Burial Traditions in the New Testament

Ancient Jews buried their dead outside the walls of the Holy City in Jerusalem's Kidron Valley.
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The burial traditions of first century Jews in the New Testament of the Bible reflect their respect for the dead and infer a belief in the immortality of the soul, which survives the physical death and goes to live with the spirits of its ancestors. The Jews' concern for avoiding contamination of themselves or their Holy City by proximity to dead bodies or graves, dictated that burials take place away from human habitation. According to the Visual Bible Alive Resource Center, elaborate mourning rituals "resulted from the Hebrew appreciation of human life and health, which was considered one of God’s greatest gifts."

1 Time of Burial

Leaving a corpse unburied overnight was a serious taboo, even considered sinful, in New Testament times among the Jewish population. Unless someone died at the end of a day when there was no time to bury the body before dark or in the middle of the night, the burial would take place within hours, on the same day as the death. If extenuating circumstances prevented same day burial, they would do it the next day, not wishing to leave the body exposed too long, as they did not practice cremation, believing it to be pagan.

2 Preparation of the Body

Most towns had charitable organizations set up to assist grieving families with preparing the body for burial and carrying out the proper mourning rituals. After death was reliably verified, they would close the corpse's eyes and mouth, anoint the body with oil and wash it with warm water on a bed of salt, sand or bare ground. The late Rabbi Shmuel Safrai, professor emeritus of Jewish History of the Mishnaic and Talmudic Period at Hebrew University, adds that the corpse would also get a haircut unless it was an unmarried female. The New Testament stories of Lazarus (John 11:44), Ananias (Acts 5:6), Dorcas (Acts 9:37) and Jesus (Matthew 27:59, Luke 23:53 and John 19:40) record the practice, confirmed by Jewish historian Josephus, of wrapping the bodies in linen shrouds and perfuming them with various spices, possibly to mask the odor for the mourners during the mourning period.

3 Burial Location

In Jewish belief, contact with the dead or graves rendered one "unclean," or physically and spiritually impure, so they took great measures to avoid accidental contamination. Because of this concern, tombs were located outside city walls. The deceased would be carried on a wooden bier by family and friends with women leading the procession to the burial site, generally a cave or space hewn out of rock and designated as the family tomb. Executed criminals received a proper burial but were prohibited from being buried in the family tomb or other place of honor.

4 Mourning

Rabbi Safrai writes that the family of the deceased would signify their grief by "rending their garments," and sometimes others present would join in this mourning ritual. Custom dictated that they provide a constant attendant for the body and light candles at the head or feet to show respect. Even the poorest Jews had to provide mourners and pipers during a formal seven-day mourning period. These mourners had to stand near the tomb's entrance or inside the tomb itself. Friends and family would "sit shiva," or hold a vigil of respect and remembrance at the deceased's home, reading scripture about resurrection and eternal life. After Jesus' death and resurrection, some mourning rituals included observance of the Lord's Supper, reports Visual Bible Alive Resource Center. The exception to the mourning tradition was if the deceased was an executed criminal; then no mourning was allowed.

5 Ossuary

One year after death and burial, family members would gather up the decayed bones and place them in an ossuary, or bone box, for a secondary burial. Archaeologists have found evidence of this practice in excavations of first-century Jewish tombs.

Tamara Christine has written more than 900 articles for a variety of clients since 2010. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in applied linguistics and an elementary teaching license. Additionally, she completed a course in digital journalism in 2014. She has more than 10 years experience teaching and gardening.