Preparing for the Sabbath
Jesus was crucified on a Friday. For the Jews, this was the day of preparation before the Sabbath began at sundown—i.e., 6:00 P.M. (John 19:31). This particular Friday was part of the Passover Feast and also the second paschal day dedicated to the ceremonial wave sheaf offering (Leviticus 23:10–14). During the spring, before any grain could be harvested, stalks of barley were brought to the priest who waved the stalk before God. Then the harvesting could begin.
The Sabbath Day is the seventh day of the week, Saturday, the day God rested after spending six days creating the universe. However, as the Hebrews calculated time, the Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and continued until sundown on Saturday. After the sun set on Friday, the rules prohibiting working on the Sabbath were enforced.
Because of their sacred regard for the Passover, the Bible says the Jewish religious leaders asked Pilate's permission to break the legs of the three crucifixion victims to ensure their death before the Sabbath began (John 19:31). This practice was called crucifragium. With their legs broken, the victims couldn't raise themselves up to a T position to breathe. In the Y position, the victim couldn't breathe and suffocated. Using an iron mallet, the Roman soldiers crushed the legs, from the kneecaps down, of the two guerilla fighters. But they didn't break Jesus’ legs because he was already dead (John 19:32–33). The prophets had said that none of Jesus’ bones would be broken (Exodus 12:46; Number 9:12; Psalm 24:20; John 19:36; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:19).
According to Deuteronomy 21:22–23, anyone hanged on a tree was not to remain there overnight. Because the crucified person was under God's curse (Galatians 3:13), leaving him there overnight desecrated the land. Before crucifixion became an accepted method of execution, victims were impaled upon poles and left in prominent places where everyone could see them. The long sharp pole was thrust under the person's sternum. Sometimes only the victims’ heads were placed on top of the poles.
Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy and prominent member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. He was also a secret disciple of Jesus. Joseph owned the tomb where Jesus was buried. He and another Sanhedrin member, Nicodemus, provided the linen cloth and spices needed for burial. But before they could proceed, Joseph went to Pilate to request Jesus’ body (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43, 46; John 19:38–39). Under Roman law, someone crucified for sedition was left for the vultures. For Joseph to go to Pilate showed great courage and devotion.
Look in the Book
The Jewish historian Josephus, in The Jewish War, writes that the Jews “proceeded to that degree of impiety as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.” When three of Josephus’ acquaintances were crucified, he courageously asked the Roman Emperor Titus to take them from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea made a similar request to the Roman Governor Pilate.
After listening to Joseph's request, Pilate sent for the centurion in charge of the crucifixion and questioned him about the victims (Mark 15:44). The centurion said that he saw how Jesus died (Mark 15:39). In addition, four soldiers were required by Roman law to sign a document certifying that Jesus was dead. The soldiers, death specialists, were punished for falsifying information so they didn't make mistakes. After all this, Pilate released Jesus’ body to Joseph's care.
Pilate expressed surprise that Jesus was dead after only six hours on the cross (Mark 15:44). Yet it's clear he believed that Jesus was dead or he wouldn't have released Jesus’ body to Joseph of Arimathea. Since the Jewish religious leaders requested guards for the tomb, they, too, must have believed Jesus was dead. Pilate's approval of their request may reflect his belief in Jesus’ innocence.