Saturday, April 14, 2007

An emergency burial in a temporary location?

James Tabor is persuaded that the burial of Jesus conducted by Joseph of Arimathea was “temporary”—an “emergency” situation that called for unusual measures. Several comments from his April 1, 2007 post are representative (with bold face and italics added):
[Mark] notes that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses . . . observed this emergency burial

The gospel of John [19:41-42] . . . makes it quite clear that this tomb was a temporary one, chosen in an emergency situation, that just happened to be nearby.

The tomb was chosen because it was close and the Passover Sabbath began at sundown. Things were in a rush and there simply was no time to even decide what to do with Jesus’ body as far an honorable and more permanent burial.

It should not surprise us that the tomb might turn up empty, given that this site near the place of execution was never intended as a permanent place for Jesus’ corpse in the first place, but was used in an emergency fashion until other arrangements could be made.
Likewise in The Jesus Dynasty, in a chapter titled “Dead but Twice Buried,” Tabor says:
given the hasty and temporary nature of Jesus’ burial we should expect that the tomb would be empty. It was never intended that Jesus be left in that tomb (234, underlining added; cf. 224, 228, 230).
From an “emergency” burial we may draw several inferences:
  1. The original tomb would have been found empty (Jesus Dynasty, 230).
  2. Jesus’ body would have been re-buried elsewhere.
In other words if Jesus’ (first) tomb was indeed found empty as the N.T. claims, this was because Jesus’ body was moved—by Joseph of Arimathea and others at day’s end on Saturday—to another tomb for permanent interment. The Talpiot tomb is simply our latest and best guess as to the whereabouts of this secondary location.

Is there evidence that Jesus’ burial was an “emergency” that called for a “temporary” (i.e., one-day) arrangement? Matthew’s Gospel offers no hint of time pressure; the key texts are in Mark, Luke and John (here given in the NRSV).
Mark 15:42-47
42. When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43. Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council . . .went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44. Then Pilate . . . 45. . . granted the body to Joseph. 46. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.

Luke 23:50-56
50. Now . . . Joseph . . . 52. went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. 55. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

John 19:38-42
38. After these things, Joseph of Arimathea . . . asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39. Nicodemus . . . also came . . . 40. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Mark, our earliest source, does not say Jesus’ burial was hurried. Efficient maybe, but not hurried. We can’t assume, for example, that they deposited the body unwashed simply because Mark is silent on the point. What Mark does say is that evening had “already” (ede) come [omitted by the NRSV] and that Joseph’s move to secure the body happened “since” or “because” (epei) it was the “pre-Sabbath” (15:42). So Mark ties the lateness of the hour not so much to the burial as to Joseph’s bold request for the body perhaps because, as Raymond Brown (The Death of the Messiah 2.1212) suggests, the Romans would have been more likely to grant such requests prior to the Sabbath. Evidently there was time enough to buy linen and wrap the body but not enough to complete the anointing, which task the women returned to perform on Sunday morning (Mk 16:1-2).

The women’s return visit on Sunday morning suggests (to me) several things:
  1. They assumed Jesus’ body would still be there.
  2. They were not expecting a resurrection.
  3. They believed that other bodies would eventually be placed alongside Jesus’ body in that tomb, hence the courtesy/necessity of spices and ointment.
For Tabor’s theory to work it seems we must imagine the two Marys utterly oblivious to the temporary nature of Jesus’ burial, to the necessity of relocating the body and to the details of the corpse transfer. I find this aspect of Tabor’s proposal somewhat implausible. Moreover, if the plan was to transfer Jesus’ body, why not wait a few months until the bones could be collected in an ossuary?

Luke adds a time reference—the burial happened just prior to Sabbath—but little else. John adds the detail that the tomb was in a nearby “garden” and seems to imply that the location was chosen in part because it was close at hand. Unlike the NRSV translation cited above, the Greek of v.42 includes two distinct indicators of cause: “on account of (dia) the Jew’s Day of Preparation, because (hoti) the tomb was near.”

Evidence such as this prompts Tabor to conclude that Jesus’ body was never meant to stay where it initially lay. It helps, I suppose, that Tabor rejects Matthew’s claim (27:60) that Joseph of Arimathea owned the tomb:
This is clearly not history but Matthew’s theological addition to show a fulfillment of prophecy, namely, Isaiah 53:9, where the suffering servant is buried in the tomb of a rich man.
Is it reasonable for Tabor to move from the Gospels' hasty burial to an emergency burial in a temporary tomb? Does this go beyond the evidence? Does the shift answer more questions than it raises? For me, Tabor's proposal is not without its own problems:
  1. Would Joseph of Arimathea really have moved Jesus’ body without alerting family and friends, including the two Marys (Mk 15:47; 16:1)?
  2. Weren’t all Jewish burials relatively hurried? Wouldn’t Jews well practiced in same-day burials usually be able to avoid the inconvenience of reburial?
  3. Do we have any other ancient accounts of reburial prior to decomposition?
  4. How tolerant were the Romans of Jewish scruples on this point? Did the Romans regularly prevent Jews from burying victims of crucifixion? Josephus (War 4.317) confirms that the biblical call for same-day burial (Dt 21:22-23) was taken to apply to crucifixion victims. Was it not until the madness of the Jewish revolt (War 4.380-83; 5.33) that Rome prevented Jews from burying their loved ones?


Greg DeLassus said...

Dr Tabor's claim that this was done in haste rests on John's account more than any of the others, because it is John who claims that "because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there" (19:42). However, Dr Tabor neglects to mention that John also relates that Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes (19:39) and that Joseph and Nicodemus are recorded to have annointed Jesus' body before the burial (19:40). How "hasty" could this burial really have been if there was time to haul a large quantity of ointment to the preparation site and annoint the body before burying it? Does this really sound like an emergency measure? One is hard pressed to see how Dr Tabor finds evidence of haste in John's account.

Anonymous said...

A similar argument was made sometime ago by Richard Carrier at Internet Infidels. His article can be found here:

Michael Vincent said...

I'm curious that if the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Aramathia was indeed a temporary one, why was the stone rolled, closing the tomb? If they planned to move the body later,it would be an enormous amount of work to roll away the stone (by definition, once rolled into place, a tomb such as this was virtually impregnable.

And if the women, knowing the tomb was closed, did indeed go to anoint the body, how did they expect to unroll the stone?

I actually don't acknowledge the resurrection any longer, and am curious about the second burial idea; and why the gospels refer to the 'temporary' tomb Jesus was lain in as sealed/closed.