A reading- Saturday Morning

Burial practice in 1st c Jerusalem

How did the Jews of Jerusalem bury their dead in Jesus’ time?  [Cf. Rachel Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period, Brill, 2005.]  Burial was either in a rock-cut tomb (or more rarely, in a stone built tomb), or in a rectangular trench grave. Rock-cut tombs had one or more burial chambers hewn into the bedrock slopes surrounding the city of Jerusalem.  Burial chambers were lined by single rows of burial niches (called loculi) with each niche cut into the walls about the length of a person’s body.   It is said that rock-cut tombs were not readily available, but cut to order on demand: I have not had opportunity to verify this.  Each rock-cut tomb belonged to a family and was used for several generations – it implied ownership of the land.  When a family member died, his/her body was wrapped in a shroud (several pieces of cloth) and placed in a loculus.  The opening to the loculus was sealed with a stone slab, and the entrance to the rock-cut tomb was also sealed with a stone.  When all the loculi were filled, the earlier bone-remains were cleared out of the loculi and placed in small boxes called ossuaries. [This practice seems to have been limited to the late Second Temple period and perhaps shortly thereafter.  The Mishnah, c.200 c.e., mentions it.] Sometimes the names of the deceased were scribbled on the outside of the ossuary.  Sometimes more than one skeleton was placed in an ossuary.  [Obviously, when the placement of a skeleton in an ossuary happens, there is no tissue left.]  Ossuaries of Joseph Caiaphas and Alexander son of Simon of Cyrene have been found.  [Amos Kloner says that the tombs around Jerusalem at this time held on average 35 or more remains. All tombs were built for more than one person.]  [Note that the description of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea as a ‘new’ tomb may not be what was intended – it may well have been just an ‘empty’ tomb.  The Greek for ‘empty’ is kenon, and the Greek for ‘new’ is kainon…sounds the same to a copyist listening to someone speaking it.]

Only upper classes could afford rock-tombs.  [All names on ossuaries that seem to connect with names known in literary sources, are either members of high priestly families or other seriously wealthy people.  Note that the names on ossuaries are not formal proclamations, but scribbled tags for the purposes of identification.] 

King Herod’s tomb has been found (May 8, 2007) by an Israeli archeological dig at the Herodium he built some 12 km south of Jerusalem (near Bethlehem).  The Herodium was a residential palace, a sanctuary, an administration centre, a mausoleum, and a fortification.  It was built as an artificial cone-shaped hill, to be visible from Jerusalem.  At its base, in lower Herodium, there was a garden in the desert: water was brought from Solomon’s Pools and special soil to make the garden possible.  Josephus says Herod chose it for his burial.  I understand that there are no bones in the tomb, and assume they would have been moved to an ossuary at some early time.  Jewish rebels prior to the devastation of 70 occupied the Herodium, and smashed many precious things, including the tomb.  It has had to be reconstructed by the archeological team.

Josephus described the funeral (in Antiquities of the Jews):
‘After this was over, they prepared for [Herod’s] funeral, it being Archelaus’s care that the procession to his father’s sepulcher should be very sumptuous. Accordingly, he brought out all his ornaments to adorn the pomp of the funeral. The body was carried upon a golden bier, embroidered with very precious stones of great variety, and it was covered over with purple, as well as the body itself; he had a diadem upon his head, and above it a crown of gold: he also had a scepter in his right hand. About the bier were his sons and his numerous relations; next to these was the soldiery, distinguished according to their several countries and denominations; and they were put into the following order: First of all went his guards, then the band of Thracians, and after them the Germans; and next the band of Galatians, every one in their habiliments of war; and behind these marched the whole army in the same manner as they used to go out to war, and as they used to be put in array by their muster-masters and centurions; these were followed by five hundred of his domestics carrying spices. So they went eight furlongs to Herodium; for there by his own command he was to be buried. And thus did Herod end his life’.
The lower classes (vast majority of the population) buried their dead in simple, individual trench graves dug into the ground, placing the deceased, wrapped in a shroud, at the bottom, and filling the trench back with earth.  The really dirt-poor were buried, especially in the country, when several died at the same time, in common graves.  Usually a crude headstone was set up at one end of the grave.  Executed criminals (by the Romans) were usually not buried, but left for birds and dogs, and then swept into a lime pit, so nothing, not even bones, was left.  [This is why only one crucified body has been found in Palestine by archeology digs.] 

Ossuaries are associated only with rock-cut tombs.  Once bodies were interred in trench graves, they were not dug back up for deposition in an ossuary. 

Israeli archeologists (such as Tal Ilan) have compiled a lexicon of all the ossuaries in the collections of the state of Israel.  The practice was to indicate a Judean resident by lineage or family (son of…): there was no need to say ‘of Jerusalem’.  The practice was to indicate someone from outside Jerusalem only by place of origin (….of Nazareth).  [By Jewish law, burial took place where someone died, and corpses were not removed to distant locations.]

According to Acts (but its historicity can be discussed) at least part of the family of Jesus relocated to Jerusalem.  James the brother of the Lord was leader of the Jerusalem community.  It is not inconceivable that they could have had a family tomb in the environs of Jerusalem.  Some of the community were wealthy or at least of some means.  Mary the mother of John Mark seems to have been the patron of a house church there.  Ananias and Sapphira, Barnabas, etc were people of means.…  They may well have had sufficient funds to set up a burial site for relatives such as James.  Did they?  No one knows. 

Death of Mary

We have no record from earliest sources of the death of Mary the mother of Jesus.  Acts locates her in the Jerusalem group.  Any sources for the rest of her life come from well after the first century.  There are dogmatic positions in some Christian churches concerning the assumption of Mary (or her dormition) upon her death.  For theologies supporting this position literally, there are no bones to be buried, since Mary’s body ascended and she did not suffer corporeal corruption.

Religious authorities in Israel are very controlling of any excavation of Jewish tombs. 
Cf. J.Magness, SBL Forum, 2007.

A Hypothesis?

James Tabor has made a suggestion.  All Jewish burials were relatively speedy – on the same day as the day of death, at least.  Torah also prohibited burials on Sabbath (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday).  Jesus died late Friday afternoon.  But there is a peculiar time frame around the death of Jesus.  Mk, Lk, and Jn all refer to time pressure.  According to Jewish law and custom, bodies (of the crucified in particular) were not to be left exposed during Passover/Sabbath.  Something in the general nature of burial had to be done for Jesus because of that time pressure.  He had to be buried quickly before Friday sundown.  There was not enough time to dig a grave (even if there was ownership of the land to do so).  There may have been just enough time to place the body in a loculus in a tomb.  No disciples of Jesus could be presumed to have one (they are not rich and do not largely come from Jerusalem.)  Perhaps an outsider had one, nearby, and offered it.  This would be exceptional for a non-family member.  It is less a case of honoring Jesus than of keeping the law of Passover/Sabbath.  It would not have been intended as a permanent burial.  It was meant to be temporary, in the situation.  It was a burial of opportunity. There must have been time to get (or buy?) linen cloth, and to wrap the body (perhaps not even to wash it?) and certainly not enough time to complete the required anointing.  It is reasonable to think that they had it in mind to remove the body and bury it somewhere else.  There is no prohibition in Jewish law about removing a body from the tomb and burying it elsewhere, perhaps in a trench grave.  Did they think of waiting till decomposition had done its work and put it in an ossuary – but it would be a one-year wait or more? Did someone come and move it over night after Sabbath ended on Saturday evening?  There is no evidence at all for any of these possibilities.  [Perhaps the tomb of a rich man is there to fulfill Is 53,9, buried among the rich.  Crossan, for example, does not take Joseph of Arimathea to have been historical.  Even if the owner of the tomb had moved the body over Saturday night – remember too it is night – he would hardly have not informed the people connected with Jesus.]

[I have not found in any of the discussions, any reference to the disposal of the bodies of those crucified with Jesus.  The presumption is non-burial for them.  James Tabor, again, suggests that there was an area provided by the Sanhedrin for the purpose of burying such people.  He further suggests there were some tombs in it, not just places for dug graves.  I have not seen his evidence for this. Perhaps, in another interpretation, the two crucified with Jesus are not historical: they are consistent with the two helpers on the right and left of Moses, who held up his hands in prayer…]

Some recent headlines in the media

[There are already over a million and a half websites concerning the Talpiot tome, according to Google.]

Media attention has been given, massively, to a tomb found in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem 37 years ago.  It was found when bulldozers at a building site unearthed it.  It is claimed that it is the tomb of Jesus (and of his mother, brothers, wife, and child!, and some others).  It is being popularly called ‘The Jesus Tomb’.  A book called ‘The Jesus Tomb’ is about to appear (Feb 25 07) by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino.  The ossuaries there are said to carry the inscribed names of Joseph, Mary, Jose, Mariamne, Matthew, and Jesus son of Joseph, etc.  [These are very frequent names there and then: it is a bit like discovering a tomb of John and Mary Smith, and their son John.  22 inscriptions on ossuaries have been found with the name Jesus.  Claims of some statistical probability that this is the family tomb of Jesus have been given a rather decisive blow by evidence of ossuaries on the Mount of Olivet with the same names – Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Matthew, etc.]  There has been a commingling of bones in the ossuaries (17 bodies in 10 ossuaries).  There is evidence of grave robbing and tampering.  Eminent Israeli archeologists have expressed grave doubts, and the biblical fraternity around the world is very strongly negative.  World Discovery Channel (Channel 4 in the UK) is soon to present a documentary (March 4).  Move over Dan Brown!  [See good assessments of the claims, by Richard Bauckham and Mark Goodacre, on their websites in late February, early March 2007.]

A series on ABC Radio National on this matter (interviews with Jacobovici, Pellegrino and Jodi Magness (especially) has been hailed by experts as ‘in breadth and depth the most thoroughgoing examination of the issues yet’ (J.West).  It is still available on audio and in transcript.  [See Vridar website for details.]

This has re-activated discussion re the James Ossuary and even the Shroud of Turin.  Requests for DNA tests on these have been refused.

The so called James Ossuary – a burial box with an inscription, ‘James the brother of Jesus’ – was made public by Oded Golan, a dealer in antiquities, in 2002, with the claim that it was found in a tomb in 1980.  He said he got it from a dealer, whose name he cannot recall.  He thinks it came from Silwan, not Talpiot.  There has been considerable debate among experts concerning both the date of the box and the date of the inscription.  Initially, Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne dated the box as 1st c ce.  Initially, Joseph Fitzmyer in the US dated the inscription between 20 bce and 70 ce.  Very serious reservations have since emerged about both.  [An FBI agent testified that a photo of it was taken, showing it in Golan’s home, in 1970’s.] In particular, a carved rosette has been discerned on the opposite side of the box.   Oded Golan has been linked with other dubious artifacts (such as the Jehoash inscription in 2003).  He has been defended many times by Herschel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archeological Review.   Golan is now before the Israeli court on criminal charges of forgery.  The case is not yet resolved (Feb 25 07).  Some of the people associated with publicizing the James Ossuary are also behind the Jesus Tomb.

It might be noted that for several decades very little scholarship was published on James.  In 1997 and since there has been a large awakening of interest in him.  Pierre Antoine Bernheim and John Painter published on him in 1997.  Robert Eisenman’s more sensational book appeared in 1998.  No one seriously doubts the existence of James, or the probability that his bones might have been placed in an ossuary.  If this find is authentic, all it would show is that there was a buried person called James (or Jacob), the same name as a character in the biblical account.  There could be no evidence that the buried James is ‘our’ James.  At best it could only corroborate what we know already from historico-biblical studies. 

Cf. Ben Witherington, What have they done with Jesus? Harper-Collins, 2006.

The Shroud of Turin is not usually given a positive response by biblical scholars (and others), although in the wise and moving words of John Paul 2, it is indeed an ‘icon of human suffering’.  Carbon 14 dating has put this shroud in the late 13th or early 14th century.  There will always be argument about it, between pious believers and skeptics.  The discussions are about the images (there is a reverse image as well), the fibre, the plant residues, the optical and chemical processes, etc.  It is interesting to note that the figure on the shroud is very tall, whereas Galileans of the first century were very short.  It is also interesting to note that the figure on the shroud has no belly button (as Raymond Brown noted many years ago).  It is interesting to note that the frontal image is two inches longer than the reverse image, and that the length of the arms and hands is abnormal.  Most experts consider it to be a forgery, and not a particularly good one at that.

Recent Addendum

Eldad Keynan, Jewish burials, The Bible and Interpretation,
Idem, Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher, The Bible and Interpretation,
Amos Kloner, Reconstruction of the Tomb in the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre According to Achaeological fins and Jewish Burial Customs of the First Century CE, The beginnings of Christianity, eds. J.Pastor and M.Mor, Jerusalem, 2005.

Jewish burial practice

The body was laid in a shallow pit or on a shelf for the first year, during which the flesh decayed, while the soul underwent the purifying process.  Primary (temporary) burial was followed by secondary (permanent) burial one year later.  At primary burial, the relatives laid tree branches on the corpse, and it was also customary to leave perfume tools in the tomb or pour perfume directly on the corpse.  A year after the burial, the relatives returned to the tomb, collected the bones and put them in stone boxes: ossuaries.  It was a celebration: the relatives were assured that the deceased finally arrived at this proper place, under the Seat of Honor and eternal, pure life. Now they collected the bones to the ossuary, and put the ossuary in a niche, carved into the tomb wall.
[There was a ‘spiritual’ theory, that at death the soul exited the body, and went to gehinom, for a one year trial, and was so purified in the heavenly court, and then moved to heaven, until the Messiah came and brought all the dead to life…. Obviously bones were not as defiled as flesh or souls!]

Jerusalem is an archeologist’s dream: Jews were expelled after 70, and so there are no further burials there in that historical period.  Hundreds of tombs have been found around Jerusalem, but no trench graves.  Some of the tombs contain ossuaries – limestone ossuaries were introduced there around 20 bce, and are found mainly around Jerusalem.  It is said that Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre area was honeycombed with trench graves, and was a public burial area, mainly for the poor: but these trenches have faded away,

Only the upper class rich had family tombs. Tombs are family tombs.  First, the land for the tomb had to be owned by the family.  The poor had trench graves.  The only really extant graves are obviously tombs, and so burial sites of the rich and famous.  It was possible to lend or borrow a space in a family tomb, (but the risk of uncleaness, and the possibility of second selling/leasing often meant that the original family owners lost the tomb for their own further use)…

The ossuaries were stored in another part of the family tomb.  The bones, or ossuaries, were not permitted in Jewish law to be taken to another tomb. Here, Keynan and Kloner would seem to disagree with Tabor as referred to above. 

Jewish law obliged the Sanhedrin to own tombs that were not private family tombs, and so could be lent and used when the Sanhedrin had executed a Jewish felon – and this for one year.  It is said that they were small in comparison with family tombs.  Typically, they would have had a pit in which a man could stand, and burial benches on three sides.  Sanhedrin did not have the power to execute anyone under Roman rule, that is, for about 100 years.  So there is no use of Sanhedrin tombs that we know of.  They were still in existence when Jesus died, but ‘no one had been laid’ in them for a long time.  It is suggested that Joseph of Arimathea (yosef ish haramataim) was a member of the Sanhedrin, with access to such tombs, but not a priest and so of lower order within the Sanhedrin – the priests would have been forbidden by purity laws from handling a corpse. 

A hitherto unknown passage has recently been discovered from the tomb beneath the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre, to another linked area of that tomb.  This means that the places in the tomb beneath the rotunda cannot be and were never intended to be a permanent resting place for the body. 

The scenario suggested now is that the tomb beneath the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre is the place were Joseph of Arimathea, agent of the Sanhedrin, placed the body of Jesus after he had taken it from the cross.  It was a Sanhedrin tomb.  The newly discovered passage way was there to relocate the bones, in an ossuary, one year later, when relatives – with permission of the court – came to perform second burial. 

Only one shroud has been discovered among all the excavated tombs around Jerusalem.  It is in the lower Hinnom valley. There are 4 separate pieces of cloth in it.