Matthew blows right through this part, and my original thought was that I would also blow past the burial of Jesus and then through the posting of guards, and concentrate on his account of the resurrection in one post. Yet as I was reading through the text, the thought hit me that the modern reader may miss some rather important points here, that Matthew would not have needed to mention to his original audience.
You see, dear reader, the Romans did not allow bodies to be taken down from crosses as a rule; they were left to rot.
There are two great empires in the history of Man that stand out as the two most successful Empires of all, the Roman Empire of antiquity and the British Empire of modern times. Most historians that I am familiar with say that the British were so successful in building an Empire because they brought British law with them and established about as much justice as one can, while subjugating a people. The Roman Empire worked because the Romans allowed an unusual amount of local autonomy, as we see clearly in the Gospels, and the New Testament writings in general. A provincial outpost such as Judea would have local governance within certain limits, as long as there was no overt rebellion against the Romans. If there was open opposition to the Romans, then their response would be swift, violent and brutal, as those in Judea would discover about 40 years later.
Individuals who didn’t follow the Roman rules were also dealt with merciless brutality, and that is where crucifixion came into play. Let’s be honest, crucifixion was not a very efficient method of execution; if the victim wasn’t roughed up too badly beforehand, it would take days for them to die, and that meant that guards would need to be posted for days to ensure that the victim wasn’t saved. The reason is that there is nothing inherently fatal about being nailed to a cross. By having the victim suffering in agony for days on public display served as a warning to all others not to cross the line.
But wait that’s not all! After the person finally died, their body would be left on the cross to rot and stink and be picked at by scavenger birds or animals until they fell apart in a heap of bones that dogs would chew on. That is why Golgotha (place of skulls) had its name. In Judea, as a concession to Jewish sensibilities, the Romans usually broke the legs of the victims before the Sabbath so they would suffocate… that was good day to be crucified, as oddly as that may sound, because if you were nailed to a cross on the day after the Sabbath, and hadn’t been scourged first, you would be up there alive for several days.
Joseph was a rich and influential man, and a secret follower of Jesus. He is the kind of person who could get an appointment to see Pilate, and apparently as a favor, Pilate agrees to allow an honorable and decent burial for Jesus, whom he knows to be innocent, possibly as a last shot at the Jewish leaders.
Consider Joseph’s position here; he is, in a sense, “coming out” when he went to Pilate, putting himself in jeopardy by claiming the body. In doing so, he has just put a big target on his own back.
And thus, Jesus is laid to rest in haste on that most fateful of all days.