Among the supporting cast of the Easter story are many unnamed soldiers. Soldiers are sent to arrest Jesus at Gethsemane, mock and beat Jesus, and stand guard outside Christ’s tomb, among other activities. But who were these soldiers—who did they work for, where did they come from, and why are there so many of them in Jerusalem during the time of Christ?
Perhaps, like me, you conjure up a flat mental picture of a generic “Roman soldier” whenever one of them appears in the Gospel accounts. But the words “soldier” and “centurion” have different implications in different Bible passages, and understanding those implications gives us a better picture of the political and religious situation in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry. This blog post by Gary Manning provides useful context for the many soldiers who are mentioned in the New Testament. Here’s one example from the post:
The arrest of Jesus: John 18:3 mentions the cohort and officers of the high priest. Although “cohort” can refer to troops of any nation, in this case it refers to a squad (or more) of soldiers from the Roman cohort. In Jerusalem, a reference to “the cohort,” along with the mention of a chiliarchos (commander of a cohort, John 18:12), makes it clear that Roman troops are present along with the officers of the high priest. Since civil disorder was always a possibility at Passover, the high priest decided to request a contingent of Roman troops to support this arrest. John’s wording can be interpreted to mean that some portion of the cohort was present, rather than the entire cohort.
There are many more interesting examples at the blog post.
[Image: Roman soldiers from Ben Hur.]