The sepulcher guards.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 May
Matthew 27.62-66 KWL
62 In the morning,
which is [the Saturday] after preparation,
the head priests and Pharisees
assembled with Pontius Pilate,
63 saying, “Master, we remember this imposter said while alive,
‘After three days I rise.’
64 So command the sepulcher to be secured for three days,
lest his coming students might steal him,
might tell the people, ‘He’s risen from the dead!’
and the last imposture will be worse than the first.”
65 Pilate tells them, “You have a guard.
Go secure it as best you know.”
66 Those who go, secure the sepulcher,
sealing the stone with the guards.
Matthew 28.2-4 KWL
2 Look, a great quake happens,
for the Lord’s angel, which comes down from heaven,
upon coming, rolls away the stone
and is sitting down upon it.
3 Its appearance is bright as lightning,
and its clothing white as snow.
4 The sepulcher guards shake in terror of it,
and become like the dead.
Matthew 28.11-15 KWL
11 As the women leave, look:
Some of the guards, coming into the city,
report to the head priests everything that happened.
12 Getting together for a meeting with the elders,
taking enough silver to give the soldiers,
13 the priests were saying, “Say this:
‘His students, coming at night, stole him as we slept.’
14 And when this is heard by the governor,
we’ll convince him, and you needn’t worry.”
15 Those who took the silver, did as the priests taught,
and spread this word throughout the Judeans
until this very day.

There’s some debate among Christians as to who these soldiers are. Did Pontius Pilate send his own soldiers to secure the sepulcher? Or were these Senate police?—the same guys who secured the temple for the priests; the same guys who arrested Jesus; the same guys who handled Senate security? When Pontius said, “You have a guard,” did he mean “You can have my guards,” or “You already have guards, and don’t need any of my guys”?

I lean towards temple guards. Here’s why.

How a Roman pagan would interpret these events.

If these guards were Roman soldiers, and the seal they put on the sepulcher was a Roman seal, they’d get the death penalty for failing in their duty. Romans didn’t play around: Derelict soldiers got beheaded. Or, if they joined the Roman army to get citizenship and didn’t yet have it, they got crucified. Tends to motivate a soldier to defend such things with their life.

While on guard, an angel showed up, bright as lightning. And here’s the interesting thing about ancient Greco-Roman pagans: They wouldn’t have known this was an angel. These pagans didn’t have angels in their mythology. If messenger spirits appeared to them, which claimed to be agents of the gods, or claimed to speak for the gods… well, Romans simply considered them other gods. Like Hermes or Eos. Their myths and local customs had thousands of lesser, local gods. So that’s the conclusion a Roman pagan would immediately leap to: A god showed up. They’d have a few guesses as to which one, but you get the idea.

Now if a god had descended from Olympus, snapped the seal, and opened the sepulcher… well that’s a legitimate excuse for not doing their job! Who among them would be stupid enough to try and stop a god from doing as it pleased? Roman mythology is full of stories where humans dared stand up to the gods, and got killed for their hubris. Or the gods might curse ’em and turn them into weird freakish creatures. Or stones. Or wood. Well, these soldiers didn’t wanna become gorgons, or trees, or whatever else they might imagine; and even if the god was merciful, it was still profoundly bad karma to even try to intervene. Worst case, the god might go overboard in its curses, and blighted the entire Roman legion. Or even the Roman Empire. Letting the god have its way was averting disaster, as far as they were concerned.

The hard part would be convincing their prefect an honest-to-Zeus god showed up. Not every Roman was superstitious, and probably Pontius was, but we don’t know how superstitious. (His wife thought he could be swayed by her scary dreams, Mt 27.19 but apparently not.) Just like Americans, some Romans believed in absolutely everything, and others believed in absolutely nothing. But since there was no separation of temple and state back then, prefects couldn’t possibly say a god hadn’t shown up. Their skepticism might get ’em in trouble with their own superiors.

Okay. So the story of a heavenly being opening the sepulcher and breaking the seal? This would be a Roman soldier’s best bet for survival.

Wanna know what wouldn’t be? The priests’ concocted story. “Hey, instead of telling people what you actually saw, why don’t you tell everybody a bunch of teenagers snuck past you while you took a nap? And if the governor wants to behead you over it, we’ll talk him out of it. Here, have a bag of silver.”

Nope nope nope. I mean, a bag of silver would’ve been a good motivator, but that’s your head at stake. If any word whatsoever got back to the prefect his soldiers were sleeping on the job, they were dead. The priests might talk him out of beheading them temporarily, but first chance he got, Pontius would behead ’em anyway. Because a soldier that couldn’t be trusted to do their duty was a serious liability. How could they trust these guys to defend their fellow soldiers? Or their prefect? Or Rome?

This is why I’m very sure these soldiers weren’t Roman. Matthew’s story doesn’t work if they’re Roman. They had to be Judean.

But of course all the art and movies love to put soldiers round Jesus’s sepulcher wearing Roman armor. ’Cause Roman soldiers look like soldiers; Judean temple police don’t. Plus artists and filmmakers love the idea of one solitary shiny angel knocking out the superpower of the day. So most folks assume these guards were Roman… even though it doesn’t historically work.

Yep, these were Judean guards. Who knew what angels were. Who would naturally report to the priests first, whereas Romans would report to their centurion. Who didn’t have to fear Pontius crucifying them, since they didn’t answer to him… well, no more than any other Judean under Roman occupation. Who’d be perfectly happy to take the silver and spread the lie.

How a Sadducee would interpret these events.

Oh, we still have some monkeywrenches to deal with. Remember how I said Romans didn’t know about angels? Priests did. Thing is, the head priests in Jesus’s day belonged to the sect of the Sadducees. And this was the sect that didn’t believe in angels.

Doesn’t matter that angels were in their bibles—yep, even Sadducee bibles, which only had the first five books. Like skeptical Jews today, who don’t believe in miracles yet accept that God saved Israel from Egyptian slavery—somehow—the Sadducees were willing to accept and abide by all the commands in the books of Moses, but not willing to believe angels appeared to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. They had limits to their beliefs. Angels surpassed those limits.

So they wouldn’t have believed the guards’ story at all. Nope, not even if the guards swore up and down and sideways they did so see an angel. If you don’t believe in little gray space aliens, and your next-door neighbor swears they were totally abducted and probed by little gray space aliens, you’re not suddenly gonna become a believer; you’ll only believe your neighbors are nuts. Same with Sadducees and angel sightings.

I don’t know whether they thought the guards were lying, hallucinating, or saw something which they misinterpreted as an angel. I suspect it was that last thing: They thought it was a complicated ruse, pulled off by Jesus’s followers. Dress a man in the whitest clothes you can find, make him somehow glow, frighten the guards into fainting as if they were Victorian women whose corsets were too tight, snap the seal, and swipe the body. More than likely the priests’ “made-up story” is exactly what they imagined was the truth… minus certain details.

And how clever of them to see through the Jesus-followers’ scam! And how clever of them to snuff it out immediately; to bribe these easily-fooled guards into spreading what they thought was the real story, that Jesus’s students stole the body. All it took was silver.

Matthew isn’t wrong in saying the priests’ false story continues to this very day. It did when he wrote his gospel; it still does. Plenty of skeptics are willing to concede Jesus the Nazarene is a real-life historical figure. But not that he rose from the dead. Among their many theories of “what really happened” is of course the idea somebody stole the body.

The other Easter stories tend to poke holes in the priests’ alt-narrative. Because Jesus was seen alive. By hundreds over the next 40 days; by tons of Christians in the centuries since. Those who saw him (with maybe the exceptions of Luke and the author of Hebrews—but then again maybe not!) wrote the New Testament. Our primary sources of Jesus’s life and teachings come from people who saw him risen from the dead.