Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 43
by Reta Halteman Finger
The burial of Jesus received such short shrift in our last lesson that I decided to highlight ancient Israelite burial customs as a way for us to better understand the meaning in John 19:38–20:10 of Jesus’s burial and consequent resurrection “on the third day.”
As noted before, Jesus’s execution by crucifixion was thoroughly ignominious and shameful, attended only by peasant disciples, mostly women. But now, Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of higher class and greater political clout, intercedes with Pilate for permission to bury the body (19:38). All four Gospels note the essential role of this Joseph, but Matthew alone says the tomb belonged to him (Mt 27:57-60). In contrast, John places the tomb in a garden near the site of crucifixion (Jn 19:41).
Joseph’s companion is Nicodemus, the uncomprehending Pharisee from John 3 who later became a believer (see 7:50-52). By now Nicodemus is so convinced that Jesus is the son of God (3:16) that he brings a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes—enough spices for a royal burial! (19:39-40).
Burial customs in first-century Palestine
We can learn much from biblical scholars who use insights from archaeology, anthropology, and sociology to better understand our texts in their first-century cultural context. Material on burial customs in the next three paragraphs is drawn from the Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John by Bruce M. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh (pp. 276-77). (see note below)
If they could afford it, Judeans buried their dead in a lengthy process. The first stage happened quickly, however. Between the last breath and sundown, the body was washed and anointed with spices, usually by women, and then laid on a shelf in a tomb cut out of the limestone bedrock around Jerusalem. Rites of mourning would begin at that time and continue for a full year. During that time, the flesh would rot away, leaving only the bones by the end of the year. This decomposition was necessary as a way for the person’s sins to be expiated. “One’s evil deeds were thought to be embedded in the flesh and to dissolve along with it,” say Malina and Rohrbaugh (p. 276).
Mourning rites stopped at the end of a year, and the bones of the dead person were collected from the shelf in the tomb and placed in a “bone box,” called an ossuary. These boxes were the length of the longest thigh bone, similar to a box for scrolls, so they could be easily stored.
In the first century, Jewish people thought that the bones retained the personality of the deceased, and that God would use the skeleton on which to support new flesh at the time of resurrection. (See a visionary description of this in Ezekiel 37:1-14.)
Though not all Jews believed in bodily resurrection at that time, it had become a common hope for many—especially after so many righteous, law-observant Jewish soldiers had been killed in the Maccabean War 200 years earlier (see Daniel 12:2 and 2 Maccabees 7:1-41). Even the bodies of executed criminals were placed in a special tomb set apart by the court for that purpose. Their bones were then returned to their families after a year. The rotting of the flesh signified the payment of the debt for their crimes so that their bones could become eligible for resurrection.
Tomb-robbing or divine intervention?
With this background, we can understand Mary Magdalene’s consternation when she comes to the tomb and finds that the stone blocking the entrance has been rolled away (Jn 20:1). She immediately assumes that “they”—Jesus’s opponents—have stolen the body so that it could not properly decay and thus be eligible for resurrection. She runs to Peter and “the other disciple” with the news. (The two men probably distrusted the testimony of a woman, but at least they ran to see for themselves! [20:2-4].)
In the next lesson we will focus more on the actions of these two male disciples, and especially on Mary Magdalene as the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection. For now, let’s just notice John 20:9, where these three disciples who see the empty tomb “did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.”
Although they did not understand, with hindsight we as readers can see the importance of Jesus’s bodily resurrection “on the third day.” Decay is already in process after the fourth day, as Martha tells Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:39). But the body of Jesus did not need to putrefy in order to atone for his actions. Since God intervened before rotting started, God was revoking Jesus’s death sentence! “To say that Jesus was raised is to say that God overturned the judgment of Israel’s chief priests,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh (p. 277). Thus God condemns “the rulers of this world” and vindicates everything that Jesus had said and done throughout this Gospel.
Further questions for discussion and reflection:
1. John’s Gospel says nothing about Jesus’s death as atonement for the sin of others, (although other NT writings suggest this, i.e., Hebrews 9:27-28). How does the theory of substitutionary atonement differ from this Gospel’s vindication theology? Which explanation is more familiar to you? Can both contain truth?
2. Our burial customs are different today. Does that change the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection for us? Why or why not? What does it mean for you personally?
Note: For more information on Israelite burial customs, see L. Y. Rahmani, “Ancient Jerusalem’s Funerary Customs and Tombs.” Parts One, Two, Three, and Four are in the Biblical Archaeologist (Summer, Fall, Winter 1981, and Spring 1982). (return to body of text)