The Life of Jesus

by Ernest Renan

The Life of Jesus > Chapter XXVI

Jesus in the tomb
IT was about three o'clock in the afternoon, according to our manner of reckoning, when Jesus expired. A Jewish law forbade a corpse suspended on the cross to be left beyond the evening of the day of the execution. It is not probable that in the executions performed by the Romans this rule was observed; but as the next day was the Sabbath, and a Sabbath of peculiar solemnity, the Jews expressed to the Roman authorities their desire that this holy day should not be profaned by such a spectacle. Their request was granted; orders were given to hasten the death of the three condemned ones, and to remove them from the cross. The soldiers executed this order by applying to the two thieves a second punishment much more speedy than that of the cross, the Crurifragium, or breaking of the legs, the usual punishment of slaves and of prisoners of war. As to Jesus, they found him dead, and did not think it necessary to break his legs. But one of them, to remove all doubt as to the real death of the third victim, and to complete it, if any breath remained in him, pierced his side with a spear. They thought they saw water and blood flow, which was regarded as a sign of the cessation of life.

John, who professes to have seen it, insists strongly on this circumstance. It is evident, in fact, that doubts arose as to the reality of the death of Jesus. A few hours of suspension on the cross appeared, to persons accustomed to see crucifixions, entirely insufficient to lead to such a result. They cited many instances of persons crucified who, removed in time, had been brought to life again by powerful remedies. Origen afterwards thought it needful to invoke miracle in order to explain so sudden an end. The same astonishment is found in the narrative of Mark. To speak truly, the best guarantee that the historian possesses upon a point of this nature is the suspicious hatred of the enemies of Jesus. It is doubtful whether the Jews were at that time preoccupied with the fear that Jesus might pass for resuscitated: but, in any case, they must have made sure that he was really dead. Whatever, at certain periods, may have been the neglect of the ancients in all that belonged to legal proof and the strict conduct of affairs, we cannot but believe that those interested here had taken some precautions in this respect.

According to the Roman custom, the corpse of Jesus ought to have remained suspended in order to become the prey of birds. According to the Jewish law, it would have been removed in the evening, and deposited in the place of infamy set apart for the burial of those who were executed. If Jesus had had for disciples only his poor Galileans, timid and without influence, the latter course would have been adopted. But we have seen that, in spite of his small success at Jerusalem, Jesus had gained the sympathy of some important persons who expected the kingdom of God, and who, without confessing themselves his disciples, were strongly attached to him. One of these persons, Joseph, of the small town of Arimathea (Ha-ramathaim), [Probably identical with the ancient Rama of Samuel, in the tribe of Ephraim.] went in the evening to ask the body from the procurator. Joseph was a rich and honorable man, a member of the Sanhedrim. The Roman law at this period commanded, moreover, that the body of the person executed should be delivered to those who claimed it. Pilate, who was ignorant of the circumstance of the crurifragium, was astonished that Jesus was so soon dead, and summoned the centurion who had superintended the execution, in order to know how this was. Pilate, after having received the assurances of the centurion, granted to Joseph the object of his request. The body probably had already been removed from the cross. They delivered it to Joseph, that he might do with it as he pleased.

Another secret friend, Nicodemus, whom we have already seen employing his influence more than once in favor of Jesus, came forward at this moment. He arrived bearing an ample provision of the materials necessary for embalming. Joseph and Nicodemus interred Jesus according to the Jewish custom -- that is to say, they wrapped him in a sheet with myrrh and aloes. The Galilean women were present, and no doubt accompanied the scene with piercing cries and tears.

It was late, and all this was done in great haste. The place had not yet been chosen where the body would be finally deposited, The carrying of the body, moreover, might have been delayed to a late hour, and have involved a violation of the Sabbath -- now the disciples still conscientiously observed the prescriptions of the Jewish law. A temporary interment was determined upon. There was at hand, in the garden, a tomb recently dug out in the rock, which had never been used. It belonged, probably, to one of the believers. The funeral caves, when they were destined for a single body, were composed of a small room, at the bottom of which the place for the body was marked by a trough or couch let into the wall, and surmounted by an arch. As these caves were dug out of the sides of sloping rocks, they were entered by the floor; the door was shut by a stone very difficult to move. Jesus was deposited in the cave, and the stone was rolled to the door, as it was intended to return in order to give him a more complete burial. But the next day being a solemn Sabbath, the labor was postponed till the day following.

The women retired after having carefully noticed how the body was laid. They employed the hours of the evening which remained to them in making new preparations for the embalming. On the Saturday all rested.

On the Sunday morning the women, Mary Magdalene the first, came very early to the tomb. The stone was displaced from the opening, and the body was no longer in the place where they had laid it. At the same time the strangest rumors were spread in the Christian community. The cry, "He is risen!" quickly spread among the disciples. Love caused it to find ready credence everywhere. What had taken place? In treating of the history of the Apostles we shall have to examine this point, and to make inquiry into the origin of the legends relative to the resurrection. For the historian, the life of Jesus finishes with his last sigh. But such was the impression he had left in the heart of his disciples and of a few devoted women that during some weeks more it was as if he were living and consoling them. Had his body been taken away, or did enthusiasm, always credulous, create afterwards the group of narratives by which it was sought to establish faith in the resurrection? In the absence of opposing documents, this can never be ascertained. Let us say, however, that the strong imagination of Mary Magdalene played an important part in this circumstance. Divine power of love! Sacred moments in which the passion of one possessed gave to the world a resuscitated God!

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