The following is an excerpt from The Gospel of John, by Francis Martin and William Wright.
Jesus’ burial is coordinated by two Jewish religious authorities, who were seemingly secret disciples: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Up till now, they had not made their discipleship public because they were afraid of the other religious authorities who strongly opposed Jesus (see 12:43–44).
Being an authority in Jerusalem, Joseph has access to Pilate and obtains custody of Jesus’ corpse (see Luke 23:50–53). Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin (7:50–51) who had previously come to Jesus at night (3:1–2), now brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes to his burial.
The theme of Jesus’ kingship, so prominent in John’s passion narrative, subtly appears in the details of his burial. The myrrh and aloes evoke the description of the Davidic king’s robes as scented with “myrrh [and] aloes” in Ps 45:9. Moreover, reminiscent of Mary of Bethany (12:1–8), Nicodemus brings a huge amount of ointment, befitting a royal burial.
By burying his body, Joseph and Nicodemus perform a culturally significant act of respect and faithfulness to Jesus. Burying the dead was an important service of love in Jewish piety (Tob 1:16–20; 4:3–4); conversely, lying unburied was a great source of shame for the deceased (Tob 6:15).22 Through this public act of piety, Joseph and Nicodemus make known their relationship with Jesus.
John’s description of the Jewish burial custom reminds us of the raising of Lazarus. Just as Lazarus was “tied hand and foot with burial bands” (11:44), Jesus’ corpse was bound . . . with burial cloths. The mention of the spices reminds us of Martha’s worry about the “stench” of the dead body (11:39). Theese connections indicate that like Lazarus, Jesus was truly dead.
As the passion narrative started in “a garden” (18:1), so also does it end in a garden, where there was a tomb. Archaeological excavations suggest that at the time of Jesus’ death, the area near Golgotha contained significant vegetation and tombs “hewn out of the rock” (see Mark 15:46). Since the tomb was close by and daytime was running out on the preparation day, Joseph and Nicodemus put the body of Jesus there.
John’s description of Jesus’ tomb points us to a new beginning. The tomb was new, unoccupied, and in which no one had yet been buried (see Luke 23:53). The location of this tomb in a garden (Greek kēpos) is significant. Many biblical prophets spoke of the future age of salvation as a new creation, which they described in the language and imagery of Eden. Ezekiel articulates the voice of the redeemed after God’s act of salvation: “This once-desolate land has become like the garden [LXX kēpos] of Eden” (Ezek 36:35; see Isa 58:11).
As the passion narrative concludes, Jesus is buried near the place where he died. The new tomb in the garden points us forward to the dawning of the new creation: the resurrection of Jesus.
©2015 by Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.
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