The questions which this post tries to answer are: What was the charge against Jesus? Who carried out the sentence of death? and whose guards were stationed at his tomb (allegedly to prevent Jesus’ disciples from stealing his body)?
Briefly, although many accusations were made against Christ, the charges laid by the religious leaders were two. First, it was alleged that he claimed to be the Son of God, and he was charged with blasphemy. It was hoped that this would justify his death to the average Israelite. The second allegation was that he claimed to be the King of the Jews, and therefore was a traitor usurping the rights of Caesar. This would be sufficient cause for the Romans to act against him as a traitor. The sentence of death was carried out, after an initial hesitation, by the Roman authorities. The tomb, it will be suggested, was guarded by Roman soldiers.
As a preface to what follows, it needs to be recognised, according to the Gospel accounts, that both Jesus and his enemies understood that it was necessary for him to die. They may have had differing reasons, but this necessity was independently recognised by both parties. Jesus predicted his own death by the hand of the religious leaders, and his subsequent resurrection, several times during the course of his ministry (E.g., Matthew 13:38-40, 16:21-23; Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-4; John 12:27-33). The religious leaders also saw this as important. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they plotted to take and kill him, arguing that “it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50). The high priest, Caiaphas, thought that if the people followed Jesus, then the Romans would respond by coming to “take away both our place and nation” (John 11:49). The difference in the outlook of the religious leaders and Christ was that the former saw his death as a temporal expedient to maintain the power and influence they held even under Roman occupation, while Jesus saw his life, death, and resurrection, as God’s way of rescuing his people (in every nation) from their sinful rebellion against God, and as the only means of appeasing God’s anger against them. Jesus had said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Both Jesus and the religious leaders saw his coming death as a substitution, one man for many.
In Chapter 26 of Matthew’s account, the chief priests, the elders of the people, and the scribes were plotting “to take him [Jesus] by trickery and kill him” (v. 4). Judas then offers to deliver Jesus to these conspirators, and he is paid for his trouble (vs. 14-16). The armed mob sent from the chief priest and elders to arrest Jesus was led by Judas (v. 47). Jesus did not resist this action because it “was done that the Scriptures of the Prophets might be fulfilled” (v. 56). These events brought Jesus before his religious enemies for trial.
Before this body of men – the Sanhedrin – were brought accusers, false witnesses, to give reason why Jesus should die. Matthew states that no reason was found at first, and Mark’s account tells why – their testimony did not agree (Mark 14:56). The charge was not important, all that was desired was an excuse to kill Jesus. Finally some said that “this fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'” (Matt.26:61). This accusation was not true. Jesus had predicted the temple’s destruction (Matt 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2), Luke 21:5-6), which did occur in AD 70, and he had said to the religious leaders: “[You] Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:20), but, as John goes on to explain, Jesus had been predicting his trial and death, and his subsequent resurrection (John 2:21-22). Nevertheless, to the charge of temple desecration Jesus gave no reply. The high priest then asked Jesus a further, seemingly unrelated question: “I put you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!” (Matt. 26:63). An affirmative reply here would provide grounds for a Blasphemy conviction – if Jesus were not the Christ, that is.
The records of Jesus’ answer have been used by some to deny that Jesus ever claimed to be the Son of God or the Christ. Literally, in Matthew, Jesus said, “You said [it]”, which could mean, “[It is as] you said” or, as some have suggested, “You said [it; I didn’t]. In Mark, Jesus replied “I am”, and Luke records his answer as “You say that I am”, which, by itself, could be understood to mean “You said it, I didn’t” or “You say it [and know it to be true] yourselves.” Possible verification for this last idea is the passage in Matthew 21:23-27. The religious leaders had asked Jesus about the authority he had to do the things he was doing. Jesus asked in turn about the authority of John the Baptist, the man who had publicly identified Jesus as the Christ. They realised that to say John was a true prophet of God was to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, to deny John’s authority was to endanger their own credibility with the people. They refused to answer his question, and Jesus had no need to answer theirs.
Together these passages suggest to me that Jesus is answering in the affirmative, that he is the Christ, the Son of God. I say this because of what Jesus said immediately after about the coming manifestation of his authority, and the reaction of the Sanhedrin to his complete answer. The charge of blasphemy was said to be confirmed. Jesus then had to be taken to Pilate for execution because the Jews were subject to Roman rule and could not inflict capital punishment by their own authority (John 18:28-32).
At the trial before Pilate, the religious leaders did not accuse him of Blasphemy, but rather of treason. He was presented to Pilate as a revolutionary. He was accused of “perverting the nation [of Israel], and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar [untrue, see Matt 22:15-22], saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2). When Pilate tried to release Jesus, because he found no fault in him, the religious leaders told him that he would be no friend of Caesar if he did so. They also claimed that they, as Jews, had “no king but Caesar” (John 19:12 & 15). The crowds only answer to Pilate’s request for evidence were louder cries for Christ’s crucifixion. Merely to appease the crowds, and to save his own neck perhaps, Pilate agreed to kill Jesus for the religious leaders on the charge of treason. This is one reason why “King of the Jews” was written and nailed to the top of the cross, to indicate on what charge he was executed (Matt. 27:37, Luke 23:38, Mark 15:26).
It seems possible, to me, that it was a troop of Roman soldiers who guarded the tomb. In Matthew 27:62-66 we see the religious leaders going to Pilate to ask for a guard, because they remembered that Jesus had predicted his own resurrection. They alleged that his disciples might come and steal his dead body to give the impression that he had risen. The religious leaders said to Pilate, “Command that the tomb be made secure until the third day.” Pilate’s reply could be understood in at least two different ways. He said, “You have a guard; go your way, making it as secure as you know how.” The clause, “you have a guard”, could mean: “You have your own guard of Jewish militia, why bother me”, or “You have your request, here is a guard”. After the guard (of whatever type) failed to stop Jesus rising from the dead, they told the religious leaders what had happened. If this were a Jewish guard they would naturally go to these men to report; if they were Roman soldiers they would probably give their report to the religious leaders first because they had been placed in their service. It is also likely that they would have been reluctant to tell their superior officers about their failure. According to Matthew’s account, these religious leaders bribed the soldiers to say that the disciples took the body while they slept, promising that “if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure” (Matthew 28: 11-15) This promise would make some sense if they were Roman soldiers, but if they were Jewish militia, why should the Roman governor be concerned about the matter?