Last Sunday was Resurrection Sunday, celebrating the victory of Christ over death. Oftentimes, in my studies of the scriptures, I have noticed that the gospel writers took great pains to highlight some details regarding the burial of Christ and the circumstances that surrounded his resurrection. While many people (perhaps erroneously) disregard all the gospel accounts as simply one account from long ago, their original readers would have read them as contemporary accounts detailing facts concerning the story of Christ’s burial and resurrection. Many of these facts would have directly refuted any early arguments against the resurrection or those who claimed the resurrection did indeed happen. Among these many factors include:
1) The entombment of Christ was approved by the governing authorities. The taking down of Christ’s body and his entombment were granted permission by Governor Pontius Pilate himself (Matt 27:58; Mark 15:45; Luke 23:52; John 19:38). This made the burial of Christ a public affair in some respects, rather than the disciples going on their own, without permission, and taking the bodies down, which their enemies could have denied they ever did if only the disciples could make such a claim. With Pilate’s open and public permission being attached to the action, no one could deny that it had been done.
2) The management of the entombment was by a well known leader. The taking down and entombing of Christ’s body was under the personal charge of a wealthy and respected Jewish leader known as Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50; John 19:38). This gave the account some validity, as many would have likely known of or heard of Joseph, and hence would know that the entombment of Christ was no anonymous affair. Even in this day and age, if someone off the street was to pay for someone’s burial, it would probably not reach the ears of many. If, on the other hand, someone as rich and well known as, say, Ted Turner had personally paid for someone’s burial, many more people would be aware of it. If someone were to try to lie about Ted Turner financing the burial, such a fabrication could be easily disproved by either himself or those who knew him well.
3) The tomb of Christ was a brand new and unique one. It is stated that the tomb they laid Christ in was brand new (Matt 27:60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41). The significance of this was that there was a uniqueness to Christ’s tomb – it could not have been lost in the midst of older and equally worn down tombs. Also, we are made aware of the fact that the tomb was located in a garden (John 19:41), which only added to its uniqueness. It is far easier to remember a location with a landmark than it is a location in the midst of nothing extraordinary. This all lessened the possibility that those who went to Christ’s tomb on Resurrection Sunday could have gone to the wrong one.
4) There were witnesses to the tomb’s location. Joseph did not unilaterally bury Jesus, but rather a large group of people took a part, and hence were eyewitnesses to where the body was lain. Most particularly, all the Gospels make mention of the women – including Mary Magdalene – being witnesses (Matt 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55). What is the significance of this? Mary Magdalene and many other women went to the tomb on the third day to find it empty – as it was a brand new tomb and they knew where it was, there was very little possibility that they could have gone to the wrong tomb. If none of the women who went that day had personally seen where the tomb was made, and were simply gathering the location word of mouth, we might have grounds for stating that they could have gone to the wrong tomb and, seeing the stone rolled back, assumed the resurrection had taken place. Instead, they were fully aware of the tomb’s location, it was impossible that they could have gone to the wrong one, and it was at the correct tomb that they found the stone rolled back.
5) Guarding the tomb was entrusted to Christ’s enemies. That Saturday, the Jewish leaders go to Pilate and warn him that Christ had sworn he would be resurrected on the third day. Therefore, their fear was that the disciples would come, take Christ’s body, hide it, and then proclaim to the people that he had indeed been resurrected. They suggested to Pilate (who had been warned Christ was an enemy for secular reasons) that it was in his best interests to make certain this did not happen, as “the last fraud will be worst than the first” (Matt 27:62-64). Pilate then tells them: “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can” (Matt 27:65). Therefore we know that the people in charge of the tomb where not those who had been sympathizers with Christ – indeed, they were entrusted to his worst enemies! This would be the equivalent of the SS being put in charge of the grave for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The number one priority of the Sanhedrin would not be to see the resurrection happen or to show apathy either way, but instead to make absolutely certain that no one could claim Christ had been resurrected.
6) Roman guards were placed at the tomb. Some have suggested that the guards were actually Temple guards employed by the Sanhedrin, hence Pilate’s words of “You have a guard of soldiers” (Matt 27:65). In other words, the governor was saying, “You have a guard of soldiers of your own.” However, the words of the high priests to the guards later on (“if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble,” Matt 28:14) would not make sense unless they were under the direct employment of the Roman governor, and hence they must have been Roman soldiers entrusted to them by Pilate. The Roman soldiers, at that time, were among the best disciplined and most feared in the world. Most of all…sleeping on duty resulted in death. Pilate had therefore employed the most reliable force in the world to guard the tomb against possible action from the disciples. It’s also worth noting that, although popular artwork usually depicts about five or so Roman soldiers at the tomb, the traditional Roman guard was about sixty soldiers – therefore there was very little likelihood that all sixty men could have all fallen asleep at the tomb, permitting the disciples to sneak in and steal the body.
7) Christ’s tomb was sealed. Matthew makes mention of the Roman guard placing a seal upon the stone (Matt 27:66). The significance was two-fold: a) if someone moved the stone, the seal would be broken, hence providing evidence of foul play if they were to roll the stone back as if nothing happened; b) the seal was a way of telling potential thieves: “ROMAN PROPERTY – DO NOT TOUCH.” This provided a deterrent to any common thief or weak disciple desiring to rob the grave or take Christ’s body out.
8) The emptiness of the tomb – and lack of a body – was undeniable to all. On Resurrection Sunday, there was a great dilemma for all parties involved, especially those who might have motivation in regards to the resurrection: there was no body. The disciples did not have a body, and the Sanhedrin did not have a body. If the Sanhedrin had held the body in their possession – or they knew that Christ’s body was in the tomb – then they could have easily squashed Pentecost then and there by providing the body (or its location) to the crowd. As it stands, they did not, because even they realized that the body was missing. The body was missing because Christ had, as he had promised, been resurrected from the tomb, to grant life to all those who believe in him.