In this, our third of six blog posts exploring the validity of the resurrection of Christ, we invite you to consider the factual, historical evidence that gives believers certainty that Jesus rose from the dead, just as He promised. In our last blog post we focused on the crucifixion details, including the fact that Pilate demanded confirmation of Jesus’ death before he ordered Jesus pulled off the cross.
Today we’ll look at how Jesus’s body was prepared for burial, and some of the extra precautions the Jewish leaders took to ensure that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t steal His body.
Yes, Jesus Really Died
Last week we covered the details of the torture that Jesus was forced to endure both before and after Pontias Pilate, governor of the Roman province of Judea from 26-36 AD, ordered His crucifixion. We know that Jesus had severe lacerations on his torso from being flogged. We know that Jesus had extensive head and facial wounds and swelling, from being beaten and having a sharp, thorny crown jammed onto his head. And we know that Jesus had puncture wounds in his feet and wrists from the nails that held him to the cross. His body also suffered a large puncture wound, after a thick spear was thrust into His side to confirm His death.
Yet some critics say that Jesus wasn’t really dead. Rather, he supposedly “swooned.” Says Pastor Greg Laurie, “The swoon theory is one of Satan’s oldest lies concerning the resurrection. This theory proposes that Jesus did not rise from the dead, because He never really died. Instead, Jesus went into a deep coma or ‘swoon’ from the severe pain and trauma of the crucifixion. Then, in the cool atmosphere of the tomb, Christ revived, somehow escaped the strips of cloths that were wrapped tightly upon Him, and then appeared to His disciples.”
As Laurie adds, the swoon theory flies in the face of facts. As we mentioned in last week’s post, the Romans guards were experts at crucifixion, and death was the only outcome that interested them. They confirmed Jesus’ death before Pilate released Him.
Laurie drives Jesus’ death home with this little ditty:
“Some time ago I read a local advice column that featured a reader’s question about the resurrection. The reader asked, ‘Dear Uticus, Our preacher said that Jesus swooned on the cross and then His disciples nursed Him to health. What do you think? Signed, Bewildered.’ Uticus responded, ‘Dear Bewildered, Beat your preacher with a cat-o’-nine-tails thirty-nine times. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for six hours. Run a spear through his side, embalm him, and put him in an airless tomb for thirty-six hours and see what happens. Sincerely, Uticus.'”
Laurie concludes that some people choose to believe the theory NOT because it’s plausible, or logical, “but because it’s something to hang their doubt on.” Bottom line, Jesus’ body was a physical mess. Every inch of His dead body testified to the excruciating pain of His undeserved mistreatment.
Jewish Burial Customs
As Jewish law prevented a crucified person from hanging on the cross during a Sabbath, a dead body had to be removed and buried before day’s end. So as the Sabbath drew near, the Roman guards considered breaking the legs of Jesus and the two thieves hanging next to him, to hasten their deaths. Finding Jesus already dead, they removed his body from the cross upon Pilate’s order. His body was immediately transported to the new, unused tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
Mentioned in all four Gospels, Luke tells us that Joseph was part of the Sanhedrin, the group of Jewish religious leaders who demanded Jesus’ death. But Luke also records that Joseph opposed this decision, as he secretly followed Jesus. In John we learn that Joseph boldly asked Pilate for Jesus’ body, despite the risk to his social standing. Historical sources confirm that Joseph provoked both Roman and Jewish elders with his request, eventually spending time in prison.
Nicodemus, another Jewish leader who secretly believed in Jesus, stepped up to help Joseph prepare Jesus’ body for burial. The exacting Jewish process started with placing Jesus’ sheet-covered body on a board so it could be bathed with lukewarm water. A.P. Bender, in a Jewish Quarterly Review article, states that the burial cleansing was so thorough, that even Jesus’ nails would have been cleaned and cut with a particular kind of pin, and His hair specially arranged. Jesus would then have been clothed in grave vestments made of white linen. Women would have sewn the linen without knots, which were prohibited.
Starting at Jesus’ feet, the two men would have wrapped Jesus’ body in linen cloth, placing aromatic spices mixed with a gummy substance called myrrh between the folds. The Jewish writer Josephus recorded that when King Herod died, more than 500 servants were needed to carry the spices used for his burial! For Jesus, it is estimated that at least a hundred pounds would have been used.
Jewish custom dictated that Jesus’ torso be wrapped to His armpits. His preparers would have then placed Jesus’ arms straight alongside His body, before wrapping more linen cloth around Him, to the neck. A separate cloth was wrapped around His head. As the gummy myrrh would have adhered so closely to Jesus’ body, it would have been difficult by this point for anyone to remove the linen cloth. And yet the Gospels record that the burial cloths were found in the empty burial tomb — neatly folded!
Added Security Precautions
We know that archaeologists have determined that rock tombs were used for burials during the time of Jesus. Each tomb had a groove, or trough, cut into the rock in front of it, which served to effectively seal the tomb closed as the stone was rolled into place at the entrance. Tomb stones were large, averaging a weight of two tons or more. So if Jesus’ disciples had tried to remove His body — as Jewish leaders feared they might — Jesus’ followers would have found it quite difficult to roll the stone away from the entrance. Gravity, not just the stone’s weight, would have been against them. As would have been the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb.
As it was advantageous to both the Jewish and Roman leaders to remove the political problem of Jesus, Pilate willingly agreed to the stationing of Roman soldiers at the tomb. After the guards had inspected the tomb, they would have rolled the stone into place. They would have then stretched a cord across the stone, fastening the ends with sealing clay. The clay was stamped with Pilate’s official signet, verifying that Christ’s body was protected against vandals by nothing less than the power and authority of the Roman Empire. Anyone trying to move the stone knew they were incurring the wrath of Rome by breaking the seal.
How do we know that the guards were highly trained Roman warriors, not just Jewish temple guards?
Because when Jesus did rise three days later, as He promised, it was to the chief priests that the soldiers ran for protection. The soldiers understood, only too well, that it was Roman practice to severely punish soldiers if their prisoners went AWOL. The Jewish leaders not only promised their protection against Pilate, but gifted the soldiers with a bribe for not owning up to the truth: that the Roman guards saw an angel as bright as lightning come down from heaven and roll the stone away before they fainted in terror.
Ironically, despite all of their precautions and duplicity, none involved in this pivotal moment of human history could prevent the sharing of the Good News! We still tell it today, because it is true! Christ Jesus lives!
In the next blog post, we’ll look at the empty tomb. And soon we celebrate Easter. Take the Easter Challenge: with whom you can share God’s amazing love for us? Who can you invite to church on Easter Sunday? After just reading about what Jesus did for you and me, are you moved to know him personally today?