Thursday, 18 January 2018

Was Jesus Given an Honourable Burial?

At the outset we have to acknowledge that we have no way to tell for sure what happened. We can only look at the evidence available, and see what makes the most sense, what seems most likely.

Why was Jesus crucified

Never mind the theology (which makes little enough sense), why did the Romans crucify Jesus?

The usual Christian claim is that Jesus was crucified by the Jews for blasphemy, but this is patently false. The punishment for blasphemy was death by stoning, and we know that because James, Jesus' brother, suffered exactly that fate. Early Christianity was in the business of selling the religion to the Romans and so had to shift the blame from Pilate to the Jews.

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest account we have, is very clear:
Mark 15:25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the jews.
Recall that just days earlier Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem, proclaimed as the messiah, the awaited king of the Jews.

From the Babylonian captivity in 597 BC to Jesus time (and indeed until 1946!) the Jews had been ruled by a succession of empires (with a century of self-rule from 167 BC to 63 BC). They dreamed of being free of their oppressors, and being ruled once again by a Jew, and more specifically, by one of the line of David. The ancient kings were anointed with oils at their coronation, and messiah literally means anointed one. The new king of the Jews, who would usher in the messianic age, God's kingdom on Earth!

Note that the Jews of Jesus' time did have a king, Herod Agrippa. He was clearly not the messiah, but was a puppet of the Romans. He was not even of the line of David.

Anyone claiming to be the messiah was necessarily a threat to the Romans. Claiming to be the messiah was saying you were the true king of the Jews, and you you intended to free the Jews from their oppressors. Anyone claiming to be the messiah, and with a sizeable following was a big threat that had to be stamped out and fast! And that meant Jesus.

Jesus was crucified because he was the leader of a movement that represented a very real threat to Roman rule.

Was Jesus buried?

It was Roman practice to leave crucifixion victims on the cross long after death as a warning to others, and there is a significant chance that this is what happened to Jesus.

However, this practice horrified the Jews, and it was common for Jewish crucifixion victims to be buried. This stems from this law:
Deuteronomy 21:22 If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Various other verses show this in action:
Joshua 8:29 He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.

Joshua 10:27 At sunset Joshua gave the order and they took them down from the poles and threw them into the cave where they had been hiding. At the mouth of the cave they placed large rocks, which are there to this day.
Note that these two verses are very clear that the dead were just put underground, and nothing else. No blessing, no anointing, no wrapping.

There are other verses that mention the importance of burial, but are less clear on what was involved (Tobit 1:17-19; 2:3-7; 12:12-13; Sirach 7:33; 38:16).

Despite Jesus being crucified, and despite being found guilty of blasphemy by the Sanhedrin (if that even happened), we can be sure the Jews would have wanted the body buried.

Would the Romans have allowed it? There is certainly precedent for the Romans to do so, and with the Passover so close, an especially volatile time in Jerusalem, they would have even more reason to keep the populous happy.

We cannot be sure, but it seems entirely reasonable for Jesus to have been buried promptly, before nightfall.

But - and this is the important part - the custom required only burial, nothing more. As long as the body is underground, that is enough.

Was he buried by Joseph of Arimathea?

To be clear, the question is whether the burial under the orders of Joseph of Arimathea. As a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin there is no way he would touch the body just before Passover, but could he have been the individual responsible for getting Jesus buried?

Ultimately we have to wonder how the disciples knew what had happened. In all probability they had fled Jerusalem, keen to avoid the same fate, just as Jesus predicted (Mark 14:27), and there was no one around to see what happened to the body.

It may be that Joseph of Arimathea was the member of the Sanhedrin who had the job of going to the Romans to ask that crucifixion victims got buried. I appreciate this is speculation, but think this through. This is something that would need to be done often, perhaps several times a months! The Jewish community must have known it was done, otherwise there was no point doing it. If it was done often and known to be done often, then people would know how it was done.

It would be entirely reasonable for early Christians to assume this was also done this for Jesus, and if Joseph of Arimathea was the guy who did it, then he must have been the one who did it for Jesus. Seems a fair assumption to me.

Note that Joseph of Arimathea was almost certainly not a follower of Jesus. Mark makes no claim that he was. This was a later embellishment (and one that contradicts the claim that all the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus).

Again, we cannot be sure, but it makes sense and seems likely, then, that Jesus was buried under the direction of Joseph of Arimathea.

Where would Joseph want to bury the body?

If we suppose Joseph of Arimathea really was pressed for time, what would he do?

Let us think for a moment about where the burial sites might be that he was choosing between.

First, his own tomb. This was, we are told, unused, so Joseph had chosen a site for it himself. Clearly it had to be outside the city, but that leaves a large area to choose from. Now, would be chose to have his new tomb built next to where all the criminals were crucified, the most profane land in the region? Or would he chose somewhere a long way away?

What of the pit where the crucifixion victims were buried? Remember, this was something that might happen several times a month. Would the Romans dig this pit next to the crucifixion site, or a long way away?

I think the communal grave would be right next to where Jesus was crucified, and Joseph's tomb would be the other side of the city.

The most likely scenario is that Joseph of Arimathea had Jesus buried in the nearby communal grave for crucifixion victims.

Where would the Romans allow Joseph to bury the body?

While we can say it was probably most convenient to bury Jesus in the communal grave, a more important issue is what the Romans would allow.

The overriding consideration for the Romans was keeping peace (generally anyway). Sometimes that meant putting down a rebellion mercilessly, but other times it meant keeping the populous happy. They allowed the bodies of the dead to be taken down to keep the Jews happy, but they crucified Jesus to end the messianic movement behind him.

And part of putting an end to the movement was ensuring he did not become a martyr. That meant giving him the most degrading death, and that included the burial. The Romans could not afford for Jesus to have an honourable burial for fear of him becoming venerated as a saint, and his movement rallying behind him even in death.

A dishonourable death was vital to the Romans.

Jesus was likely buried, quite possibly under the orders of Joseph of Arimathea, but buried in a communal grave adjacent to where he was crucified.

So why would anyone believe in an honourable burial?

The early Christians did not know what happened after Jesus was arrested. They had fled Jerusalem, and could only speculate. They knew he had been crucified. They could hope he was buried in a tomb suitable for the messiah, and so convinced themselves that that was the case. Who was there to say otherwise?

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