Periodical Reviews -- By: Anonymous
BSac 148:592 (Oct 91) p. 487
“‘Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead’: Secondary Burial and Matt 8:21–22, ” Byron R. McCane, Harvard Theological Review 83 (1990): 31-43.
“Let the dead bury their own dead” is one of the hard sayings of Jesus that has not yielded an easy interpretation. McCane, however, presents a cultural context for the saying that apparently has never been suggested before.
He proposes that “secondary burial, a widespread burial custom among Jews in first-century Palestine, can solve the riddle of these verses” (p. 31). Secondary burial, known in Palestine as far back as the Chalcolithic Period (4500 to 3100 B.C.), was widely observed in the Roman Period. In the primary burial, usually on the same day as death, a corpse would be placed on a bench or shelf in a family tomb and allowed to decompose. When the bones were bare of unclean flesh the secondary burial took place. The bones were gathered and placed with previous burials in the final repository such as a wall niche or under a bench and thus the deceased was “gathered to his people” (e.g., Gen 35:29). In the Roman Period the final repository was often an ossuary, a small stone chest.
McCane adduces rabbinic literature to show the following: (1) Primary burial was followed by seven days of mourning. (2) An additional 30 days of less severe mourning followed. (3) Secondary burial took place about one year after death. (4) A son was required to rebury the bones of his father. (5) Normal life and rejoicing resumed the day after secondary burial.
These practices shed light on Matthew 8:21–22. It is unnecessary to suggest that the potential disciple was waiting for his father to die. His father probably had died and he was awaiting the secondary burial so he could be free of his familial responsibility and return to normal activity. This waiting period, however, might have been as much as 11 months. Jesus, with eschatological urgency, denied the disciple’s request for time.
BSac 148:592 (Oct 91) p. 488
The Lord’s comment in verse 22 has often been understood to mean, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” But in the light of secondary burial and the phrase “let the dead bury their own (ἑαυτῶν) dead,” Jesus likely meant, “Let the other dead in the family tomb rebury your father’s bones.” It remains, of course, one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, what McCane refers to as “an unforgettable, ironic one-liner” (p. 41). He says, “Secondary burial th...
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