MATTHEW 28:11-15

The event

This is Matthew’s concluding section dealing with the guard which had been commissioned with the responsibility of preventing the disciples from stealing away the body of Jesus and of claiming that He’d risen from the grave. This series of records (Mtw 27:62-66, 28:2-4, 28:11-15) is entirely unique to the Gospel and the other three don’t so much as hint at their presence - but Matthew’s attention is drawn to providing a retort to the explanation of the empty tomb which the Jewish leaders had already been spreading amongst the Jews, a confession that they were certain that there was a problem in producing the crucified body.

As I’ve said on previous web pages, it seems ludicrous that anyone should postulate that there wasn’t the problem of an empty tomb, for the evidence is here that it had posed concern to the religious leaders - so much so that they’d had to come up with an explanation which countered what the early Church were beginning to announce and proclaim (Acts 2:24,31-32).

If an unbeliever wishes to opt for any explanation for what was discovered on Sunday morning at dawn - even to the point of disbelieving that there were any guards positioned at the tomb and, quite obviously, that no one saw the evidence of the resurrection - I have absolutely no problem (though I myself don’t believe that the Gospel record can be disbelieved). But at least their ‘unbelief’ is an expression of the need to find an explanation for the facts of the case.

But what is impossible to accept from anyone is that there was no empty tomb at all when the Jewish invention of an explanatory event has no justification unless there were certain facts which they could not or would not accept as the early Church were interpreting them. Matthew’s statement that

‘...this story has been spread among [the] Jews to this day’

or, better translated by Rieu (because no definite article appears before the word ‘Jews’) and quoted in Matmor

‘...this story has been current in Jewish circles ever since’

is clearly an apologetic for what the fellowship to whom the author was writing were experiencing, and it only makes sense if there’s some historical basis for it. Mark and Luke’s omission of the presence of the soldiers could be explained in that the people to whom the works were addressed were not immersed in such a controversy and, therefore, didn’t need to know the place from which such an interpretation had arisen.

Justin Martyr (c.100-165AD) in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho [a Jew]’ mentions just such a belief amongst the Jews of Trypho’s acquaintance, commenting (chapter 108 - my italics)

‘ not only have not repented, after you learned that He rose from the dead, but, as I said before, you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but His disciples stole Him by night from the tomb, where He was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that He has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Moreover, you accuse Him of having taught those godless, lawless and unholy doctrines which you mention to the condemnation of those who confess Him to be Christ, and a Teacher from and Son of God. Besides this, even when your city is captured, and your land ravaged, you do not repent, but dare to utter imprecations on Him and all who believe in Him. Yet we do not hate you or those who, by your means, have conceived such prejudices against us; but we pray that even now all of you may repent and obtain mercy from God, the compassionate and long-suffering Father of all’

I would love to have had Trypho’s response to Justin’s writings for it would confirm to us whether what I’ve quoted above was an assumption which was incorrect or whether it would have been defended as ‘putting right what was wrong’. After all, Justin asserts that there had been some decision by the Jewish leadership, presumably, to spread the account of the disciples’ theft of the body throughout the world which, it could be argued, was an assumption if there was no public statement to that effect.

At the very least, however, we can say with some certainty that Justin had encountered just such an explanation of the empty tomb in his own day - otherwise his arguments become meaningless and without any proper foundation. This explanation is still held in some circles even today but, in my experience, people simply don’t believe that there was ever an empty tomb or that, if there was, it was a clear ancient witness to the presence of little green men who beamed Jesus up to their spaceship and that, one day, He’ll return. I actually prefer the ‘stolen body’ theory to this because it’s easier to argue against.

As I’ve said above, what Matthew’s record (and Justin’s) shows us at the very least is that the Jewish religious leaders were confronted with an empty tomb on the Sunday morning following the crucifixion and in a tomb in which they knew Jesus to have been laid to rest. This seems to be a fact of history which can’t be denied by any rational thinking person simply because of the response of the Jews - how that missing body is explained, however, is open to personal interpretation if one refuses to accept the testimony of the New Testament.

The event

Little needs to be said about the actual text, as the main reason for its inclusion here is solely to provide an apologetic for the widespread pronouncements of the Jewish religious leaders that the body of Jesus was stolen away by the disciples before they announced the fabricated story of the resurrection on the day of Pentecost. But there are a few points that seem to need comment on to better understand the event.

The passage begins with the observation that it was while the women were going back to report to the disciples that some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests what had happened (Mtw 28:11). Clearly, the place of burial must be outside the city walls by their return into Jerusalem as was the place of crucifixion but, more interesting, is the observation by Matthew that only some of the guard returned.

What became of the others is far from certain but, if they’d been in shock as the Scriptures seem to indicate (Mtw 28:4), we might suppose that it took them a while to come to their senses and they may well have scattered into the country for a short while before deciding what to do. They may even have returned into the praetorium but, if they realised the implications of what they’d just ‘allowed’ to happen, they may have stayed away from the place until they at least thought through their best course of action - some commentators see the mention of ‘some’ as being just the ones who approached the chief priests while the others waited ‘outside’ (whatever that might mean) to see how it went.

Matcar suggests that

‘...presumably the rest waited to be officially relieved...’

but, as I noted above, it seems more likely that the soldiers had already left the tomb vicinity by the time the women arrived and their approaching the chief priests was simply a return to the leaders who’d commissioned them to guard the tomb (Mtw 27:62-66).

The Sadducees - who are the religious party denoted by the term ‘chief priests’ and who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead - immediately gathered together the Sanhedrin (or a limited number of them who they trusted) to take counsel as to what they might do.

The leaders, as always, were concerned not to lose the favour of the people, so a story or explanation had to be formulated for their justification rather than for the disciples’ condemnation. Needing to save face naturally led them on to propose the only solution which they felt would carry weight among the people and, at the same time, they had to sacrifice the reputation of those who were allied with Jesus.

Therefore, although Jesus is the good Shepherd (John 10:11) who

‘...lays down His life for the sheep’

the religious leaders show themselves as being the very antithesis who

‘...lay down the sheep for their lives’

In Acts 5:28, they also recognised that the preaching of the early Church would bring upon them condemnation for their act of murder, losing their position of power and influence amongst the people unless it was forcefully stopped with immediate effect. Even before this occurred, Acts 4:1-2 notes that the Sadducees and captain of the Temple (who was one of the party’s adherents and possibly a family relation of the high priest) came to Peter and John as they proclaimed the truth about Jesus in the Temple

‘...annoyed because they were proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead’

the very event which they’d tried to undermine by the story which they’d devised upon the soldiers’ return to the city.

It’s probably not without significance that the Pharisees aren’t mentioned here - not that they wouldn’t have wanted to dismiss the events which had occurred at the tomb, but that they were more likely to use the event to justify their own belief in a resurrection from the dead as opposed to the Sadducees who could not accept what the guards were telling them - and this was part of the problem with the events which had been witnessed for they pointed towards a theology which they wouldn’t confess (Mtw 22:23).

What exactly they were told is difficult to be sure about for all we know is that the soldiers witnessed the earthquake, the bright light and the angel sitting on the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance - we have no indication that they saw Jesus emerge from the sepulchre. Did they actually go in to the tomb to make sure that the body had gone or did they take it as a consequence of what they saw? It seems the more likely that they first made sure that the body was gone before fleeing away from the place and that they were simply witnesses of the vacated tomb rather than specifically witnesses of the resurrection.

The Sanhedrin’s decision began by committing into the soldiers’ hands ‘enough money’ where the RSV’s ‘a sum of money’ is too vague a representation of what the Greek actually says. It almost implies that they offered the soldiers some amounts before finally settling at the figure which was handed over - but this is no more than speculation. Kittels notes that the word employed (Strongs Greek number 2425) can mean ‘sufficient’ and this is the preferred meaning here for I can’t help but think that the figure arrived at couldn’t have been too large - even though Matfran observes that

‘To persuade them to spread such a story would need a substantial sum...’

and Matcar interprets the phrase to mean

‘a large sum of money’

After all, they still had the threat of punishment hanging over their heads if news reached Pilate that they’d lost a corpse (probably the first time it had ever happened), so part of the deal must surely have been that they would be protected (Mtw 28:14) and this would have chipped away at the need for a vast sum of money by weakening the soldiers’ position. There’s some humour here which shouldn’t be missed for a living guard becomes incapable in Matthew’s Gospel of securing a dead body - as Rodd and Marco’s ‘Boom, shake the tomb’ rap goes

‘That dead guy is up and gone (now that’s gonna be hard to explain)’

It’s not certain that such a failure on their own part would have been punishable by death but it certainly wouldn’t have been too joyfully accepted by the Roman Governor and, at the worst, they would have laid themselves open to capital punishment.

That Pilate was shortly to leave the city for his residency in Caesarea is certain for he only came to the city of Jerusalem for the festivals to keep order and to be on hand in case a situation arose which needed his immediate attention. The chances appeared good, therefore, that if they were able to hush the matter up for the next few days, the clamour might die down by the time the next festival was to come round - but if only they’d known what God had planned for the subsequent compulsory feast of the Jewish calendar (Acts 2:1ff)!

There’s a certain irony in the chief priests’ attempts at finding a satisfactory conclusion and they opt for the very event which they’d set the guard at the tomb to guard against (Mtw 27:63-64). That something had obviously happened at the tomb early that morning, the guards were certain - but that they couldn’t openly declare what they’d seen was even more certain if they were to safeguard their own lives.

Commentators cite the ‘Nazareth Inscription’ at this point which appears to have been an imperial decree to forbid the stealing of bodies from tombs. Some would go so far as to see in its commands a clear indication that a response to the event of the resurrection had been made by the Roman authorities but this is going too far. What it does show, however, is that the story about theft is entirely plausible and believable in its first century context (otherwise there’s no reason for the rule at all) - had not the signs and events which had accompanied it pointed in a totally different direction.

We may even consider why the religious leaders - to show what they believed had happened - didn’t cite such an edict and round up the disciples to charge them with grave robbing. But such an avenue would have brought the matter out into the open and it was very necessary that it be kept as secret as possible.

How the soldiers could ever have seen the disciples taking the body if they were asleep with their eyes closed is difficult to imagine and neither does it seem feasible to suppose that they would have slept through the sound of the stone being rolled away from the tomb (though, if you ask my wife, you’d realise that, if they were all like me, they might have all slept through the start of a World War). And, even if one of them had woken up, why didn’t they sound the alarm that the others might rouse themselves and see to their duty of protection?

Perhaps the idea was that they only woke from sleep as the disciples were disappearing over the horizon and that they pursued the thieves some distance before realising that they couldn’t overtake them. Whatever the precise details of the invention, the guards knew that some of them were duty bound to stay awake and to rouse their comrades at the slightest hint of danger.

A confession that they all fell asleep was tantamount to admitting their guilt.

Back in Mtw 27:42 at the cross, the chief priests along with the scribes and elders had mocked Jesus announcing

‘...let Him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in Him’

but their stubborn refusal to admit the evidence which was before them shows that they had no intention of accepting what they’d already decided had to be rejected. We may sometimes wonder at the brazenness of unbelievers who formulate the prayer that, if God exists, He should make such-and-such a thing happen and then they’ll believe in Him - that God is gracious enough to answer such prayers is amazing but that He doesn’t very often is supported by the example here for, even when evidence is provided, the hardness of a heart can all too easily refuse to accept the evidence which He chooses to give.

Therefore, should Pilate come to hear of it, he would be the more angry that His own soldiers had neglected to do their duty. It seems difficult to imagine why Pilate would have been too concerned about a missing body if it just undermined the credibility of the religious leaders which he’d already done battle with over the execution of the selfsame Man.

That Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent is certain from the record of the trial before Him (Mtw 27:24, Luke 23:14) and it would have amused the Governor to see those Jews begin to squirm who’d given him such a hard time a couple of days previous.

But that a Roman guard were implicated in failing to do their duty? And that it was being actively announced to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they’d fallen asleep while on guard? That was tantamount to a smear on the good name of the Roman army and wouldn’t have been taken lightly.

If it had been the Temple guard, however, what would that have mattered to Pilate? This fear of the Governor, therefore, is one of the indications which we saw in Mtw 27:62-66 that pointed towards the guard as being from the Roman praetorium rather than the Jews approaching Pilate simply for permission to post their own Temple Guard at the tomb.

One pointer against the guard being Roman, however, is the Jewish leaders’ insistence that they ‘tell the people’ (Mtw 28:13) what had happened - an instruction which may have been somewhat difficult to Roman soldiers who had little personal contact with the people over whom they were ruling. It’s hardly imaginable that they stopped for a chat with the local Jew on the street corner to bolster east-west relations.

Matfran observes that the way the religious leaders would have ‘satisfied’ Pilate would have been with a bribe - but this is far from certain even though he cites evidence from Philo (Legatio ad Gaium 302) to indicate that he was well-known to accept such a gift. One would have thought that an assurance that all was ‘under control’ and that they knew what they were doing would have been a better way to satisfy him in this matter which seemed to undermine the fear of the people towards the Romans.

As I noted at the very beginning of this web page, the sole reason for the inclusion of the soldiers in Matthew’s account seems to have been to provide an apologetic on the Jewish assertions that the disciples had stolen the body from the tomb and then claimed that the empty tomb was proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Mtw 28:15).

Whatever explanation or opposition is offered concerning the resurrection, the believer need have no cause for worry for the reality of a living Jesus at work in their own life and in situations around them is all the proof that’s needed as a witness of the resurrection.

If Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, He will demonstrate His existence by continuing to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and forgive sins. If these are still happening in any society, it’s ample proof that Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen but that it was, like His followers say, raised from the dead.