There are two incidents recorded in the Gospels when a disciple requested a 'leave of absence' in order to 'bury' his father (Matt. 8:21-22; Luke 9:59-60). Although the requests appear reasonable, Jesus gave a seemingly harsh reply in each case: 'Follow Me, let the dead bury their own dead.'
This statement is often considered a 'hard saying' of Jesus (Bruce 1983: 161-163). Some critical scholars suggest that Jesus was encouraging His disciples to break the fifth commandment (honor your father and mother) by not giving their fathers a proper burial (Sanders 1985: 252-255). Is He really demanding this? Most commentaries suggest Jesus meant, 'Leave the (spiritual) dead to bury the (physical) dead' (Fitzmyer 1981: 836; Liefeld 1984: 935). This interpretation, though common (Fitzmyer calls it the 'majority interpretation'), is not consistent with the text and with Jewish burial practices of the first century AD.
Problems with the 'Majority Interpretation'
Byron McCane, of Duke University, points out three problems with the 'majority interpretation' (hereafter MI; 1990:38-39). First, it does not give an adequate explanation of the disciples' request, 'Let me first go and bury my father.' The MI sees the request as a conflict of loyalties between the disciples' responsibilities to their dead fathers and their commitment to follow Jesus. This minimizes the importance of the adverb 'first.' In each case, a disciple was requesting time to fulfill his family obligation regarding the burial of his father. Once this was discharged, the disciple would return and follow Jesus. Thus the MI does not explain the disciples' request for time.
Secondly, those who follow the MI generally omit the words 'their own dead,' because they want to distinguish between two meanings of the word 'dead.' 'Let the spiritually deal bury the physically dead.' However, the text says, 'their own dead,' indicating that both occurrences of 'dead' are connected in a reflexive possessive relation. There is no need to spiritualize the text regarding the dead; both are physically dead!
Finally, the MI goes against first-century Jewish burial customs. In the first century, when a person died, they normally were taken and buried immediately in the family burial cave that had been hewn out of bedrock. [For the archaeology of Jewish tombs during the New Testament period, see Rahmani 1958, 1961, 1982a]. This custom is based on the injunction found in the Mosaic Law, not to leave the corpse on an executed person on the tree overnight (Deut. 21:22-23). Two examples of immediate burials are found in the New Testament: Jesus (John 19:31) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:6-10).
Immediately after the burial, the family would separate itself and mourn for seven days. This mourning period was called shiv'ah. It would have been impossible for the disciples to make their request if their father had just died. If they were the eldest sons, they were obligated by custom to immediately bury their fathers. If the MI is correct, the disciples would have been acting contrary to normal first-century Jewish burial practices.
An Interpretation Based on First-Century Jewish Burial Practices
McCane suggests an interpretation that is consistent with first-century Jewish burial practices (1990:40-41). After a body was placed in a burial cave, it was left to decompose. The family mourned for seven days. This initial mourning period was followed by a less intense 30-day period of mourning, called shloshim. However, the entire mourning period was not fully over until the flesh of the deceased had decomposed, usually about a year later. The Jerusalem Talmud states: When the flesh had wasted away, the bones were collected and placed in chests (ossuaries). On that day (the son) mourned, but the following day he was glad, because his forebears rested from judgment (Moed Qatan 1:5).
The final act of mourning, the gathering of the bones into a bone box called an ossuary, was called 'ossilegium,' or 'secondary burial.' It is this act, I believe, that is in view in our Lord's response. [For a good discussion of secondary burials, see Meyers 1971; Rahmani 1981. On ossuaries, see Rahmani 1982b]. The disciples' request and Jesus' response makes good sense in light of the Jewish custom of secondary burial. When the disciples requested time to bury their fathers they were actually asking for time to finish the rite of secondary burial. Their father had died, been placed in the family burial cave, and the sons had sat shiv'ah and most likely shloshim. They had requested anywhere from a few weeks to up to 11 months to finish the ritual of ossilegium before they returned to Jesus.
Jesus' sharp answer also fits well with secondary burial. The fathers had been buried in the family burial caves and their bodies were slowly decomposing. In the tombs, along with the fathers, were other family members who had died, some awaiting secondary burial, others already placed in ossuaries. When Jesus stated: 'Let the dead bury their own dead,' He was referring to two different kinds of dead in the tomb: the bones of the deceased which had already been neatly placed in ossuaries and the fathers who had yet to be reburied. The phrase 'own dead' indicates that the fathers were included among the dead.
The Setting of This Saying
The Gospels record two incidents where disciples approached the Lord to request a 'leave of absence' from following Him. The first request is recorded in Matthew 8. Jesus was about to take the Twelve across the Sea of Galilee to the Decapolis city of Gadara. Chronologically, this trip is the first recorded journey of Jesus to minister in Gentile territory. One of His disciples hesitated, probably because he did not want to go to those unclean, non-kosher pagan Gentiles.
So he made an excuse, 'Let me first go and bury my father.' He most likely appealed to the Jewish burial practice of ossilegium, or secondary burial, which would remove him from following the Lord for up to eleven months. Jesus saw this as an excuse not to minister to the Gentiles. As a result He rebuked him with a statement of irony and challenged the disciple to follow Him. Quite possibly this was Peter because he is known to have had a problem associating with Gentiles (Acts 10:9-22; Gal. 2:11-12).
The second incident is recorded in Luke 9:59-60. Another disciple, possibly one of the 70 (Luke 10:1, 17) was going to Jerusalem for the Feast of Succoth (Tabernacles) during the fall of AD 29. He asked to be excused for the same reason. It may be that this disciple was taking advantage of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to rebury the bones of his father in the Holy City (cf. Meyers 1971-72: 98, 99; Avigad 1962). If so, Jesus felt it was more pressing for him to go with the 70 to Perea than to rebury the bones of his father in Jerusalem.
In each case, the father had died more than a month prior and the Lord rebuked the disciples with the same stern statement.
The Reason for Jesus' Response
Why would Jesus respond in a seemingly harsh manner? The purpose of His response may have been twofold. The first purpose was to encourage the disciples to faithfully follow Him. The second purpose and perhaps more importantly, was to teach correct theology.
The concept of gathering the bones of one's ancestors is deeply embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures and reflected in Israelite burial practices (Gen. 49:29; Judges 2:10; 16:31; I Kings 11:21, 43, etc.). However, by New Testament times, the concept had taken on a new meaning. According to the Rabbinic sources, the decomposition of the flesh atoned for the sins of the dead person (a kind of purgatory) and the final stage of this process was gathering the bones and placing them in an ossuary (Meyers 1971: 80-85). Jesus confronts this contrary theology. Only faith in Christ's redemptive work on the cross can atone for sin, not rotting flesh or any other work or merit of our own (Heb. 9:22, 26; Acts 4:12; Eph. 2:8, 9). Jesus may have rebuked these two disciples rather harshly because they were following the corrupted practice of secondary burial.
An amplified (interpretive) rendering of this statement might be: Look, you have already honored your father by giving him a proper burial in the family sepulcher. Now, instead of waiting for the flesh to decompose, this can never atone for sin, go and preach the Kingdom of God and tell of the only true means of atonement, faith alone in Christ. Let the bones of your dead father's ancestors gather his bones and place them in an ossuary. You follow me! This interpretation allows for Jesus to have upheld the fifth commandment, takes the text at face value, and does justice to the Jewish burial practices of the first century. The interpretation is therefore consistent theologically, Biblically, and historically, and answers the critics accurately.
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Bruce, F. F.
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1982a Ancient Jerusalem's Funerary Customs and Tombs - Part Three. Biblical Archaeologist 45: 43-53.
1982b Ancient Jerusalem's Funerary Customs and Tombs - Part Four. Biblical Archaeologist 45: 109-119.
1985 Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia, PA: fortress.
1966 The Tractate 'Mourning' (Semahot). Regulations relating to Death, Burial and Mourning. New Haven, CT: Yale University.