The Burial

Seneca modeled the character of Joseph ab aromatis on that of Talthybius in The Trojan Women of Euripides. In this play Talthybius is the herald of the Greek army who, having the task of announcing to the captive Trojan Women the dreadful decision of the Greek chiefs, handles this task with sympathy towards the victims. Seneca had shaped a tragedy of his, The Women of Troy, on The Trojan Women of Euripides; but in his play Seneca omitted the important episode of the burial of the innocent boy Astyanax because, with his fondness for gruesome detail, he had described the body of Astyanax as too mangled and dismembered to be buried. Hence, Seneca had available Euripides’ account of the burial of Astyanax as a model for the burial of Jesus.

In The Trojan Women Andromache begs the Greek leader Pyrrhos that the body of her son, Astyanax, be granted burial. When Pyrrhos finally gives in he instructs Talthybius, the herald, to fetch the body and bring it to Hecuba, the child’s grand­mother, in order that she might cover it with a shroud; after this Talthybius is to proceed to the burial. These circumstances are conveyed to the audience in the speech that Talthybius makes to Hecuba and the chorus of mourning women (lines 1123-1156) just after entering the stage with a group of attendants carrying the corpse of Astyanax. His first line is to the effect that it is getting late and speed is of the essence; all the Greek ships, except for one, have already left the shore of Troy. After instructing the women he announces that he is taking upon himself the tasks of washing the corpse and cleansing the wounds. It is to be noticed that in Euripides’ play Talthybius is by profession the official herald of the Greek army, but performs the task of an undertaker. If Talthybius is a professional messenger who acts somewhat like an undertaker, Joseph is a professional undertaker who acts somewhat like a messenger: Joseph announces to Mary that Pilate has granted that her son be buried.

The following scene belongs more to the style of ancient comedy than that of an­cient tragedy. Joseph extolled the service that he could render as ab aromatis by in­­di­cating that his assistant (whom the gospel of John identifies as Nicodemus) was carrying a big bundle of aromatic spices, such as myrrh and aloe. He must have spoken of selling some of them to the women, since later they bring bought aro­matic spices to the tomb. Mark (16:1) relates that the women bought spices, and Luke (23:56) that they prepared spices and myrrh. Since Joseph was an ab aromatis, a spice dealer, and came carrying a bundle which in John’s esti­mate weighed about one hundred pounds, this explains where and when the wo­men pur­chased the spices. The a spice dealer performed also the function of an under­taker. It must have been on behalf of the women that Joseph, having received permis­sion from Pilate, took the body down from the cross and wrapped it in a shroud.

Mark (15:46) relates that Joseph had bought the shroud in which he wrapped Jesus’ body; but, most likely the evangelist, more or less wittingly, misconstrued the original Latin of this passage in the process of raising the status of Joseph from that of a petty tradesman to that of a distinguished member of the Jewish Council. The Latin text may have stated that Joseph wrapped the body empto lineo, in the bought shroud, which meant the shroud bought by the women, but in Latin could also have meant the shroud he had bought.[1] It is conceivable that, at the moment Joseph had lifted the shroud from his bundle, the chorus had sung, addres­­sing him to do such and such with the shroud that we are buying; but the audience understood that it was a matter of a shroud bought earlier, and hence bought by Joseph.

In the gospels there is possibly another misunderstanding on the matter of the shroud. Matthew states that Joseph wrapped the body in a clean shroud (27:59): the Latin equivalent would be lintea pura. Although the adjective purus in general means clean, when used in reference to materials such as textile it means simple, unadorned, without design. In Latin vestis pura means a plain garment. Under the influence of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Seneca had said that Jesus’ body was wrapped in a modest unadorned (purus) shroud, but Matthew, who was the most Jewish of the four gospel writers, understood that it was a matter of cleanliness, of ritual purity. According to Seneca Joseph sold the shroud to the women; possibly he offered a variety of shrouds, but Mary chose one that was purus, simple, unadorned.

In The Trojan Women an issue is made of the modesty of the burial wrappings that Hecuba and the mourning women could provide (1200-1203). Talthybius instructs Hecuba and the chorus to wrap the body in cloaks such as you can afford under the circumstances. At the moment the body is taken from the stage Hecuba recites (1246-1249):

Go, bury the corpse in its wretched tomb,

For he has indeed whatever attire is due to a defunct.

I believe that to the dead it makes little difference

Whether they had been granted rich wrappings.

The wrapping in a shroud and the burial in a tomb which happened to be available are mentioned together also in the gospels, a matter to which we shall return below.

After the transaction with the women, Joseph with his assistant exited on the left, in the direction of the cross, and moments later they reentered, carrying what was assumed to be the body. It was understood that while the chorus intoned a song of lamentation on the stage, the body had been taken down from the cross, embalmed with aromata, and wrapped in the shroud.

Many learned disquisitions have been written on verse (Jn 19:40):

Then they took the body of Jesus and they bound it up in linen cloth together with aromatic spices, according to what is the Jewish custom of preparing for burial.

It seems to me that the essential point is to determine what was understood in this case to be the dif­ference between Jewish and pagan customs. By subtle research one may trace other distinctions, but the relevant point is that according to Jewish custom the face was covered. This is made clear by the circumstance that in the corresponding passages Matthew (27:59) and Luke (23:53) employed the verb to pack up, which is used by John on a different occasion (20:7) to describe the cloth that had been placed on Jesus’ head. In this last passage John speci­fies the point that he may have left unclear in vs. 19:40: Steps had been taken to make sure that the face of Jesus was covered. Besides wrapping up Jesus’ body in a linen shroud, a sudarium, sweat-cloth handkerchief, had been placed over his head.

Seneca exploited the Jewish custom in order to evade a staging problem of ancient tragedians. In tragedies the bloody event of the slaying of the hero took place offstage, but the maimed or bludgeoned body was subsequently brought onto the stage for the funeral lamentation which originally was a core element of Greek tragedy. In this situation the body was represented not by an actor, but by a wooden puppet. In the case of Jesus Seneca was in the fortunate circumstance of not having to resort to this awkward theatrical device: Joseph and his assistant entered from the left carrying what was assumed to be the body of Jesus all wrapped up.

At the very end of the account of the burial, the synoptic gospels men­tion the presence of certain women at the tomb. Mark remarks in passing (15:47):

Mary Magdalene and Mary of Joses were observing where Jesus had been placed.

Matthew (27:61) notes that:

Mary Magda­lene and the other Mary were there, sitting in front of the tomb.

Luke assigns a slightly more active role to the women (23:55):

The wo­men who had come with him from Galilee, having followed

ob­served the tomb and how his body was being placed.

The words of Luke suggest that, as Joseph was performing the burial, the chorus of wo­men moved directly in front of the tomb and intoned a lamentation song in which they commented on the tomb and the manner of the burial.

Matthew, who had not seen the play acted, added sitting in front of the tomb on the basis of his understanding of the text of Mark. Luke added having followed because he had seen the play acted. There was an initial scene in which Joseph was with the women at the center of the stage in front of Pilate’s palace; then, after Joseph obtained the permission to bury Jesus, he exited on the left and the women moved to the left of the stage, in front of the tomb. Joseph reappeared with the body of Jesus and buried it while the women clustered around. The chorus with its wailing gestures and mourning songs provided a running commentary on these events.

[1] In Latin there is no passive participle of the present tense; therefore in silver Latin the passive participle of the past tense was used in the sense of the present tense. For instance, prae se actam praedam ostentantes, meant showing off the booty as they were gathering it before them and not showing off the booty that had been gathered before them. But a person speaking Greek, a language in which there is both the present and past tense of the past participle, would have grasped it in the second sense.