The Priest’s Request for a Guard

“On the morrow, that is, after the Preparation, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate, saying, ‘Lord, remember that this imposter said while he was living, ‘In three days I will rise.’ Therefore, command the tomb to be secured until the third day lest his disciples steal him and tell the crowd: ‘He rose from the dead!’ The last fraud would be even worse than the first.’ Then Pilate said to them, ‘You have soldiers, go away and you secure it as you know how.’ So, they went and secured the tomb by sealing the stone with a guard of soldiers.”

(Matthew 27:62-66)

Matthew is the only Gospel writers that records the presence of soldiers used to seal and secure the tomb. Traditionally we think of these guards as a detail of Roman soldiers sent by Pilate, but the text is ambiguous. In fact, the tone of Pilate’s comment is decidedly one of irritation. These groveling priests got what they wanted in having Jesus killed, what more do they want? He tells them, “you have soldiers” as if to say, “use your own Temple guard — use your own men, you have already drug me too deeply into your political intrigue, I want nothing more to do with this matter — go away!”

Some would argue that one can infer the Roman nature of these soldiers from Matthews account of their report to the priests after the Resurrection. But notice that these soldiers report first to the Chief Priests, not to the Roman Centurion who would have been their commander. Further, the assurance that “if the news comes to the ears of the governor…” need not be a reference to Pilate or any Roman official. The term Matthew uses here is ἡγεμών (hegemon), which can refer to any official — Roman or Jewish, military or civilian — and could simply be a reference to their Temple heads. 

Perhaps the most important thing to note is the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders. During the daylight hours they had refused to enter Pilate’s palace due to fears of becoming ritually unclean, but now that darkness has fallen, even though it is now the Sabbath day, they enter into Pilate’s presence to gain a favor that will complete their conspiracy. Like snakes coming forth in the night, so too these Priests and Pharisees ply their forked tongues in the ear of Pilate. And while he permitted them some space earlier, at this stage he seems to be quite done with their pulling his strings.

And this account is all we have of the account of Jesus as he laid in the tomb on the Sabbath day — cold and silent — awaiting the great and triumphant resurrection on the first day of the week.

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