Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

245. Scared Men (Matt. 28:11-15)

Whilst the women, awed and bewildered, were leaving the tomb to take the exciting message to the disciples, the guard of soldiers, even more awed and bewildered, were reporting the news elsewhere They returned, most probably, to their headquarters at the Castle of Antonia where Pilate had held the trial of Jesus. Sooner or later the report of their experience would reach the governor, and it would be very surprising if, on learning the news, he did not tremble even more than one of his notorious successors in office; for already Pilate was half, convinced of the truth of the claims of this Jesus.

But some of the guard went first to the chief priests to tell their amazing improbable story. The motive behind this move is not easy to discern. Were they fearful that the report of their officer-in-charge (the centurion who had been on duty at the crucifixion?) would be inadequate to save them from disciplinary action for dereliction of duty, and that consequently they would do well to get the chief priests on their side? Or were they far-sighted enough to realize that they could make a good thing out of this situation?

Quickly their story was told and repeated with all possible corroborative detail. From the outset it carried conviction, for the men were only telling who* these priests had already feared might happen. More than this, it was a story to their own discredit — about a tomb which they, the guards, had allowed to be opened. So there was no sign of any inclination to accuse them of lying. These enemies of Jesus knew that the mighty work which they dreaded, had actually come to pass. And now, too late, they saw that in sealing the tomb and setting soldiers to guard it they had acted against their own interests. What fools they had been! If the tomb had been left lonely and unwatched, it would have been easy to concoct all kinds of explanations why it was found empty But now they had actually provided a squad of dependable witnesses whose story was going to be as ugly a fact as the empty tomb itself, "He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness; and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong" (Job 5:12,13). A thousand years before, a psalm of Messiah had foretold their wretched dilemma: "They have prepared a net for my steps,- my soul is bowed down: they have digged a pit before me, into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves" (Psalm 57:6).

In frantic desperation as many of the Sanhedrin as possible were hastily brought together to frame some common policy in the face of this calamitous situation. Almost certainly the soldiers would be made to tell their story over again, for it is highly unlikely that such a shattering event would be credited when Annas and Caiaphas reported it. Thus these rulers who had repeatedly come to Jesus demanding a sign from heaven (Matthew 1 2:38; 16:1) were now given a sign from hell also, which they could not gainsay.

It was never in their minds to round on the soldiers with the angry accusation: "Liars, all of you! You slept, and let the disciples steal the body. Therefore you must die." For they knew well enough that these men of the legion were telling a true story. No Roman soldier dared sleep on duty. It was more than his life was worth.

Rogues in agreement

So once again these venerable men fell back on the well-tried methods which had solved many a problem for them over the years: "they gave large money (a massive bribe) unto the soldiers, saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept." It was important, from the priests' point of view, that their own explanation of the empty tomb get well into circulation among the populace in good time before the disciples could capture people's minds with claims that Jesus was risen from the dead. So these soldiers from the guard would be encouraged to use every opportunity to tell their tale. More than this, the priests, mindful of the mess which unrehearsed witnesses for the prosecution had made of the case against Jesus less than three days earlier, insisted that the men learn and rehearse thoroughly the story they had agreed to tell, so that there was complete unanimity as to details.


Yet what a story it was! "His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept! The assertion bristles with absurdities and contradictions. If they were asleep, how could they know who took the body away? If only one of them had been awake to witness the act, would he not in a moment have wakened the rest? In any case, who in all the far-flung Roman empire of that day would credit a story which involved an entire squad of Roman soldiers sleeping on duty? And if the story were really true, how was it that the chief priests who had posted them for this duty did not clamour for their punishment? And would they not also have rounded up the disciples and dealt with them for stealing the body? Also, what was the likelihood that those disciples, who but a short while earlier had shown themselves such craven cowards (Mark 14:50), would attempt such an intrepid exploit — an enterprise which would have daunted the bravest of men? And had they ventured on such a risky undertaking, what likelihood was there that they might succeed?

No wonder this official interpretation of the latest Jerusalem sensation has been described as "one of the most senseless lies ever fabricated." It bears all the signs of hasty panicky improvisation. Yet once propagated it had to be adhered to. More than this, it was disseminated with efficiency and vigour: "and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews unto this day." Justin Martyr (c. 160 A.D.) commented that the Jews sent "chosen men" to propagate the story in all parts of the world, so that the same report was still current amongst their fellow countrymen. It has been speculated, not improbably, that Saul of Tarsus was one of those whom the priests sent out on this errand. Certainly, this would explain the strange silence of the Book of Acts concerning him until his sudden vigorous entry on to the scene in chapter 7.

The soldiers were also reassured by lavish promises of protection from the wrath of their superior officers: "And if this come to a hearing before the governor, we will persuade him, and rid you of your fears." Contemporary writers comment often and in detail on the blatant bribery which took place in that era. Men were even known to sign legal contracts to secure their acquittal in court through the proper application of "palm oil"! The Greek word used by Matthew here was one commonly employed in the jargon of these racketeers.

"Stole him away while we slept"! The adversaries had clamoured for a sign, and now it was granted to them — the sign of the prophet Jonah. But they had never really believed Moses or the prophets, and now they still stubbornly refused belief even though One had risen from the dead. This rejection of a resurrected Lord was to set the pattern for the entire nation. The Jews closed their eyes, and their ears became dull of hearing. The story became true of them, if not of the Roman soldiers: they lost their Messiah through being fast asleep.

NOTES: Matthew 28:11-15

This gospel begins and ends with refutations of Jewish slanders concerning the birth and resurrection of Jesus.

Money. These holy men understood the power of money! The word is, literally, silver, it suggests the vast fund which accumulated from the regular Jewish payment of the half-shekel (Ex. 30:13-1 5) — the atonement money!
This lie carried with it an open admission that the tomb was known to be empty! In one apocryphal gospel Annas and Caiaphas are represented as saying that the disciples bribed the soldiers to let them take the body away, and that then they buried it in the bed of a river. This is an even more paltry invention!
The word some is important here. It implies that others in that band were not prepared to connive at any deceitful collaboration with the chief priests. See ch. 225. Here, also, in the conviction of truth about Jesus in the minds of some of the soldiers lies the explanation of the source of Matthew's details in these verses.
RV: Come to a hearing before the governor It didn't. Pilate was already thoroughly fed up with this case.

Persuade him, by another bribe, of course

Matthew 28:16-18.

When they saw him,- cp. v.7,9,10; 26:32.

... some doubted Not the 1 2, but some among the 500; 1 Cor. 15:6.
All power Dan. 7:13,14; Lk, 10:22; Eph. 1:10; Phil. 2:9,10; Heb. 2:8; 1 Pet. 3:22.

Is given; aorist, and Hebraism: was appointed, i.e. long ago.

There is some resemblance here to Dan. 7:1 4 LXX.

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