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Sepulchre

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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(קֶבֶר, kber, or קְבוּרָה, keburah, a burying place or grave, as sometimes rendered; τάφος, a tomb, as elsewhere rendered; also μνῆμα or μνημεῖον, a monument, likewise rendered "grave" or "tomb"). Mankind in all ages have been careful, indeed of necessity, to provide suitable resting places for the dead. In treating of the Hebrew usages in this respect, we will adduce whatever elucidation modern research has contributed to them. (See BURIAL).

I. General Principles of Sepulture.

1. The Duty. The Jews uniformly disposed of the corpse by entombment where possible, and, failing that, by interment; extending this respect to the remains even of the slain enemy and malefactor (1 Kings 11:15; Deuteronomy 21:23), in the latter case by express provision of law. Since this was the only case so guarded by Mosaic: precept it may be concluded that natural feeling was relied on as rendering any such general injunction superfluous. Similarly, to disturb remains was regarded as a barbarity, only justifiable in the case of those who had themselves outraged religion (2 Kings 23:16-17; Jeremiah 8:1-2). The rabbins quote the doctrine "dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" as a reason for preferring to entomb or inter their dead; but that preferential practice is older than the Mosaic record, as traceable in patriarchal examples, and continued unaltered by any Gentile influence; so Tacitus (Hist. 5, 5) notices that it was a point of Jewish custom potius corpora condere quam cremare. (See CORPSE).

The precedent of Jacob's and Joseph's remains being returned to the land of Canaan was followed, in wish at least, by every pious Jew. Adopting a similar notion, some of the rabbins taught that only in that land could those who were buried obtain a share in the resurrection which was to usher in the Messiah's reign on earth. Thus that land was called by them "the land of the living," and the sepulchre itself "the house of the living." Some even feigned that the bodies of the righteous, wherever else buried, rolled back to Canaan underground, and found there only their appointed rest (Nicolaus, De Sepult. Hebrews 13, 1). Tombs were, in popular belief, led by the same teaching, invested with traditions. Thus Machpelah is stated (Lightfoot, Centuria Chorographica, s.v. "Hebron") to have been the burial place not only of Abraham and Sarah, but also of Adam and Eve; and there was probably at the time of the New Test. a spot fixed upon by tradition as the site of the tomb of every prophet of note in the Old Test. To repair and adorn these was deemed a work of exalted piety (Matthew 23:29). The scruples of the scribes extended even to the burial of the ass whose neck was broken (Exodus 34:20), and of the first born of cattle (Maimon. De Primogen. 3, 4, quoted by Nicolaus, De Sepult. Heb. 16:3, 4). (See GRAVE).

2. Rites. On this subject we should remember that our impressions, as derived from the Old Test., are those of the burial of persons of rank or public eminence, while those gathered from the New Test. regard a private station. But in both cases "the manner of the Jews" included the use of spices where they could command the means. Thus Asa lay in a "bed of spices" (2 Chronicles 16:14). A portion of these were burned in honor of the deceased, and to this use was probably destined part of the one hundred pounds' weight of "myrrh and aloes" in our Lord's case. On high state occasions the vessels, bed; and furniture used by the deceased were burned also. Such was probably the "great burning" made for Asa. If a king was unpopular or died disgraced (e.g. Jehoram, 2 Chronicles 31:19; Josephus, Ant. 9, 5, 3), this was not observed. In no case, save that of Saul and his sons, were the bodies burned, nor in that case were they so burned as not to leave the "bones" easily concealed and transported, and the whole proceeding looks like a hasty precaution against hostile violence. Even then the bones were interred and re-exhumed for solemn entombment. The ambiguous word in Amos 6:10, מְסָרְפוֹ, rendered in the A.V. "he that burneth him," possibly means "the burner of perfumes in his honor," i.e. his near relation, on whom such duties devolved; rather than, as most think, "the burner of the corpse." For a great mortality never causes men to burn corpses where it is not the custom of the country; nor did the custom vary among the Jews on such an occasion (Ezekiel 39:12-14). It was the duty of the next of kin to perform and preside over the whole funereal office; but a company of public buriers, originating in an exceptional necessity (Ezekiel loc. cit.), had become, it seems, customary in the times of the New. Test. (Acts 5:6; Acts 5:10). The closing of the eyes, kissing, and washing the corpse (Genesis 46:4; Genesis 1:1; Acts 9:37) are customs common to all nations. Coffins were but seldom used, and, if used, were open; but fixed stone sarcophagi were common in tombs of rank. The bier, the word for which in the Old Test. is the same as that rendered bed, (See BED), was borne by the nearest relatives, and followed by any who wished to do honor to the dead. The grave clothes (ὀθόνια, ἐντάφια ) were probably of the fashion worn in life, but swathed and fastened with bandages, and the head was covered separately. Previously to this being done, spices were applied to the corpse in the form of ointment, or between the folds of the linen; hence our Lord's remark that the woman had anointed his body πρὸς τὸ ἐνταφιάζειν, "with a view to dressing it in these ἐντάφια ;" not, as in the A.V., "for the burial." For the custom of mourners visiting the sepulchre, (See MOURN); for other usages, (See FUNERAL).

3. The Site. A natural cave enlarged and adapted by excavation, or an artificial imitation of one, was the standard type of sepulchre. This was what the structure of the Jewish soil supplied or suggested. A distinct and simple form of sepulture as contrasted with the complex and elaborate rites of Egypt clings to the region of Palestine, and varies but little with the great social changes between the periods of Abraham and the captivity. Jacob and Joseph, who both died in Egypt, are the only known instances of the Egyptian method applied to patriarchal remains. Sepulchres, when the owner's means permitted it, were commonly prepared beforehand, and stood often in gardens, by roadsides, or even adjoining houses. Kings and prophets alone were probably buried within towns (1 Kings 2:10; 1 Kings 16:6; 1 Kings 16:28; 2 Kings 10:35; 2 Kings 13:9; 2 Chronicles 16:14; 2 Chronicles 28:27; 1 Samuel 25:1; 1 Samuel 28:3). Sarah's tomb and Rachel's seem to have been chosen merely from the accident of the place of death; but the successive interments at the former (Genesis 49:31) are a chronicle of the strong family feeling among the Jews. It was the sole fixed spot in the unsettled patriarchal life; and its purchase and transfer, minutely detailed, are remarkable as the sole transaction of the kind, until repeated on a similar occasion at Shechem. Thus it was deemed a misfortune or an indignity, not only to be deprived of burial (Isaiah 14:20; Jeremiah passim; 2 Kings 9:10), but, in a lesser degree, to be excluded from the family sepulchre (1 Kings 13:22), as were Uzziah, the royal leper, and Manasseh (2 Chronicles 26:23; 2 Chronicles 33:20). Thus the remains of Saul and his sons were reclaimed to rest in his father's tomb. Similarly, it was a mark of a profound feeling towards a person not of one's family to wish to be buried with him (Ruth 1:17; 1 Kings 13:31), or to give him a place in one's own sepulchre (Genesis 23:6; comp. 2 Chronicles 24:16). The head of a family commonly provided space for more than one generation; and these galleries of kindred sepulchres are common in many Eastern branches of the human race. Cities soon became populous and demanded cemeteries (comp. πολυάνδριον, Sept. at Ezekiel 39:15), which were placed without the walls; such a one seems intended by the expression in 2 Kings 23:6, "the graves of the children of the people," situated in the valley of the Kedron or of Jehoshaphat. Jeremiah (7:32; 19:11) threatens that the eastern valley, called Tophet, the favorite haunt of idolatry, should be polluted by burying there (comp. 2 Kings 23:16). Such was also the "potter's field" (Matthew 27:7) which had, perhaps, been wrought by digging for clay into holes serviceable for graves., (See CEMETERIES).

II. Explicit Information from Ancient Sources as to the Style of Sepulchres.

1. From a Comparison with Early Heathen Nations. It has been too much the fashion to look to Egypt for the prototype of every form of Jewish art. The Egyptian tombs at Thebes were extensive excavations in the barren, mountains which skirted the city on the west. In like manner, the magnificent tombs in the necropolis of Sela, in Arabia Petraea, were sculptured out of the sides of the rock surrounding the ancient city. (See PETRA). The Edomites and the Egyptians seem to have regarded the habitations of the living merely as temporary resting places, while the tombs are regarded as permanent and eternal mansions; and, while not a vestige of a habitation is to be seen, the tombs remain monuments of splendor and magnificence, perhaps even more wonderful than the ruins of their temples. Funeral urns or vases are found in great numbers on the plains and mounds of Assyria and Mesopotamia containing human skeletons or fragments of bones which appear to have been calcined.

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sepulchre'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​s/sepulchre.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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