One reader writes: (1) Do the Greek terms used in John 20:5-8 or Luke 24:12 give any definite indication how the grave-clothes of Jesus were lying in the sepulchre—whether (a) lying flat or collapsed; (b) stiffened and retaining the form of the body by the congealing of the spices; or (c) folded, as described in Nazareth Revisited? (2) Does the expression “wrapped together” mean that the napkin was still twisted into the shape of a turban? (3) Can any inference be safely drawn from the absence or mention of the spices, such as that they were still undisturbed within the folds of the linen? (4) What is to be gathered from the special emphasis which John places on the fact that the napkin was apart from the sindon, “in a place by itself,” coupled with Luke’s expression that the linen clothes were “laid by themselves”? (6) Supposing the reply should be affirmative for (a) or (b), would that lead to any conclusion as to the qualities of the resurrection body? Would it imply that though it “hath flesh and bones” it has not the same physical limitations as the “natural body,” but could pass out of the wrappings without disturbing them?

Answer: This enquiry sets out with definiteness and clearness a number of questions which have been put to us by others. We have numbered the questions and will answer them seriatim at the end.

The ideas behind this enquiry were put forward in a book, The Risen Master, by Henry Latham, M.A., published in 1901. Latham’s thesis was not original, but was based, with all acknowledgments, upon a pamphlet written more than 20 years earlier by Arthur Beard. Latham says, “I make out that John would have us understand that the body had disappeared out of the grave-clothes, as though it had passed into air, leaving them, flat and fallen together, on the stone slab.” He quotes Beard as follows: “John saw all this, and understood that the Lord had risen, because the grave-clothes were undisturbed…we understand from his history that when Jesus rose from the dead, He withdrew from His grave-clothes without disturbing their arrangement; on His retiring from them, the linen clothes fell flat on the rock, because their support was withdrawn, and because they were borne down by the hundred pounds’ weight of aloes and myrrh.” Latham speaks of the body “quietly exhaling into space.”

Latham lays stress on the spices, and a sentence or two are interesting in connection with these questions. He says: “There is one point of which I shall make much, but which I have hardly seen noticed in books. It is the matter of the hundred pounds’ weight of spice. This spice was dry; the quantity mentioned is large; and if the clothes had been unwrapped, the powdered myrrh and aloes would have fallen on the slab, or on the floor, in a very conspicuous heap.” He then finds evidence that the clothes were not unwrapped from the omission of any reference in the narrative to these spices heaped together. But this is of doubtful value as proof. He quotes Ellicott (we have verified the reference): “The myrrh and aloes were probably mixed, and in the form of a coarse powder freely sprinkled between the clothes with which the body was swathed.”

So far as our investigations have gone practically all writers who put forward this grave-clothes theory quote Latham. A modification of Latham’s view is to be found in a book, The Empty Tomb and the Risen Lord, by C. C. Dobson. The same author had previously written The Story of the Empty Tomb and a pamphlet The Tomb of our Lord and what happened there, neither of which are now available. This writer mentions the Christadelphians in a way that indicates his view is opposed to theirs. He says: “One cannot but feel that in God’s own wisdom this new light has of wise purpose been withheld until such time as the present, when the divinity of Our Lord and the fact of His Resurrection are being more especially challenged by Unitarians, Christadelphians, Christian Scientists, and a host of others, and perhaps most of all by modern Spiritualists.” Here is indeed a strange assortment; and it is difficult to fit ourselves into the same mould as the others named. The doctrine of the Trinity we of course repudiate; and this may be what is meant by the challenge to the divinity of Christ. But our ardent belief that Jesus was the Son of God separates us from the others. And as for the resurrection of Christ, for over 50 years the cover of The Christadelphian has carried the words “Christ rose.”

This modification of Latham’s theory lies in the suggestion that the grave-clothes after the resurrection of Jesus retained the shape of the body, a kind of empty shell. He speaks of Latham’s view as a “beautiful theory”; and describes as an “assumption” the view that all the spices were rolled in the folds of the linen. His own view is that the bulk was laid as a kind of “bed” on which was placed the body of Jesus. He affirms that such a quantity of spices enfolded in the linen clothes would not have collapsed, as “they would have formed too solid an encasement.” But the word “assumption” also applies to the modification of Latham’s view; it also asserts that the body of Jesus “vanished without disturbing the grave-clothes,” which remained “stretched-out retaining the shape of the body.” “His body had miraculously vanished”—“had passed through” the grave-clothes, having “evanesced.”

As the book The Empty Tomb speaks of the clothes being probably disturbed by Peter and John, and thus losing their evidential value, and also of the women having visited the tomb “with the intention of unwrapping the body,” we wrote the author to ask him if he thought the spices were used dry, and if they set hard. He replied that he thought the myrrh and aloes would be supplied ready mixed, but “they would be hardly wet or liquid, and yet it would not be entirely loose and dry.” He adds: “The point really depends on what a mixture of Myrrh and Aloes was really like. I do not know, but assume what I suggest as probable. Latham seems to have overlooked the Myrrh, and is thinking only in terms of loose spices. But the point needs deeper investigation.”

Both the original theory and its modification, which is called “new light,” rests on the interpretation of John 20:5-8, as will have appeared from the question. We quote the passage. “And John stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw and believed.”

Now if the Greek terms of this passage gave clear indication of any disposition of the grave-clothes such as is put forward in the theory we are considering, surely it would have been discerned, before this “new light” broke on the subject, by some of the many Greek scholars who have applied themselves to the text. But what do we find? Not a hint of the idea that the clothes retained their folds as they had enveloped the body of Jesus, and that the napkin retained a turban shape. Wordsworth (Greek Text) truly speaks of the mixture of myrrh causing the clothes to adhere tenaciously to the body, but so far is he from finding in the Greek text any suggestion of the clothes retaining their shape as when surrounding the body, that he says: “For if anyone had taken away, or stolen it, they would not have spent so much time, or been at the pains to unwrap it, and to lay the clothes apart, and to wrap the napkin by itself.”

On this question of the mixed spices adhering to the body, Latham says that the effect of the anointing of the body was to make the powder immediately in contact with the body to adhere, but the bulk would remain dry. But in the case of Jesus this anointing was omitted, probably due to the need for haste.

Alford suggests that the clothes were lying where the feet were, nearer the entrance, while the napkin lay farther in.

The Expositor’s Greek Testament finds in the description of the clothes “evidence that the body had not been hastily snatched for burial elsewhere. Had the authorities or anyone else taken the body they would have taken it as it was.” The position of the napkin “gave them even stronger proof that there had been no hurry. The napkin was neatly folded and laid “into one place,” the linens being in another. They felt in the tomb as if they were in a chamber where one had divested himself of one set of garments to assume another… Standing and gazing at the folded napkin, John saw the truth. Jesus has himself risen and disencumbered himself of these wrappings…the emptied and orderly grave…the empty grave and the folded napkin.” The Cambridge Greek Testament: John, says: “The careful arrangement of the grave-clothes proved that the body had not been taken away in haste or by a foe.” We can hardly think all these writers would have missed so striking an indication of arrangement of the clothes as the theory requires had the Greek clearly supported it.

The R.V. substitutes “rolled up” for “wrapped together” in the case of the napkin. But this does not necessarily mean rolled up as a turban: it can mean “rolled up” as a table-napkin or a sheet of paper is rolled.

Westcott, Milligan and Moulton, and a host of other writers treat the words in the sense of the extracts quoted.

We come now to the question of the spices. Aloes and Myrrh are both resinous products of trees: in the case of the aloes it has been argued that the preparation used for burial and embalming consisted of the powdered wood. They must have been easily available, either separately or mixed; and in a form easily handled. This feature alone seems to require that it was used in a dry ground form, either as a coarse or fine powder. In an endeavour to ascertain definite information as far as possible, we asked bro. R. Mallinder, of Derby, who is an analytical chemist, to find out the effects of mixing the two spices, and the “setting” qualities. This he did, and sent us samples of myrrh, and aloes, and of a mixture of the two in powder form. He also sent two samples of muslin impregnated with the mixture, one having been wetted with water and the other with alcohol. These of course have set, since both spices are resinous; but the dry mixture is still as free as when received over a month ago. In his covering letter bro. Mallinder says: “When heated to the temperature of boiling water, they do not set. When wet with water or spirit, part of each will dissolve and so you get a gummy paste, drying to a hard mass.”

Is there any indication as to the method used by Joseph and Nicodemus, when they used the kingly quantity of spices in burying the body of Jesus? Seventy-five pounds of spices, in English weight, would not be handled easily if in a sticky state. Time was short—the work reverently but hurriedly done. The women saw the work finished; they beheld the tomb, and went home to prepare ointments, with which they returned at dawn on the first day of the week.

The usual practice was to anoint the body first and then roll it in linen cloths with the spices. There was apparently no time for the anointing at the time of burial and the women made preparation to make good this deficiency.

Two conclusions can be drawn with reasonable certainty from this fact. First, the absence of the anointing left wanting the moisture that caused the spices close to the body to adhere; second, the women went with full knowledge of the disposition of the body to perform a service that involved the unwrapping of the grave-clothes. They could not have done this, had those clothes, with the spices, formed into a hard enclosing shell. They knew what effects followed the methods employed by Joseph and Nicodemus, and were evidently not expecting to find the body inaccessible. This circumstance is sufficient to shew the spices were in powder form, and so remained until at least the third day.

These notes have already exceeded the usual limit of an answer, but sufficient has been said to set out our answers.

(1) The evidence of the Greek text does not appear to support either (a) that the grave-clothes were lying flat or collapsed; or (b) stiffened and retaining the form of the body. The general view is that the neatly folded grave linen shewed careful unhurried action.

(2) “Wrapped together” is from a word meaning “to roll, wrap up” (Liddell and Scott); “to roll in, wrap in” (Grimm-Thayer); it is used of the wrapping of the body of Jesus in the linen cloths (Matt 27:59; Luke 23:53) and of the napkin in this place in John. It is therefore not a description of the twisted shape of a turban; it might cover such, but must not be restricted to it.

(3) An inference from silence is not to be safely drawn. Why should the spices be mentioned?

(4) Apparently the napkin and the clothes had each been carefully folded or rolled up.

(5) Answers to (a) and (b) are negative; but being so, the consideration of what we think would be involved in affirmative answers to either, adds support to the conclusions reached. The resurrection of the body of Jesus differs from the resurrection of all others in one respect. His resurrection is the subject of a prophecy which requires that his flesh should not see corruption (Psa 16:10; Acts 2:27). The bodies of the vast majority of the saints are returned to dust; and will be refashioned therefrom. That the bodies of some have been burned, or eaten by lions, makes no difference. But in the case of the Lord Jesus the identity of the body is vital to the proof of the resurrection. He appealed to the stigmata in hands and side as proof that it was indeed himself. The same stigmata will yet have embarrassing and humbling effects upon Israel. But these prophecies involve the resurrection of the same body that was put in the tomb. “Christ died…was buried…hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures.” The empty tomb and the invitation to see the place where the Lord lay is one half of the evidence that is completed by the invitation, “Handle me and see that it is I myself” and the sight of hands and side.

The idea of a body that “evanesced” might fit with a doctrine of an immortal soul, but hardly harmonises with the promises of God that a seed of David should occupy his throne. Is not the continued identity of body the ground of Christ’s heirship to the throne? Is not that the argument of Peter in Acts 2:29-32? We do not know what are or are not the limitations of a “spiritual” body—they are a kind of fourth dimension, and outside our experience. But our ignorance does not invalidate the conclusions drawn.