The Soldiers at the Tomb


The Soldiers at the Tomb;

Is Matthew’s Account Plausible?

By

S A Campbell

Many who deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ base some of their disbelief on Matthew’s account of the actions of the Roman guards that were placed there to prevent Jesus’ followers from stealing the body and then claiming that he had been raised from the dead (Matt. 27:62-64 KJV). Some claim that Matthew’s account of their actions is not believable and at least one has actually stated that Matthew is lying repeatedly throughout his account. They claim that, due to the strict Roman discipline, the soldiers would not have fled their post as this would have earned them a death sentence, they would not have sought out the Jewish authorities and they would not have claimed they were asleep while they were suppose to be guarding the tomb. These claims are all true as it relates to the Roman army and its very harsh rules and regulations but is that what Matthew actually says happened? Does he claim that the soldiers fled or deserted their post? Is it beyond the realm of possibility that they would not have spoken to the Jewish leaders about what had happened? Is it unlikely they would have claimed to have been asleep while on duty if as Roman custom demanded they would be executed for such an act? Maybe an honest, unbiased look of what Matthew said will help resolve any questions one may have regarding this aspect of the resurrection account.

Matthew’s account of the crucifixion and resurrection can be found in the Gospel of Matthew chapters 27 and 28[1]. It is only in Matthew’s Gospel that we find any references to the guards and their actions or reactions to the resurrection of Jesus. He tells how, after Jesus had been executed Joseph of Arimathaea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body[2]. After Pilate had confirmed that Jesus was dead, “And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead. 45 And when he learned it of the centurion, he granted the corpse to Joseph.” (Mark 15: 44-45 ASV).

Roman crucifixion and the Biblical Story

Before we continue further we need to look at the four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion to see how accurate they are to the known historical records of how this gruesome method of execution was preformed. Only Mark’s narrative tells of Pilate 1) being surprised at the claim that Jesus was already dead and 2) having it confirmed by “the centurion”.

Why was Pilate surprised to learn that Jesus was dead already? From scripture accounts we know that Jesus was nailed to the cross around the third hour (Mark 15:25). To understand exactly when the third hour is one must understand that the Jews at that time “divided their night into four watches, of three hours each. They also divided the day into four general parts. The first began at sunrise. The second three hours after. The third at mid-day. The fourth three hours after, and continued till sunset”[3]. So when would the third hour begin according to Jewish reckoning; “The first division of the day commenced at six o'clock in the morning, and ended at nine; the second commenced at nine and ended at twelve, etc. “The third” hour mentioned by Mark would therefore correspond with our nine o'clock”[4]. So based on Mark’s account the execution of Jesus began somewhere around nine in the morning.

Some background on the act of crucifixion is necessary. Crucifixion has been labeled as the most painful way of execution; it is slow and agonizing[5]. In fact it is from this process that we get the word excruciating, which means literally “out of crucifying”[6]. Roman law excluded Roman citizens, except for soldiers deserting, from such a death sentence[7]. While Rome did not invent the act of crucifixion, it apparently was first used in ancient Persia[8] and the Romans inherited the practice from the Carthaginians[9], the Romans certainly perfected the practice.

In examining the four accounts of the crucifixion with an eye on historical veracity we find that the events outlined in the Gospels accurately depict a typical Roman crucifixion. The first step in this grisly process, after the victim was sentenced to death, was they were flogged[10]; the only exception to this was regarding women, Roman Senators and soldiers, except for cases of desertion[11]. Three of the Gospels mention of Jesus being scourged after Pilate pronounced sentence, only Luke does not say anything about Christ being flogged. Although none of the Gospels mention the severity of the flogging Christ endured, linguistic evidence indicates it was very harsh[12].

After being flogged the prisoner was compelled to carry the cross bar of his cross from the flogging site to crucifixion site[13]. Three of the Gospels tell how a man by the name ofSimon of Cyrene is forced to carry the crossbar for Christ (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26); while it is not said why this man was forced to carry the crossbar most believe that Christ was unable to himself due to the scourging and other related physical problems associated with the recent events.

All that we know about the site of Jesus’ execution was that it was outside of the city, which all Roman crucifixions were, and it was called Golgotha (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17). Prior to being nailed or bound to the cross the prisoner was offered wine mixed with myrrh[14] in an effort to lessened the pain when the person’s hands were nailed to the cross (Matt. 27:34; Mark 15:23). Many erroneously believe that the nails were driven through the condemned person’s hands but this is incorrect. Archeological evidence reveals that actually the nails were driven through the forearm of the person, above the wrist; between the radius and the carpals.[15] The condemned was then hoisted upright and left to die; the Roman soldiers would not leave the victim until he was dead.[16]

The length of time it took someone to die from crucifixion varied greatly, evidence indicates that the severity of the scourging affected how long the person lasted on the cross.[17] Historical records show that the life span of a person on the cross could be as short as three to four hours up to three to four days[18]. According to the Gospels Jesus died “gave up the ghost” during the ninth hour (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34) roughly a span of about six hours; six extremely painful hours.

As was seen people generally lingered on the cross for some time and Christ was pronounced dead with six hours this could possibly explain Pilate’s incredulity. Scripture tells us that Pilate asked “the centurion”, while it does not say it is rather probable that the centurion that Pilate spoke to is also the same one that was at the cross that, upon Christ death, said that he was certainly the Son of God (Matt. 25:54; Mark 15: 39, Luke 23:47). The reason for this certainty is Roman legions had a squad specially designated to carry out crucifixions; it consisted of a commanding centurion and four soldiers. A brief sidebar that tends to support this contention, recall that after nailing Christ to the cross the soldiers divided his clothes into four parts, so they all could have a share (John 18:23).

As was said the Romans were not novices in this horrific practice and the centurion assured Pilate that Jesus was in fact dead. Some have postulated that Christ really wasn’t dead, that possibly he was in a coma and somehow fooled the Romans into thinking he was dead. The Romans would not allow a family to claim the body until they were sure the person was truly dead. They made this confirmation by one of the soldiers thrusting a sword or spear into the person; generally through the right side directed towards the person’s heart[19] (John 18:34).

The Reason for the Guards

It is not the intention of this paper to argue whether Christ was dead or not when placed in the tomb; for the sake of brevity let us just say that he was dead. We will have to rely solely on Matthew’s account when dealing with the soldiers at the tomb. Some may wonder why a guard was placed there at all; seeing that Jesus was dead, declared dead by the centurion in charge of his execution no less. The reason was that the Jewish religious authorities requested it. Their reason;

Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, 63 Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. 64 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.

(Matt. 27:62-64)

So it wasn’t so much that they feared that Jesus would actually rise from the dead; their fear was that his disciples would come and secretly steal the body and then proclaim that he had risen. A side note that relates to how long the soldiers were present at the tomb, most accounts say three days and nights but this would appear to be one day too many. Recall how the Gospels said that the day Christ was executed was the day of preparation, the day prior to the Sabbath, (Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 18:31, 19:42) and that they came to Pilate the day after the Day of preparation (Matt. 27:62). So Christ had already been in the tomb for one night and possibly one day[20]. So it is obvious that the security detail would only have been needed for no more then two days and nights.

Pilate granted their request, one can almost hear his annoyance with them as he responds, “Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can” (Matt. 27:65). There is debate as to who exactly made up this watch; some believe it to have been a Roman detail, others that it was composed of the Temple guard and others that it was a mixed detail of Roman soldiers and Temple guards. While solid evidence upon which one may reach a definite conclusion is lacking, what is available seems to favor it having been a Roman security detail.

Most paintings of the scene tend to depict there only being two or three soldiers present to guard the tomb, but this is at odds with historical fact. Assuming it was a Roman security detail the minimum number of people present would have been ten men.[21] The smallest organized unit within the Roman Army was the ‘contubernium’ and it consisted of eight legionnaires and two ‘calones’.[22] The calones were non-combat slaves. These two calones were not slaves in the traditional sense; they were more like the support troops of today’s armies. Among their assigned duties was the care of the contubernium's pack mule and making sure the legionaries had water during a march. Knowledge of these two auxiliaries and their duties could be the key in gaining an accurate understanding of the actions of the soldiers at the tomb. Again there would have been at least ten people encamped before the entrance to the tomb and while there is no evidence to support it a more likely number would have been from 20 – 30 men.

It was this group of soldiers that were the eyewitnesses to the resurrection. However based on Matthew’s account it does not appear that they saw Christ depart from the tomb. Based on other events recorded after Christ was raised it would appear that he could pass through walls (see John 20:26). It is probably a safe assumption that Christ, upon being resurrected, passed through the physical confines of the tomb unseen, seeing that none of the Gospel writers mention anyone having seen Christ until after he had been risen (Matt. 28:5-6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:5-6; John 20:4-7).

It would also seem that the huge stone[23] that sealed the tomb entrance was rolled away, not to allow the risen Christ to exit but to allow the people to see the empty tomb. We are told by three of the Gospel writers (Mark, Luke and John) that the women that were coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body were concerned about who would roll the stone away from the tomb entrance so they could have access to the body.

What happened according to Matthew

There are many allegations against the actions of the soldiers from both believers and non-believers let us now look closely at what Matthew says to see if these claims are accurate. Some claim that the soldiers fled from the site, others claim that they were asleep and some have even claimed that Matthew’s whole account is a fabrication. The basis for this claim is due to Matthew claiming 1) that the soldiers went to the chief priests and told what had happened and 2) that they were told to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body while they were sleeping. There are two aspects we need to consider the veracity of what Matthew writes; 1) what exactly did he write and 2) are the reported actions of the soldiers plausible.

2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. 3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: 4 And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men…11 Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. 12 And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, 13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. 14 And if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. 15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.[24]

(Matt. 28:2-4, 11-15)

First some specific items from Matthew’s account; first, nowhere in this brief account does Matthew say that the soldiers fled the scene. While he does say that upon seeing the angel of the Lord and what he did (i.e. rolling the stone away from the tomb entrance) they “did shake, and became as dead men”. Today one might say they were dumbfounded and again this is understandable. Recall that in Palestine, graves were usually in a depression and the stone was rolled down an incline to cover the mouth of the tomb. For a small grave, about twenty men were required to roll a stone down hill to cover the door of the tomb. Yet this single being rolled it out of the way and Matthew tells us that “His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow” and also recall that either right before or simultaneously with the angel’s appearance there was a “a great earthquake[25]. Considering what all these soldiers experienced in a rather rapid span of time who would not expect them to be more than a little rattled?

That they remained at their post, despite their shock and awe, is a testament to the dedication to their duty that was generated by the strict discipline that the Roman Army maintained. If a Roman legionnaire left his post while on duty or deserted during a battle, he would be sentenced to be executed, usually by stoning or by being beaten. If an entire unit deserted or if there was a mutiny, the offenders could be punished by decimation. One out of every ten men would be put to death. The rest of the men would be forced to live outside the camp and in some instances obliged to renew the military oath.[26] This death penalty also applied when a soldier was found asleep while on duty.[27] So we see that Matthew did not say that they fled from the tomb; they might have wanted to but they stayed.

Some might point to Matthew’s comment about them being in town and reporting what had happened to the chief priests (vs. 11). But even a cursorily review of what Matthew said will show that this charge is not accurate. Look at what Matthew said; “Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done[28].(emphasis added) Notice it says that some of the guard, not all of them but some. While Matthew does not specify how many came into the city a safe assumption would be the two servants assigned to the squad. Also Matthew’s wording does not indicate that they fled to the city it just says that some of the guard came into the city, there is no indication that these soldiers had fled to the city instead Matthew’s almost casual mention of them being in town hints at the possibility that they were there on some type of official business. Recall that the Romans had a very substantial force present in Jerusalem, the troops composing the garrison at Jerusalem was housed in the Antonia Fortress which was adjacent to the Temple.[29] Normally the garrison numbered 600 soldiers but during Jewish festivals, of which Passover was the prime, the garrison would be reinforced to a strength of approximately 6,000 soldiers. To say that these soldiers remained cloistered within the walls of the fortress is dubious.

Also remember how when the chief priests had gone to Pilate and requested the guard they recounted Jesus prophecy that he would rise from the tomb after three days and three nights. They feared that his disciples would come at night and steal the body and that they wanted it (i.e. the tomb) secured until the third day (vs. 27:62-64). The new day had begun and the guard had been detailed to watch the tomb until the third day so their mission had been completed and they were not required to remain there any longer.

Some disbelieve that a Roman soldier would seek assistance from the Jewish leaders, they insist that they would have reported what had happened to the superiors. There is no indication if they did or did not report what had happened to the superiors and was illustrated above it does not appear that the scurried to the chief priests. Matthew says that they “showed unto the chief priests all the things that were done”. A brief explanation about the Greek word rendered as ‘showed’. The Greek word is ‘anangello’ and it means “(“to declare”), Matt. 11:4, “tell;” John 16:13-15, “declare;” John 16:25, “shall tell;” Acts 19:18; Acts 20:20, “declaring;” ”[30] So the soldiers simply told the chief priests what had happened and considering the events of just a few hours ago wouldn’t it only seem plausible that they would have shared their experiences?

Matthew does not say so but there is a hint of an indeterminate lapse of time between verse 11 and verse 12. In verse 11 Matthew tells of some of the soldiers telling the chief priests what had happened and then in the next verse he says “And when they were assembled with the elders and had taken counsel”, it is a safe assumption that it would have required some amount of time to gather the elders[31] and counsel (i.e. consult) with them. It is probably safe to assume that during this time of gathering the elders that at least some of them went to the tomb if nothing more than to confirm what the soldiers had told them.

Some have also expressed disbelief in Matthew’s account based on his saying that after the chief priests and the elders had consulted they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers (vs. 12) and told them to say “His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept” (vs. 13). They base their objections to this statement by citing the strict Roman discipline and the punishment for sleeping on duty. But notice what the chief priests told the soldiers when they bribed them “if this come to the governor's ears, we will persuade him, and secure you” (vs. 14); in today’s vernacular they were telling the soldiers we’ve got your back. This item also serves to support the contention that they were Roman soldiers and not temple guards for if they were temple guards there would have been no need to 1) bribe them, since they essentially worked for the chief priests and 2) there would be no need for them to intercede with the governor since this would have been solely a Jewish matter.

Remember that Matthew said that some of the soldiers while in town told the chief priests what had happened. They didn’t hurry to the chief priests and ask what they should do or seek protection; they simply told them what had happened. Obviously the soldiers were not hiding from their superiors and hoping the chief priests could help them. And if this was the case why then did the chief priests bribe the soldiers into spreading the lie about them being asleep and the disciples stealing the body? Recall that Roman regulations called for severe retribution upon any soldier that was asleep on duty or deserted his post, obviously the soldiers had not deserted their post and there is no indication that any of the detail was caught asleep so they had not been charged. The priests also said that if any of this (i.e. the lie about them being asleep) came to the attention of the governor they would intercede only supports the contention that no charges had been leveled against the soldiers.[32]

Apparently the Roman soldiers did not fear being brought up on charges of being asleep on duty because Matthew writes “So they took the money, and did as they were taught” (vs. 15).

So it would seem that despite other’s objections to Matthew’s account an examination of what Matthew wrote would suggest that his account is not implausible. That many of the claims leveled against the soldiers are unfounded; they did not flee from the tomb. Instead as we have seen, they remained at their post, although totally shocked by what they witnessed, and that some of them did tell the chief priests about what had happened.

In closing we can see that the soldiers, be they Roman soldiers, temple guards or a mixture of the two, despite witnessing the dramatic event of an angel rolling away a very heavy stone and his brilliant appearance remained on station. Possibly an example Christians could take notice of. The other point is in regards to the actions of the chief priests and their decision to bribe the soldiers. Obviously the tomb was empty, why else would they bribe the soldiers to say that the body had been stolen? And maybe that is the most important point, not the actions of the soldiers but the empty tomb. For as Paul said;

And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”

(1 Corinthians 15:14)


[1] The other accounts are in Mark 15-16, Luke 23-24 and John 18-20.

[2] Matt. 27: 57-58; Mark 15:43-45, Luke 23:50-52 and John 19:38.

[3] Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible

[4] Barnes Notes on the Bible

[5] DePasquale NP, Burch GE: Death by crucifixion. Am Heart J 1963;66:434-435.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion

[7] Bucklin R The legal and medical aspects of the trial and death of Christ. Sci Law 1970; 10:14-26.

[8] Friedrich G: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Bremiley G (ed-trans). Grand Rapids, Mich, WB Eerdmans Publisher, 1971, vol 7, pp 572, 573, 632

[9] Barbet P: A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Out Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon, Earl of Wicklow (trans) Garden City, NY, Doubleday Image Books 1953, pp 12-18 37-147, 159-175, 187-208.

[10] Hengel M: Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross Bowden J (trans). Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1977, pp 22-45, 86-90.

[11] Barbet P: A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Out Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon, Earl of Wicklow (trans) Garden City, NY, Doubleday Image Books 1953, pp 12-18 37-147, 159-175, 187-208.

[12] Wuest KS: Wuest Word Studies From the Greek New Testament for the English Reader Grand Rapids, Mich, WB Eerdmans Publisher 1973, vol 1, p 280.

[13] Pfeiffer CF, Vos HF, Rea J (eds): Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. Chicago, Moody Press, 1975 pp 149-152, 404-405, 713-723, 1173-1174, 1520-1523.

[14] Davis CT: The crucifixion of Jesus: The passion of Christ from a medical point of view. Ariz Med 1965;22:183-187.

[15] Haas N: Anthropological observations on the skeletal remains from Giv'at ha-Mivtar. Israel Explor J 1970;20:38-59.

[16] Tenney SM: On death by crucifixion Am Heart J 1964;68:286-287.

[17] IBID

[18] IBID

[19] Barbet P: A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Out Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon, Earl of Wicklow (trans) Garden City, NY, Doubleday Image Books 1953, pp 12-18 37-147, 159-175, 187-208.

[20] There are questions as to what day exactly the religious authorities came and made their request. The basic understanding is that based on Matthew’s words it was the next day. The problem with this is that would have been the Sabbath and the religious leaders were very fastidious about Sabbath observance, so it is questionable if they would have come to Pilate on the Sabbath. Some have opined that since the Sabbath is considered the Lord’s Day, the next day mentioned by Matthew would have been the next day that was not dedicated unto the Lord.

[21] A minimum sized Temple guard detail would have been 8 men.

[22] "The Size and Organization of the Roman Imperial Legion," by Jonathan Roth; Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 43, No. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1994), pp. 346-362

[23] The general consensus is that stone weighed between 1 – 11/2 tons.

[24] Verses 5-11 deal with the three women speaking; first with the angel at the tomb and then with Jesus when they encountered him on their way from the tomb to tell the disciples that he had risen.

[25] This ‘great earthquake’ appears to have been a very localized event since none of the Gospel accounts tell of the ladies that were coming to the tomb having experienced it.

[26] Polybius, The Histories, Volume III, Chapter 37

[27] While the Temple guard did not have as harsh punishment (i.e. for sleeping on duty) it still was severe. If a temple guard was found asleep on duty the captain of the guard could slap his feet with a stick or burn his clothes. Middoth, chap. i

[28] The ‘they’ mentioned at the first of this verse is the three women who were hurrying to tell Jesus’ disciples that he had risen and would meet them in Galilee (vs. 7-10).

[29] Josephus, Antiquities 18.4.3, Bellum 1.21.1 and 5.5.8

[30] Vine's Greek New Testament Dictionary - Shew (show)

[31] The elders are not directly identified but it may be referring to the council of elders that were an important part of the Sanhedrin. Elder -- Holman Bible Dictionary.

[32] It is uncertain if a Roman soldier could be charged with being asleep on duty unless they were actually caught. In other words one must determine if hear say was admissible in a Roman military tribunal.

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Comments 2 comments

Porshadoxus profile image

Porshadoxus 4 years ago from the straight and narrow way

Well done.

'Some of the watch' that reported to the chief Priests were likely following orders, since they were assigned to the temple officers for that detail. I don't think you raised that point.

The point about the Jewish authorities bribing a lie out of the soldiers is indeed strong support to Jesus' resurrection.

Voted up.


sacoh58 4 years ago Author

You're right and I had meant to raise that possibility but I forgot to. Even if they weren't 'under orders' I would be very surprised if they didn't, at least, unofficially tell the chief priests about what had happened. I would find it harder to believe that the soldiers didn't say anything considering what they saw.

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