Throughout Bible times, the burial ritual was regarded as very important. Jesus, sharing fully in our humanity (Heb. 2:14), was given a typical, though hurried, burial. Understanding the burial customs and practices of first-century Israel can help us understand Jesus' experience and can underscore for us the commitment of those who provided him with a proper tomb.
OLD TESTAMENT BURIAL
The Old Testament makes clear the importance of a proper burial. Abraham spent a great sum to purchase a tomb for his family (Gen. 23:1-20). His children and grandchildren were buried in this same family tomb (Gen. 49:30-31). Though little is known about specific Israelite burial customs (they appear to have been simple?e.g., only a few items such as pottery, clothes, weapons, jewelry, and so on, were buried with the dead?in sharp contrast, for instance, to Egyptians), many of the biblical biographies conclude by mentioning people's burials, indicating that burial was an important part of life (1 Kings 2:10, 11:43; 2 Kings 21:18; 2 Chron. 26:23).
It was considered important to bury someone near his or her home and family (Gen. 49:29, 50:25; 2 Sam. 19:37). Tombs were generally hewn from the rock just outside the village where people lived (probably so the living could avoid being defiled by the dead?Num. 5:1-3). Families were buried in the same tombs for generations. The remains of those who had died before were carefully piled in one part of the tomb to make room for the newly deceased. This is probably the reason for the expression "He rested with his fathers" (1 Kings 2:10, 11:43; Gen. 47:30; 2 Chron. 12:16) used to describe burial.
Burial apparently happened quite soon after death, possibly within one day (Deut. 21:23). A sign of God's judgment on a person was that his or her body would remain unburied (Deut. 28:26; 1 Kings 14:10-14, 21:23; 2 Kings 9:34-37). Though there is little discussion in the Bible of the people's belief in resurrection, the importance of burial to them indicates clearly that they believed life continued after death (Job 19:25-26).
FIRST-CENTURY BURIAL CUSTOMS
The Israelites began to use new burial practices in the first century AD Tombs were still cut into the rock around cities (e.g., Jerusalem), as they had been for generations. The new tombs generally had two chambers. There was an outer chamber where the body could be laid out to be prepared for burial. This chamber may have even served as a place for mourning the deceased shortly after death. A second inner chamber provided a place for the burial itself. Many tombs had a number of shelves, or niches, cut into the rock (kokhim in Hebrew).
After the flesh had decayed from the bones, the bones often were collected and placed in a small box, usually made of soft stone, called an ossuary. These boxes were usually about 20 inches long, 12 inches high, and 12 inches wide. In some cases, they were decorated with geometric designs. The ossuary was placed in a small niche cut into the rock on the side of the chamber. Over time, several people from the same family would be placed in the same ossuary. In many cases, the family name would be inscribed on the side. Occasionally, additional details might be included, such as the person's accomplishments or status.
Recent archaeological discoveries have included ossuaries. One of these was inscribed with the words "Simon, the builder of the Temple," apparently by the family of one who worked on the Temple of Herod. The most significant recent discovery was made in 1990. Construction workers accidentally broke open a tomb from the first century. Located in an area south of the city of Jerusalem, the tomb is one of many that have been found there. Several ossuaries were also found, all carved from stone and some highly decorated. The inscriptions indicate that they belonged to the family of Caiapha (Caiaphas in Greek).
On one of the highly decorated ossuaries was the name Joseph Bar Caiapha, the full name of the high priest who plotted Jesus' death (John 11:49-51; Matt. 26:57-66). Inside were the remains of several people, including an adult female, a child, two babies, and an adult male approximately 60 years of age. While an exact identification of the individuals is not possible, scholars believe the tomb, the ossuary, and the remains of the adult male are those of the high priest Caiaphas. The fact that there are remains in his tomb, while Jesus' tomb (even though it has never been conclusively identified) is empty, can help to illustrate the true nature of their conflict.
No one knows why the practice of using ossuaries began during Jesus' time. Some believe that the Pharisees' view that sin is of the "flesh" led them to adopt a practice by which the "flesh" would decay and the bones would be gathered for the resurrection to come (Rom. 7:24; 1 Cor. 15:50). Others believe the influence of the Pharisees' doctrine of the bodily resurrection led to the gathering of bones to be preserved for that day (Mark 12:18-27).
When someone died, his or her body was laid in the outer chamber of the tomb and prepared with various spices and perfumes. During this time, mourning ceremonies would take place. After the body had been carefully placed on one of the ledges around the chamber, the tomb was sealed with a large disc-shaped stone that rolled in a trench in front of the tomb. It remained closed until the family returned to collect the bones or to bury another family member. Jesus' tomb was sealed before the body was prepared (Matt. 27:57-66), and Jesus was raised before His friends returned to complete the burial (Matt. 28:1-6).
AN EXPENSIVE GIFT
Only the wealthy could afford large tombs cut into the rock. Their families were buried in these tombs for years (sometimes centuries). The tomb that Joseph of Arimathea provided for Jesus was such a tomb (Matt. 27:59-60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41). The stone was so large that the women were afraid they would not be able to open it (Mark 16:1-3). A stone of this size would be found on the tomb of a wealthy man.
Joseph's tomb was also new (Matt. 27:60). Jewish law apparently declared that new tombs could be sold, but used tombs could not. Once a family had used a tomb, only members of that family could be properly buried in it. Considering the cost of property near Jerusalem and for such a rock-hewn tomb, Joseph's gift to Jesus was very generous. The willingness with which he offered his tomb for Jesus' burial shows us the measure of his devotion to him. It also fulfilled the prophecy that Jesus would be buried "with the rich" (Isa. 53:9).