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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  • Richard Billingsley

    I have been reading that the actual fate of a hanged man in the late Temple Era was to be thrown out on the garbage dump of Gehenna. Where the body was burned and eaten by rats and dogs. Why was Jesus buried when it was more likely his corpse would have been thrown out?

    • Where did you read that? Josephus indicates the Jewish concern for burial even of those who were crucified. There may have been instances where the law was not followed, but had it been common, we would expect to hear complaints about it, just as we do about other instances when the Romans interfered with the Jews’ following of Torah.

      • Jeremy Marshall

        Wouldn’t it have been in Pilate’s best interest, though, to make sure that Jesus didn’t get a proper burial? Wouldn’t a proper burial have signaled that Pilate knew he was wrong to execute Jesus? Further, wouldn’t a proper burial have increased the chances of the tomb becoming a martyr’s shrine–like the “tombs of the prophets” Jesus referenced in his invective against the Pharisees? I figured that crucified men became crow feed, and that this was a politically calculated move on the part of the Romans.

        • Mark’s Gospel suggests that Jesus got the burial required by Jewish law even for criminals, and only that. If Pilate regularly prevented the dishonorable burial of criminals in a grave designated for that purpose, we would have expected a Jewish outcry. But in fact, Josephus indicates that even the crucified were buried, as a rule.

          I think it depends what you mean by a “proper burial.” I’m suggesting that Jesus was given the sort of dishonorable burial criminals were given, and not the honorable burial that the Gospel of John in particular tries to suggest that he received.

  • Jeremy Marshall

    The bigger question for me is, why did John replace the ladies with Nicodemus as the one who spiced up the body?

    • I think John’s change is even more significant than that. In the Synoptics, the women never succeed in anointing Jesus for burial. The only woman who does that (note John’s awkward phrasing in his version) is the woman who pours perfume on Jesus at the Last Supper. And so the Synoptics implicitly indicate what the Gospel of John directly denies, namely that Jesus did not get an honorable burial with anointing.

      • Jeremy Marshall

        That’s a good point, I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that–the women actually DON’T get to anoint Jesus (Sabbath interruption, etc).

  • Stewart Felker

    I don’t necessarily view the two issues (resurrection + burial) as quite so causally linked as some might. I don’t see the main impetus for Jesus’s resurrection primarily in a reversal of the dishonorable death of Jesus. Rather, in the Judaic purview of early Christianity, perhaps it’s not that his death was so much dishonorable – because it was understood as conforming to the common fate of the prophets and martyrs. And so I might see the impetus for tales of his resurrection primarily in an attempt to tie Jesus more firmly to his eschatological predictions, by – in quite a novel twist – having him be the πρωτότοκος of those bodies soon to be raised in the _general_ resurrection.

    In terms of the narrative of his honorable burial in the gospels: in this instance, I might tend to place more importance on their purely literary character – particularly in light of the intertextuality/dependencies between the accounts – than on any other underlying tradition(s); though I hesitate to totally follow those like Loisy who, way back in 1908, thought “‘all the details of the [honorable burial] story…are conceived in view of the discovery of the empty tomb.” But Lyons 2004 also discusses at some length Crossan’s proposal that Joseph of Arimathea, in his actions, could simply have been“acting out of a personal sense of piety” in burying Jesus (like Tobit), or a “more communal sense of duty,” based on the “Deuteronomic injunction…[which] engendered a communal expectation that bodies would have been removed before night fell and thus placed an obligation on anyone able to prevent such defilement.” In this sense, it is more ritual than it is loaded with honor/shame connotations. Eh, maybe that’s a false dichotomy. But I wonder if, in some sense, this can’t be applied to the women as well.

    • Guest

      …my God, where’s the edit tool? Just pretend all that was grammatical + properly formatted.

    • Guest

      “And so I might see the impetus for tales of his
      resurrection primarily in an attempt to tie Jesus more firmly to his
      eschatological predictions, by – in quite a novel twist – having him be the
      πρωτότοκος of those bodies soon to be raised in the _general_ resurrection.”


      Now that’s an idea I’d definitely like to learn more about. I’m
      guessing you’re thinking of πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν (Col. 1:18) & ὁ
      πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν (Apoc. 1:5). What’s the lit. on this?

  • Yahweh

    It’s all fantasy anyway, so why not let the poetic imagination, which is the only truth theology will ever know, have its way. We know there is no real Jesus but for the circular self-referencing and roughly written apostolic fables that all resort in the end to “faith” as the anodyne for reality. People are made to play and construct a better reality than they find. And that’s the point. Y.

    • Who is the “we” in your “We know”? Mainstream secular historians disagree, and it is details like the recording of Jesus’ dishonorable burial, which clearly disturbed Christians, that persuades historians that such embarassing details are more likely historical than fabricated.