«ΑΛΗΘΩΣ ΑΝΕΣΤΗ Ο ΚΥΡΙΟΣ»
ΕΚΔΟΣΕΙΣ «ΧΡΙΣΤΙΑΝΙΚΗ ΕΛΠΙΣ»
By Stergios N. Sakkos, University Professor
(So, what happened to Jesus’ body?)
First of all, I will present a trial which, in fact, remains unknown. The high priests, the Pharisees and the Roman authorities, represented by Pilate, tried in every way to keep this out of the public eye. The evangelist Matthew saves a few but clarifying facts about this trial in some verses of the last two chapters of his Gospel. It is the trial of some soldiers of this guard, the sixteen-member Roman guard, which were under the jurisdiction of the religious leadership of the temple. With Pilate’s permission, this guard was placed outside Jesus’ grave by the Pharisees and the high priests. As a result, the disciples would not be able to steal the dead body and then spread the news that He was resurrected.
The tomb was secured “the next day, the one after Preparation Day” (Mt 27:62). These fanatical supporters of the Law about Sabbath did not even respect the Sabbath day. Why? Because they dreaded the Resurrection. They remembered that “while he was still alive that deceiver said”, while Jesus was still alive – therefore, they themselves confirmed that he was dead – He had said that “after three days I will rise again” (Mt 27:63). Although, the disciples did not keep in mind this prophecy at all, Jesus’s enemies and crucifiers were the only ones who believed it and they took every precaution to prevent its fulfillment. Indeed, with Pilate's approval, the high priests and Pharisees – after being sure that the dead body was inside - secured the tomb by putting a seal on the stone (Mt 27:66). What purpose did seals serve? They protected the tomb from the guards, while the soldiers guarded the tomb from the disciples or anyone else who would attempt to steal Jesus' dead body. The tomb was secured and the soldiers guarded the tomb. Now the high priests of Israel could sleep peacefully and “eat the Passover” happy and legally clean, free from sin (see Jn 18:28).
Their peace, however, was disturbed by the presence of these soldiers in Jerusalem the next morning, “on the first day of the week” (Mk 16:2). The high priests and elders were assembled and “had taken counsel” to judge the custodian guards. In their testimony, the soldiers reported to the chief priests everything that had happened (Mt 28:11-12). Being faithful to the mission assigned to them, they guarded the tomb. But at dawn “on the first day of the week”, after a terrible earthquake, they realized that the tomb was empty. How did that happen? They were unable to explain it. However, the high priests and elders understood it very well. Yes, despite the draconian measures they took, the prophecy of the “deceiver” was verified (Mt 27:63). Jesus Christ was risen. Therefore, he was not a deceiver but they themselves were deceived. How could they admit it, though? How could they confess it to the people? They would have to recant what they had said. For this reason, they find a formula which covers them, at least for the time being. They bribe the soldiers with “a large sum of money” (Mt 28:12), telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’” (Mt 28:13).
For Roman soldiers to fall asleep while on duty was a serious offense and punishable by death. What did the Roman ruler Pilate have to say about this? Normally, he should have beheaded the soldiers after the interrogation, as Herod did a little later, when an angel of the Lord released the imprisoned Apostle Peter. He “interrogated the guards and sentenced them to death” (Acts 12:19). Why was Pilate silent? Why did he not apply the law? The question was answered by the judges of these soldiers, the high priests, who assured that “If the governor hears about it” -the alleged negligence of the soldiers- (Mt 28:14), they would intervene themselves to convince him not to punish them. It is not difficult to understand how the high priests would achieve this. Bribery and blackmailing were the usual ways in which conquered peoples influenced conquering Romans.
So, the soldiers “took the money and did as they were instructed” (Mt 28:14), that is, they said that the disciples stole Jesus’ dead body of while they were sleeping. However, the testimony of the soldiers is not only unconvincing, but it also offends the judges-high priests. Saint Augustine aptly observes (Enarrationes in Psalmos 63, 15· Corpus Christianorum 39, 817) “Sleeping witnesses ye adduce: truly you yourself hast fallen asleep, that in searching such devices hast failed. If they were sleeping, what could they see? If nothing they saw, how are they witnesses? But they failed in searching searchings: failed of the light of God, failed in the very completion of their designs: when that which they willed, nowise they were able to complete, surely they failed”. If the judges relied on the words of the sleeping soldiers, they affirm that they made plans to deceive us. How did the soldiers, while sleeping, see that the disciples stole Jesus' body? If, on the other hand, they saw nothing, then what did they testify? Their testimony sounds as if they said: we testify that Jesus' disciples stole his body. Our testimony is completely indisputable, because at the time when the students were stealing the body, we were sleeping so deeply that we neither heard nor saw anything!
The result of the trial is that the “large sum of money” closed the mouths of the soldiers. But they were not able to keep the empty tomb closed, to prevent “the stone rolled away from the tomb” (Lk 24, 2) from revealing to the guards, to the crucifiers and to the whole world that Christ is Risen.