Below is a my exegesis/commentary on Jesus' Burial scene in John 19:38-42. This is the scripture chosen for Year A from BCP for Good Friday.
Background on Good Friday
Good Friday exists in the Triduum of the Paschal Season. St. Augustine calls the Triduum, beginning Thursday evening (Maunday) and ending Easter evening, “the three most sacred days.” Moreover, Good Friday was early on a commemoration and veneration of the Cross as noted in Egeria, Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose and Augustine. In fact, Holy Week may be the one true apostolic observance because of its orientation around the Jewish dating and the lunar calendar. Good Friday also plays prominently in the early baptism ritual where catechumens were often prepared for the ritual and brought into the prayers of the people. Also, traditionally this has been a time where, in the prayers of the people, there has been a concentrated time of prayer for the Emperor. As part of the season of Lent, and definitely in Holy Week, weddings have been historically forbidden. Finally in the observance aspects, since Friday was already practiced as a stationary fast, Good Friday took on a greater level of fasting. There is no consensus in the early church about how long, some fasting all week, some fasting 40 hours (the night before and all day), etc. One thing is for sure - the people fasted.
As we enumerate the observances, practices, and traditions we fail to ask the central question – what makes Good Friday good? The traditional liturgical practices all want to point towards Easter. The fasting, the delayed baptisms, the mourning, the praying all convey a sense of being unfulfilled. I think the hymns are a place where the goodness of this Friday is brought to light. St. Cosmos the Melodist (c. 760) writes/sings:
“You, Jesus Christ, were consubstantial
With this our perishable clay
And, by assuming earthly nature,Exalted it to heavenly day.
Amidst Caesar’s subjects Thou, at his decreeingObeyed and was enrolled: our mortal raceTo sin and Satan slave, from bondage freeingOur poverty in all points did embraceAnd by that Union did combineThe earthly with the All-Divine”
Charles Wesley can follow in the lines of Gregory of Nazianzus and Martin Luther in worshiping God on the cross when he writes:
“GOD of unexampled grace, Redeemer of mankind
Matter of eternal praise. We in thy passion find…Endless scenes of wonder rise,From that mysterious tree,
Crucified before our eyes,Where we our Maker see:
Jesus, Lord, what hast thou done?Publish we the death divine,
Stop, and gaze, and fall, and own,Was never love like thine
Never love nor sorrow was,Like that my Savior showed:
See him stretched on yonder cross,And crushed beneath our load!
Now discern the Deity,Now his heavenly birth declare!
Faith cries out, ' 'Tis He, 'tis He,My God, that suffers there!'”
The shameful rejection of the cross serves as the victory of God. This is the locus of our salvation. This is greatest revelation of God’s love. This is the only example for our lives of discipleship.
Book of Common Prayer, Year A, Good Friday - Gospel: John 19:38-42
Gospel: John 19:38-42 - Exegetical Observations
1. Joseph of Arimathea – this tradition is found in all the gospel accounts. In Matthew and John he is a secret “disciple of Jesus.” In Luke and Mark he is part of “the council” and was “looking for the Kingdom of God” What council is he apart of? Why, in John, is he not mentioned to be apart of the council? Is this to distance him from the Jews? Probably not sense Nicodemus shows up, but his secret discipleship is because of the mean old Jews. The Greek word for “Arimathea” also brings up occurrences from 1 Samuel 1 as the birthplace of Samuel (vv. 1, 19). Any figural connections?
2. Pilate – Pilate gets a more sympathetic representation in John. All of chapter 18 and some of chapter 19 portray this leader as trying to get Jesus off the hook, dialoguing about truth, and, as in this verse, being kind in the midst of tragedy (brought on by the Jewish crowd in this Gospel).
3. Soma – this seems to be connected, usually, with dead bodies of humans and living or dead with animals. We have a reference in chapter 2 with Jesus calling his soma the temple. I wonder, in the context of all this “custom,” spices, linens, etc, if we are getting a picture of priests working at the temple? Is there other priestly language? Could this be the Samuel/Joseph of Arimathea reference? (Probably too far, but worth checking out). In John 20:12, we, with the woman, see two angels sitting where Jesus’ head and feet were before the resurrection. Is Jesus’ body the cherubic throne of the Holy of Holies? Is it his dead body, or in 20:12, his risen body? Is it his absent body? Chapter 2 and 20:12 seem to form an inclusio around soma if my haunch is at all correct.
- Also interesting – in verses 38 and 40 – Jesus’ body is mentioned 3 times. But in 42, it is not his “body” that is laid but simply Jesus.
4. “Nicodemus, who had first come to him by night…” – it must be day still. This is supported by 19:31 where the Jews ask for the killing process to be sped up so that the bodies wouldn’t be there when Sabbath began and the burial wouldn’t be work. Moreover, in themes of light and dark, especially juxtaposed to Joseph’s secret discipleship, Nicodemus must be coming into the light both in believing in Jesus and public declaration of his faith.
5. Canonically speaking – could we call “myrhh” an inclusio for the Gospel sense it only appears here and the beginning of Matthew. It would seem to connect Jesus’ incarnation and death, which both illumine the other in powerful ways.
- Bringing together the incarnation and death of Jesus is not uncommon in theology or hymns. Wesley writes, “He left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace/ Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race/ ‘Tis mercy all, immense and free; For, O my God, it found out me!”
6. Litra(n) – occurs twice in John, and nowhere else in the NT, is found here for the hundred/seventy-five “pounds” of aloe-myrrh mixture. In John 12, the other occurrence, Mary takes the “pound” of expensive perfume and anoints the feet of Jesus, wiping it with her hair. The setting in John 12, Lazarus’ death and resuscitation, this anointing, Judas (the betrayer), Jesus predicting his own death, and, “the next day” Palm Sunday – the beginning of Holy Week. Clearly Jesus death and burial preparation is in view for both occurrences.
7. Why is there so much spice and mixture mentioned and brought? Whether it is 75 pounds (CEB, NASB) or about 100 pounds (NRSV) that seems like a lot. Is that usual or is this for Jesus the King (John’s Jesus - see note on myrrh and Magi above)?
8. “Bound” – Jesus’ body is bound here. We see a couple occurrences, the first being Lazarus’ bound body and Jesus’ command to unbind him (Jn 11). In John, we also see Jesus being bound in ch. 18. Jesus was also sent bound to Caiaphas the high priest. I wonder if “bound” in the death sense (here and ch. 11) for this author is being bound (in the captive sense) for death. Is Jesus being bound/captive for Death (personified)? I know it is custom to bind the dead, but I can’t seem to shake the notion that Jesus is defeating death by bringing the antidote – eternal life. Death and perishing are the enemies of God in this Gospel.
9. “Custom”/ethos – this seems like it would be the word that would tie my priest/temple theory together in regards to Jesus’ body. The first use of ethos in the NT is connected to “priesthood” in Luke 1:9. Unfortunately John doesn’t have any other uses of the term. In Acts it becomes a key term “ethos of Moses” as Paul gets accused of violating these.
10.Kepos – “Garden” (more like "orchard") seems to be used here with some strategy. First, I would want to check to see if the same word is used in the LXX for Adam and Eve’s garden in Gen. 2. At first glance it would seem that this isn’t the case. Chapter 2 uses “paradise” and it is translated garden – or so it seems. Second, I would like to follow the word in John. In this account, the disciples enter a garden at the beginning of 18 (the first occurrence). This is where Judas betrays Jesus. Peter’s denial of Jesus is connected to the valley when a family member of the ear-cut victim recognizes Peter from the valley the night before (second occurrence). And now (third and last occurrence – unless you count 20:15) Jesus is placed in a garden. In a very figural reading, I wonder if this garden serves as a reversal of Adam and Eve. Jesus enters the garden, Judas betrays and Peter denies (the sins) and Jesus’ dead body is laid here. Later, the resurrected Jesus will be confused for the gardener (20:15 – kepouros). If the Genesis garden is being recalled, and I am critical that it is, it could be a theological interpretative move for a reversal of Adamic curse. But more than reversal, Jesus is the gardener of new creation and this garden serves as the seed-bed where the grain of wheat goes to die so that it can rise again and bear much fruit (John 12 – “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”).
11. “Tomb” – of course we see the connection with Lazarus’ miracle, complete with a stone on top of it. Chapter 20 has 7 occurrences alone as the tomb seems to be a central point in the narrative, mostly to do with its emptiness. Jesus is in the tomb for precisely one verse (19:42). John’s Jesus is smooth like that.
- I wonder about the “newness” of the tomb. I would like for it to theologically signify new creation, but I doubt that. It seems more connected to the validity of Jesus’ resurrection. There are no other remnants of dead bodies, there was one and it is now missing. Also, the high Christology of Jesus and reverence therein probably makes this tomb unique for Jesus. Luke and Mark agree again and do not mention “new” in reference to the tomb. Matthew, again, agrees with John on the newness.
12. “They laid Jesus there” – tithemi is a pretty common word, but in John it does seem to occur in relatively significant passages. John 13 and 15 we have the connection of “laying down” of lives. First Peter refuses to hear of Jesus’ departure and swears fidelity through his willingness to die for Jesus. Second, Jesus equates love and “laying down” a life for friends. But the place where I see the most resonance is in John 10 where Jesus repeatedly (four times) says that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and of his own accord. More important the Shepherd lays it down so that he can take it up again. Jesus being laid here, in this tomb, seems to be parsed through the good shepherd sermon in John 10. We may be seeing Jesus prepared, spiced, bound, and laid in a fresh tomb behind a huge rock, but it is all under Jesus’ control – he is laying down his life and he will, in all hope, raise it up again. Even in the most hopeless of moments, Jesus’ burial, in John’s Gospel at least, there seems to be some hope.
13. No mention of “stone” until chapter 20 – and only once (with the exception of Lazarus’ stone). Its only reference –it’s “taken” away.
Gospel: John 19:38-42 - Theological Observations
1. Discipleship with Joseph of Arimathea (JoA) and Nicodemus – these folks, previously connected with the opposition, are no longer acting as foes of Jesus. Though a lot of ink has been spilled over whether or not these two were true disciples, it is compelling to me that they publicly associated themselves with Jesus in his death. It is not coincidental that the exalted Jesus drew people to himself. And so, our discipleship journeys in Lent begin with hesitation, with equal distrust, with the recognition that there is something to this Jesus character. But in Good Friday, the exalted Jesus draws us to himself in a way where we honor in a similarly royal way. Nic and JoA remind us of Mary in ch. 12 who anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. Our worship and following of this exalted one requires much from us. The woman offered 300 denarii worth of nard. These men offered fresh tombs, fresh linens, and 60-100 pounds of spices. More importantly, each of these laid aside pride, dignity, reputation, and/or concern for safety to be with Jesus.
2. Jesus' body is focused on so much in this text. 3 times it is mentioned and there are only 5 occurrences in John. Jesus' body is obviously what our attention is being brought to. It is significant that it is only in the tomb for one verse because John’s Jesus is divine, and the grave only holds him for a short time. Holy Saturday isn’t even alluded to. Here Jesus is both dead and yet still reverenced and focused on. There is something about the body of Christ that I think needs to be fleshed out by larger contexts. If John is the larger context, there could be a temple metaphor here. Aramithea could be a deep reference to Samuel. At the very least, chapter 2 and 20 outline Jesus’ body as the temple, the first being a direct correlation and the second potentially being the cherubic throne. Certainly Hebrews will flesh it out from a lectionary approach, but that is for my intertext. With Good Friday as the theme, we can feel the tension expressed in this text. Jesus is dead. Here is his body. Yet, it was the exalted Christ and his body that brought about these disciples (JoA and Nic). He is being reverenced by fresh tombs and extravagant amount of spices. Jesus’ fresh tomb lends itself to Jesus’ body being unlike any other dead body. Though he bleeds and waters is brought forth, this is a unique body (Origen). His death and body are meaningful, they are the stuff of goodness for Good Friday.
3. Nicodemus comes in the daylight… Good Friday, as the locus of salvation is the grand rising of the sun. It is the revelation of God who is light. Especially in John’s gospel where Jesus continually pointed to the his own crucifixion as his exaltation that would draw people to him (John 3 - with Nicodemus). Theologically, the cross illumines the will and way of God. In my own theme, “from the wilderness to the cross” we focus on Jesus as unique author and bringer of life and kingdom, but also as the exemplar for how to live faithfully in the new paradigm. The goodness of Good Friday in the theologically significant notion of Nicodemus coming in the Light is that we too can now walk in the Light as Jesus was in the light (1 John). We come to him significantly in the daylight and to hell with our reputation and safety as our foes now becomes empire and religious fanaticism.
4. The Garden is a significant theme in these later chapters of John. Ch. 18 initiates the reference where Jesus comes to pray. Judas’ betrayal takes place here. Peter’s denial is connected to garden as well (“last night in the Garden”). Yet Jesus is placed in this garden/orchard as his burial place and will even be mistaken for a gardener in the next chapter. It seems that in our time people have tried to make much of this, equating Garden with Eden and Jesus with New Adam. Certainly this would be a Pauline move. Cyril of Jerusalem typifies these two places separately. From the first, for him, comes sin and the second comes salvation. He does see trees as a unifying theme, but nothing much more. Later he will draw on John’s Jesus speaking of being the vine and this is where the vine is planted. If we are going to go this route, I would prefer a John 12 reference since there is already textual evidence to do so (litran). In this chapter Jesus speaks of a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying - he says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Even the “bears” (phero) is the same word used of Nicodemus’ “bringing” the spice mixture – Jesus’ death brings about much fruit (i.e. Nicodemus’ transformation). The orchard-garden is the place where the grain of wheat “falls into the earth” – where it dies. Again, Jesus assures us that this is good in the grand scheme, for it will produce an abundance of fruit. The goodness is two fold in John 12 – Jesus death produces much fruit and it is the life to which he calls all his disciples.
5. Laying down and taking up (tithemi) – Our section ends with Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb. It is ominous and final, at least at first glance. Jesus is dead. His body is placed in the tomb. Done. Jesus’ being ‘laid’ down here is mentioned twice in our section (41 & 42). Chapter 13 and 15 also have connections with laying down of life, the first being Peter’s and the second Jesus’ promise. John 10 has a 4-peat rapid-fire occurrence of Jesus laying down his life as the good shepherd. In all of this there is hope that it is not final. Even in our passage, the very historical reality that the women were coming back to do more work on the body after the Sabbath lends to the volatility of the situation. When placed in the larger Johannine text, this laying down of Jesus always is preliminary to him taking it back up. This is not final – though it is thorough and real. Jesus really dies, but he promised to rise. Even in our Good Friday/Lenten context, we have an Easter lens. We know the story, it is our hope and future. It cannot be understated that Jesus is dead, and this is for our glory. And we too must go through the pain of death both figurally and literally. But what Jesus lays down he will raise up. The death of Christ is necessary for our salvation, his resurrection for our glorification. Likewise, we must die to our lives. This is indescribably hard. But our hope is that Jesus will raise us up, first to “eternal life” and then resurrection in the last day. This is the whole paradigm that discipleship is predicated on. It is hard, it will kill us, but we will live holier and happier.
Green, J. B. “Burial of Jesus” in Dictionary of Jesus and Gospels
- Serves as transitional material, confirming the death of Jesus and preparing the reader for the empty tomb (88).
- Funerary Customs in Antiquity – Roman
- Burial was generally the norm with few exceptions, one of which was crucifixion. Often criminals were left on crosses to be eaten by birds as further deterrence for future lawbreakers. There is precedence for giving families the bodies on high festivals for burial (Philo, 89).
- Funerary Customs in Antiquity –Jewish
- Jews buried their executed criminals, but often without remembrance or allowing it to take place in family tombs
- There is strong evidence of a double burial. Buried once in a tomb and then, after 12 months of decomp, bones gathered and buried in family ossuary.
- Joseph of A
- Some traditions see this man as an enemy (see Acts 13:29), but Green sees Jesus’ death as the point of public declaration of faith for JoA and Nic.
- What sort of Burial?
- Mark’s account is simple. Matthew adds clean linens and new tomb. John outdistances Matthew (and Luke) with the enormous amount of sweet smelling spices and aloe brought by Nic. This, coupled with the newness of the tomb, make Jesus’ burial a royal on.
Joseph of A and Nicodemus
- John alone adds “a secret one for fear of the Jews.” JoA asked something out of the ordinary for both Jews and Romans in a way that “dissociated” himself with his Sanhedrin and showed sympathy for the Jews. It is not surprising that John’s Pilate gave in to the request he he, himself, pleaded for Jesus’ innocence (Beasley, 358)
- Nicodemus is a new addition with John. He must have gathered the spices and JoA the grave clothes. Quoting Hoskyns, “the two timorous believers are publicly and courageously drawn to the Christ after his exaltation upon the cross” (Beasley, 359).
- “Acknowledging Christ, when even his chosen disciples forsook him. In that extremity Joseph was no longer afraid, Nicodemus no longer ashamed” (Wesley).
Mixture of Myrrh/Spices/Aloes
- The weight is extravagant, but not uncommon for royalty. Nicodemus’ wealth is translated into reverence of King Jesus in the amount of spice brought for Jesus. Rabbi Gamaliel had 80 pounds burned by a follower, reported to have equated him to royalty (Beasley, 359).
- “a community that handles his crucified body in a royal way” (Maloney, 511).
- Nothing from Wesley or Beasley with the exception that Wesley wants to clarify that the cross wasn’t actually in the garden as the text is ambiguous.
- Though Jesus enters into the Garden with sinners and betrayers, “now he is surrounded by his new-found friends, a community that handles his crucified body in a royal way” (Maloney, 511).
- Paradise is where sin comes from, this garden is the source of our salvation. They are different and juxtaposed. But the latter redeems the former for Christ, through his death, is with the robber that day in paradise… this is where the vine of abiding is planted for our healing and growth (Cyril of Jerusalem).
Beasley-Murray, G. R. (1987). World biblical commentary: Orge R. Beasley-Murray. Waco: Word Books.
Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
Green, J. B. “Burial of Jesus” in Dictionary of Jesus and Gospels.
Moloney, F. J., & Harrington, D. J. (1998). The Gospel of John. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press.
Elowsky, J. C. (2007). John 11-21. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press.
Wesley’s Notes on the Bible.
Witherington, B. (1995). John's wisdom: A commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press.
*(For this assignment we were encouraged to use varied and wide-ranging sources)