First century Palestinians made clothes from linen and cotton in addition to using animal hides and fleece. Both linen and cotton were made from plants, with linen the more valuable material. Linen was used almost exclusively for wrapping bodies of dead individuals. Israelites didn’t cremate their dead. Rather, they interned them in a cave or crypt.
According to Mosaic Law, a dead body had to be buried or entombed the day the individual died or was killed, so the land wasn’t defiled (Deuteronomy 21.23). At the same time, two other Mosaic laws were applicable: First, a man couldn’t work on the Sabbath. Preparing a body for burial was work. Second, an individual who touched a dead body was ceremonially unclean for seven days (Numbers 19.11). Devout Jews internalized these law; thus, Joseph of Arimathea asked Governor Pilate for the body of Jesus as soon as Jesus died. Because Jesus died at about 3:00 p.m. and because the Sabbath begun about 6:00 p.m., Joseph had a three-hour window of opportunity to prepare and intern Jesus’s body. Joseph and his helper, Nicodemus, both devout Jews, knew that they would be unclean for seven days because they touched Jesus’s dead body.
Nicodemus supplied 75 pounds of aloes and myrrh to infuse Jesus’s grave cloths. While Jesus lived, his clothes were made from cotton or wool. Linen would have been a luxury item for an itinerate rabbi (Luke 16.19). After his death, I don’t believe Jesus cared if he was wrapped in linen cloths or simply cotton rags, as his mother used for swaddling cloths at his birth.
One Bible scholar11 wrote that first century Jews wrapped the corpse’s body with a wide long cloth beginning at the feet and ending with the head. This perspective contrasts with John’s description of Lazarus, when he came out of the grave. John wrote that when Lazarus came out of the grave, his hands and feet were bound with perfumed linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth (John 11.44). Logic suggests that Jesus was wrapped for burial in the same manner as Lazarus.
The gospel writer, John, identified that Jesus was wrapped in linen cloths, not in a linen cloth. As I pondered the proposal that Joseph and Nicodemus buried Jesus in a single piece of linen, I remembered 30 years ago when I practiced nursing. Part of the care of a deceased body in the hospital was wrapping it in a single sheet of cloth and tying this “shroud” around the body. Only then, was the body transported through the hospital halls to the morgue. Perhaps, Jesus was wrapped in strips of linen cloths, then wrapped in a shroud.
In New Testament Greek, words for linen (bussos, sindōn) generally, translated as “fine linen.”1 Fine linen cloth was associated with coverings in the tabernacle and with Israelite priests’ robes. The ancient Hebrew word for fine linen, was shêsh. Shêsh denotes a type of linen of peculiar whiteness and fineness.
In the ancient Near East, the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum, was used to make linen. In Biblical times, flax was the most important fiber crop. Although flax may have originated in Mesopotamia, it was extensively cultivated in Egypt and less so in Palestine. In Egypt flax grew along the sides the Nile River, particularly the Nile Delta region. In Egypt and the Middle East, flax was planted in the early winter and harvested in the spring. Egypt exported linen cloth and linen threads to Palestine in the first century.
The flax plant has a single stem that grows up to 4 feet tall. The fiber is in the stem. Initially, the stem is green, but turns yellow as the plant ripens and readies for harvest. When flax plants were harvested for fiber, mature plants were pulled up by their roots. Harvested plants were allowed to dry, then retted. Retting is a process of soaking flax to separate the fiber from the woody tissue (straw). Fibers were spun, then woven into linen cloth. Ancient people dyed some linen threads.
Have you ever wondered why each of the gospel writers recorded something about Jesus’s body being wrapped in grave cloth/cloths? Wouldn’t it have been easier to stop with Jesus’s death? We are given all the detail about Jesus’s body being wrapped in linen grave cloths and then possibly in a shroud so that we believe absolutely that Jesus died on the cross. His corpse was treated the way all dead Jews were treated.
Reflection: Will it matter what you are wrapped in at your death?
Copyright July 8, 2018; Carolyn A. Roth