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Mourning in the New Testament; Journal of Biblical Literature

Transcript of Mourning in Nt Jbl

  • JBL 129, no. 3 (2010): 559-574

    "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


    Philipps-Universitt Marburg, D-35037 Marburg, Germany

    In the NT, characters participate in mourning rituals from antiquity, includ-ing 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 Marthas neighbors come to the house of mourning to console them (John 11:17) and accompany the sor-rowing 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 contribu-tions 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 funda-mental features of ancient mourning rituals.

    For the translation of this article, I thank Linda Maloney. 1 In Matt 9:23 with flute players ().

    2 Matthew 11:16-17//Luke 7:32 asks for a reaction: "we wailed, and you did not weep." The

    heroic Jesus of Luke 23:27-28 asks the daughters of Jerusalem to stop beating their breasts and wailing for him (cf. Hercules in Seneca, Here. Ot. 1962-76).


  • 560 Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 3 (2010)


    Care for corpses and mourning for the dead were the work of women in antiq-uity, 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 main-tained with the dead. The custom of offering food to the dead could also be con-nected 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

    3 See Eugen Reiner, Die rituelle Totenklage bei den Griechen (Tbinger Beitrge zur Alter-

    tumswissenschaft 30; Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1938); Wilhelm Kierdorf, "Bestattung," DNP2.5S7-92; Leo Koep, Eduard Stommel, and Johannes Kollwitz, "Bestattung," RAC 2:194-219; Alexandra von Lieven, "Totenkult," DNP 12:707-14.

    4 See Emil Freistedt, Altchristliche Totengedchtnistage und ihre Beziehung zum Jenseits-

    glauben und Totenkultus der Antike (Liturgiegeschichtliche Quellen und Forschungen 24; Mnster: Aschendorff, 1928); Ulrich Volp, Tod und Ritual in den christlichen Gemeinden der Antike (Sup-plements to Vigiliae Christianae 65; Leiden: Brill, 2002), 225-27.

    5 See section IV below.

    6 See Hedwig Jahnow, Das hebrische Leichenlied im Rahmen der Vlkerdichtung (BZAW

    36; Gieen: Tpelmann, 1923). 7 Jeremiah 9:17-21; cf. 2 Sam 1:24; 2 Chr 35:25; Zech 12:11-14; and frequently elsewhere;

    see also Silvia Schroer, "Husliche und auerhusliche religise Kompetenzen israelitischer Frauen: Am Beispiel von Totenklage und Totenbefragung," in Haushalt, Hauskult, Hauskirche: Zur Arbeitsteilung der Geschlechter in Wirtschaft und Religion (ed. Elmar Klinger et al; Wrzburg: Echter, 2004), 9-34, esp. 13-26.

  • Standhartinger: What Women Were Accustomed to Do 561

    Biblicarum has the lament of Jephthahs 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 addi-tional 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 histori-cal knowledge. Modern ethnography can thus help to interpret evidences of a cul-ture that is not well documented in literary and archaeological remains.

    Ancient evidence, interpreted with the help of ethnographical studies, attests the following basic structures in the mourning songs or songs of lament:

    The songs of lament call on other mourning women or nature to act as wit-nesses and to join in their lament.10

    8 Nevertheless, there are a few women's literary laments, at least in the Jewish-Hellenistic

    and rabbinic writings. For example, the lament of Jephthahs daughter Sheila in LA.B. 40:5-7 takes up some typical motifs from the Greek mourning tradition. In four sections at the begin-ning the mountains, hills, cliffs, and heaven are called on to witness the lament (40:5). Then Sheila mourns her lost youth and the marriage she has not enjoyed, and, in a modulation of the theme, her mother's labor in vain. Death will be her (already prepared) marriage with the underworld (40:6). Finally, nature (trees and animals) is again called on to lament and to care for the dead (40:7). Mothers mourn in 4 Ezra 9:38-10:4 and 4 Mace 16:6-11 over the loss of their children, con-trasting their labors as well as their former happiness with their present misery. See further T. Job 25. The rabbinic tradition is aware that mourning is primarily the work of women (m. Moced Qat. 4:1), knows their antiphonal songs (ibid.), and requires that everyone hire at least two flute play-ers and a mourning woman for a dead wife (m. Ketub. 4:4). In the name of Rab, b. Moced Qat. 28b offers quotations from the mourning songs of the women of Shokenzeph in Aramaic, that is, the common language. For the typical motifs employed here, see Emanuel Feldman, "The Rabbinic Lament: Estrangement and Desacralization," in idem, Biblical and Post-biblical Defilement and Mourning: Law as Theology (Library of Jewish Law and Ethics; New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1977), 109-37, esp. 129-32. Cf. also Sem. 13:13.

    9 Jahnow, Leichenlied; Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge: Cam-

    bridge University Press, 1974); Holst-Wahrhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Lit-erature (London/New York: Routledge, 1992).

    10 Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 40:5-7. See Margaret Alexiou and Peter Dronke, "The

    Lament of Jephthahs Daughter: Themes, Traditions, Originality," Studia medievali, ser. 3, 12 (1971): 819-83.

  • 562 Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 3 (2010)

    Antiphonal singing, meter, and dialogical structure shape the form.11 The contrasting of happiness and unhappiness, then and now, life and death

    is constitutive.12 The central theme is the encounter with pain and the misery and feeling of

    abandonment on the part of the survivors.13 The circumstances of the death14 and the fate of the dead in the underworld

    are also described.15 The lament is an expression of protest against death and its consequences

    for the survivors.16 There is often a dialogue between the survivors and the dead. The deceased

    is called on to console those who remain behind.17 In some mourning songs the mourners imagine that death has not occurred

    and that they will meet the deceased person again.18 Finally, the deceased not only may be called on or summoned up, but also

    may speak through the mourners and say words of farewell to those who remain behind.19

    11 For the underlying antiphonal structure, see Nadia Seremetakis, "The Ethics of

    Antiphony: The Social Construction of Pain, Gender, and Power in the Southern Ploponnse," Ethos 18 (1990): 481-511.

    12 See Reiner, Totenklage, 15-16; Alexiou, Lament, 131-85, as well as, e.g., Helenas lament

    (Homer, //. 24.