How did first-century Jews prepare the dead for burial?
The Jews buried their dead quickly after death, usually on the same day. There were two reasons for such prompt action. First, dead bodies decompose quickly in the hot climate of the Middle East. Second, according to the thinking of the time, leaving a body unburied for days showed dishonor to the deceased and his family.
The Gospels and the book of Acts record at least four burials that took place on the day of death. (Matthew 27:57-60; Acts 5:5-10; 7:60–8:2) Centuries earlier, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel died while Jacob and his family were on a journey. Rather than bring her body back to their family burial place, Jacob buried her in a grave “on the way to . . . Bethlehem.”
Bible accounts of funerary arrangements reveal that the Jews took great care in preparing the corpse for interment. Family and friends washed the body of the deceased, rubbed it with spices and fine oil, and wrapped it in cloths. (John 19:39, 40; Acts 9:36-41) Neighbors and others could come to express their grief and console the family.
Was Jesus’ burial typical of the Jewish burials?
Many Jewish families buried their dead in caves and tombs carved out of the soft rock common in many parts of Israel. In so doing, they followed the pattern set by the patriarchs. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and others were buried in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron.
Jesus was buried in a tomb carved out of a rock-mass. (Mark 15:46) Such a grave commonly had a narrow entrance. Inside, a number of niches, or shelflike spaces, were cut into the rock, where the bodies of deceased family members would be placed. After the flesh decomposed, the dried bones were collected and put in a stone box called an ossuary, as was the custom in Jesus’ time. In this way, the family could make space in the tomb for future burials.
The Sabbath rest required by the Law of Moses prevented the Jews from caring for funeral arrangements on that day. Since Jesus died about three hours before the start of the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea and others buried him without having completely prepared his body for burial. (Luke 23:50-56) For that reason, some of Jesus’ friends went to his tomb after the Sabbath, hoping to complete the process.