If you’ve watched a film of the death and resurrection of Christ you will probably have seen Roman soldiers protecting the tomb, like the excellent film Risen which I’d highly recommend. But were the guards actually Romans?
The text doesn’t say they were Roman soldiers* and some of the details put this in question.
(* By Roman Soldiers, this includes the local auxiliary troops for the Empire not just Italian born Legionnaires)
The tomb guards are only featured in Matthew’s gospel. This is the section, with emboldened text on the relevant parts. Matthew 27:62-28:15
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.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
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. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 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.
Reasons to think they may be Romans
The request for the tomb to be guarded goes to Pilate, he agrees and gives the order for it to be guarded. (27:62-66)
The tomb is sealed and it is assumed that this is an imperial seal, which would be applied by the Romans. (27:66)
They are called ‘soldiers’ (στρατιώταις) not just ‘the guard’ (κουστωδίας)
Reasons to think they may be Temple Guards
When Jesus is resurrected the guards report first to the chief priests and not to Pilate (28:11)
The chief priest bribe the guards to lie. While it’s possible they may have bribed Roman soldiers, bribing your own employees to lie to the Roman Governor is more likely that bribing a Roman soldier to betray his own officer to benefit the priests. Particularly if we consider the punishment that would likely be attached to such a betrayal (28:12-13)
The chief priests say they will intercede for the guards if the governor does find out. If they were Roman soldiers caught lying to their Roman officers/governor how would the priest have any sway in the matter. (28:14)
When Pilate gives the order to secure the tomb he says “You have a guard. Go, make it as secure as you can.” which is ambiguous as to whether he is saying to them they they have their own resources and have permission to get on with it, or if he is saying “you now have a guard.” (Matt 27:65)
We know from Roman sources that a roman soldier who fell asleep on duty could be sentenced to death. Considering the lie to be told is that the people they were posted to protect against came while we were asleep on duty and stole the very thing they were there to protect, it seems likely this would be the case. So receiving gold for this lie doesn’t seem very compelling, for a Roman if a death sentence would be the result. If they were Temple guards however, the Governor would be annoyed but not automatically have the authority to sentence them to death.
In other sources
In the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter, which is not to be held in the same status as the biblical text but an early historical source none the less, dated to around the early second century the guards are clearly Roman:
But Pilate gave over to them Petronius the centurion with soldiers to safeguard the sepulcher. And with these the elders and scribes came to the burial place. And having rolled a large stone, all who were there, together with the centurion and the soldiers, placed it against the door of the burial place. And they marked it with seven wax seals; and having pitched a tent there, they safeguarded it. (Apocryphal Gospel of Peter verse 31 and 32)
What do you think?
This is normally where one would find a conclusion, but it seems uncertain. I am keen to hear your thoughts on the matter. What is clear though is that the assumption that the night watch men were Roman troops is not so cut and dry. This is not a matter of deep spiritual significance, of course, but as we have to draw them in the Word for Word Bible Comic it’s a matter we need to consider.
You can probably tell that I’m leaning more towards the Temple guards interpretation but can you shade any more light on the situation or let me know what your opinion on the matter is?