When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it is here we find a focus of critique and skepticism. Yes, there is also critique regarding other aspects of Jesus’ life, primarily wherever there are miraculous events, like the virgin birth, walking on water or healing a man born blind. But, because the death, burial and resurrection are the foundational historical events for Christianity, without which there is no Christianity, they draw the heaviest fire.
We now arrive at one of those as we deal with the record of the guard at the tomb. Let’s look briefly at the critique before we move on. To do so we will need to examine the historical record left for us by Matthew where the story of the guards begins:
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore, order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So, they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. Matthew 27:62-66
Moving now to the morning of the resurrection, the guards are referenced again:
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Matthew 28:1-6
And, finally, the end of the guard’s story:
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So, they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. Matthew 28:11-15
Here is the sum total of what we know about the guards at the tomb. And it is because of this that we find the first of the two key arguments launched against the story of the guards: it sits alone in Matthew and is not found in the other gospels. The argument is that surely this key element would have been mentioned in the other accounts and because it is not, it must be legendary rather than historically true.
First, historical truth is not determined by the number of sources. Certainly, the more sources, the more the historian is pleased. But it doesn’t give carte blanche reason to throw it out. By my count, there are around 100 things that are mentioned in only one of the Gospels. For example, Jesus washing the disciple’s feet at the last supper is only found in John. Are we to therefore conclude it didn’t happen? John ends his gospel stating this:
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. John 21:25
If this is true, then how are we to demand that gospels of a mere forty pages in length, give or take, should all select the same small percentage of events?
And, importantly, each gospel is written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for a particular audience, using selective events for that purpose. Who is to determine what “key” events are needed to support that purpose other than the Author? Who are we to determine an event to be “key” and demand that it be found in other gospels as well? It appears that it is only Matthew who was interested in answering the charge that the disciples stole the body from the tomb. He then moves directly to the “Great Commission” (only in Matthew) and then ends. The others treat the empty tomb as obvious fact and move on, some to emphasize more of Jesus being alive and interacting with people after His resurrection.
Those who do not believe in the inspiration of Scripture, however, try to use the fact that something only appears in one gospel as evidence that it didn’t happen. But when one puts together the entirety of the gospels and the rest of the Scripture, and those things that appear only once are substantiated by the weight of the others, it supports the plausibility of that one event. So, in light of the other three gospels, John’s record that Jesus washed their feet on that night seems quite plausible, even to the skeptical historian.
The second key criticism of the guard account centers on the notion that the chief priests and the Pharisees understood that Jesus had predicted his resurrection on the third day after His death, but the disciples didn’t. And the gospels don’t record the Jewish leaders hearing that prediction, whereas the disciples did. This would seem backwards.
Let’s examine this. Jesus clearly predicted His death and resurrection. Here is one:
"The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again" Mark 8:31 (See also Luke 9:22)
Clearly, Jesus openly taught this and it isn’t unreasonable that the Jewish leaders would have gotten knowledge of it, even if they didn't hear it directly. (Though they might have and it was simply not recorded for us.) They were almost obsessed with knowing what Jesus was teaching and doing... not for good, but for evil. It is also very important here to keep in mind that the Pharisees weren’t emotionally involved with Jesus and the disciples were. It would be easy for the disciples to hear Jesus say all of this, but then rationalize it away or suppress it. In fact, that is what we see in the next verse after Jesus clearly states He will be killed and rise in three days (above). Peter immediately takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him. We see the exact same thing later in Mark 9:9-10. The Pharisees, however, had no such emotional attachment. Rather, they hung on His every word, not for its spiritual truth, but to find ways to get rid of Him. So, it is more than reasonable that the Pharisees knew of Jesus’ prediction and the disciples had suppressed it or rationalized it into some fuzzy eschatological future.
So, it seems to me that the two key critiques are easily handled and the record of the guards remains quite plausible. But it is Matthew’s reference to a then current controversy that adds great substantiation to all of this. At the end of our text, Matthew states that the story of the disciples stealing the body while the guards slept “has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Matthew could not write this if it were not true. Remember, He was writing primarily to Jews, and the Jews could readily deny this assertion if it were false. Therefore, that rumor must have been currently circulating among the Jews and the rumor rests squarely upon the fact that there was a guard posted at the tomb.
Now, there is a proper disagreement over this account and it has to do with whether the guards were Roman soldiers or the Temple Guard. Let’s look at this:
So, we can’t be absolutely sure. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The Temple Guard were professionals as well, armed and trained. I’m not sure that anyone would want to bet on who would win if you pitted a Roman guard against a Temple guard. (Think of David's mighty men, like Benaiah, who slew a lion in a pit on a snowy day) The point here is that there was an armed, professional unit assigned to guard the tomb of Jesus.
Now, try to imagine what this would have been like for these men. If they were Roman guards, they each had a designated, small area of ground to defend and they were stationed in a line to defend their charge. They remained diligent in position until relieved by a fresh guard. The morning was about to break, all was calm and then the earth begins to roll beneath their feet. Matthew calls it a “severe earthquake”. This in itself is disarming to anyone. But as the ground begins to return to normal, they see an angel descending whose appearance “was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow”. Encounters of finite man and angelic beings almost always result in the finite on their knees in fear. Which the guards did and “became as dead men”… in other words, frozen with fear. Not unconscious, though, for they reported it all.
The guards obviously knew something big had happened.
We now come to our final question. Did they know that Jesus had risen from the dead? Here we must speculate a little, but not much, because when they reported everything to the Jewish leaders, that report had to include that the tomb was empty. Otherwise, there would have been no bribery for them to lie that the disciples had stolen the body.
Here is the speculation, however. The guard had been ordered to secure the tomb because of the prediction that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day. They were charged to make sure the disciples did not come and steal the body. I believe they must have been counting off the days. When the morning of the third day was about to break, my guess is there had to be some anxiety. It is not impossible that what had happened during the crucifixion had already spread through the ranks. When Jesus was crucified and the sky grew dark for three hours and the earth quaked and the Roman centurion declared, “Truly this man was the Son of God”, this had to be in their minds. In fact, it is also plausible, that the Roman soldiers that were assigned to arrest Jesus were still on assignment at the cross and they saw all of this and they were now guarding His tomb. And, for three days, they were pondering all that they had seen and heard about Him. And now the earth begins to shake again, fiercely. No man can remain fearless when the earth beneath him turns liquid. But, on top of that, the heart-stopping lightning of an angel appears. Did they overhear the angels speaking to the women? Did they examine the tomb after the angel left? That would certainly seem reasonable. Either way, the guards had to have known the tomb was empty. And, when they were able to flee, they had to have known that they had witnessed something beyond extraordinary.
In reality, these men had been privileged to be present at the greatest historical event in the history of man. I’ve often wondered if some of the guards became early converts. That wouldn’t surprise me.
Because they knew.
(If you are interested in reading more of a detailed apologetic regarding the guard, William Lane Craig has done a masterful job of defending this to the literary critics and I would commend you to that if you desire: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/scholarly-writings/historical-jesus/the-guard-at-the-tomb/)