The post 70 construction of Jesus’ tomb

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by Neil Godfrey

The earliest narrative involving the tomb of Jesus constructs that tomb from images and scenarios that suggest the author was looking back on the 70 c.e. destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.

Firstly, in none of the writings of Paul, generally dated well before 70 c.e., is there any mention of a tomb of Jesus. Even when Paul is attempting to advance his most persuasive arguments for the resurrection of Jesus, he does not even hint at any knowledge of a tomb, empty or otherwise.

Secondly, Crossan et al have pointed out that the hard realities of ancient crucifixions make the most likely historical scenario one where Jesus’ body was left to scavenging animals once (if) removed from the cross. (The character Joseph of Arimathea is a literary invention to ease the pain of this reality and/or develop another prophetic fulfilment scene.) This historical fact about crucifixions and the crude methods of Roman “justice” in relation to perceived troublemakers in Palestine make sense of Paul’s silence over a tomb.

The image of the destroyed Temple

The first narrative of the tomb burial of Jesus is in Mark’s gospel. The metaphor that comes to the author’s mind as he writes is one that reminds him of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Isaiah, when speaking of an earlier destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, compared the Temple to a tomb hewn out of a rock:

Go . . . to Shebna who is over the house and say, . . . You have hewn a sepulchre here, as he who hews a sepulchre on high, who carves a tomb for himself in a rock . . . (Isaiah 22:15-16)

So Mark wrote:

And he [Joseph of Arimathea] laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock . . . (Mark 15:46)

The words for “hewn” in both the Greek Old Testament passage of Isaiah and Mark’s Gospel are variants of “latomenw”, and the same words for rock and tomb are also used. Given that the author of Mark’s gospel liberally constructs his entire Passion Narrative from allusions to OT passages, so the correspondence between Isaiah and Mark here is not likely to be coincidence.

The gospel author, it should further be noted, had this tomb scene in mind when he wrote his earlier narrative of the paralytic being lowered by 4 friends through the roof of the house to be healed by Jesus (Mark 2:1-12). There the place where Jesus was staying could not be accessed through the normal entrance because of the enormous crowd, and entry had to be gained by digging out the roof. Similarly with Jesus’ burial, the normal entrance to this place that had been dug out of the rock was blocked by a massive bolder. In both cases the one placed in this place rose up and miraculously walked through the main doorway.

So the gospel’s reference to the tomb being “hewn out of rock” is not an incidental aside, but an integral part of the image in the author’s mind.

And the origin of this image is its metaphorical use to describe the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem.

This was the origin of the earliest narrative image of the tomb of Jesus.

The image of Joshua’s captives in the cave

A few commentators have also suspected that the idea of the rock tomb for Jesus derived from the account in Joshua of the king of Jerusalem (with others) being “buried” in a cave, or at least sealed in the cave by rocks at its mouth, and then subsequently emerging alive from that cave, and being hung to die on a tree until sunset (Joshua 10:16-27).

Farrer raised the possibility that the author of Mark may have been drawing on the theology of Paul in order to make the link between these scenes in the Book of Joshua and the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.

Before explaining that possible connection, it is worth recalling the tropes of dramatic reversals found throughout Mark’s gospel. One of these is the way the author portrays the crucifixion of Jesus in terms of a reverse Roman Triumphal march. Schmidt’s detailed argument for this can be read here. (One little detail not included by Schmidt is the description of Simon of Cyrene coming in out of the country. A third century c.e. Roman novel by Heliodorus speaks of those carrying the weapons used to make the sacrifice typically being brought in from and wearing the dress typical of the countryside.)

With the author’s penchant for ironic reversal with the way he plays on the Roman triumph to depict Jesus’ ironic victory on the cross, the possibility of a Pauline theological interpretation of the Joshua narrative comes more sharply into focus.

Colossians 2:14-15 (Colossians being one of the debated letters as to Pauline provenance) proclaims Jesus as making a public humiliating spectacle of spiritual enemies, of himself nailing them to the cross. Jesus’ crucifixion is seen as not a passive event but as an ironic action by Jesus crucifying all that stands against the people of God.

Given this theological understanding of the death of Jesus, it is less difficult to imagine an author reading a book of the namesake of Jesus (Joshua being the Hebrew, Jesus the Greek) conquering resoundingly the land of Canaan, tearing down city walls, enslaving or slaughtering the native population.

In Joshua 10 when Joshua/Jesus takes on the King of Jerusalem and his allies, there is a great sign in heaven (the sun stands still for a whole day). Similarly when Jesus is on the cross, there is a great sign in the heavens when darkness descends over the land for 3 hours at midday. (It is a miracle, not an eclipse, because it happens at the time of the full moon — the Passover.) Joshua/Jesus then orders the “burial” of his enemy king in the cave which is sealed with boulders, and then releases him, but only to hang him till sunset on a tree. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:13 that Jesus was hanged on the tree. And in Colossians we read that in doing so Jesus was hanging the things that were against the godly on that tree.

But why would an author even think of a book about a military conqueror of Canaan in the first place, if that is indeed what he did, when constructing his story of the death and resurrection of Jesus?

The Book of Joshua follows the death of Moses. The Moses cult had suddenly ended with the invasion of Palestine by the Romans and their destruction of the Temple in 70 c.e. Mark 13 looks towards Jesus (Joshua) coming in clouds to usher in a new Kingdom in place of the old. The apocalyptic imagery used there is the same as we read in the Old Testament when it speaks of God descending and destroying cities and armies. Was the Roman invasion seen by some as an act of God or Jesus, coming on clouds with thunder etc, to destroy his old kingdom and declare its replacement with a new spiritual kingdom?

Destroy this temple . . .

Mark declares that those who accused Jesus were false witnesses when they charged Jesus with challenging others to destroy the temple to see if he would rebuild it in 3 days. But the gospel of John holds that Jesus said just that. The reason Mark claimed that this charge was false needs to be seen in the context of the other sayings of Jesus in his gospel and in the way they were falsely interpreted by the disciples. Mark’s gospel mocks the understanding of those hearers of Jesus who could not distinguish the spiritual meaning from the physical images. The disciples are criticized for not understanding the miracle of the loaves was not about bread supplies. Similarly, the reason that the witnesses were making false testimony in regards to Jesus’ saying about the temple, was that they wrongly took his image literally, and not figuratively about his body.

But what is significant about this “false testimony” is that it appears to be yet one more image that can be added to the constellation of images used by the author to relate Jesus’ death and burial to war, conquest, Roman Triumphal marches and the destruction of the Temple.

Finally, it should be further noted that Mark’s gospel is clear that Jesus will be seen again by those in his generation when he comes in his power to judge Jerusalem (Mark 13:26; 14:62). The imagery, as commented above, is the same as that found in the Prophets and Psalms for God’s coming down to destroy kingdoms and cities and peoples. He is seen in the bloody judgment of his rod, his axe, his spear, . . . . that is, the armies he uses to do his work (c.f. Isaiah 10:15).

Post 70 c.e. construction of the tomb narrative

None of the above of course “proves” that the tomb story originated after the fall of Jerusalem. But the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple does undeniably provide a most plausible backdrop for the development of the story. Indeed, the whole gospel story itself fits such a time. The era of Moses as traditionally known was ended, or at least under severe challenge and questioning in the wake of the 70 c.e. destruction. How natural to turn to images that spoke of a resurrection, a transformation, a new start with a new Israel, from the ruins of the old! Out of the invasions of Rome could be fantasized transforming and hopeful images of another invasion by Joshua; after the end of Moses hope could be found in Joshua; and out of the ruins of the old Temple could rise a new Israel, a new people of God, led by Joshua/Jesus rising out of that metaphoric tomb.