Jesus' Burial in a Garden:
The Strange Growth of the Tradition
Robert M. Price
The Garden‑Burial in the New Testament
Like many other narrative details in the gospels, the place of Jesus' burial appears differently in different texts, appearing to grow in the telling. In Acts 13:29, we may find preserved a fragment of early tradition according to which Jesus' enemies buried him in an unknown location. Mark 15:46 describes the burial place of Jesus simply as "a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock," while Matthew 27:60 makes the tomb that of Joseph of Arimathea ("his own new tomb"), supplying this detail as the requirement of Isaiah 53:9, a text he regards as a prophecy of Jesus' burial. Luke knows nothing of this but makes it "a rock‑hewn tomb, where no one had ever been laid" (Luke 23:53), recalling the donkey "on which no one has ever yet sat" (Luke 19:30; cf. also 1 Samuel 6:7, where the Ark of the Covenant is borne by cattle "upon which there has never come a yoke"). But it is only in the latest of the four gospels, John, that we hear of Jesus' being interred in a tomb "in a garden" (John 19:41). John tells us that Jesus' body was placed there in haste, and only temporarily, because of the lateness of the hour, with the start of the Sabbath impending (19:42). So when Mary Magdalene visits the tomb early Sunday morning and finds it empty, there is no mystery. She simply assumes the gardener has already removed Jesus for permanent reburial elsewhere (20:2, 15). These Johannine details are quite interesting, especially in view of the possibilities they (perhaps unwittingly) raise.
Later Jewish tradition (to be examined presently) makes much of the Johannine scenario, suggesting that Jesus' body actually was removed by the gardener, and that the resurrection faith of the disciples was simply a gross error. Hans von Campenhausen once suggested1 that just as Matthew's tomb guards (Matthew 27:62‑66; 28:4, 11‑15) were added by that evangelist as a kind of co‑opting rebuttal of a Jewish charge that Jesus' disciples stole his body, even so John's garden and gardener details represent an attempt to anticipate and refute another anti‑Christian slur, namely that a disinterested third party, the gardener, removed the body. His suggestion has met with mixed responses,2 but thus far no one seems to have traced out the fascinating history of the charge that the body was removed by the gardener. Actually in one form or another, this reading of the garden burial story occurs several times over the next several centuries in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources. I propose to survey the evolution of this tradition, a study at least as fascinating for the light it sheds on the development of Jewish and Christian counter‑polemics as for the help it may provide in understanding John's gospel. It is with the Gospel of John that we must begin since even if John is replying to a prior charge, John's own account would be the earliest extant attestation of it. We must ask whether, as it stands, the Johannine account seems to be apologetical in intention.
If the details about the garden location of the tomb are meant as an apologetical device, we must admit that John is a singularly poor apologist. If one approached this text already suspecting that a gardener had innocently removed the body for reburial or simply because it did not belong in his garden, would one come away in any measure convinced that one's suspicions were groundless? I think most definitely not. Rather, this story would tend to raise such suspicions in a mind not already harboring them! The reader must notice how in John 19: 42 the burial is expected to be only temporary and how in 20:15 Mary reasonably supposes that the unfamiliar figure before her is the gardener who has emptied the tomb. What if, the reader may wonder, she were right the first time? Perhaps, like Celsus suggested, Mary was too excitable and jumped to wish‑fulfilling conclusions!3 Modern skeptics have not been slow to frame such a hypothesis, and the text of John does nothing, really, to stop them.4 If this story is intended as an apologetical device it is a poor one. Matthew's intent to defend resurrection faith, by contrast, is at least clear.
If no apologetical intention is evident in John's garden tomb story, does any other purpose make itself known? Yes indeed. As Raymond E. Brown has pointed out, we should most likely view the detail of Mary mistaking the Risen Christ for the gardener as another instance of the gospels' tendency to make the post‑resurrection Jesus hard to recognize (Luke 24:15‑16; Markan appendix 16:12).5 This device prepares the way for a dramatic recognition scene just as the frequent element of the skepticism of the bystanders in pre‑resurrection miracle stories (Mark 4:38; 5:31, 40; 6:37; 8:4) prepares the way for the awed acclamation of the witnesses later (Mark 4:41; 5:42). The garden‑gardener scenario is simply a convenient circumstance in which to have Mary mistake Jesus for someone else who might plausibly be present on the scene.
Thus John's story can be explained perfectly adequately without reference to any prior anti‑Christian polemic. In addition, John's story is perfectly capable of inadvertently suggesting an anti‑resurrection polemic, as we have seen. Our next task will be to examine the development of that polemic, that the gardener actually did remove the body of Jesus, and therefore that the resurrection was a faulty inference from the empty tomb.
Tertullian and Pseudo‑Bartholomew
The earliest extra‑biblical occurrence of the garden‑burial tradition is in Tertullian's De Spectaculis, XXX, where the late‑second-century theologian is wistfully envisioning his Christ‑rejecting Jewish opponents' terror at the Parousia of Christ: "This is he whom his disciples have stolen away secretly, that it may be said he is risen, or the gardener abstracted that his lettuces might not be damaged by the crowd of visitors!" Thus we can be certain that by about a century after John's gospel was written Jews offered these two alternative theories on why Jesus' tomb might have been found empty. Is there anything in the charge as Tertullian recounts it that could not have been derived from John? If there is, then we must reckon with the possibility that Tertullian's debating partners had knowledge of an independent and thus possibly prior form of the charge. But there is nothing new here. The one apparently new detail, the specific motive for removing the body, is probably just an inference from John's story. If Mary were correct and the gardener had moved the body, why would he have done it? Had he known a crowd of mourners were likely to come to see the resting place of the messianic pretender Jesus, he might indeed have been concerned about the fate of his lettuce crop.
Remember, it is not John but Matthew who makes the tomb that of Joseph of Arimathea, so an ancient reader of John's gospel would not assume any gardener to be an employee of Joseph and knowing of his master's wishes that Jesus be buried there. And though most probably a garden in which a tomb was built would have been a flower garden as in a modern cemetery, this detail, would be easy to confuse, especially if the reader wanted to create a motive for the gardener moving the body. So probably the understanding of the garden as a bed of vegetables is a polemically motivated reinterpretation of John's original story. We will see it again.
The garden tomb and the gardener appear again in another Christian source a few centuries later. In the apocryphal Book of the Resurrection attributed pseudonymously to the apostle Bartholomew, apparently written somewhere in the fifth, sixth, or seventh centuries, we discover that there actually was a gardener involved. His name is Philogenes, and he is the man mentioned in Mark 9:17ff, the father of the boy whose demon the disciples could not cast out. In this legendary embellishment of the canonical gospels, it is Mary the mother of Jesus, not Mary Magdalene, who visits the tomb, because of someone's confused reading of John. Mary approaches the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus and finds instead that the tomb is empty. As in John, she asks the gardener about it, only this time it really is the gardener, Philogenes. He explains that
For at the moment when the Jews crucified Jesus, they set out seeking a safe sepulchre wherein they might lay Him, so that His disciples might not come and carry Him away secretly by night. And I said unto them, "There is a tomb quite close to my vegetable garden, carry Him hither and lay Him in it, and I myself will keep watch over it." Now I thought in my heart saying: When the Jews have gone away [from the tomb] and have entered their houses, I will go to the tomb of my Lord, and I will carry Him away, and I will give Him spices, and a large quantity of sweet‑smelling unguents. And [the Jews] brought Him, and laid Him in the tomb, and they set a seal upon it, and they departed to their houses. [When Philogenes returns, he finds all the hosts of heaven assembled at the tomb.] "And the Father came forth out of the height.... and He came to the tomb of the Savior, and raised Him up from the dead. All these glorious things did I see, O my sister Mary.”6
This is surely a remarkable text. It has Jesus buried by his enemies as in Acts 13:29, the enemies being concerned to secure his tomb against violation as in Matthew 27: 64, and Mary (albeit the wrong one) visiting the garden tomb as in John 20:1. The women have not come to anoint the body as they do in Mark and Luke, but neither have Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea done it as in John. We may even catch an echo of the Gospel of Peter in the note that "the Jews... departed and entered into their houses" (cf. "... and many returned to their homes; the feast was over. We, the twelve disciples of the Lord, wept and were grief‑stricken. Each, grieving at what had happened, returned to his own house." Peter 58‑59)
One might conceivably argue that the Book of the Resurrection has preserved an independent tradition here, but it seems overwhelmingly more probable that we are dealing instead with a folk‑embellishment of the traditional gospel stories as half‑remembered by people who did not have private copies to check and could not keep the details straight (any more than many moderns can). What has popular tradition, as crystallized in the Book of the Resurrection, preserved concerning the garden tomb? Astonishingly, this Christian text actually admits that the gardener, himself a disciple of Jesus, had intended to remove the body secretly! This version of the story certainly shows awareness of the anti‑Christian polemics as it combines both major charges: the disciples stole the body, and the gardener moved the body from his vegetable garden. Now the gardener is a disciple! And though the text does not do a very effective job of rebutting these charges (an opponent would no doubt consider the ensuing resurrection‑appearance claim as begging the question), it is hard to deny a polemical intent here. In this Bartholomew pseudepigraphon we have evidence of what was not apparent in the original Johannine passage: an apologetical intent.
'Abd al‑Jabbar's "Gospel" Source
It is difficult, probably impossible, to date our next occurrence of the garden‑burial theme. It is imbedded in a polemical writing by 'Abd al‑Jabbar, a Muslim apologist, dated at 995 C.E. 'Abd al‑Jabbar is seeking to demonstrate by a convoluted argument, the details of which need not concern us here, that the Qur'an is correct in denying that Jesus really died on the cross. In the course of his argument he quotes substantial sections of what he believes to be one of the New Testament gospels, without saying which he thinks it is. In fact, it is none of them. S.M. Stern and F.F. Bruce seem to consider the interesting document an apocryphal Christian gospel.7 However, a close reading makes it absolutely clear that the text is in reality an early (at least pre‑995 C.E., but undatable) specimen of a Jewish anti‑Christian polemical literature whose more famous later examples are known as Toledoth Jeschu (more about these below). This is evident from the way Jesus is described as in uncontrollable hysterics before Herod and Pilate.8 No Christian (or Muslim) would have depicted Jesus in this manner. The narrative never shows Jesus in a particularly sympathetic or noble light.
Here are the passages relevant to our inquiry: "Pilate then returned him to Herod saying: 'I found in this man nothing which was said about him [i.e., previous accusations, as in the gospels] and there is nothing good in him.'" The death of Jesus is described in a particularly startling way: "Then at the end of the day they whipped him and brought him to a field of melons and vegetables and crucified him..." "Judas Iscariot met the Jews and asked them: 'What have you done with the man whom you took yesterday?' They answered: 'We have crucified him.' He was greatly astonished by this, but they said: 'We have verily done so, and if you want to know this for certain, go to that field of melons. 'He went there, and when he saw him he said: 'This is innocent blood, this is blameless blood.' Then he cursed the Jews. He took the thirty silver pieces which they had given him as wages for his betrayal, and threw them into their faces. Then he went to his house and hanged himself."
The reader will hardly have failed to notice what Stern calls "the curious detail that the cross was erected in a field of melons."9 Of course this detail comes from the garden‑burial tradition, especially in its anti‑Christian form, but why does the crucifixion take place there? I believe there is a satisfying solution to this puzzle, but I must be allowed an apparent digression before providing it. It is well known that early Christians had a large stock of testimonia, or proof‑texts, for use in debate with Jews.10 These were, of course, passages from the Jewish scriptures, which on the Christian interpretation were seen as prophetic predictions of Jesus as the Messiah. Such texts might be chosen from whichever Hebrew text‑form or even whichever translation in which the wording seemed best to tally with the events of Jesus' life. To take one famous example, Matthew chooses Isaiah 7:14 according to the Greek Septuagint to proof‑text the virgin birth, since only the Greek text contains a reference to a virgin. Similarly, to construct the scene of Matthew 27:3‑10, the evangelist has combined the Hebrew of Zechariah 11:12, in which the prophet is told to cast the thirty silver sheckels "to the potter," and the Syriac of the same verse, in which the command is to cast the coins "into the treasury." I want to suggest that the Jewish text cited by 'Abd al‑Jabbar is similarly constructed, at least as to certain interesting details, from a Rabbinic, anti‑Christian, reading of a scriptural text interpreted as a prediction of Jesus as a false messiah embraced by pagans. The text so used would have been Jeremiah 10:1‑5.
1. "Hear the word which the LORD spoke to you, O house of Israel.
2. Thus says the LORD: 'Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them,
3. for the customs of the peoples are false. A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman.11
4. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
5. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Be not afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good." (RSV)
I suggest that a rabbi seeking scriptural condemnation of the false religion of the Gentiles with their crucified false messiah would very likely have noticed the utility of this text when interpreted in the manner I will propose.
Verses 1‑3a would be seen as a warning to Jews not to succumb to Christian/Gentile preaching about Jesus. Verse 3b would be referred to the preparation of the cross. Verse 4b would envision the nailing of Jesus to the cross so that he could not escape. Verse 5b shows the futility of elevating the dead Jesus to godhood, as Gentiles have done. Once there existed an alternate form of this text, attested both in the LXX and in Qumran (4Q Jerb)12 which transposed verse 5 after verse 9, omitting some other wording. The Jerusalem Bible's reconstruction of the text reflects the result: "they dress them up in violet and purple; they fix them with nail and hammer to prevent them from falling. Scarecrows in a melon patch, and dumb as these, they have to be carried, cannot walk themselves. Have no fear of them: they can do no harm--nor any good either!" We saw that Christian testimonia might be drawn from the most promising textual tradition or translation. Might not the same have held true for anti‑testimonia? If our rabbinic exegete had available the LXX/Qumran textual tradition as well as the Masoretic Text,13 the oracle would even have seemed to predict the Roman guards' dressing Jesus in purple robes prior to his crucifixion (Mark 15:1 6ff)! If so much of Jeremiah 10:1‑5 seemed to predict the death of the false prophet Jesus, perhaps a polemicist would (like the evangelist Matthew: recall Joseph of Arimathea's own tomb and Judas' throwing the silver to the treasury and, indirectly, to the potter) go on to add new details to the "fulfillment" from the "prediction. " I believe that the writer of the anti‑gospel quoted by 'Abd al‑Jabbar did just that. He saw in the crucified Jesus Jeremiah's scarecrow in a melon patch. Thus the crucifixion as we read it in 'Abd al‑Jabbar's source. Not only that, but the Jeremiah text would also explain why Pilate is pictured not only echoing Luke 23:4/John 19:6 ("I find no crime in this man"/"l find no crime in him") but also adding "and there is nothing good in him." Compare Jeremiah 10:5c: "they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good" (RSV).
So the garden‑burial becomes a garden‑crucifixion in the Jewish anti‑gospel used by 'Abd al‑Jabbar, apparently under the influence of an anti‑Christian "tesimonium" exegesis of Jeremiah 10 :1‑5 . The document used by 'Abd al‑Jabbar contains the only instance in the whole tradition of the crucifixion occurring in the garden. This, too, would imply that instead of drawing on common Jewish tradition, it is citing the special exegesis of an individual. Another, much simpler, occurrence of the garden‑burial tradition, perhaps more‑or‑less contemporary with 'Abd al‑Jabbar's undatable source, meets us in the Epistola contra Judaeos of Amulo, Archbishop of Lyons (ninth century). He merely quotes the familiar Jewish tradition that Jesus' tomb was "in a certain garden full of cabbages."
The Toledoth Jeschu
Our next stop on the journey is the fourteenth century Jewish anti‑gospel, the Toledoth Jeschu ("Generations of Jesus" ), the edition of Wagenseil.14 Here Jesus is pictured as a magician and false prophet (cf. Bar‑Jesus in Acts 13:6), who gains the power to work miracles through the divine Tetragrammaton, the secret name of God. He is leading many Jews astray, proclaiming his own divinity. The Jewish elders meet in counsel and at length an elder named Judas volunteers to learn the divine name so as to gain powers to rival those of Jesus. He does, and an aerial battle (obviously borrowed from the Peter vs. Simon Magus legends) ensues. It proves inconclusive, but eventually Judas contrives to rob Jesus of his powers. Jesus tells his disciples of his plan to go to Jerusalem for the Passover and there relearn the divine name and so regain his powers. Judas overhears this and warns the elders. Jesus walks into an ambush in the temple, and Judas points out Jesus to the soldiers. He is stoned to death and his corpse is then hung on a tree. Then "they buried the Fatherless [i.e., Jesus] in the place where he was stoned. And when midnight was come, the disciples came and seated themselves on the grave, and wept and lamented him. Now when Judas saw this, he took the body away and buried it in his garden under a brook. He diverted the water of the brook elsewhere; but when the body was laid in its bed, he brought its waters back again into their former channel.
"Now on the morrow, when the disciples had assembled and had seated themselves weeping, Judas came to them and said, Why weep you? [= John 20:13]. Seek him who was buried [= Mark 16:6; Matthew 28: 5]. And they dug and sought, and found him not, and all the company cried, He is not in the grave; he is risen and ascended into heaven, for, when he was yet alive, he said, He would raise him up [= Matthew 27:63], selah!" The rumor of the resurrection spreads, and the elders try to find the body of Jesus. The Queen has threatened to execute them as killers of the true Christ if they cannot prove by producing the corpse that the resurrection is all a mistake. But Jesus' corpse is not to be found. In despair one of the elders, Tanchuma, happens upon Judas "sitting in his garden." Tanchuma explains the reason for his dejection: "Jeschu the Fatherless is the occasion, for he was hung up and buried on the spot where he was stoned; but now he is taken away, and we know not where he is gone [= John 20:13]. And his worthless disciples cry out that he is ascended into heaven. Now the Queen has condemned us Israelites to death unless we find him."
Judas offers, "It was I who took the Fatherless from his grave. For I feared lest his disciples should steal him away [= Matthew 27:64], and I have hidden him in my garden and led a water brook over the place." The resurrection is exposed, but of course, this leads only to greater persecution of the Jews by the Christian authorities, the very bitterness which eventually gave birth to anti‑gospels like this one. It is clear that the author of the Wagenseil Toledoth Jeschu was at least somewhat conversant with the canonical gospels, as he refers to them again and again, albeit confusedly and out of context. But the most extravagant instance of such confused reference is the burial of Jesus in Judas' own garden. Surely there is no gospel precedent for this detail? Surprisingly, it seems that the anti Christian polemical tradition has unconsciously melded the harmonized Judas stories of Matthew and Acts with John's gardener, because Acts says Judas "bought a field with the reward of his wickedness" (1:18). Judas' "Field of Blood" was readily confused with the garden burial
place of Jesus since the latter had for centuries been understood by Jewish polemicists as a vegetable garden or cultivated field. Thus Jesus comes to be buried in the garden of Judas!
We can trace the tradition no further, but through the long process of its evolution we have determined that far from influencing the Gospel of John, the subsequent anti‑Christian garden‑burial tradition has repeatedly been influenced, modified, and reinterpreted in the light of various biblical texts. The process whereby the garden‑burial tradition mutated proved to be not unlike the way in which various biblical stories themselves evolved, i.e., the reinterpretation, conflation, extrapolation, and harmonization of earlier biblical texts and traditions. Like a tomb, the tradition I have examined hides many old secrets, which I have tried to bring to light, and like a garden, the tradition has proved surprisingly fruitful with new embellishment and embroidery.
1. Hans von Campenhausen, Der Ablouf der Osterereignisse und das leere Grab, S. H. A. phil.‑hist Kl (Neidelberg: C. Winter, 1958 ), p. 32. Von Campenhausen did not base his suggestion on primary study of the Jewish traditions themselves but on S. Kraus, Das Leben Jesu nach judischen Quellen (1902), pp. 170ff. Von Campenhausen seems later to have backed off from the suggestion.
2. Reginald H. Fuller (The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives [New York: Macmillan, 1971], p. 137) rejects von Campenhausen's suggestion, though he does believe the Johannine account reflects (and seeks implicitly to refute) the similar Jewish charge that Jesus' disciples made away with his corpse. Raymond E. Brown (The Gospel according to John, Xl I I‑XXI [Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970], p. 990) calls von Campenhausen's theory "tenuous."
3. "But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who... dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion" Origen, Contra Celsum ( Henry Chadwick, trans. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980], p. 109).
4. J.N.D. Anderson seeks to refute such skeptics on this point in his Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale Press, 1969), p. 93. Hugh J. Schonfield advocates a variant of this theory in his The Passover Plot (New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1965), pp. 175‑176 . Most recently John K. Naland suggests that, just as Mary inferred, the body of Jesus had in fact been removed elsewhere for permanent burial ("The First Easter: The Evidence for the Resurrection Evaluated," Free Inquiry, Spring 1988, p. 18).
5. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, Vol. II (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970), p. 1009.
6. E.A. Wallis Budge, Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London: Longmans and Co., 1913), pp. 188‑189. The work is very sketchily summarized by W. Schneemelcher in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher (eds.), New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. I, Gospels and Related Writings (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), p. 507, and summarized somewhat more fully by M.R. James in his Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1972), pp. 181‑186. The relevant portion of Philogenes' report to Mary is quoted in Schonfield, The Passover Plot, p. 171.
7. S.M. Stern, "Quotations from Apocryphal Gospels in 'Abd al‑Jabbar," Journal of Theological Studies, New Series Volume XVIII, Pt. 1, April, 1967, p. 40; F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 179‑182.
8. Stern, p. 43.
9. Stern, p. 45.
10. See the classic discussion, C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), especially Chapter 11, "Testimonies," pp. 28‑60; also Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968); Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), Chapter III, "Early Christian Preaching and the Old Testament," pp. 79‑103.
11. From the reference to the tree being "cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman" (Jeremiah 10:3b), I am tempted to see a rabbinic application to the strange Christian legend that "Joseph the carpenter planted a garden because he needed the wood for his trade. It was he who made the cross from the trees which he planted. His own offspring hung on that which he planted. His offspring was Jesus and the planting was the cross" (Gospel of Philip, 73:9‑15). There is even another connection between Jesus crucifixion and a garden here! There is no other known attestation of this legend, however, so we cannot assume it was widespread, though it may have been.
12. See Frank Moore Cross, Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961 ), p. 187; also see William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1 986), pp. 324‑326.
13. The later we imagine our rabbinic exegete the less likely this becomes, given the standardization of the Masoretic Text between 90 and 100 C.E., but we have no way of dating 'Abd al‑Jabbar's source, much less the exegetical resources upon which it may have drawn.14. A good synopsis including extensive quotations of the most important portions, as well as a discussion of the Toledoth Jeschu in its various versions, may be found in Sabine Baring‑Gould, Lost and Hostile Gospels; An essay on the Toledoth Jeschu, and the Petrine and Pauline Gospels of the First Three Centuries of which Fragments Still Remain (London: Williams and Norgate, 1874). The material quoted in our discussion may be found on pages 77‑89.