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An Elite Affair: Ancient Jewish Burial Practices During the Time of Jesus

An important element of ancient Jewish burial practices is the fact that ornate tombs and ossuaries were used among the wealthy, while less affluent individuals had only plain tombs and ossuaries.

Tombs cut from rock were expensive and as such only the wealthy could afford elaborate tombs. In addition, the large stone often used to seal the ossuaries were also costly and therefore also an indicator of wealth, as were the ornamentation of the tombs. In addition, the tombs of affluent Jewish people during the first century CE were ornately decorated. Such decorations included lavish façades and columns topped with elaborate gables featuring floral motifs.

Furthermore, the decline of the use of ossuaries around 70 CE, when Jerusalem fell to the Romans, seems linked to the simultaneous decline of the Jewish elite, reinforcing the link between socio-economic status and the use of ossuaries in ancient Jewish burial practices.

The connection between ornate tombs and ossuaries, and wealth and status in ancient Jewish burial practices is also applicable to Jesus’ own burial. The tomb used to bury Jesus Christ’s body is described in the Bible as belonging to a rich Jewish man named Joseph of Arimathea, an important member of the Jewish council who was also a secret disciple of Jesus. Joseph allowed Jesus’ body to be buried in his tomb, which had never before been used. Because Joseph was a wealthy man, the tomb that he offered to Jesus was an opulent one, as noted in the Bible, when the women fear they will be unable to roll away the stone because of its great size: "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’" (Mark 16:1-3).

As such, Joseph’s sacrifice is indicative of his devotion to Jesus and also suggests that Jesus was of a lower socio-economic class and therefore would not have necessarily received such a large tomb in which his body would be buried.

In addition, according to Jewish law espoused by the Pharisees, only immediate family members could be buried in the same tomb. Therefore, the fact that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb meant that Joseph’s family would no longer be able to use the tomb, underscoring the extent of Joseph’s sacrifice and devotion to Jesus.

Christians believe that Jesus’ burial in such a tomb fulfills the prophecy that Jesus would be buried among the wealthy: "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth" (Isaiah 53:9).


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