Not Like a Mummy? A Frequent Question

A reader writes:

Why doesn’t anyone ever mention that the shroud itself isn’t consistent with burial procedures in the time of Christ and that of the locality. It also doesn’t match the description in the bible stating that the head wrapping was thrown aside either. In the time of Christ, wasn’t the body wrapped mummy style, separate from that of the head,with the body wrappings going round and round with spices and so forth mixed in? According to the bible, the women were returning to Christs tomb with the spices that were missed in the wrapping which was done hurriedly so that he could be entombed before the Sabbath, the next day. They returned on Sunday to fiinish and found the tomb empty, "He saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, and the face cloth, which had been around Jesus’ head, not lying with the strips of linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself. "

imageFirst of all, as far as we know, the Jewish people of the late-Second Temple period, including very specifically the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, were not wrapped “mummy style.” By that time, even the Egyptians were no longer wrapping their dead in the former manner of Pharaonic times. There is no evidence of it and I’m not sure how the idea got started. I do remember pictures in Sunday School books from when I was a child, showing this wrapping style. I suspect that it was because of the mention of linen strips in the Bible from which people drew conclusions.

It is widely believed among many scholars that the cloth “which had been around Jesus’ head” 1) was the sudarium used to cover Jesus’ face while he was carried to the tomb which would have been removed prior to the use of the shroud for burial and carefully rolled up and put aside in the tomb or 2) was a chin band used to keep the jaw closed. The strips would have been a few strips of linen used as ties, to respectfully bind hands and feet or to tie a shroud around a body. All of this, including the use of a shroud would have been completely consistent with what we know of how a few people, mostly rich people like Caiaphas, Joseph of Arimathea, or Nichodemus, were buried in tombs in the environs of Jerusalem. None of this is contrary to what it says in the Bible. It conforms, but just not the way we sometimes imagined it or were told it or saw it in pictures.

As I have on a previous occasion in this blog, I recommend starting with an excellent paper by Diana Fulbright: “A Clean Cloth: What Greek Word Usage Tells Us about the Burial Wrappings of Jesus” I think you will find the answers you seek in this paper – from which the above graphic was taken. As Diana pointed out to me in an email:

Pieces of shrouds, and even intact shrouds have been excavated from burial sites in the Judean Desert. Scarcely any archaeologist studying ancient Jewish burial customs fails to mention shrouds, which varied in type and material

Joe Marino, a very knowledgeable shroud scholar also recommends:

  • Safrai/Stern “Jewish People in the First Century,”
  • Rachel Hachlili (“Jewish funerary customs, practices and rites in the Second Temple period
  • Jürgen K. Zangenberg, “Dry Bones-Heavenly Bliss: Tombs, Post Mortem Existence and Life-After-Death in Ancient Judaism,”

2 thoughts on “Not Like a Mummy? A Frequent Question”

  1. I am presently reading the new book written by Benedict 16 entitled “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection”. You can find it here :

    Good book to know what’s the pope’s vision of Jesus. And I can see that his vision is not so far from mine… In the part where he talk about the entombment, there’s an interesting statement about the Shroud of Turin. The pope first state that the problem of compatibility between the Shroud of Turin, the “linen cloths” mention in the gospel of John and the “shroud” mention in the Synoptic gospels cannot be discuss in the context of his book. But the pope add this interesting remark that says a lot in my mind (for someone who can read between the lines) : “In any case, the aspect of this relic (the Shroud of Turin) is, in principle, reconcilable with the two reports (the one from the gospel of John and the one from the Synoptic gospels).

    For the mommy way of burial, it’s not a jewish manner at all. I think any good historian can corroborate this fact. The best way (in my opinion) to understand the meaning of “linen cloths” from the gospel of John can be “linen strips” along with the Shroud to tied it to the body…

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