The identity of the actors in this narrative is significant. Because John's disciples took great risk and buried their teacher (14:12), we may expect at least as much courage from Jesus' disciples here (Rhoads and Michie 1982:133). But Jesus' disciples disappoint us, leaving the task to characters Matthew's audience would not anticipate unless they had heard the story before (they probably had heard it, but might still be struck by the contrast).The Women's Courage (27:55-56) Whereas the male disciples feared for their lives and were nowhere to be found, the women followed all the way to the tomb. In that culture women were relegated to a marginal role in discipleship at best, not permitted to be disciples (see Keener 1992:83-84; Witherington 1984). Thus women, unlike men, would not be suspected as potential coconspirators with Jesus; their courage is nonetheless telling. These women had followed Jesus as disciples in whatever ways they could, even ways that would have appeared scandalous in that culture (v. 55; compare Stanton 1989:202; Stambaugh and Balch 1986:104; Liefeld 1967:240).
Joseph of Arimathea: A Rare Wealthy Ally (27:57-61)Rich people rarely showed up among Jesus' disciples, especially when pressure became serious (19:24; 26:18). Yet Joseph here is a disciple of Jesus, a model to be imitated, one of the few rich men who squeezed through a needle's eye by God's grace (19:23-24). The Romans normally preferred for the bodies of condemned criminals to rot on crosses (Petr. Sat. 112), but Jewish custom prohibited this final indignity (Deut 21:23; compare m. Sanhedrin 6:5-6), and the Romans sometimes surrendered a corpse to friends or relatives who sought permission to bury it (Philo Flaccus 83-84). But unless Joseph already held special favor before Pilate (compare Jos. Life 420-21), which is unlikely, only a courageous ally would identify himself before the governor as "friend" or patron of one condemned for conspiracy against Rome.
Matthew explicitly notes the use of Joseph's own family tomb, fulfilling Isaiah 53:12. To bury Jesus in his own tomb (Mt 27:60) fits the situation of haste and location, but also suggests a special love normally reserved for family members or those equally esteemed (compare 1 Kings 13:30-31). Archaeological evidence for the tombs in this area may suggest that the tomb belonged to a person of material substance (Craig 1995:148).
Most Judean burial sites were private family tombs scattered around Jerusalem and elsewhere (Safrai 1974-1976b:779-80). Often these were caves with an opening covered by a large stone rolled in a groove; such stones could not be removed from within (Reicke 1974:187; Yamauchi 1972:112). Because Joseph was well-to-do, he probably owned a more ornate tomb, whose disk-shaped stone would be too large (a yard in diameter) for a single man to move even from outside (Lane 1974:581).Trying to Keep Jesus Buried (27:62-66) In contrast to the women and Joseph, the other participants in the tomb narrative--the religious leaders--have quite different motives: they want Jesus to stay buried lest his promises to reign stir hope. They want the whole Jesus movement to stay buried in the tomb. This paragraph inaugurates a contrast between the alleged deceitfulness of Jesus (v. 63) and of his disciples (v. 64) on the one hand and, not long after, the actual deceitfulness of his enemies on the other (28:13-15; compare Gundry 1982:582). The authorities' behavior is not unlike that of some religious people today, whether conservative or liberal, who insist on being viewed as right even when they are wrong.
But the primary focus of this paragraph and its conclusion in 28:11-15 is the incontrovertible evidence for Jesus' resurrection. Sealing the stone (27:66) would make it impossible for anyone to enter the tomb and then merely replace the stone (see Filson 1960:299). Although Jesus has already left the tomb, the stone is not removed until 28:2. Because Matthew would hardly create a charge that did not exist, we may be sure that the primary polemic against the Christian claim concerning Jesus' resurrection was theft of the body (compare Craig 1984; Meier 1980:356).