Entombment: After Raphael




The Burial
by Pierre Barbet, MD

Taken from A DOCTOR AT CALVARY, Roman Catholic Books, orginally Published in France, 1950,
with Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat.


This chapter started by being a talk which I gave to the Paris doctors of the Société de Saint Luc, on June 16th, 1947. I said to them:

I wrote my first book, my dear colleagues, about all that Jesus did and suffered during His bitter Passion, till the hour when He decided to die, and gave back His soul to His Father. But since many have undertaken to give an account of the deeds accomplished after His death, according to the things which have been told us by those who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and servants of the Word, it seemed good to me, to me also, who for a long time had set myself to know everything exactly, to speak to you in order that you may know the truth of the instruction which you have received.

This time it is clearly no longer a question of anatomy, and you will perhaps accuse me of mounting supra crepidam. My excuse is that philology and exegesis have for forty years been my interests. If I dare put forward any hypothesis or to come to any conclusions, please be ready to believe that I am relying on those who are deeply versed in the subject and on unquestioned authorities. In this matter, which some people seem to have taken pleasure in making confused, everything rests on the study of the Gospels, and we shall follow these word by word, seeking for the lights that we need in other passages of Scripture and at times looking to other sciences for the help that they can give us. The essential basis of our study is the synopsis of the four Gospel books, in the original Greek, in Latin and in English [in the French edition the author naturally says French]; the Aramean may also have a surprise in store for us.

The first fact to strike one in this harmonised reading is that each one describes the events in a different way, in conformity with his particular genius; different words are frequently used, and the same details are not always stressed. They are complementary to, but do not contradict each other. We know that they are all inspired by the Holy Spirit, and possess the gift of inerrancy. Should we seem to see any opposition between them, it is because we have failed to understand them. I do not think that in laying down this principle I am falling into the errors of concordism, and you will see how we shall be forced to conclude that they are in perfect agreement. These are mere details, if you will, since it is the Passion and the Resurrection which matter most to us, but details which may agitate wayward spirits.

The other fact, with which we will start, emerges clearly from the combined accounts. This is the shortness of the time at the disposal of the disciples for the burial of Jesus. Let us re-read our synopsis: we are on Golgotha, at nones, that is to say about three o'clock, on the 13th dayof the month Nizan, probably in the year 30.

Jesus has bowed His head, right forward on His chest, at the moment chosen by Him, and He has given back His human soul to His Father. Now, the Sabbath will begin at about 6 o'clock, at the appearance of the first star, when one will no longer be able to distinguish a white thread from a black. And what a number of things are going to take place during these three hours! "The Jews then," says St. John, "[because it was the parasceve], that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the Sabbath day [for that was a great Sabbath day], besought Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away."  Remember that it was 600 yards from Calvary to the Praetorium, along uneven roads, and that there was to be much going to and fro. Pilate is certainly not in the mood to be in a hurry to receive the Jews, who, by playing on his fears, have forced on him an unjust condemnation; he will have kept them waiting. Nevertheless, he consents to send soldiers equipped with the necessary iron bars. The Roman custom was to leave the condemned on the cross till they were dead, but the instructions from Rome were to conform to local conditions. "The soldiers, therefore, came; and they broke the legs of the first, and of the other that was crucified with Him." This crurifragium would prevent them from raising themselves, using their legs as a support, so as to lessen the dragging on the hands. Tetany would thus finally overpower them and would cause asphyxia. They will be in their agony. Jesus is already dead.

 At this point comes the tragic gesture of one of the soldiers; tradition has it that he was the centurion of the guard on Calvary and that his name was Longinus, which is a play on the Greek name for the lance. Why should this centurion, who had been watching the Martyrdom of Jesus with sympathy and had just proclaimed Him to be just and the Son of God, perform such a cruel act? In any case St. John writes "one of the soldiers."

The afternoon is already fast drawing onwards when Joseph and Nicodemus arrive, who will take charge of the burial. "When it was evening," says St. Matthew, "when evening was now come," says St. Mark, Joseph of Arimathea arrives first and foremost. He was a decurion, a good and just man and a disciple of Jesus, so the synoptics tell us. And though a counselor, "he had not consented to their counsel and doings," we are told by St. Luke. When he sees that Jesus is dead, that the thieves are in their last agony, and the Jews are about to take them down, he decides to go and find Pilate so as to beg for the body of his Master; "He was a disciple of Jesus," says St. John, "but secretly for fear of the Jews." St. Mark insists: "went in boldly to Pilate." This was to compromise himself once and for all, and he must have experienced some hesitation. But Pilate, who was exasperated by the members of the sanhedrin, would be only too glad to comply with his request so as to have his revenge on his persecutors. One can read in St. Matthew how haughtily he would receive them on the following day when they came to reveal to him their fears that the body would be removed and to ask him to have it guarded: "You have a guard; go, guard it as you know."

He would thus be in the mood to give Joseph's request a friendly welcome; one thing, however, astonishes him---that Jesus should already be dead; the crucified do not usually die so rapidly, and Joseph must have told him that the legs had not been broken. He, therefore, sends an orderly to fetch the centurion of the guard, who has remained on Calvary. The latter arrives a little later and gives confirmation of the death to his chief, who delivers the body of Jesus to Joseph. It was the usual custom, as we know, to deliver the bodies of those who had been executed to their families when they asked for them.

But a shroud is needed. St. Luke says: "He wrapped Him in fine linen," while St. Matthew is a little more precise and says that " Joseph, taking the body, wrapped it up in a clean linen cloth." St. Mark, however, goes further and says that Joseph went and bought a shroud after he had left Pilate: Then he returns to Calvary and the work still remains to be done.

I have said exactly what my ideas are as to the taking down from the Cross and the carrying to the tomb. The body was not wrapped in the shroud till after it had been carried to the tomb; during the journey the blood from the inferior vena cava and the lower limbs flowed out through the Wound in the side; otherwise the blood would have drenched the shroud. After death from tetany the rigidity of the body is both sudden and extreme; it becomes like an iron bar. May I repeat what the method would have been: The nail of the feet would be removed, which would not be altogether easy; then the patibulum would be unfixed, two men holding the ends, while another upholds the right heel, which is behind the left. Finally, as the combination of the body and the beam of wood is too heavy, two others twist a sheet so as to make a band to support the loins. The rest of the venous blood coming out of the heart, in the horizontal position, drenches this sheet and coagulates in its folds in irregular windings. [All these details, as we have seen, are verified on the shroud of Turin, and they are not details which a forger would have imagined.]

Fortunately, the sepulchre is quite near, and that is why it has been chosen. This sepulchre "was hewed out of a rock," writes St. Mark; "wherein never yet any man had been laid," adds St. Luke; St. Matthew states precisely that it was Joseph's "own new monument, which he had hewed out in a rock." St. John is yet more explicit: "Now there was in the place where He was crucified, a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein no man yet had been laid. There, therefore, because of the parasceve of the Jews, they laid Jesus, because the sepulchre was nigh at hand." Their haste could scarcely be more clearly stressed, so that they should be finished before the opening of the Sabbath. St. Augustine writes: He wishes to make it understood that the burial was in haste, for fear that the evening should come on.

Having been carried there, the body is laid on a flag-stone placed in the ante-chamber of the sepulchre, which is traditionally known as the stone of anointing. For it has to be freed from the patibulum. The nails can now be removed from the hands, and we can imagine with what pious and loving precaution. The work is easier on the flat, but all the same it takes time and strength to draw the nails from the wood; once this is done, the nails can be removed from the wrists without difficulty. Then, these arms, which were spread out at an angle of 65°, must be brought back in front of the body. Much strength must be exerted in order to overcome them, the shoulders have to be made supple, and the arms brought down and crossed in front of the body: "and the Sabbath drew on," says St. Luke: the lamps of the Temple were being lighted, and the trumpets would soon sound, announcing the opening of the great day. How, then, were the burial rites to be performed in their completeness?

Before we continue with the study of our texts, it will perhaps be of value to find out how the Jews bury their dead. One thing seems to be certain, that it had nothing in common with the embalming practiced by the Egyptians. In the whole of the Bible, we only find two examples of mummification, those of Jacob and of Joseph; this was in Egypt, for they had become half Egyptian. Neither was it ever the custom to enclose with bands, to use natron, or to disembowel. In the Jewish catacombs, mummies are extremely rare [there are, in fact, two] and these probably are of Jews belonging to the Egyptian diaspora. All the other bodies are clothed as we shall see. Maimonides, the Jewish doctor of Cordova, in the 12th century, writes: "After the eyes and the mouth of the dead person had been closed, the body was washed, it was anointed with perfumed essences and then rolled up in a sheet of white linen, in which aromatic spices were placed at the same time." La Michna [Chabbath, XXXIII, 5] tells us in regard to the same subject: "Everything is performed that is owing to the dead, both the anointing and the washing." I suppose, then, that Our Lord had to be washed first.

Alfred Levy, a Rabbi in Luneville, writes: "Once death was established, they would wait for a quarter of an hour, during which light feathers were placed in the nostrils of the deceased, and he was watched with great attention to make sure there were no movements to show that breathing had begun again. After this short wait, the eyes and mouth of the deceased were closed, his limbs were placed in an ordered position, he was wrapped in a shroud and laid on the ground, while the words were pronounced: 'Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.' " It would seem, then, that this was a preliminary ceremony, after which they would have time to prepare for the burial strictly so called. Alfred Levy continues: "Before proceeding to the funereal clothing, the corpse was purified, it was washed with tepid water, and in the old days [this is of interest to us] it was perfumed with diverse essences. After that it was dressed in normal clothes. This clothing, however, became more and more luxurious, and shortly before the time of Jesus became such a charge on the heirs that Gamaliel the Elder, with the intention of preventing this, decreed that a corpse should only be dressed in simple clothing. This reform, which looked back to the ancient simplicity, was most successful, and continued in practice throughout the ages." We find the same account in a series of documents collected in Israelite circles by my friend, the late M. Porche, who was a fervent believer in the shroud. Several Rabbis who were interrogated by him in France and in Palestine confirmed all this; they only knew of one case when bands were used for the hands and the feet: it was that of Lazarus, in St. John's Gospel! And they had no explanation for this anomaly.

The custom of the first Christians, which must have been inspired by that of the Jews, is confirmed for us by the Acta Martyrum, where we always find references to shrouds, linen fabrics, plain linen garments or others more or less ornamented. In the loculi of the catacombs one finds linen cloths, cloths dyed purple, figured and ornamented fabrics and silks, cloth of gold and precious garments, such as those in which St. Cecilia is clothed in the cemetery of Domitilla.

Thus, having been first wrapped in a shroud, the body was usually clothed after the final anointing, and of this we even find confirmation in the Scriptures. I do not speak of the daughter of Jairus, who had just died when Jesus raised her from the dead. But the son of the widow of Naim [Luke 7: 14] was being carried to the grave, when Jesus said to him: " Young man, I say to thee, arise. And he that was dead, sat up, and began to speak." In the case of Tabitha, who was raised from the dead by St. Peter at Joppa [Acts 9: 40] it stands out even more clearly: "Whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber." They then went to fetch Peter at Lydda, which would have taken at least ten hours. And Peter, "turning to the body, said: Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes; and seeing Peter, she sat up. And giving her his hand, he lifted her up." Both these dead persons must then have been dressed.

From the historical point of view it seems quite clear: in the first phase the body was wrapped in a shroud, and they then prepared for the burial. The latter consisted of washing with warm water, followed by anointing with perfumed essences, such as the ointment of precious spikenard of Mary Magdalene at the meal in Bethany, or the aromatic spices which she took to the tomb on Easter day. This anointing was done by rubbing. The verb aleiphein, used by St. Mark [16: 1] in describing this last scene, denotes a friction with balm and oil; the same verb is used in regard to the anointing of athletes before the contests in the stadium; there was more than a mere sprinkling.

Once the corpse was dressed it was carried into the sepulchre. The latter was sometimes a grave hollowed out in the rock [as, perhaps, in the case of Lazarus], into which they would go down by steps, and which would afterwards be covered by a flag-stone. Nearly always it was a cavern hollowed out by the hand of man, consisting of an ante-chamber and an inner cell in which the body would be laid down on a rocky ledge. The entrance would be closed in by a disc-shaped stone which rolled into a groove. It was the custom to visit the dead every day for at least three days, for the Jews had a great dread of death being merely apparent. This was why Martha was able to say with full knowledge to Jesus, referring to Lazarus: "Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he is now of four days." And when Mary, summoned by Martha, rose up to go and join the Lord, the Jews who had come to console her, thought she was going once more to the grave. [ John 11]

Let us now turn once more to our texts and we shall see that there is no mention of washing or anointing in connection with this first burial, either in the Synoptics or in St. John. The fact was that time was short, and they had no hot water and no balm for the anointing.

Now, the Synoptics say that Joseph "wrapped Him up in the fine linen." St. Matthew and St. Luke say " enetulixen," and St. Mark " eneilesen," but there can be no doubt as to what they mean, and St. Jerome translates all three with the word "involvit."

The Greek "sindon" [sindon in St. Jerome], which we translate as shroud, was a long piece of linen, much longer than it was broad, which they first placed round the head and then over the body; one may compare it to the "himation" of the Greeks, the Roman "peplum," or better still, the "palla" worn by women. It could be worn as underclothing or at night, or be used as a shroud for the dead. In Aramean it was called the soudara, but we shall return to this later. We find in St. Mark that when they were leading Jesus away after His arrest [14: 51], "a certain young man followed Him, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and they laid hold on him. But he, casting off the linen cloth, fled from them naked." This young man was no doubt John Mark himself, the son of a good Jerusalem family; his mother's house was to be one of the chief centers of primitive Christianity [Acts 12: 12]. We come across the "sindon" again in the Old Testament: Samson [Judges 14: 12] promises his companions, if they can solve a riddle, that he will give them "thirty shirts [linen] and as many coats." The "sindon" would be wrapped round under the coat or tunic, and thus he would be giving them a complete outfit. In Jeremias 12: 1 the "sindon" reappears in the Greek of the Septuagint, and St. Jerome here translates as "lumbare lineum," which would indicate the same kind of garment.

 To conclude, according to the Synoptics, the body of Jesus was wrapped in a shroud, and they do not speak of aromatic spices.

Let us now turn to St. John [19: 38, 39], and we shall find that he definitely mentions these. Joseph "came, therefore, and took away the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus also came [he who at first came to Jesus by night], bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight " Myrrh is a form of resin extracted from an umbelliferous plant, the balsamodendron; it has a fragrant scent and mild antiseptic qualities. The aloes, whatever may have been said about it, has no connection with aloes wood, or agallock; the latter, which is sold in chips, has very little scent, except when burnt; it has no antiseptic qualities. It was, furthermore, rare and very expensive at that time, as it came from the Far East.

What was in fact placed on the body of Jesus was a resin extracted from the aloes or agave, which, with its long, thick, sharp-edged leaves, can be seen all along the Mediterranean coast. Soccotrine aloes, from the island of Soccotra in the Red Sea, is still used in pharmacy. It has a scent of balsam, half-way between that of myrrh and that of saffron. And it has always been used when treating corpses. Dioscorides, St. John Chrysostom, the Arab doctors and the Romance of the Rose all tell of it ...

In spite of everything, the mixture brought by Nicodemus would not suffice for embalming the whole body; it could only postpone the putrefaction of the surface, covered as it was with infected wounds. The very superabundance of the mixture [100 pounds or 32 kilograms], shows that the disciples only aimed at temporary preservation.

They had to wait for thirty-six hours before they could perform the ritual burial on the Sunday morning, washing the body and anointing it with the balms; this was the work of the women, to which they were already giving much thought. "There was there Mary Magdalen," says St. Matthew, "and the other Mary [the mother of James and Joseph, whom he describes as present on Calvary] sitting over against the sepulchre." And St. Mark: "Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of Joseph, beheld where He was laid." St. Luke, who had certainly received his information from the holy women---"according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eye-witnesses"---goes into further detail: "And the Sabbath drew on. And the women that were come with Him from Galilee, following after, saw the sepulchre, and how His body was laid. [This surely means that they were making their plans for the anointing]. And returning, they prepared spices and ointments; and on the Sabbath day they rested, according to the Commandment. And on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared." Can one not hear these wonderfully devoted women telling Luke of these memories, so dear to them, which must have been positively embalmed in their minds? St. Mark also tells us: " And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James [he singles her out, first by one son and then by the other], and Salome, bought sweet spices, that coming, they might anoint Jesus." It was indeed to be the ritual and final burial. We have already stated the precise meaning of the verb "aleiphein." Aromatic spices would be used, similar to the ointment of precious spikenard, poured out by the Magdalen at Bethany. The myrrh and the aloes were only used for purposes of temporary preservation.

Starting with the myrrh and aloes of St. John, we have ended up with the sweet spices of the Synoptics. This anticipation was necessary so as to establish what were the details of the burial ...

We have seen that bandlets would not be used among the Jews. Besides, these bandlets, unless they were completely unrolled, would prevent the anointing which it was intended to perform on the Sunday. And why should they go to the pains of binding Him in this way when they had the anointing in view?

But the Greek text has "othonia," which St. Jerome translates very well as "linea" or small fine linen cloth; a garment or veil of fine linen" and even "veiling, veils," and finally "a bandage; in the plural, linen cloths." Let us slightly anticipate the Sunday morning: Peter and John ran to the empty tomb, and there they found "ta othonia" as St. Luke and St. John tell us. St. Jerome translates this as " linteamina," which our dictionaries render as "linen cloths." ...

 If Joseph wrapped Him in a shroud, one is not forbidden to believe that other linen cloths were brought by Nicodemus . . . Thus even if there was one shroud, he [John] was quite well able to say: "they surrounded Him with linen cloths." St. Augustine then gives us his own view: "all things are generally called linen cloths which are woven from flax." And Paleotto adds, fol-owing Bede who had read it in the Annales Pontificales, that St. Sylvester ordered, out of regard for the linen cloths used in the burial, that the corporal of the Mass should be made of fine linen and of no other material ...

And so everything becomes clear; the disciples have only performed the first act of the Israelite customs, that which preceded the burial proper, and this was because they have neither the time nor the materials. They have wrapped Jesus in a shroud, surrounding this with linen cloths which have been impregnated with the mixture of myrrh and aloes, and this will act to a certain extent as an antiseptic; the final anointing, following on the washing, will be performed by the women on the first day after the Sabbath. We may then translate St. John, if  what I say carries conviction: "They wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices, according to the custom among the Jews of preparing for burial." The largest of these linen cloths [woven from flax] was the shroud of which the Synoptics speak, a long and broad piece of linen. St. John does not expressly refer to it, but he will do so, as we shall see, on the Sunday morning.

At an early hour, then, on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalen [John] with the holy women [Synoptics], bring their spices [Mark, Luke] in order to anoint the body; they go to the sepulchre and find it both open and empty. I will pass over the details, the apparition of the Angels, the fright and flight of the women. They run to tell the news to the Apostles, who treat it as an absurdity; our holy colleague, Luke, uses here the technical term "leros," which is the delirium caused by a fever; let us make a note of this as we pass on.

Magdalen specially addresses herself [John] to Peter and John who, without waiting for the opinion of the others, start out quickly for the tomb. Luke only mentions Peter: "But Peter rising up, ran to the sepulchre, and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths laid by themselves." It should be noticed that on the Friday Luke only speaks of the shroud. It thus seems certain that this shroud forms part of these "linen cloths," and, in company with St. Augustine, we have already come to this conclusion when studying St. John's text.

St. John, who is the last to write, here, as is often the case, gives the finishing touch to his forerunners the Synoptists, just as he passes over in silence what he is aware must already be well known through their catechising. Peter and John, then, ran to the tomb, but John being the younger, arrived first. "And stooping down, he sees the linen cloths laid by. But yet he went not in." Note this deference to the chief of the Apostles, which is already to be seen. "Then cometh Simon Peter, following him, and went into the sepulchre, and saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin that had been about his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place. Then that other disciple also went in, who came first to the sepulchre; and he saw, and believed." ...

 There is no sign in Jewish habits till the fall of Jerusalem and even later," of the use of the sudarium, a simple veil for covering the face, having been a regular custom. It would seem rather that they were content to lay the shroud over the face and the front of the body. This custom still exists in the East, and is to be found among the Druses and among the ancient inhabitants of the country. The body is wrapped in a shroud, and is carried, with the face uncovered, as far as the tomb, and part of the shroud is laid over the head to reach as far as the feet. The shroud is held by three or four bandlets, which bind the feet, fix the arms alongside the body or crossed on the chest, and are tied tighdy in the region of the neck, so that the shroud completely surrounds the head ... The objection has for a long time been made and is still being made that this veil, when laid over the face of Jesus, would have prevented the formation of this imprint on the shroud when placed over it . . .

Now, in each case we are concerned with a dead body, the cells of which are, however, still living; in a man this would be till putrefaction sets in, in a plant till it becomes dried. If one remembers that these vegetable imprints are the only ones known to have the perfection of the negative lights and shades on the shroud, it is surely not rash to conclude that the Holy Face could have left its imprint on the shroud, even through the veil left in between. But let us now return to St. John ...

The whole aim of St. John, in this section, is to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, the basic dogma of our religion, and the first element in the Apostolic preaching. Now, the presence of the shroud in the empty tomb seems to provide a very valuable proof. [Had the body been stolen from the tomb, it would not have been removed from the shroud, which would be very useful for carrying it.] They would thus be able to bring to nothing the clumsy calumny of the Jews that it was taken away while the guards were asleep. [Mtatthew 28; 2] Says St. Augustine, "O clumsy cunning, you bring forward witnesses who were asleep; it is really you yourselves who were asleep." Would St. John not be certain to refer to the shroud?

... From now onwards, everything becomes quite clear. He found all the linen cloths in the tomb, and among them the shroud rolled up and set apart. It was the largest and one can easily understand how a piece of linen 12 feet long and 3 feet broad would be rolled up and would attract attention in the corner where it was placed.

Furthermore, St. John has achieved his aim; he has the proof he needs; the body was not stolen. Jesus, risen from the dead, has left His shroud in the empty tomb ...

We may then conclude, that the four Gospels, while complementary to each other, are completely in agreement. Because time was so short the body of Jesus was laid in the sepulchre on the Friday evening, after a simple preparation for burial which was merely intended to postpone putrefaction. The disciples, without washing or anointing the body, wrapped it in a shroud surrounded with linen cloths impregnated with a large quantity of myrrh and aloes. The final burial, which would consist of washing and anointing with sweet spices of a quite different kind, was to be pedormed by the holy women on Sunday morning. In the empty tomb, Peter and John found the linen cloths and the shroud rolled up separately.