Matthew reports a guard being stationed outside of Jesus’ tomb (Mt 27:62-66; 28:4,11-15).  While it is often assumed that the guard was a Roman guard, the text does not say this.  While it may have been a Roman guard, it is also possible that it was a Jewish guard seeing that the temple in Jerusalem employed its own guards.  Which was it?

Reasons to think the guard was a Jewish temple guard:

  • The guards return to the chief priests rather than to Pilate or a Roman officer
  • It is unlikely that Roman guards would agree to spread a story for which they could be executed (execution was the punishment for Roman soldiers who fell asleep on watch).
  • While the mention of the governor in Mt 28:14 may indicate this is a Roman guard, if it was a Roman guard then it is difficult to see how the Jewish leadership could have done anything to keep the governor for killing his own soldiers.  What influence would they have in Roman military affairs?

Reasons to think the guard was a Roman guard:

  • Why would the Jews make a request to Pilate to secure the tomb if they did not need his soldiers to do so?
  • The word used by Pilate, koustodia, is a word commonly used to refer to Roman soldiers
  • Why would the Jewish leaders need to soothe over the governor if they weren’t his soldiers?[1]

Personally, I don’t find the reasons for thinking the guard to be Roman entirely persuasive.  While koustodia could refer to Roman soldiers, it could refer to any guard, Roman or Jewish.  Indeed, if these were Pilate’s soldiers, they would have secured the tomb and put on the Roman seal, not the Jews (Mt 27:65 – Pilate tells the Jewish leaders to “Go, make it as secure as you know how).  It seems, then, that the Jews were not requesting Pilate’s soldiers, but rather his permission to set up their own guard at the tomb (just as Joseph needed permission from Pilate to obtain and bury the body of Jesus—Mt 27:57-58).  With Pilate’s permission, they had the backing of Rome for their actions.

If the guard was Jewish, however, why would the Jews be concerned about soothing over the governor if word of the event reached his ears?  As anyone in leadership understands, when something goes wrong, it is always the leader’s fault even if it wasn’t the leader’s fault.  Pilate was ultimately responsible for what happened in his province.  The Jews went to Pilate seeking permission to guard Jesus’ tomb so as to prevent further trouble relating to Jesus.  If their failure to keep the tomb secure led to public unrest, Pilate would ultimately be held responsible by Rome.  While the guard did not consist of Roman soldiers, they were Pilate’s subjects nonetheless, and could easily become the object of his wrath if it were not for the intervention of the Jewish leaders to appease him.  It is reasonable, then, for the Jews to be concerned about Pilate’s reaction if he were to hear about the “tomb theft.”

What do you think?  Do you know of additional reasons to support either conclusion?  Have you come to a different conclusion?  If so, why?

[1]See William Lane Craig, “The Guard at the Tomb”; available from; Internet; accessed 27 February 2005.