Monday, April 13, 2009

Roman Soldiers at the Tomb

Question: How do we know Roman guards were posted at [Jesus’] tomb? Why would the Romans put guards there? (from Anonymous, posted 4-13-09)

This is an important question, since it serves as part of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. First, let me highly recommend a series of video clips from one of the best experts on the resurrection of Jesus, William Lane Craig. If you want the short version, just look at this clip, but I encourage you to watch the whole playlist (I tried to post one of the clips on this blog, but Blogger does not support their format).

How do we know that Roman guards were posted at the tomb? First, because Matthew records it (see Matt 27:62-66, 28:11-15). The chief priests had heard at least one claim that Jesus would rise from the dead, so they asked Pilate to post a Roman guard contingent to prevent the disciples from tampering with the evidence. Although some people might discount Matthew's testimony, it is important to remember that most historical facts are based on single documents, often not even based on eyewitness. In this case, Matthew is a document based on eyewitness accounts written within 30 to 40 years of the event; and both Matthew and Luke reveal evidence that they relied on documents even closer to the date of the resurrection.

Second, Matthew's claim is historically plausible. Some of the biggest political problems in first-century Israel were violent uprisings backed by messianic claims (at least eleven occasions from AD 6-140). The chief priests and the Roman governor had to quell these movements quickly to avoid civil disorder or open war (see John 11:47-53). On one occasion, Pilate sent cavalry to attack a Samaritan messiah-figure and his followers who were trying to dig up their lost temple artifacts. This event proves that the Roman government would use force to deal with religious beliefs.

The Roman government in Judea was on alert every Passover because of political and religious tensions - after all, Passover celebrated God’s rescue of Israel from Gentile oppressors. Every Passover, the Roman governor left the Roman regional capital in Caesarea Maritima and brought a cohort of soldiers to Jerusalem to deal with potential problems.

By this period in Pilate's career, he also had to try to placate the Jewish authorities. Jewish leaders had complained to the emperor about Pilate, and the emperor had warned Pilate that he would be removed if there were further incidents. So it makes sense that Pilate would accede to the request of the chief priests to guard the tomb.

The picture: The Resurrection, from a Chinese Bible from the 1800s. Note the soldiers with Chinese weapons and the seal on the tomb door.


  1. I really like as a resource for apologetics and Dr. Craig is one of my favorites. He also has two sublime podcasts, Defenders Podcast and Reasonable Faith. Very valuable.

  2. Jesus' Tomb was not Guarded or Sealed the entire First Night!

    Holy Grave Robbers!

    I had never heard of this until today: How many Christians are aware that Jesus’ grave was unguarded AND unsecured the entire first night after his crucifixion??? Isn’t that a huge hole in the Christian explanation for the empty tomb?? Notice in this quote from Matthew chapter 27 below that the Pharisees do not ask Pilate for guards to guard the tomb until the next day after Jesus’ crucifixion, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb’s door, he had not SEALED it shut!

    Anyone could have stolen the body during those 12 hours!

    The empty tomb “evidence” for the supernatural reanimation/resurrection of Jesus by Yahweh has a HUGE hole in it!

    “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

    The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[a] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”[b] 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”
    —Matthew 27

  3. Thanks for your comments, Gary. Sorry it took me a while to respond.

    I think you are probably right that the guard started on Saturday. I was considering the idea that "the next day" (v. 62) referred to the beginning of the Sabbath, which would be on Friday night, not Saturday morning. However, my sense is the ἐπαυριον (= the next day) seems to be normally used to refer to some time morning or later. So I think I tentatively agree with you (without having done further research).

    But you still run into the same problems that any body-theft hypothesis runs into. The only people who have the motive are the disciples - but they didn't believe that the resurrection would happen, and were shocked when it did. In addition, it seems impossible that they would go to their graves - some even martyred - in defense of something that they did not believe to be true.

    Gary Habermas has cataloged aver 1400 books and articles that cover the resurrection - most of them by scholars who do not believe in the resurrection. He points out that the vast majority of these scholars do not believe that body theft is a reasonable historical hypothesis. (Some of Habermas' summarizing can be found on his website,, and here:

    You may be aware the William Craig makes use of this data in debates, in the links in the blog post above.

  4. Hi Gary (great name, by the way!),

    I certainly agree that we should seriously consider what "scholars" have to say on a subject, but one thing we must always keep in mind when dealing with opinions even of scholars, is the possibility of bias. I think you would agree that the majority of NT scholars are Christians and therefore they are people who already believe in the Christian supernatural claims.

    I suggest we look at the four Resurrection stories in the Gospels, compare them, and see if we obtain a consistent narrative or do we find glaring, irreconcilable discrepancies between the four accounts.

    Since we can be pretty certain that John Mark and Luke were not eyewitnesses, let's compare Matthew and John's accounts. Let's look at the issue of the guards at the tomb. I will post my comment below:

    1. Yes, there's not very many of us Garys!

      Actually, on your first point: no, Habermas catalogs the positions of the scholars he surveys, and most do not believe in the resurrection - but they also do not think that body theft is a reasonable historical interpretation.

      Here's my take on eyewitness: John claims to be an eyewitness, Luke claims to have received from eyewitnesses, and the earliest reports about Mark say that he is based on Peter. I find these claims to be pretty reasonable.

    2. I have to disagree with you, Gary, on Habermas. Habermas claims that he has catalogued the opinions of all "scholars" on the Gospels' Empty Tomb claim and that 75% believe the tomb of Jesus existed and was empty.

      However, what percentage of these "scholars" are Christians? If 75% of "scholars" are Christians it isn't surprising that 75% of scholars believe in the empty tomb or any other supernatural claim in the Bible.

      And even if 99% of "scholars" do not believe that a body theft is a reasonable historical interpretation, that isn't 100% is it? I don't think you will find anyone who will say that it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE for the body of Jesus to have been stolen or moved from the tomb. "Not probable" is not the same as "not possible", right?

      Gary, you and your readers have to ask yourselves this question: Which is more probable: someone stole or moved the body of Jesus resulting in an empty tomb that Sunday morning 2,000 years ago, or, an ancient Hebrew god named Yahweh reanimated the bloated, rotting corpse of a three-day dead, first century prophet?

      In the history of human experience, I think you will have to admit, the probability of a stolen/moved body is much, much more probable than the reanimation of a decomposing corpse.

      Could there have been a resurrection? Sure! But so too could there be leprechauns, unicorns, and fairies, but we don't choose to believe in these very improbable claims, do we?

  5. This Gospel problem of the missing Roman soldiers in the Book of John raises another important issue. Missionaries often contend that it would have been impossible for anyone to have surreptitiously removed Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because there were guards posted at the tomb who would have prevented such an occurrence. Therefore, they argue, without any possibility for the body to have been quietly whisked away, the only other logical conclusion is that Jesus must have truly arisen from the dead.

    The argument completely collapses in John’s account because according to the fourth Gospel, this is precisely what Mary thought had occured. Mary clearly didn’t feel as though the scenario of Jesus’ body being removed was unlikely. In fact, according to John, that was her only logical conclusion. Clearly, Matthew’s guards didn’t dissuade John’s Mary from concluding that someone had taken Jesus’ body because Roman guards do not exist in John’s story.

    To further compound the problem of the conflicting resurrection accounts, John’s Gospel continues to unfold with Mary returning to the tomb a second time, only to find two angels sitting inside the tomb. Mary is still unaware of any resurrection as she complains to the angels that someone had removed Jesus’ corps. As far as John’s Mary is concerned, the only explanation for the missing body was that someone must have removed it, and she was determined to locate it.

    But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying12 , one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

    (John 20:11-13)

    Although in Matthew’s account the angel emphatically tells Mary about the resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7), in John’s Gospel the angels do not mention that anyone rose from the dead. The angels only ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary responds by inquiring whether the angels removed Jesus’ body. Then, Mary turns and sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for the gardener. Mary is still completely unaware of any resurrection, and therefore asks the “gardener” if he was the one who carried away Jesus’ body. It is only then that Mary realizes that she was speaking to the resurrected Jesus.

    When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” which means Teacher.

    (John 20:14-16)

    It is at this final juncture of the narrative that the accounts of Matthew and John become hopelessly irreconcilable. The question every missionary must answer is the following: When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus had arisen from the dead? According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not. As we survey the divergent New Testament accounts of the resurrection, we are not just looking at contradictory versions, we are simply gazing at two entirely different stories.

    1. Yes, the accounts are different. However, one thing to keep in mind throughout John is that he repeatedly shows signs in the whole gospel that he expects his readers to already know the story. This makes sense, if you think about it. The church was rapidly spreading by the 30s, and their central proclamation was that Jesus had risen. Jesus' teachings were quickly spread. Even before any Gospels were written, Paul talked about the outlines of Jesus' life and was able to refer to Jesus' teachings. James makes repeated mentions of Jesus' teachings, probably before any gospel was written. Then, if you accept that the synoptic gospels were written in the 60s or 70s, they have already been circulating for perhaps 20-25 years before John writes.

      So John has a point in writing - he regularly chooses to cover things not mentioned in the other gospels. he skips over things that everyone knows, like the pronouncement of the Lord's supper. He introduces people as if everyone already knows the person. So of all the gospels, I always expect John to intentionally cover material not covered in the other gospels. True in the rest of the book, and true also in the accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection.

    2. "When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus had arisen from the dead? According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not."

      How do you resolve this apparent discrepancy?

  6. Did I say something to offend you, Gary?

    1. Not at all... I just don't check comments and respond daily - especially near the end of the semester, when grading gets heavy.


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