Matthew records that on the day after Preparation Day, which was the day on which Jesus was crucified and buried, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate to ask to be allowed to set a guard to secure the tomb and prevent the body of Jesus from being stolen by his disciples. It is the most puzzling story in the book of Matthew and the target of critics who say the whole story is a lie.
There is one part of the story on which that all parties agree: There was a report that the disciples had stolen the body, and that report had spread among the Jews and was current at the time Matthew wrote the Gospel. If that had not been true Matthew’s Gospel would have been immediately discredited among Matthew’s Jewish readers. They would have known of any explanation of the resurrection put forth by the Jewish religious leaders. And they would have known if there was no such explanation. For Matthew to have lied about that would make no sense.
But the factuality of other parts of the story is not so easily determined. The first puzzle is that the priests and Pharisees knew about Jesus’ prophecy that he would rise in three days. The argument is that even the disciples did not understand Jesus to say that he would rise from the dead in three days. They certainly did not act like they did. They were not at the tomb on the third day awaiting the resurrection. Even the women who were there at the tomb were there to anoint the dead body. They were not expecting a resurrection. If the disciples did not understand Jesus would rise from the dead, how was it the Pharisees knew about the prediction?
The answer is probably in the difference between believing that Jesus would rise from the dead and knowing that he had predicted his resurrection. It seems clear from the gospel stories that the disciples did not fully come to grips with the idea that Jesus would die much less rise from the dead. He had told them, of course. That too is clear in the gospels, but knowing and believing are different things.
For that reason when Jesus was arrested and crucified the trauma for the disciples was incredible. Their world had come to an end. Their belief in Jesus as the Messiah was shattered. They ran and hid.
The priests and Pharisees, of course, did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. As far as they were concerned, he was a man and nothing more. They did not believe he would rise from the grave. The guards, even in this story, were not at the tomb to prevent his resurrection; they were there to keep the disciples from taking his body and claiming he had risen. But did they know that he had made that prediction? It is possible.
Jesus and his disciples were not isolated from the crowds. In fact, they were constantly surrounded by crowds of the curious. And the Pharisees and others of the religious leaders were among them. Both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who had gone to Pilate to get permission to bury Jesus and who were secret disciples, were part of the council of elders. All these men talked. What Jesus had been saying was common knowledge among the priests and Pharisees. In one interaction with the Pharisees Jesus had spoken to them about the final miraculous sign he would perform. It was the sign of Jonah, who had been swallowed by a fish and come back after three days when the fish spewed him out on the beach. The Pharisees were not totally clueless. They could easily have put that prediction together with other clues and rumors to figure out that it was a prediction of a resurrection.
The priests, of course, did not believe Jesus would rise from the dead, but they were aware that he had spoken of rising. And they understood that if a rumor were to get started that he had risen from the dead, the end as they said would have been just as bad. It is plausible that they would think it wise to take precautions.
The second puzzle is that Pilate would get involved. The common story is that Pilate had nothing but contempt for these Jewish leaders. Why would he agree to their request? The answer is that this simple description is not the entire truth. In a recent book by historian Charles Freeman, A New History of Early Christianity, Freeman describes the relationship between Pilate and the Jews as strained. Pilate lived not in Jerusalem but in Caesarea miles away and isolated from the world of Jerusalem. He traveled to Jerusalem only occasionally, one of those visits was at the annual festival of Passover. But his stay was brief. He did not like the Jews. His only concern was to keep the Jerusalem scene peaceful during a time when it would have been packed with visitors there to celebrate Passover. When that was over he would return to Caesarea.
That is probably why Pilate was willing to concede to the demand that Jesus be executed. The Jews threatened to tell Caesar that Jesus was a rebel and aspired to be a king. That would have made executing Jesus imperative, despite Pilate’s resistance to anything the Jews wanted, despite Pilate’s own conviction that the charges were trumped up out of jealousy and had no substance. He could not afford for Caesar to hear that he had not acted summarily to any such threat to the peace of Judea. It was also why Pilate just wanted this all to go away. The best way was to humor these crazy Jews – for the time being. He would find opportunity in time to flex his muscle as the Roman governor as he had done before. But this was not the time.
It is plausible under those circumstances that Pilate would humor them one more time. It was crazy to put a guard on a tomb. But this whole place was crazy.
The third puzzle was how Matthew got the story – if he didn’t just make it up. How did he know that the priests and Pharisees had gone to Pilate to secure a guard for the tomb? How did he know about the report those guards brought back of the empty tomb? The answer was that Matthew himself had connections with the Jewish religious elite. He was a Levite and probably grew up among the people who were now part of the inner circle of the priests.
But even if Matthew didn’t have a hotline to the inner circle, there were others. Many of the priests became followers of Jesus in the months after the resurrection. They would have known what the priests had done. And that does not even account for the loose lips of the soldiers. Soldiers talk.
A final puzzle is how the priests were able to bribe the guards into telling the story that they had fallen asleep and that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus. If these were Roman soldiers, falling asleep on guard duty would have been a capital offense. And allowing a rag tag bunch of disciples to steal the body without having stood their ground to the last man would have had similar consequences. It seems unlikely that Roman soldiers would have agreed to the priests’ fabricated story. But the actual story that they brought to the priests about a violent earthquake and an angel who had rolled away the stone while the guards had become so frightened that they fell prostrate on the ground would have been no easier to tell. And it would be reasonable to expect that Roman soldiers would have to give a report to their superiors. No report that they could give, not to speak of the one the priests fabricated, would have satisfied a Roman superior. It would have meant serious trouble for them. In a similar story of a guard who failed in his duty – Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi – the guard was prepared to kill himself rather than face the consequences.
However, if these were temple guards from the priests, the situation would have been different. They would not have had to report to a military superior; the priests were their superiors. They would have had every reason agree with the priests’ plan, money or no money. The money was simply added security. They would have had little expectation that Pilate would learn of the affair. Even the reply of the priests phrased as it was in a second class conditional clause – “if it comes to the hearing of Pilate” - suggests that it would be unlikely. Pilate was not going to be in Jerusalem long. Perhaps he had already gone back to Caesarea , and he had little interest in temple intrigue anyway.
And their story about the disciples stealing the body would not be questioned. It was the official story. It was, of course, a patently implausible story. The disciples had no motive for stealing the body. The only possible motive for taking the body from the tomb was that some from Jesus’ family might have wanted to rebury Jesus’ body in a more appropriate tomb, though where that might have been is a question. They were many miles from their homes in Galilee. Burying Jesus there would have been impossible. But that they would have been able to retrieve Jesus’ body with guards present in any event is not plausible.
Not only is it implausible that they would have retrieved the body, but it is even more implausible that they would have then ended up as central figures in the early Jerusalem church which was founded wholly upon the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. And that is what happened.
There is one remaining puzzle. Why did the priests have to get Pilate’s permission to set a guard? Could they not have simply put some of their men around the tomb? They sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus without any permission from Pilate. The answer is likely that once Pilate and Rome got involved, the whole affair became a Roman issue. They owned it. Joseph had to get Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus.
What priests got, however, was not a Roman guard but Pilate’s agreement that they set a guard. Literally, Pilate said, “You have custodians (guards). Go and make it as secure as you can.” The guard was not a Roman guard.
The bottom line is that the story as it is found in the Gospel of Matthew is more plausibly true than any alternative explanation.