We continue our reading notes on Matthew’s Passion narrative, in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Today we read of the burial of Jesus.
Matt 27:55-6155 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. 57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
This passage forms a kind of bridge between the passion narrative and the resurrection accounts of chapter 28, drawing our attention at the close of the passion narrative to the women, the guards, the tomb and the words of Jesus foretelling his resurrection – all key elements in preparing us for chapter 28.
In 14:12 it was the disciples of John the Baptist who took his body and buried it, in a last act of courage and devotion; in the case of Jesus’ body, the twelve lack the courage and it falls to Joseph of Arimathea to provide the tomb and some women disciples to watch his burial.
In contrast to the male disciples who had fled, fearing for their lives, Matthew highlights the women who followed all the way to the cross. “Following” is discipleship language in Matthew’s Gospel, and we are to understand these women as disciples, though not members of the twelve. Their provision for Jesus’ needs is remembered here, and placed in the context of their continuing loyalty when Jesus is crucified.
Women as witnesses is unusual as they were considered unreliable. Josephus famously explained that they couldn’t testify in a court, because they were too “giddy and impetuous.” This points to the authenticity of the resurrection accounts, as women-as-first-witnesses isn’t something people would have made up!
While the Romans generally preferred to leave the bodies of condemned criminals hanging on the cross to decompose, Jewish custom required that even criminals receive burial, because of the uncleanness of a corpse. The Romans in Judea deferred to this local custom.
Normally, Jewish people buried condemned criminals in a common grave reserved for that purpose. In going to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body and burying it in his own tomb, Joseph was going against that custom and publicly identifying himself as a friend or patron of Jesus, an act that would have involved considerable risk.
Note the absence of his family; Jesus had shamed his family in life and in the manner of his death, so they did not honour him by fulfilling their burial responsibilities.
Matt 27:62-6662 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
This paragraph is included only in Matthew, presumably with an apologetic purpose (it’s paralleled in the next chapter, when the guards return to explain what they had seen 28:13-15).
As in the earlier events of the passion narrative, Pilate acts at the behest of the Jewish religious leaders who are aware of Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection and keen to prevent a fake “resurrection” being manufactured by his disciples.
Three days was significant, as in Jewish belief it was the length of time a spirit would remain with the body before departing.
To think about
While Jesus’ closest associates have abandoned him, the women remain. This is possibly because men are less likely to persecute those whom the culture deems “insignificant.” But we’re left with the contrast between the women as faithful disciples (along with the risk-taking Joseph of Arimathea) and the Twelve. This probably spoke to the situation of Matthew’s first readers under threat of persecution from the synagogue leaders. How does this encourage you to remain faithful in being identified with Jesus, despite the cost?