Burial in Ancient Israel Part 7: The Burial of Christ

The Entombment of Christ (Caravaggio)

This post concludes a series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

This 100,000 year history of human burial converges on a single point and a single day: a Friday in Jerusalem around the year 30 AD. Jesus of Nazareth dies on the cross, and his body is taken down at the request of a wealthy man from Arimathea named Joseph. The sun is setting and the sabbath is about to begin, when no burial will be allowed. Joseph must get the body of Jesus in a tomb or it will not be properly buried within 24 hours after death, as required by Jewish law.

Since there was no time to prepare a grave, Joseph had the body laid in a rock-cut tomb which he had commissioned for his own family, but had not used. We know this is the case because Matthew tells us it was a “new” tomb. It’s rather extraordinary that a man would lay a non-family member in a new tomb made for his family, and explains the reverence we still have for Joseph. (Tradition holds that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on the location of the tomb, but the church was leveled by Muslims in the 11th century, so very little of the original site remains.)

The specification of a “new” tomb would have said something different to the reader of Jesus’s time than it may to us. We consider “new” to be wonderful thing. But, as we’ve seen throughout these posts, being “gathered to your ancestors” was very important for the Jews. People were laid amidst their loved ones and relatives. There was a sense of connection to that which came before.

This was denied to Jesus. The tomb he was in was the tomb of a relative stranger. It had never been used, and thus there were no other remains to be “gathered to.” There were no grave goods with him: just a single winding sheet. He was unwashed, unannointed. This would have struck Jews of the time as a remarkably sad way to be laid to rest. He was alone in a strange place disconnected from his people: it’s a very forlorn image of despair even in death.

If Jesus had not been raised, perhaps he would have been moved to simple trench-cut tomb after the women finished cleaning and anointing his body. Or perhaps he would have laid on a bench in that rock cut tomb until a new member of Joseph’s family died. At the point, the stone would have been rolled away and another body interred. At some later date, after the flesh had decayed, his bones would have probably been gathered into an ossuary to make room for another body.

Layout of a typical burial chamber

But something else happened. The women were unable to perform their ablutions on the man they called Lord. Of all the burials and customs we’ve seen and discussed, from es-Skhul to the ossuary of Caiaphas, this one ended like no other.

Humans had lost, and grieved, and buried their dead with honor and respect for almost 100,000 years, with no hope of a life beyond the grave. The man Joseph laid in that new tomb would be the first born among all the dead.

Death itself was, finally, conquered.



Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land )Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Negev, Avraham, Ed. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd Edition (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • EMS

    “Humans had lost, and grieved, and buried their dead with honor and respect for almost 100,000 years, with no hope of a life beyond the grave”

    Loved your article. But, this phrase is incorrect. The Egyptians believed in life after death, hence their pharoahs’ magnificient tombs. I believe other cultures did as well.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks for the compliment. I can see where that line can be read that way, but it’s not what I intended. While (obviously) I understand that other civilizations and faiths believed in afterlife, I was focusing on the Christian promise of immortal life, which is of a very different character than the Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, or any other conception. (Indeed, much of the Syro-Palestinian conception of the afterlife comes from interaction with Egypt, but was transformed radically over time.) That said, I agree that line doesn’t sit right, but I’m not sure I can really revise it without disrupting that section. Thanks for giving me the chance to clear it up here.

  • Jenny

    While your article gave me deeper insights into typical Jewish custom, I do have to take issue with your comment about Jesus being “unwashed and unannointed.” In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the “annointing stone” on which Jesus’ body was placed to prepare it for burial. While it may or may not be “authentic”, it backs up the Gospel of John which also tells of Joseph asking for Jesus’ body, and once granted, it says, “Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom.” (Jn 19: 39-40) Tradition tells us that all this was done in haste because sunset was approaching, but they still gave Jesus the minimum essentials of a Jewish burial.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    It’s certainly one way to read that passage, and possibly the right one. I think it’s more likely that, as the passage says, they simply “bound” the body and placed the myrrh and aloes in with it, without washing the body or actually anointing it and binding it properly. If we’re to take the Shroud of Turin as any kind of evidence (and I’m inclined to), then preparations were, at most, rudimentary.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Also, Luke 24:1 has the women bringing “spices” to the tomb. Clearly, they were ready to prepare the body properly.

    ADDED: I checked the Greek on this, and John does not use the verb he uses for “anointed”–aleiphein–in this passage. Also of note: John frequently exaggerates amounts to suggest abundance. This is in keeping with the catechetical nature of his gospel, which was written “so that you may believe.”

  • http://newavent Armando

    EMS; you are correct about the Egyptians and a number of other cultures. Problem is none of this people ever Resurrected form the dead. Their bodies are still around for all to see in museums.

  • Sean

    Because the tomb was new, the risk was eliminated of witnesses being mistaken about who exactly was Resurrected. It’s another example of how matters that appear sad from man’s perspective work to God’s glory after all.

  • Bentiron

    Enjoyed the articles very much, thanks for the insights into burial customs.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    You’re welcome! Glad to know someone’s reading them.