THE BURIAL OF JESUS
THE JEWISH WAY!
Joseph of Arimathea Requests
the Dead Body of Jesus
Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy, prominent, and high-ranking member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court), was a secret disciple of Jesus. After Jesus died on the cross, Joseph requested his body from the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43, 46; John 19:38-39).
JOSEPH RISKS IMPURITY
Joseph, a pure-blooded Israelite, entered the presence of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate whose working day was from 6:00 am to 12:00 noon. Joseph, arriving late in the afternoon, would not have received a warm welcome from Pilate.
The Jewish leaders did not want the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals left on the crosses after sundown (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) because the day was a special Sabbath. The first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread fell on this Sabbath, making it a “high” or “special” festival (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:7). But Joseph was so determined to obtain the body of Jesus that he ignored the Jewish ban on entering a Gentile’s quarters (see John 18:29).
JESUS WOULD BE GIVEN
AN HONORABLE BURIAL
Under Roman law, crucifixion victims were left to the vultures. Criminals were buried in ragged and dirty winding sheets in lowland pits far from Jerusalem. Joseph showed great courage and devotion when he approached the Roman Prefect. With Pilate’s permission, Jesus’ body was taken from the cross and wrapped in a finely woven linen cloth (shroud) with seventy pounds of spices, indicating an honorable Jewish burial. Jesus was buried in Joseph’s own new tomb, hewn out of solid stone (Matthew 27:60).
DID YOU KNOW IT: In an ancient text, War of the Jews 5.4.2, the Jewish historian Josephus (ad 37-100) wrote that the Romans “proceeded to that degree of impiety as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.” When three of Josephus’ friends were crucified, he bravely made a request to the Roman Emperor Titus to remove them from the cross (Life 76). Might Josephus have gotten this idea from Josephus of Arimathea?
A Roman Certificate of Death
Joseph’s request for Jesus’ body surprised Pilate because crucifixion was purposefully and agonizingly slow. He summoned the centurion in charge of the execution and questioned him about the victims’ deaths (Mark 15:44). The Roman centurion, a credible eyewitness, told Pilate how Jesus died (Mark 15:39).
As required by Roman law, the four Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus signed a written document certifying that Jesus was dead. The Roman soldiers knew they would be put to death if they falsified information. Pilate, after he obtained the written certification of Jesus’ death from the Roman centurion gave Joseph permission to bury Jesus’ body (Mark 15:45). Joseph would never have received Jesus’ body with an official certificate of death.
The Meartha Tomb
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, another prominent member of the Jewish Sanhedrin and secret disciple, took charge of Jesus’ burial. Nicodemus once came to Jesus at night to ask him questions and later came to believe that he was God the Son (John 3:1-21). The two men, with the help of servants, removed the gruesome spikes and lowered Jesus’ bloodied and lifeless body to the ground.
JESUS WAS BURIED
IN A RICH MAN’S TOMB
They placed Jesus’ body in Joseph’s new meartha, a Greek word referring to a tomb or cave hewn from the rock. This was a man-made cavity located high up on a rocky hillside (the women “looked up” at the tomb in Mark 16:4; see also Mark 15:46). Jewish tombs in the ancient world usually had several bodies in them, but this was a new and empty tomb (Matthew 27:60; John 19:41).
Because of the approaching Sabbath, Joseph, Nicodemus, and their servants hurried to perform the customary burial rites. Following custom, they placed Jesus’ body on a stone ledge in the meartha’s court, a nine-foot-square area just inside the entrance of the tomb. The tomb interior was big enough for Joseph and an assistant to lay the body on the shelf.
JESUS’ BURIAL WAS
AN HONORABLE BURIAL
Following Jewish custom, Joseph and Nicodemus first washed the body the best they could. Then they wrapped it with a fine linen shroud. Seventy pounds of scented spices preserved the body and acted as an adhesive for the shroud (John 19:40; Luke 23:53). For anointing and burial, the Jews often used the fragrant mixture of powdered myrrh, aloe, and aromatic sandalwood.
The shrouded body was laid on a kukhin, or niche, in the meartha. Additional spices were placed under and around the body to alleviate the odor of decay. Fresh flowers decorated the body and provided a sweet fragrance. Once Jesus’ body was completely and tightly covered, a piece of fine linen cloth, similar to the shroud but much smaller, was placed over his head (John 11:44b).
DID YOU KNOW IT: The women who followed Jesus throughout his ministry didn’t help in the burial, but only “saw where he was laid” (Mark 15:47). In those days, Jewish women weren’t supposed to talk to men in public – not even their own husbands and certainly not with strangers. Joseph, who was from Judea, was a stranger to these Galilean women. Following custom, men and women were separated at funerals.
DO YOU DIG IT: In the spring of 2000, Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson and University of North Carolina-Charlotte Professor James Tabor discovered a first-century Jewish multi-leveled tomb in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley.
In the third level chamber the remnants of two separate burial cloths on a male skeleton. The archaeologists concluded that a long shroud had been wrapped around a man’s body and a smaller cloth had been placed over his head.
The two cloths date, with radiocarbon dating, to the first century ad – the same time period as Jesus’ burial. The apostle John describes Jesus’ burial cloths in exactly the same way: a large shroud and a smaller headpiece. This archaeological evidence demonstrates that John’s gospel account of Jesus’ burial describes a common burial practice.
THE JEWS ALWAYS
BURIED THEIR DEAD
From both Scripture and ancient extra-Biblical writings, historians know that the Jews always buried their dead and they also buried their enemies (2 Samuel 2:32; Tobit 1:17-19; 2:3-7; 12:12-13; Sirach 7:33; 38:16; Joshua 8:29; 10:27; Josephus’ Jewish War 3.377).
A command recorded in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Temple Scroll (HQ Temple), states that crucified bodies must be buried the same day of their deaths. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that it was the custom of the Jews to remove crucified bodies from the crosses and bury them prior to sunset (Jewish War 4.317).
A Large Stone Was Placed
in Front of the Tomb
Sabbath (Friday at 6:00 pm) began before Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus completed the customary burial rites. A golel, an “exceedingly great stone,” blocked Jesus’ tomb’s entrance (Matthew 27:60; Mark 15:46). Men pushed the large stone disk from its initial resting place along a specially designed groove. This was a routine practice in Jewish burials.
DID YOU KNOW IT: A gloss (a phrase written in a parenthesis) at Mark 16:4 in the fourth century AD manuscript Codex Bezae says, “And when he [Jesus] was laid there, he [Joseph] put against the tomb a stone which twenty men could not roll away.”
These golels can be seen in Israel today. Based on their size and the entrances of the tombs, the minimum weight of the stones is calculated at approximately four thousand pounds. But the Bible says that the stone used in front of Jesus’ tomb was a “great” stone (Matthew 27:60; Mark 16:4) – it would have weighed much more than the typical two tons. The great stone was sealed around its perimeter to prevent animals from getting inside and feasting on the dead.
Jesus Was Guarded
by Elite Roman Soldiers
The Jewish religious leaders asked Pontius Pilate to place a Roman guard at Jesus’ tomb. They were afraid that Jesus’ followers would steal the body and then claim he rose from the dead (Matthew 27:62-66).
The Greek word of “guard” is Kustodian, an elite Roman military battle unit. Pilate dispatched the Kustodian to guard the tomb from any ill-conceived plots of Jesus’ followers. By stationing the Kustodian at Jesus’ tomb, Pilate claimed the body as the property of Tiberius Caesar.
WHAT IS A ROMAN
The apostle Matthew specifically states that Pilate ordered a Kustodian to guard Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 27:65-66). Despite some claims to the contrary, these soldiers were not the Jewish Temple Guard. Nowhere in ancient literature is the Jewish Temple Guard, who patrolled and protected the Jerusalem Temple, ever referred to as a Kustodian.
AN ELITE ROMAN
A Kustodian was a sixteen-man elite battle unit that guarded and protected an encamped Roman army. The Roman military was organized into armies that were further divided into legions. A Roman legion numbered roughly 6,400 soldiers. A legion had multiple levels of guards and protection. A Kustodian was the first line of defense in guarding a Roman army. Sixteen soldiers guarded the northern side; another on the west; another on the east; and another Kustodian on the south. Each Kustodian was responsible for protecting the four corners of an entire Roman army.
Each soldier of a Kustodian protected six feet of ground. When confronted in battle, they formed what I call “the fighting cube,” four rows of four soldiers. The Kustodian could protect and hold thirty-six yards of territory.
DID YOU KNOW IT: In ad 390, a military historian named Flavius Vegetius Renatus, wrote a military manual to the Roman Emperor Vegetius called The Military Institutes of the Romans. In this work, Vegetius encourages the Emperor to reinstall the military methods of warfare, skill, discipline, efficiency, and greatness that the Roman army manifested during the time when Jesus lived. This reinstallment included the finest and most discipline Roman guard – the Kustodian.
THE BEST DISCIPLINED
GUARDS IN THE WORLD
Each of the sixteen soldiers of a Roman Kustodian was a highly trained killing machine who carried a six-foot wooden spear with an iron head, a large shield on his left arm, a dagger, and a three-foot short sword, designed for thrusting and close fighting. The Kustodian soldiers deserved their reputation for being the best guards ever known.
As evidence of their fighting skill, one Kustodian could fight a small army of three to four hundred soldiers for about a half hour. By keeping the enemy at bay, they gained time for reinforcements to show up.
After Jesus’ tomb was secured and sealed, four Kustodian soldiers stood battle-ready in front of the tomb in four-hour shifts. The other twelve soldiers fashioned a hemispherical periphery in front of the tomb where they could eat and rest, but yet primed for combat. If anyone came into the periphery of Jesus’ tomb, the Kustodian would without delay move into the fighting formation of the fighting cube and ruthlessly kill them.
According to ancient Roman law, a soldier who deserted his post faced the death penalty. A soldier caught sleeping on the job was burned to death in his own clothing. Soldiers who disobeyed orders or lost their weapons received the death penalty. Polybius writes that Roman soldiers faultlessly administered their duties because of their fear of the death penalty.
DID YOU KNOW IT: To avoid punishment, Roman soldiers paid particular attention to their duties during the night watches (Dion. Halm Antiq. Rom. VIII.79; Polybius VI.37, 38; Justinian Digest 49.16). As the most disciplined military unit of the ancient world, it is ludicrous to suggest that the elite Kustodian fell asleep while on guard duty. But this is the lie that the Jewish leaders spread when confronted with Jesus’ empty tomb.
The Tomb Was Sealed
With a Roman Seal
A ROMAN SEAL PLACED
ON JESUS’ TOMB
The Jewish religious leaders “made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard” (Matthew 27:66). The Roman seal signified Roman authority, power, and protection (1 Kings 21:8; Esther 8:8). A cord, fastened at each end with sealing clay, was stretched across the stone (cf. Daniel 6:17). Any object with the Roman seal upon it belonged to the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. This meant that Jesus’ body was the possession of the Emperor.
Before opening the tomb, the Roman seal would have to be broken. But, not surprisingly, unlawfully breaking the Roman seal resulted in the death penalty. Anyone foolhardy enough to break a Roman seal faced the severe punishment of being crucified – upside down. But before anyone could break the Roman seal and steal Jesus’ dead body, he had to surprise, overpower, and kill the Kustodian – an impossible feat.