Doctrine of Christ (Part 29)

October 05, 2017

The Burial of Jesus

Having completed our study of 1 Corinthians 15, we now today want to turn to a discussion of the Gospels with respect to the resurrection of Jesus. You will remember that in the formula that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 he enumerates the key events of Jesus' passion and resurrection: Christ died, was buried, was raised, and appeared. In looking at the Gospels, we want to take in order those last three elements in the formula – the burial of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus (the empty tomb account), and then finally the appearance narratives of the Gospels.

Inasmuch most scholars think that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels and was used as one of the sources by both Matthew and Luke, let's turn to the Gospel of Mark to begin our study of the resurrection narratives. First let's talk about the burial account. Mark's burial account is found in Mark 15:40-47. Let's read that together.

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

A couple of features of this burial account are noteworthy.

First and foremost is the person of Joseph of Arimathea. He appears nowhere else in the Gospels outside this burial account, and yet the Gospels universally attribute the burial of Jesus to this man Joseph of Arimathea. He is described as a member of the Sanhedrin himself – a council member – which had, you remember, condemned Jesus in its trial. He gives Jesus a proper burial in a tomb. For Jews at this time proper burial of the dead was of supreme importance. Even criminals received proper burial. They believed that to not bury a dead person would be to defile the land and bring uncleanness upon the land. Therefore it was very important that even criminal persons be properly interred. A Sanhedrist would have the authority to take charge of the burial of Jesus. So some have suggested that perhaps Joseph was simply the member of the council who had been assigned this duty to dispatch the bodies of the crucified victims properly and make sure that they were properly interred.

But I think even in Mark's account there are clues that Joseph has more than just an official interest in the corpse of Jesus – that there's a personal interest here on Joseph's part. For one thing he shows a special concern for the corpse of Jesus. Remember Jesus was crucified with two other malefactors, and Joseph apparently does nothing to bury them.[1] He is apparently content to leave that up to the Roman authorities. But he singles out Jesus of Nazareth as someone that special attention should be given to. Moreover, the way Mark describes Joseph as someone who was looking for the Kingdom of God is a description of the Gospel that Mark presents. When Jesus comes on the scene in Mark 1 he is proclaiming the advent of the Kingdom of God, and Joseph is said here to be looking for the Kingdom of God which suggests his sympathy to Christian concerns. Then also notice that it says “he dared” to go in to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus. Since he wasn't a family member it took some courage for him to approach the Roman authorities and to request Jesus' body. So I would think that there is reason even in Mark's account to think that Joseph of Arimathea was at least a sympathizer with Jesus and had a personal and special concern for taking care of Jesus' body in a proper way.

Notice that it said that Joseph wrapped the body in a linen shroud and then laid it in a tomb. Jews, unlike Egyptians, did not embalm their dead, and therefore the dead were not wrapped like mummies. Wrapping a dead corpse that has not been embalmed would cause the gasses released by a decaying and decomposing body to explode eventually and the wrapped mummy would just burst open from this. So what they did rather is to wrap the dead in some sort of a sheet which is described here as a linen shroud. It's very interesting to compare Jesus' burial with that of Lazarus. Remember when Lazarus comes out of the tomb he is able to walk – he's not bound up like a mummy – but it says that he was bound hand and foot and there was a cloth wrapped around his face. So probably what was done is that the wrists and ankles were tied together, a jawband was put around the head to keep the jaw from falling open and then the whole thing was wrapped in a sheet and packed with dry spices and other ointments in order to offset the stench of decay.

According to John chapter 19, Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus in the burial. Look at John 19:39: “Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.” Then they together inter the body of Jesus in the tomb. Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John and only appears there in connection with the burial. He is not mentioned in Mark's account or the other Gospel accounts.

Notice the type of tomb that is described here. In first-century Israel there were three kinds of tombs that were used. The first kind were so-called kokim tombs. These were tombs which featured niches perpendicularly carved into the stone forming, as it were, pigeonholes into which the body could be inserted. Then it would decompose in there and the bones could later be collected into an ossuary or bone box to be preserved until the resurrection. It's very evident from the description of the empty tomb that we will read later that the tomb of Jesus was not a kokim tomb even though this is the most frequently used tomb at that time. There were also acrosolia tombs. These tombs featured a sort of niche that was carved into the wall and then the body could be placed on a shelf that would be inside of this niche.[2] Finally there were bench tombs where you didn't have the niche but you simply had a kind of shelf or bench on which the body could be laid. It is evident when you read the stories of the discovery of the empty tomb that the tomb that Jesus was interred in was either an acrosolia tomb or a bench tomb because the women see the young man or the angel seated at the end of the body which indicates that there was room for a person to sit next to the corpse as it's laid out.

What is interesting about this is that these kinds of tombs (compared to the more common kokim tombs) were very expensive and therefore could only be afforded by people of nobility or wealth. Moreover the type of tomb that is described here had a disk-shaped stone that could be rolled across the door of the tomb. These stones would roll down a sort of slanted groove until it covered the door of the tomb and then a smaller stone could be wedged against it making it very difficult for anyone to open the tomb back up again because the stone is so heavy. If you go to Israel today there is a tomb in the park behind the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. It's the tomb of Herod's family – King Herod's family tomb. This is a bona fide first-century tomb, and it has still extant there the huge disk-shaped rolling stone that you can see for yourself. It is massive! It is just enormous, and you can see how difficult it would be for anyone to reopen that tomb once it was closed. These rolling stone tombs are also very rare. There are only four extant from the first century that we know of today, and one of them is the tomb of King Herod's family.

All of this goes to bear out the description of Joseph as a respected member of the council of the ruling elite in Jerusalem. In the other Gospels he is described as a rich man. These details are borne out by the kind of tomb in which he inters Jesus.


Student: If you had the type of tomb as he did with the stone rolled over it, is it the type of tomb a family would have whereby if someone died and then years later the bones were collected and then someone else was placed in that tomb?

Dr. Craig: That's my understanding. I'm not sure if the bones were actually kept in the same tomb where the corpses are.

Student: But they will be put in the box, would they not?

Dr. Craig: Right. That's right. Yes, so that they wouldn't come into contact with each other.

Student: And then a new body perhaps could be placed there?

Dr. Craig: Right. As family members died they could then be placed in this same tomb.

Student: Was an explanation offered for this decision or is it simply stated that it occurred?

Dr. Craig: There isn't any explanation given in the Gospel accounts. That is one of the reasons that this figure of Joseph of Arimathea is so mysterious. As I say, some people think that he is just an official delegate of the Sanhedrin responsible for taking care of these corpses. They would say this may have been a sort of criminals' tomb in which he placed Jesus. But as I say, in Mark there are clues already that Joseph has a special, personal interest in Jesus, and that's borne out by the later Gospels where two of them say that he was a secret disciple of Jesus. Critical scholars will sometime said that is just an elaboration that the later Gospels make on Joseph. But what I'm suggesting is that you already see hints in Mark of that, and they may make it explicit. But in Mark already his care for the body of Jesus but neglecting the bodies of the two thieves, his daring to go to Pilate, the way in which he wraps Jesus in a linen shroud and lays him in the tomb suggests care and not just this kind of cavalier attitude of throwing the corpse in there.[3] All of these go to suggest, I think, that indeed Joseph is, as I say, at least a sympathizer of Jesus.


A second feature of the narrative that I want to draw attention to is the women who play a role. The women are mentioned in three places: at the cross, then at the burial, and then at the discovery of the empty tomb. In Mark 15:40-41, as we read, he lists the women who were at the crucifixion of Jesus. These included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and then Salome. Those women are listed along with other women who came with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. Then in Mark 15:47 you have two of them mentioned: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses. Notice that she is identified in Mark 15:40 as the mother of James the Less and Joses. Now here she is just identified by the one son – Mary the mother of Joses. Then in Mark 16:1 you have the women mentioned again. When the sabbath was passed Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices. Here she is identified by the one brother – James the Less. In Mark 15:47 she is identified by his other brother who is Joses. So you got these women who are at the crucifixion, they see the burial, and then they come on that morning to anoint the body of Jesus.

This Mary the mother of James and Joses should not be confused with Jesus' mother. Jesus had a younger brother named James, but given the prominence of James in the New Testament church he would never be called James the Less. This is not the mother of Jesus. She does appear in the crucifixion narratives in John 19:25: “. . . standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” When Jesus' mother is identified, she is identified as his mother – Mary the mother of Jesus. This Mary the wife of Clopas could be Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses. One cannot be sure. Notice that these three women all present at the cross were all named Mary. Mary is a very common name in first century Judaism, and three of them are mentioned here as being at the cross, and then some of them at least see the burial and then go on Sunday morning to anoint the body and visit the tomb.

In John's Gospel (while we're there) you notice that John will focus on Mary Magdalene in chapter 20 where he describes Mary Magdalene's going to the tomb, finding it empty, and informing the disciples. None of the other women appear in John's story. It is as though he shines the spotlight on Mary Magdalene specifically. But I think you can see that there are traces in John's narrative of these other women. Notice verses 2 and 13 of John chapter 20. Verse 2 says, “So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.'” First person plural - “we do not know where they have laid him.” You might think maybe this is just the royal “we” and it doesn't really mean “we” as a plurality, but then look at verse 13. In verse 13, “She said to them, 'Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.'” So John knows the difference between “we” and “I” and has Mary on one occasion use the word “we” which may be indicative of a wider group of women such as you have described in the Gospel of Mark and in the other Gospels.[4]

One feature of the burial account that is not mentioned by Mark but appears only in the Gospel of Matthew is the setting of a guard at the tomb. In Matthew 27:62-66 we have this setting of a guard at the tomb:

Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that imposter said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.

The guard at the tomb is mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew. It is not in any other Gospel. One of the principal objections to the historicity of Matthew's story is that the chief priests are represented as knowing Jesus' resurrection predictions that he said, After three days I will rise again. But the resurrection predictions that we have recorded in the Gospels were all given privately to the disciples, and they didn't understand them. So how is it that the chief priests would be aware of these predictions of his resurrection so as to want to take precautions against it? Well, this is an argument from silence. We don't know how they were aware of them. It could be that Judas told them about these predictions when they arranged with Judas to betray Jesus. It is interesting that in John's Gospel the Jewish authorities were obsessing because Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and they were seeking not only to kill Jesus but they were seeking to kill Lazarus. Lazarus wasn't risen from the dead in the proper sense of a resurrection. He wasn't risen to immortality and perishability, glory, and so forth. But Jesus brought him back to life. He was truly dead, and he was revived and brought back to life. It could well be that that is what the chief priests and the Pharisees are thinking of when they say the disciples could steal his body and say like Lazarus he is risen from the dead, and the last fraud will be worse than the first. So it might well be that this placing of the guard could have been motivated because of this raising of Lazarus and their concern to not allow this same sort of fraud to be perpetrated with regard to Jesus.

I think that the guard that Matthew describes is a Roman guard. It has been disputed whether the guard was Jewish or Roman. I think that the vocabulary that is used here indicates that this is a Roman guard. Why? Because it says that there is a guard and a chiliarchos – their captain. A chiliarchos is a Roman commander. So it seems highly likely, I think, that this is a Roman guard which is described here. Pilate says, You have a guard. Go ahead, take it, and make it as secure as you can. Notice that in Matthew's story when the guard flee from the tomb after the resurrection they go to the Jewish authorities because they have been secunded to the Jewish authorities. Pilate has given them over to them. But the Jewish authorities say, If this comes to the governor's ears we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble, which I think shows the ultimate Roman command over these men. Finally, although there is no guard mentioned anywhere else in the accounts of the burial, it is interesting that John mentions a Roman guard in connection with the arrest of Jesus. That is where the word chiliarchos is used. I hope I didn't confuse you before. It is in the arrest scene in John 18 where they go to the garden and it is not just Jewish officials but it's a Roman guard and chiliarchos (or captain of the guard) that arrests Jesus in the garden.[5] This does give some precedent to the idea that Pilate had secunded Roman soldiers to the Jewish authorities and they were involved in the arrest of Jesus and (at least according to Matthew) were involved in guarding the tomb as well.

We've come to the end of our hour, and so we will pick up with our discussion next time and continue to talk about the discovery the empty tomb.[6]

[1] 5:06

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:10

[4] 20:10

[5] 25:14

[6] Total Running Time: 26:25 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)