Saturday, July 11, 2015

Beit She'arim and the Jewish Burial Practices at the time of Yeshua

Israel’s Beit She’arim National Park is the site of a small Jewish town in the lower Galilee dating from the second temple period. After the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 C.E., the Sanhedrin, the Jewish authoritative body, moved from Jerusalem wandering around the Galilee region eventually settling in Beit She’arim. Beit She’arim became the center of Jewish learning in the land up through the early part of the fourth century. It also became the favored burial place; Jerusalem was closed to the Jewish people, so this site, favored by the rabbinic leaders of the time, drew the people for both learning and as the ultimate resting place.

Ancient synagogue at Beit She'arim
The caves, dating back to the second temple period, reflect the changing Jewish habits and customs. As the centuries passed, the uniquely Jewish embellishments became mixed with Roman and Hellenistic symbols with the greatest mix of symbols in the caves of the Rabbis. Given the history and practice of the Jewish people to separate themselves from the gentile population, it raises an interesting question: Does this practice represent the ever-present danger of assimilating into the broader culture or does it show the ability to glean nuggets from other cultures without losing one’s own identity? This is an interesting question to ponder!

Large burial chamber with Jewish and pagan symbols
What intrigued me most about the tombs in Beit She’arim was that each cave held places for many bodies to be interred. The simplest burial cave had shelves cut out of the wall with recessed places to place the body. Bodies could be placed side by side with only a small raised section between each body.

Side by side burial shelves

Most caves had small rectangular doors sealed by one or more stone doors pivoting on hinges. The larger caves had larger openings, but again the openings were shaped into a traditional door shape with larger hinged stone doors. The stone doors were embellished with decorations and symbols sometimes including information about who was interred in the cave. One cave was designated as that of the Itzak Zaira son of Shimon. Most caves had several different chambers of various sizes. Some chambers held burial shelves; others held large stone coffins intricately carved and inscribed with the name of the person interred within. One cave with three large chambers was designated as the cave of Rabbe Yehuda Hanassi, one of the leading Rabbis of the time.

The stone coffins were a relatively new custom picked up from the Romans. The bodies would have been anointed with burial spices, wrapped in linen cloth, and placed either on the burial shelf or in the stone coffin. The bodies placed on the burial shelf would decay quickly. And when the flesh had fully decayed, leaving only the bones, the bones would be placed in a stone ossuary in another part of the tomb. The shelf would, then, be available for another body. A cave used for multi generations of the same family would contain many such ossuaries.

Why did I bother to relate all this? For the simple reason to illustrate the burial practices that would have been in place at the time of Yeshua’s death, burial, and resurrection. We read that Yeshua was laid in the tomb of a man named Joseph of Arimethea.

Luke 23:50-54 NKJV 50 Now behold, there was a man named Joseph, a council member, a good and just man. 51 He had not consented to their decision and deed. He was from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who himself was also waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock, where no one had ever lain before. 54 That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near.

There are several pertinent facts in this short passage. First, Joseph was not from Jerusalem. Scholars differ on where they believe Arimathea was located placing it as far away as Dan in the North to within 10 miles of Jerusalem. But the point is that even though Joseph was not from Jerusalem, he wanted to be buried near Jerusalem. The sages believe that the resurrection of the dead would begin with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then, after the patriarchs, the resurrection of the dead would begin at Jerusalem. To this day, burial plots near Jerusalem are coveted and expensive to aquire. A cemetery on the Mount of Olives just east of Jerusalem is a popular site even today. Instead of burial caves, the graves are dug in the ground very much as you would see in any typical western cemetery.

Jewish cemetery on the Mt. of Olives
So, Joseph of Arimathea had purchased a rocky area and had a tomb hewn from the its face. We tend to think that the tomb would be large enough for just one body, but the tomb may have been fairly large. If Joseph had a family, he would want it large enough to provide burial space for the whole family. It might even have had several chambers or at least room for the construction of several chambers! It did have had a fairly small doorway, like those found at Beit She’Arim, instead of the huge cave-like opening usually thought of when picturing Yeshua’s tomb. When Peter and John went to the tomb the third morning after Yeshua’s death, they had to stoop to look into the tomb.

John 20:4-5 NKJV 4 So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. 5 And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the tomb was small; many of the tombs in Beit She’arim had small doors but room for many bodies, and even more than one chamber.
Showing both small and large stone doors of burial chambers

Finally, this tomb had never been used! No dead body had ever been placed on the burial shelf which Yeshua’s body occupied for three days. No ossuaries containing the bones from previous occupant! This is an important point. The ground where he lay, the chamber where he was interred had never been unclean because of the presence of a dead body. No body except Yeshua’s had ever been placed in that burial cave. Also, it was so new that apparently the stone door that would seal the cave and allow it to be opened for further use had not yet been prepared. Joseph had to roll a large stone in front of the opening. Instead of having an ornate door intricately carved and attached with hinges, a simple stone was rolled across the opening. This stone may have been put there, near the opening, in preparation to be carved into the stone door which would have had hinges for opening.

But instead this stone was not yet hewn and had no ornamentation. Stone that had any connection with God was to be unhewn stone, from the stone used to build an altar to the stone that Daniel describes as crushing the kingdoms of the earth.

Daniel 2:32-34 NKJV 32 "This image's head was of fine gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 "its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 "You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces.

Even in death, Yeshua had a special tomb prepared for the three days of His death. The tomb was new; no body but Yeshua’s was put into it. I wonder if Joseph of Arimathea ever did use that tomb for himself or his family. The tomb was sealed with an unhewn stone.

Yeshua’s tomb was not the only one that was left empty. Through an interesting play on the name “Joseph,” we find another empty tomb. Yeshua’s burial tomb belonged to a man named Joseph, and Yeshua’s earthly father was named Joseph. At the first Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread during the Exodus, the children of Israel took Joseph son of Jacob’s, bones with them when they left Egypt.

Exodus 13:19 NKJV 19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had placed the children of Israel under solemn oath, saying, "God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here with you."

This left Joseph’s tomb in Egypt empty foreshadowing Yeshua’s resurrection.

Shalom and be blessed
Dan and Brenda Cathcart

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