The soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 28)

Only Matthew mentions that soldiers guarded the tomb of Jesus. Matthew 27:62-66 records that the chief priests and Pharisees recalled Jesus’ own prediction that He would rise again, and they cited their fear that the disciples might steal His body to support their request for an authorized guard. Pilate’s reply in 27:65 literally means “You have a guard”, and on this basis some surmised that the guard in question was the temple guard under the high priest’s own jurisdiction. However, the language of 28:14 precludes this possibility an requires a Roman guard under Pilate’s direct control. Moreover, it is unclear why the chief priests and Pharisees would have requested permission for a guard that they themselves could have directed. Thus, the phrase of 27:65 should probably be rendered as “Take a guard” (as in the NIV).

The tomb of Jesus was already sealed by a large stone (27:60), which was then probably affixed with an official seal that, if broken, would have attested to the opening of the tomb (cf. Daniel 6:18). Matthew 28:11-15 records that some of the guards reported the things they had seen and were bribed into circulating a false report about their own negligence and the theft of Jesus’ body. The ensuing rumour is assumed in John 20:2, 15 and appears later in Justin Martyr’s second-century Dialogue With Trypho (108:2).

The Roman concern for safeguarding tombs is reflected in an imperial inscription bearing the title Diatagma Kaisaros, acquired at Nazareth during the nineteenth century. The marble slab, containing 21 lines of Greek text, dates from between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50. The text attests to the sanctity of tombs and threatens with capital punishment any who would defile a tomb by removing the body. Scholars have considered the possibility that, in the light of the disturbances between Jews and  early Christians over what happened to the body of Jesus, the Diatagma Kaisaros may reflect an early Roman response. Although the present state of research does not allow for absolute certainty, the presence of this authentic decree lends historical credibility to Matthew’s account.

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