Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.2, Act 4, scene 2 - #39. The Burial of Jesus, Part Two: Placing the Body in the Tomb, pp 1242-1283

(detailed summary)

The Burial of Jesus, Part Two: Placing the Body in the Tomb
(Mk 15: 46-47; Mt 27: 59-61; Lk 23: 53-56a; Jn 19: 38b-42)


According to Mark, Joseph had a linen cloth purchased in which Jesus' body was tied up and placed in a nearby tomb dug vertically into the rock; a place of burial for the crucified must have been provided, i.e. holes dug in the rock face of the hill used for the execution, e.g. kōkîm or a kind of dovecote. Matthew repeats Mark's account, but since Joseph is a disciple of Jesus, he enhances the quality of the burial by wrapping Jesus' body in a clean white linen cloth and placing it in his own new tomb. Luke, for his part, takes the same direction as Matthew with the gesture of wrapping Jesus' body with veneration, and especially of giving a royal perspective to the burial with a tomb where no one had yet been put. And there is the role of the women who had accompanied him from Galilee: they note not only the place of the body, but the fact that it had not been perfumed with oil, so that they went back to their place in Jerusalem to prepare spices and myrrh. With John, we have a royal burial in a garden under the direction of Nicodemus with 100 pound of dry spices, consisting of myrrh and aloes, placed under and around the body, a body that had been tied up with pieces of cloth; for John, Nicodemus is now a disciple of Jesus, able to openly display himself, as a result of the living water that came out from Jesus' side, through which he is drawing every man to himself.

To the extent that it is possible to reconstruct the preevangelical tradition, Jesus' burial was minimal and swift by a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph, without spices or perfumes, and the body was laid nearby in a tomb where there was also a garden. The evolution of this tradition in Christian circles has tended to replace this unhonourable burial, peculiar to a criminal, with a more dignified and even royal burial. It is unlikely that the preevangelical tradition mentioned women at the burial: it named Mary Magdalene and perhaps other women at the discovery of the empty tomb, it named Mary Magdalene and another Mary at the crucifixion, and a third woman, but it was only after the fact that it was postulated that these women, present at the crucifixion and at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, should also be at the burial.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. Burying Jesus according to Mark Mark 15: 46-47
      1. Buying a Linen Cloth, Taking the Body Down, Tying it Up with the Cloth, and Burying (15: 46a)
      2. Rolling a Stone against the Door of the Tomb (15: 46b)
      3. The Two Marys (15: 47)
    2. Burying Jesus according to Matthew 27: 59-61
    3. Burying Jesus according to Luke 23: 53-56a
      1. Burial by Joseph (23: 53-54)
      2. What the Women Saw and Did (23: 55-56a)
    4. Burying Jesus according to John 19: 38b-42
      1. "About a hundred pounds" (19: 39b)
      2. "A mixture of myrrh (smyrna) and aloes (aloē)... together with spice (pl. of arōma)..." (19: 39b-40)
      3. "Bound (dein) it with cloths (pl. of othonion)" (19: 40)
      4. How to Evaluate the Gesture by Nicodemus?
      5. "A garden, and in the garden a new tomb..." (19: 41-42)
  3. Analysis
    1. Preparation and Interment of the Body
      1. Did the preGospel Account Have Joseph Take Jesus Down from the Cross?
      2. What Details about the Tomb Were Included in the preGospel Burial Account?
      3. Did the preGospel Account Have Joseph Close the Tomb with a Stone?
      4. Were Spices Mentioned in the preGospel Account of the Burial?
    2. Presence and Activity of Dramatis Personae Other than Joseph
      1. The Galilean Women
      2. Nicodemus
    3. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

  1. Translation

    Words of Mark shared by the other evangelists are underlined. Words in blue indicate what is common to Luke and Mattew, in red words of John shared by other evangelists, and in in green words of the Gospel of Peter found elsewhere.

    Mark 15Matthew 27Luke 23John 19Gospel of Peter
    38d So he came and took away his body.
    39 But there came also Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hudred pounds.
    40 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.
    46 And having bought a linen cloth, having taken him down, with the linen cloth he tied up and put him away in a burial place that was hewn out of rock; and he rolled over a stone against the door of the tomb.59 And having taken the body, Joseph wrapped it up in a clean white linen cloth 60 and placed him in his new tomb which he had hewn in the rock; and having rolled a large stone to the door of the tomb, he went away.53 And having taken (it) down, he wrapped it up with a linen cloth and placed him in a rock-hewn burial place where no one was yet laid.41 But there was in the place where he was crucified a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had ever yet been placed.6: 24 And having taken the Lord, he washed and tied him with a linen cloth and brought him into his own sepulcher, called the Garden of Joseph. 8: 32 And having rolled a large stone, all who were there, together with the centurion and the soldiers, place (it) against the door of the burial place.
    54 And it was preparation day, and Sabbath was dawning.42 So there, on account of the preparation day of the Jews, because the tomb was near, they placed Jesus.
    47 But Mary Magdalene and Mary of Joses were observing where he was placed.61 But Mary Magdalene was there and the other Mary, sitting off opposite the sepulcher. 55 But the women who had come with him out of Galilee, having followed after, looked at the tomb and how his body was placed.
    56a But having returned, they got spices and myrrh ready.

  2. Comment

    Let us recall what we saw earlier. The oldest tradition represented by Mark and the preevangelical layer of John present Joseph as a member of the Sanhedrin who condemned him, a pious Jew, who oversees the burial of Jesus for religious reasons: it is a quick and unceremonious burial, as befitting a crucified criminal. But the question arises: what would have been an honourable burial according to Jewish custom? The data is fragmentary. At the very least, the body full of blood should have been washed. In fact, the Mishna Šabbat 23.5 mentions among the burial customs the washing and anointing of the body, its arrangement and tying of the chin and closing of the eyes. In Jewish literature there is also mention of the cutting of hair, the careful dressing of the body, the covering of the head with a veil, and perhaps also the tying of hands and feet to carry the body. Thus, Tabitha (Acts 9:37) had an honorable burial, for her body was washed and laid in the upper room and people came to mourn her. Ananias and Sapphira had no honorable burial (Acts 5:6,10). So everything indicates that Jesus did not have an honourable burial: His body was not washed and they did not mourn him. This is the testimony of the Synoptics. Only John 19:40 departs from this testimony for theological reasons.

    1. Burying Jesus according to Mark 15: 46-47

      1. Buying a Linen Cloth, Taking the Body Down, Tying it Up with the Cloth, and Burying (15: 46a)

        • Sindōn is a Greek word that can refer to the kind of tissue and/or what is done with it. The primary meaning refers to good quality linen material, and secondarily to a tunic, sheet, veil, or canvas of this material. One can hardly be more precise about its width or length. All we know is that Joseph bought a piece of linen.

          Some biblical scholars have wondered how Joseph could have had the time to buy this piece of cloth since it was already evening. It is easy to imagine that Joseph did not do everything himself and that he had some tasks done by others. We have a clue with this plural in Mark 16:6: "See the place where they put it".

          The only funerary gesture that was performed was to wrap the body in a linen cloth, nothing else. Earlier, in Bethany, Mark 14:8 presents us with the scene where a woman pours a very expensive perfume on Jesus' head and puts in Jesus' mouth the following words: "Beforehand she has perfumed my body for burial". As Mark had no tradition of anointing Jesus' body for burial, inserting this scene into his Gospel was the only way to give Jesus an honourable burial.

          To describe the place of burial, the Gospels use different words that are almost all synonymous. Here are some statistics for all the accounts of the passion and resurrection:

          • Mnēma "burial place" : Mk (2); Lk (2); GPet (3)
          • Mnēmeion "tomb" : Mk (5); Mt (3); Lk-Ac (7); Jn (9); GPet (3)
          • Taphos "sepulcher" : Mt 4; GPet (7) (entaphiazein, "to put in a sepulcher" : Mt (1), Jn (1); thaptein, "to bury" : 1 Cor 15: 4; Acts 2: 29)

          Finally, it should be noted that it was common to use quarries to dig tombs, and that Golgotha was a mound in the middle of a quarry, useless for cutting stones, but useful for carving tombs.

      2. Rolling a Stone against the Door of the Tomb (15: 46b)

        • Was the tomb dug vertically or horizontally? Both types were found in the Jewish world. The tomb in the form of a vertical shaft was the most common for private burial. For Jesus, we have two clues. On the one hand, all the Gospels speak of a stone, even a very large stone (Mk 16:4) to block the door (thyra) or entrance to the tomb, a stone that was rolled (proskyliein, apokyliein, anakylien); this prevented the ravages of wild animals. On the other hand, John 20:5 mentions that the other disciple must bend down to see the inside of the tomb, without entering it. These two clues lead us to imagine a tomb pierced in the side of a rock and into which one entered through an opening at ground level of about one yard, so that one had to bend down or even crawl into it. For more elaborate tombs, there was a wheel-shaped stone slab that could be rolled on a rail at the entrance. Matthew 28:2 imagines a boulder shape at the entrance, as the angel sits on it after rolling it over (the evangelists probably never saw Jesus' tomb, and each one imagines it according to his environment).

          Arcosolium in a Roman catacomb
          (4e c.), Via Dino Campagni
          Arcosolium What did the inside of Jesus' tomb look like? Very often, a horizontal tomb opened into several rooms like a cave, high enough for an individual to stand. There are many styles. There is the kōkîm, a locule (large, deep pigeon holes about 1½ or 2 feet in width and height, in the shape of a dovecote). There is also the stone bench, dug on three sides inside the tomb, on which the body could be placed. Finally, there is the arcosolium, a semicircular niche one yard above the ground, 5 to 7 feet deep. The Gospels tell us nothing about the accommodation arrangements, but Mark 16:5 presupposes an antechamber with a bench, since he describes a young man sitting on the right. Archaeological excavations around the site of Jesus' burial have revealed two types of tomb, the kōkîm and the arcosolium. According to John 20:12, the body of Jesus would have been placed on a bench, because there is an angel at the place where the head was placed, and another at the foot. But the reconstruction of Jesus' tomb from the site of the Holy Sepulchre points rather to an arcosolium.

          Who did the tomb in which Jesus was placed belong to? Two answers have been proposed.

          1. The first proposition tries to interpret Mark's silence. One can imagine that outside the walls of Jerusalem, at the place where criminals were usually crucified, there must have been a burial place for the criminals who were condemned to death, i.e. holes dug in the rock face of the hill used for the execution; this proximity was undoubtedly a necessity in order to bury a dead man before sunset. Thus, Joseph, as a member of the Sanhedrin, had to have access to these graves for those who had been condemned. The only objection to this proposal is that what has been found at the Holy Sepulchre, if it is truly the tomb of Jesus, is more elaborate than what would have been reserved for the burial of criminals.

          2. The second proposition is based on Matthew 27:60 which speaks of Joseph's personal tomb. This proposal has the advantage of clearly explaining why Joseph had the right of access to it. But several objections appear. First of all, Matthew is the only evangelist to mention that it would be Joseph's personal tomb; this would correspond to his expansion of Joseph's role to make him a disciple of Jesus, and it would have the advantage of providing a simple explanation of Joseph's right to deposit Jesus there. Second, historically, Joseph was not a disciple of Jesus at the time of burial: how could a member of the Sanhedrin who had just condemned Jesus have allowed his own tomb to be used to lay a criminal? Some have speculated that this was a temporary action. But nothing in the Gospels refers to anything temporary. Finally, what is the probability that Joseph would have chosen a place of execution as his personal tomb? Some have speculated on the proximity of the holy city. But the Kidron Valley was also close to the city and a more likely place for personal tombs.

            Thus, if the first proposition has the advantage of not depending on external clues, one cannot go further than the stage of conjecture. Clearly, Mark did not expect his readers to ask this question.

      3. The Two Marys (15: 47)

        We can refer back to the previous table on the Galileans women who appear in three different scenes: on the cross (Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James the Younger and of Joses, and Salome), at the burial (Mary Magdalene, Mary of Joses), at the empty tomb (Mary Magdalene, Mary of James and Salome). Let us remember that these women are not really involved in the burial, nor do they weep for Jesus. For Mark, they are only observing, observing not only where he was placed, but also how he was placed, for they will come to the same place at Easter.

    2. Burying Jesus according to Matthew 27: 59-61

      • Matthew's account is marked by the fact that Joseph is now a disciple of Jesus, and so it was his master that he buried, not a criminal. Unlike Mark, Matthew's Joseph does not need to improvise the purchase of a linen cloth: it must be assumed that he expected a positive response from Pilate and had all the material at hand. This cloth was katharos, clean, but if we rely on other biblical texts, the adjective refers to heavily bleached linen, hence our translation of clean white.

      • Matthew insists on gestures of reverence at burial. Joseph "wrapped" (entylissein) the body of Jesus, rather than "tied up" (eneilein) as in Mark. The question has been asked why Luke and Matthew use the same verb "wrap up" when they did not know each other. It is likely that the word "wrap up" had become a standard word to describe the burial of Jesus at the end of the first century, as had the word "lay" (tithenai) in the expression: to lay the body of Jesus in the tomb.

      • Why does Matthew speak of Joseph's personal tomb and a new tomb? For the personal tomb, we can imagine that in Matthew's mind, since Joseph was rich and could use the tomb of his choice, he chose his own. Unless, after becoming a Christian, he bought the tomb in which Jesus was buried. The Gospel of Peter (6:24) offers another lead by speaking of "Joseph's garden": the garden would have been named after Joseph because of his action at the death of Jesus, and later it would have been simplified by speaking of the tomb he owned. For the new tomb, we are perhaps once again faced with the development of the tradition around Joseph, since John 19:41 and Luke 23:53 independently refer to the fact that no one had yet been put there. This development is marked by an apologetic tendency: if the body of Jesus was not found on Easter Sunday, it is not because it was confused with another body in the tomb.

      • The closing of the tomb in Matthew's is not really different from Mark's, except that this stone (lithos) was "large", a fact that Mark reserves for the scene of the empty tomb (Mk 16:4). For Matthew, just as the tomb of a rich man had to be large, so the stone had to be just as large. And he adds: "He went away". This allows the women to enter the scene. Once again, we can refer back to the previous table about the Galilean women who appear in three different scenes: on the cross (Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee), at the burial (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary), at the empty tomb (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary). Thus, just like Mark, there are only two women at the burial. But unlike Mark, these women do not observe. Why are they not observing? Perhaps this is useless as a testimony value, because the testimony of women in the Jewish world was useless. Perhaps it is also necessary to assume that they were observing, even if it is not explicitly stated. In any case, they disappear from the picture the next day, replaced by the guards.

    3. Burying Jesus according to Luke 23: 53-56a

      1. Burial by Joseph (23: 53-54)

        Let us first note the similarities and differences with the Gospels.

        Similar to MarkDifferent from MarkComment
        Joseph is not a disciple of Jesus In addition to complying with the law, Joseph probably acts out of respect and compassion
        As in Matthew, Joseph doesn't need to buyKnowing the injustice of the conviction, he had to take certain steps in advance
        Joseph takes down the body of Jesus
        Like Mt, he prefers the verb: "to wrap" in linen cloth.It's probably the standard verb of the tradition at the end of the 1st century.
        Like Mt, he prefers the verb tithenai (to place the body) to the katatithenai (put away the body) of Mk
        He prefers the mnēma (burial place) of Mk to the mnēmeion (tomb) of Mt
        Like Mk, he's not talking about a new burial place. On the other hand, speaking of a place where no one had been laid, he affirms the equivalent of the new tomb of Matthew and continues his royal perspective begun earlier with the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, sitting on a colt that no one had ridden (19:30).
        There's no mention of a stone being rolled against the door of the tomb.This detail won't be revealed until Easter
        Luke places the indication of time (day of preparation and dawning of Sabbath) after the burial, not before, as in Mk.With this detail, Luke ensures his reader that Jewish law has been respected, and then explains why women must return home.

      2. What the Women Saw and Did (23: 55-56a)

        • Once again, we can refer back to the previous table about the Galilean woman who appears in three different scenes: on the cross (all those known to him, the women who had followed him from Galilee), at the burial (the women who had come with him from Galilee), at the empty tomb (Mary Magdalene, Mary of James, Joanna, the other women). Let us note that at the burial, "all those known to him" disappeared. Of these women, Luke writes: "having accompanied" (v. 55). Accompanying whom? Probably Joseph, as he places the body of Jesus in the tomb. The women note not only the place of the body, but the fact that it had not been perfumed with oil ("how the body of Jesus was laid").

        • "But having returned (hypostrepheus)". The verb hypostrephein is typically Lucanian. Where did the women return to? They probably returned to where they were staying in Jerusalem, a place where they had spices and myrrh that they could prepare. There is no mention of purchase, as if Luke wanted his reader to know that the women, in their loving foresight, had already acquired what was necessary: those women who had served (diakonein) Jesus throughout his ministry (8:2-3), would serve him even unto death.

        • Luke uses the plural of the Greek words arōma (spice) and myron (myrrh), just as Jn 19:40 for arōma and Jn 19:39 for smyrnon, a synonym for myrrh. The myron always refers to a liquid, therefore a form of perfumed oil or a scented anointing that was applied to the body. It was therefore the women's aim to return to the tomb on Sundays to perfume the body of Jesus.

        • Luke suggests that the women had time to prepare the aromatics and scented oils before the Sabbath arrived on Friday evening. But what is the hurry? The Mishna Šabbat 23.5 states that on the Sabbath day, "they may prepare all that is required for the body, anoint it, wash it, as long as none of its limbs are moved. Apart from the fact that stricter laws may have existed at the time of Jesus (the Mishna is from the 2nd century), this law applies only in the case where the dead could not be buried before sunset, a different case from that of Jesus.

    4. Burying Jesus according to John 19: 38b-42

      John's account is very different from Mark's: Jesus receives an honourable burial, for he will be perfumed before putting him in the tomb. It is the presence of Nicodemus that changes everything, for it is he who brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes of about a hundred pounds. This presence is sudden, for the "having come" means that he was not at Golgotha when Jesus was executed. Like Mark's Joseph, he is a rich man, a member of the Sanhedrin, a man who did not have the courage to express his relationship to Jesus and had to meet him at night (3:1-10), or to take sides with Jesus' innocence, merely raising a technical point in the law (7:50-52). We must assume that he was rich, given the amount of spices he brought. This last gesture shows more courage than he has had so far.

      1. "About a hundred pounds" (19: 39b). The Roman litra or pound was about twelve ounces, and so the amount would be about seventy-five of our pounds. This is an extraordinary quantity (in Jn 12:3-5, Judas is scandalized at the waste of money when Martha uses a pound of myrrh to anoint the feet of Jesus). And if we are talking about a product in powder form, as seems to be the case here, we find ourselves smothering the body under a mound of myrrh and aloes. Finding the quantities extravagant, biblical scholars have tried to find solutions, such as replacing hekaton (one hundred) with hekaston (each) to obtain: "myrrh and aloes, about one pound each"; or they would consider litra as a measure of volume, not weight, which would give about 1/2 to 1/3 pint of scented oil. It is better to take the text as it is and recognize that this is not the first time that John uses large quantities in symbolic scenes to express messianic abundance, whether we think of the wedding at Cana with its 120 to 180 gallons of water turned into wine (2:6), or the miraculous fishing with its 153 fish (21:11). He wants to create a scene of a royal funeral (note that at the death of Herod the Great, 500 servants were needed to transport the spices). The biblical background is Jeremiah 34:5 ("You (Zedekiah) shall die in peace. And as there were perfumes for your ancestors, the kings of old who were before you, so shall they burn them in your honor"). This idea of a royal funeral corresponds to the solemn proclamation on the cross through the sign: the King of the Jews (Jn 19:19-20) and the fact that he was buried in a garden.

      2. "A mixture of myrrh (smyrna) and aloes (aloē)... together with spice (pl. of arōma)... as is the custom among the Jews for burying" (19: 39b-40). Here John does not speak of anointing (aleiphein, to anoint) as in 12:3 about Mary's action at Bethany. This raises the question of the physical state of the aromatics, i.e. is it a dry powder and small pieces, or rather an oil scented with aromatics. In Mark 16: 1 the aromatics are clearly in liquid form, because the women want to anoint the body of Jesus. In a burial, however, dry spices could be used and sprinkled on the body and the place where it was laid to remove the smell of decomposition. The description of John 19:40 where the body of Jesus is tied up with pieces of cloth and spices does not give the impression of a liquid being poured on the pieces of cloth. For more precision, the relationship between the spices and the myrrh and aloe vera must be analyzed.

        Myrrh (smyrna)
        In Greek vocabulary, there are two terms for myrrh, myron, used by Luke and which we translated as "myrrh", and smyrna used by John. The Septuagint uses myron to translate Hebrew šemen (oil), and Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 19.9.1: #358) uses myrizein to speak of a fragrant anointing. This vegetable oil mixed with a fragrant substance was used in worship, cosmetics and burial. In the anointing of Bethany (Mk 25:4-8 || Mt 26:6-12 | Jn 11:2-5), myrizein refers to a fragrant oil.

        On the other hand, smyrna translates the Hebrew mōr (from the root mrr, bitter) in the Septuagint. This myrrh is obtained by spraying gum-resin that oozes from a small shrub of the balsam family, called commiphora abyssinica, which grows in southern Arabia and northern Somaliland. In addition to its medicinal properties, it is used as incense, cosmetics and perfume (see the verb smyrnizein in Mk 15:23 to describe scented wine). At burial, it was used to eliminate unpleasant odours. It could be found in solid (Cant 4:6) or liquid form (Cant 5:5).

        Aloes (aloē)
        Botanists disagree on the classification of biblical references to aloes. To determine the category of aloes in John, two candidates have been proposed.

        1. There is aloe vera, a very aromatic powder obtained from aquilaria agollocha, a tree from Southeast Asia, similar to sandalwood, which was imported during the biblical period and used as incense and perfume. The Old Testament (Ps 45:9; Prov 7:17; Cant 4:14) associates aloes with cassia, cinnamon and nard. On the other hand, outside the biblical world and today, this plant is not really considered as aloes.

        2. The second candidate is really a medicinal aloes, a dried liquid obtained from aloe vera. There are several species of aloe vera, including aloe succotrina from the coasts of Yemen with which Palestine traded, which had a pungent and unpleasant smell, used in medicine and embalming. However, this is not embalming.

        Also, considering the fact that John uses aloes with myrrh, two odorous substances must be considered, which eliminates aloe succotrina. Furthermore, since most biblical references refer to a powdered substance, it is likely that John intended to refer to dry spices. And it is even probable that the aromatics here do not refer to a third substance next to myrrh and aloes, but to a mixture of the two. This is what Jesus' body is covered with, and this is why the presence of women is useless in John.

      3. "Bound (dein) it with cloths (pl. of othonion)" (19: 40). It's not easy to grasp what John is trying to say. Earlier, he presented us with a scene with similar words in the account of the raised Lazarus: "The dead man came out with his feet and hands bound (dein) with strips of cloth (keiria)" (11:44). Why was Lazarus bound with keiria (strips of cloth), and Jesus with othonion (pieces of cloth, bandage) under the pen of the same author? Let us recall that if the use of strips was common in Egypt for mummies, it was not common in Palestine. For his part, Mark spoke of a linen cloth (sindōn) in which Jesus was tied up, which presupposes a looser tightening of the body. But above all, he speaks of a single piece of cloth, while John speaks of several. This has provoked much discussion among biblical scholars, some suggesting that sindōn (linen cloth) is a species of the othonion category, and others suggesting the opposite. What can we conclude? Sindōn and othonion, especially in the plural, are practically synonymous. And it must also be admitted that each evangelist, rather than referring to a historical tradition, probably preferred to describe the funerary practice of their milieu.

      4. How to Evaluate the Gesture by Nicodemus? John presented Nicodemus as a secret supporter of Jesus (3:2), who takes his part in technical matters (7:50-51), but who does not go so far as to openly show himself, so that he falls under the reproach of Jesus: "Nevertheless, it is true that even among the notables, many believed in him, but because of the Pharisees they did not declare themselves, for fear of being excluded from the synagogue, because they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God" (12:42-43). So how can we evaluate his action at the tomb?

        • Some biblical scholars have interpreted this scene in a negative way: if Nicodemus brings such a quantity of spices, it is because he did not understand that Jesus lives beyond death, and to bind Jesus with pieces of cloth is totally useless, because Jesus will have to unburden himself in order to resurrect. Joseph and Nicodemus are at a dead end, for they consider this funeral to be final and see nothing beyond the tomb. Thus, according to these biblical scholars, the evangelist John would contrast Joseph and Nicodemus with the beloved disciple, who believes in the resurrection.

        • The advocates of a negative interpretation of this scene are based on a misunderstanding of faith in John that has several levels. Of course, the beloved disciple is the disciple par excellence in demonstrating a very perceptive faith, but this does not mean that others do not have faith, as seen when the beloved disciple and Peter are contrasted (see the scene of the empty tomb). Moreover, for John there is nothing negative about the scene of the burial: the resurrection does not make the burial useless, it makes it insignificant; it is simply a matter of following the custom (19:40).

          How, then, should we interpret Nicodemus' gesture? Whereas until now he had acted in the shadows, he now acts in broad daylight. It is the same with Joseph, who was afraid to show himself openly for fear of the Jews, and now he is presented as a rival of the Jews by claiming the body of Jesus as well. Whereas both of them had hitherto given priority to "the glory of men", now they are changing their priority. The quantity of spices refers above all to the idea of a royal burial, and not to that of a cul-de-sac or an end point. Moreover, we will have noticed that Joseph and Nicodemus do not put a stone at the entrance of the tomb and do not seal it.

        • It is important to situate this scene within the structure of John's narrative presented earlier. The first two episodes (1. the sign on the king of the Jews above Jesus' head; 2. the division of the garments by the soldiers) showed how Jesus' enemies unknowingly contributed to the victory of the cross, and now the last two episodes (5. the pierced side of Jesus and the testimony of the one who saw; 6. the burial by Joseph and Nicodemus) describe two different groups of believers who glorify Jesus by bringing out the implications of this death: first there is the beloved disciple who testifies that the request of the Jews to Pilate led a soldier to initiate the fulfilment of Jesus' promise of the living water of the Spirit that would come out of him, and now it is Joseph and Nicodemus who have received the courage to testify publicly. We see the fulfillment of Jesus' words: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself" (12:32).

      5. "a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had ever yet been placed. So there, on account of the preparation day of the Jews, because the tomb was near, they placed Jesus" (19, 41-42). John's account implies that Jesus' burial place was not far from the place where he was crucified, which is also implied by the Synoptics. But what is peculiar about him is that the tomb was in a garden (kēpos), a tradition that probably appears independently in Peter's Gospel. Is this fact plausible? And what significance does John give it?

        1. Possibility/verisimilitude

          The burial among the Jews took place outside the city walls. At the time of Jesus, a major junction west of the north wall, which encompassed the site of the fortress Antoniah (see 2nd wall of the map on Jerusalem), was called Gennath (Josephus, The Jewish War, 4.4.2: #146), a name related to the Garden Gate (from the Hebrew gan, and the Aramaic gannā’ = garden), one of the four gates of the north wall. The name of this gate came from the presence of gardens in this northern section. And there were important burials north of the walls, such as those of the high priests John Hyrcan and Alexander Jannaeus. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 350) reports that the remains of a garden that once existed on a site adjacent to the Basilica of the Martyrion that Constantine had recently built to honor the traditional site of Jesus' tomb can still be seen (see Catechesis 14:5). Thus, John's scenario of Jesus' tomb being in a garden is quite plausible.

        2. Significance

          We have already pointed out that the story of John's passion begins in a garden on the other side of the Kidron (18:1). The fact that it also ends in a garden is inclusive. Is this intentional? It is quite possible. But the meaning the author intends to give to the symbolism of the garden is less clear. In the Bible the kings of Judas were buried in tombs in gardens (2 Kings 21:18,26). According to Nehemiah 3:16, this would have been the case with the tomb of King David. So John, who intends to present a royal funeral, invites his reader to make this connection? There is not enough data to prove it, but it would be quite appropriate on his part.

  3. Analysis

    1. Preparation and Interment of the Body

      The description of the burial in Mark is laconic: Joseph takes the body down, ties it with a linen cloth, places it in a tomb carved out of the rock. Matthew and Luke have embellished the story in their own way. After the burial, Mark tells us that Joseph rolls a stone over the entrance to the tomb. John's account is more complicated because of the presence of Nicodemus. Nevertheless, if we focus only on Joseph, forgetting Nicodemus and his spices, we end up with this: Joseph came and took away the body; he (they) bound it with cloths; he (they) placed it in a nearby garden tomb, a new one in which no one had ever been placed. The part in italics represents an embellishment that probably comes from a later stage of the Johannine tradition. Once this embellishment is removed, the accounts of Mark and John appear similar. Since John is independent of Mark, it can be said that a common tradition was formed in the Semitic language at a preevangelical stage, and that this common tradition took on different variants when it was formulated in Greek, even before it was used by the evangelists. In its preevangelical version, there is nothing in this tradition that makes its historical value improbable. Let us now look at other details.

      1. Did the preGospel Account Have Joseph Take Jesus Down from the Cross?

        The Gospels agree that Pilate's permission was needed, but they no longer agree on what to do next: for one, Pilate's soldiers took care of detaching the bodies (Matthew implicitly, John), for the other it was Joseph (Mark, Luke). Unfortunately, there is a lack of data on the Roman custom concerning the particular funeral of the crucified. Did the Romans insist on being in control of the situation by not allowing anyone to touch the body, or on the contrary, did they spare themselves the effort of detaching the bodies and contemptuously let the petitioner do the physical work? In the absence of data, this question cannot be answered, but the first answer appears the most likely.

      2. What Details about the Tomb Were Included in the preGospel Burial Account?

        Mark tells us that the tomb was carved out of rock, a detail not mentioned by John, who writes instead that it was located in a garden near the site of the crucifixion. We have already mentioned that tombs carved in rock were common in this northern section of Jerusalem, and that there was a gate called "the gate of the garden," presumably because of the presence of gardens or orchards. Thus, if Christians have kept the memory of Jesus' tomb, all these details could express facts, such as the presence of a stone to block the entrance of a tomb horizontally and the fact that it was very close to the place of crucifixion, a likely detail given the short time available to transport the body. But there is no way to make a final judgment. It is unlikely that the Christians remembered the exact tomb where Jesus was laid. And the fact that there is no agreement in Mark and John on these details makes it unlikely that they were part of a preGospel tradition. As for the detail about the new tomb where no one had been placed (Matthew, John), this is clearly a later addition for apologetic purposes.

      3. Did the preGospel Account Have Joseph Close the Tomb with a Stone?

        According to Mark, Joseph himself rolled the stone over the tomb door. However, neither Luke nor John specify who brought the stone. In the Gospel of Peter it is the Roman soldiers and the Jewish authorities. But on Easter Sunday, all five Gospels agree that the stone was removed. And in the preevangelical tradition on the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene, it is specified that the tomb is open because the stone has already been removed. What meaning should be given to all this? One can imagine that, knowing this tradition of the discovery on Sunday morning of the stone that was removed, it has been extrapolated that this stone must have been put there by the one who was responsible for its burial, Joseph. Speaking of extrapolation does not prevent this from being a historical fact, just as accepting as probably historical that Joseph closed the tomb of Jesus does not necessarily imply that this is part of the preevangelical tradition. The latter point does not appear in John, and it suggests that there was no tomb closure in the preevangelical tradition. But it must be recognized that it may have been John who eliminated this detail to show that Joseph, the new disciple, was open to the resurrection.

      4. Were Spices Mentioned in the preGospel Account of the Burial?

        John mentions, in the scene around Nicodemus, myrrh, aloe and aromatics in solid form. Luke tells that women prepare spices and myrrh in liquid form on Friday evening before the Sabbath. In Mark, women buy liquid spices on Easter morning before going to the tomb. Since none of these three evangelists associate the spices with Joseph, it can be concluded that it is unlikely that the preGospel tradition on burial contained any mention of the spices.

    2. Presence and Activity of Dramatis Personae Other than Joseph

      1. The Galilean Women

        • If we refer to the table on women that we presented earlier, we will recall that they appear at three moments: at the cross, at burial and at the empty tomb at Easter. The general consensus among all the evangelists is that Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty on Easter Sunday. If we add to this the ancient tradition about Mary Magdalene as the first person to experience the risen Jesus, all this may have contributed to nourish the memory about the Galilean women. In this recollection we can include the tradition of the presence of these women at the site of Jesus' crucifixion, as witnessed by both Mark 15:40 and John 19:25: it is very likely that preGospel tradition mentions the presence of three women at the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene, another Mary, and a third woman.

        • But their presence at the burial presents problems. For John, they are absent. For Mark, they play no part in the burial. So it is tempting to see it as an afterthought: from their presence at the empty tomb and the tradition of their presence at the crucifixion, it has been assumed that they must have been there at the time of burial. For Mark, this allowed us to make the link between the crucifixion and the resurrection: Joseph concludes the account of the passion with the burial, while the observation of the women leads us to the resurrection that is coming.

        • For example, the ancient tradition about women at the crucifixion contained three names: Mary Magdeleine, another Mary and a third woman, and the ancient tradition at the empty tomb contained the name of Mary Magdeleine (and vaguely other women). One can imagine that the names of the women at the empty tomb were harmonized with the names at the crucifixion, but in an abbreviated form: in Mark it became Mary Magdalene, Mary of James and Salome (16:1). As for their presence at the burial, a creation after the fact, this abbreviated form in Mark continued, but this time with the conscious decision to name here the one to be omitted in 16:1: Mary Magdalene and Mary of Joses. Matthew took the simplification a step further by speaking only of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary both at the burial and at the empty tomb.

      2. Nicodemus

        • This character only appears in John's work, and is therefore absent from the Synoptics. How can this be explained? The biblical scholars have asked themselves: besides Joseph, there may have been other members of the Sanhedrin who were sympathetic to Jesus, and tradition would probably have amalgamated them all in the figure of Joseph, except the evangelist John? The problem with this viewpoint is that it contradicts the fact that Jesus would have received a quick and minimal burial, typical for a criminal in a situation where one simply wants to respect the law; there is no room for a Jewish figure sympathetic to Jesus. On the other hand, some biblical scholars have argued that Nicodemus is a pure creation of the evangelist John, a look-alike of Joseph to give him other functions outside of burial, a role model for synagogue leaders who had sympathies for the Christians in the Johannine community, without being overt. The latter view is unlikely.

        • Let's start with two observations that we can make with confidence.

          1. The role of Nicodemus was absent from the preevangelical account of burial; this role is typically Johannine in its presentation of burial as the summit in the victorious cross.
          2. Like the beloved disciple with the scene about blood and water, Nicodemus' function is to establish the theological symbolism of the burial scene.

          But to speak of a theological function does not mean that it is not a historical figure. For example, on several occasions Simon Peter plays a symbolic function, but this does not prevent him from also being a historical figure. The same is true of the beloved disciple, an insignificant figure in the common tradition, especially when compared to that of the Twelve, but one who was of major importance in the Johannine community for which he was a model. Therefore, there is no reason to deny the historicity of the figure of Nicodemus, without, however, going so far as to guarantee that he was present at the burial, just as there is no guarantee of the historical value of all the apparitions of the beloved disciple in John. In order to establish the historical value of a scene, other elements are needed, in particular the presence or absence of contraction with the Synoptics narratives. In the case at hand, there is apparently a contraction.

    3. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

      • This church is located where it is likely that Jesus was crucified and buried, i.e. north of the second wall, near the "Garden Gate". Excavations revealed an old quarry that had begun to be filled in to serve as a garden for cereals and fruit trees (figs, locust beans, olives), as well as a burial site, especially for kōkîm (a kind of dovecote). But why would the site of the Holy Sepulchre be the most likely of all possible sites?

      • Let's start with the question: what is the probability that Christians would have remembered Jesus' tomb correctly, when they did not remember many other events associated with it? Even though there is an ancient tradition that tells of the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene, the stories we have are heavily marked by a theological perspective, as evidenced by the addition of an angel or angels to express the religious significance of the empty tomb. Unfortunately, the interest in the symbolism of the tomb is not necessarily accompanied by an exact knowledge of the site. Even Mark's remark about a tomb carved out of the rock does not help us much.

      • What is also known is that at that time there was a growing veneration for the tombs of the martyrs and prophets. The presumed tombs of the Maccabees were venerated. In the fourth century, Christians from Antioch had made the Jewish tombs a place of prayer and pilgrimage (see The Lives of the Prophets, whose tradition could go back to the first century, on the tombs of Isaiah in Jerusalem, Haggai, Zechariah). The Kidron Valley and the north of Jerusalem are covered with monumental tombs. A typical example is the tomb of Queen Helen of Adiabene, who died about 25 years after Jesus, which is carved in a quarry, containing both a kōkîm and an arcosolium, closed by a stone that is rolled away. So in this context, since Jesus' empty tomb was associated with his resurrection, Christians may have experienced what Berakot 9:1 says: "When a place indicates the place where wonders were done in Israel, say, 'Blessed is he who has done wonders for our forefathers in that place'".

      • Other factors may have played a part in the memory of the place. James, Jesus' brother, was an imminent figure in the Church of Jerusalem until he was put to death in the year 62 by the high priest Ananias II (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1: #200). During this period from 30 AD (the death of Jesus) until his death, he was able to demonstrate a family interest in his brother's tomb, as were the rest of the family members, an interest that may have contributed to a living tradition. Burials in this quarry garden came to a halt with the construction of a third wall by Agrippa I (41-44), extending the city limits much further north (see map on Jerusalem). The memory of the site was further complicated with the second Jewish revolt when Emperor Hadrian, after masting the revolt, rebuilt the city under a new name, Aelia Capitolina, and in the year 135 had a temple built to Aphrodite, a square structure set on a huge platform covering, probably accidentally, the very site of the tomb of Jesus (see the model of the site and the temple). As for Golgotha, according to St. Jerome, it protruded from the platform and served as a base for the statue of Aphrodite.

      • It was in 325, according to Eusebius of Caesarea and Cyril of Jerusalem, both contemporaries of the events, that the architects of Emperor Constantine, who wanted to update the holy places and honour them with a church, consulted local tradition on the site of the crucifixion and the tomb. After demolishing the buildings and digging out the filling, they arrived at a tomb in the form of a cave. Cyril of Jerusalem, who preached in the Basilica of Constantine around the year 350, speaks of a cave or cavern, claiming that the stone to close it was still there. Constantine's architects first built an east-west oriented basilica, called the Martyrion (completed in 336, see the model of the site). Then they worked on the tomb, in a garden in the courtyard of the basilica, leaving the interior with its niche intact, but eliminating the antechamber and the surrounding rock wall, leaving only the shape of a block detached from the ground; on this ensemble they built an aedicula, called "anastasia" (resurrection), with a golden dome and marble columns. Golgotha was adjacent to the west wall of the basilica. Thus, the aedicula of the resurrection, the basilica and Golgotha formed a complex with three major sites.

      • Let's just take a quick look at what happens next.
        614The Persians invaded the city and removed the precious decorations from the aedicula, but did not touch the tomb, which was not damaged by the fire that accompanied the looting.
        About 900Major fire that does not damage the tomb
        1009Hākim of the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo, in an effort to abolish Christianity, destroyed the entire complex and practically levelled the tomb, leaving only traces of the north and south walls.
        1049A replica of the tomb was erected and the aedicula was partially restored, but the basilica was not rebuilt.
        1099The Crusaders built a church covering both the tomb and the Calvary, completed in 1149 and having roughly the shape of the present church (see the model). The Golgotha inside the church is squared and covered with a marble chest. As for the site of the Holy Sepulchre, it became a burial place for the Crusader kings of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.
        1187The crusaders are expelled
        13th – 20th c.A series of fires and earthquakes left many scars and weakened the structure of the church. The church is made ugly by a set of beams that remain there to prevent it from collapsing.
        1959Beginning of its reconstruction and rediscovery of underground structures, in particular the timid remains of the walls of the cave which has the best chance of being the place of burial carved into the rock where Joseph would have deposited the body of Jesus.

Next chapter: The Burial of Jesus, Part Three: On the Sabbath; the Guard at the Sepulcher

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