SPECIAL TOPIC: CREMATION

I. OLD TESTAMENT

A. Cremation (burning) was one of the four ways to inflict capital punishment in Leviticus (cf. Lev. 20:14; 21:9, examples, Gen. 38:24 and Jos. 7:15,25).

B. People friendly with Saul, reclaimed his body and those of his three sons from the Philistines and burned (BDB 976, LXX) them before burying their bones in the land of Benjamin (cf. 1 Sam. 31:12-13, omitted in the parallel of 1 Chr. 10:12). This text is the only seemingly positive cremation in the OT (cf. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 5, p. 1074). It may also refer to burning spices at the grave site (cf. 2 Chr. 16:14; 21:19; Jer. 34:5).

C. Burning corpses was a symbol of judgment.

1.  a Judean prophet predicts the burning of the priests at Bethel on its sacrificial altar (cf. 1 Kgs. 13:2)

2.  in the eschaton the foreign invaders of Canaan will be burned and buried (cf. Ezek. 39:11-16)

3.  in connection with a plague of judgment in Amos 6:10 (i.e., difficult text)

D. The issue of cremation has sometimes been falsely linked to the OT use of fire as a metaphor for judgment (cf. Isa. 30:33). Cremation metaphors (i.e., "pyre") are used to accentuate eschatological condemnation.

E. Cremation was seen as a humiliation (cf. Amos 2:1).

F. Burial was practiced by all of the countries of the Ancient Near East (cf. Roland deVaux, Ancient Israel, vol. 1, p. 57).  

II.  RABBINICAL JUDAISM

A. Most early rabbis assert that burying is commanded by Deut. 21:23.

B. Cremation is forbidden in the Talmud (Sanh. 7:2,24b) and Mishna ('Abodiah Zarah 1.3).

C. Modern Judaism allows those cremated to be placed in Jewish cemeteries (cf. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 5, p. 1074), possibly influenced by the cremation of Jews by the Nazis.

III. GREECE AND ROME

A. Both of these civilizations practiced cremation.

1. Greece regularly (Sophocles, Electra, 1136-1139)

2. Rome as a viable, but not common, option (Cicero, Deleg 2,22,56)

B. The cultures of the Mediterranean had a different attitude toward cremation than the cultures of the Ancient Near East. Tacitus mentions that the Jews bury, not burn (Hist. 5.5)

IV. NEW TESTAMENT

There is no discussion or mention of this subject in the NT. The physical body is viewed as a temporary shelter (cf. 2 Corinthians 5). Something of the old body will be reunited with the believer at the Second Coming, but there are no details or explanations (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18). This is simply not an issue of "faith and practice" for Christians. Like the Jews of the OT, believers of the NT assert a bodily resurrection. There is a physicalness to eschatology, but the how or why is not specified! The condition or location of the physical remains do not affect a believer's reunion with Jesus. Faith in Christ is the key, not physical remains!

 

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