The Burial of Jesus and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
If historians fail to account for the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb, the appropriate
conclusions for them to draw as historians is that we do not know for certain what happened to Jesus’ body. This is as far as historical study can take us with respect to this
This article reproduces material from chapter 3 of the book The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (BookSurge, 2008)
By James F. McGrath
Associate Professor of Religion
Butler University, Indianapolis
It is sometimes stated that the life of the historical Jesus ends with his death, and there is a sense in which this is true. Historical study can only provide access to the human life of Jesus, and his human life, like all human lives, ended when he died. The resurrection per se is not an event like other events in human history, and for this reason cannot be studied with the tools of historical study, either to confirm it or deny it. This does not mean, however, that one cannot attempt to evaluate the historicity of some of the events mentioned in the stories that also include details connected with the rise of Christian belief in the resurrection. For example, a historian can ask how strong the evidence is that Jesus was buried, or that the tomb was found empty that Sunday morning after the crucifixion. A historian can also describe the beliefs of early Christians about the resurrection inasmuch as they wrote about them, and can talk about the strong conviction that the Christians showed, indicating that they firmly believed Jesus had risen from the dead. But Christians today who have not themselves found an empty tomb or seen visions often have the same conviction, and so this evidence cannot and should not be used in a misguided attempt to “prove the resurrection.”
Although the historical life of Jesus - or perhaps better the life of the historical Jesus - ends when he dies, a historian may have more to say, since the burial of Jesus, and/or anything else that may have been done to his body, also lies within the realm of that which may be historically investigated. Our earliest account of Jesus’ burial, the Gospel of Mark, records a fundamental truth that later Christian authors tried desperately to obscure: Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to provide Jesus with an honorable burial. Mark tells us that a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed and, learning that Jesus had died, he got permission to take the body and bury it. Jewish law forbade that a body should be left exposed on the cross overnight, and although some historians have suggested that Jesus might not have even been buried, 1 Josephus provides evidence of Jewish practices and concerns in this time. In his book The Jewish War (Book 4, chapter 5) Josephus explicitly condemns the impiety of Idumeans who cast away dead bodies without burial, whereas for Jews burial was so important that that they even “took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun” (2.317). Joseph of Arimathea was thus acting out of concern for the observance of the Jewish Law and Jewish burial customs.
Did he have deeper motives? In Mark’s Gospel, Joseph has not yet been turned into a disciple of Jesus, as he would eventually be in some of the Gospels that were written later. Here he is simply a pious Jew, one who (like so many others) was eagerly expecting the Kingdom of God, and who as a righteous individual sought to ensure that Jewish scruples about the burial of the dead were implemented. May he have had some sympathy for Jesus, as later sources suggest? While this is not impossible, neither can it be considered probable. He was certainly in no sense a disciple of Jesus as far as any observable behavior on his part might indicate. He did not even allow the collaboration of the women who followed Jesus, and who would gladly have helped give Jesus an honorable burial to whatever extent this was possible or permissible. On the contrary, in our earliest account in the Gospel of Mark, we are told that Joseph does only the absolute bare minimum required: he wraps the body in a cloth, with no mention of even washing the body, much less anointing it. This explains why Mark included the story in Mark 14:3-9 about the woman who pours perfume over him: Jesus was thereby anointed beforehand for burial, and this made up for the fact that the disciples were not given the opportunity to do so later. Mark’s details need to be compared with John 19:39-40, which contradicts the earlier accounts at this point and depicts Joseph as a disciple who provides Jesus with an honorable burial. Acts 13:29, however, appears to confirm what we find in Mark: it attributes the burial of Jesus to the Jewish leaders, acting together, as their final action against Jesus.2
Leaving to one side the apologetic statements of the later Gospels, which emphatically assert that Jesus was placed in a tomb that had never been used before, and wrapped in a clean linen sheet, we are only told in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus was placed in “a tomb.” We may surmise that this was a tomb near the execution site, used for the burial of criminals. It could accurately be described as a “mass grave” – perhaps of the same sort that would be mentioned in rabbinic literature some centuries later – from which families would presumably have been allowed to remove the bones of their loved ones after a year had passed, so as to deposit them in their family tomb, as was the custom. Joseph of Arimathea himself probably did not touch the body, and so he buried Jesus the same way “Solomon built the temple” – by arranging for others to do it. This is presumably why the Gospels refer to the place where “they” laid him, although this might also reflect the fact that Joseph acted under the authority of and as a representative of the Jewish ruling council.
That the Jewish authorities would have been concerned about observing the Law in having Jesus buried may seem strange to some Christian readers, who have been influenced by the Gospels’ depiction of the Jewish leaders as actively seeking Jesus’ death, quite possibly even being willing to break their own laws in order to bring this about. Yet here a historian will have difficulty with a straightforward reading of the Gospel accounts. In the time of Jesus there was no C-SPAN, and there is no reason to expect that any of Jesus’ followers actually knew what transpired after Jesus was apprehended by the Jewish authorities. Certainly they were not privy to the discussions that took place between the high priest and other council members. What the Gospels do seem to agree on, however, is that Jesus was apprehended and almost immediately turned over to the Romans. If Jesus were wanted for breaking the Jewish Law, or was sought by the Jewish authorities because of their own interest in him as a troublemaker, then we would have expected them to put him in prison until the Passover had ended, and deal with him then. That they instead brought him immediately to the Romans indicates what historians, who know the political realities of the time, would anyway have suspected: it was, in fact, primarily the Romans who wanted Jesus apprehended, and the Jewish authorities were taking preemptive action to hand Jesus over to them, lest the Romans send their troops in and there be more bloodshed and loss of life. In John 11:47-49, the Jewish high priest is depicted as saying precisely that. Anyone who gathered crowds was considered dangerous. If there was talk and speculation that God might restore David’s dynasty by making a particular individual king, the Romans would be all the more interested in eliminating that person. The Jewish authorities, as John indicates, acted out of concern to save more lives by sacrificing one. However one may feel about this course of action, it is certainly not incompatible with their being concerned about the observance of the Jewish Law regarding the burial of the dead before sundown.
One may suppose (as the Gospels also indicate) that the female followers of Jesus who were present at the crucifixion were interested to note where Jesus was buried. They would, at the very least, wish to come back to the tomb after the Sabbath to give him the decency of the minimal elements of a Jewish funeral: to mourn him (assuming this was not prohibited by Jewish law in that time), perhaps to anoint the body, and presumably to note where in the tomb his body was, so that they could collect the bones later and give them a respectful burial, placing them in an ossuary (a “bone box”) in his family tomb, or at the very least in something other than the mass grave for criminals.
They may have wished to do more than this. That the disciples should have been suspected of stealing the body (see Matthew 28:11-15) was not simply an attempt to counter Christian claims about the resurrection. Some people may have expected Jesus’ disciples to take his body and give an honorable burial to their master. Jewish law in later times explicitly prohibited the burial of executed criminals in their family tomb, and even prohibited performing the customary mourning for those executed. Whether such laws existed in the time of Jesus is unclear, but the Gospel of Peter depicts the authorities as prohibiting mourning for executed criminals.3 Moreover, the account in Mark’s Gospel itself seems to suggest that some of the concerns of later Jewish laws preserved in rabbinic sources existed in the time of Jesus. Indeed, they are applied very precisely by Joseph of Arimathea: he seeks to obey the Torah’s injunction that bodies not be left exposed overnight; he does not give Jesus’ body to Jesus’ family; and he places the body in “a tomb” that was right by the execution site, which suggests that it was a tomb used for precisely the purpose of burying those executed nearby, as Jewish law required. All of this is believable to a historian not only because it comes from our earliest source and matches information from later Jewish law, but also because the early Christians who told the story of Jesus’ burial found this information embarrassing and uncomfortable, and sought to change the impression given by the story when they retold it. That a story which made a group uncomfortable is unlikely to have been invented by that group is a common principle used by historians to assess the plausibility of information provided in historical sources.
We may ask at this point whether the depiction of women going alone to the tomb early Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body is itself believable, in view of the historical understanding of the burial of Jesus we have put forward thus far. Why do our sources tell us that there were no men present in the group that first went to the tomb? If you had been a disciple of Jesus, and he had been given a dishonorable burial, would you have been content to anoint his body and leave it in a tomb for common criminals? The reason why the story which circulated about the disciples stealing the body made sense is presumably because people would have expected them to do just that. For this reason, the argument one often hears, that the women going to the tomb by themselves makes their testimony more credible (since the testimony of women did not count for much in this ancient context) is problematic. Another possibility presents itself, namely that it was the intention of the disciples (both male and female) to move the body and give Jesus a descent burial, and the reason women alone are mentioned is that women would not be sought out by the authorities for going to the tomb, even if they might have tampered with it or intended to do so. Only males would be sought out and charged. That was the nature of this patriarchal society, with its value system based on honor and shame. And so to be able to say that the tomb had been visited, but male disciples had not been involved (much less attempting to move the body), saying that women went alone was the only option.
It is to be noted that we are only suggesting that the disciples may have indeed wished or even intended to steal the body. None of this should be taken to indicate that the Gospels are anything but honest when they say that the disciples were too late, that when they got to the tomb, Jesus’ body was no longer there. Whether the tomb was in fact empty – that is, whether there were no bodies of other executed criminals present in the tomb – is something we cannot answer, except in terms of probabilities and possibilities. The Gospel of Mark does not say as much – it only suggests that Jesus’ body was not found there. And this is perhaps the most likely historical scenario. Given the importance of a proper burial, it is hard to imagine that they would have refrained from telling the story of how they in fact managed to give Jesus one, in spite of everything that conspired to prevent it. Indeed, when we consider the lengths to which they were willing to go in rewriting the story, so as to give Jesus an honorable burial in their later retelling of the story, the most likely explanation of this evidence is that they desperately desired to do so, but were unable to. Of course, other possibilities remain that may also be compatible with the evidence. Perhaps the male disciples fled Jerusalem as soon as they could (as the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Peter and Justin Martyr suggest), and after the Sabbath was over only female disciples remained to do what they could with the body, if anything. Neither can it be excluded entirely from the realm of possibility that the disciples succeeded in removing and reburying the body, and that this subsequent honorable burial influenced the later retellings of the story. Historical study cannot prove this was not what happened. All it can determine is that this scenario is unlikely, compared to other reconstructions. For unless one can make a strong case for Jesus having had wealthy and influential supporters who lived in Jerusalem or its immediate vicinity, then we might have to conclude that Jesus’ followers would at that time have had no other tomb to which they could move the body, however much they might have wanted to.
If the disciples did not steal the body, then is there another natural, historical explanation of why the tomb was empty? It is certainly highly implausible that the Jewish authorities would have obeyed the Law in burying Jesus, only to then remove it. Most accounts have the women go to the tomb while it is still dark (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), although Mark’s account has them go to buy spices first (Mark 16:1-2). Modern readers tend to think of the day beginning at daybreak, and that the women went to the tomb at that time. However, in Jewish reckoning the Sabbath had ended at sundown the night before, and it is not always clear whether their trip to the tomb very early on the first day of the week means immediately after sundown or early the following morning. Depending on how one answers this question, there might have been time for someone else to remove the body. Yet at this point, if we are right in surmising that at least some of the disciples wished to move Jesus’ body, it is more likely that they went to the tomb as soon as possible after the Sabbath was over. Mark’s mention of them buying spices may be part of his attempt to portray them as wishing merely to anoint the body rather than relocate it. At any rate, it seems relatively certain that no observant Jews would have removed the body prior to the disciples getting there, since it was still the Sabbath, and the disciples would presumably have headed for the tomb as soon as the Sabbath was over. If Mark’s information is taken at face value, however, then other possibilities become viable.
Is it imaginable that the Romans might have re-opened the tomb to bury (or simply toss in) one of the other individuals who were executed at the same time as Jesus, but died later than he did? Could we imagine Roman soldiers neglecting to replace the stone at the tomb’s entrance, or even going so far as to intentionally not do so, thereby allowing scavengers to enter the tomb to devour and defile the bodies, thus disgracing the criminals as the Romans considered appropriate? None of this would have been observed either by the Jewish authorities or Jesus’ followers, as it would presumably have taken place on the Sabbath. However, the question of why the body was not in the tomb is a historical question that we cannot hope to answer with any degree of certainty using the tools of historical study. Prior to the highly supernatural description in the Gospel of Peter sometime in the second century of our era, we have no actual account of the departure of Jesus’ body from the tomb, whether by natural or supernatural means. We only have stories of the tomb being found without Jesus’ body in it at a later time. In terms of historical study, it will always be more likely that there is a natural explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body, than that something supernatural, unprecedented and unparalleled in human history occurred. Any person hearing of a missing body in our time would agree that an explanation in natural terms, however unlikely, is still more probable than an explanation in supernatural terms. The same rules as apply to occurrences today must be applied consistently to events in the past. This is yet another working principle of historical study. Indeed, in the Gospel narratives themselves, the initial reaction of the disciples, when they find the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body no longer there, is to assume that someone had moved the body. Even then, a missing corpse, in the absence of other considerations, was given a rather mundane explanation.
The practice in the time of Jesus was for the body of a person to be placed in a tomb for a year, while the body decomposed, and then for the bones to be gathered up and placed in an ossuary or “bone box” in the family tomb. While in most instances both initial and secondary burial took place in the family tomb, later Rabbinic law makes the case of criminals an exception, and states that they are to be buried in a grave specifically for criminals, and only after a year had passed would the family be allowed to remove the bones and deposit them in their family tomb. Only rarely have discussions of the burial of Jesus dealt with this custom and its relation to both the textual and the archaeological evidence.
The place where Jesus’ body was placed after his crucifixion could in theory have been one of three things. First, it may have been a trench grave, much of the sort we use today, which was the most common manner of burial among the poor. Second, it may have been a tomb for criminals, perhaps in a nearby cave. Finally, it may have been a tomb owned by someone and used for their family for purposes of both initial burial and thereafter the secondary depositing of the bones of the deceased in ossuaries.
We have already seen problems with the last scenario, with Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus in his own family tomb, which is depicted in Matthew alone. The consistent references to Jesus having been placed in a tomb would seem to rule out the first possibility, although our earliest source, the letters of Paul, only refer to him having been buried, without providing further details (1 Corinthians 15:4), and so it cannot be ruled out entirely. Nevertheless, the most likely scenario is that Jesus’ body was placed in a nearby tomb reserved specifically for those who were executed at that site. Given the number of people executed by the Romans in this period, it would certainly have been more convenient in many respects to have a single cave tomb used for burying those who were executed, than to provide for their burial in trench graves on each occasion. How close to the surface the bedrock was in a given area would also have been a factor that influenced the method of burial used.
Prior to the time of Jesus, the site had been a limestone quarry, and there is evidence that it was no longer in use as such in his day and age. It may have been the protrusion of white rock that led to it being nicknamed “the place of the skull”, and it has even been suggested that its status as an abandoned quarry may have inspired Christian use of the verse “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” in reference to Jesus (Psalm 118:22, quoted in Mark 12:10 and parallels). 4 At any rate, sometime after it ceased to serve as a quarry, it presumably began to serve as a site for executions and burials. At present, there is no way to know for certain whether this is the actual site of the tomb, although further investigations of the “edicule,” which is supposed to incorporate part of the original rock-cut tomb uncovered in the time of Constantine, may someday change this situation. Historians are pretty much agreed, however, that of the sites that have been proposed over the years for Golgotha and the tomb in which Jesus was buried, this is the only serious contender.
In building the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, they removed a significant portion of the rock surrounding the tomb they identified as that of Jesus. This process left a single tomb in the midst of the church, but may have removed other useful archaeological evidence in the process. It is clear, however, that this site was not the location of only a single small tomb. It might better be called a graveyard, with numerous tombs carved into the soft rock, some of which are still there beneath the church. One could imagine that, in an area with many tombs, in which there may even have been a network of passageways carved into the rock to allow for multiple burials, individuals who had not been involved in burying a particular body might have had difficulty locating it. Nevertheless, the determination and devotion of Jesus’ followers, evidenced by their seeking the body in the first place, makes it less likely that their failure to find the body was simply an oversight on their part. But even if there is no obvious solution in terms of natural explanation to the mystery of what happened to the body of Jesus, the appropriate course of action in such a case, in terms of historical study, is not declare this proof of a miracle, but rather to state the following: historically speaking, we do not know what happened to Jesus’ body.
No historian will ever be able to say “the body was probably missing because God raised Jesus from the dead.” To use the metaphor of criminal investigations as in some ways parallel to historical study, how would it seem if a district attorney’s office, after failing to figure out who killed a particular murder victim, issued a statement to the effect that, since no perpetrator has been identified, it is clear that God simply wanted the individual in question dead? No one (and particularly not taxpayers) would feel that this is an adequate or appropriate way to end a police investigation. This is not because we necessarily rule out in advance the possibility that God wanted the individual dead – indeed, many people would probably say about that individual, as about any other, that “God has his reasons” or “It was his time to go.” We expect the police, detectives, and forensic experts, however, to work on the mundane, human level of cause and effect, and understand that theological interpretations of events are a different sort of perspective, which looks at the same events in another way or on another level that does not invalidate the level of the natural, on which level criminal investigations take place. The appropriate response of those investigating the crime is to leave the case file open. In the same way, if historians fail to account for the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb, the appropriate conclusions for them to draw as historians is that we do not know for certain what happened to Jesus’ body. This is as far as historical study can take us with respect to this particular matter.
As for the question of whether the Church of the Holy Sepulcher represents the location of Jesus’ execution and burial, the evidence at the very least suggests that the site was identified by Christians as the place where Jesus was buried long before the time when the church was built. Can we say more? It certainly is intriguing that the evidence of the Gospel of Mark, covered over with layers of elaboration by other Gospels, and the archaeological evidence from the site, obscured for so long from view not only by a church but, in earlier times, by a temple, seem to concur in striking ways. And when one considers the reasons that could have motivated Christians in later times not to choose this site – its location inside the wall of Jerusalem in their time, the presence of a temple to Aphrodite (and the small odds of just happening to find a tomb beneath it), the rarity of tombs in the immediate vicinity, and features of those tombs which make it more likely to have been a location used by authorities for burials 5 than a private tomb located in a garden, as later tradition would have it – these considerations may be said, perhaps, to point more in the direction of authentic memory than of later fabrication.
1 Most famously John Dominic Crossan – see most explicitly his Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994) pp.124-127, 152-158; also The Historical Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991) pp.391-394 ; and his online article at BeliefNet, “Was Jesus Buried?”
2 On Jesus’ burial as dishonorable, see especially Byron McCane, “Where No One Had Yet Been Lain: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial,” available online as well as in his book Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 2003).
4 James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Within Judaism (New York: Doubleday, 1988) pp. 123-124.
5 See the articles by Eldad Keynan on this subject in The Bible and Interpretation, most recently “Obscurities Around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher.”