The Burial of Jesus
It's important to understand the Jewish burial process and what would have been involved in burying Jesus after the crucifixion. It is also important to understand what Jesus would have to overcome, aside from death, in coming back to life.
In the first century, the practice of burying multiple bodies in a common tomb or grave had given way to the practice of placing the body in a hewn-out crypt or chiseled shelf in a wall. After a year, the bones of the deceased were gathered and placed in a box, otherwise known as an ossuary. The crypt or shelf could then be re-used for another one-year burial cycle.
Jews do not embalm the bodies of their dead, but allow them to "return to the earth". It may be for this reason that the Bible and Jewish tradition holds that the dead are to buried on the day they have died in order to avoid defiling the Land God gave them. (1) Anything dead, including people, would affect the purity of the Jew, causing him to have to endure a period of cleansing (2), during which the individual would not be eligible for worship activities. (3) The responsibility of properly burying the dead typically fell to the relatives, but by Jewish tradition, was also considered a "civic" duty. This responsibility was even observed for criminals' (4) and suicides. (5) The deceased person was cleaned with water and wrapped in a burial shroud usually made of linen. As the body was wrapped, it was not uncommon to anoint it with aromatic herbs and spices. In Biblical times, given the climate of the Holy Land, bodily decay would begin quite rapidly. By using the aromatic materials, the smell associated with decay could be covered for a short time. Next the body was laid in a tomb or shelf to begin the yearlong wait until the bones could be re-interned in an ossuary. It was customary for relatives to visit the body for several days after the death. Often they would add more herbs and spices to the body when they visited to mask the increasingly apparent odor.
Let's examine Jesus' burial.
Jesus was crucified as a common criminal. Typically, the Romans denied the families of criminals the right to bury their dead, allowing them to decompose for several days on the cross as an example to other "law breakers". This was a terrible insult to the Jews as well as defilement to them. Not only were they considered unclean from handling a dead body, but also one that was "rotten" made the defilement even worse. Archeologists have only found one body, from the Holy Land, which was clearly crucified. I believe the reason behind this lack of bodies was because the Romans disposed of them after they had significantly deteriorated, not allowing for a "normal" Jewish burial.
In Jesus' case, a man named Joseph, from Arimathea, asked special permission from the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate to take possession of the body. (6) It is my opinion that since Pilate did not wish to kill Jesus in the first place (7), he was more than happy to accommodate Joseph. The Bible tells us that Joseph took the body down, cleaned it, wrapped it in a linen cloth, laid it in a newly carved tomb and rolled a rock in front of it. (8) Since Jesus had made the claim that "three days after his death, he would rise and live again" (9), the Jewish priest asked Pilate to appoint a guard. According to the book of Matthew, Pilate declined, but gave the priest permission to use their guards instead. This is an important point that I will touch on later in this article. Along with the guards, the priest also sealed the tomb with their official seal. (10)
At this point, we read in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) that Jesus, quite simply, has overcome death and come back to life, just as He said He would. We find the women going to the grave, most likely to anoint the body with spices and pay their respects to this great man. What they find instead is the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb. Either when they arrive or shortly after their arrival, they are greeted by angels who say, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!" (11) In the Gospel of Matthew, it is reported that the guards also saw the angels and were so afraid that they fainted. Later on, they were paid by the priest to report that Jesus' disciples stole the body while they were sleeping. (12)
As we enter this Easter season, take a moment to reflect on the great sacrifice Jesus made on the cross in order to erase all of our sins, and keep in the mind the great feat He accomplished in overcoming death after three days in a tomb.
1. Deuteronomy 21:23
2. Numbers 19:11-15
3. Leviticus 21:10-12
4. Deuteronomy 21:23
5. 2nd Samuel 17:23
6. Matthew 27:57-61
7. Matthew 27:11-26
8. Matthew 27:57-61
9. Mark 8:31
10. Matthew 27:62-66
11. Matthew 28:1-15, Mark 16:1-13, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18
12. Matthew 28:11-15