The Burial of Christ’s Body

By Wayne Jackson

While it is common to stress the death and resurrection of Christ, little attention generally is paid to the matter of the Lord’s burial, as though minimal significance is attached to that circumstance, in contrast to these other events. That is not true. Paul declares that the gospel of Christ involves the death, burial, and resurrection of the Savior (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

After the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross, his body was removed and placed in the new (unused) tomb of a wealthy gentleman who was a member of the Hebrew Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathaea. The apostle Matthew wrote:

And when evening was come, there came a rich man from Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple: this man went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded it to be given up. And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed (Matthew 27:57-60; cf. Mark 15:43).

The Bodies of Criminals

From a strictly human vantage point, the burial of Jesus’ body in the manner described above was a radically unusual procedure. Christ was crucified by Roman authorities (at the behest of rebellious Jews – Acts 2:23). According to the Latin poet, Horace, it was the Roman practice to leave a body upon the cross until it decayed. He spoke about crucified slaves “feeding crows on the cross” (Epistle 1.16.46-48).

On the other hand, it was the custom of the Jews that any sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin was “not to be buried in the sepulchers of their fathers; but two burying places were appointed by the council, one for those that were slain by the sword and strangled, the other for those that were stoned who also were hanged and burnt” (Lightfoot, 2.374; emp. original).

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “We consider it a duty to bury even our enemies” (Wars 3.8.5). But, as one scholar has observed, an “area far outside the city of Jerusalem had been consigned for the burial of executed criminals” (Lane, 578). Professor Lane cites ancient Jewish sources in support of his statement.

Additionally, it has been noted that for Pilate “to release the body of a condemned criminal — especially one condemned of high treason — to someone other than a relative was highly unusual” (Wessel, 8.785).

Why would the governor permit the corpse of this Jesus, who had created such an upheaval throughout the region, to be released to anyone — particularly in view of the fact that Christ had foretold his own resurrection? Great care, therefore, would have been taken to prevent any confiscation of the body. As the chief priests and Pharisees explained the matter to Pilate:

Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Command therefore that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, lest haply his disciples come and steal him away, and say unto the people, “He is risen from the dead”: and the last deception will be worse than the first (Matthew 27:63-64).

Burial of Christ

The burial of the Savior’s body conformed to neither Jewish nor Roman custom, in terms of how the remains of criminals were dispatched. Why was this the case?

The immediate explanation lies in the fact that Joseph was an influential Jew of “honorable estate” (Mark 15:43), who “asked for the body of Jesus.” And Pilate, the Roman governor, for reasons not explained in the biblical text, “commanded it to be given up” (Matthew 27:58).

The ultimate explanation, however, is to be found in the fact that divine prophecy foretold that though Jehovah’s suffering Servant would be “assigned a grave with the wicked” (NIV), nonetheless he would be buried “with a rich man in his death” (Isaiah 53:9). Divine providence clearly was at work in the fulfillment of this prophecy.

Liberal scholars attempt to evade the thrust of this prophecy by making the term “rich” a mere allusion to Jesus’ enemies, or else that of an elaborate burial; but Motyer forcefully points out:

Wicked … rich: the former is plural and the latter is singular. If Isaiah had merely intended the contrast between a shameful and a sumptuous burial, he would have used two singulars. The use of a plural and a singular suggests that he is talking not about categories but about actual individuals (337).

He goes on to point out that only Matthew’s record of Jesus’ burial in Joseph’s tomb can be the fulfillment of the prophecy.

Divine Overruling

Though Christ’s enemies doubtless intended that his grave be that of a common criminal (he was crucified between two thieves), it is absolutely remarkable that a prophet, seven hundred years earlier, foretold that the Lord would be buried with the “rich.” As observed already, this clearly is at variance with a reasonable expectation.

How could such a prediction possibly have happened by chance? It could not have. Ordinary human beings are unable to predict the future — no matter how many ridiculous claims there are to the contrary.

However, He who knows “the end from the beginning” is able to see the future, cause it to be written, and finally fulfilled (Isaiah 46:10).

It was essential that the location of the tomb be readily known, in view of the fact that some, likely in their opposition to the doctrine of the resurrection, would protest that Christ had not been raised, but the location of his grave simply was unknown, or had been misidentified. This futile explanation has been attempted many times across the centuries. But that view cannot be valid in view of the Jerusalem circumstances; Christ was buried in the tomb of a very prominent man. His tomb was not shrouded in obscurity.

The Seal

Further, the tomb was marked and authenticated with a Roman seal.

If a door had to be sealed, it was first fastened with some ligament, over which was placed some well-compacted clay [or wax], and then impressed with the seal, so that any violation of it would be discovered at once (Job 38:14; Song of Solomon 4:12; Matthew 27:66) (McClintock, 9.492-493).

It would be absurd to assume that the Romans kept no records of such important documentation.

The burial of Jesus, therefore, is a matter of supreme importance — intricately related to both the Savior’s death and his resurrection. And it should not be passed over lightly.

The “Embalming”

There is a final matter that warrants some reflection. It is commonly asserted that Jesus’ body was “embalmed.” That term is nowhere used with reference to the preparation of the Lord’s body. Certainly it was not an “embalming” analogous to what the Egyptians practiced, where there was a mutilation of the remains (see Morris, 496, 730). Among the Jews there was an anointing with spices, when such could be afforded, to retard the stench of decomposition (cf. John 11:39; see Borchert, 282).

Here is an important observation. The fact that the friends of Christ provided spices, and anointed his body for burial, clearly reveals that they had not grasped the significance of Psalm 16:10, namely that his flesh would not experience “corruption” (cf. Acts 2:25-28) because he would be raised. What is the importance of this point?

After Jesus’ death, the disciples did not concoct some outlandish plan to steal the body and proclaim that he had been resurrected! They did not anticipate the resurrection. They fully expected the corpse to decay and return to the dust. It was only seeing him on that Sunday following his death (and subsequently for 40 days) that generated their faith in a “risen Lord.” This is extremely powerful circumstantial evidence of the genuine resurrection of the Savior’s body.

Christianity is based upon a buried and resurrected Lord; the religion is genuine and stands unique, in contrast to all other religious systems — either ancient or modern.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Borchert, Gerald L. (2002), The New American Commentary – John 12:21 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman).
  • Lane, William L. (1974) The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
  • Lightfoot, John (1976), A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • McClintock, John and Strong, James (1970), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • Morris, Leon (1995), The Gospel According to John – Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
  • Motyer, J. Alec (1999), Isaiah – Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
  • Wessel, Walter (1984), “Mark,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.