Is Jesus’ Honorable Burial a Legend?

1,119 The Burial Of Jesus Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

Gary: Think about it. Jesus was executed by the Romans for allegedly claiming to be the King of the Jews. Even if the Romans saw Jesus’ as nothing more than a nuisance and a joke, why would they allow a man who had claimed to be the Jewish Messiah (anointed king), and therefore an usurper to the rule of Caesar, to have an honorable burial?

The Romans knew that Jews were famous for making pilgrimages to the tombs of famous Jews (Abraham, Isaac, etc.). Why permit a rabble rouser an honorable burial in a rock tomb which would allow every trouble-making Jew on earth to travel to Jerusalem in a pilgrimage to revere their “king”? It makes no sense. So how historical is the Burial of Jesus Story? Is there evidence of an earlier burial story; a burial story that did not involve a rock tomb but simply a “ritual Jewish burial”? According to the Law of Moses, the burial of executed Jewish criminals simply involved tossing the body in a hole in the ground and covering it up before the sun set? Read the excerpt below.

An Article Excerpt from Bible scholar Lloyd Geering:

Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand.

In the last chapter we began the discussion of the burial story but left the question of historicity open. The tradition may stem from an historical foundation, and again, quite equally, it may not. In support of the latter Goguel believes that it is possible to learn something of the development of the burial story by distinguishing between a ‘ritual burial’ and an ‘honorable burial’.

The basis for the ‘ritual burial’ was the Jewish law found in Deuteronomy 21:22-3.

‘When a man is convicted of a capital offence and is put to death, you shall hang him on a gibbet; but his body shall not remain on the gibbet overnight; you shall bury it on the same day, for a hanged man is offensive in the sight of God. You shall not pollute the land which the Lord your God is giving you as your patrimony.’

This law determined what the Jewish practice was. Though it was the custom of the Romans to leave the bodies of the crucified on the cross until they rotted away, on this occasion they may have allowed the bodies to have been taken down just before sunset as a concession to the Jewish interests, particularly when feeling was running high at the time of the Passover festival. According to Goguel the New Testament preserves direct evidence of a ritual burial for Jesus in the words attributed to Paul in Acts 13:28-9,

Though they failed to find grounds for the sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that the scriptures said about him, they took him down from the gibbet and laid him in a tomb.’

There is further evidence of the same tradition in John 19:31,

‘Because it was the eve of Passover, the Jews were anxious that the bodies should not remain on the cross for the coming Sabbath, since that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity; so they requested Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.’

Goguel believes that ‘The tradition referring to the ritual burial must have been very much alive to have left traces in a book by a writer, who in his gospel had related the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea.’7 Incidentally, this well-established custom was in itself quite sufficient to be the origin of the phrase ‘that he was buried’ in the early creed quoted by Paul.

The story of Joseph of Arimathea, found in Mark and followed in the later Gospels, is called by Goguel an ‘honorable burial’, for the motive is no longer simply to prevent the desecration of the land, but to do all that is fitting to the mortal remains of an honorable man. Joseph is said to have been ‘a respected member of the Council, a man who looked forward to the kingdom of God’. Such a man was obviously displaying real courage when, out of his secret admiration for Jesus, he made the approach to Pilate, at the same time running the risk of earning the disfavor of all his fellow Councilors. This was no ‘ritual burial’ for he went to the trouble of buying a linen sheet. It is a very different account of burial from what might have been given if a group of anonymous Jews had been concerned simply to throw the body of Jesus (and perhaps those of the two thieves also) into the grave or tomb of the common people in order to prevent the precincts of the holy city from being defiled.

But if the story of the ‘honorable burial’ is historical, and was known from the beginning, then there was no cause for the story of a ‘ritual burial’ to arise, such as seems to have left traces in the tradition. Goguel believes ‘the honorable burial’ is the transformation of the other. We can readily see how the story of the ‘ritual burial’ would arise. Once the Easter faith had come to birth among the disciples, who, we are told, had scattered at the time of the crucifixion, questions would eventually be asked as to what had happened to the body of Jesus. Because of the Jewish practice, they had very good reason for believing that some unknown Jews in Jerusalem had treated the body of Jesus in exactly the same way as they would have done with any other executed criminal, and thus buried it. Goguel notes that ‘there is no particular reason to doubt that this is what happened’.8

Once the story of the ‘ritual burial’ was started, it was natural for oral tradition among Christians to transform it into an honorable burial’. The unknown Jews now became personalized and identified in one Joseph of Arimathea. It is possible that Arimathea (like the later Emmaus) is actually an imagined site, for it is not known from any other source.It is just possible that the name ‘Joseph’ may have been used to personalize the unknown Jew, presumed to have been responsible for the ritual burial, because of the biblical tradition which told of the care with which Joseph, the patriarch, transported the body of his father all the way back to Machpelah for burial.10

The form and the content of the burial story in Mark’s Gospel is therefore no guarantee of its historicity. On the contrary we can well understand how such a story could have arisen in the early church, and developed to the form in which Mark records it. Further, when we compare it with the versions in the later Gospels, we can see the way in which the development was still continuing. In Matthew Joseph has become a rich man, who had already himself become a disciple of Jesus, and who used for the burial of Jesus the tomb he had already prepared for himself. Luke has slightly condensed Mark’s story, but notes that Arimathea (possibly because he had not heard of it before) was a city of the Jews. In John’s version Joseph has been joined by Nicodemus (known from John 3:1-12) and it was they and not the women who anointed the body with spices, specified in detail as ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, more than half a hundredweight’. It seems to be typical of developing traditions that information of this kind becomes more detailed the later the version. Even today those who recount a story they have been told earlier may often find themselves creating a detail or two to add verisimilitude to their narration.

At this point, however, it must be clearly stated that most New Testament scholars still accept the tomb pericope as part of the oral tradition already in circulation at the time Mark wrote his Gospel. Many of these assume it to be a legend that developed in the later apostolic period. B. W. Bacon wrote: ‘The present narrative is as certainly earlier than the elaborations of Matthew, Luke and John, as it is certainly later than the series of visions in Cor. 15:3-8 which are to Paul the proof of the living and glorified Christ. Manifestly constructed as it is only for insertion between the Crucifixion and a modified form of the appearance to Peter in Galilee, it has led ultimately by gradual stages . . . to the well-nigh complete suppression of the Apostles’ experiences in Galilee in favor of the women’s in Jerusalem.’20







End of post.


4 thoughts on “Is Jesus’ Honorable Burial a Legend?

  1. And the Idiot continues: “The story of Joseph of Arimathea, found in Mark and followed in the later Gospels, is called by Goguel an ‘honorable burial’”…

    No, not at all necessarity. Not by any means. It could very well have been a “temporary burial”, the more-or-less Jewish equivalent of putting someone in a morgue until they can be permanently buried.

    But, the Idiot LOVES to make groundless presumptions. It’s his hallmark.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your 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