A couple of Easters ago my wife and I picked up a book at Books A Million called, The Jesus Family Tomb. We were curious about the book because we knew that the Discovery Channel would be airing a "documentary" claiming that they had found the tomb of Jesus. I spent the weekend reading this book and I have been fascinated by the reading.
Apparently in 1980, while bulldozing for construction for an apartment building, a tomb was found in the side of a hill in Jerusalem. A group of archeologists were called in to extricate the articles in the tomb. They found 10 ossuaries (boxes containing bones) in this tomb. After they finished taking out the articles from the tomb, they only had nine ossuaries to examine. Six of these ossuaries were inscribed: (1) "Jesus, son of Joseph" (2) "Yose" or "Joseph" (3) "Maria" or Mary in Hebrew (4) "Mariamne" or Mary in Greek (5) "Matia" or Matthew (6) "Judah, son of Jesus.
At first, the book claims the original investigation did not point to the Jesus of the Bible because the name "Mariamne" could not be traced to him. However, through the course of examining, it was found that Mary Magdalene was referred to as Mariamne in some of the Gnostic texts.
The writers of the book decided to test the probability that this was Jesus' tomb by examining the statistical evidence that all of these names which relate to Jesus would show up in the same family tomb. In the tombs that have been found, the name Joseph has appeared 14% of the time and the name Jesus has appeared 9% of the time. The estimated population of males was 80,000. So, the authors calculated that there were 7,200 Jesus' and 11,200 Josephs'. 1008 men would have been Jesus son of Joseph. Then, a quarter of the population would have been named Mary. Although this sounds like a lot of Jesus', Josephs and Marys, they calculated that there was a 1 and 2.5 million chance that all of these names would be in the same tomb. However, when you take percentages away for the missing names from Jesus' family, the odds go to 1 and 600,000, which are still good odds.
The book proposes that the following story may explain what happened to Jesus' body after his death. Jesus died just before sun down of Friday, meaning he had to be buried in a hurry. He was placed in a tomb of a follower until he could be buried in his family tomb. The disciples came and took the body on the Sabbath, because nobody would have been guarding the tomb. They brought him to his family tomb where he was laid down for a period of a year. Then, after a year, his bones would have been placed in an ossuary. They propose that there were two different types of followers of Jesus, the ones in Jerusalem which they call Ebionites, who followed the Jewish law, but believed Jesus to be the Jewish messiah and there were the Gentile Christians. After Jerusalem was destroyed in 70CE the Ebionites were displaced and died out. However, they believe there were still some cell groups that existed underground. The book also theorizes that these Ebionite groups new about the tomb of Jesus and shared this information with the Nights Templar. This secrete may be what caused the church to persecute and kill the Nights Templar. Of coarse the book does say that this is all speculation, but it is a theory that could have happened.
This is just one of many theories as to what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. Others mainline scholar such as Marcus Borg and John Crossan suggest that Jesus was never taken off the cross and his body was eaten by vultures.
All four gospels record the account where Jesus was buried. John records the story as follows,
38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. [e]
40 Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 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. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
The other gospel accounts only record Joseph as asking Pilate for Jesus' body and for placing it in a tomb. Before Pilate gave him the body, he had it checked to see if Jesus was still alive, but he had been dead for awhile. Joseph then purchased a cloth and wraps Jesus in it. The other gospels also tell us that some of the women witnessed this and new where the body was placed. Matthew tells us that this was Joseph's own tomb while John says it was a new tomb in the Garden where Jesus was crucified.
As we begin to study this passage, it may be helpful to know some of the Jewish burial customs and to know what would normally happen to someone who was executed. By the first century, the burial practices happened in two parts. First, the body would be placed in a cave where it would decompose for about a year. Then the bones where collected and placed in a box called an ossuary. In between these steps, the following would take place:
- Burial took place on the day of death or the following day if it was too late in the evening or at night
- The body was washed and wrapped in a Lenin cloth with perfume
- The family and friends would mourn for 7 days at the entrance of the tomb.
- The spirit of a person was said to leave after the third day.
- The bones would be collected after a year in an ossuary.
Criminals would have been treated a little differently. The Jews has special burial places for criminals because they were not first buried in family tombs because the family was not permitted to mourn. Later, their bones could be transferred to their family tombs. However, proper burial of criminals was important for Jews in the first-century. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 makes it clear that those die on a tree should be taken down and buried. It was NOT to be left overnight as not to defile the land.
The reason some scholars like Borg and Crossan believe Jesus may have been consumed by vultures and not taken off the cross is because Josephus reported that during the Roman siege of Jerusalem after the revolt by the Jews, the Romans did not take them off the cross. I do believe tough, that this was an exception to the rule for Jews, do to their rebellion. It appears by other documents that the Jews were allowed in peace time to take the bodies after crucifixion so that they would have had a proper burial.
The gospel stories seem to follow the Jewish custom well. Joseph of Arimathia , we are told, was a member of the Jewish council. He comes to Pilate and asks for his body. John tells us that Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, was also with him. It is not clear whether or not these two men did this on their own accord or if they were asked by the Jewish council to do this in order to follow Jewish custom.
The gospels tell is that Jesus was not buried in his family tomb, which also follows Jewish custom. It seems that this may be a place where Joseph and Nicodemus decide to break with custom. Instead of moving Jesus to the designated tomb for criminals, they place him in Joseph's own tomb. Again, we don't know the reason for this. We are told that the women followed Joseph and knew where the tomb was located. It appears that Joseph and Nicodemus give Jesus a proper burial.
The gospel accounts of Jesus' burial seem to shed light on both theories posed earlier. It seems that they are constant with Jewish custom that Jesus was not buried in his family's tomb and that he was not left on the cross.
On the Outside Looking In
While the historical picture about Jesus' burial is interesting and important, I have been struck by who John tells us is involved in the burial. Notice that the disciples are not around. John tells us that two people were involved; Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were the ones who buried Jesus. Other gospels tell us that he was a member of the Jewish council, meaning he would have probably been present during his trial. John tells us he is a secrete disciple of Jesus. John's gospel has already introduced us to Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night to speak to Jesus. He was a Pharisee and a leading Jew. These two guys seem to have been on the outside of the gospel story, looking in.
Sometimes we forget about the people on the fringes of belief. We tend to view those who are vocal about their Christian faith and those who are vocally opposed to it. What about those who are just on the fringes trying to figure all this stuff about Jesus out. This is the part of the story for those people who are searching.
In the book God in the Dock, which is a collection of essays by CS Lewis, I found the essay "Answers to Questions About God" very insightful for this sermon. In the last question, Lewis is asked, "If it is true that one has only to want God enough in order to find Him, how can I make myself want Him enough to enable myself to find him." Lewis answers,
I think in reality the want is a real one, and I should say tat this person has in fact found God, although it may not ne fully recognized yet. We are not always aware of things at the time they happen. At any rate, what is more important is that God has found this person and that is the main thing.
It appears that both Joseph and Nicodemus became disciples and that John's listeners were somewhat familiar with their story. Notice that Jesus never tried to force them to believe, he simply allowed them to search and to believe. This morning I believe Jesus is telling those who don't have all this figured out to be part of the story and to see where it leads. He is reminding us that even at his burial, they can be found by God