The Sweet Fragrance of a Subtle Argument
The idea that there is an “entity” in man that survives the death of his body reaches far back into antiquity. The Egyptians, for example, in their religious ideology, believed in preserving the body as a future depository for the soul, hence, they utilized the process of embalming. Herodotus, the Greek historian, described in detail the Egyptian embalming process, even setting forth different price levels that could be utilized according to the prosperity of the deceased (History II. 86-88).
The Israelites customarily did not practice embalming, but because of their connection with the Egyptians, the bodies of both Jacob and Joseph were embalmed when they died (Gen. 50), perhaps with the goal that their remains be taken back to Canaan eventually.
The Burial of Jesus
What is of interest to the Christian is the manner in which Jesus’ body was prepared for burial. Matthew’s account reads as follows:
And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed (27:59-60; cf. Mk. 15:45-46; Lk. 23:53).
The apostle John supplements the synoptic accounts with the following information.
He [Joseph of Arimathaea] came therefore and took away the body. And there came also Nicodemus, who at the first had come to him [Jesus] by night, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred [Roman] pounds. So they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the burial custom of the Jews is (19:38-40).
Myrrh was used as an embalming substance (Herodotus II.86), while aloes was a sweet-smelling spice which was employed to counter the odor of putrefaction (Keener, 315). As we noted earlier, normally the Jews did not practice embalming. They generally washed the body (cf. Acts 9:37), anointed it, and buried it — most often on the day of death.
Finally, then, there are the records of both Mark and Luke, who state that early on the first day of the week (resurrection morning) certain women came to the tomb with the intention to “anoint” the Lord’s body with “spices” (Mk. 16:1; Lk. 24:1).
The Testimony of Fragrance
Now what is the significance of these accounts to the New Testament student? Let us suggest the following.
First, these incidents reflect the fact that the disciples had not understood David’s prophecy in Psalm 16, namely that following his crucifixion, the Messiah’s body would not experience “corruption.” “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Psa. 16:10; cf. Acts 2:24ff). There is no need to anoint with spices a body that is not subject to the deterioration process.
Second, these actions also are indicative of the fact that when Christ expired upon the cross, the disciples believed he was dead permanently — even though he had repeatedly foretold his resurrection (Jn. 2:19ff; Mt. 12:40; 16:21; Jn. 10:17-18). One scholar notes — regarding the women who came to the tomb with spices that Sunday morning:
Their purpose is unmistakable evidence that they regarded the death of Jesus as real and final. They had no expectations of His resurrection. Significantly, nothing further is heard of their spices. They were not needed (Hiebert, 472-473; cf. also Michaelis, VII, 458).
The foregoing facts provide evidence, therefore, that there was no “plot” between Jesus and his disciples to feign his death and then announce a phoney resurrection, as Hugh Schonfield contended. The Jewish skeptic wrote:
[Jesus] plotted and schemed with the utmost skill and resourcefulness, sometimes making secret arrangements, taking advantage of every circumstance conductive to the attainment of his objectives (155).
The facts simply do not support this slanderous theory. [Note: And Schonfield had the audacity to say that his vicious charge was not intended to “detract from [Christ’s] greatness and uniqueness” (7).
In point of fact, then, the fragrance of those spices that were scattered within the folds of the Lord’s burial garments, provide an aromatic argument — indirect evidence of any lack of collusion in a fabricated resurrection story.
These incidents highlight the reality that when disciples subsequently began to proclaim that Jesus had been raised from the dead (cf. Acts 1:21ff; 2:22ff), it was not because they had anticipated the resurrection event — because they did not expect that. Their boldness can only be accounted for on the basis of the actual resurrection of Christ’s body — an event so credible to them that the reality of it turned their despair into a dynamic confession of the Christian faith.
Even William Barclay, the Scottish scholar who was known for his radical religious modernism — repudiating the virgin birth, denying many of the miracles of Christ, etc. — conceded:
For every cause there must be an adequate effect. What changed that hopeless, despairing, terrified group of men into a band who were ready to go out and win the world? What convinced them that what they thought was the end was really the new beginning? There could only have been one cause. Jesus had come back. The change in the disciples is explicable on no other grounds (262).
And so the conscientious student can only marvel, and thankfully exclaim: “Yes, the sweet fragrance of those spices lingers to this very day — wafting their declaration of the resurrected Savior.”
Scripture references: Genesis 50; Mark 15:45-46; Luke 23:53; Acts 9:37; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1; Psalm 16; Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:24; John 2:19; Matthew 12:40, 16:21; John 10:17-18; Acts 1:21
- Barclay, William. 1976. And He Had Compassion. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.
- Hiebert, D. Edmond. 1994. The Gospel of Mark. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press.
- Keener, Craig S. 1993. The Background Bible Commentary — New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
- Michaelis, Wilhelm. 1971. “smurna,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Kittel & Friedrich, Eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Schonfield, Hugh J. 1965. The Passover Plot. New York, NY: Bantam Books.