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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Burial

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BURIAL.—In contrast to the Greek and the later Roman custom of cremation, the rites of burial were observed amongst the Jews with great reverence, and an account of their ordinary practice will help to illustrate several passages in the NT. Immediately after death the body was washed (Acts 9:37), and wrapped in linen cloths in the folds of which spices and ointments were laid (John 19:39-40). The face was bound about with a napkin, and the hands and feet with grave-bands (John 11:44; John 20:7). Meanwhile the house had been given over to the hired mourners (Matthew 9:23 ||; cf. 2 Chronicles 35:25, Jeremiah 9:17), who lamented for the dead in some such strains as are preserved in Jeremiah 22:18, and skilfully improvised verses in praise of his virtues. The actual interment took place as quickly as possible, mainly on sanitary grounds; very frequently, indeed, on the same day as the death (Acts 5:6; Acts 5:10; Acts 8:2), though it might be delayed for special reasons (Acts 9:37 f.). In its passage to the grave the body was generally laid on a bier, or open bed of wicker work (Luke 7:14; cf. 2 Samuel 3:31, 2 Kings 13:21)—hence at Jesus’ command the widow of Nain’s son was able to sit up at once (Luke 7:15). The bier was, as a rule, borne to the tomb by the immediate friends of the deceased, though we have also traces of a company of public ‘buriers’ (Acts 5:6; Acts 5:10; cf. Ezekiel 39:12-16). In front of the bier came the women, and in Judaea the hired mourners, and immediately after it the relatives and friends, and ‘much people of the city.’ Attendance at funerals was, indeed, regarded as a pious act, and was consequently not always wholly disinterested. Among modern Orientals it is called ‘attending the merit,’ an act that will secure a reward from God (G. M. Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs, p. 127).

The place of burial in NT times was always outside the city (Luke 7:12, John 11:30, Matthew 27:52-53), and frequently consisted of a natural cave, or an opening made in imitation of one. These rock-sepulchres were often of considerable size, and sometimes permitted of the interment of as many as thirteen bodies. Eight, however, was the usual number, three on each side of the entrance and two opposite. The doorway to the tomb was an aperture about 2 ft. broad and 4 ft. high, and was closed either by a door, or by a great stone—the golel—that was rolled against it (Matthew 27:66, Mark 15:46, John 11:38-39). It is sometimes thought that it was in some such rock-tomb that the demoniac of Gadara had taken up his abode; but more probably it was in one of the tombs ‘built above ground,’ which were ‘much more common in Galilee than has been supposed’ (Wilson, Recovery of Jerusalem, p. 369, ap. Swete, St. Mark, p. 88).

As a rule, sepulchres were whitened once a year, after the rains and before the Passover, that passers-by might be warned of their presence, and thus escape defilement (Matthew 23:27; cf. Numbers 19:16). And though it was not customary to erect anything in the nature of our gravestones, in NT times it was regarded as a religious duty to restore or rebuild the tombs of the prophets (Matthew 23:29). In addition to family sepulchres of which we hear in the earliest Hebrew records (Genesis 23:20, Judges 8:32, 2 Samuel 2:32), and such private tombs as the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea (Matthew 27:60), special provision was made for the interment of strangers (Matthew 27:7-8; cf. Jeremiah 26:23, 2 Maccabees 9:4). See art. Tomb.

It will have been observed how many of the foregoing particulars are illustrated in the Gospel narrative of the burial of Jesus; but it may be well to summarize briefly what then took place. No sooner had it been placed beyond doubt that Jesus was really dead, than Joseph of Arimathaea obtained permission to take possession of His body (Matthew 27:57 ff.; cf. the merciful provision of the Jewish law, Deuteronomy 21:23). Haste was required, as the Jews’ Preparation was close at hand, and the body, after being, perhaps, bathed (so Gospel of Peter, 6), was at once wrapped ‘in a clean linen cloth’ (Matthew 27:59), the ‘roll of myrrh and aloes,’ of which Nicodemus had brought about a hundred pound weight (John 19:39), being apparently crumbled between the folds of the linen (ὀθόνια). It was then borne to the ‘new tomb wherein was never man yet laid,’ and reverently laid on the rocky ledge prepared for the purpose, while the whole was secured by a ‘great stone’ placed across the entrance, which was afterwards at the desire of the Jews sealed and guarded (Matthew 27:62 ff.; cf. Gospel of Peter, 8). There the body remained undisturbed over the Jewish Sabbath; but when on the morning of the first day of the week the women visited the tomb, bringing with them an additional supply of ‘spices and ointments’ to complete the anointing which want of time had previously prevented, it was only to find the tomb empty, and to receive the first assurance of their Lord’s resurrection (Luke 24:1 ff.). In connexion with this visit, Edersheim has drawn attention to the interesting fact that the Law expressly allowed the opening of the grave on the third day to look after the dead (Bible Educator, iv. p. 332). In entire harmony, too, with what has already been said of the general structure of Jewish tombs, is the account which St. John has preserved for us of his own and St. Peter’s visit to the tomb of Jesus (John 20:1 ff.). He himself, when he reached the doorway, was at first content with stooping down (παρακύψας) and looking in, and thus got only a general view (βλέπει) of the linen cloths lying in their place. But St. Peter on his arrival entered into the tomb, and beheld—the word used (θεωρεῖ) points to a careful searching gaze, the eye passing from point to point—not only the linen cloths, but the napkin that was about Christ’s head ‘rolled up in a place by itself.’ These particulars have sometimes been used as evidence of the care and order with which the Risen Lord folded up and deposited in two separate places His grave-clothes before He left the tomb. But it has recently been shown with great cogency that what probably is meant is that the grave-clothes were found undisturbed on the very spot where Jesus had lain, the linen cloths on the lower ledge which had upheld the body, the napkin ‘by itself on the slightly raised part of the ledge which formed a kind of pillow for the head. The empty grave-clothes, out of which the Risen Lord had passed, became thus a sign not only that no violence had been offered to His body by human hands, but also a parable of the true meaning of His Resurrection: ‘all that was of Jesus of Nazareth has suffered its change and is gone. We—grave-clothes, and spices, and napkin—belong to the earth and remain’ (H. Latham, The Risen Master, p. 11: see the whole interesting discussion in chapters i.–iii.).

Apart from these more special considerations, it is sufficient to notice that the very particularity of the description of the burial of Jesus is in itself of importance as emphasizing His true humanity and the reality of His death. From nothing in our lot, even the sad accompaniments of the grave, did He shrink. On the other hand, the empty grave on the morning of the third day has always been regarded as one of the most convincing proofs that ‘the Lord is risen indeed.’ Had it not been so, then His body must have been stolen either by friends or by foes. But if by the latter, why in the days that followed did they not produce it, and so silence the disciples’ claims? If by the former, then we have no escape from the conclusion that the Church of Christ was founded ‘not so much upon delusion as upon fraud—upon fraud springing from motives perfectly inexplicable, and leading to results totally different from any that could have been either intended or looked for’ (W. Milligan, The Resurrect ion of our Lord4 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 73).

Literature.—See artt. ‘Burial’ and ‘Tombs’ in Kitto’s Cycl., Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] , Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Encyc. Bibl.; ‘Beerdigung’ in Hamburger’s RE; ‘Begrabnis bei den Hebräern’ PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ; Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, p. 161 ff.; Thomson, Land and Book; Bender, ‘Beliefs, Rites, and Customs of the Jews connected with Death, Burial, and Mourning,’ in JQR [Note: QR Jewish Quarterly Review.] , 1894 and 1895.

George milligan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Burial'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/b/burial.html. 1906-1918.

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