[NB - I must apologise at the outset that the structure of this web page is such that there are no headers and sections to which the reader might quickly and easily refer. Most of the points here flow together or are so brief as to justify no separate section of their own.]
Matthew only of all the four Gospel writers notes this incident which lays the foundation for his mention of the soldiers in connection with the resurrection of Jesus from the grave early on Sunday morning (Mtw 28:4) and the apologetic which explains the assertion by the contemporary Jews that the empty tomb was the result of the disciples’ theft of the body in the night (Mtw 28:11-15).
This Jewish explanation will be observed in a quote from Justin Martyr (c.100-165AD) in his Dialogue with Trypho on a future web page but it seems to have continued even past the days in which the author of Matthew wrote though, in the present day, it seems to have largely died a death (if you’ll excuse the pun).
But, if the Jewish leaders could have pointed to a tomb in which the body of Jesus lay, they would have destroyed the witness of the early Church who, from the outset, had proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection of the dead (Acts 2:24,31-32).
We can be certain, therefore, that the Jewish authorities were confronted with an empty tomb which they had to find a logical explanation for. Even if an unbeliever should reject the report of the resurrection contained in the Gospels, he or she seems bound to have to accept that, come Sunday morning, there was an empty tomb in Jerusalem that was believed to have been the one in which Jesus had been laid on the Friday.
Matthew’s Gospel clearly places this incident on the Jewish sabbath for the writer notes at the outset (Mtw 27:62) that it was the
‘...next day, that is, after the day of Preparation...’
when the religious leaders went to Pilate and asked him to make the tomb secure. The linking chronological phrase therefore places the crucifixion on a Friday and Mtw 28:1’s
‘Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week...’
can’t be any clearer that the resurrection took place on the day immediately following the sabbath, the Sunday, which is the day traditionally accepted with good reason. Jesus’ ‘three days’ that He predicted He’d be in the tomb before rising from the grave (Mtw 12:40, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, John 2:19) is clearly meant to be taken as a Jewish figure of speech representing three parts of consecutive days. If the Gospel writers were really trying to make the facts fit Jesus’ prediction as some make out, it seems strange that they wouldn’t have altered Jesus’ words to fit the facts rather than to risk the charge being levelled against them that they’d twisted His words.
The grouping together of
‘...the chief priests and the Pharisees...’
isn’t unique in the Gospels but it’s unusual as an inclusive pairing and occurs previously only in Mtw 21:45 where the group is said to have
‘...perceived that He was speaking about them’
when he concluded his discourse of parabolic teaching in the Temple on the Tuesday of the week of the crucifixion. If my understanding of the composition of the Sanhedrin is correct (see the second chart on my previous web page, section 7ii), this phrase is possible to hold the meaning of the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin (the chief priests representing the Sadducees) and, therefore, the highest Jewish judicial group in the land. The chief priests would probably have had the most to lose from a literal resurrection from the dead for not only would their enemy have conquered what they’d done to him but they would have also have had their theology blown apart (Mtw 22:23, Acts 4:1-2, 23:8).
Both Mark and Luke don’t link together these two groups of Jews but John uses the phrase five times and it seems to be indicative here of the authorities amongst the people so that something resembling the official Sanhedrin would have been in mind (John 7:32,45, 11:47,57, 18:3).
It’s these men, then, who see the danger in leaving the tomb unguarded - and rightly so. If they were sure that Jesus was a serious threat to their own authority over the people and were concerned enough to contrive a situation to have Him removed, then they would have been careful to make sure that the last opportunity which remained for causing them to be undermined was vehemently prevented.
Their reaction, therefore, is entirely in keeping with their self-preservation demonstrated elsewhere.
It may seem puzzling why the leaders didn’t come to Pilate on the Friday immediately following the crucifixion and their request for the condemned to be killed so as to prevent them from hanging on the sabbath (John 19:31), but it’s possible that the acquisition of the body by Joseph had taken them by surprise and that they expected the body of Christ to have been buried in the common grave given over to that duty and, therefore, possibly indistinguishable from the other graves.
When they finally realised - too late - that Jesus had been entombed elsewhere and knowing that the specific spot would be known to the disciples (Joseph, being a disciple, could obviously have passed the information on as well as the women - Mtw 27:57,61), it opened up the possibility of them doing something which they had to guard against.
Even if they’d known of the location late on Friday evening (the evening of the day before 6pm), they may have been reluctant to do anything about it in case they had insufficient time to prepare for the imminent dawning of the sabbath. Besides, they would have had no fear of a snatching away of the body until Sunday began with the following sundown for this represented the ‘third day’ to which they referred (Mtw 27:63).
Approaching Pilate on the sabbath was sufficient time in which to safeguard what they feared even though Mattask observes that Levertoff thinks that they delayed until the beginning of the Sunday (Saturday at sundown in our reckoning) - but this would have given the incentive to Jesus’ disciples and, if their guard had arrived on the Sunday but after the theft of the body, they wouldn’t have been able to conclusively say that the body had disappeared before the third day had arrived.
Again, if the writer of Matthew had merely invented this story of the guard being posted in order to give evidence of the resurrection from representatives of the Roman authorities and to explain the reason for the Jewish assertions that the body had been stolen by the disciples (Mtw 28:11-15), why didn’t he them as having requested the guard and have it stood at the tomb from the moment that Jesus’ body was entombed, than to leave open the charge that the Romans were unknowingly guarding an already empty tomb?
There’s also no reason to presume that by approaching Pilate the Jewish leaders would have defiled themselves, for they’d seen to that problem the day before when they’d needed to speak to the Governor to have Jesus condemned (Mtw 18:28) and their journeying to the praetorium needn’t have rendered them unclean so long as they hadn’t journeyed more than a sabbath’s day journey (this was probably more of a concern for the Pharisee than for the chief priests).
Their statement before Pilate specifically quotes Jesus as saying that
‘After three days I will rise again’
which is somewhat perplexing. During the night trial during the early hours of Friday morning in the house of Caiaphas (Mtw 26:57-68), they’d allowed two witnesses’ remembrance of a saying which spoke of His death and resurrection as being a declaration that He would literally destroy the current Temple and rebuild it as a sign to prove His Messiahship (see my previous notes under ‘The false witnesses’ - they seem to be remembering John 2:13-22).
Here, however, they seem to have accepted that Jesus must have been speaking not about a literal destruction of the Temple but parabolically of the ending of His life and of its being raised.
This isn’t the only explanation, however, for it may have been possible that one of the disciples - such as Judas - saw to it that Jesus’ private words to them concerning His crucifixion and resurrection were repeated in the hearing of the chief priests and Pharisees (for example, Mtw 16:21, 17:23, 20:19). Or had they understood as much from His own words to them (Mtw 12:40, 16:4)?
What it does show about the religious leaders is that they seem to have been willing to accept the testimony of those who could confirm to them that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah but, at the same time, take the correct interpretation of the reported words and use it to their advantage at a later date.
The word from which the RSV translates ‘impostor’ in Mtw 27:63 (Strongs Greek number 4108) comes from a word group which Kittels notes as having the general idea of
‘...going astray. Wandering is usually denoted...’
so that a clear accusation that Jesus is someone who is maintaining a false character or who’s pretending to be something that He isn’t seems less likely to be in the content of their words. Rather, they see Jesus as being a Jew who erred in the way of following God and who arrived at a teaching which had not only led Himself astray but others also.
The word ‘impostor’ - as well as ‘deceiver’ - seems to imply a clear act of the will whereas the word employed could hold the implication that the wandering away from the correct path wasn’t a deliberate choice but a misguided series of events which allowed Him to arrive where He’d come to.
The word translated by the RSV as ‘fraud’ in Mtw 27:64 (Strongs Greek number 4106) is from the same word group and would also infer a general wandering away from the true path rather than a deliberate act of the will - the ‘first’ fraud would be a reference to Jesus’ supposed public claim to Messiahship and the ‘last’ to the stealing away of the body to simulate the resurrection from the dead.
Here, there’s certainly the idea of deceit in the lives of the disciples for they accuse them of being able steal the body in order to substantiate their Master’s words. But there doesn’t appear to be a clear indication that the source of their actions, Jesus, is to be considered as a play actor who pretended to be Someone that He knew He wasn’t - they think that Jesus fully believed that He was who they said He was in sincerity but that His followers would not be able to see through the deception.
Vines, however, sees the two words as implying deception on the part of the one bearing the label in an attempt to deceive others into believing what was being said and proclaimed. This is certainly possible as he points out from other NT uses of the word group (for instance, they’re also used in Mtw 24:4-5 on the lips of Jesus in speaking about the false Christs who were to lead many astray) but it doesn’t necessarily have to be consistently within the word whenever used.
In short, we may give the religious leaders the benefit of the doubt here and needn’t insist that they’re calling Jesus one who deliberately deceives others in order to gain an advantage. Rather, they may simply have thought of Him as misguided but convinced enough not to renounce His claims of being the Messiah even when threatened with a trial before the Sanhedrin (Mtw 26:57-68).
Their petition that the tomb be made secure
‘...until the third day...’
‘...until the third day is over...’
so that they were probably looking at the presence of a Roman guard for two full nights into the early morning of Monday that the resurrection from the grave might be proven not to have occurred. I would presume that the rolling away of the stone would have taken place on the Monday to confirm that the body was still present that proof might be secured should anything be said by the disciples.
The Jewish leaders seem set in their ways in enlisting Roman help wherever necessary and, presumably, because in this case they were sure that none of them could possibly owe their allegiance to Jesus whereas there would have been many ‘followers’ of Jesus amongst even their own ranks (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus being at least two - Mark 15:43, John 3:1, 19:38-39). Just as they’d done at the arrest (see my previous notes under the heading ‘Romans’), they opted for the acquisition of a Roman military presence rather use their own Temple guards.
Some commentators note that it wasn’t within the Jewish leaders’ authority to post an armed guard at the tomb because it represented a military presence and, though this may be true, they would surely have been gathering before the Governor to ask permission for them to use their own guards rather than for the acquisition of Roman soldiers if it was only that they wanted the tomb to be made secure. It seems that, rather, they wanted Rome to help out in this matter.
The obligation of the Roman authorities to prevent the possibility of a claimed resurrection from the dead is clearly apparent. Even though Pilate didn’t believe that Jesus was the kind of King that the religious leaders were making Him out to be, he couldn’t ignore the problem which would be raised in the city if there was a missing body being claimed as having been raised from the dead by YHWH Himself.
With Messianic expectation running high in Jerusalem as it always did at Festivals, such an event - if it got the attention of the population - could cause a serious uprising. Therefore it was in the interests of Pilate to see to it that such a pronouncement couldn’t happen. Indeed, they may even have held Pilate as partly responsible for their predicament for he’d given over the body of Jesus to a known disciple rather than for it to be allowed to be buried in the common grave.
The religious authorities shouldn’t be thought of as believing that the resurrection from the dead was about to take place and of trying to prevent it but of believing that the disciples might try and attempt the theft of the body and so claim that it had taken place. But, in the end, what they fear might happen is the very story which they put forward to explain away the empty tomb (Mtw 28:13).
Pilate’s response (Mtw 27:65) can interpreted in a couple of ways, both of which are diametrically opposed to one another. Either, as the RSV translates, he tells them
‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can’
which would indicate that he’s commanding them to use their own forces (the Temple guards) to secure the tomb - something resembling official permission to encamp an armed presence in an area outside the city walls and probably in full view of the praetorium - or, as the RSV notes in the margin
‘Take a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can’
which offers them Roman military assistance to achieve what they desire. There’s little in the verse to indicate the actual intention of the words one way or the other but we should look to Mtw 28:14 where the guard, having returned to report to the chief priests, are told that if the matter comes to the hearing of the Governor, they would satisfy his questions and keep them out of trouble.
This seems only possible if the guard were Roman, for the Temple guard would have only been answerable to the Jewish religious leaders. The assumption that they would go straight to Pilate when the resurrection took place if they were Roman doesn’t necessarily persuade the reader that they must have been Temple guards because, if they’d gone there directly, it’s unlikely that they would have escaped with their lives - which Governor would accept that they’d lost a dead body with no signs of battle on their own person?
It makes more sense, then, to accept that the second of the two translations of Pilate’s words is the best and that he acceded to their request for a band of soldiers to stand guard at the tomb until the third day was over. Matfran calls Pilate’s permission to use some of the Roman troops as an indication of him being
‘...thoroughly tired of the whole business, hence perhaps his surprisingly ready (or resigned?) compliance...’
but, even if this is the case, their insistence that a fraudulent claim of resurrection might come about was serious enough to warrant action.
There certainly didn’t need to be a large band of soldiers present because they weren’t meant, I believe, to repel an attempt by the disciples at stealing the body. They were simply there to warn those who would do such a thing that there would be an armed struggle in which a secret resurrection could have been easily disproved.
After all, if the body was missing and the soldiers were lying about the tomb dead, it was fairly good proof that they’d been overpowered by an earthly force - if the body simply disappeared and they remained unharmed, the implication would be that no earthly hand had removed it.
Mtw 27:66 is somewhat perplexing in the RSV even though it seems to simply summarise the events just reported. It records that the religious leaders (my italics)
‘...went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard’
This translation has caused numerous commentators to interpret that there would have been some sort of waxing application to the boulder which covered the tomb entrance so that, upon breaking, it could be clearly seen to have been entered by a human agency. Mathen writes that
‘...a cord covered with clay or wax on which an official seal has been impressed is affixed to the stone at the grave’s entrance. Surely, no one will dare break this seal...’
How a stone could be sealed with wax and cord is not easy to ascertain and I’ve seen no details as to how this might have been done - the text doesn’t even hint that cord was used and, if ‘wax’ is really meant, such a soft substance could hardly be used as a seal.
Cement - yes - but not wax. And the Romans did have cement.
So, if this seal was really so prohibitive, why did they need a Roman guard? Where was the point in stamping an authoritative seal on the rock covering if a band of disciples approaching the tomb to steal the body would at once have seen it and thought
‘Rats! We daren’t go inside now!’
Daniel 6:17 certainly seems to indicate that an official seal could be put on a rock over an entrance way for it reads that, once Daniel was placed in the lion’s den
‘...a stone was brought and laid upon the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel’
but no guard is mentioned here and it’s done to show that an official decree had been made which it was not possible to annul. There’s no thought of a rescue attempt here, either, but only that Daniel might meet with the fate which it’s been given him to have.
Only Mathag notes that the Greek can be taken ‘metaphorically’ and rendered that they sealed the stone
‘...with the presence of a guard’
Actually, one doesn’t have to take the Greek text as being metaphorical at all for the Nestle text seems to run literally (my italics) that they secured the grave
‘...sealing the stone with the guard’
Therefore the seal which was used to make fast the stone was the guard itself - not a wax inscription which would have persuaded the disciples not to break in. If they wanted to break the seal, they had to break the guard in open combat - and that meant that it would have been immediately obvious that the proclaimed resurrection of the dead would have been of earthly origin.
Finally, we need to think about God’s provision for the resurrection. There are numerous actions here which sealed the possibility that the resurrection from the grave would be clearly the easiest explanation of the events to accept.
Joseph of Arimathea’s acquisition of Jesus’ body and the burial in his own tomb removed the possibility that he would be buried in a common plot where no one would have necessarily have been able to tell which body had been raised. There may also be a clear indication here that a Roman guard would have been a necessity (see above) for, if the site of the cross was close to the Roman praetorium, so too was the grave site (John 19:41) and it wouldn’t have been allowable for an armed Jewish presence to have been ‘encamped’ so close without raising the enquiries of the Governor.
But the women also saw the place where Jesus was buried (Mtw 27:61) and so wouldn’t have been mistaken when they came to the tomb early on Sunday morning to anoint the body with their prepared spices (Mtw 28:1, Luke 24:1). In these ways, the site of the entombment was fairly certain.
The stone which Joseph rolled against the tomb was also a good precaution against the possibility of grave robbers and only a large group of people could have secured the moving away of the corpse. But the Roman guard placed there by Jesus’ enemies made it virtually certain that the body stayed in the tomb throughout the time of their presence and that it couldn’t be stolen away by the disciples without demonstrable proof in the form of either the loss of their lives or seriously wounding in their defence of the tomb.
By the actions of men and women, therefore, God was able to make it certain that only the resurrection from the dead could remove the body from the tomb and that, when it happened, it would be obvious which body had, in fact, been raised.
I can’t help but be reminded of a Scripture in the opening verse of Psalm 2 which asks the question
‘Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?’
and echoed in Acts 4:27-28 (my italics) where the disciples pray as one by noting that
‘...in this city [of Jerusalem] there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus...both Herod and Pontius Pilate with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel to do whatever Thy hand and Thy plan had predestined to take place’
All the schemings of the Jewish leaders actually proved the resurrection when it eventually took place and, as I’ve noted above, although the unbeliever may interpret the events surrounding the resurrection differently to the believer, there can be no logical denial of the fact of an empty tomb when it’s clear that no body was ever able to have been produced by the authorities to undermine the position of the disciples who were proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the grave.
An empty tomb, therefore, is a fact - but the interpretation of that is what makes the difference.
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