Did Pilate Send Troops to Guard the Tomb of Jesus?

Title: Did Pilate Send Troops to Guard the Tomb?
Text: Matthew 27:62-66
Time: April 6th, 2015

Last week I watched the new made-for-television movie “Killing Jesus,” based on the book by talk show host Bill O’Reilly and writer Martin Dugard of the same title. I have to say I wasn’t very impressed with the movie because it departed so often from the biblical account in depicting the life and times of Jesus Christ. But it did cause me to think more closely about a number of different things concerning the gospel accounts. For example, the movie emphasized the fact that when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples and the solders came with Judas to arrest him it was pitch dark outside. This explains why Peter was able to strike one of the soldiers and cut off his ear, all the while not being attacked and killed by the soldiers there. Before Jesus healed the man’s ear there must have been great confusion being that it was so dark outside. Now the movie “Killing Jesus” didn’t show Jesus healing the soldier who was struck by Peter’s sword, which is strange because that fact is in the Bible and you’d think that because it is in there (and working under the assumption it’s important to use all available information because so many details are left out) you’d use it in the movie scene. But they didn’t show it in the movie, which left the impression to the viewer that it didn’t even occur. That’s an example of how the movie while it brilliantly portrays some things, like the darkness of the night in the Garden, also leaves out basic and essential information. The movie did that constantly. But there is another scene that got me thinking that I’d like to spend more time on – it’s the part of the gospel account where Jesus was being crucified and the Jewish leaders come to Pilate to ask him for soldiers to guard the tomb where Jesus is laid in order to assure that no one moves the body. Evidently these religious leaders feared someone might try to steal the body and then claim he had arisen from the dead, thus creating even more trouble for them. The movie “Killing Jesus” shows Pilate refusing to send soldiers to guard the tomb. Is this depiction flat-out wrong? Everything I’d ever read, heard or seen about the death, burial and resurrection account always describes Pilate as sending Roman soldiers to place a seal on the tomb and guard it. So the “Killing Jesus” movie caused me to return again to the Bible account, in the Book of Matthew 27:32-36, in order to reread it. What I found is pretty much what I’d always believed, that is, that indeed Pilate sends Roman soldiers to seal and guard the tomb. But what I also learned is that there is a little ambiguity as to what the verse actually says, enough so that I could see how one could misread it to describe Pilate as not sending any soldiers. I’ll explain. So let’s go on a little investigation this morning to find out what really happened: did Pilate send troops to the tomb of Jesus or not? It’s always good to dig deeper into the Bible because the end result is being better informed about our faith. So let’s do that today.

First, ironically, the anti-Christian Jews took Jesus at his word concerning resurrection more than his Christian followers. Matthew 27:62-66, “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.” That was the NIV or New International Translation, a popular version among Christians. And it renders the verse pretty straight-forward, and there doesn’t seem to be any ambiguity in it. The key section being Matthew 27:65, which most New Testament translations render more or less, “Pilate said to them, “Take a guard. Go and make the tomb as secure as possible.” But the actual, literal original Greek of the New Testament shows two or three possible translations: one, “Pilate said to them, ‘Having a guard’ you make it as secure as you can,’ or ‘You have a guard,’ make it as secure as you can,’ and of course, the standard translation, ‘Have a guard and make it as secure as you can.’ Evidently the writers, directors and producers of the movie “Killing Jesus,” decided to buck tradition and go with an alternative rendering of the verse to show Pilate refusing to give any soldiers and leaving the Jewish leaders to use their own Temple guards to secure the tomb – that’s what we might think. But the movie doesn’t he show Temple guards at the tomb of Jesus; it just leaves the tomb unguarded, totally contrary to the Bible’s account. That’s why, again, I wasn’t very impressed with the “Killing Jesus” movie, although like I said before, there are scenes where it described things realistically. There were enough scenes that got things wrong, sometimes badly wrong, that I really can’t recommend it as a movie to see based on these and other reasons. But the question remains, which the movie brings out, “Did Pilate send solders to the tomb of Jesus or not?” I’m going to argue that he did indeed send soldiers, Roman soldiers, to the tomb, just as the traditional understanding teaches. It simply make the most sense. Alternative understandings make less sense, overall, than the straightforward traditional narrative. Let me explain why. But first let me note that whatever is the case, the passage shows the Jewish leaders taking the words of Jesus seriously about resurrection, while, as we know, the disciples themselves weren’t thinking of that at all. Another recent made-for-television showing called “A.D. The Bible Continues” shows the disciples talking about and waiting for the resurrection of Jesus during his entombment. I’m not sure that’s actually the case. I picture them as more doubting and discouraged than hopeful and full of faith. But that’s another topic and another message. What I’d like to do now is closely examine the alternative interpretation of Pilate’s words that the movie “Killing Jesus” depicts, and then lastly, explain why the traditional view is best.

Second, while it’s possible to argue for alternative interpretations, they’re pretty weak. Matthew 27:62-66, “The next day, which was a Sabbath, the chief priests and the Pharisees went together to Pilate. They said, ‘Sir, we remember what that liar said while he was still alive. He claimed that in three days he would come back from death. So please order the tomb to be carefully guarded fro three days. If you don’t, his disciples may come and steal his body. They will tell the people that he has been raised to life, and this last lie will be worse than the first one.’ Pilate said to them, ‘All right, take some of your soldiers and guard the tomb as well as you know how.’ So they sealed it tight and placed soldiers there to guard it,” (Contemporary English Version). I quote this less popular Bible translation as an example of those who believe Pilate is telling the Jewish leaders to guard the tomb themselves, thus not involving any Roman soldiers. There are other versions that describe Pilate as sending the Jews away to guard the tomb with their own guard. For example, the popular paraphrase “The Living Bible” puts it this way, “’Use your own Temple police,’ Pilate told them. ‘They can guard it safely enough.’” I could site other Bible versions and translations that describe Pilate as only giving the Jewish leaders permission to post their own soldiers, but not involving any Roman soldiers. Like I said before, this is not the traditional or mainstream understanding of the verse, but it is found in some people’s understanding of what the verse is saying. After all, the Greek simply says, literally, “Have a guard” or possibly, “You have a guard,” nothing more. It’s left to us to fill in the meaning of these few words. Now the Pharisees and the Temple establishment Jewish leaders did have a police force in order to keep order in the Temple. We can imagine these Temple guards being concerned when Jesus earlier turned over the tables and scattered the money in the Temple. No doubt they were called in on that day, but perhaps too late to take any action, since what Jesus did probably took place within a few second and he was gone. Yet the Jews had a small police force, but nothing compared to the Roman presence stationed there. Could the Temple guard have gone to the tomb, secured it, and guard it? Yes, no doubt they were capable of that. But would the Jews have needed Pilate’s permission to take their Temple guards to the tomb to secure and guard it? Probably they would have at least wanted to inform Pilate of their intentions, if not ask his permission outright before they did anything. So Temple guards could have been used to do the job, but I’d like to make the case that they weren’t used because Pilate sent his soldiers to do it.

Third, the best explanation is that Pilate sent Roman soldiers to guard the tomb of Jesus. Matthew 27:62-66, “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.” Now the NIV translation probably wants to describe Pilate as giving the Jews a guard of his Roman soldiers to secure the tomb of Jesus, at least that’s they way most people read it. This would then be literally translating from the Greek the words of Pilate, “Have a guard (I’m giving you this — picking out some men — a unit of Roman soldiers). Go, make the tomb as secure as possible.” Now the reason this makes the most sense is because later in the verse it talks about “they” made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting guard. Now we don’t know much about Jews sealing things, although they may well have had ways of sealing things. But we do know about the famous Roman seal that couldn’t be tempered with or removed under penalty of death. What good would it have been for the Jewish leaders to seal the tomb of Jesus with their own seal of some kind? Their seal didn’t carry much weight or authority. But what did carry much weight and much authority was an official Roman seal, which the soldiers would have had the authority to place on the tomb. Now the Jewish leaders could have been involved in seeing that the tomb was in fact sealed with a Roman seal, and also verified that there were Roman soldiers guarding the tomb. No doubt they would have wanted to do so for their own satisfaction. It makes much more sense, and it would have been a lot better for the Jewish leaders if Pilate had sent Romans soldiers, than if they had tried to do it all themselves. The plain fact is that the Romans would have been better at it than the Jews. And the penalty for tampering or removing the seal would have been a lot greater with Rome than with the Jews. So for many reasons, it makes more sense that the Jews would have asked for Roman soldiers to guard the tomb of Jesus rather than simply asking Pilate permission to have their own Temple police guard it.

Now apart from being strictly accurate, what difference does it make whether Jewish Temple guards sealed the tomb of Jesus or Roman soldiers? Well, in the sense of the resurrection, it doesn’t make that much difference. Jesus still rose from the dead whether there were Temple police guarding outside the tomb or Roman soldiers. But as far as what makes most sense, it seems that if Jews come to Pilate they would be asking for Roman soldiers and Roman expertise in guarding the tomb. It’s even questionable that if they were wanting to seal and guard the tomb themselves they would even go to Pilate at all. Out of courtesy they might have done so, but we don’t even know if that were necessary. Probably Pilate wouldn’t have objected to the Jews placing a few Temple guard around the tomb. As far as the Romans were concerned, they might not have even known where the body was taken, nor did they particularly care. Jesus was dead after all. As far as Rome was concerned, that was the end of it. So if all the Jewish leaders were doing was asking for Pilate’s permission to guard the tomb themselves, it seems unnecessary. Why involve Pilate any further? Just guard the tomb. No, it makes much better sense to see the Jewish leaders coming to Pilate and asking for help in sealing and guarding the tomb in order to avoid any foul-play that they felt the disciples might do. As an aside, little did they know that the disciples were in no mood for tampering with the body of Jesus. They were pretty discouraged themselves. Stealing the body was the last thing on their mind. This just shows how paranoid the Jewish leaders were, or how guilty their consciences must have been for condemning an innocent man – Judas had made that dramatic point. In their irrational and paranoid fear they called upon Pilate to professionally seal and guard the tomb and thereby remove any fear they had of the body of Jesus turning up gone. Little did they know that by their actions, the resurrection, the actual bodily rising from the dead of Jesus, would firmly be established. It couldn’t have been stolen; there were soldiers outside watching. It couldn’t even have been tampered with, because a seal had been attached to the entrance. Only through miraculous resurrection could Jesus have left that tomb. Thank you Jewish leaders and Pharisees. You guaranteed the credibility of the resurrection for ages to come and for millions and millions of believers. God got the last laugh.

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