Burial Traditions

So we have established as our best historical reconstruction that the burial of Jesus was carried out by those opposed to Jesus (responsible for his crucifixion) and that they would have given him a dishonorable burial. This stands in distinction to the idea in the four gospels that Jesus was given a proper entombment by the neutral or positive figure Joseph of Arimathea. Now we shall examine whatever traditions about the burial can be discerned outside of Mark 16:42-47 and parallels. Do these tend to confirm the same story or do they tend to provide conflicting evidence, perhaps the traces of a different tradition?

There are at least four apocryphal documents that are early enough to contain traditions that are independent of the four gospels: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Secret Book of James, and the Epistula Apostolorum. Seeing as it is exclusively a list of sayings, The Gospel of Thomas provides no information on the burial of Jesus. This leaves us with the Gospel of Peter, the Secret Book of James, and the Epistula Apostolorum. For comparison, I will first list the text in the Gospel of Mark and then the extracanonical sources.

 

The Gospel of Mark 15:42-47. It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

The Gospel of Peter 21-34. And then they plucked the nails from the hands of the Lord and laid him upon the earth: and the whole earth was shaken, and there came a great fear on all. Then the sun shone forth, and it was found to be the ninth hour. And the Jews rejoiced, and gave his body unto Joseph to bury it, because he had beheld all the good things which he did. And he took the Lord and washed him and wrapped him in linen and brought him unto his own sepulchre, which is called the Garden of Joseph. Then the Jews and the elders and the priests, when they perceived how great evil they had done themselves, began to lament and to say: Woe unto our sins: the judgement and the end of Jerusalem is drawn nigh. But I with my fellows was in grief, and we were wounded in our minds and would have hid ourselves; for we were sought after by them as malefactors, and as thinking to set the temple on fire. And beside all these things we were fasting, and we sat mourning and weeping night and day until the Sabbath. But the scribes and Pharisees and elders gathered one with another, for they had heard that all the people were murmuring and beating their breasts, saying: If these very great signs have come to pass at his death, behold righteous he was. And the elders were afraid and came unto Pilate, entreating him and saying: Give us soldiers that we (or they) may watch his sepulchre for three days, lest his disciples come and steal him away and the people suppose that he is risen from the dead, and do us hurt. And Pilate gave them Petronius the centurion with soldiers to watch the sepulchre; and the elders and scribes came with them unto the tomb, and when they had rolled a great stone to keep out (al. together with) the centurion and the soldiers, then all that were there together set it upon the door of the tomb; and plastered thereon seven seals; and they pitched a tent there and kept watch. And early in the morning as the Sabbath dawned, there came a multitude from Jerusalem and the region roundabout to see the sepulchre that had been sealed.

The Secret Book of James. The Lord answered and said: "What is your merit when you do the will of the Father if it is not given to you by him as a gift, while you are tempted by Satan? But if you are oppressed by Satan and are persecuted and you do the Father's will, I say that he will love you and will make you equal with me and will consider that you have become beloved through his providence according to your free choice. Will you not cease, then, being lovers of the flesh and being afraid of sufferings? Or do you not know that you have not yet been mistreated and have not yet been accused unjustly, nor have you yet been shut up in prison, nor have you yet been condemned lawlessly, nor have you yet been crucified without reason, nor have you yet been buried in the sand, as was I myself, by the evil one? Do you dare to spare the flesh, you for whom the spirit is an encircling wall? If you contemplate the world, how long it is before you and also how long it is after you, you will find that your life is one single day and your sufferings, one single hour. For the good will not enter the world. Scorn death, therefore, and take concern for life. Remember my cross and my death and you will live."

Epistula Apostolorum (Ethiopic). He of whom we are witnesses we know as the one crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate and of the prince Archelaus, who was crucified between two thieves and was taken down from the wood of the cross together with them, and was buried in the place called [the place of the skull], to which three women came, Sarah, Martha, and Mary Magdalene. They carried ointment to pour out upon his body, weeping and mourning over what had happened. And the approached the tomb and found the stone where it had been rolled away from the tomb, and they opened the door and did not find his body.

In all three of these documents, the story is obviously not the same as the story of Joseph of Arimathea himself approaching Pilate after Jesus had died and getting the body of Jesus to be laid in his tomb. Regardless of whether these accounts can be somehow harmonized with Mark, it is likely that they contain the traces of a tradition of Jesus' burial other than the one set forth by Mark.

The Gospel of Peter is thought to be written in the first half of the second century and may have been used by Justin Martyr. Any reference to the Gospel of Peter is overshadowed by the eminent Dr. Crossan and his Cross Gospel, but it is surely not necessary to believe the full thesis set forward by Crossan in order to maintain that the Gospel of Peter may contain some precanonical traditions.[69] In the Gospel of Peter, it is the Jews in general who take the body of Jesus off the cross. This stands in contrast to the idea that Joseph petitioned Pilate and had the body of Jesus taken off the cross. In the Gospel of Peter, it is the elders and scribes who roll a stone in front of the tomb. This stands in contrast to the statement that Joseph rolled the stone in front of his tomb. The Gospel of Peter does provide a story that seems to conflict with the Markan account.

The Secret Book of James is thought to have been written in the first half of the second century. This is mainly because the sayings of Jesus are thought to be dependent on oral tradition and not the canonical gospels, which is not likely after the mid second century.[70] It is known from a copy in Coptic found at Nag Hammadi. The setting of the work is a post-resurrection encounter with the risen Lord. The summary description of the hardships undergone by Jesus includes that Jesus was buried "in the sand." This Coptic phrase is sometimes translated nonliterally to mean "shamefully," but it should be made clear that the very reason why the burial is shameful is that it is a burial in the sand. To be wrapped in a new linen cloth and placed in a rock-hewn tomb is not the description of a shameful burial. Thus, the Secret Book of James reflects a tradition that Jesus was buried in the sand or, to speak generally, in a dishonorable makeshift shallow grave instead of in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

The Epistula Apostolorum was probably written in the mid second century.[71] The Epistula Apostolorum states that the body of Jesus was taken down along with the bodies of the two thieves. This stands in contrast to the story in the Gospel of Mark where Joseph petitions Pilate to be able to take down the body of Jesus alone, along with a suggestion that Jesus died earlier than the other two. This provides an independent attestation, along with the Gospel of Peter, against the Markan idea that Joseph had the body of Jesus taken off the cross. The Epistula Apostolorum tends to suggest that Jesus was not treated specially as compared the two thieves. If Jesus was not properly buried, that would explain why the women would go with ointment "to pour out upon his body," which is a bit more than the Markan statement that they came with spices for a simple anointment (Mk 16:1). This very well may represent the traces of a different tradition that tends to conflict.

It is possible that Mark unwittingly retained a pericope that was formed by Christians who did not believe Jesus was given proper tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The Parable of the Tenants is interpreted as referring to Jesus. In Mark 12:8, it is said, "So they seized him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard." This quite plausibly reflects an early tradition that those who arranged the execution of Jesus also arranged his shameful burial.

While arguing that Mark did not portray Joseph as a disciple of Jesus in any way, Raymond Brown notes the following:

 

This interpretation of Mark also makes sense of some other notices about the burial of Jesus that may represent ancient tradition. (With effort all the following are capable of being explained in another way, but their wording favors a burial of Jesus by Jews condemnatory of Jesus rather than his disciples.) A sermon in Acts 13:27-29 reports: "Those who lived in Jerusalem and their rulers...requested Pilate to have him killed; and when they had fulfilled all that was written of him they took him down from the tree and placed him in a tomb." John 19:31 tells us that the Jews asked Pilate that the legs of the crucified be broken and they be taken away. A variant reading at the end of John 19:38 continues the story: "So they came and took away his body." Similarly in Gpet 6:21 we read, "And then they [the Jews] drew out the nails from the hands of the Lord and placed him on the earth." Justin (Dialogue 97.1) phrases the burial thus: "For the Lord too remained on the tree almost until evening [hespera], and towards evening they buried him" - in a chapter where the context suggests that "they" may be the Jewish opponents of Jesus rather than his disciples. The plural may be simply a generalization of the memory of Joseph who was one of 'the Jews,' i.e. not a disciple of Jesus at this time but a pious Sanhedrinist responsible for sentencing Jesus and acting in fidelity to the deuteronomic law of burying before sunset those hanged (crucified) on a tree.[72]

However, having seen the difficulties with such a view previously, the consistent plural may be recognized as a tradition that the enemies of Jesus did indeed bury him. A request from some Jews for the bodies of the crucified to be taken down before the Sabbath may be historical, as this is plausible and even to be expected. These Jews would probably expect the crucified to deserve no better than a common criminal's grave. In this way, the burial of Jesus would be remembered as a burial by his enemies, which in history would be some Jews and the Romans acting complicitly, yet which over time would come to mean the Jews alone (for reasons which will not be explored here).

Thus, there were probably traditions other than the story that Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate for the body of Jesus, took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and placed the body of Jesus into his rock-hewn tomb. Even if these other documents might be harmonized with the Gospel of Mark using a little ingenuity, that does not negate the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that they contain the vestiges of a different tradition or traditions. There is probably a tradition that some Jews, enemies of Jesus, requested that the body of Jesus be taken down for burial. There is a tradition that the body of Jesus was, shamefully, buried in the sand. There may be a tradition that the body of Jesus was taken down for burial in the same manner as the two thieves.

As we have already seen with the earlier argument from silence, the evidence would indicate that the story of the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea was not seared onto Christian consciousness as an indisputable historical fact. But can we say that these other traditions are likely to be pre-Markan? There is reason to think so. After all, there is little cause for Christians to imagine that Jesus was buried shamefully when in fact he was properly interred in the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. On the face of it, it would appear more likely that the tradition would develop in the direction that would provide Jesus with a more hospitable burial. Thus, it is likely that the earlier tradition was that Jesus was buried in a shameful manner, what Reginald Fuller describes as "the final insult done to him by his enemies."[73]


Notes

[69] Helmut Koester, for example, believes that the Gospel of Peter contains extracanonical traditions but disagrees with Crossan. Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1990), pp. 219-220.

[70] Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), p. 56.

[71] Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), p. 132.

[72] Brown, ibid., pp. 1218-1219.

[73] Fuller, ibid., p. 54.

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