The resurrection of Jesus – part 4 – The guard on the tomb
There is one detail of the resurrection story that we find only in St Matthew’s gospel, and that is the posting of a guard on the tomb. This is how it reads in the NIV translation.
Matthew 27: 62 – 66 The guard at the tomb
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’
‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
Matthew 28: 1 – 10 Jesus has risen
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you.’
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
Matthew 28: 11 – 15 The guards’ report
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
* * *
If this story is true, the chief priests hadn’t handled matters very well. The next day was a special Sabbath, and they didn’t want the bodies of executed criminals on display. They asked Pilate to have them finished off and the bodies taken down.
What did they think would happen to the bodies? Pilate’s agreement to allow Joseph to take Jesus’ body for burial seems to have completely wrong-footed them. By the time they realised that Joseph had interred Jesus, it was the Sabbath. They rushed to Pilate in a panic, and asked for a guard on the tomb.
Pilate allowed them to take a guard, and do what they deemed necessary to make the tomb secure.
The guard would probably have been Roman soldiers rather than temple police. They would have been a disciplined force, and most unlikely to fall asleep while on guard.
The question we need to answer is whether St Matthew’s story is factual, or invented to counter rumours that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. St Matthew himself tells us that such rumours circulated in Jerusalem in the early years of the church.
The first question in my mind is why does this story only appear in St Matthew’s gospel? The other three gospels all record that the women went to the tomb very early, and found the stone rolled away/angels/the empty tomb. None of the other gospels says that the women saw any guards.
Perhaps, though, there were no guards to be seen? If the earthquake happened as the women were still some distance from the tomb, and the guards fled at the sight of the angel, then the women might not have seen them. St Matthew could have learned of the guards via a source among the Jewish Council, like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus.
Or the women may have seen the guards and approached anyway. I confess that, as a writer, I don’t think that’s very likely. If they saw the guards, why not say so? It would make the story more believable.
If the guards had fled just before the women arrived, there is no conflict with the other gospels, because St Matthew may have consulted a source in the Council that the other gospel writers didn’t consult.
That doesn’t, however, mean that the story of the guards is necessarily true.
Both the Jewish leaders and the disciples are saying that the tomb is empty, they differ in explaining why it’s empty.
Suppose the chief priests’ version of the story is the correct one. Let’s tell the story from the point of view of a group of disciples, not the Eleven, setting out to steal the body.
First off, how would they have known which was the right tomb? It was the women who witnessed Jesus’ interment. However, we’ll assume they found out.
They approach the tomb cautiously, in the middle of the night. What do they find? Six Roman soldiers, that’s what. Asleep, when they’re supposed to be on guard? Well, it’s not impossible, but the Roman army had a reputation for good discipline.
Ok. We’ll assume they were asleep.
The disciples are confronted by a large stone which has been sealed to the rock of the hillside. They have to move it – without waking the guards. Possible? I suppose so, but what a risk! They move the stone, remove the body and creep away into the night.
The guards wake up. If nothing happens, no angel, no earthquake, why would they run? Surely they would stay put? Which would mean they were there when the women arrived. If the disciples had managed to move the stone, the guards would probably have been looking into the tomb. All the gospels would have said so. And, of one thing I’m quite certain; they wouldn’t have allowed the women anywhere near.
As far as I can see, if a guard of soldiers really was posted, the only way it makes any sense is exactly as St Matthew says. An angel rolled away the stone, the guards were terrified and ran away. Anything else would have been recorded in the other gospels.
And although St Matthew might have invented the whole story, why on earth would he?
My personal conclusion is that the story is essentially true; a guard of soldiers was posted, an angel terrified them and they ran away. Subsequently, the chief priests, with a combination of bribery and intimidation, persuaded them to say that their experience had been a dream.
However, the evidence is not conclusive. I cannot prove with historical evidence that this is what happened. But as a person of faith I see that the evidence does not contradict other biblical testimony and therefore I accept that this story is true.
Thank you that you raised Jesus from the dead. Thank you that you are drawing me closer day by day. Please help me to follow Jesus ever more faithfully.
In Jesus name, Amen