19 April 2019

Jesus is put in his sepulcher.

Mark 15.42-47, Matthew 27.57-61, Luke 23.50-56, John 19.38-42.

On the afternoon of Good Friday, after a flogging and crucifixion, Jesus died. Roman custom was to just leave the corpse on the cross for the birds to pick at, but Jewish custom was to bury people immediately. On the very same day they died, if possible. And since the next day was Sabbath—and in the year 33, also Passover—they especially needed to get everybody off the crosses and buried posthaste.

Now in previous generations, “buried” means buried: Dig a hole in the ground deep enough for animals to not get at the corpse, put the body in, fill the hole back in. In Jesus’s day, Jewish custom had changed. Now what they did was wrap the body in moist linen strips, and put it on a stone slab in a sepulcher. This way the body would rot quickly—and after a year or so, there’d be nothing left but bones, which were then collected and put into an ossuary. (They figured in the resurrection, all God needed was the bones—same as in Ezekiel’s vision.)

So whenever people make a big deal about Jesus’s empty tomb… well frankly, at one point or another, every Judean sepulcher would be empty. ’Cause they’d take the bones away.

So that’s what happened after Jesus died. Joseph of Ramah (Greek Ἀριμαθαίας/Arimathaías, Hebrew רָמָתַ֛יִם צוֹפִ֖ים/Ramataym-Chofím, KJV Ramathaimzophim), a senator who hadn’t agreed with the vote to condemn Jesus, Lk 23.51 took it upon himself to take care of Jesus’s body. All the gospels give him his due credit.

Mark 15.42-47 KWL
42 When evening came—because it was Preparation, the day before Sabbath—
43 respected senator Joseph from Ramah, who was also awaiting God’s kingdom, came.
Daring to enter Pontius Pilate’s house, he asked for Jesus’s body.
44 Pilate was surprised Jesus was already dead.
Calling the centurion, he asked him if Jesus was already dead,
45 and learning it from the centurion, Pilate gave the corpse to Joseph.
46 Buying linen, taking Jesus down, Joseph wrapped him in linen.
He put the corpse in a sepulcher hewn from rock, and rolled a stone over the sepulcher’s door.
47 Mary the Magdalene and Mary mother of Joses saw where the corpse was put.
Matthew 27.57-61 KWL
57 Come evening came a wealthy man from Ramah named Joseph, who himself was a student of Jesus.
58 This Joseph went to Pontius Pilate to ask for Jesus’s body. Then Pilate commanded it be given.
59 Taking Jesus’s body, Joseph wrapped it in pure linen
60 and put it in Joseph’s own new sepulcher, cut from rock,
rolled a large stone against the sepucher’s door, and went away.
61 Mary the Magdalene and another Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
Luke 23.50-56 KWL
50 Look, a man named Joseph, using his position as a senator—
a good and righteous man; 51 this Joseph hadn’t agreed with the senate and its action—
from Ramah, Judea, who awaited God’s kingdom—
52 this Joseph went to Pontius Pilate to ask for Jesus’s body.
53 Taking the corpse down, he wrapped it in linen
and put it in a stonecut sepulcher in which no one had yet laid.
54 It was Preparation Day, and Sabbath was beginning.
55 The women who had come together with Jesus from the Galilee, followed Joseph.
They saw the sepulcher and how Joseph arranged Jesus’s body.
56 On returning, they prepared spices and myrrh,
and once it was actually Sabbath, rested according to the command.
John 19.38-42 KWL
38 After these things Joseph from Ramah, who was Jesus’s student (secretly, for fear of the Judeans),
asked Pontius Pilate that he might take Jesus’s body.
Pilate allowed it, so Joseph came and took Jesus’s body.
39 Nikodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, also came
bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloe vera weighing 100 Roman pounds [72.5 English pounds, 32.9 kilos].
40 So they took Jesus’s body and tied the spices to it with strips, as is the Judean burial custom.
41 A garden was in the place where Jesus was crucified,
and in the garden, a new sepulcher in which no one had yet laid.
42 So there, on the Judean Preparation Day,
because it was near the sepulcher, they arranged Jesus’s body.

Joseph’s motives.

While Mark and Luke were okay with saying Joseph was a good guy who was seeking God’s kingdom, Matthew and John straight-up outed him as a student of Jesus. He hid his affiliation, John said, for fear of the Judeans; Jn 18.38 he didn’t have the guts to admit he recognized Jesus as Messiah.

Various preachers like to say Joseph outed himself, by burying Jesus. ’Tain’t necessarily so. If you’ve ever read the apocryphal book of Tobit, you’d know burying people was a big deal to the Pharisees. Burying loved ones is to be expected. But burying strangers, foreigners, convicts? That was considered an especially profound good deed.

Y’see, whenever you touched a dead body, you were ritually unclean for seven days. Nu 19.11 Not just till sundown, and then you could go to temple or synagogue after: You were cut off from worship for a week. That’s a big deal if you’re used to worshiping every day! Passover was going on, and now Joseph had to put Passover on hold for a week. Joseph was a senator, and at the time the Judean senate met on temple grounds, so this means no senate meetings for a week. You can see how disruptive this was to Joseph’s life: It’d be much easier if he kept pretending he didn’t know Jesus, much like Simon Peter had.

Because of the inconvenience, you might wind up with Pharisees who’d never want to avoid synagogue and temple access if they could help it—and would therefore never touch a dead body. (Unless it’s that of a relative; partly out of love, and partly ’cause the LORD said if you’re in the same tent—or house—as someone who died, you’re automatically unclean, Nu 19.14 so there’s really no getting around it.) And if nobody ever bothered to touch strangers, foreigners, or convicts, you’d wind up with a bunch of unburied corpses befouling your cities.

That’s why the Pharisees encouraged their students to read Tobit. Tobit was a righteous man who buried people after the Assyrians crucified them, or otherwise killed them and threw their corpses out of the city. Tb 1.17-18 NRSV Be like Tobit. So, some of ’em were like Tobit. And if Joseph wanted to defend his actions, he could totally—and believably—claim he was being like Tobit. Whatever else Jesus was, he was a human being made in God’s image, and needed to be buried.

But really, Joseph was a student of Jesus, and was doing just one more act of kindness for his master.

John described a garden near Golgotha (and by “garden” he meant a vegetable garden, not a decorative garden like they’ve put round the Garden Tomb), with sepulchers in it. One apparently belonged to Joseph. Whether this was useful coincidence—Joseph realized Jesus got killed near his garden and tomb, and decided to take it upon himself to bury him—or whether Joseph quickly bought the place so he could bury Jesus as soon as he could, I dunno. Doesn’t matter. Joseph and Nicodemus pulled the nails, got Jesus off the cross, wrapped his naked bloody corpse in gooey aloe/myrrh-coated bandages like a mummy, and put him in Joseph’s tomb before sundown.

And two of the women noted where all this took place—because they intended to come back once Sabbath was over, and contribute to the spices.

Wait, wasn’t Jesus’s suffering already over?

St. Francis included Jesus’s entombment among his original stations of the cross, because if you literally travel the Way of Jesus in Jerusalem, you’re gonna wind up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which of course contains Jesus’s sepulcher.

There are those who figure the stations represent 14 instances of Jesus suffering. Thing is, in the traditional stations, Jesus dies in the 12th station. (And in St. John Paul’s list of stations which I’m using, the 13th.) So really that’s not 14 instances of Jesus suffering… ’cause once you’re dead, your suffering is over. Isn’t it?

Yes… and no.

For the ancients, being put in the sepulcher, going to the grave, represented going to שְׁאֹ֑ל/šehól, the place of the dead, the underworld, the afterlife, hades. “Hell” in some translations, though it gives people the totally wrong idea. For God’s people, whom he intends to resurrect at Jesus’s return, the better word would be paradise. It’s a place of rest and comfort.

But however comfortable paradise might be, being alive is far better. That’s why we look forward to resurrection: We don’t wanna be in paradise forever. We wanna live forever. Eternal life, remember? Jn 3.16

So even though Jesus was no longer suffering, no longer miserable, no longer in pain… he still wasn’t where he optimally wanted to be. Nor where we optimally wanna be. Paradise isn’t good enough. It’s why Jesus left it behind, returned to life, returned to heaven… and is preparing to bring us New Heaven.