About That Roman Guard at Jesus’ Tomb

 

In the late afternoon of “Good Friday,” Sanhedrin member, Joseph of Arimathea, met with Pontius Pilate and asked the prefect for permission to take possession of Jesus of Nazareth’s crucified body. Pilate, surely mystified as to why a member of the Sanhedrin who had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy would want the criminal’s body,[1] nevertheless, gives Joseph his permission.

31_ Sts_ Joseph Of Arimathea and Nicodemus

          Joseph and a fellow Pharisee named Nicodemus next take down Jesus’ body from the cross and cleanse it. The evangelist John reports that Nicodemus brought along an unheard of seventy-five pounds worth of myrrh and aloes with which to anoint Jesus’ body.[1] They covered His body in a clean linen cloth and placed Jesus’ corpse in a “new” tomb belonging to none other than Joseph himself. Joseph and Nicodemus then roll a massive stone in place with which to cover and seal the entrance.[2] (But note: both Mark 15:46 and Matthew 29:59-60 would have you believe Joseph did this all by himself!) Watching from a location opposite the tomb are Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary.[3]

Sometime on Saturday, a delegation of chief priests and Pharisees approached Pilate and asked to have a guard posted at Jesus’ tomb. The request was made using the pretext that Jesus had “prophesied” that three days AFTER his death, he would arise from the dead (Matt. 27:63).[4] In their view, there was a strong likelihood that Jesus disciples might steal his body and try and convince the populace that Jesus’ prophecy had, indeed, come true. Pilate acquiesces and orders that a guard be stationed “until the third day.” That is to say, through Monday.

After undoubtedly checking to see that Jesus’ body was still within the grave, the guard re-seals the tomb, apply the seal of Caesar, and stand watch. And note: the penalty for falling asleep on post duty in the Roman army was certain death.[5]

Matthew’s Story

          There are, however, any number of problems with Matthew’s account regarding the tomb guard. First and foremost is the fact that none of the other gospel writers mention it. If it were a truly historical event, the other three evangelists would certainly have reported it. It staggers the imagination to think that they wouldn’t if Matthew’s account is to be deemed historically accurate. The guard would have served as “proof” that Jesus did indeed arise from the dead.

The second revolves around John’s description of Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb on Saturday “while it was still dark” (See here). No guard is guarding the tomb! What happened to them? Where did they disappear to? Had Jesus already arisen and the recovered guard back in Jerusalem by then?

Another issue is the fact that Matthew states that the guards were struck unconscious after an earthquake eruption and witnessing a radiant angel come down from Heaven, roll back the stone from Jesus’ tomb and promptly sit atop it (Matt. 28: 2-4). Whether they witnessed the actual resurrection or were already unconscious by then remains unclear. But they did behold the angel and the rolling back of the gravestone according to Matthew. So why wouldn’t they have reported this remarkable encounter to their superiors? They had at least four different witnesses to the event![6]

Nonetheless, we are to believe they all remained completely mum regarding so extraordinary an event. We are to believe that they took bribe money instead of reporting the astonishing and spectacular event they had all witnessed. Matthew claims that the guards were bribed into reporting they had fallen asleep. But as we have seen, this amounted to a certain death sentence for each of them without question.[7] Why lie and put their very lives in such extreme peril?

So now the question: Why insert such a patently false report within Matthew’s gospel?

Christian apologists claim that Matthew’s tomb guard proves that Jesus’ body wasn’t stolen. But not a single one of Jesus’ disciples ever believed Jesus was going to rise from the dead. Not a one. So why steal His body?

However, the body WAS missing. So where could it have disappeared to?

A perfectly rational answer is that Joseph of Arimathea decided, upon second thought, that it would be better to entomb Jesus’ body someplace else, rather than in his new tomb. He would thus, avoid the unavoidable wrath of his peers. After all, Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin. There’s no question Joseph would have been subjected to a great amount of grief if word got out that He had Jesus buried within his very own tomb.

Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders.” (John 19:38).

Since Joseph was a “secret” disciple, it only makes sense that he would avoid incurring the wrath of the very Jewish leaders he “feared” if they were ever to learn that he had Jesus entombed in his very own tomb.

The solution? Bury Jesus elsewhere.

That would solve Joseph’s problem. But it also brings up new ones. Wouldn’t Joseph have told Jesus’ disciples where Jesus was reburied? Most certainly. Yet, who’s to say he didn’t? Once word spread that Jesus’ body was missing and that He had actually prophesied He would arise from the dead, those who knew where Jesus was reburied may have chosen to keep that secret to themselves in light of the growing belief that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.  Once the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead began spreading like wildfire through an extremely gullible Christian community, there’d be no real need to come clean. The “Christian” faith would continue to live on despite the “death” of Jesus.

But what about the disciples that believed Jesus had truly risen from the dead to the point that they would rather face martyrdom than disbelieve? The answer comes down to a simple observable fact: people will believe because they want to believe. Haven’t we all witnessed this peculiar phenomenon at one point or another when it comes to religious zealots? Virtually nothing will change the mind of the religious zealot when it comes to their religious beliefs. Jesus’ disciples were hardly critical thinkers. They were religious zealots. And one need look no further than the believers in the Reverend Jim Jones by way of comparison.

We have postulated what I believe to be a very credible alternative explanation in regards to Jesus’ missing corpse. It is far more reasonable and rational an explanation than assuming Jesus truly arose from the dead. It’s a plausible explanation that should not be dismissed out of hand.

[1] John 19:39.

[2] Christian apologists like  John Noland suggest that Joseph had several subordinates do the “heavy lifting” here. But if Joseph wanted to work in secret as much as possible, he may have worked with Nicodemus alone. What his fellows members of the Sanhedrin must have thought of Joseph’s behvior is not made known.

[3] Matthew 27:61. Cf. Mark 15:47.

[4] Also see Mark 8:31, 9:31.

[5] See Dr. George W. Currie’s The Military Discipline of the Romans from the Founding of the City to the Close of the Republic for the details.

[6] The number of guards used to guard the tomb is disputed. But four seems to be the minimum in the view of most scholars. See.

[7] Cf. Herod Antipas executing the guards guarding the apostle Peter in Acts 12:19.


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