Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

"What Women Were Accustomed to Do for the Dead Beloved by Them" (Gospel of Peter 12.50): Traces of Laments and Mourning Rituals in Early Easter, Passion, and Lord's Supper Traditions

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

"What Women Were Accustomed to Do for the Dead Beloved by Them" (Gospel of Peter 12.50): Traces of Laments and Mourning Rituals in Early Easter, Passion, and Lord's Supper Traditions

Article excerpt

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In the NT, characters participate in mourning rituals from antiquity, including Jewish rites. Tabitha, after her death, is laid out in her house, and widows keen over her (Acts 9:37, 39). Loud weeping and wailing are heard in the house of the dead daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:38-39 par.).1 Mary and Martha's neighbors come to the house of mourning to console them (John 11:17) and accompany the sorrowing Mary to the tomb. Others follow in the funeral procession for the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:13). Mourning women follow the condemned Jesus to the place of execution (Luke 23:27).2 During and after the burial of Stephen, pious men raise a loud lament (Acts 8:2). Women are present also at Jesus' burial (Mark 15:47 parr.) and visit the tomb on the third day (Mark 16:1 parr.)

What seems to be missing, at first glance, is mourning for Jesus, but in my opinion this is a misleading impression. In harmony with a number of contributions in recent years I would like, in what follows, to show that mourning rituals and lament traditions are presupposed and theologically reflected upon by some of the Easter and passion accounts. To begin with, let me point to a number of fundamental features of ancient mourning rituals.


Care for corpses and mourning for the dead were the work of women in antiquity, just as in traditional societies in the modern era.3 The mourning began at the moment of death and continued through the burial and at the tomb. Mourning songs and visits to the tomb took place over a long period of time, for example, on the third, seventh, ninth, thirtieth, or fortieth day.4 In this way, contact was maintained with the dead. The custom of offering food to the dead could also be connected to preserving the memory of those who had died.5 In caring for the dead through burial and mourning, it was the purpose of mourning laments to touch those present and give expression to their sorrow.6 This served to catalyze the pain they were feeling, giving space to their grief, and so also offer something to hold on to.

Lament for the dead is a genre that existed in ancient cultures and continues to exist in many traditional modern cultures. In the OT, not to be mourned was regarded as a punishment. Mourning was loud and expressive (Amos 5:16). The mourning rites included the removal of ordinary garments, striking one's breast (Jer 32:9-12; 41:5-6), and breaking the bread of sorrow (Jer 16:6). Prophets call upon women to mourn for the dead.7

Although mourning the dead represents a widespread cultural phenomenon, only a few songs of lament have survived in the literature, and then only in a highly transformed state. The Iliad contains the laments of the women of Troy at the death of Hector (Homer, Il. 24.721-76); the books of Samuel offer us David's laments for Saul, Jonathan, and Abner (1 Sam 1:19-27; 2 Sam 3:33-34); the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum has the lament of Jephthah's daughter Sheila (40:5-7); and 4 Maccabees has a hypothetical lament of the heroic mother (16:6-11). Other examples could be added, but on the whole the findings are meager.8 Thus, lament for the dead is a phenomenon that, while it was undoubtedly practiced by people in the biblical world, is scarcely reflected in the literature. What is said about the content, form, and structures of ancient mourning songs must therefore be augmented by additional sources. Hedwig Jahnow, Margaret Alexiou, and Gail Holst-Wahrhaft have been able, using comparative cultural studies, to demonstrate continuities in the form and content of laments for the dead from Homer through ancient tragedy and the OT and into traditional societies in modern times.9 The problems in the cultural hermeneutics of such initiatives are currently under discussion, because they tend to generalize local and historical peculiarities. But for the question we are pursuing here they are at least helpful because they can fill lacunas of historical knowledge. …

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