Granting the Corpse

“But Pilate was astonished that he had already died. So, summoning a centurion, he asked him if he had already died. And with it confirmed by the centurion, he gave the corpse to Joseph.”

(Mark 15:44-45)

There is a bit of a debate over the translation of verse 44. The verb that is applied to Pilate’s state of mind is θαυμάζω (thaumazo). This can mean that he was surprised at the events, that he was disturbed by the events, or that he was amazed at what had taken place, but it can also mean that he wanted to know if something was true. Thus, some have translated the passage, “Pilate wondered if he had already died.” Both renderings are acceptable translations of the Greek and both fit the immediate context of Mark’s Gospel.

Yet, when you harmonize Mark’s Gospel with the other three Gospels, it seems to make more sense to read the text to suggest that Pilate was surprised when he heard that Jesus had already died (and thus did not need his legs broken). According to some ancient records, it was not uncommon for a person to agonize on the cross for several days unless death was hurried by external means (like the leg-breaking procedure that sent the man into shock). And so, Joseph has come to claim Jesus’ body, Pilate sends soldiers to break the legs and hasten the deaths, and the centurion returns with the news that Jesus had already died. Pilate then was surprised to hear this, confirms that this is the case with the Centurion who oversaw the actions, and hearing that such was the case, grants Joseph our Lord’s body. If you prefer the other reading, you can still harmonize the texts, just you may want to place verse 44 a little earlier in the harmony.

There is a movement that is pervasive in modern culture that suggests that the body and soul are distinct…something I have found prevalent even within evangelical churches. Countless times I have heard preacher say, “Remember, so-in-so is not here! This is just his empty body!” While statements like this are probably made with all of the best intentions, they demonstrate a kind of dualism that is part of Greek and Gnostic thought, but that is not found in the Bible. Indeed, at a funeral, the person’s soul is not with their body (2 Corinthians 5:6-8), but the body, nonetheless is still a physical representation of the person and thus should be treated with great care and respect. While the thinking, reasoning part of the person is not present, the physical representation of the person is present and will be held “in trust” in the ground until such a time as our Lord returns and the dead will be rejoined to their resurrected bodies — believers resurrected to everlasting life and unbelievers resurrected to a kind of everlasting death and torment. The resurrection is a central tenet of the Christian faith; we must never obscure that.

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