The Burial of Jesus – What Probably Happened —
Eight years of research may seem rather protracted even if the subjects are as complex as the tomb of Jesus, the ossuary of James and the role of Mary Magdalene in the early Church and her relationship to Jesus. But eight years is not really all that long when you consider that the study is about events that happened 2000 years ago, when the available literature is not ample and whatever is available is riddled with controversies and contradictions.
(Fig 1) Jesus is brought down from the cross
With the available information and reasonable conjectures the task at hand is to try and resolve the many puzzles and reconstruct what in all likelihood happened.
We have seen what the early and subsequent Christian writers had to say about the significant aspects of the life and death of Jesus, about James the Just and the role of Mary Magdalene.
Separating Fact From Fiction
After the crucifixion of Jesus, there was a scramble for the leadership of his movement. Many of the contenders wrote their own gospels. This is the reason why there was a time when more than twenty gospels were in existence. A few of the authors claimed that the resurrected Jesus appeared to them and their authority to teach his word was received directly from him. And to add credibility to what they preached, they sometimes tailored events relating to Jesus to suit their teachings and the audience for which they were meant. At times they did this by altering some of the events in Jesus’ life to make them appear as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. To those who would not accept Jesus as God, they made him a messiah. For those who were oppressed and longed for divine deliverance they made him god.
We have crucifixion narratives from people who were not even witnesses to the event. We have accounts of the resurrection from people who went into hiding fearing for their own lives. As a consequence, there are different versions of these two seminal events. Mark’s narration of the crucifixion, which was probably the first, involves “a kind of crucifixion drama … compiled to meet the religious needs of a Gentile Church” (1).
As for the resurrection narratives, the versions are even more diverse. There are different claims as to who the resurrected Jesus first appeared. We are also not sure whether he appeared to the apostles in Galilee or in Jerusalem. There are varying reports that he appeared as a spirit and then there are claims that he appeared in flesh and blood (2).
The form of Christianity advocated by James was not a new religion, but “a Jewish messianic movement centered on Jesus”. On the other hand Paul “pushed Christianity in an increasingly Gentile direction as the first century progressed” (3).
Paul molded a Christianity that had greater appeal and eventually prevailed as the dominant religion. In time Jamesian Christianity was sidelined and much of the other literature was branded as heresy. The fact that Paul wrote about 40% of the New Testament is further proof that “victors write history”.
The Crucified Jesus Comes Back To Life
We know that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took down Jesus from the cross with the help of the centurion Abenadar. While Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus held the upper body of Jesus the centurion took upon himself the responsibility of drawing out the huge nails that were driven through the palms and feet of Jesus. After Jesus was brought down the centurion trudged off towards Pilot’s house and the two middle-aged men carried Jesus to the well in Joseph of Arimathea’s garden that lay just beyond the city walls quite close to Golgotha.
The two benevolent gentlemen propped up Jesus against the wall of the well and began to wash off the blood in accordance with the Jewish custom (4). Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus then applied myrrh and aloes on Jesus. When they were about it, Jesus began to show signs of life. Were the two men shocked? Far from it! The two had indeed expected just this. While myrrh and aloes are also used as perfumes, in this instance they were used for their medicinal properties to revive Jesus who was in a state of coma. All indications are that Joseph of Arimathea had made a deal with Pilate.
When Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin not all members agreed that Jesus had committed blasphemy and deserved to die. For instance Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus argued with the other members of the Sanhedrin that Jesus had done no wrong. Joseph of Arimathea knew that somehow the other members of the Sanhedrin would force Pilate to decree the death penalty for Jesus. He was sure that Pilate dared not go against the committee as the Jewish leaders had threatened to report him to Caesar if he refused to crucify Jesus. So Joseph of Arimathea decided to approach Pilate with a proposal.
It was common knowledge that Pilate was a corrupt procurator. And Joseph of Arimathea being a wealthy merchant offered Pilate a hefty bribe to decree that Jesus be crucified on the day of preparation. This would mean that Jesus would be on the cross for only a few hours. Pilate must have known that Jesus would be drugged and taken down from the cross while he appeared dead.
According to John (John 19:28) Jesus said “I am thirsty”. In response he was given a sponge soaked in vinegar/ soured wine. The Romans were cruel beyond an extent. They are said to do this to revive the victim so that he is conscious to feel pain. But in the case of Jesus it seemed to have had the exact opposite reaction. After receiving the sour wine Jesus said “It is finished,” and then he bowed his head and lost consciousness. This is probably because that the vinegar was not just vinegar. It was in all likelihood laced with a drug that caused Jesus to appear dead. Belladonna and soporific drugs were common in the Middle East at that time. Some scholars have suggested the involvement of the Essenes who were the followers of Jesus (5).
While it took many hours and in some cases a couple of days for victims of crucifixion to die, Jesus was declared dead after being on the cross for just three hours. From the sequence of events before and during the crucifixion it would appear that there was a conspiracy to make sure that Jesus was not put to death.
After he was convinced that Jesus appeared dead to the handful of onlookers, Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate for permission to take down Jesus from the cross. We are told that at first on hearing Joseph of Arimathea’s request, Pilate is surprised that the request should have come so soon. He carried on the charade by sending a centurion to verify that Jesus was no more. In those days the checks to verify that a person was dead were not as refined as they are today. So probably the centurion decided that Jesus was dead after a visual inspection.
Another factor to consider is that the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked that the legs of Jesus be broken. While the legs of the victims on either side of Jesus were shattered, Jesus’ legs were not broken. Roman soldiers were generally known for their cruelty. They sometimes crucified victims in different positions merely for their amusement. It is difficult to believe that they were either compassionate and therefore did not smash the legs of Jesus or that they did not do so because they were convinced that Jesus was dead from a cursory glance at the body on the cross.
We are also told that one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side. And when he saw a mixture of water and blood ooze out he was convinced that Jesus was dead. According to some sources it was not “water and blood” but just blood. Besides who knows for certain one way or the other? After all there were no apostles who witnessed the crucifixion. As per the Gospels “they all forsook him and fled” (Mark 14:50).
(Fig 2) Longinus – the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus
According to apocryphal writings – The Gospel of Nicodemus (The Acts of Pilate) – the name of the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus was “Longinus”. Legend has it that this soldier was partially blind. Of all the soldiers available, why would a partially blind soldier be chosen to deliver the coup de grace and why would he pierce the side of Jesus and not aim for the heart?
Conspiracy Between Joseph Of Arimathea And Pilate
All indications are that there was a conspiracy between Joseph of Arimathea and Pilate to make sure that Jesus did not die as a result of the crucifixion. For whatever reason, there is no doubt that Pilate played the central role in making sure of this. If Pilate did not help to ensure that Jesus was not killed on the cross, why would the calendars of the Saints of the Coptic Church, both in Egypt and in Ethiopia, depict Pilate and his wife as “saints” (6)?
After they had washed him, they carried Jesus inside Joseph of Arimathea’s house and left him there in the care of the Essenes. The two then prepared what looked like a body wrapped in burial linen known in Hebrew as a takrik and in the rabbinic sources as a sadin using the 75 lbs of spices that Nicodemus had brought and whatever else they could use. They then carried what looked like a body in burial linen to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea as already arranged. At the site of the tomb were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses.
Joseph of Arimathea who was the initiator of the plot knew that sooner or later there would be trouble from the Jewish elders. Because of this he asked the beloved disciple John to take Mary the mother of Jesus and go to Ephesus a place that was familiar to Joseph of Arimathea because of his frequent business trips to England. It is likely that he stopped over on his to and fro trips and had friends there. This is the reason why both Mary the mother of Jesus and John were absent during the entombment and other than the two men and two women, there were no relatives or followers of Jesus at the burial site.
We know from Matthew 27:57 “evening having come, a rich man from Arimathea coming up to Pilate, requests the body of Yeshua”. We also know from elsewhere in the Bible Mark 15:42 that “Now evening occurring” has been interpreted as “when the sun sets”. So by the time Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate it was already after sunset. And by the time Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus carried Jesus to Arimathea’s garden and then prepared what appeared to be his body, it must definitely have been past sunset.
When Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus reached the tomb with what appeared to be the body of Jesus it was almost dark – presumably that part of the day when it was dark, but not dark enough to light a lamp. In addition to the two women – Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses – there were only a few Jewish guards there. The soldiers sat to a side indifferent to the burial rituals and the women stood at a distance still too distraught with the events of the day. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus carried the burial linen with its contents to the tomb’s interior. There they placed the bundle on the bench along one of the walls, opened it, spread the spices on the loculus, folded the linen and kept it to one side and emerged from the tomb to the relief of the women who waited outside. That done the women proceeded to their homes. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus blocked the entrance to the tomb with a golal, bid the guards goodnight and left in the direction of Joseph of Arimathea’s house that was just a short distance away.
Plausible Explanation For The Empty Tomb
This is the only plausible explanation for the empty tomb: the body of Jesus was never interred there. There is no question of the apostles robbing the body of Jesus. They would not dare attempt any such bravado, too frightened for their own lives. As for the bodily resurrection of Jesus being an explanation for the empty tomb, there are no witnesses to the phenomenon and there are too many contradictions to lend credence to the claim.
Could Joseph of Arimathea have executed this plot with only the connivance of Pilate and the help of his middle-aged friend Nicodemus? Seems unlikely! It is quite probable that he had the help of the followers of Jesus and James. If this is so, then we must try and figure out if Jesus and James were Essenes and what Jesus meant to the sect.
2) Bercovitz, J. Peter. (2004). Resurrection Narratives. Retrieved 2012, from http://www.paulonpaul.org/jesus/narr_3_resurr.htm
(3) Shanks, Hershel & Witherington iii, Ben. (2009). The Brother of Jesus. Harper- Collins ebooks. New York. Pg. 114.
(4) Gibson, Shimon. (2009). The Final Days of Jesus. The Archaeological Evidence. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York.
(5) Kareem, Abdullah . (n.d.). Jesus Survived the Cross. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.answering-christianity.com/abdullah_smith/jesus_survived_cross.htm
(6) Ata ur-Rahim, Muhammad. (1996). Jesus: Prophet of Islam. Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an pg. 37.
(Fig 1) Jesus is taken down from the cross https://in.pinterest.com/pin/282741682828797411/
(Fig 2) Longinus https://www.google.co.in/search?hl=en&site=imghp&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1280&bih=637&q=Longinus&oq=Longinus&gs_l=img.12..0l10.2184.2184.0.119188.8.131.52.0.0.0.225.225.2-1.1.0….0…1ac..64.img..0.1.224.hJ4zCcGqTKY#hl=en&tbm=isch&q=longinus+moriones&imgrc=fv5ovg5u78T26M%3A