Burial was a matter of great importance in the Old Testament. The story of Abraham's negotiation to purchase a cave for Sarah's burial is told in detail (Gen. 23). Graves were sometimes marked with pillars ( Gen 35:20 ; 2 Kings 23:17 ), and places where famous Old Testament figures were buried were known for generations to come ( Acts 2:29 ) and were even adorned by them ( Matt 23:29 ). The Old Testament writers routinely describe the burials of the major characters in the narrative (for a number of the judges little is recorded about them except where they were buried cf. Judges 10:1-2 Judges 10:3-5 ; Judges 12:8-10 Judges 12:11-12 Judges 12:13-15 ); indeed, that the site of Moses' grave is unknown is so unusual as to require special comment ( Deu 34:6 ). On the other hand, not receiving a proper burial was a matter of great shame ( Isa 14:18-20 ; Jer 16:4 ).
The strong emphasis in the Old Testament on burial serves to bind the dead with their ancestors, and, hence, the Jews together as a people. Typical burial expressions include "he was gathered to his people" ( Gen 35:29 ; 49:33 ) and "he rested with his fathers" ( 1 Kings 2:10 ; 11:43 ). Indeed, families were buried together ( Gen 49:29-33 ), even if it meant traveling a great distance to do so ( Gen 50:12-13 ). That burial resulted in the corruption of the body was understood ( Gen 3:19 ; Job 17:13-16 ; Psalm 16:10 ; Acts 13:36 ), but it was precisely against that common recognition of the fate of the dead that the hope of resurrection was born ( Isa 26:19 ; Dan 12:2 ).
The Jewish practice of burying the dead is carried forward into the New Testament period. John the Baptist's disciples buried his body ( Matt 14:12 ), and Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus ( Matt 27:57-60 ; Mark 15:42-46 ; Luke 23:50-53 ; John 19:38-42 ; [accompanied by Nicodemus] ). With the money paid to Judas the chief priests purchased a field to use as a burial place for foreigners ( Matt 27:5-7 ). The earliest Christians, being Jews, continued the practice, burying Ananias and Sapphira ( Acts 5:6-10 ) and Stephen ( Acts 8:2 ).
Jesus' burial is especially important, of course, because it is followed by his resurrection. In addition to all four Gospel writers recording the tomb being found empty ( Matt 28:1-7 ; Mark 16:1-7 ; Luke 24:1-12 ; John 20:1-12 ), Matthew notes the care to which the chief priests and the Pharisees went to make Jesus' tomb secure ( 27:6-66 ) and the subsequent rumor they spread when their efforts failed ( 28:11-15 ). Paul, in his recitation of the resurrection tradition that he had passed on to the Corinthians, notes that Christ "was buried" ( 1 Co 15:4 ). The early Christians, therefore, came to understand Jesus' burial as a necessary (but temporary!) prelude to his resurrection.
Paul presses the connection between burial and resurrection one step further by applying it to baptism. In both Romans ( 6:4 ) and Colossians ( 2:12 ) he presents baptism as a symbol of being buried with Christ. Through faith Christians are then raised with Christ to live a new life. Thus, burial comes to be connected not just with the hope of a future resurrection secured by the resurrection of Jesus ( 1 Cor 15:20-23 ; 1 Thess 4:14 ), but also with the reality of new life in Christ in the present.
The Bible contains other metaphorical uses of burial terminology. The corruption of the body in the grave provides a natural link to corrupt speech ( Psalm 5:9 ; Rom 3:13 ) and to people who are corrupt within ( Matt 23:27 ). Similarly, Jesus uses Isaiah's mention of the worm that does not die in its assault on a corpse as a picture of hell ( Mark 9:48 ). Jesus also speaks of burying the dead as a spiritual antithesis to following him ( Matt 8:21-22 ; Luke 9:59-60 ).
Joseph L. Trafton
See also Baptize, Baptism
Bibliography. R. Hachili, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:785-94; S. Safrai, The Jewish People in the First Century, 2:773-87.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Burial'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".