Friday, June 28, 2013

A Spicy Grave

Jesus was crucified between two thieves sharing the same fate, one of whom He may have pardoned eternally. While on the cross, from noon to 3 P.M. the land got dark. Jesus cried out to God asking why He had forsaken Him. When Jesus died, the Temple's curtain tore, the earth shook, and dead holy men came back to life.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, immediately after Jesus' death, the centurion watching over the crucified people, and possibly his soldiers and other onlookers, finally realized that Jesus had been the righteous Son of God. According to John, soldiers were instead surprised to find that Jesus had already died when they had come to remove the people from their crosses in order to respect the Passover holiday.

A Spicy Grave
An empty grave is hardly worth mentioning unless it was filled at one point in time. We have come to the point of the story where Jesus' body is placed into the grave, so that the tomb's subsequent vacancy would have some meaning to it. Let us quickly pay our last respects as we study the burial of Jesus.

Matthew 27:57-66, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, and John 19:38-42 each cover the entombment of Jesus, and do so with many similarities. Yet there are some distinct differences which are a little too striking for each account to have a stake on the truth. Let us being with John.

John tells us that Joseph of Arimathea had been a disciple of Jesus, but secretly so, because he was afraid of the Jews, and that it was Joseph who asked Pilate to have Jesus' dead body (John 19:38). Nicodemus, the Pharisee whom Jesus had confused with His discussion of being born again, who later defended Jesus to the other religious elite, helped Joseph take care of Jesus' body. Together they wrapped Jesus' body with linen and applied aromatic spices to it according to Jewish burial customs, but the amount of spices used, seventy-five pounds (34.1 kilograms) worth, was consistent with the quantity used for burying royalty ( John 19:39-40). It was quite a suitable honor for the King of Kings.

Needless to say, wrapping Jesus' body while adorning it with that much spice did take some time, and it was already late in the day, so in John 19:41-42 we see:
At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. NIV
So we read that Jesus was buried close to where He was crucified in a new tomb. The implication of the next sentence is that that location was not one of preference, but one of convenience and need; because it was Passover and because the tomb was nearby, He was entombed there... not to mention it was already late in the day, and rubbing that much spice on a body takes some time! :-)

Now, Mark 15:42-47 tells us a slightly different story. Joseph boldly asked for Jesus body. Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead. (Maybe he had missed the whole three-hours-of-darkness-and-earthquake thing.) Anyway, Joseph wrapped Jesus' body in linen and placed it in a tomb carved from rock, with Mary and Mary witnessing the burial.

There is no mention of Nicodemus. There is also no mention of anointing Jesus' body with the massive quantity of spices that John recorded, or any spices for that matter. The silence does not necessarily mean that Joseph's spice slathering did not happen, but Mark's version would seem to imply that it did not. In fact, when you look at the start of the next chapter, in Mark 16:1 you find Mary, Mary, and Salome going to anoint Jesus with spices. Had they seen John's version of the anointing, it would be as though they were bringing a cup of water to the ocean in trying to anoint Jesus' body with the little bit of spices they could likely afford, and their actions would be unnecessary because all of the proper procedures had already been followed according to John 19:40.

Luke 23:50-56 is basically the same account as Mark, with a couple notable exceptions. First, Joseph is portrayed as being vocal against Jesus' sentencing, which does not necessarily contradict, but does cast some possible doubt on some version of the story, considering that John recorded that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus in secret. The second exception is that Luke dropped the reference Pilate being surprised of Jesus' hasty death.

Just like Mark, Luke also had Mary and Mary preparing to anoint Jesus' body with spices.

Finally we come to Matthew 27:57-66. Matthew made very significant changes in order to incorporate the guarded-body/guarded-tomb theme that he uniquely contributed to the story. Before we get to that, let us quickly note the other appreciable alterations.

First, like Luke, Matthew dropped the reference to Pilate being surprised of Jesus' early exit from life. Second, Matthew makes this tomb one that Joseph himself had cut out of the rock, which is a far cry from John's version of just being a convenient resting place. Third, the burial anointment was dropped as well, including the second(?) one done by Mary and Mary. Instead, in the next chapter, Matthew 28:1 reported that Mary and Mary were simply going down to look at the tomb, not to anoint Jesus.

Back to the guards, Matthew's unique content, Matthew 27:62-66 has the Chief Priests and Pharisees asking Pilate to post guards at the tomb to prevent Jesus' body from being stolen. Of course, that is hilariously ludicrous, not only because Matthew has recorded private dialog of that request without having an allied eyewitness, but more so because it portrays the Chief Priests and Pharisees as having a better understanding of what Jesus had promised than His own Disciples! As the story will show as it continues, none of Jesus' Disciples were actually anticipating Jesus coming back to life when He did.

While the stories have a similar backbone, they are quite different. Obviously, not each version can be true. That is not the important question though. The important one is whether or not this is based on a true story; if that backbone represents what actually occurred. Yet if events are recorded which we can be fairly certain did not occur, such as Chief Priests and Pharisees as having a better understanding of what Jesus had promised than His own Disciples, if something can be fabricated and passed of as truth for long enough, then what kind of certainty can you legitimately claim in knowing the truth of the matter?


  1. Mark (earlier than John) does not talk of spicing up Jesus' body. But John, a later story already committed to Jesus as a King, spices him up just like a king (a time-consuming event) and ignores the hurried burial thing.

  2. Ooops, that comment was suppose to be preceded by:

    So tell me if I am simplifying one of your posts main point accurately:

  3. Mmmm mmm! A spicy seasoning rub for the dead. I wonder if it was anything like the spice rubs they sell in the supermarket for beef and chicken?

    1. I will resist the temptation to make cannibalism/Hannibal Lecter jokes.

  4. Sabio, I have been so busy with house guests this week, I am not even sure what my main point is! :-) Actually, I am not so sure I was angling at Jesus being a king in John verses the others, but rather it was more to point out the large discrepancy in the Gospels, in that it would be pretty tough for anyone watching the burial to miss the 75 pounds-worth of spices, but Mark and Luke both show the two Mary's wanting to spice the body up, presumably according to the traditional burial rites.

    In a way, both the Synoptic account version and John's version were hurried; the Synoptics imply that the burial happened so fast (to get it done before the Passover) that the full traditions could not be followed, while John claims that the rush caused the tomb selection to be nearby (perhaps as opposed to bringing His body back to Galilee to be buried with His father).

    As Lincoln said, I would have written that shorter, but I did not have the time. ;-)

    Strange, huh? In checking out the background a little, it was, indeed, traditional to anoint the bodies with spices, and expensive ones at that. But normally, only a modest amount would be used except in cases of royalty or other persons of distinction. It was not embalming, though; just used topically. So, yeah, a little like the spice rubs. :-)

  5. Yeah, I found it a bit confusing -- but I am an organization freak and like clear points in short, clear outline. I fumbled with my last post by cramming too much -- except for your comment, it seemed that perhaps others really didn't read it but just blasted-through answering the "Question for Readers" -- probably because they are busy but DO want people visiting them, even if people are just superficially greeting each other -- yawn!

    However, I NEVER thought about the spice issue before -- your post was very helpful loved it. One post one "Spicing up Jesus in a Hurry" would be fantastic -- with anthropological background in burial spices, clear tables/outline on the important difference and then a conclusion about what you feel the various authors were spicing up and the chronology of the evolution of the myth in light of present theories, would be cool. Well, that is what I'd want to hold in my brain after leaving an article. Now I have: "Geeze, they use to spice their dead. Jesus' spice story got spiced up inconsistently." I'd have to read this a few times to try and get more organization out of it.

    BTW, I typically love your writing, when you don't try to tackle too much and mimic Lincoln.

  6. Ha! Thanks Sabio. I like a more focused writing too. This is not exactly my best work here. But, truth be told, this section of Scripture is very difficult to draw into a concise summary. Or, at least it has been for me! Thanks for your patience, and great suggestions! I will try to do better on next week's post. Anyway...

    I am surprised just how often people blow by your questions! I think, besides the business factor, it may have something to do with the fact that you cover many topics on which people already have strong opinions, so their minds start processing their defense, or how to explain their positions, as opposed to paying attention to your questions, which, I think, are key to understanding the point you are making! :-)

  7. also, I often write about principles BEHIND common phenomena, yet "readers" can hear past their trigger words -- those common phenomena