Luke 23:50-56: The Burial of Jesus
In this blog we’ll cover a short portion of Luke 23:50-56, concerning the burial of Jesus.
Let’s look at the burial and why it’s important to God, humanity, scripture, to the church, and to us today.
Some skeptics think Jesus really wasn’t dead but only unconscious and revived three days later. This is called the swoon theory, and I don’t believe this happened. I believe Jesus died. I believe Jesus was buried. This blog focuses on the burial.
Some scholars think the disciples were confused about which tomb Jesus was laid in. I don’t think they were confused as to the tomb Jesus was put in. Why? They kept detailed records of where people were laid to rest, because by Jewish burial customs, they expected to come back and collect the bones and put them in what is called an ossuary. On ossuary is a smaller box for bones. You can find an example of this going back to Genesis 50:22-26.
Skepticism of many people today could be due to ignorance of Jewish burial practices, archeology, and textual evidence. I’m following a chapter titled “The Silence of Burial” by Craig Evans in a book co-authored by Evans and N.T. Wright titled, Jesus: The Final Days.
The Jewish Customs
I’m going to list some common Jewish burial practices, some Old Testament texts, combined with the progression of what the gospels tell us happened to Jesus’s body.
The body of Jesus washed and wrapped (Luke 23:53).
Burial was expected of everyone, enemies (1 Kings 11:15; Deuteronomy 21:22-23) and loved ones (1 Sam 31:12-13).
Jews expected to return to a tomb, re-open it months or up to a year later and collect the bones and put them in an ossuary box.
Emphasis on everyone being buried is backdrop for some evil people not getting burial to disgrace them (Deuteronomy 28:25-26). Two examples are Ahab (1 Kings 21:24) and Jezebel (2 Kings 9:33-37).
The reason given for burying in the earth is to avoid defiling the land, to bury the same day, even enemies (Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Ezekiel 39:14, 16).
Yes, crucifixion victims were often left on the cross for their bodies to be picked apart by wild animals and birds. But there is no evidence that points to Jesus not being buried. We have evidence that people who were crucified were buried, however.
From these clues about Jewish burial customs, Jesus would have been buried. Even the Romans allowed Joseph, a member of the Jewish ruling council, to collect Jesus’s body from the cross in order to bury him. The Romans would not have wanted to stir the anger of Jews, who believed even enemies should be buried to prevent cursing and defiling the land.
These Jewish customs about burial were historic, strongly felt, and it would feel and look horrible to Jews to see a person not buried. Particularly for Jewish disciples of Jesus, they would have felt the offense, curse, outrage, and horror of non-burial.
First century Jewish historian Josephus said, “Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset.” This is why we see Joseph of Arimathea going to Pilate with the request to bury Jesus. Therefore, based on Luke 23:50-53, on archaeological and historical evidence, I believe Jesus was buried.
Luke is careful to mention that the Jews buried Jesus on the day of crucifixion, Friday, but that they rested on the sabbath. The implied meaning could be that Jesus also rested, he was buried, he was dead, laid in the tomb. The Jews kept their sabbath, and the earth rested with the Messiah inside the earth that was created through him.
All four gospels show the women disciples coming first to the tomb. Luke shows them noting where the tomb was, exactly where he was laid. They would not have been confused in two days, Sunday, when they returned after keeping the Saturday sabbath. The women went to prepare spices and perfumes because they fully intended, according to Jewish burial custom, to mourn inside the tomb with the dead body wrapped in linens. The smell would cause discomfort and that’s one of the main reasons for the perfumes and spices.
At burials in Uganda and in the United States, there are certain flower smells that are intended to overpower the smells of death. I often associate sprays of flowers with the many funerals I’ve officiated, and I’m not super fond of having those same kinds of sprays around. The smell reminds me also of a mass murder I reported on for Christianity Today. You can read about it here.
Like it or not (I don’t like it, by the way), women were not lifted up as credible witnesses much in these days of Jesus’s life on earth. So the presence of women in all four gospels, as the ones approaching the tomb to mourn and finding the empty tomb, gives credibility to the gospel. Why would gospel writers make up that women were the first to witness the empty tomb? If they wanted to make up a very credible story, they probably would not have mentioned this fact about women. I think it’s yet another powerful moment in the gospels, how women are the witnesses of this most important gospel event of the resurrection.
Given all that I’ve said here, and with evidence I’ve relayed from Craig Evans from Old Testament, archaeology, gospel texts, and Jewish burial customs, we have every reason to believe Jesus was crucified and buried the same day, Friday (Mark 15:42-16:4; 1 Corinthians 15:4).
The Empty Tomb
But the absence of Jesus’s body threw the disciples into confusion. When the women reported that the tomb was empty, the disciples thought they were delusional, maybe feeling the weight of the crucifixion and all the events. How could he not be there? There was absolutely no expectation their Messiah was going to be crucified, but when he was, they certainly did not expect that the reason for no body in the tomb was that he was raised from the dead! They just did not have that in their experience and would not have made such an assumption.
But this scene of the women going to mourn and finding the empty tomb is the set up for the miraculous event that, just as much as the death of Jesus, is at the heart of our faith. In the next blog, we’ll look at this event, the resurrection of Jesus.
Greg Taylor, M.Div.
Greg Taylor is the preacher for The Journey. He holds degrees in Print Journalism from Harding University and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology. Greg is working on his Doctor of Ministry at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where The Journey is located. Greg is married to Jill, who is a math teacher at Broken Arrow High School. They have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob, and of course they are very proud of each of what God has done in each one of their lives. Greg is author of several books you can order from your favorite bookseller.