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Why Did Early Christians Improve the Burial of Jesus?

Why Did Early Christians Improve the Burial of Jesus? January 8, 2013

Jeff Carter has posted on his blog about his impressions from reading my short book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?. I encourage you to click through and read what he says about it.

He ends the post with a question for me, which I’ll quote here:

The earliest followers of the Resurrected Jesus were willing and even eager to declare their faith in this paradoxical and oxymoronic idea of a crucified and resurrected God /man– an idea that was foolishness to the Greeks and Romans  and blasphemy to the Jews.  It is usually argued by apologists that the disciples were unlikely to create such an embarrassing, oxymoronic story.  But if they were unlikely to create an embarrassing story of his dishonorable death – why would they feel it necessary to create stories to cover over the (assumed) embarrassment of his dishonorable burial?

Let me say in response that this matter has long puzzled me. If the resurrection of Jesus, in the view of early Christians, undid the shameful burial of Jesus and vindicated him, then why did they feel the need to improve on the stories of his burial, so that it goes from being placed in “a tomb” by a member of the ruling council, to being placed in an unused tomb by a secret disciple, to being  given a burial fit for a king?

I don’t have a ready answer to that question. I’ve thought about it, and speculated about it, but it still puzzles me.

Perhaps the earliest Christians did not view the resurrection as involving the original body of Jesus. Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 15, where the body of the plant that sprouts is different from that of the seed, could be so understood. As time passes, we find that the same trajectory that makes Jesus’ burial more and more honorable simultaneously makes his resurrection body increasingly physical in nature.

And so perhaps both reflect a sense that, even if God had vindicated Jesus by exalting him in a new body – or without any sort of physical body – to the right hand of God, that did not undo the dishonor perpetrated against him physically and bodily. And so, as Christians wrestled more and more with this, they became increasingly convinced both that God vindicated Jesus bodily, and that he worked through his human servants to give Jesus a more fitting burial. Perhaps both were responses to the same disconcerting historical realities.

What I’ve presented here is obviously speculative, and I would not even say it offers a particularly compelling account or a perfect fit to the evidence. And so perhaps readers of the blog can do better. Why do you think that Christians increasingly “improved” the burial given to Jesus in their telling of the story of his passion?

While I await your answers, let me thank Jeff again for reading the book and for asking such an excellent question!

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