Easter reflections #3 – A grave affair?

This post took a loooong time to work out because I dug deep (yes, pun intended) to ask the question ‘Was Jesus buried?’ OK so it might might seem an odd question following my last post – if he was dead, then of course he was buried.

But wait. I don’t want to assume anything, here. Could Jesus not have been buried? Why is it important whether or not he was buried? Can’t we just skip to the next bit?

I think it is important to answer this question for two reasons:

  1. It would add weight to the conclusion that Jesus was definitely dead.
  2. It would locate the body of Jesus of Nazareth in a specific and known place, which is important as the rest of the story unfolds….

OK so first let’s look at what the options were for the disposal of a crucified body. A delightful subject, as I’m sure you’ll agree.  Apparently a body could be:

  • Left on the cross and eaten by crows (bits might fall off and get eaten by dogs)

    When puppies attack. There may be no hope for this man.

    When puppies attack – there may be no hope for this man.

  • Taken from the cross and put in a common grave (again, there could have been an element of ‘getting eaten by dogs’ in this scenario too)
  • Taken down and dragged outside the city walls and left to rot (my guess is the dogs were right on the case with this option)
  • Taken from the cross after being displayed for 6 days and burned (unsure what the dogs would make of this one)
  • Stolen by family members in the night when the Roman guards were inattentive (possibly they were playing ‘fetch’ with the dogs?)
  • Taken down and handed over to relatives for burial (unlikely to be any dogs involved)

From what I’ve read, it seems to be assumed that of these options, the last one would be the exception, rather than the rule. So can we claim it as an exception for Jesus? What evidence do we have to go on?

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that there are virtually no known human remains from crucifixions, given that the bodies were either left to decompose, burned or eaten by aforementioned dogs. Also, iron would have been expensive, so the nails were likely removed from bodies to be melted down and remade for the next hapless victim – so even if a body had been buried, any tell-tale evidence of crucifixion could be easily overlooked.

But…… I like a good ‘but’. There is, now a well-known piece of archaeological evidence;  a heel bone(s) and nail found in an ossuary inscribed with the name Yehohanan, a 1st century Jew. These remains have led to a better understanding of the ‘mechanics’ of crucifixion, and its physiological impact on the crucified body, but they tell us practically nothing about who Yehohanan was as a person.

What does this have to do with Jesus? A couple of things, I think.

The first thing is that someone with seemingly no known socio-economic significance or status was buried after being crucified; not dumped in a heap, burned, left to rot or eaten by dogs etc. We cannot assume that only the well-connected were let off the hook (sorry, bad pun). So it follows that it is possible, in theory, that Jesus was buried.

Secondly, it corroborates a seemingly minor detail recorded in John’s account of the crucifixion. The two men crucified with Jesus had their legs broken to make them die quicker. Apparently, the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies kept on display into the next day, because it was going to be a special Sabbath. Yehohanan’s legs were broken too. These kinds of tiny details fascinate me – why would John even mention this if it didn’t happen? Why not just say the bodies were taken down and the soldiers made sure they were dead? And if the bible is historically accurate about this detail, then what’s to say it’s not accurate when it come to other details too?

And so we come to an age-old question – is the bible historically accurate?  Rather than elongate this already rather lengthy post, I’ve outlined my thoughts on the subject here, and come to the conclusion that the weight of evidence lies overwhelmingly in favour of  a big fat yes – the Bible is historically accurate.

This is important because to answer the question ‘was Jesus buried?’, the archaeological evidence isn’t conclusive or specifically related to Jesus – he could have been buried, or he might not have been. We need to rely on the Bible being historically accurate because there are no other accounts we know of yet (either in favour or against) that tell us exactly what happened to Jesus’ body. So what does the Bible say?

Each one of the biographies of Jesus give an account of what happened to Jesus’ body after he was crucified, and if you want to check them out, I’ve summarised them here. There are only 11 stories that show up in all four of the accounts of Jesus’ life, and this is one of them, so it’s pretty spesh.

Basically it goes like this: there was a guy called Joseph, who came from a place called Arimathea in Judea. He was a well-to-do type; a member of the Jewish ruling council and pretty well off. He went to Pontius Pilate and asked for Jesus’s body, took it down from the cross and had it buried in his own unused carved-out-of-the-rock tomb. This was a big deal to Joseph as the ruling council had been the main people behind Jesus’ crucifixion, and apparently Joseph had objected to their decision. Putting myself in his shoes (or sandals), if I’d suddenly had four people write that I’d buried Jesus’ body when I hadn’t it would have been career death and humiliation of the highest order! I would have seriously been ticked off and asked them to retract it to protect my elite position!  I may have even paid them off! And yet Joseph’s noble and daring act remains on record – why? Could it be that it’s true?

Joseph also had witnesses to the burial – some of Jesus’ followers. A guy called Nicodemus, Mary of Magdelene and Jesus’s mother (also called Mary) to name a few. They went with him and saw where Jesus’ body was buried. The women then went off to prepare burial spices which they were going to come back with the next day, so it’s pretty reasonable to assume that they would have made sure they knew where to return. This is also a big deal, not least because I find it hard to believe that any mother would ever forget or make a mistake over something as significant as where her beloved son was buried. If you’re ever in the situation of having to bury your own child (God forbid), I have no doubt, you’d be very carefully paying attention!

All this leaves me with the conclusion that Jesus being buried is not only entirely feasible but did happen in history. The Bible is being proven more and more over time to be historically reliable, there is archaeological evidence that crucified people were buried and not just left to the dogs, and the fact that the account of Joseph shows up in every gospel, is strong evidence that yes, Jesus of Nazareth was indeed buried.

But why is this important? The next post in this series will look at that very question!

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