A reflection on confronting rumour from a lesser-known feature of the Easter story
Our world has coined a number of different phrases which all amount to the same thing: fake news, conspiracy theories, misinformation, spin doctors at work. Whatever we may call it, they are all examples of rumours. And rumours are all examples of truth decay (a phrase coined by the Christian communicator J.John).
I remember, as a teenager, what happened during the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina in 1982. The Argentinian military junta repeatedly fed false information to their people that they were winning great victories. The depth of deception was only fully revealed to the populace when the reality of their defeat became known.
We have seen the same thing in the current war in Ukraine. The BBC had a report some weeks ago where a Ukrainian woman was trying to communicate to her relatives in Moscow that her home city of Khakiv was being bombed by the Russians, but her relatives in Moscow refused to believe her because of the fake news being fed to them. It is said that the first casualty of war is the truth.
Rumour can cut in a very damaging way personally. If you have ever been a victim of other people trying to spin an untrue storyline about you, you will know the pain of that. I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of thing and it’s definitely unpleasant. It is not called character assassination for nothing.
In the early days following the resurrection of Jesus, various threats assailed the fledgling faith of His first followers. Some of these were internal: initial unbelief and astonishment at the resurrection; a lack of understanding of all that had happened; the struggle to no longer rely on Jesus’ constant physical presence. Other threats, however, were external, and Matthew’s Gospel cites one of these. It was the most subtle, yet powerful, attempt to undermine the confidence of Jesus’ disciples and sow seeds of general confusion in the public domain. It was a strategy to make bad news of the good news. It was the power of rumour.
The following passage is a feature of the Easter story that is unique to Matthew’s Gospel.
As the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and told the leading priests what had happened. A meeting with the elders was called, and they decided to give the soldiers a large bribe. They told the soldiers, “You must say, ‘Jesus’ disciples came during the night while we were sleeping, and they stole his body.’ If the governor hears about it, we’ll stand up for you so you won’t get in trouble.” So the guards accepted the bribe and said what they were told to say. Their story spread widely among the Jews, and they still tell it today. Matthew 28:11-15
Even before the women who had discovered the empty tomb, had returned with their good news to the other disciples, the tomb-guards had become involved in a plot with the Jewish leaders to discredit the witness of the early Christians. They claimed that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the disciples to counteract their claim that He had risen. Bad news was spreading even before the good news had been publicly announced.
Who were the guards at the centre of these false reports? It is possible to argue from Matthew’s Gospel that the guards could either have been Roman soldiers or Jewish Temple guards. There are reasons from the text to argue in both directions. But one thing is clear, which is very important in establishing the historical credibility of the Resurrection – the opponents of Jesus, both Romans and Jewish leaders, both acknowledged that the tomb was empty. If the body of Jesus was still in the tomb, it would have been very easy to show to disprove the Resurrection. But the very fact that they created a piece of fake news demonstrates that even the enemies of the Christians could not deny that the tomb was empty.
Our Bible reading shows us 3 dimensions of the character and power of rumour. First of all, people can choose to corrupt the truth for financial gain.
A meeting with the elders was called, and they decided to give the soldiers a large bribe. Verse 12
So the guards accepted the bribe and said what they were told to say. Verse 15
Secondly, news that doesn’t make sense can be dressed up as truth.
“You must say, ‘Jesus’ disciples came during the night while we were sleeping, and they stole his body.’ Verse 13
The rumour itself doesn’t hold water. If the guards were asleep and supposedly missed everything, how could they say the disciples stole the body? Although graverobbing was prevalent in the first century, people stole valuables out of tombs, not bodies. There was no value in a body, but there might have been valuables buried with a body. To rob a grave was a capital offense, so why would the disciples risk their lives to rob a grave when they hadn’t risked their lives to protect Jesus when He was alive? The disciples were not expecting a Resurrection, so why would they fake one?
For all these reasons, the fake news of the theft of Jesus’ body made no sense, but rumour has a power to deceive people because it masquerades as truth. This often works because there is a great subtlety about rumour – the bedrock of truth can soon be covered by dirty spadefuls of small untruths. It doesn’t take much to twist a decent truth into a distorted travesty. It only takes one division to make a half-truth from a whole one.
Thirdly we see in the story the power of rumour to spread from person to person and over time. In today’s story the guards told the chief priests, the chief priests turn to the elders and then the report goes out to the public. In this way, rumours can get more out of control as they are passed from person to person. A bit like the famous game of Chinese Whispers, when a message is whispered down a line of people and the message usually gets corrupted along the way.
And the rumour didn’t just spread widely; it had a longevity to it as well. Matthew records:
Their story spread widely among the Jews, and they still tell it today. Verse 15
Matthew records that the rumour spread by the guards was still circulating at the time his gospel was written. That was some 35-40 years after the event, yet still the report was being actively propagated. A whole generation had grown up since the resurrection, exposed to a lie. I wonder how many people were taken in by it, never to believe in a risen Jesus. But we know from other writings that this rumour continued to rumble on beyond the first publication of Matthew’s Gospel. The church leader Justin, writing in around the year AD150 quotes a rumour going round in his day that Jesus’ disciples stole His body from the tomb. So this rumour was still going over 100 years after the first Easter events.
Matthew’s story shows us the power of the rumour propagated to try and discredit the Christian witness to the Resurrection. The rumour also shows how important the Resurrection is to the credibility of the Christian faith. The fact that the opponents of Jesus went to so much trouble to try and discredit the Christians shows that it was a deal-breaking topic of great importance.
How do we respond to rumour, that places us in a bad light? Are we outwitted and outsmarted by it? What happens when bad news threatens to sweep away our good news? The disciples would have had to battle against overcoming this opposition to the truth of the Resurrection, especially as the guards’ report had the added credulity of official support.
However, when we look at the story of the early Church, we do not find reference to this rumour at all in the book of Acts. Matthew alone as a gospel writer reports the guards’ rumour to us. One thing seems clear: it did not discourage the disciples from preaching the resurrection. However strong the rumour was, we find that by the time the Day of Pentecost had come, stronger still was the belief of the disciples that Jesus was alive and that this had to be proclaimed. All kinds of opposition were experienced during the preaching of the gospel in those early days, but preach they did with determination and passion. No amount of rumour was going to stop them. They were heeding the counsel God gave long ago to His people through the prophet Jeremiah: “Do not lose heart or be afraid when rumours are heard in the land; one rumour comes this year, another the next” (Jeremiah 51:46).
The Apostle Paul was a rumourmonger against Christianity, but became a great proclaimer of the truth of the Resurrection. After his conversion, he also struggled with opposition from rumours. In 2 Corinthians he describes his determination to pursue his ministry, “through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report” (2 Corinthians 6:8). He knew what it was to have people trying to discredit him, and yet he also knew the God whom he served.
It is easy to be discouraged when rumours abound, even before we have had a chance to state our case. Minds seem to have been poisoned already with an insidious twisting of truth. How do we gain confidence to speak for what’s right?
It is God Himself who is our confidence. He not only shows us truth; He is Truth. Therefore, our confidence to stand up for truth depends not so much on a reliance on abstract facts, but on an authentic person. The word “authentic” comes from the Latin phrase meaning “originating from the author”. God is the author of reality – and He has the final say. When we stand for Truth, we are always standing on the side which will prevail.
When we play our part to stand for Truth, we do so, not just for our generation, but for future generations as well. We have seen the power of rumour to rumble on down the years. Only standing for Truth in our day will protect it for future years.
We can stand in God’s truth by standing in Him. So do not be diverted by bad news cutting in on your good news. Do not be discouraged when you set your face against rumours. For Jesus indicated that they would be a constant feature of our society.
“You will hear of wars and rumours of wars” (Matthew 24:6).
Instead, let us stand in God’s truth and proclaim it boldly. Let reality triumph over rumour!
This blog is a revised version of one of the reflections in the “Beyond Easter” Bible reading resource, available from the Mariners Bible Notes website at https://www.marinersnotes.org/beyond-easter-introduction