NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
The last Mary, in Matthew’s list, was the mother of Zebedee’s children – James and John. In Mark’s Gospel, she is identified as also being called Salome.1 In any case, they were three brave women willing to do what the other disciples were afraid to do. At the time Matthew wrote this Gospel, there were those among the Jewish opponents who found every occasion to discredit and dismiss the followers of this Jesus of Nazareth. To put this in perspective, Jesus was surreptitiously identified by the Jews as ben Stada, or son of Stada, who was not Joseph. It was an attempt to paint Jesus as an illegitimate child. For instance, in the Jewish writings we find where Ben Stada (the Jewish code name for Jesus of Nazareth) is accused of “bringing witchcraft out of Egypt by means of scratches [in the form of charms] upon His flesh.”2 These “scratches” have been interpreted by scholars as “incisions,” and are references to the nail scars in His hands and scratch in His side as proof that He was the One hung on the cross and rose from the dead.3
Then, somehow things got mixed up with Mary Magdalene the hairdresser being confused with Mary mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, out of whom Christ had cast out seven devils, and who, having received much from Him, revered Him so much that she showed it by her zealous and constant service to Him. As mentioned before, she was an inhabitant of the town called Magdala. This was a normal way of referring to such denizens from there because we also read about a called Rabbi Isaac of “Magdala.”4 In addition, we find her referred to in Jewish writings as: “Miriam, the women’s hairdresser.”5 This, scholars tell us: “Supposed by Tosefta6 to be the Mother of Jesus in the earlier uncensored editions. [Her description megaddela (hairdresser) is connected by some [people] with the name of Mary Magdalene whose name was confused with that of Mary, the mother of Jesus.”7
The other women were Mary the mother of James and Jose (short for Joseph). Some scholars believe this to be a reference to the mother of Jesus and two of His brothers. Then Mary the mother of James and John, known as the sons of Zebedee. Only John, the disciple that our Lord felt the closest to, was there at the crucifixion. All the others had fled. What a pitiful sight for Jesus to look down from the cross and only see a handful of supporters. But He knew it would all be straightened out in a few days when He would appear to them alive and victorious.
Verses 57-61: That evening a wealthy man named Joseph came to Jerusalem. He was a follower of Jesus from the town of Arimathea. He went to Pilate and asked to be given Jesus’ body. Pilate gave orders for the soldiers to give Jesus’ body to him. Then Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a new linen cloth. He laid Jesus’ body in a new tomb that he had dug into the wall of rock. Then he closed the tomb by rolling a very large stone to cover the entrance. After he did this, he went away. Mary Magdalene and the other woman named Mary were sitting near the tomb.
Some Bible scholars identify the town of Arimathea with the town of Ramah mentioned by Samuel.8 The Onomasticon of Eusebius and Jerome identify it with Ramathaim-Zophim in the hill-country of Ephraim,9 which is Ramah the birthplace and burial-place of Samuel.10 and places it near Timnah on the territorial borders of Judah and Daniel. Scottish Professor, George Adam Smith, thinks it may be the modern-day Beit Rima, a village on a raised plateau 2 miles North of Timnah.11 Yet others incline to identify it as Ramallah, 8 miles North of Jerusalem and 3 miles from Bethel.
Joseph was not your average citizen, he was a highly thought of member of the Jewish Sanhedrin and apparent friend of Nicodemus who was also a member of the Sanhedrin. Some believe that Joseph’s real name was Joseph ben Gorion and that he was the brother of Nicodemus ben Gorion.12 While this is a possibility, as far as the Scriptures are concerned it is pure speculation. What is striking here is that both were secret disciples of Jesus coming out openly and asking for the privilege of taking care of His body, while His publicly identified disciples were secretly hiding in order to avoid repercussions for their association with Him.
Beside their reverence for the Son of God, it is quite possible that they were also driven by the Jewish verbal tradition concerning the prohibition of leaving a victim hanging overnight, as we see in their writings: “And if God is so grieved over the blood of the wicked that is shed, how much more so over the blood of the righteous! [Referring back to the prohibition of leaving one hanging overnight] not only of this one [a criminal,] did they [the Sages] say it, but anyone who leaves his deceased [unburied] overnight transgresses this prohibition.”13
Joseph and Nicodemus brought along all the burial materials they needed, and I’m sure they selected what was right and proper. One Jewish scholar gives us some insight into the burial process: “These are the customs observed by the Jewish people with regard to corpses and burial. We close the eyes of the deceased. If one’s mouth hangs open, we tie the jaw close. After washing the corpse, we stuff the orifices so they are closed, anoint it with different fragrances, cut its hair, and dress it in shrouds of white linen which are not expensive. Our Sages followed the custom of using a cloak worth a silver coin, so as not to embarrass a person who lacks resources. We cover the faces of the deceased so as not to embarrass the poor whose faces turned black because of hunger. It is forbidden to bury the dead, even a high official among the Jewish people, in silk shrouds or clothes embroidered with gold, for this is an expression of haughtiness, the destruction of useful property, and the emulation of gentile practices. We carry the dead on our shoulders to the cemetery.”14
From this description of the burial materials in which that which covers the body is separate from that which covers the head, the Shroud of Turin is thereby brought into serious doubt as being the authentic burial clothes of Jesus, since the face is present in the cloth along with the whole body. In addition, we read in the Scriptures where it says that when John reached the tomb, he stooped and looked inside and saw the linen cloth lying there. Then it says, “Simon Peter arrived and went on inside. He also noticed the cloth lying there, while the swath that had covered Jesus’ head was rolled up in a bundle and was lying at the side.”15
It is also important to notice that Matthew states that the body of Jesus was “laid” in a new tomb purchased by Joseph, that was dug out of a rock. So often those in the Western culture imagine any burial to be in a grave dug into the ground. In fact, the word “buried” is never used in the New Testament for the interment of Christ. Even one of our most famous Easter hymns erroneously says, “Up from the grave He arose.” In a song the Holy Spirit inspired me to write years ago, I rendered the wording this way, “All was still, on resurrection morning, when our Savior stepped triumphant from the tomb.”
1 Mark 15:40
2 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 104b
3 Ibid. See footnote (18)
4 Yohassin, The Book of Lineage, op. cit. p. 416
5 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Hagigah, folio 4b
6 Book of Verbal Law
7 Babylonian Talmud, Ibid., footnote (31)
8 I Samuel 7:17
9 Ibid. 1:1
10 Ibid. 1:19; 25:1
11 The Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith, A. C. Armstrong and Son, London, 1901
12 See Jewish Encyclopedia: Nicodemus (Nakdimon) Ben Gorion, by Emil G. Hirsch, Schulim Ochser
13 Mishnah, Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 6:5
14 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Tractate Avel, Ch. 4, Halacha 1-2
15 John 20:6-7