This topic is particularly exciting for me as it is based on those things that interest me the most: the Word of God, biblical archaeology, and the science behind essential oils.
The burial of Jesus in John 19:38 – 40 (NIV) describes the preparation of his body following his crucifixion and death:
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.
Jewish burial customs dictated that a body could not be left in the city overnight, and so had to be prepared for burial and buried on the same day as death occurred. The aloes used in this verse are unique, and not the same species of aloe mentioned in the Old Testament of the bible. They are also not the same as the versatile and well-known aloe vera we use today for many applications. According to a number of sources, the species of aloe used in the New Testament and ancient embalming practices is Aloe succatrina  . This is a member of the lily family and the extract from the fleshy leaves has no scent of its own. The myrrh was added to the aloe sap before being used to prepare a body for burial.
Not only was Jesus’ body prepared according to Jewish burial customs, but also according to the norms for the late Roman period. The body was typically wrapped in shrouds which were either sprinkled or pasted with aromatic resins and perfumes. The shrouds were most often strips of fabric, but in some instances whole sheets of linen were used to wrap the deceased. Some bodies were encased in plaster. Archaeological evidence reveals that plant exudates from the sub-family Pinaceae (pines, firs and larches) and the Burseraceae family (frankincense being the most well-known in this family) were often used in the preparation of a body for burial. Species belonging to the genus Pinus (Pine), Boswellia (which is made up of 23 species including frankincense or olibanum), and Pistacia (including mastic and terebinth) were important in burial rituals; either as a symbol of mourning, or a means of preparation for burial. The aromatic perfumes and resins used in burials had a dual purpose. Perhaps the more obvious reason to use perfumes and aromatic resins is to mask the inevitable smell of decay. The other purpose is related to the chemical properties of the oils, which slow the process of decay and protect the body from insect scavenging .
Embalming is also mentioned in the bible and was a different process to that of burial and was not in use in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death. This practice was adopted from Egypt and was the method of interment used by Joseph and his father, Israel, who were embalmed by Egyptian physicians (see Genesis 50:2, 26). It is believed that Joseph was in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom period when Sesostris II and Sesostris III were pharaohs. This would place his death and embalming between 1878 BC and 1843 BC . When a body was being prepared for embalming, the insides were taken out (to be delicate about it) and the body cavity stuffed with natron (a salt made up of sodium bicarbonate and sodium carbonate), linen cloths and bandages soaked in resin. The body was then soaked in natron (a powdered form at the time of Joseph’s embalming) for a period of 40 days to allow complete desiccation. The internal stuffing would be replaced with fresh packages of sawdust mixed with plant extracts such as myrrh, frankincense, cassia cinnamon, and other aromatic resins. Sometimes they might throw in a couple of onions too (I found that amusing. I wonder who first had the thought to stuff an onion inside). Balms made from beeswax or hot liquid resins would then be applied to the body to seal it from absorbing atmospheric moisture. These balms and resin coatings contained wood oils, spices, perfumes and aromatic resins . For rich nobles, the body would then be wrapped in bandages soaked in resins and placed in a rectangular coffin. This is likely the procedure that was used to embalm Israel and Joseph.
The resins and sawdust that were used during the embalming process belonged to coniferous trees such as pine, juniper, or cedar wood. Juniper cones (Juniperus phoenicea) are often found in Egyptian graves, and so it is reasonable to believe that they would have been used in the embalming process too. Other essential oils discovered in the embalming materials of well-preserved mummies belong to cedar wood (Cedrus librani), pine (Pinus sp.), juniper (Juniperus communis), mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), myrrh (Commiphora sp.), cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), onions (Allium cepa), lichen (Peltigera canina), and henna (Lawsonia inermis) .
Both burial and embalming, while being very different procedures, used similar plant extracts. These included pine, mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), terebinth (also known as turpentine tree, Pistacia terebinthus L) , and frankincense. Myrrh is another aromatic resin that was used in both burial customs and embalming procedures . These plant extracts, or more accurately the chemical components that are contained in the essential oils, are antibacterial, antiseptic, antifungal, and insects. These properties would have provided the bodies of departed loved ones with some protection from the natural processes of decay; and preserved the remains for as long as possible.
- Z. Wlodarczyk, “Review of Plant Species Cited in the Bible,” Folia Horticulturae, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 67-85, 2007.
- M. C. Tenney, The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974.
- R. C. Brettell, E. M. Schotsmans, P. Walton Rogers, N. Reifarth, R. C. Redfern, B. Stern and C. P. Heron, “’Choicest unguents’: Molecular Evidence for the Use of Resinous Plant Exudates in Late Roman Mortuary Rites in Britain,” Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 53, pp. 639-648, 2015.
- C. Aling, “Joseph in Egypt: Part 1,” Associates for Biblical Research, 18 February 2010. [Online]. Available: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/02/18/Joseph-in-Egypt-Part-I.aspx#Article. [Accessed 14 June 2017].
- G. Abdel-Maksoud and A.-R. El-Amin, “A Review on the Materials used During the Mummification Processes in Anicent Egypt,” Mediterranean Archeaology and Archaeometry, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 129-150, 2011.
- G. W. Van Beek, “Frankincense and Myrrh,” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 69-95, 1960