I have a quandary. There’s one part of the story of Jesus’ burial that I have read many times, but now, on further reflection, no longer makes sense to me. Here’s the story, unique to Matthew:
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (Matt 27:62-66, NIV)
It’s the Sabbath Day, but apparently, the chief priests and Pharisees don’t consider securing the tomb against scandal to be work. To this point in Matthew, there’s no clear precedent for them knowing and understanding Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection–but now it seems they’re both aware of and worried about the possibilities. Might not the disciples steal the body and foist a massive hoax on the public? This is terribly ironic, considering that the disciples are repeatedly described as not understanding even their Master’s most direct statements about rising again.
Pilate agrees to their request, though the exact meaning of his reply is ambiguous in the Greek. Some translations, like the NIV, read his comment as meaning, “Here, take a guard and go.” Others read it as, “You already have a guard; go take care of it yourself.” This could be a reference to the temple police (who would have been Levites), or to Roman soldiers already assigned to duties in Jerusalem. Personally, I favor the reading that Pilate granted their wish and gave them a guard detail to secure the tomb.
That’s not my quandary. It’s obvious that posting soldiers would help prevent the disciples from making off with the body. But why bother to seal the stone?
To put an official seal would have meant that someone had certified that Jesus was dead and in the tomb before the massive stone was rolled into place and the guard posted. A broken seal, presumably, would signal tampering from the outside.
But really, what would that prove? All a broken seal could show was that the stone was moved after the contents of the tomb had been verified. It could prove nothing about how the stone was moved, by whom, or for what reason. If the disciples overpowered the guard (perhaps Peter would slice off another ear or two?) and stole the body, then yes, the seal would be broken. But it would also be broken if God raised Jesus to life and sent an angel to move the stone.
In fact, sealing the stone would not only fail to prove their case, it would work against them, by officially declaring that Jesus was dead and buried, taking away any suggestion that the deceased wasn’t really Jesus, wasn’t really deceased, or wasn’t really there. That’s why, after the resurrection, the chief priests and Pharisees were put in the most ironic and uncomfortable of positions: they had to spread the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body, the very thing they had thought to prevent in the first place.
Hindsight, they say, is always 20/20. Why seal the stone? Who knows. Strategically, it seems like a worthless gesture. But perhaps it reflects the unthinking arrogance of those who are certain they are right, never seriously entertaining any other possibility. The guard detail and the seal both stamped the burial site with the power and authority of Rome, which seemed more than a match for any mischief Jesus’ disciples might conceive.
It simply didn’t occur to the chief priests and Pharisees that God might have a say in the matter. We would never be so arrogant.
Or would we?