Jesus in the Tomb.
It was about three o'clock in the afternoon, according to our manner of reckoning,[1] when Jesus expired. A Jewish law[2] forbade a corpse suspended on the cross to be left beyond the evening of the day of the execution. It is not probable that in the executions performed by the Romans this rule was observed; but as the next day was the Sabbath, and a Sabbath of peculiar solemnity, the Jews expressed to the Roman authorities[3] their desire that this holy day should not be profaned by such a spectacle.[4] Their request was granted; orders were given to hasten the death of the three condemned ones, and to remove them from the cross. The soldiers executed this order by applying to the two thieves a second punishment much more speedy than that of the cross, the crurifragium, or breaking of the legs,[5] the usual punishment of slaves and of prisoners of war. As to Jesus, they found him dead, and did not think it necessary to break his legs. But one of them, to remove all doubt as to the real death of the third victim, and to complete it, if any breath remained in him, pierced his side with a spear. They thought they saw water and blood flow, which was regarded as a sign of the cessation of life.

[Footnote 1: Matt. xxvii.46; Mark xv.37; Luke xxiii.44. Comp. John xix.14.]

[Footnote 2: Deut. xxi.22, 23; Josh. viii.29, x.26, and following. Cf. Jos., B.J., IV. v.2; Mishnah, Sanhedrim, vi.5.]

[Footnote 3: John says, "To Pilate"; but that cannot be, for Mark (xv.44, 45) states that at night Pilate was still ignorant of the death of Jesus.]

[Footnote 4: Compare Philo, In Flaccum, Sec.10.]

[Footnote 5: There is no other example of the crurifragium applied after crucifixion. But often, in order to shorten the tortures of the sufferer, a finishing stroke was given him. See the passage from Ibn-Hischam, translated in the Zeitschrift fuer die Kunde des Morgenlandes, i. p.99, 100.]

John, who professes to have seen it,[1] insists strongly on this circumstance. It is evident, in fact, that doubts arose as to the reality of the death of Jesus. A few hours of suspension on the cross appeared to persons accustomed to see crucifixions entirely insufficient to lead to such a result. They cited many instances of persons crucified, who, removed in time, had been brought to life again by powerful remedies.[2] Origen afterward thought it needful to invoke miracle in order to explain so sudden an end.[3] The same astonishment is found in the narrative of Mark.[4] To speak truly, the best guarantee that the historian possesses upon a point of this nature is the suspicious hatred of the enemies of Jesus. It is doubtful whether the Jews were at that time preoccupied with the fear that Jesus might pass for resuscitated; but, in any case, they must have made sure that he was really dead. Whatever, at certain periods, may have been the neglect of the ancients in all that belonged to legal proof and the strict conduct of affairs, we cannot but believe that those interested here had taken some precautions in this respect.[5]

[Footnote 1: John xix.31-35.]

[Footnote 2: Herodotus, vii.194; Jos., Vita, 75.]

[Footnote 3: In Matt. Comment. series, 140.]

[Footnote 4: Mark xv.44, 45.]

[Footnote 5: The necessities of Christian controversy afterward led to the exaggeration of these precautions, especially when the Jews had systematically begun to maintain that the body of Jesus had been stolen. Matt. xxvii.62, and following, xxviii.11-15.]

According to the Roman custom, the corpse of Jesus ought to have remained suspended in order to become the prey of birds.[1] According to the Jewish law, it would have been removed in the evening, and deposited in the place of infamy set apart for the burial of those who were executed.[2] If Jesus had had for disciples only his poor Galileans, timid and without influence, the latter course would have been adopted. But we have seen that, in spite of his small success at Jerusalem, Jesus had gained the sympathy of some important persons who expected the kingdom of God, and who, without confessing themselves his disciples, were strongly attached to him. One of these persons, Joseph, of the small town of Arimathea (Ha-ramathaim[3]), went in the evening to ask the body from the procurator.[4] Joseph was a rich and honorable man, a member of the Sanhedrim. The Roman law, at this period, commanded, moreover, that the body of the person executed should be delivered to those who claimed it.[5] Pilate, who was ignorant of the circumstance of the crurifragium, was astonished that Jesus was so soon dead, and summoned the centurion who had superintended the execution, in order to know how this was. Pilate, after having received the assurances of the centurion, granted to Joseph the object of his request. The body probably had already been removed from the cross. They delivered it to Joseph, that he might do with it as he pleased.

[Footnote 1: Horace, Epistles, I. xvi.48; Juvenal, xiv.77; Lucan., vii.544; Plautus, Miles glor., II. iv.19; Artemidorus, Onir., ii.53; Pliny, xxxvi.24; Plutarch, Life of Cleomenes, 39; Petronius, Sat., cxi.-cxii.]

[Footnote 2: Mishnah, Sanhedrim, vi.5.]

[Footnote 3: Probably identical with the ancient Rama of Samuel, in the tribe of Ephraim.]

[Footnote 4: Matt. xxvii.57, and following; Mark xv.42, and following; Luke xxiii.50, and following; John xix.38, and following.]

[Footnote 5: Dig. XLVIII. xxiv., De cadaveribus puntorum.]

Another secret friend, Nicodemus,[1] whom we have already seen employing his influence more than once in favor of Jesus, came forward at this moment. He arrived, bearing ample provision of the materials necessary for embalming. Joseph and Nicodemus interred Jesus according to the Jewish custom -- that is to say, they wrapped him in a sheet with myrrh and aloes. The Galilean women were present,[2] and no doubt accompanied the scene with piercing cries and tears.

[Footnote 1: John xix.39, and following.]

[Footnote 2: Matt. xxvii.61; Mark xv.47; Luke xxiii.55.]

It was late, and all this was done in great haste. The place had not yet been chosen where the body would be finally deposited. The carrying of the body, moreover, might have been delayed to a late hour, and have involved a violation of the Sabbath -- now the disciples still conscientiously observed the prescriptions of the Jewish law. A temporary interment was determined upon.[1] There was at hand, in the garden, a tomb recently dug out in the rock, which had never been used. It belonged, probably, to one of the believers.[2] The funeral caves, when they were destined for a single body, were composed of a small room, at the bottom of which the place for the body was marked by a trough or couch let into the wall, and surmounted by an arch.[3] As these caves were dug out of the sides of sloping rocks, they were entered by the floor; the door was shut by a stone very difficult to move. Jesus was deposited in the cave, and the stone was rolled to the door, as it was intended to return in order to give him a more complete burial. But the next day being a solemn Sabbath, the labor was postponed till the day following.[4]

[Footnote 1: John xix.41, 42.]

[Footnote 2: One tradition (Matt. xxvii.60) designates Joseph of Arimathea himself as owner of the cave.]

[Footnote 3: The cave which, at the period of Constantine, was considered as the tomb of Christ, was of this shape, as may be gathered from the description of Arculphus (in Mabillon, Acta SS. Ord. S. Bened., sec. iii., pars ii., p.504), and from the vague traditions which still exist at Jerusalem among the Greek clergy on the state of the rock now concealed by the little chapel of the Holy Sepulchre. But the indications by which, under Constantine, it was sought to identify this tomb with that of Christ, were feeble or worthless (see especially Sozomen, H.E., ii.1.) Even if we were to admit the position of Golgotha as nearly exact, the Holy Sepulchre would still have no very reliable character of authenticity. At all events, the aspect of the places has been totally modified.]

[Footnote 4: Luke xxiii.56.]

The women retired after having carefully noticed how the body was laid. They employed the hours of the evening which remained to them in making new preparations for the embalming. On the Saturday all rested.[1]

[Footnote 1: Luke xxiii.54-56.]

On the Sunday morning, the women, Mary Magdalen the first, came very early to the tomb.[1] The stone was displaced from the opening, and the body was no longer in the place where they had laid it. At the same time, the strangest rumors were spread in the Christian community. The cry, "He is risen!" quickly spread amongst the disciples. Love caused it to find ready credence everywhere. What had taken place? In treating of the history of the apostles we shall have to examine this point and to make inquiry into the origin of the legends relative to the resurrection. For the historian, the life of Jesus finishes with his last sigh. But such was the impression he had left in the heart of his disciples and of a few devoted women, that during some weeks more it was as if he were living and consoling them. Had his body been taken away,[2] or did enthusiasm, always credulous, create afterward the group of narratives by which it was sought to establish faith in the resurrection? In the absence of opposing documents this can never be ascertained. Let us say, however, that the strong imagination of Mary Magdalen[3] played an important part in this circumstance.[4] Divine power of love! Sacred moments in which the passion of one possessed gave to the world a resuscitated God!

[Footnote 1: Matt. xxviii.1; Mark xvi.1; Luke xxiv.1; John xx.1.]

[Footnote 2: See Matt. xxviii.15; John xx.2.]

[Footnote 3: She had been possessed by seven demons (Mark xvi.9; Luke viii.2.)]

[Footnote 4: This is obvious, especially in the ninth and following verses of chap. xvi. of Mark. These verses form a conclusion of the second Gospel, different from the conclusion at xvi.1-8, with which many manuscripts terminate. In the fourth Gospel (xx.1, 2, 11, and following, 18), Mary Magdalen is also the only original witness of the resurrection.]

chapter xxv death of jesus
Top of Page
Top of Page