What Constituted an Honorable Jewish Burial in Jesus’ Day?

Image result for image of the burial of jesus

In discussing [this] issue, however, we are partially hampered by uncertainty as to what constituted honorable burial in the time of Jesus.  The Mishna (Sabbat 23.5) mentions burial customs such as washing and anointing the corpse, laying it out and binding up the chin, and closing the eyes.  Details of honorable burial can be detected from Jewish narrative literature:  trimming the hair, clothing the corpse with care, covering the head with a veil, perhaps tying the hands and feet in view of carrying the corpse.  But how many of these practices were customary in Jesus’ time?

There is little certitude, especially since a change in burial style is reported to have been introduced between then and the Mishna (Rabban Gamaliel II—ca. AD 110—is supposed to have opted for simpler burial customs—TalBab Mo’ed Zatan 27b).

Image result for image of rabban gamaliel II
Rabban Gamaliel II

As for the customs mentioned in the NT, in an honorable burial Tabitha (Acts 9:37) is washed and laid out at her home, while in a dishonorable burial no washing is mentioned for Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:6-10).  No canonical Gospel mentions the washing of Jesus’ body (though the Gospel of Peter 6:24 does), and that would probably have been the most basic service that could be rendered to one who had died on a cross and would be covered in blood.  (Mishna Oholot 2.2 specifies that blood on a corpse is unclean.)

Anointing and spices surely were features of an honorable burial.  Those are not mentioned in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ burial; but John 19:40 reports, “So they took the body of Jesus; and they bound it with cloths together with spices, as is the custom among the Jews for burying.”

Acts 8:2 reports that the devout men who buried Stephen made great lamentation over him, but no lamentation over Jesus by Joseph or even by Galilean women followers is mentioned.

Thus Mark’s account is singularly lacking in elements that would suggest an honorable burial for Jesus, while John’s account clearly envisions a customary and, therefore, honorable burial.

–Mainstream Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, in The Death of the Messiah, p. 1243-1244

Image result for image of the burial of jesus
The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio

6 thoughts on “What Constituted an Honorable Jewish Burial in Jesus’ Day?

  1. OK, I’m back…

    After reading what Brown says, I think there needs to be some clarity on exactly what is meant by “honorable”.

    Jewish burials were all carried out “with rites”. That goes for the righteous and for the criminal. In this respect, all were given a “decent burial”. This is because the Jews primary responsibility is *not* to “honor the dead” by burial, but rather, they honor God by burial, and by not “defiling the land”. Thus, burials of the righteous, the criminal, and the gentile were all of importance.

    I can’t tell what Brown is exactly referring to, though.

    A criminal was not given a burial place with non-criminals. There was a place for criminals to be buried, just like there was a place for gentiles to be buried, and these were different places from the non-criminal Jews. These other locations for criminals or gentiles were not “honorable”. Maybe that’s what Brown is getting at? I got no idea. He is talking in far too broad of terms.

    But, the fact that Jesus was put into a tomb at all indicates “rites”. And, that there were spices involved – that also indicates rites. Ultimately, Jesus’ body would be moved to some other place, and of course, we’ll never know whether that would be a family tomb or a criminals grave. It really depends on whether the Sanhedrin actually gave Jesus a trial and found him guilty of something, or, whether it was just a subset of the Sanhedrin that brought Jesus in, then took him to Pilate, “suggesting” that he be crucified.

    In any case, Jewish burials – whether for the righteous or for criminals – were with “rites”. However, the “honors” part – ie, whether they’d end up in a family tomb (for example) or in the criminals burial place – this differed between criminals and the righteous.

    After a year, though, the criminals bones could be moved to a family tomb…

    So, Brown confuses me on this point…

    Brown also confuses me on this: Why on earth does he think there was sufficient time, before the sundown, to do things like wash Jesus’ body? Does he not understand the significance of the Sabbath at all? Has it not occurred to him that there just simply may not have been time to go and fetch water – from who-knows-where – along with towels, etc, to wash the body before the sun went down?

    To me, that’s the most common-sense reading that you can get from the Synoptics. And, that’s the reason, like in Mark, that the women returned with spices. It was after the Sabbath, and they were prepared to complete the burial process.

    I fail to see why Brown can’t quite figure that one out…


    1. Brown believes that Mark’s account IS historical. If Mark omitted Joseph’s washing the body, applying spices, and then properly applying the cloth because Joseph did not do those things, that would make sense that the women would attempt to come on Sunday to do what Joseph did not. Mark’s story makes sense. It only gets confusing when one tries to combine all four of the Gospel accounts about the burial into one harmonious account,

      For instance, if Mark’s women watched John’s Joseph and Nicodemus apply 75 pounds of spices to the body, why would they come back to anoint the body with even more spices on Sunday? Doesn’t make sense unless you really twist yourself into a pretzel to harmonize the two stories.

      Also, Mark’s women are only concerned about there being someone near the tomb who can roll the stone back. They say nothing about someone breaking Matthew’s seal of the tomb in front of Matthew’s squad of Roman soldiers guarding the tomb to prevent someone…from breaking the seal and opening the tomb.

      The four accounts cannot be combined. The four authors wrote four different versions of the same boiler plate story. I agree with Brown that Mark’s account is most likely to be the original story, and probably the most historical. Why would Christians invent a “good Sanhedrist Jew story who only buried Jesus to comply with the Law of Moses” story? Odds are they wouldn’t have. This lends significant creedence to the historicity of Mark’s “Jospeh of Armimathea Burial of Jesus Story”.


  2. Are we just deciding to completely ignore the fact that Mark says “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of [a]James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him”?

    This is *precisely* what one would expect to happen if someone died and was placed in a tomb at sundown on a Sabbath — the rest of the procedure would have to be carried out after the Sabbath.

    So, Brown and you both figure we can’t count this in?


    1. Yes! I already agreed with you! Mark’s women were coming to anoint the body because Joseph of Arimathea did not! They watched Jospeh bury the body and also witnessed that he had not washed the body or applied spices. So they were coming to the tomb on Sunday morning to finish the job. Notice that the text does NOT say that JOSEPH was coming to finish the job!

      Joseph was not a disciple. He was a devout Jew who wanted the body of Jesus in the ground before sunset to obey the Law of Moses, not because he had any sympathies for Jesus.


  3. Yeh, I’d have no problem with that. I guess you must have noticed that Mark doesn’t refer to Joseph as a disciple, but rather as a “prominent member of the Council”.

    I think Luke’s description is interesting: “And a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God”.

    Luke doesn’t propose to make him a “disciple”, but, on the other hand, he didn’t consent to the Sanhedrin’s plan. When the Sanhedrin condemned someone to death, they were responsible to provide the burial spot, so, Joseph’s decision to use his own tomb seemed twofold: Offering the use of his own tomb would be the fulfillment of the Sanhedrin obligation, and, by doing so, he could at least display a bit of sympathy for the followers and family of Jesus, even if he himself were not a follower.

    I think it’s very likely that Matthew and John didn’t just “make up” the idea that Joseph was a disciple, but rather, there was probably some kind of folklore tradition that had circulated in some circles, which they included. Luke may have known it was just “folklore”, so he didn’t include it. But, it makes me wonder if Mark might have been written considerably earlier than what most scholars think – even before any such folklore notions had time to formulate. (Just a thought)


    1. A couple of things. If we only read Mark, there is no indication that the tomb belonged to Joseph. It is simply “a” tomb. It could have been Joseph’s. It could have been a friend’s. It could have belonged to the Sanhedrin for the very purpose of temporary burial when the execution was late in the afternoon (The Law required that bodies not be left above ground after ANY sunset, not just a Sabbath).

      Brown believes that Joseph probably became a disciple at a later time and that is how the tradition developed in Matthew and John that he was a disciple at the time of the burial and that it was his personal tomb. But Brown believes he was not a disciple at the time of the burial, only a devout, Torah-observant Jew getting a body below ground before sunset.

      Your theory could be correct, but I believe that the evidence favors Brown’s.

      Mark claims that “all” the Sanhedrin voted for Jesus’ execution, so there is a conflict with Luke. Did you read my post which shows the evolution of the Legend of Joseph? In Mark he is just a pious Sanhedrinist burying Jesus’ body out of religious duty to the Law of Moses, but in later Christian writings he becomes a disciple bravely asking to reverently bury his Lord and Savior, and in later centuries he becomes the first Christian to build a church in England, even bringing the little boy Jesus with him on a ship voyage to play on the English hills!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s