“It appears unfounded to doubt the fact of Jesus’ honorable burial — even historically considered.” — Wolfgang Trilling, distinguished NT scholar and German redaction critic
As a modern-day Westerner, when I think of burial of a person’s remains, I picture them usually in a coffin/casket, which is lowered into a large rectangular hole, which is then filled with dirt. If that isn’t possible, the remains might be interred in a mausoleum. Then, of course, there is the alternative of cremation. But, in Jesus’ case, things were a little different.
Skeptics have posited everything from the body being put in an anonymous tomb (which location was forgotten by the disciples) to the body being put in a shallow grave outside the city, where it was probably devoured by wild dogs. That last bit seems far-fetched but would not be uncommon for insurrectionists (as Jesus was accused of being) and thieves (like the two who were crucified with Jesus) in that temporal, cultural, and geographical setting. It might be a valid hypothesis for what happened to Jesus’ remains, too, especially since tombs — cut into the rocky hillsides — were generally reserved for the well-to-do, which Jesus and his family were not. But, we have historical, contemporary records telling us that what actually did happen was far different. For example,
“After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” — John 19:38-42 (NASB) (cf. Matt. 27:57-61)
*Note: We know from other passages that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, had purchased the tomb in question.
“Now the women who had come with Him out of Galilee followed, and saw the tomb and how His body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and perfumes. And on the Sabbath day they rested according to the commandment.” — Luke 23:55-56 (NASB) (cf. Mark 15:46-47)
Of course, we can’t leave out the bit about the guards at the tomb. Matthew tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees met with Pilate, expressing their concern that Jesus’ disciples might steal the body in order to fake his “ris[ing] again” — an event Jesus Himself predicted. Pilate agreed that this would be unacceptable and consented to their request.
“Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.’ And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.” — Matt. 27:65-66 (NASB)
*Note: To be clear, when it refers to a “guard”, it is not referring to merely one man. There is also some debate about whether the guard was Roman or Jewish.
But, why should we believe the biblical account? Jesus’ disciples could have done anything with the body and written whatever they wanted later. According to famed apologist and philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig, there are nine reasons why the historical credibility of the Gospel story of Jesus’ burial is so widely acknowledged. More can be said on each, of course, but I will do my best to summarize them here:
1) Early evidence provided by Paul’s testimony. Several factors within the structure and wording of the formula in I Cor. 15:3-5 show that Paul’s mentioning of the burial was meant as a reference to Jesus being laid in the tomb, not just a confirmation of His death. The historicity of Jesus’ burial is supported by three facts: a) there was insufficient time for a burial legend to arise between the events and the origin of the tradition (ca. AD 30-36); b) the testimony of the women witnesses (more on them later) stands behind the tradition; c) Paul no doubt knew the stories behind the traditions he passed on (e.g., I Cor. 11:23-26), including that of Jesus’ burial. See Gal. 1:18 for confirmation.
2) Burial story was part of the pre-Markan Passion story, making it relatively old. Most critics and scholars agree that the burial account came from Mark’s source material for his Passion account. Again, we have three reasons to accept the historicity of the burial account: a) insufficient time for legend to accrue; b) presence of eyewitnesses in the early Christian fellowship to affirm the facts; c) Paul’s likely knowledge of at least the pre-Markan Passion story.
3) Simple and non-theological, non-apologetic nature of the story itself. Most critics agree with liberal 19th-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann in this regard. There is no significant overlaying of theological or apologetical material — just the simple story of Joseph pleading for the body, wrapping it in linen, and placing it in a tomb.
4) Joseph of Arimathea is probably historical. Even the most liberal critics agree that it is extremely improbable that this character, a member of the Sanhedrin, was made up by Christians. Given early Christian hostility toward the Jewish leaders responsible for Jesus’ death, it makes no sense for them to invent such a person, who donated time, money, and property to make sure Jesus’ body was properly cared for. His actions are attested by Matthew, John, and most notably Mark.
5) Joseph’s laying the body in his own tomb is probably historical. Consistent descriptions of the acrosolia (i.e., ‘bench tomb’), supported by archeological discoveries of their use at the time by notables, lends credibility to the account. Details about it being new and owned by Joseph are also likely true, since placing a criminal’s body in just any tomb would defile any family members’ bodies already interred there.
6) Burial late on the Day of Preparation. Based on what is known about Jewish procedures for handling of executed criminals and burial, Jesus would have been buried on Friday prior to the rising of the evening star. Leaving the body on the cross overnight would defile the land, and with the coming Sabbath, it had to be interred before nightfall. With a little help (namely, from Nicodemus), Joseph could have completed the simple burial described in the Gospels in the allotted time.
7) Observation of the burial by women is historical. If women had not actually been witnesses to the events as reported in the Gospels, it would be difficult to explain why the disciples were not given those roles. (See this post for a bit more on the status of women and the different accounts.) Plus, since it is improbable that they would be involved in one and not the other, the women’s roles in both the burial and empty tomb events may be seen as confirming each other. And, if any of the lists of female witnesses is believable, then there is no good reason to doubt the others, either.
8) Customary careful preservation of the graves of Jewish holy men. The graves of Jewish martyrs and holy men were held in great reverence and carefully maintained. If Jesus’ body was still at the burial site, it likely would have been similarly venerated by His followers, since they were not expecting any resurrections until the end of the world. This may also explain why the women hung around to watch the burial and their desire to anoint His body with spices and perfumes as soon as they could.
9) No other burial tradition exists. Despite the claims and attempts of some liberal critics to show an alternative, “true” account of Jesus’ burial (e.g., shallow grave in criminal graveyard), no such evidence exists. If Joseph’s burial of Jesus in his tomb is mere legend, why are no conflicting traditions anywhere to be found, even by Jewish polemicists?
When combined, these nine factors provide a compelling case for the historical credibility of Jesus’ burial, as related in the Gospels and later referenced in the epistles. The majority of N.T. critics recognize this. As Trilling indicated above, there is no good reason not to. But, of course, this is not the whole story! In fact, the core of Christianity is founded on what happened on the third day after Jesus’ burial!
I hope this post and the preceding 4-part series were helpful and informative, regardless of your religious convictions. If all goes as planned, next year around this time I will finally finish (and post) my 5?-parter on Jesus’ Resurrection for you! In the meantime, you might want to check out this article by RTB’s Ken Samples: “Five Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection”.