Broken Chain of Custody – Criminal Act or a Resurrection?
In a matter of moments, the Roman-Jewish legally imposed chain of custody over the body of Jesus of Nazareth was broken. What happened? For the more than 2000 years, the incident that occurred at dawn on Sunday, the third day of Passover, has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many Resurrection conspiracy theories to explain how the body simply vanished.
Anyone trying to steal the body would encounter an armed Roman-Jewish military squad, the koustodia. Further, the tomb was sealed in the presence of the Roman authorities and the Jewish leadership to ensure that didn’t happen.
The case of the Resurrection on or about sunrise of Nissan 17 enters the final phase in the sequence of events preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark attributes a significant number of eight verses and seven verses to describe the first series of events. Luke paraphrased it this way:
LK 24:1 “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.” (NKJV)
Predawn finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place on Friday evening by Joseph of Arimathea. Three conclusions can be drawn: the women expected to find the dead body of Jesus; they were not accompanied by either Joseph or Nicodemus nor any of the Disciples, and they were unaware of the koustodia guarding the sealed tomb.
At this juncture, there are now two named Jewish council members, four named women from Galilee, the Jewish leadership declaration to Pilate, his Roman government decision, and the koustodia guards – all were witnesses to the fact that the body of Jesus was in the tomb leading up to dawn of Sunday morning.
Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes that a great earthquake struck. At this moment the four women and the koustodia saw the stone being rolled away from the entrance to the tomb:
MT 28:2-4 “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (NKJV)
Witness accounts gathered by the authors of Matthew and Mark describe the individual responsible for opening the tomb as an angel or a young man wearing a wrap-around, brilliant white robe. Shortly thereafter, Luke’s report describes two men in dazzling apparel.[i] The angelic beings point out to the witnesses that the tomb is empty.
Seasoned Roman-Jewish military soldiers and the women of Galilee were paralyzed with fear by the traumatic sequence of a great earthquake, the angelic being who rolled away the stone and his extraordinary announcement. Incapacitated, they watched and listened as the events at the tomb unfolded.
Some may ask how it can be known the koustodia witnessed the event? Simply by their actions and their own report. Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. The hardcore military squad reacted in the same manner as the four women.
Matthew reports the chaotic scene where people were scattering in three directions. Mark reports the petrified and dumbstruck women didn’t say a word and ran from the tomb. Luke said they were “terrified.”[ii]
Headed for the location of the disciples were the women while the koustodia split up, some diverting to go tell the Jewish chief priests what they had seen, the others to destinations unknown. Unbecoming behavior by the koustodia is telling – what could have happened that would cause professional soldiers to abandon their posts?
Whether Roman soldiers or Temple Guards, both were fierce, experienced warriors. In Wars, Josephus described Jews in hand-to-hand combat defending the Temple against the Romans, each side at times taking heavy casualties.[iii] In a few battles, the Jewish defenders actually won the day. Reputation of Roman soldier discipline is legendary. Temple Guards were especially trained to stay awake all night – falling asleep on-duty could result in being set on fire by superiors.[iv]
Direct reports from the koustodia rang true with the chief priests based on their own reaction to the information. It posed an unexpected turn of events for the chief priests who quickly assembled the elders of the Jewish council (likely including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) to deal with their new problem.
Irony of ironies. The Jewish leadership who had implored Pilate to secure the tomb to prevent the theft of the body of Jesus is the very same group who was now compelled to find a way to explain an inexplicable breach in their own Roman-Jewish security measures…something they had witnessed being put in place less than 24 hours earlier. Matthew describes what they decided to do:
MT 28:13-14 “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole his body while we were asleep….’ If this matter is heard before the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”(NET)
Bribes are only used to cover up an undesirable truth or to promote a deception. The council even promised to appease Pilate if the koustodia’s dereliction of duty became an issue confirming the guards were ultimately under the Roman authority of Pilate.
Meanwhile, the women of Galilee arrived at the location of some of the disciples. John’s eyewitness Gospel joins the description of events at this point with Mary Magdalene’s excited announcement to the disciples. He quotes her exclaiming:
JN 20:2 “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (NET)
The tomb was empty, the body was gone, and Mary Magdalene was completely bewildered, unable to make sense of what she had just seen and heard.
Both the koustodia and the women reported the same event to two different parties how the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was broken. Each party reacted differently to the information, but neither party called the reports false.
One group chose to investigate the empty tomb and found more evidence inside. The Jewish council had the option to lodge a legal complaint with Rome to challenge the broken chain of custody, but instead chose a cover-up. Pilate was silent, too, and took no action. Why? Did an unexplainable Resurrection actually occur?
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NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.
Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.
[i] NetBible.org. Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.
[ii] NASB, NIV, NRSV.
[iii] Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Book VI, Chapter IV.4-6; Book VI, Chapter I.1. “Temple, Administration and Service of.” JewishEncylcopedia.com. http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14303-temple-administration-and-service-of>
[iv] Talmud Mishna Middot. The Sefaria Library. <http://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Middot.1/en/Sefaria_Community_Translation?lang=b “The Temple Guards and Their Mystical Meaning.” Chabad.org. <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3001283/jewish/The-Temple-Guards-and-Their-Mystical-Meaning.htm>