"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 13 The Passion, Death, and Burial of Jesus (Jn 18.1-19.42)

Sec 13.6 Jesus' Death: Aftermath and Burial (Jn 19.31-42


As discussed in the previous section, this was a standard practice to hasten the death of the condemned criminal. It was known as crurifragium (leg-breaking). For further discussion, see Retief and Cilliers 2006.

In this case the concern of 'the authorities' would have been for the holiness of the Sabbath - it was possible that the condemned men might live for several days, as was often the case with crucifixion. If they died immediately before or during the Sabbath, then their unburied bodies were a potential source of pollution - much better that they should die at once (arguably in a more merciful way than the long drawn-out death of crucifixion) and be removed from their crosses, so that their bodies might be claimed for burial.

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This action, carried out after the Roman crucifixion squad of a centurion and three soldiers had concluded that Jesus was dead and therefore no crurifragium would be required, has suggested to some scholars that in fact Jesus was still living at the time that his side was pierced because blood does not in general flow after death. However Retief and Cilliers (Retief and Cilliers 2006 p 306) demonstrate that, on the contrary, this effusion of blood and water is actually proof that Jesus had already died just as the soldiers thought.1

Jesus did die quickly, for a crucified man, perishing in 3-6 hours, based on the time indications given in the various gospels. But it was not a suspicious death, that is, he did not die so quickly as to require further factors to account for it than the usual physical effects of crucifixion and the events narrated in the gospels. As Retief and Cilliers conclude, '[t]his is not an exceptionally short period of time, and there is no reason to postulate unusual causes for his death.'2 One theory is that a severe scourging after Pilate pronounced sentence would have caused sufficient blood loss and tissue damage to account for the time of death.

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The "one who saw it" bears witness here in his written account to the reality of Jesus' death. This unnamed person appears to be the Beloved Disciple, the evangelist. The reality of Jesus' death must be established if we are to be confident in the truth of Jesus' resurrection. The point here is that if Jesus did not die, then God cannot have raised him up, so establishing Jesus' death is a necessary first step in establishing his Resurrection. The Beloved Disciple knew that Jesus really died on the Cross because he saw the evidence of the blood and water.

This is the first of three passages in chs19-21 in which readers are directly addressed about the testimony provided by the BD. Throughout this gospel attention is given to the role of witnesses in establishing the truth about Jesus - who and what he is. In accordance with the principles laid out in Deut 19.5, John's Jesus presents two or three witnesses to the truth of what he is saying or doing. Jesus cites some of these witnesses as the Father, the deeds themselves, and the Scriptures (see Jn 5.36-44). As between divine and human witnesses, Jesus himself appears to assign a greater value to the witness of his own deeds than to the human witness of John the Baptist in Jn 5.36. But the evangelist also provides a series of human eyewitnesses (such as the Baptist and the Samaritan woman of ch 3), who join the divine witnesses to Jesus' identity and the meaning of the signs that he works.

In v35 the BD emerges directly for the first time since the Prologue (when he and his companions added their eyewitness testimony to that of John the Baptist in Jn 1.14 and 1.16) as one of these human eyewitnesses. In this paragraph (Jn 19.31-37) the BD invites the reader to consider the importance of determining that Jesus actually died and offers as proof the evidence that blood and water flowed from his side when pierced. In fact he provides and affirms his own eyewitness testimony to demonstrate the reality of the blood and water. Verse 35 also affirms that the BD's eyewitness testimony is true and that he knows that it is true. But who is supposed to be doing the affirmation? What is the source of that affirmation?

Verse 35 only states that the BD himself knows that his witness is true. But the affirmation there that the witness is true needs more authority behind it than just the BD himself. In Jn 5.31, Jesus himself affirms that self-witness is not adequate except in extraordinary circumstances (cp Jn 8.14). In the Prologue an unidentified group of people (the "we" of Jn 1.14 and 16) had affirmed the truth of the Incarnation and its effects on themselves. This is not simply a case of the BD using a "plural of majesty". Rather the BD and a group of fellow eyewitnesses, companions who speak on behalf of a whole community, make that affirmation. Now in Jn 19.35 the reader should likely also see such a group as the source of the affirmation - itself authoritative because it conforms to the provisions of Deut 19.15 - that what the BD has born witness to is true. See the discussion in the Introduction and the comments on Jn 1.14 [[add pg #s here]]

The other two passages in which the readers are directly addresed are Jn 20.30-31 and Jn 21.24-5. The last is usually read as a conclusion to the Fourth Gospel, and it certainly works as such. The first passage (discussed here) and the middle one seem more closely tied to the larger context of which they are a part. I will discuss the middle and last passages as they occur.

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This Joseph is also referred to in Mark's Gospel. Mark identifies him as a member of the Council and someone expectantly waiting for the Kingdom of God and says that he asked Pilate for Jesus' body, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb (Mk 15.43-46). For readers of Mark, John makes it explicit that Joseph was a disciple and provides details not in Mark. A reader or hearer of John not acquainted with Mark will learn from John's account all he or she needs to know about Joseph, even if they lack some of Mark's information, eg, the assurance that Joseph was a member of the Council.

It is not clear where Arimathea, Joseph's home town, is. Based on Eusebius and Jerome it is usually identified with Ramah of Benjamin, or Ramathaim-Zophim, the birthplace of Samuel (1 Sam 1.19), though other sites have been suggested3. Whatever its exact location, it was likely Joseph's birthplace, and possibly the location of family estates but, given that he was a member of the Council and had a tomb in Jerusalem, he was probably living in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' death.

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This is Nicodemos' third appearance in the gospel. He appears first in ch3, visiting Jesus by night and questioning him. Then he recurs in ch7, where he questions the other members of the Council about the sincerity of their observance of the Law in their pursuit of Jesus. He appears for the third and last time here. It is unusual for John to have a character who appears so frequently. Jesus and his disciples and public figures such as Pilate or Caiaphas are the exception to this rule. Since Nicodemos is not a well-known figure outside this gospel nor a public figure, this raises the question of whether he was a disciple of Jesus.

The contexts in which he appears could equally well be interpreted as showing that Nicodemos was a devout Pharisee who was curious about Jesus and his teachings, even sympathetic to them, as that he was a follower of Jesus. Even this final appearance could be explained as the action of a devout man who was concerned about obeying the commandment to bury the bodies of those who are hung up after execution (Deut 21.22-23, which was taken to refer to crucifixion), rather than allowing them to be left up all night.

However, the evangelist's general practice with recurring characters allows us, I think, to interpret Nicodemos as a disciple. He is slow to come to that status in a gospel which values quick and decisive action in the face of the existential threat exposed by the coming of the Son: to choose one's side between the Father and the Son on the one hand and the prince of this world (that is, the Adversary) on the other. Nicodemos' caution seems like fence-sitting at first, but I think he provides an important corrective to the evngelist's tendency to see the world in black and white. The ambiguity of Nicodemos' appearances show that there is a place for the cautious and the slow disciple, even as Joseph of Arimathea shows there is a place for the fearful and hidden disciple. They both are there when it counts.

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Here John offers another correction and supplement to Mark. In Mark 15.46 we are told only that Joseph wrapped the body in a linen cloth and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb. It is the women who come to the tomb on Easter morning who bring the spices to complete the burial rites that Joseph, presumably, had no time to finish. But John tells his readers and hearers, including those familiar with Mark, that Joseph and Nicodemos worked together first to get the body for burial and then to provide all that was needed for the burial rites, both cloths and spices. John does not tell us why Mary Magdalen came to the tomb on Easter morning, but it was not to bring the aromatic spices for Jesus' burial (cp Jn 20.1).

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In Jesus's day, people did not always bury their friends and relations in previously-unused tombs, or as John puts it here, 'a new tomb in which no-one had yet been laid'. This was particularly true in Jerusalem, where locations suitable for burials were at a premium because of the number of people who wanted to be buried at Jerusalem. So tombs hewn from natural rock formations or adapted from natural caves were customarily reused: bodies would be laid to rest on stone slabs, wrapped in their linen coverings, for at least a year. But when natural processes had left only bones, they would be gathered up and put in an ossuary (literally a bone-box), often with an identifying inscription. In this way a family would make room for future generations, since the ossuaries took less space than bodies. But this is a new tomb, never before used for a body, far less for an ossuary.

It is difficult to know what the site of this tomb was. The devastation caused by the Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem, not to mention Rome's later reconstruction of the ruined city as Aelia Capitolina, has made it difficult to locate many sites in and around the pre-70 CE area, especially one for which so few identifying features are given. The traditional site is now within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A rival site is the Garden Tomb, discovered in excavations of 1867. Although it is not really possible to say that either site is definitiely, or even probably, the burial place of Jesus, many scholars have concluded that the Garden Tomb site is not likely to be the tomb of Jesus because modern investigation has shown that it is likely to be far older than the time of Jesus, dating to the 8th-7th century BCE and so not a new, previously-unused tomb in the first century CE. Contrariwise many scholars have concluded with Joan Taylor that the traditional site "may well be authentic".4

It is important to keep in mind that even though these are the places most commonly named and identified as the site of the tomb, it is entirely possible that Jesus' tomb is elsewhere, in a place not even yet known or excavated. This possibility was brought home by a 2007 documentary about a rock-hewn tomb in the east Talpiot neighbourhood of southeast Jerusalem, originally containing the remains of around 30-35 individuals and from which ten ossuaries (six inscribed) were eventually removed. The tomb had originally been uncovered in 1980, but it was not until over 20 years later that the names on the ossuaries led the filmmakers to argue that it was the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. In early 2008, a symposium of scholars from many disciplines concerned with the discovery and its significance met and discussed how to bring their particular expertise and experience to bear on the question. The proceedings of their symposium were not published until 2013. At that time the editor wrote, "Unexpectedly, however, those in attendance amassed data that seemed to converge toward this nearly unanimous conclusion: The Talpiot tomb is neither Jesus of Nazareth's tomb nor Mary of Magdala's tomb. There was some openness for considering that perhaps the Talpiot tomb may be connected, somehow, to Jesus' clan or to the Palestinian Jesus movement. But there was no consensus on this point."5

Of course the discussion continues, as it does for the other more traditional burial sites. And clearly the Talpiot tomb, if its connection to the historic Jesus could be established, would be anchored in a different understanding of the nature of resurrection than that represented by the traditional interpretation of the "empty tomb". But this takes us far afield from comments on the Gospel of John.

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1 The discussion in Retief and Cilliers 2006 p 306 concludes: 'If Schulte (1963:180) and Edwards et al. (1986:1463) are correct in their assumption that the piercing of Jesus’ side by the spear was the standard Roman coup de grâce procedure aimed at the heart, the fluid which flowed from the wound could well have been a mixture of uncoagulable blood from the heart and a watery pericardial (or even pleural) effusion. Blood and water would thus indeed be post mortem confirmation of death.

2 Retief and Cilliers 2006 pp 294, 305-6.

3 See The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible and The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (both s.v. Arimathea) for discussion of the various alternatives.

4 Taylor 1998 p 180; a full discussion of the problem of the sites proposed for the tomb of Jesus is found on pp 193-203.

5 Charlesworth, J. H. "Preface: Contextualizing the Search for Herod's and Jesus' Tomb." In The Tomb of Jesus and His Family?: Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem's Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins. J.H. Charlesworth (ed) (Eerdmans, 2013). p. xix.