b. The Burial
Matt 27:57-60 “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.”
We know more about Jesus’ burial than any other celebrity of Ancient times. Specific details are being given in all four gospels and there is no doubt for the first century inhabitants of Jerusalem where the tomb of Jesus was located. The tomb belonged to the renown and rich Joseph of Arimathea and was located not far away from where Jesus had been executed (see John 19:41). As we have seen earlier the disciples didn’t expect Jesus’ resurrection, although Jesus clearly announced it to them. They would have made sure that his burial place would not have been left unnoticed. An empty tomb would have easily been disproved by the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
“During Jesus’ time there was an extraordinary interest in the graves of Jewish martyrs and holy men, and these were scrupulously cared for and honored. This suggests that the grave of Jesus would also have been noted. The disciples had no inkling of any resurrection prior to the general resurrection at the end of the world, and they would therefore not have allowed the burial site of the Teacher to go unnoted. This interest also makes plausible the women’s lingering to watch the burial and their subsequent intention to anoint Jesus’ body with spices and perfumes (Luke 23:55, 56).”
Craig, William Lane, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995 as quoted in Wilkins, Michael, and J.P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995 p. 148-149.
“If the burial story is basically reliable, then the inference that Jesus’ tomb was found empty lies close at hand. For if the burial story is fundamentally accurate, the site of Jesus’ tomb would have been known to Jew and Christian alike. But in that case, it would have been impossible for the resurrection faith to survive in the face of a tomb containing the corpse of Jesus. The disciples could not have believed in Jesus’ resurrection; even if they had, scarcely anyone else would have believed them as they preached Jesus’ resurrection; and their Jewish opponents could have exposed the whole affair, perhaps even by displaying the body, as the medieval Jewish polemic portrays them doing (Toledot Yeshu)… No one can affirm the historicity of the burial story and plausibly deny the historicity of the empty tomb.”
Craig, William Lane, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995 as quoted in Wilkins, Michael, and J.P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995 p. 146-147..
John 19:39-40 “He (Joseph of Arimathea) was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.”
We have already seen that “The remarkable circumstance of wrapping up the dead body in spices, by Joseph and Nicodemus, according to the manner of the Jews in burying, is full proof that Jesus was dead, and known to be dead. Had there indeed been any remains of life in him, when taken down from the cross, the pungent nature of the myrrh and aloes, their strong smell, their bitterness, their being wrapped round His body in linens with a roller, and over His head and face with a napkin, as was the custom of the Jews to bury, must have entirely extinguished them. “
Chandler, Samuel. Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. London: n.p., 1744, p. 62-63.
Moreover myrrh was a spice that adheres so closely to the body, that grave clothes would have been removed with great difficulty. This is confirmed as well in the story of Lazarus’ resurrection.
John 11:44 “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Note that Lazarus’ grave clothes had to be removed from him! He couldn’t have done it by himself.
c. The Stone and its seal
Matt 27:59-60 “Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.”
The big stone, weighing more than a ton, required generally several men to remove it. This is why when Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome went to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath, they were preoccupied with who would help them roll the stone away, as they wanted to anoint Jesus’ body. They couldn’t have done it by themselves! It was way too heavy!
Mark 16:1-3 “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
The noise from rolling the stone away would have been tremendous as well.
Matt 27:65-66 “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.”
The seal affixed on the stone by the Romans was meant as a prevention of any attempt of stealing Jesus’ body. Anyone attempting to move the stone would have broken the seal and would have incurred the death penalty under Roman law. No one would ever dare this! The penalty was too hefty!
d. The Guards
i. The request to Pilate
Matt 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.”
Referring to this text, Albert Roper observes the following:
“Led by Annas and Caiaphas, their chief priests, a deputation of Jewish leaders sought out Pilate, to request that the tomb wherein Jesus was buried be sealed and that a Roman guard be stationed around it, giving as their motive their fear that the friends of Jesus might come stealthily by night and steal His body in order to make it appear that a resurrection had taken place. To this request the acquiescent Pilate responded: “Ye shall have a guard; go your way; make it secure according to your wish:” They went their way, attended by a guard of Roman soldiers numbering from ten to thirty who, under their direction, sealed the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea with the Imperial Seals of Rome, affixing thereto in wax the official stamp of the procurator himself which it would be a high crime even to deface. Thus did these zealous enemies of Jesus unwittingly prepare in advance an unanswerable challenge to their subsequent explanation of the resurrection-an explanation which did not, and could not, in the very nature of things explain (it)…
Commanding the guard was a centurion designated by Pilate, presumably one in which he had full confidence, whose name according to tradition was Petronius. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that these representatives of the Emperor could have been trusted to perform their duty to guard a tomb quite as strictly and as faithfully as they had executed a crucifixion. They had not the slightest interest in the task to which they were assigned. Their sole purpose and obligation was rigidly to perform their duty as soldiers of the empire of Rome to which they had dedicated their allegiance. The Roman seal affixed to the stone before Joseph’s tomb was far more sacred to them than all the philosophy of Israel or the sanctity of her ancient creed. Soldiers cold-blooded enough to gamble over a dying victim’s cloak are not the kind of men to be hoodwinked by timid Galileans or to jeopardize their Roman necks by sleeping on their post.”
Roper, Albert. Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965, p. 23-24, 33.
When the Roman guards arrived at Jesus’ tomb, they sealed it. This means the tomb was still closed and left unperturbed. How could one explain an empty tomb with soldiers guarding it?
ii. Could the guards have been Jewish?
Some pretend that the guards were not Romans, but were the Jewish temple guards instead. However why would the Jews go see Pilate, the Roman governor to ask for guards, if they were going to use their own? Also only a Roman delegate could seal a tomb under Rome’s authority.
It is true that in Matt 28:11 the guards report directly to the chief priests and not to Pilate. Let us look why:
Matt 28:11-15 “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”
Why would temple guards be in trouble by Pilate, the Roman governor? He wouldn’t care what happened at Jesus’ tomb with people who were not under his authority. The chief priests however assured protection to the guards if they would spread a lie.
iii. Punishment for sleeping on the post
Anyway, even if it were Jewish temple guards, the consequences of sleeping on the job weren’t pleasant either!
The Mishnah described what would happen if a temple guard was found sleeping:
“The officer of the Temple Mount used to go round to every watch with lighted torches before him, and if any watch did not stand up and say to him, “O officer of the Temple Mount, peace be to thee!” and it was manifest that he was asleep, he would beat him with his staff, and he had the right to burn his raiment. And they would say, “What is the noise in the Temple Court?” “The noise of some Levite that is being beaten and having his raiment burnt because he went to sleep during his watch:” R. Eliezer b. Jacob said: “They once found my mother’s brother asleep and burnt his raiment:”
The Mishnah, Middoth, 1.2
Hence the warning in the book of Revelation 16:15 “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.” NKJV
The punishment for sleeping or quitting post by a Roman soldier was even more severe. Polybius (VI. 37, 38) (200-118 BC) describes one of the possible punishments in 200 BC as follows:
“The tribune, taking a stick into his hand, gently touches the criminal; and immediately afterwards all the soldiers of the legion attack him with sticks and stones; so that the greatest part of those that are thus condemned are destroyed immediately in the camp.”
This is confirmed also by Hal Dion “The punishment for quitting post was death, according to the laws”
Dion, Hal, Antiq. Rom.VIII, p. 79
These consequences produced a faultless attention to the duty of these soldiers!
iv. Consistence of a Roman guard
Now a Roman guard consisted of four soldiers. Polybius, described it this way: “This guard consists of four soldiers.”
Polybius, VI, 33
Each soldier took turns keeping the watch, while the others relaxed or rested beside him. They would be roused by the least alarm.
Never had a “criminal” so much attention after being executed!
The fact is that although all these precautions were taken, Jesus’ tomb was found empty the next day!
v. Could the disciples have stolen Jesus’ body?
a. Where would the disciples find courage to steal Jesus’ body? They all fled when he was arrested. They feared to be arrested as well and/or to be tortured for being Jesus’ disciples!
Matt 26:56 “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.”
Mark 14:50 “Then everyone deserted him and fled.”
What about Peter? Didn’t he go to the courtyard to see the outcome of Jesus’ arrest?
Sure he did. But he was far from being courageous. When recognized to be one of Jesus’ followers he denied it three times and eventually ran away, weeping bitterly!
Matt 26:69-75 “Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.”
Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
Weren’t the disciples bolder after Jesus Crucifixion?
No, they weren’t. Even after that first Sunday when Jesus was resurrected, they had locked themselves behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews”.
John 20:19 “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews.”
Where would cowards like these find the courage to face Roman soldiers, break the Roman seal, roll the heavy stone from Jesus’ tomb entrance, unwrap Jesus’ from his grave clothes and steal Jesus’ body? The consequences of doing so were too heavy, much heavier than standing by Jesus’ side when arrested.
“If Jesus, who had been laid in the tomb on Friday, was not there on Sunday, either He was removed or He came forth by His own power. There is no other alternative. Was He removed? By whom? By friends or by enemies? The latter had set a squad of soldiers to guard Him, therefore they had no intention of causing Him to disappear. Moreover, their prudence could not counsel this. This would have made the way too easy for stories of the resurrection which the disciples might invent. The wisest course was for them to guard Him as a proof. Thus they could reply to every pretension that might arise: “Here is the corpse, He is not risen.”
Le Lamus, E. The Life of Christ. Vol. III. New York: The Cathedral Library Association, 1908, p. 482.
As for His friends, they had neither the intention nor the power to remove Him.”
“It is probable they would not, and it is next to certain they [the disciples] could not [rob Jesus’ grave].
How could they have undertaken to remove the body? Frail and timorous creatures, who fled as soon as they saw Him taken into custody; even Peter, the most courageous, trembled at the voice of a servant girl, and three times denied that he knew Him. People of this character, would they have dared to resist the authority of the governor? Would they have undertaken to oppose the determination of the Sanhedrin, to force a guard, and to elude or overcome soldiers armed and aware of danger? If Jesus Christ were not risen again (I speak the language of unbelievers), He had deceived His disciples with vain hopes of His resurrection. How came the disciples not to discover the imposter? Would they have hazarded themselves by undertaking an enterprise so perilous in favor of a man who had so cruelly imposed on their credulity? But were we to grant that they formed the design of removing the body, how could they have executed it?”
Fallow, Samuel, ed. The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia and Scriptural Dictionary. Vol. III. Chicago: The Howard Severance Co., 1908, p. 1452.
b. How come none of Jesus’ disciples were arrested for stealing the body? If the Roman guards testified of them doing so and for breaking the Roman seal on Jesus’ tomb, the consequences would have been lethal! However, none of them were arrested or interrogated!
Matt 28:12-13 “When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’”
“Let us be fair. We are confronted with an explanation which to reasonable minds cannot and does not explain; a solution which does not solve. When the chief priests induced Pilate to “command … that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day,” the factual record justifies the conclusion that the sepulchre was in very truth made “sure.” Reasoning, therefore from that record, we arc inescapably faced with the conclusion that the measures taken to prevent the friends of Jesus from stealing His body now constitute unimpeachable proof that they could not and did not steal it.”
Roper, Albert, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965, p. 34.
c. What would be the purpose of stealing Jesus’ body?
The disciples never understood Jesus’ predictions of his own resurrection and when Mary Magdalene announced to them that Jesus had indeed been risen from the dead, they didn’t even believe her!
Mark 16:11 “When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.”
They were still scared of the Jews and for their own lives. Announcing a lie of a risen Saviour would cause them tremendous hardships that could cost their own lives! (All of them besides John died a martyr’s death! Who in their sane mind would be willing to die for a lie?) Nobody would have believed them either! However the church started to flourish in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, as the evidence was too obvious that Jesus had been risen indeed!
d. If the Roman soldiers were sleeping during their watch, how could they accuse the disciples from stealing Jesus’ body? Were they asleep or not? If they had confessed to be asleep, they would have faced certain death!
“They (the Roman guard” were perfectly aware that they had not fallen asleep at their post and that no theft had taken place. The lie for which the priests paid so much money is suicidal; one half destroys the other. Sleeping sentinels could not know what happened.”
Bruce, Alexander Balmin. The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. Vol I-The Synoptic Gospels. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903, p. 337-338.
Asleep or not, moving that one-ton stone from Jesus’ tomb would have woken the soldiers up! There is no way around that!
e. The grave clothes were a testimony that no theft had occurred! Why would thieves painfully take the linen clothes off Jesus’ body? It would take a long time to do so and give more opportunity for them to be caught.
John 20:3-7 “So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.”
“And what mean also the napkins that were stuck on with the myrrh; for Peter saw these lying. For if they had been disposed to steal, they would not have stolen the body naked, not because of dishonoring it only, but in order not to delay and lose time in stripping it, and not to give them that were so disposed opportunity to awake and seize them. Especially when it was myrrh, a drug that adheres so to the body, and cleaves to the clothes, whence it was not easy to take the clothes off the body, but they that did this needed much time, so that from this again, the tale of the theft is improbable.
What? did they not know the rage of the Jews? and that they would vent their anger on them? And what profit was it at all to them, if He had not risen again?”
Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. In a Select Library of the Nicene and Post_Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edition by Philip Schaff, Vol. X. New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1888, p. 530-531.
Henry Latham remarks the following concerning the mixture of myrrh and aloes wrapped in the strips of linen around Jesus’ body:
“…the hundred pounds’ weight of spice. This spice was dry; the quantity mentioned is large; and if the clothes had been unwrapped, the powdered myrrh and aloes would have fallen on the slab, or on the floor, in a very conspicuous heap. Peter, when from the inside of the tomb he described to John, with great particularity, what he saw, would certainly have not passed this by. Mr. Beard bears the spice in mind, and speaks of it as weighing down the grave-clothes, but he misses the point-to me so significant-that if the clothes had been unfolded the spice would have dropped out and made a show. That nothing is said about the spice favours the supposition that it remained between the wrappers where it was originally laid, and consequently was out of sight.”
Latham, Henry. The Risen Master. Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1904, p. 9.
vi. Could the disciples have gone to the wrong tomb?
How could they? The women who were followers of Jesus had noted where he was buried.
Luke 23:55-56 “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”
Matt 27:61 “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.”
Also, it isn’t too hard to find the one and only tomb guarded by Roman soldiers.
Question 1: Did the disciples understand Jesus’ predictions concerning his own death and resurrection? Why or why not?
Question 2: Is there any possibility that Jesus could have survived his crucifixion? Why or why not?
Question 3: Was there any doubt where Jesus was buried? Why or why not?
Question 4: Is there any possibility that the disciples stole Jesus’ body? Why or why not?