Were there really guards set to watch the tomb of Jesus or was their existence invented as a cover-up?
We have looked at every major argument postulated against the empty tomb and we’ve already found them to be greatly lacking in their own right. But what if there had been guards sanctioned to watch the tomb all along? Could we deal one final blow to these arguments?
Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch. (Matthew 27:62-66)
The original argument (or more accurately accusation) used to explain away the empty tomb was that the disciples had stolen the body. Matthew’s audience was the closest in proximity to the circulation of the accusation, therefore there was a need to refute it. To accomplish that Matthew had to mention the guards at the tomb that would have halted any attempts of thievery. Critics doubt that this mention is authentic and they posit two reasons for their claim.
- Matthew is the only one to mention the guards
- It’s obvious he invented it because he had a motive and reason to
Is this enough to doubt the existence of the guards? I don’t think so. Although both of these are most definitely true, even if they mean what critics think they do, it could still be the case that the account is true. We could be rightfully skeptical, but these present no real evidence against its validity. However, critics have the wrong mindset when they see these two points. They leap to the assumption that the first point means it isn’t historically reliable without asking the next obvious question: “Why didn’t the others mention them?”
Critics might not have an answer to that, but we do. The immediate answer is that only Matthew had the apologetic need to mention them, however, there is a greater reason for their exclusion in the other accounts: the existence of the guards was shameful. This relies on our foundation on Jesus’ burial being a shameful one as opposed to an honourable one (see link 1 below). As Byron McCane notes,
“Rites of mourning were not observed for these criminals, either. Family members were supposed to keep their grieving to themselves….dishonourable burial meant two things: burial away from the family tomb, and burial without rites of mourning.”
This gives us a much clearer picture. One aspect of the guards may have been to prevent theft but historically and functionally it is likely that guards would have been placed there to prevent rites of mourning. In today’s time, it would be like the police preventing the funeral of a convicted criminal. If you were to record a history of the criminal to honour him because you knew he was innocent, mentioning the police guarding his grave would be drawing even more attention to the shameful penalty the criminal endured in the public eye.
This is exactly what Matthew did in order to counter the accusations. Even today one could potentially get by without mentioning the shame of the burial. Not the authors of the Gospels. They could have lied, made up a story that Jesus was buried honourably in His family’s tomb. But they didn’t, which helps us fill in the outline of who the authors were and, perhaps even more importantly, who their enemies were. They were people who cared about historical truth. If Matthew had lied about the tomb and the burial Christ’s enemies would have been the first to say “You liar! He was buried shamefully in a stranger’s tomb! He was a disgraced man, not the honourable saviour you claim he is!”. If Matthew had invented the guards we would have to say he, too, was an enemy of Christ! Honour and shame were akin to life and death to the ancients.
The presence of the guards at the tomb would have been a shameful thing to have to admit. The other authors would have wanted to minimize the shame as much as possible. Yet even then, the evidence of the shame of the crucifixion/burial could not be hidden. This is more of an answer than critics can give us.
Critics also assume the worst for point 2. They conclude that someone with bias or a motive cannot be trusted to provide accurate information. This can go both ways. Wouldn’t it be just as right to be skeptical of the Jewish authorities? We can claim that they made up the accusations of theft because they too had a bias and motive: to destroy the Christian movement. What are we to say of critics who propose the same, or the temporary tomb theory, or the decomposition theory? Do they also not carry a motive to prove Christianity false and Jesus dead? If motive or bias can be a useful argument here, then it must be useful everywhere, including towards the critic’s own offence.
Outside of the two major objections offered above, there are a couple of specifics critics may offer in return that deserve an answer.
Wasn’t the tomb left unguarded for a day before Pilate’s guards were sanctioned there (Matthew 27:62)?
This objection makes the assumption that no one would have been suspicious of the disciples until this point of time. We don’t have any real reason to conclude this. Wouldn’t it be more likely that the priests already had someone watching the tomb for that day to report of anything suspicious, even if it wasn’t an armed Roman soldier? Given the vast amount of temple functionaries available at the time, this is far more likely than not.
Moreover, we can look to the discovery of the empty tomb itself.
Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. (Luke 24:1-2 bold mine)
This gives the critic a strange scenario to work with since the stone at the tomb had been rolled away when the women approached it. A temple functionary had to come and initially roll the one-ton stone over the tomb entrance, sealing it shut. During the brief window of time without the guards (where it supposedly wasn’t checked at all and everyone left it be), thieves would have had to roll the stone out, retrieve the body, and then roll it back in place to hide their theft (if the critic proposes they left it open….why? Why take such an unnecessary risk when they can just roll it back? Unless they were in a hurry, in which case, why wouldn’t they just go to an easier tomb?). Then the guards would have had to roll it out again, for some strange reason, which then fooled the disciples into thinking He rose. Where do critics hope to go with this, exactly?
Moreover, the theft hypothesis has its own hurdles to jump over, which this doesn’t even begin to address.
What about the women who went to the tomb? If the guards had been there the women wouldn’t have gone.
Even if there were guards preventing rites of mourning, could the women not decide to go anyway as a means of honouring their Lord, even if they knew they would be turned away? They didn’t abandon Jesus at His death, they still believed He was Lord in spite of it, and their devotion led them to discover the empty tomb first (much to the humiliation of the disciples!).
They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. (John 20:2 bold mine)
As to why the guards didn’t oppose them the answer is simple: they weren’t there. There was an angel who had kicked the one-ton stone away. That would have terrified anyone.
This brings our rather lengthy look at the empty tomb to a close. When all is said and done, history is on our side. Critics may forever postulate speculations and theories, but in the face of the historical data, they have no explanatory or argumentive power. What we have aimed to accomplish here is to include the empty tomb in the Minimal Facts approach, tightening our case even further.
Link 1 on the shame of the burial
Link 2 on the stolen body hypothesis