory appears in Mark or Luke. This is an extraordinary narrative expansion that is entirely
out of character for Matthew. As we have seen, Matthew usually edits for brevity and precision. While he often adds sayings
of Jesus that do not appear in Mark or Luke, he rarely expands narrative.
Moreover, his extensive ruminations on the stolen body theory are
oddly disconcerting for one fundamental reason—the accusation makes no sense to begin with. It is unlikely that a group
of Jesus’ closest followers, having just experienced the shock of his abrupt arrest and public crucifixion, would immediately
conspire to remove his body, and on the strength of nothing more than the fact that his body was no longer where it had been
placed, proclaim that a miraculous resurrection had occurred. Few would imagine that the disciples would have been devious
enough to attempt such a charade, or dim-witted enough to suppose anyone would believe it. The accusation would not have made
any more sense to first century readers than it does to us today. The fact that no other NT book mentions it is further cause
for skepticism. Therefore, Matthew’s underlying premise that the stolen body theory was perceived as a serious challenge
to the resurrection account is doubtful.
Why then does Matthew amplify the story to such an extraordinary
degree? We can only guess based upon what it accomplishes. But what it accomplishes is significant—the sealing of the
tomb on Saturday, the Passover, works to inhibit both the stolen body theory and the idea that someone returned immediately
after the Passover to complete the task of burying Jesus. Matthew treats the former with great fanfare and remains silent
on the latter. Yet he was acutely aware of the problem, for he reinvented Joseph as a rich disciple who owned the tomb to
countermand it. In light of this, the extensive focus on the stolen body theory appears to be a straw man designed to divert
attention from the real possibility that someone had already attended to the proper burial of Jesus before the women arrived.
The Problem of Betrayal by an Apostle. Another element in the Gospel tradition that
had become a liability in Matthew’s eyes is the betrayal by Judas. The problem—how could an apostle chosen by
Jesus, who had known and traveled with him, be so unimpressed with him as to betray him? The Synoptics offer differing explanations.
The Gospel of Mark indicates that Judas decided to betray Jesus
simply for money (Mark 14:10-11). Mark begs the fundamental question of his state of mind, and the account cries out for further
explanation. Luke addresses the issue, saying that Satan entered into Judas, whereupon he then betrayed Jesus for money (Luke
22:3-5). By placing the blame on Satan, Judas is absolved of direct responsibility—the betrayal was preordained in the
cosmic struggle between good and evil, and Judas was a simple pawn in the hands of greater powers. Yet this explanation is
problematic as well. For if Satan can simply enter into an apostle of Jesus at will and pervert him to the dark side, what
chance does the average believer have of withstanding such a force? After the betrayal, Judas is seen no more in Mark or Luke,
and the problem of the betrayal remains inadequately resolved.
Matthew gave more thought to the issue and addressed it as follows:
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that [Jesus] was condemned, he repented
and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned in betraying
innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver
in the temple, he departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matt. 27:3-5)
the story of the repentant Judas, Matthew casts new light on the issue. According to Matthew, Judas did not anticipate that
Jesus would be condemned to death—it was all a tragic mistake which overwhelmed Judas with such grief that he committed
suicide. If Judas did not anticipate or intend to cause the condemnation of Jesus, it diminishes the heinous nature of his
In Mark, the betrayal is a wanton and willful act of a renegade apostle; in Luke, Judas is a hapless
tool of Satanic forces. But in Matthew, the betrayal is transformed into the sad miscalculation of a confused apostle. Of
the three, Matthew’s story of a repentant Judas presents the least difficulty in explaining why the betrayal occurred.
The Last of the Synoptics
Matthew we find an attempt to explain Jesus’ baptism by John, an assertion that Joseph owned the tomb Jesus was buried
in, an elimination of the earlier report that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, an extraordinary diversion into the stolen
body theory, and an attempt to rationalize the betrayal by Judas. Matthew exhibits a consistent propensity to alter and/or
expand upon elements of the Gospel story as presented by Mark and Luke that had become doctrinally problematic. The fact that
all of this material exists only in Matthew lends additional weight to Matthean posteriority. Matthew’s unique formal
responses to doctrinal and historical criticism are products of incremental reflection upon the Jesus story that occurred
after the composition of Mark and Luke.
the discussion, a variety of features of the Synoptic Gospels collectively point to a late composition date of Matthew:
- The attribution of the Gospel of Matthew to one of the original twelve apostles
suggests its late composition date. Once this practice was established it would not be possible for second generation writers
to publish Gospels with equal authority under non-apostolic names.
- Matthew contains more evolved forms of key traditions such as the Lord’s
Prayer, the Beatitudes, the Great Sermon, and the Great Commission.
- A statistical inventory of various traditions indicates that Matthew has a higher concentration of many different types
of material as compared to Luke, while Luke often contains a subset of the material in Matthew. This distribution of material
suggests Matthew was produced at a later stage of the Church’s development.
- Matthew shows a variety of corrections in his sources, including
factual corrections, reinterpretations of Jesus’ character, and other corrections of a theological or ideological nature
that do not exist in Mark, and some of which do not exist in Luke either. It is improbable that all of this material would
have been removed by Luke had he used Matthew as a source.
- Matthew aggressively explains and neutralizes controversial aspects of earlier Gospel traditions that had evidently
become flashpoints for debate and cause for skepticism. None of Matthew’s exposition on these issues appears in earlier
There is ample evidence to establish Matthew as the last of the Synoptics. Matthew frequently offers
more sophisticated reflection, building upon materials in Mark and Luke. He also tends to alter or embellish his sources when
it suits his ideological agenda. Elements as diverse as Matthew’s liturgically developed form of the Lord’s Prayer,
or his rationale for Jesus’ baptism by John, or his consideration of the tomb’s ownership have no connection with
one another. Yet the appearance of unrelated elements such as these indicate that a sufficient period of time had elapsed
between Luke and Matthew to allow more mature forms of the traditions to have evolved.
It follows that if there was in fact any direct literary dependence between Matthew and Luke, it
would have been that of Matthew’s dependence upon Luke. Luke could not have known the Gospel of Matthew for the simple
reason that it had not yet been composed. This finding eliminates all proposed solutions to the Synoptic Problem that argue
for Luke’s use of Matthew. Yet if the converse is true—that Matthew did indeed use Luke as a literary source—we
would expect to find direct evidence of his awareness of Luke. This evidence does indeed exist. It becomes obvious once we
recognize Matthean posteriority as a legitimate solution to the Synoptic Problem.
Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, pp.29-44