Burial Of Jesus Was To Be Completed Before Sundown

Joseph Of Arimathea Knew That He Had To Complete The Burial Of Jesus Before The Sabbath That Would Begin On Friday Night

A rich man named Joseph of Arimathea met the Roman prefect Pilate on the eve on which Jesus was crucified to request the Prefect for the body of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea knew that he had to hurry and complete the Burial of Jesus before the Sabbath that would begin on Friday night. But he knew that he would be taking a great risk. It was difficult to say how Pilate would react as he was already upset with the Jewish leaders as they had threatened to report him to Caesar if he refused to crucify Jesus. Besides Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin, the very body that wanted Jesus dead. So what was Joseph of Arimathea’s interest in burying Jesus? Furthermore bodies of victims of crucifixion were generally handed to members of the victim’s family. And Joseph of Arimathea was not a member of Jesus’ family.

Descent from the cross2

Jewish Leaders Were Anxious To Complete The Burial Of Jesus

However Jewish leaders too were anxious to complete the Burial of Jesus for the same reason. As for Pilate, even though he would have liked to let the body of Jesus hang from the cross longer acceded to Jewish sentiments and did not want to offend the Jews fearing adverse consequences. As opposed as he may have been, Pilate consented to Joseph of Arimathea’s request. According to some sources Pilate should not have had any hesitation in giving the body of Jesus as both Roman and Jewish laws required that the next of kin dispose of the body of a deceased immaterial of the manner of death. The hitch here was that Joseph of Arimathea was not a close relative.

Pilate Was Surprised That Jesus Should Have Died So Soon

We are told that at first on hearing Joseph of Arimathea’s request, Pilate was surprised that Jesus should have died so soon. Normally victims of crucifixion hung on the cross for many hours and in some cases for days before they died. Pilate did not believe that Jesus was dead. So he sent a centurion to verify that Jesus was no more. In those days the checks to verify that a person was dead was not the least bit refined. So probably the centurion decided that Jesus was dead through a visual inspection.

Pilate probably overlooked the requirement that the body be handed over to the next of kin in view of the Jewish leaders’ keenness to bury Jesus before the beginning of the Sabbath. A far as the Romans were concerned they generally allowed the people of conquered territories to follow their customs. As for the Jews, they did not attach any stigma to victims of crucifixion. Crucifixion was the Roman capital punishment. Jews had four options for capital punishment: stoning, burning, decapitating and strangling. (1)

Although it was the Romans that handed down crucifixion as capital punishment, the Jews did not hesitate to bury crucified bodies in accordance with Jewish law: “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their 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” (Jewish War 4.5.2), and within 24 hours of death in order to preserve ritual purity. In fact there was nothing in the Mishnah that prevented Jews from burying crucified relatives together with others of their family (2).

This tradition is reinforced by John 19:31 “The bodies should not remain upon the cross on the Sabbath day (for that Sabbath was an high day).” The Jewish leaders were very specific regarding this, as this was no ordinary Sabbath that was approaching; it was the Passover Sabbath. This is what John was explaining when he described it as “an high day”.

Besides this, Friday was the day of preparation for the Jews and the leaders probably wanted to rush through the Burial of Jesus and go about their business of getting ready for the next day. The Greek word paraskeue means preparation. It was called the day of preparation because Exodus 16:23-30 taught people to keep holy the Sabbath. That meant that even the food they require for the Sabbath had to be prepared the day before. Even when God provided the Jews manna from heaven, they had to gather what they would need on the day of the Sabbath, the day before (3).

Burying The Dead On The Day Of Their Demise Was A Tradition From Before The Time Of Moses

The tradition of burying the dead on the day of their demise was handed down from before the time of Moses who warned that if this tradition was not followed “their enemies will slay them and their unburied bodies will be food for birds and animals” (Deut 28:25–26). It probably had its foundation in the Mosaic law: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 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” (Deut 21:22–23) (4). However history shows that this rule was sometimes not followed. But this being the Passover Sabbath they did not dare flout the rule (5).

Josephus explains that it was also an ethical requirement : “We must furnish fire, water, food to all who ask for them, point out the road, not leave a corpse unburied [a1tafon], show consideration even to declared enemies” (Against Apion 2.29 §211; cf. 2.26 §205). Josephus notes that even the Romans rarely flouted this requirement in peacetime Jewish Palestine (6). The Romans used crucifixion to punish defiant Jewish leaders and let the bodies hang sometimes for days as a warning to others. However, such cases were rare (7).

In fact Jewish customs were safeguarded by kings and emperors “throughout all the preceding ages”. Roman law makes concessions in this regard. It states that the bodies of those who are condemned to death should be given to the relatives for burial. There were however exceptions. In the case of persons condemned to death for high treason Roman authorities refused the relatives the bodies (8). In the case of those condemned to death for sedition the bodies were left to the vultures adding disgrace and dishonor to the death penalty. In some cases instead of allowing the bodies of those condemned to death to be buried in family tombs, the Jewish authorities provided a burial site beyond the city (9).

In the case of Jesus, he was condemned to death under Roman law and the Sanhedrin had nothing against burying the bodies of such victims together with members of their family. As such there was nothing in Jesus’ case that “precluded a proper Jewish burial”. However victims of the death penalty for violation of Jewish laws were not permitted to be buried in family graves. “And they did not bury [the felon] in the burial grounds of his ancestors. But there were two graveyards made ready for the use of the court, one for those who were beheaded or strangled, and one for those who were stoned or burned” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5) (10).

Primary Burial And A Secondary Burial

During Jesus’ time burial involved a primary burial and a secondary burial. Primary burial involved laying shrouded corpses on a rock shelf inside the tomb for about a year. There was an initial mourning period of seven days called shiva. This initial mourning period was followed by a secondary thirty-day period of less intense mourning called shloshim. However the mourning continued until the body was fully decomposed – usually a period of about a year. According to the Jerusalem Talmud: “When the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in chests (ossuaries)”. On that day (the son) mourned, but the following day he was glad, because his forebears rested from judgment (Moed Qatan 1:5).” According to Tractate Semahot (“Mourning”) it says: “Rabbi Eleazer bar Zadok said: ‘Thus spoke father at the time of his death: “My son, bury me at first in a fosse. In the course of time, collect my bones and put them in an ossuary; but do not gather them with your own hands.” The practice of collecting the bones and placing them in ossuaries was called ossilegium (11).

Ossuaries were large enough to hold the longest human bones. The ossuaries were then kept in a loculus – a niche reserved for this purpose in tombs. It was not uncommon to use an ossuary to store the bones of more than one individual. More than a quarter of ossuaries were inscribed and some inscriptions not only bore the name of the deceased but also the name of the deceased’s father or the place of origin

The Reason For The Secondary Burial

The probable reason for the secondary burial was the belief that with the degeneration of a deceased’s flesh sins were also removed and the individual would become eligible for resurrection (Romans 7:24). The practice was thought to have commenced after the Jewish people were conquered and felt that a secondary burial absolved them of their sins. This practice is believed to have continued until the next Jewish uprising and their destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. Even though the practice may have continued after that period, it was believed to have been observed by a significantly smaller percentage of the population until finally the practice itself lost its importance. One other reason for a secondary burial was conservation of space. However this reasoning is faulty as coffins have larger storage capacity than ossuaries. The other argument that secondary burial aided resurrection is also not sound since during secondary burial it was quite possible for some bones to be lost or scattered.

Jews Entombed Their Dead During The Time Of Jesus

Jews entombed their dead during the time of Jesus. These tombs were cut into the limestone that was commonly found around the city. This practice was prevalent when the Jews enjoyed autonomy or even partial autonomy. But for a few exceptions all such burial tombs were located outside the city walls. The entrances to these tombs were usually square to rectangular. Two types of recesses were carved into the walls of these tombs to hold individual corpses. One type was about 6 feet deep and about 1.5 feet wide and high. They were called loculi – kochim in Hebrew. The other type was the shallow shelf-like recess that was about 6 feet long. If the top of this shallow recess was arched it was called an arcosolia and if it had a straight top it was called a quadrosolia.

At one time it was thought that such tombs were used by Jerusalem’s wealthy and that poorer Jews used trench graves. According to Shimon Gibson, in theory many cemeteries with trench graves may have been in use in the distant outskirts of Jerusalem. In fact a cemetery with trench graves was found at Beit Safafa a few kilometers south of Jerusalem. However this is the only instance of a cemetery with trench graves. The uniqueness of this cemetery is that it resembled the cemetery used by the sect that lived in the Qumran region on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. This resemblance prompted the Israeli excavator Boaz Zissu to suggest that the cemetery at Beit Safafa could have been used by the Essenes (12).

Shimon Gibson contends that to say that the rock-cut tombs of Jerusalem belonged to its middle class is incorrect. Since there is no evidence of any cemeteries with trench graves it may be concluded that rock-cut tombs were the order of the day used generally by all or most of the Jews in Jerusalem. Gibson argues that the poor of Jerusalem were not as poor as some people have supposed. It is reasonable to conclude that the Jews of Jerusalem were relatively well off when compared to the standards of most other villages in Judea (13).

Jerusalem probably owed its economic well being to the presence of the Temple which made it a place of worship and pilgrimage. It was obvious that Jerusalem became wealthy from the time of Herod until its destruction by Titus in 70 CE. Hence the argument that Jesus belonged to a poor family and could therefore not afford a rock-cut tomb is not correct. Beside if his friend Lazarus of Bethany could afford a rock-cut tomb, so too could Jesus (14).

Witnesses to the Burial of Jesus

In addition to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the other people present during the entombment of Jesus are “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses” Matthew 27:56-61. It will be of interest to note that Mary the mother of Jesus was not present. Mary the mother of Jesus was conspicuous by her absence. Presumably Joseph of Arimathea had asked John the beloved disciple to take her away not wanting her to suffer more than she already had.


(1) & (2) Miller, Kathleen E., Murphy Sara., Feldman, Steven.& Ladre, Susan. (2007). The Burial of Jesus. Biblical Archaeology Society . Washington, DC. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/9670347/The-Burial-of-Jesus

(3) Exodus 16:23-30; Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 31:13; Mark 2:27 (New American Standard Bible). (n.d.). Retrieved 2012 from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+16%3A23-30%2CExodus+20%3A8-11%2CExodus+31%3A13%2CMark+2%3A27&version=NASB

(4), (5), (6) & (8) Evans, Craig A.. (n.d.). Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.craigaevans.com/Burial_Traditions.pdf.

(7) & (10) Miller, Kathleen E., Murphy Sara., Feldman, Steven.& Ladre, Susan. (2007). The Burial of Jesus. Biblical Archaeology Society . Washington, DC. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/9670347/The-Burial-of-Jesus

(9) Deffinbaugh, Bob . (1995-20120. The Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 19:38-20:9). Retrieved 2011, from http://bible.org/seriespage/burial-and-resurrection-jesus-christ-john-19388211209

(11) Franz, Gordon. (2012). The So-Called Jesus Family Tomb ‘Rediscovered’ in Jerusalem. Retrieved 2012, from http://www.lifeandland.org/2009/01/the-so-called-jesus-family-tomb-rediscovered-in-jerusalem/

(12), (13) & (14) Gibson, Shimon. (2009) The Final Days of Jesus, The Archaeological Evidence, HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York

Picture Credits:

(Fig 1) Descent from the cross https://www.google.co.in/search?hl=en&site=imghp&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1024&bih=635&q=jesus+is+brought+down+from+the+cross&oq=jesus+is+brought+down+from+the+cross&gs_l=img.3…5709.16982.0.17420.….0…1ac.1.64.img..24.12.1097.x1_cmYXpdNg#q=jesus+is+brought+down+from+the+cross&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbs=sur:fc&imgrc=lJBruWcO4vN71M%3A


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