Pp Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42
Prior to the burial
The burial customs of the Jews
There are two time notations in this passage which deserve careful, though brief, attention before we proceed with a consideration of the text. Firstly, Mtw 27:57 (see also Mark 15:42) notes that Joseph came from the village of Arimathea during the evening. There were two recognised ‘evenings’ amongst the Jews, the first being the closing of the daylight period which signalled the end of one day and the beginning of the next and the second being the period of darkness which began each day - the Jewish day beginning at sundown.
In this place, however, the clear indication is that it’s the first of these to which the author is referring to for Luke 23:54 notes that
‘It was the day of Preparation and the sabbath [the following day] was beginning’
The darkness which covered the face of the land had continued between the sixth and ninth hours where these are time periods being referred to rather than specific times of the day - that is, the sixth hour ran from 11am-12pm while the ninth hour ran from 2-3pm. This is no more than a translation of ancient time keeping into our modern day concepts for, amongst many people, precise moments within days were difficult to define. For the average ancient (and, even here there were a lot of variations), one hour represented one twelfth part of the day or night period and, adjusting this for seasonal variations, an ‘hour’ could vary a great deal (see my notes here under the heading ‘Time’).
For convenience sake, I’ve divided the day up into a twelve hour period which ran from 6am-6pm so that we might be able to place the events of this day more firmly into our own concept of time, but the divisions are rather loose.
However, Jesus appears to have breathed his last sometime during the ninth hour (Mtw 27:46) - that is, between 2-3pm and, as the following day would have begun at the close of the twelfth hour (at the end of the period which ran 5-6pm), there’s at least three hours here in which the events of these verses would have taken place. If we assume that Matthew 27:46’s
‘about the ninth hour’
could correspond to a time as late as 3.30pm and that the body had to have been buried by 5.30pm at the latest so that those performing the burial duties would have time to journey back to their Jerusalem places of residence, there’s still two hours in which to attend to all the events, a period which seems to be sufficient for everything to have taken place. Even the statement in Mtw 27:57 that it was
‘When it was evening [that] there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph...’
would place the beginning of the personal decision to take responsibility for Jesus’ burial anytime from 3pm onwards.
The other time notation concerns the actual day on which Jesus was crucified. Matthew doesn’t include a time statement in the verses which we’re looking at here but he does in Mtw 27:62 where he notes an event which occurred the following day after the one on which Jesus was buried, this previous day being called by him ‘the Day of Preparation’.
This title of the day was given to the Friday of the week and reminded the Jews that it was the day on which they prepared the weekly requirements of the sabbath (Saturday) which followed. Mtw 28:1’s statement that the women came to the tomb toward the dawn
‘...of the first day of the week’
‘...after the sabbath’
places the resurrection firmly into Sunday. From Matthew, therefore, we get the chronology that Jesus both died and was buried on the Friday, that the Jewish leaders approached Pilate on the Saturday to make sure that the tomb would be made secure and, finally, on the Sunday, Jesus rose from the grave.
This time framework is exactly what we find in the other three Gospels. Mark 15:42 notes the day of burial was the
‘...day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath’
an important statement when it comes to trying to understand John’s immediately puzzling statement that the trial before Pilate took place (John 19:14) on
‘...the day of Preparation of the Passover...’
which makes it sound as if he’s referring to the day which fell prior to the celebration of the Passover festival. I’ve dealt with these problems on my web page dealing with the Passover in Appendix 2 but, very simply, John is defining the day as the Friday before the sabbath which occurred once during the complete seven day Passover and Unleavened Bread festival. Luke 23:54’s statement that
‘It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning’
also harmonises with both Matthew and Mark and the author additionally notes in Luke 23:55-56 that the women observed where Jesus had been laid, prepared spices and ointments with which to anoint the body but that they delayed in doing so because the sabbath fell and
‘...they rested according to the commandment’
John 19:42 is a little less precise in its statements and gives the reason for burying Jesus in a tomb which lay nearby as
‘...because of the Jewish day of Preparation...’
The author seems to be concerned to show that the need for a quick burial wasn’t just that the sabbath was dawning but that, like it’s name suggested, preparation had to be made that day for the one which was to follow. Jesus, therefore, although being buried properly, was also buried in haste that the sabbath might not be dishonoured by a lack of preparation for its imminent dawning.
The four Gospel accounts, therefore, hold together well chronologically and place Jesus on the cross on the Friday, the same day on which the Passover meal was eaten the previous evening and corresponding to the 15th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. This also being the Day of Preparation for the sabbath which fell during the seven day festival, the body of Jesus was removed from the cross in haste and placed into Joseph’s personal, unused tomb which lay close by.
The sabbath saw the approach of the Jewish leaders before Pilate to request a securing of the tomb but, as the sun began to rise on the Sunday daylight period (the day had actually begun twelve hours prior to this), Jesus rose from the grave.
Mtw 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, John 19:38
All four Gospel writers note that the Joseph connected with the burial of Jesus was from Arimathea but it’s left to Luke alone to note (Luke 23:50 - my italics) that it was
‘...from the Jewish town of Arimathea...’
as opposed to any other. Although the identification of this town must have been certain to first century dwellers in the land, the title of the place that’s come down to us is far from certain and defies a clear association with any of the modern settlements or archaeological excavations. This isn’t to say that it hasn’t been identified with some towns but that it’s impossible for the present day believer to be sure which town or village is being referred to.
Most of the authorities take only a short space of time in trying to prove Arimathea’s association with an OT village and then go off to a description of the place which seems to be lacking a concrete proof of identity.
Most sources identify the place with the OT Ramah or modern day Rentis (twenty miles north-west of Jerusalem) which are believed to be one and the same. Similarly, I Maccabees 11:34’s reference to ‘Ramathem’ and Josephus’ reference to ‘Ramatha’ in Antiquities 13.4.9 are equated as all similarly named locations which are lumped together with a single identity along with the ‘Ramathaim-zophim’ of the hill country of Ephraim where Samuel came from (I Samuel 1:1) and the ‘Ramah’ of I Sam 28:3 where he’s reported as having been buried upon his death because it was ‘his own city’.
The problem becomes apparent, however, when the statement of Zondervan in the article ‘Ramah’ notes that the name is
‘...a fairly common geographical name meaning “height” given to several towns in ancient Israel - these were usually situated on some lofty perch’
If we take the name literally, we can see that the label must have been affixed to a great many places even when they weren’t specifically meant to be taken as being called just ‘the height’. So, ‘Ramathaim-zophim’ may be able to be equated with the name ‘the height of the Zuphites’ where the latter would have been a people associated with the area.
But a positive identification with the birthplace of Samuel is by no means certain for, in the LXX of this village, Zondervan notes that the two variations are (transliterated) ‘Armathaim’ and ‘Armathem’ which seem to be somewhat removed from Matthew’s rendering - identical in Mark, Luke and John - of ‘Arimathaias’. I’m no etymological expert but I fail to see how a reasonably recent translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek could render a recognised location by a word which seems to bear some striking dissimilarities.
Therefore, although there may be indications within the OT that the NT Arimathea may have been the OT Ramah from which Samuel came to minister to YHWH at Shiloh, the fact that the name was extremely common and that there appears to be too much variation between the LXX’s rendering and that recorded unanimously by the NT writers should point us away from any definite identification.
All that we can say is that the place was known as Jewish and that it was probably located close to Jerusalem (though what ‘close’ might mean to one will be ‘far’ for another!) simply because Joseph is noted as being (Mark 15:43)
‘...a respected member of the council...’
and it seems right that he would have had to have been close to the city to function in this capacity. However, Matmor observes that
‘...it would seem that he had left [Arimathea] and moved to Jerusalem; otherwise, why would he have a rock tomb near that city?’
and, although this may have an appearance of wisdom, we could suppose that, being a member of the Sanhedrin, he was concerned to be buried within the ‘holy city’ even though he might still have maintained a residency elsewhere. Matmor’s statement this seems to be precluded by Mtw 27:57 which reports Joseph as coming from Arimathea that evening. If he was journeying to Jerusalem from the Jewish village, there’s no reason to suppose that he was doing anything else there but living.
We can learn a few things about Joseph of Arimathea from the brief descriptions which appear in the four Gospels. He’s a character who appears suddenly in the Gospels, fulfils the necessary work and then disappears from the pages of history as if beamed up. No doubt Church tradition has countless stories to tell concerning him and, even though I’ve not gone out of my way to find any legends, I’m sure that it’s generally held that he became a follower of Jesus in a greater way than he was before the resurrection (John 19:38).
Whether this is true or not is impossible to say with any certainty but, of all the people who might have believed in the resurrection, perhaps he was the one who was the most likely to for he witnessed at close quarters that Jesus had died, had bound him in linen cloths for burial and had taken part in rolling the sealing stone across the entrance of the tomb.
I would have expected him to have come with haste to the tomb once he’d heard the goings-on in the city (or even from Jesus’ disciples) but the Gospels are silent on the matter - only he and Nicodemus (John 19:39 - and, perhaps, the servants which helped them) could have verified that the linen cloths that were discovered in the tomb on Sunday morning were the very same ones with which they’d bound Jesus previously.
Firstly, then, we read in Mark 15:43 that Joseph
‘...took courage and went to Pilate...’
but this needs some clarification. Speaking about both Joseph and Nicodemus, Johnmor comments that
‘...when they had nothing at all to gain by affirming their connection with Jesus, they came right out into the open’
noting the contrast with the disciples who seem to have gone into hiding. When Jesus was no longer in a position to benefit them, both characters laid aside what respect they had in the council of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, John 3:1) and gave Him a proper burial. But there’s a contrast hear also in the life of Joseph between fear and courage for he clearly fears his fellow Jews and yet discovers a boldness to confront the ruling authorities who could have had an immediate and decisive effect on his life had they suspected a treasonable action.
Although Nicodemus had tried to interject a note of doubt into the mindset of the Jews when they’d tried to arrest Jesus in the Temple and failed by asking them (John 7:51)
‘Does our law judge a Man without first giving Him a hearing and learning what He does?’
these two characters seem to have remained as bystanders in the actions in what was to follow without raising too loud a dissenting voice for fear of what would happen to themselves. It must be doubtful that they were involved in the night trials (Mtw 26:57-68) and, perhaps, even in the final one which took place before the official Sanhedrin in the Temple courts (Luke 22:66-71) but the fear demonstrated by Nicodemus’ use of a tactful attack and John 19:38’s comment that Joseph was afraid of the Jews seems to be a clear enough statement that they didn’t let their voices be heard with its full volume.
Nevertheless, Joseph’s fear of the Roman authorities is overridden by his commitment to give his Master a proper burial - ‘Master’ is certainly not too strong a word if the term ‘disciple’ used by John and Matthew of him should be given its logical and usual meaning.
It’s difficult to say much more about Joseph’s courage without making it out to be something which he displayed in every facet of his life. The truth is that he was genuinely scared of those of his own people who could have come together against him but was, nevertheless, courageous enough to put aside his fear of men who didn’t rule over the nation of God’s people.
Perhaps, even, there was an element of guilt in his action of retrieving the body because of his fearfulness in not speaking up when he knew that murder was being planned against Him.
Secondly, just like Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph of Arimathea is recorded as being (Luke 23:50)
‘...a good and righteous man...’
where the Greek from which the translation ‘righteous’ comes is the same as that used in Mtw 1:19 and means ‘the knowledge of what is right to do in God’s eyes’. Jesus’ stepfather had had two options available to him when he discovered that Mary was pregnant (Mtw 1:19-20). Either he could have written her a bill of divorcement which would have had the effect of making Mary ‘guilty’ or a mutual agreement between both parties so that Mary would find less of a problem within the society of her day and also, possibly, have made it possible for her to have received her dowry which would have gone some way to supporting her for a while.
Yet even the latter would cause questions to be asked, so he set about considering what was the best thing to do that would be acceptable to God and cause the least amount of pain.
Joseph also had two options open to him. Either he could have let the Roman authorities remove the body from the cross and discard it as they saw fit (though, if the usual practice was as stated in the following article, it would have been after a lengthy period of decomposition) or he could have followed what Jewish piety taught him to do and request burial in a common plot without honour.
But Joseph was a man who knew what was right to do in God’s eyes generally (the previous point about courage excluded). He knew that the honour and respect that he’d had for Jesus while He was alive (John 19:38, Mtw 27:57) compelled him to do the best for Him in death regardless of the reputation that he enjoyed amongst the Jewish Sanhedrin - finally, it appears, Joseph comes to terms with the love which Jesus had shown him so that he felt compelled to return that which had been received.
The disciple of Jesus today may also consider their options and choose a route which is adequate - in the life of Jesus’ stepfather this would have been the mutually agreed divorce or, in the case of Joseph of Arimathea, it would have been the burial in the common plot of ground - but it’s not until the believer considers the right thing to do in God’s eyes that he’ll find himself compelled to go the extra mile and sacrifice our own reputation (Mtw 5:41).
Finally - and probably thought least important - is that Joseph was a rich man (Mtw 27:57). But it would only have been a man of wealth who would have had the prestige of owning his own rock-hewn tomb so close to Jerusalem (Mtw 27:60) and who would have had the political ‘clout’ to have been allowed to request the body of Jesus from the Roman Governor.
Nicodemus is also portrayed as being wealthy, evidenced by the hundred pounds’ weight of myrrh and aloes that he brought for the burial (John 19:39). Yet, probably more important to the Gospel writers, was the fulfilment of Isaiah 53:9 which runs
‘...they made His grave with the wicked [the criminals crucified with Him] and with a rich man in His death [Joseph of Arimathea]...’
Not only is Joseph’s wealth important for securing the body and of providing a place of entombment (rather than a soil burial in which Jesus’ resurrection would have been less demonstrably provable) but, by doing what he did, he fulfilled the Scripture which had been written about the suffering Servant hundreds of years previous.
Prior to the burial
Mtw 27:57-58, Mark 15:42-45, Luke 23:50-52, John 19:31-33,38
Before we look at the event which took place before Joseph went to Pontius Pilate and requested the body of Jesus to bury it, we need to look briefly at John 19:31-33 for these verses shed some light on certain definitive statements of the commentators which we’ll refer to later.
John specifically notes that the Jews were concerned that the executed might not continue to hang on their crosses into the following day because that which was hastening quickly was the sabbath of the seven day Passover festival (John 19:31).
Why this would have been a cause of serious offence, however, is unclear, but Pilate is concerned enough to accede to their demands and orders the soldiers watching over the execution to make sure that the three crucified should die as quickly as possible.
We should note here that the Jews’ requests finishes with the explanation that, upon their death, the bodies
‘...might be taken away’
implying that the Jews would have been allowed to take the men down from the cross upon their expiry once Rome had finished with them and have been responsible for their burial or entombment. This is an important point to grasp because some commentators - like Marklane quoted here (see also Johncar) - maintain that victims of crucifixion were normally
‘...left upon a cross either to rot or to be eaten by predatory birds or animals’
while Tacitus’ records in his Annals (volume 6) details which are cited and which note that, during the time of Tiberius (according to Marklane), many were choosing to commit suicide that they might receive a burial of their remains rather than to expose themselves to execution and be deprived of burial. But the main concern of the Jewish religious leaders appears to have been solely to make sure that the bodies were removed in time for the advent of the Passover sabbath.
Whether there was a specific recollection of Deut 21:22-23 is unclear from the statements of the Jews in the Gospels. But the OT Scripture noted that a man, who had been executed for a crime which was punishable by death, was to be hung afterwards on a tree but that (my italics)
‘...his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance’
so that the dead man hanging over night was considered to be a defilement to the land of Israel (and confirmed as applicable in Sanhedrin 6:4). The Jews’ request that the bodies should be taken down was not simply that they might be removed from their crosses but that, presumably, they were to be buried in the normal Jewish custom. Johncar comments that
‘The Jews never refused to bury any executed criminal but instead of allowing the bodies of such sinners to be placed in family tombs where they might desecrate those already buried, they provided a burial site for criminals just outside the city’
citing Josephus’ Antiquities 5.44 as proof - I couldn’t find anything in chapter 5 which substantiated the assertion and, besides, this book covers a period in Israel’s history which begins after the death of Moses and doesn’t appear to be relevant. Marklane, however, speaks of
‘An area far outside the city of Jerusalem [that] had been consigned for the burial of executed criminals’
and cites Sanhedrin 6:7 which doesn’t actually exist in the Mishnah! The problem between the two commentators is that each propose a site which is either ‘just outside’ or ‘far outside’ - hardly reconcilable (unless one isn’t used to walking distances and the other is!) and, if they have texts to prove their point, all that can be said is that a common burial place had been provided for but that the location is somewhat unclear.
The Jews’ request, then, was not to cut against the long-standing Roman custom of leaving the dead bodies to decompose and be eaten, but to request that the condemned might be killed that their bodies might not continue to hang there during the imminent sabbath.
Therefore Pilate, agreeing to their request, gave the soldiers orders to break the legs of the crucified that they might die all the more quickly. This had the effect of removing the ability of the man or woman to push himself up to breathe and, very soon, asphyxiation would take place. But, having broken the legs of the two criminals who were hanging either side of Jesus, they realised that Jesus had already died and they refrained from doing their duty - it seems correct to say that, although it was obvious to the Roman soldiers that Jesus had already breathed His last (Mtw 27:50,54), they made sure of what their eyes were telling them by piercing His side (John 19:34).
What Joseph of Arimathea does, therefore, is to request the body of Jesus that it might be personally entombed rather than to be consigned to the common burial spot of the condemned. Johncar notes that, except in the case of sedition (of which Jesus had been found guilty)
‘...the bodies of executed criminals [under Roman Law] were normally handed over to their next of kin...’
but this shouldn’t be seen as applying here - indeed, even the normal Roman practice of allowing the executed to decompose on their crosses seems also to have been not an all-encompassing one when it came to Jewish sensibilities. I’ve previously quoted Johncar above and noted only in passing that the Jews provided for a common burial ground for condemned men so that they prevented
‘...the bodies of such sinners to be placed in family tombs where they might desecrate those already buried’
If this was the case (and there doesn’t appear to be a contemporary Jewish source cited in the commentators’ writings), Joseph, by laying Jesus in his own tomb (Mtw 27:60), would have prevented anyone else from being able to be interred there and Joseph’s work in committing Jesus into his own tomb was all the more sacrificial if he would have had to have gone to the expense of having another chiselled out from the rock.
Only Mark 15:42-45 records the short discussion which Joseph and Pilate would have had in the process of securing Jesus’ body and the confirmation which the Governor required before giving permission to release the body over to him.
One might question why Pilate needed such a confirmation seeing as he appears to have already ordered the quick death of the executed to avoid offending the Jews (John 19:31-33) but, even though the command might have been given, it doesn’t follow that he was sure that his command had been carried out to completion.
He would have been sure that the soldiers had gone about their orders with speed, but whether the criminals had finally breathed their last still needed to be made certain. Therefore, his calling of the centurion - presumably the one responsible for the crucifixion - ensured that Joseph was only going to get a corpse and not someone who could be revived.
On the other hand, it may be that the request that the men be killed to prevent them hanging on the crosses during the sabbath took place after Joseph’s request. In this case, Pilate wouldn’t have known that Jesus should have been dead through a previous order and his calling for confirmation would be an expression of surprise, for crucified men were known to have lasted many days before they finally breathed their last, as Markcole notes
‘...of exposure and thirst under the pitiless sun’
As the centurion was the man who’d seen him die, he was the one who was best placed to assure Pilate that all Joseph would be getting was a corpse. There may also be an indication of this order of events in Mark 15:46 which seems to imply that the purchase of the linen shroud occurred after the meeting with Pilate, giving a short time between leaving the Governor and arriving at the cross in which the Jewish leaders could have approached him.
All things considered, perhaps the second option is the best.
The burial customs of the Jews
In September/October 92’s Biblical Archaeology Review in the article entitled ‘Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family’, Zvi Greenhut reported on the possibility that the last remains of the high priest Caiaphas may be interred in an area now known as ‘Peace Forest’, lying almost due south of the NT site of Herod’s Palace.
Even though the roof had collapsed when the archaeologist arrived, summoned there by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, it was clear that the site represented a burial prior to 70AD, the date of the destruction of the Temple, because of the obvious contents clearly visible from the doorway of four ossuaries (stone boxes which contain the bones of the deceased).
It would be wrong to speak of these boxes as ‘coffins’ for, in present day culture, a coffin is normally a wooden contraption lowered into the ground and which decomposes along with the body. Ossuaries are found in hollowed out tombs and lie unburied by earth. Greenhut outlines their use and notes that they
‘...were used for what is known as secondary burial. In the initial or primary burial, the body was laid out in a niche or recess carved in the wall of the burial cave. Then, after the flesh had decomposed, the bones were collected and placed in an ossuary, usually made of limestone and often decorated and inscribed’
The author ties down their use in ancient Israel to the end of the first century BC upto the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70AD even though there are some rare examples of post-70AD tombs known. Although the tomb had been raided by grave robbers, some of the ossuaries remained intact and one bore the inscription which, translated, read
‘Joseph, son of Caiaphas’
while another was simply engraved
(the word actually on the ossuary transliterated into English was ‘Qayafa’ on the first and ‘Qafa’ on the second, both of which are Hebrew versions of the Greek rendering of the NT). Either of these may be notable for containing the remains of the High Priest and uncertainty is raised by Josephus who calls the NT character (Antiquities 18.2.2)
upon his appointment but (Antiquities 18.4.3)
‘Joseph who was also called Caiaphas’
when he was deposed by Vitellius. It’s clearly possible that Joseph, son of Caiaphas was the High Priest in question and that he derived his name from his father - this we shall never know for certain, however and, for our present considerations, it’s hardly important.
Even though the presence of a name shouldn’t be taken as an indication proof positive that the person must be the character of the Biblical records (in this case, the son of such a person or the person himself), the acknowledged quality of the ossuaries points towards the fact that those buried here were more likely to be important individuals of a complete family who could afford the personal quarrying of the tomb, the limestone ossuaries and the elaborate designs with which these boxes were engraved.
Neither is whether this tomb really does bear the remains of Caiaphas’ family and, therefore, of Caiaphas himself, is particularly important to our consideration of the way in which Jesus was buried except that Joseph of Arimathea is noted as using the tomb which had been carved in the rock for his own use (Mtw 27:60) but which, to date, hadn’t yet been used (Luke 23:53, John 19:41).
This Joseph was rich (Mtw 27:57) and a member of the ruling council of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50) which would imply a wealth beyond being simply ‘well off’. Although his resources would certainly not have been comparable to that of the High Priest’s family, that he’d had a tomb hewn out of the rock for his own personal use should indicate to us that the same type of burial would have been common to both tombs - that is, that Jesus was probably laid on a rock-hewn or natural shelf after being wrapped in the linen burial cloths in order that His body be given time to decay until just His bones were left.
An ossuary box would likely have also been present somewhere in the tomb ready to receive them but, of course, these weren’t needed at the present time and could have been brought at a later date once there was a need.
How big the tomb was is impossible even to conjecture for it may have been fairly small but with the intention that an expansion could take place - but, again, the tomb might have been fully completed to it’s largest extent with several niches in the rock for various simultaneous deaths and a handful of ossuaries for each of the members of the family. Caiaphas’ tomb had one elaborately decorated ossuary which contained
‘...six different people: two infants, a child between two and five, a young boy between thirteen and eighteen, an adult woman and a male of about sixty years...’
and which was put forward as the burial ossuary of Caiaphas himself. Another containing an inscription had five individuals with
‘...an age and gender distribution very similar to the one just described - except for the absence of an elderly male’
Whether Joseph had intended Jesus’ bones to be committed into an independent ossuary is impossible to say - and there may have been every intention of bringing a small container to be used specifically for Him as an individual when needed - but ossuaries could be used for familial groups.
Even though Jesus’ resurrection from the grave made all planning for the final container for His earthly remains irrelevant, we should, perhaps, think of a tomb similar to that discovered as belonging to the family of Caiaphas as being the type of place into which Jesus was committed. This method of the collection of bones following decomposition is clearly referred to in Sanhedrin 6:6 where the instruction is given that
‘When the flesh had wasted away they gathered together the bones and buried them in their own place’
but, in Moed Katan 1:6, this seemingly universal practice is shown to be only one of the ways the dead were dealt with for it there remarks that during mid-festival
‘...they may dig a grave and make a coffin while the corpse lies in the [selfsame] courtyard’
The burial of Jewish dead, therefore, in a similar manner, presumably, to that which occurs in the present day, wasn’t unknown and must have been the way most of the poorer people were buried who wouldn’t have been able to afford the expense to have their own tomb cut from the rock.
That Caiaphas’ tomb had been plundered by robbers would give an indication of the reason for the great stone being placed across the entrance of the tomb (Mtw 27:60, Mark 15:46 - and perhaps also placed there to prevent wild animals from scavenging the flesh) but that it was necessary to be moved to one side at a future date was important if the bones were to be collected and placed into an ossuary - so it couldn’t be made too difficult and, while the traditional image of a circular stone which sealed the tomb is certainly possible, it may have been more difficult to have rolled away a stone of this shape once it had been secured into a groove than a large boulder which nestled against the entrance.
The women’s ponderings about who would roll the stone away for them (Mark 16:3) seems to betray the fact of their ignorance that a Roman guard had been placed there to stop any attempt at stealing the body away by His disciples (Mtw 27:65-66).
The tomb may have also contained a smaller antechamber into which the bodies were initially placed and which would have, finally, been moved further into the tomb upon their rotting down to bone. As far as I’m aware, no evidence of a wrapped corpse has been found within a tomb which also contained ossuaries so it’s somewhat of a guess that such a procedure was the normal practice when ossuaries were to be used.
In the case of the tomb of Caiaphas, there was also what was known as a standing pit chiselled out of the floor rock immediately one entered into the tomb. This, like it’s name suggests, was a means whereby those coming into the area were able to stand erect in the low ceilinged chamber, not by the removal of limestone from above the tomb but by chipping away at the floor.
What may also surprise readers is that the entrance on the tomb side was so narrow as to force a person entering to crawl through, it being slightly wider on the outside. Most of the modern day depictions of the tomb of Jesus (actually the tomb of Joseph!) show the entrance way as a door frame which has been carved into the rock - this wasn’t the case in the tomb discovered in Peace Forest and we shouldn’t expect that such a large doorway was the norm. That John (John 20:5) had to stoop to look into the tomb implies that the entrance shaft was fairly short in length and that light from outside clearly lit up the inside of the tomb - more than this is difficult to ascertain.
The tomb of Caiaphas could not have been a carbon copy of that used by Joseph of Arimathea for several reasons but it’s discovery does give clear indications of the sort of tomb that the rich members of the Sanhedrin must have had chiselled out for themselves from the rock surrounding the city of Jerusalem.
The washing of the body may have been the first rite performed on the body of Jesus once it had been taken down from the cross and prior to the anointing with spices and fragrances (John 19:40 seems to indicate that the ‘anointing’ was not so much an application of the perfumes to the body as an inclusion of them in the linen cloths which were wrapped round the body). Although the Gospels make no mention of this act of washing, Shabbath 23:5 notes this in connection with duties which were not overridden by the sabbath restrictions and, in Acts 9:37, we read that the body of Dorcas was washed (presumably with water) before she was laid out in an upper room.
We may be fairly sure, therefore, that the washing of the body with water was one of the normal practices of the Jews.
The custom of wrapping the body in cloths is also clearly evidenced as being the particular procedure which was used in the burial of Jesus prior to the expected commitment of His bones into an ossuary. Although the women had been caught unprepared by Jesus’ speedy death and had to buy and prepare the oils and spices to honour Jesus in death for a later date (Luke 23:55-56), Nicodemus brought (John 19:39)
‘...a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight’
with which they bound the body in linen cloths (John 19:40). There are just four OT references to aloes in the OT, three of which combine the mention with that of myrrh (Ps 45:8, Prov 7:17, SofS 4:14) and none of these relate the fragrance with death.
Although Zondervan notes that there’s some dispute as to the exact tree from which the fragrance was obtained, it’s function as an intensely sweet smelling perfume (Prov 7:17 indicates its use as a perfume for the living) would have been attractive to use on a dead body, presumably
‘...because dead bodies putrefy quickly’
Why this would be needed when the rock tomb was to be sealed until the bones rotted down, however, is not explained but Zondervan also notes that aloes were used by the Egyptians for embalming and there may have been the intention of a reduction in the speed with which the body decayed, the embalmers wrapping the corpse in linen cloths sprinkling aloes and myrrh evenly throughout the wrappings. The quantity that Nicodemus brought to the tomb for application (John 19:39) must have represented a cost to the purchaser which was fairly excessive and should be taken as an indication of the respect with which the Rabbi regarded Him.
John may intend his readers to think of a fulfilment of OT Scripture here from Psalm 45 which is specifically a coronation or enthronement song and announces to the recipient of the verses (Ps 45:6) that
‘Your divine throne endures forever...’
before going to note that
‘...your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia...’
but this isn’t certain.
John 19:40’s mention of the body being bound in linen cloths comes from a Greek word (Strongs Greek number 1210) which carries with it the idea of restricting something from movement or the withdrawal of liberty and, hence, a winding of the burial cloths around Jesus is implied here - somewhat different to the Shroud of Turin which is often supposed to have been Jesus’ burial shroud.
That the RSV’s rendering of Mtw 27:59, Mark 15:46 and Luke 23:53 refer to a ‘shroud’ is more the liberty of interpretation of the translator for no such word occurs in the manuscripts. However, the idea of a single piece of cloth seems to be contained within their descriptions and it may be best to see what’s being meant is that the body of Jesus was placed into a single piece of linen, after which strips of scented cloth were wrapped around the body into a tight-fitting mummy-like structure which prevented the decaying body from falling apart. Johncar notes, however, that the word used in the first three Gospels
‘...can refer either to a single piece of cloth or to the material used’
while Markcole speaks of the word as indicating something like
and Luknol reverses the argument by stating that the word means primarily ‘fine cloth’ but that it
‘...is occasionally used of a burial shroud...’
and so an assertion that a single piece of linen was used at some point remains unproven. That said, if the structure of the linen was as previously suggested, it’s impossible to conceive of how the Shroud of Turin could have been removed from such a construction and the idea that Jesus was laid in the Shroud seems to be denied even by the writers’ insistence that it was wrapped around Him.
Why a napkin or ‘face cloth’ (Strongs Greek number 4676) should have been used (John 20:7) is difficult to imagine unless the binding of the corpse in linen cloths didn’t include the head - but, even so, John’s record has the feel of an eye-witness account (as it indeed is). Why it was rolled up and placed in a position by itself is difficult to answer - and why John felt it important to record is equally baffling.
Peter and John’s eyes must have fallen on the linen shape in which the body had been bound but which was obviously now vacated. Indeed, it would have been difficult to have constructed a fraudulent witness of resurrection for the linen strips would have had to have been bound onto something solid for them to be securely fastened into the shape of a body.
Just how they knew that Jesus had risen is far from certain by the evidence which was presented to them but, I presume, there must have been some crack or other in the linen cloths or else, when Jesus rose, some of the cloths bound on the top had fallen inward with no flesh to support them. If the linen strips weren’t bound around the head then it would have also been immediately obvious that the body had gone when the head ‘was missing’.
Whatever the precise technique employed, John is careful to note that the procedure which was followed (John 19:40) was
‘...the burial custom of the Jews’
and, while it may be reasoned that the few hours in which all the work was done was not sufficient for one or two men to complete it all, the two men named were both of some means and it’s unlikely that they weren’t able to use their servants and slaves who would have been available to them. Marklane comments (my italics) that it’s necessary to read Mark 15:46 as inferring that Joseph
‘...caused the body to be taken down from the cross, linen cloth to be purchased and the body prepared for burial. With servants to assist him, two hours was sufficient time for accomplishing all that was required’
and this is probably correct. Whether the women took part in the burial is doubtful for they seem to have decided to give honour to Jesus in death at a later date once they’d had time to prepare spices and ointments (Luke 23:55 - Mark 16:1 speaks of the women buying spices so that both purchase and preparation are indicated within the texts) and they appear to have been more like passive observers than active participants in the ceremonies which Joseph and Nicodemus were carrying out. Mtw 27:61 (see also Mark 15:47) records them simply as
‘...sitting opposite the sepulchre’
an important observation for the writer to include here for it shows that they were fully aware of the place to which the body had been taken. Lukgel notes that the Greek construction here indicates that
‘...the sepulchre was situated on a hillside in a valley, on the other side of which...the women sat. This is also supported by [Mark 16:4 that says] that the women on approaching it looked up’
Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty that the site of the grave was important to the early Church, it seems fairly clear that the writers conveying the events were certain of the general layout of the place where the tomb lay.
The faithfulness of the women is again incidentally recorded, for the disciples have all long since disappeared from view and it’s left to the women to wait patiently at the cross until His body is removed, washed and bound into linen cloths before finally being laid to rest in a tomb which was nearby (John 19:41-42).
Luke 23:55 develops the observation by Matthew (quoted above) and provides the statement that the women saw
‘...how His body was laid’
an indication, perhaps, that they at some time approached the sepulchre - and even that they went inside - to see exactly where and how Jesus was being placed, presumably so that they would be certain to come directly to the shelf where they knew Him to be after the sabbath was ended.
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