We read in Matthew 28:2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
The guards fainted. It’s understandable considering the circumstances. The religious leaders went to Pilate earlier and asked that he place guards at the tomb of Jesus to keep His followers from stealing the body and claiming he had risen from the dead. This too is a reasonable request. What the priests didn’t realize was that their actions would only prove to add credibility to the resurrection. After the guards woke up they ran and told the priests what had transpired. Matthew 28:11 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.
Not wanting to report their failure to Pilate, since he would have likely executed them, they ran to the priests. The priests not wanting appear foolish devise a plan. Matthew 28:12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money,13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.‘14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.“15 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.
The priests attempt to cover up the real story with a bribe. It doesn’t take a person long to think about how this could have possibly happened. Here are some questions that would have to be answered. Below are some of them I gathered while researching the subject.
The guards used sophisticated methods. A Roman guard detail varied in size from four to sixteen men (3). When sixteen participated in overnight duty, each quaternion (group of four men) took the watch for about three hours (Acts 12:4), so that four men were awake at all times (4). The four on guard stood at the object to be secured, while the other twelve slept in a semicircle with their heads pointed inward (5). Each soldier was armed with a six-foot pike, a sword, and a dagger (6).
Dereliction of duty was punishable by death. Roman armies conquered the world in part because they were highly disciplined. The demands upon a soldier were rigorous, and if he failed to meet them, he could expect no mercy. Among the offenses punishable by death were striking an officer and disposing of arms (7). Another was failure in guard duty (8), which has been a capital offense even in modern armies. The punishment normally meted out to the offender was gruesome. He might be stripped naked and burned alive in his own garments (9). If a guard detail failed to carry out its mission, superior officers would, if possible, execute only those soldiers at fault. But if they could not identify the shirkers, they would pick one soldier by lot and execute him (10). The possibility that even an innocent member of a derelict detail might lose his life caused an uneasy sleep for all.
The guards could not have slept through the theft of Jesus‘ body. The mouth of the tomb was shut by a stone hewn in the shape of a wheel (11). The stone was a far greater barrier than any ordinary door. If it covered an entrance 4 1/2 to 5 feet high, it must have weighed 1 1/2 to 2 tons (12). Some scholars believe that it rested in a trench (13). If they are correct, as many as ten men were required to move it. Thus, it is hugely absurd to suppose that the soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb slept peacefully while the disciples stole His body.
Consider the task before the thieves. They had to recruit a large company of conspirators, none of whom would ever turn state’s evidence. To reach the tomb, the whole criminal band had to stumble in the dark through a large knot of soldiers at the tomb’s mouth. They had to exert themselves in moving aside a ponderous stone, which would have creaked noisily as it rolled over a stone track just inches away from the soldiers. And then, with a corpse in tow, they had to wade through the soldiers again. Remember that the wrappings of the corpse were saturated with highly fragrant myrrh and aloes (John 19:39-40). The blast of odors from the sepulcher as soon as the stone was rolled away could in itself have wakened any sleepers just outside.
The extent of the cover-up only lends to the credibility of the biblical account. The religious spin doctors have done the best they can to hide the truth.
Finally, it’s not a stretch to believe that the priests knew that the resurrection account was in-fact truth. They heard the story from the guards first hand. They also had to know their cover-up story was full of holes. Just something to think about.