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Jewish Burial Customs and the Shroud

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Krzysztof Pilarczyk
Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland

The traces on the Shroud of Turin represent a man subjected to torment and crucifixion before death. These traces must be contrasted with the Jewish burial rites that were in force at the end of the so-called Second Temple period (i.e. the 1st century), which we know from various accounts. The Gospel of John states that Jesus was buried according to the Jewish burial custom (John 19:40). It is therefore necessary to reconstruct this custom and describe both the general and specific rules of the burial ritual.

Burial was regarded by the Judeans as an expression of respect and love towards the deceased. They reasoned that death was not an accident or something accidental, but a law of implacable nature to which all living beings were subject. When God took away man’s life-giving breath, man departed from the “land of the living” and passed into Sheol—the land of the dead—where he continued to live but deprived of most of his vital energies; he lived a reduced existence that was similar to a deep sleep. This conviction underpinned the belief that man continues to live after death, and that his burial place (the grave, the tomb) is his dwelling, into which the necessities of life must be placed. Jewish anthropology did not distinguish in man between body and soul, but treated him as a unity, which was reflected in the terminology: a living man was called a “living soul” and a dead man—a “dead soul.” From the 2nd century BC onwards, the belief that an immortal soul existed emerged. This thought gradually developed into the idea of resurrection, which at the time of Jesus sparked a dispute between the religious groupings of the time: the Pharisees and Sadducees, the former believing in resurrection and the latter denying it. Most Jews adopted a Pharisaic way of thinking. It was for this reason that human corpses, or even only their parts, were shown respect because they ensured the existence of the soul in the subterranean Sheol (Job 26:5–6; Isa 14:9–10; Ps 27:13). It was not customary for the Jews to embalm the corpse (the exception being Jacob and Joseph, to whom the Egyptian practice was applied) or to use coffins or sarcophagi. The funeral ceremonial focused more on its spiritual value and did not draw on foreign customs; however, the Canaanite form of burial was adopted, which was characterised by extraordinary care for the body of the deceased, which stemmed from the belief that even after death, the soul feels the state in which the body is. Abandoning the human body after death to the mercy of wild animals or birds of prey, or failing to bury it at all, was regarded as a curse.

The Jewish burial ceremony was distinguished by the fact that it had no religious aspect. The Jewish priest did not participate in the burial, as the burial was a matter exclusively for the family and relatives of the deceased. We learn about how funerals were conducted mainly from the New rather than the Old Testament. Relatives closed the eyes and mouth of the deceased and planted a final kiss: this is how the Egyptian Joseph behaved towards his father Jacob (Gen 46:4 and 50:1). We do not know whether it was customary at the time of Jesus to place coins on the eye sockets of the deceased. Although tombs discovered at Jericho and other sites on the Dead Sea attest to it, it is not known whether this was a common practice or only a local one. Between the second half of the 1st century BC (the time of Herod the Great) and the 2nd century after Christ, the funeral ritual was enriched by the washing of the body of the deceased, as exemplified by the treatment of Tabitha of Jaffa, whose body was washed after death and laid in an upstairs chamber (Acts 9:37). Talmudic Jewish law permitted all actions to be performed on the deceased on the Sabbath:

One may perform all of the needs of the dead on Shabbat. One may smear oil on the body and rinse it with water, and all of this is permitted provided that one does not move any of its limbs, which would constitute a violation of the laws of set-aside objects. When necessary, one may also remove a pillow from beneath it and thereby place it on cold sand in order to delay its decomposition. Similarly, one may tie the jaw of a corpse that is in the process of opening. (…) One may not shut the eyes of the dead on Shabbat because the body is set-aside. And one may not shut the eyes even on a weekday while the soul departs. One must wait until the person has died. And one who shuts the eyes while the soul departs is a murderer because he has hastened the person’s death.

(Shabbat 23:5)

The description of the funeral of the Judaean king Asa (2 Kgs 16:14) shows that before burial, the body of the deceased was washed with warm water and anointed with fragrant oils (myrrh and aloe vera made from the resin of a tree imported from India were used for this), and then placed in a funeral sheet—a shroud—inside which herbs and aromatic clods were placed beforehand. The deceased was usually clothed in a linen robe. It was not until Roman times that the body was wrapped in a sheet (Old Greek: σινδών), while a cloth (Old Greek: σουδάριον) was placed over the face, and the arms and legs were bound with bands (Old Greek: ὀθόνιον). The body thus wrapped was carried to the upper chamber (example of Tabitha), where relatives and acquaintances bid final farewell to the deceased.

Rabbinic literature says nothing about linen bandages for wrapping the arms and legs; it was not customary to bandage the body like a mummy. When preparing the body for burial, songs were sometimes sung about the deceased (Jer 16:5–6; 22:18) in the fashion of Lamentations (according to rhythmic patterns—the so-called qina). Jewish law required that the funeral take place as soon as possible, on the day of death, customarily eight hours after death. Usually, relatives and friends of the deceased carried the body to the burial place on bier, which was a kind of stretcher (bGitin 56:6). Since blood causes impurity of the first degree and since for this reason it should be buried together with the body if there were such circumstances, the blood leaked from the body was deposited with the body in the tomb in the amount of a quarter of a log (about 0.5 litres) (Tahorot, Oholot 2:2). A distinction was made between “mixed” and “shed” blood. The former meant a quarter of a log of blood leaked out of a person, both while he was still alive and when he had already died, if it had not stopped flowing but:

If there is a doubt as to whether the greater part of the blood flowed while alive or the lesser part after death, or whether the lesser part flowed while still alive or the greater part after death—this is “mixed blood.” Rabbi Simeon ruled: If the blood of a crucified man streamed forth slowly to the ground and a quart of the blood log was underneath him, this is impure. Rabbi Judah, on the other hand, defined it as pure if a drop of blood remained on the beam.

(Tohorot, Niddah 7, 7; quoted in Chmiel 1984, p. 124)

Rabbi David Kimchi’s (Radak) commentary on Is 14:9, (dating from the 10th century but which may refer to an old tradition) is of interest, and it states that the body of a person who died a violent death, stained with blood, should not be washed. This is confirmed by a record in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (16th century), which states that in the event of a violent death, if blood has flowed out at the time of death, the corpse is not subject to the normal ritual of washing, but should be wrapped together with bloodstained clothing in a cloth called sovev. This tradition has been preserved to the present day. Blood that flows out at the time of a person’s death should not be washed off. If the deceased died a violent death as a result of brutality or an accident and his body and clothing are completely splashed with blood, neither washing nor tahara (cleansing) is used. Blood is part of the body and cannot be separated from it by death.

The positioning of the body in the tomb was regulated by a separate rule: it was usually laid on its back, stretched out, and a stone pad was given under the head. Incidentally: during the Bronze Age, the deceased were laid on their left side, whereas in the earlier Copper Age, they were laid in the embryonic position (tombs at Carmel), which resembled the position of a foetus in the womb. The funeral procession, even of the poorest Israelite, should include weepers to raise laments and flute players to play mournful melodies (Ketubot 4, 6; Bava metzia 6, 1). To heighten the grief, participants tore their garments (Gen 37:34; 2 Sam 3:31). The Talmud even specifies what kind of tearing is required. Funeral attendees usually wore black clothing, went barefoot, without a headdress, shaved their hair and beards (partially or completely), and sometimes mutilated their face and breasts, although this was forbidden by law as a pagan custom. Covering the face or sprinkling ash or ashes on the head was also an expression of sorrow. Mourning speeches were made over the grave in honour of the deceased. Sometimes the walls of graves (loculi) were anointed before the corpse was laid there. They were anointed profusely, as evidenced by the large brown, oily stains that differed from the anointing of tombs from the outside, as was practised in Christian catacombs. Those participants in the burial who came into contact with the body of the deceased were exposed to ritual impurity (Lev 19:11–16). After the funeral, a memorial service was usually held for the participants—lehem onim (bread of mourning)—cf. Hos 9:4 and Ezek 24:17. After the funeral, the graves were visited at prescribed times, especially every year. Tradition dictated that in the month of adar, graves should be whitewashed, i.e. stone slabs and entrance slabs or piles of stones should be covered with lime, in order to mark—as the Talmud puts it—unclean places and to warn the living about burial sites.

Special provisions were made for the burial of the condemned (cf. Deut 21:22–23). The body of a criminal was to be buried on the day of execution before nightfall. The main reason for this was the conviction that the corpse of such a person—a person cursed by God—would pollute the holy land of Israel in a special way. One way of humiliating the criminal in the eyes of the community was to carry out his execution in public and to hang a plaque around his neck describing the guilt (titulus) for which he was being punished. This custom was known to both Jews and Romans. The titulus of guilt was usually placed on a wooden plate carried in front of the condemned person on the way to the place of execution or hung around his neck, as a warning and deterrent to all who would read it. The Romans, when giving a title, were primarily interested in the crime, not the offender. In Palestine, the title was probably written in Aramaic and Greek or only in Greek. However, there is no evidence in ancient literature to support the custom of attaching an inscription—epigrafe (Old Greek: ἐπιγραφή) or titulus—to a cross. Instead, we find confirmation of the fact that a convict for political troublemaking was not allowed to receive signs of sympathy. Tacitus states that neither relatives nor acquaintances were allowed to come close to mourn them [the condemned—K.P.], or even to look at them any longer. There were guards posted all around, closely watching to see if anyone betrayed any signs of mourning (Ann VI 19). Even for women no exceptions were made: since they could not be accused of treasonous intent, they were accused because of their tears (Ann VI 10). Suetonius, meanwhile, adds that it was forbidden to celebrate mourning for the families of those condemned to death. Mourning was a dangerous act of solidarity that could lead the mourner to be crucified himself (after Chmiel 1984). This did not even protect women. It was therefore necessary to keep one’s distance from the condemned man and to watch the execution from afar. According to Roman law, those crucified were denied burial. Artemidorus states that a crucified person feeds many birds (Chmiel 1984), and Suetonius, quoting Emperor Octavian August, writes that the bodies of the crucified are the business of vultures (Chmiel 1984). The refusal of a post-burial was therefore an additional punishment. In order to avoid it, one could ask for an administrative act of grace to be given the body. In the case of rebels, the granting of such permission was difficult to obtain. In Roman-ruled Palestine, the situation was harder because the burial of the dead was treated as a matter of utmost importance, even if it was the corpse of convicts. The law from Deuteronomy was in force, which said: his corpse shall not remain on the tree overnight. You must bury it the same day; anyone who is hanged is a curse of God. You shall not defile the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you as a heritage (Deut 21:23). The legitimacy of this provision is confirmed by Flavius (Bell IV 5, 2). The Romans were thus compelled to release the body, respecting Judean law, and generally granted the requests of the Jewish relatives of the condemned. Nota bene: Israelite law did not know the punishment of crucifixion. The death penalty was applied to idolaters and blasphemers by stoning and then hanging the body on a stake (not a capital punishment, but an additional punishment after death, which was intended to stigmatise the condemned person as cursed by God). According to Jewish and Roman law, executions were carried out outside the residential area (outside the ‘camp’), and the bodies of the condemned were usually buried in a mass grave far outside the city, because a wicked man is not buried next to a righteous man (Sanhedrin 47). In Jerusalem, these tombs were probably located in the Cedron Valley, where the bodies of despised people and criminals were buried. Burial in a family tomb, on the other hand, was excluded for fear of desecrating the godly ancestors resting there. Only after a year could the bones be collected and buried in the family tomb. Burning of corpses was not generally practised by the Israelites. Only the remains of the greatest criminals were cremated, and even after death they were to be punished in this way (Josh 7:25; Lev 20:14).

In Israel, a tomb was a chamber carved into soft rock; natural caves (hypogea) were also used for this purpose. Less frequently, a pit was dug or widened. In the 1st century, tombs in the ground covered by a horizontal slab were known, but this was not a widespread custom. A narrow corridor led to the tomb, which was located in one of the walls, while the other walls had benches carved into the rock on which the corpse was laid.

The tomb had niches where the remains of the body were deposited after some time in ossuaries, thus making room for further burials. An example of a hypogeum with numerous kokim graves is the one we find today in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in the chapel of the Jacobite Syrians. It is testimony to the fact that tombs were wrought in the rock in the 1st century. The low entrance to the burial chamber was usually closed with a stone or stone door. During the Greco-Roman period, the tombs were transformed into an elaborate system of rooms (a courtyard was created from which a series of burial chambers were detached). Such rooms were built by the wealthy. The most popular were tombs containing a vestibule and a chamber proper. At the end of the 1st century BC, arched vaults appeared in the burial chambers and the spaces under the arches began to play the role of burial niches (arcosolia). Sometimes sarcophagi were placed there. Burial sites took various forms, and these included niches, benches, sarcophagi and ossuaries (urns). Cemeteries were not widespread among the Jews. Typically, private tombs were built to provide a dignified burial. The corpses of the extremely poor, like those of foreigners, were buried in official cemeteries. Archaeological investigations attest to the existence of mass graves far outside the cities, in which, according to tradition, the bodies of convicts were buried. They had to be at least 50 cubits (approx. 25 m) away from human habitation. In contrast, family members were often buried even within the confines of a house.


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Krzysztof Pilarczyk

Staff member at the Institute of Religious Studies of the Jagiellonian University, head of the Center of the History of Christian-Jewish Relations, associate at the Polish Syndonological Centre in Krakow. His interests focus on the history of Judaism, biblical and apocryphal literature, the origins of Christianity, interreligious dialogue, sindonology, Jewish book culture and religious tourism (Middle East). He publishes his scholarly activity on his website. Author of more than 300 scientific publications.

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