The Burial Traditions of Hebrews at the Time of Jesus

The Jews still observe some burial traditions of the ancient Hebrews.
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By the time Jesus was teaching in and around ancient Jerusalem in the first century A.D., the Hebrews, or Jews -- the ethnic group descendant of the patriarch Abraham -- had already been influenced by Greek and Roman culture. But the Hebrews didn't adopt the burial traditions of these cultures, which typically involved cremation rather than burial. The life, teachings and death of Jesus Christ help bring these Hebrew traditions to light.

1 Time of Burial

The Hebrews buried their dead immediately, no later than a day after the person passed away. According to the "Jewish Encyclopedia," this custom stems from the Mosaic Law, which ordered that any person hung from a "tree" or "cross" as a form of execution, should be taken down and buried within a day after death. And while this law applies directly to the bodies of executed criminals, the Hebrews generally applied it to everyone. Jesus Christ, after he died from execution on a "tree" or "cross," was buried within a day.

2 Burial Preparation

The Hebrews didn't practice embalming in the way other cultures did, such as the Egyptians. They did, though, traditionally put spices and aromatic ointments on the dead bodies in order to help remove unpleasant odors. In fact, after Jesus died, a man named Joseph of Arimathea, according to the Bible writer John's gospel account, requested permission to prepare Jesus' body "just the way the Jews have the custom of preparing for burial," using myrrh, aloes, spices and linen bandaging.

3 Place of Burial

The Hebrews seemingly kept their burial places simple and less ostentatious than those from surrounding cultures, who often decorated grave sites with paintings and other ornamentations. A person was buried either in the ground or in a memorial tomb. Having a place of burial among the Hebrews was significant, and generally represented that a person was not a criminal outcast and had the hope of being resurrected by God. Some persons who weren't considered worthy of a burial place were pitched into the Valley of Hinnom, outside of Jerusalem's city walls, to be burned along with the city's refuse.

4 Post-Burial Tradition

Hebrews viewed grave sites as unclean. Because of this, the Jews would whitewash grave markers and tombs to alert passersby of the fact. Anyone who touched a grave became ceremonially unclean, something avoided especially in the season of the Hebrews' celebration of the annual Passover, when they celebrated God's deliverance of the Hebrews from Egyptian oppression. Jesus referred to this tradition when comparing the hypocritical religious leaders of the day to whitewashed graves -- "clean" on the outside but dirty on the inside.

Aaron Charles began writing about "pragmatic art" in 2006 for an online arts journal based in Minneapolis, Minn. After working for telecom giant Comcast and traveling to Oregon, he's written business and technology articles for both online and print publications, including and "The Portland Upside."