Jesus buried in a tomb
- As the question has come up in a number of posts as to whether or not
Jesus was buried in a tomb, I thought it would be appropriate to
examine this issue separately in its own thread. Therefore, in this
post, I am going to stay focused on the key question as to whether or
not Jesus was buried in a tomb. In outlining the argument for the
burial, I will be drawing on the collective wisdom of a number of
scholars, and their specific arguments for the historicity of the
tomb, relying most heavily upon the work of Raymond Brown in his
exhaustive study, _The Death of the Messiah_, (Doubleday, 1994).
Let's begin with the earliest known written recording of the burial
Mark 15:46-47 And having brought a linen cloth, having taken him
down, with the linen cloth he (Joseph of Arimathea) tied up and put
him away in a burial place that was hewn out of rock; and rolled over
a stone against the door of the tomb. But Mary Magdeline and Mary of
Joses were observing where he was placed.
Mark (widely accepted as the earliest Gospel account, c. 66-70AD) is
generally believed to be drawing from an earlier burial tradition
that dates to c. 36AD, roughly 3-5 years after the crucifixion of
Jesus. I will cover this off in more detail later in the post.
In _The Death of the Messiah_, Raymond E. Brown treats this part of
the Passion Narrative in chapters 46 through 48, pages 1205 to 1313.
Clearly it is not possible in a single essay to cover off such a
mammoth amount of material, but it is my hope that I will summarize
Brown's principle reasons for believing in the historicity of the
tomb to the point that he concludes:
"That Jesus was buried is historically certain. That Jewish
sensitivity would have wanted this done before the oncoming Sabbath
(which may also have been a feast day) is also certain, and our
records give us no reason to think that this sensitivity was not
honored. That this burial was done by Joseph of Arimathea is very
(BDM, pg. 1240).
As this essay develops I will draw heavily on Brown, but also on
additional sources to test the strength of the arguments he puts
forward to support these conclusions. The supports used by Brown, in
order of importance are: the known sensitivity of the Roman
authorities to Jewish religious practices and sensibilities, the lack
of mythological embellishment found in Mark's story, the historicity
of Joseph of Arimathea, and the pre-Gospel burial tradition.
JEWISH BURIAL PRACTICES
Without question, the near fanatical devotion of the Jews to burying
their dead plays a central role in explaining the general acceptance
of the historicity of the burial of Jesus.
From Hebrew Scripture:
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 If there shall be against someone a crime judged
worthy of death, and he be put to death and you hang him on a tree,
his body shall not remain all night on the tree; but you shall bury
him the same day, for cursed of God is the one hanged.
See Joshua's treatment of the King of Ai in Joshua 8:29 for an
example of following this strict law, and also the burial of Ananias
and Sapphira in Acts 5:6, 10. Josephus confirms that this is the
"The Jews were so careful about funeral rites that even those who are
crucified because they were found guilty are taken down and buried
_ Jewish War_ 4.5.2; #317
For the Jews, even the most despicable of criminals were to be
buried. Note please (as Brown does) that in the latter case the
description of the burial of Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5:5, 10)
is not noble, or anything more than properly basic, and that in
Mark's account of Jesus' own burial, it is nothing more than properly
basic. Further, we find in Josephus' Antiquities 4. 202 support for
the argument that Jews saw it as *essential* that the dead (even
dishonoured dead) *must* be buried: "He that blasphemeth God, let him
be stoned; and let him hang upon a tree all that day, and then let
him be buried in an ignominious and obscure manner." Thus, the
circumstances of one's death had no bearing on the question of
whether or not that person would be buried. In every case possible,
this tradition was observed, largely on the basis of religious
So, would the Romans have respected Jewish practices and
sensibilities on this question?
"Under the terms of Augustus's settlement the Roman governors of
Judaea had instructions to make allowance for the people's religious
susceptibilities. At Jerusalem the High Priest, assisted by his
council, the Sanhedrin, exercised the usual powers of local self-
government and an unfettered religious jurisdiction
These disputes (between Greeks and Jews) usually arose out of
attempts by the Greek elements (in Judaea) to deny the Jews the
special privileges which had been granted to them by the Hellenistic
kings, and confirmed by (Julius) Caesar (p. 274) and Augustus."
(M. Cary and H. H. Scullard, _A History of Rome Down to the Reign of
Constantine_, [The MacMillan Press, 1979], pg. 367-8.)
In times of peace and general civility, it was deemed wise, by the
Romans, to not go out of one's way to offend the provincials,
especially as regards the Jews. The extent to which local Roman
officials went to abide by Augustus' rules on tolerating Jewish
customs is demonstrated very clearly in 40AD (less than 10 years
after Jesus was killed, and still 26 years before open rebellion
takes place in Judaea).
"In 40 a sudden reversal of Augustus's policy of religious tolerance
on the part of Caligula, who ordered the Jews to set up his statue in
the Temple at Jerusalem, all but caused a general rebellion in
Palestine. Forewarned of the trouble that would ensue by the
governor of Syria, P. Petronius, and by M. Iulius Agrippa (`Herod
Agrippa'), a grandson of Herod the Great and a favourite at the Roman
court, Caligula relented "
(Ibid. pg. 367)
Pilate was a bit of a clod, when it came to his actions, and he was
indeed relieved of his duties as governor in 36AD for general
incompetence, but note that the people he offended were Samaritans,
not Jews, and in spite of Josephus' inflammatory post hoc attacks on
Pilate reported in Jewish War 18, Brown notes that we have no
portrayals of Pilate as being unusually cruel, or prone to breaking
Augustus' general instructions visa vi the Jews and their religious
practices (see Section 31B, pgs. 695-8). Raiding the Temple's
coffers was one thing (especially considering the views most Jewish
population as a whole had of the Sanhedrin as co-operators with the
Romans). Letting a body rot on a cross, or not be buried in an
acceptable fashion is quite another. Even Pilate would have
understood this, and the fact that the ONLY obviously crucified body
we have EVER found in a tomb was found outside of Jerusalem actually
proves this point that the Jews were different. As an aside, the
only reason we know that this body was that of a crucified person was
because the spike was still left lodged in the skeleton's foot,
having been bent, and therefore making it impossible to remove.
Interestingly, Brown does tell us that this man was given a
relatively honourable burial.
" the bones of the crucified Yehohanan ben hgqul, found in a 1st-
cent. burial place at Giv'at ha-Mivtar in 1968 were in an ossuary
adjacent to the ossuary of Simon the builder of the Temple "
(BDM, pg. 1210)
Finally, how would Jews treat the burial of a criminal by Gentiles
(i.e. the Romans)?
"We find this issue raised in TalBab (Babylonian Talmud) Sanderdrin
47a-47b when Abaye complains, "Would you compare those who are slain
by a [Gentile] government to those who are executed by the Beth Din?
The former, since their death is not in accordance with [Jewish] law,
obtain forgiveness; but the latter, whose death is justly merited,
are not [thereby] forgiven." Such a distinction had to be made much
earlier, or there could have been no tradition of an honorable burial
for the Maccabean martyrs. Thus we cannot discount the possibility
of an honorable first burial of one crucified by the Romans."
(Ibid. pg. 1210)
THE LACK OF MYTHOLOGICAL EMBELLISHMENTS IN GMARK
"The only burial preliminary reported by Mark is that Joseph "tied
up" Jesus' body in the linen material, i.e. the absolute minimum one
could do for the dead (all that would be expected) if Joseph was not
a disciple and felt no obligation to care for the crucified criminal
beyond burying him."
(BDM pg. 1246)
Brown goes on to remind us that the "honourable" part of the burial,
the anointing, in Mark, takes place earlier in Bethany, when Mary
anoints Jesus with the perfume. And as to the simple nature of the
"Mark reports that the burial place was hewn out of the rock, a
practice attested in Isa 22:16 and frequent in NT times, with
quarries often serving as apt sites for such tunneling."
(Ibid. pg. 1247).
Further evidence that Mark is not embellishing his story (but merely
reporting the facts as he knew them) is found in how he presents the
"Notice that Mark does not have them involved in the burial, or
lamenting as women of the time were wont to do, or even expressing
(Ibid. pg. 1251).
Even so famous a sceptic as Rudolf Bultmann concurs with Brown on
this point (quoted by Brown on page 1241, note 86):
"This is an historical account which creates no impression of being a
legend apart from the women who appear again as witnesses in v. 47,
and vs. 44-45 which Matthew and Luke in all probability did not have
in their Mark."
(R. Bultmann, _History of the Synoptic Tradition_, [New York: Harper
& Row, 1963], pg. 274.)
Summing up, Brown tells us:
"The Marcan description of the finale of the burial by Joseph is
laconic; Joseph took down the body, tied it up in linen cloth, and
put it away in a burial place hewn out of rock John's account
nevertheless, if one confines oneself to what John attributes to
Joseph alone in 19:38b the finale of the burial activities runs like
this: Joseph came and took away the body; he (they) bound it with
cloths; he (they) placed it in a nearby garden tomb [T]he non-
italicised portion (the embellishments offered by John) of the
summary shows how close John is to Mark mark and John have
incorporated this tradition in quite different vocabulary. This
difference not only helps to establish that John did not copy from
Mark, but also suggests that the common tradition was shaped in the
Semitic-speaking stage of the preGospel formation This perception of
early origin, although not itself proving historicity, contribute to
my judgement at the end of the ANALYSIS of 46 that "there is nothing
in the basic preGospel account of Jesus' burial that could not
plausibly be deemed historical."
(Ibid. pg. 1271-72).
THE HISTORICITY OF JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA
To quote Brown again:
" ...I suggested that "a respected council member who was also
himself awaiting the kingdom of God" meant that Joseph was a
religiously pious Sanhedrist who, despite the condemnation of Jesus
by the Sanhedrin, felt an obligation under the Law to bury this
crucified criminal before sunset. That Mark created such an
identification is most unlikely since it runs counter to his hostile
generalizations casting blame on all the members of the Sanhedrin for
the injustice of sentencing Jesus to death (Mark 14:55,64; 15:1)..."
(Ibid, pg. 1239).
This statement is, of course, only the conclusion offered by Brown
after an exhaustive treatment of Joseph's role in all four Gospels,
plus the Gospel of Peter (see BDM pgs. 1213-1241). Certainly, given
Jewish attitudes towards burial of their dead, Joseph's actions
should not surprise us in the least. In fact, had no pious Jew
stepped forward, and insisted on the burial of Jesus' body, we should
be even more surprised.
Concurring with Brown's conclusions is the secular historian, Michael
"...the evangelists manifestly do include some unpalatable or even
incomprehensible doings and sayings of Jesus, and incidents in his
life. They include them because they were so indissolubly
incorporated in the tradition that their elimination was
impracticable; in other words, because they were genuine. Examples
are: ...the friendliness of a member of that much-criticized class,
the scribes; the Suffering Servant and the Son of Man teaching...;
AND HIS BURIAL BY A JEW, A MEMBER OF THE HATED SANHEDRIN, WITHOUT THE
PARTICPATION OF ANY OF HIS OWN DISCIPLES.." (emphasis mine)
(M. Grant, _Jesus_, [London, 1977], pg. 203).
In addition to the unlikelihood that Mark would use a member of the
Sanhedrin if such a person did not actually exist and do what he is
reported to have done in the Gospels, we have also seen that in
Mark's Gospel, there is no mythological embellishment of Joseph or
his character. Since it is reasonable to place Joseph of Arimathea
in the preGospel tradition (based on the separate accounts of Mark
and John), the chances that he is an historical figure is increased.
Finally, the fact that Arimathea is both obscure, and contains no
conceivable apologetic/theological value (like fulfilling OT prophesy
for example), we can assume that the town is also historical. It
certainly adds to the weight of evidence that Mark was not engaging
in mythological embellishment of Joseph.
THE PREGOSPEL TRADITIONS
Three independent pieces of evidence support the idea that Jesus was,
indeed buried. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul tells us plainly and
simply that Jesus died and was buried. To a Jew like Paul it would
be inconceivable that this burial was not in accordance with Jewish
laws. Given that Jesus died in peacetime, as I noted above, this
would have been the expected norm, and Paul would have had no reason
to elaborate further on the point. Proper (albeit not necessarily
honourable) burial would be accepted by all concerned, and since Paul
is reporting an account he probably learned within two or three years
of the event, we can be very confident in its historicity. Further,
the presence of a burial narrative that includes Joseph of Arimathea,
satisfies the criteria of embarrassment, as well as multiple
attestation found in Mark (and the Synoptics) as well as John's
Gospel. It is, of course, entirely reasonable, and indeed probable,
that this tradition pre-existed all of the Canonical accounts. It may
even be the same account cited by Paul, or at least some variant of
that account. But just as the birth narratives were known
independently by Matthew and Luke, so too is the burial story of
Jesus known independently to Mark and John, making the account more
likely on the grounds of multiple attestation. In this case, we have
at least two, and probably three independent attestations that Jesus
was buried (in a tomb), and that this burial was done by a high
ranking Jew *without* the help of either Jesus' disciples, or even
In my opinion, the evidence of the attitudes of the Jews to burial,
general Roman respect for Jewish customs (at least in peace time),
the probable historicity of Joseph of Arimathea, the noticeable non-
embellishment of the Marcan account of the burial, and the existence
of a preGospel tradition (as witnessed by Paul, and multiple
attestation found in GMark and GJohn) all weigh heavily in my
agreement with the majority of Christian and secular scholars that
Jesus was almost certainly buried in a tomb.
Bruce Chilton perhaps best sums his (and my own) reasons for
rejecting revisionist accounts, like Crossan's:
"A straightforward reading of the Gospels' portrait of the burial has
been challenged by revisionist scholars, who theorize that Jesus died
in a mass crucifixion: the body was thrown into a common, shallow
trench, to become carrion for vultures and scavenging dogs. This
makes for vivid drama but implausible history. Pilate, after all, had
been forced in the face of Jewish opposition to withdraw his military
shields from public view in the city when he first acceded to power.
What likelihood was there, especially after Sejanus' death, that he
would get away with flagrantly exposing the corpse of an executed Jew
beyond the interval permitted by the Torah, and encouraging its
mutilation by scavengers outside Jerusalem?
Revisionism can be productive. But it can also become more intent on
explaining away traditional beliefs than on coming to grips with the
evidence at hand, and I think this is a case in point "
(B. Chilton, _Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography_, [New York:
Doubleday, 2000], pg. 270).
Calgary, AB, Canada