Josephus and the Burial of the Crucified

I had a wonderful conversation recently, which lasted for hours and only ended because of concern about severe weather. It was with Matt Kovacs and Arick Mittler, formerly of Miami Valley Skeptics, now working on another project. We talked about a number of points which I cover in my book The Burial of Jesus, but one point that I don’t recall making there, and which I only mentioned after we stopped recording, seemed interesting enough to Matt and Arick that I thought I’d also mention it here.

In his The Jewish War, Josephus criticizes the Idumeans sharply for not burying their dead. He also contrasts this with Jewish concern to bury even the crucified. Would Josephus have written what he did, if the criticism of the Idumeans applied equally to his Roman patrons’ prohibition of burial of the crucified in Judaea? It seems unlikely.

Does this make it more likely that Ehrman is incorrect in his argument that we should assume that usual Roman practice, of preventing the burial of crucifixion victims, was imposed in Roman-governed Judaea? Does it increase the likelihood that, as even our earliest source says, Jesus was buried? It would not have been an honorable burial, to be sure, as I have explained elsewhere. But it would have been a burial, as required by the Torah.


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  • J

    Still leaves the problem that the penalty for Roman troops falling asleep on guard duty was *death*. We even have 1st-century herbal ‘energy drink’ recipes used by Roman troops to keep themselves awake all night.

    • James F. McGrath

      How are Roman recipes a problem for Jews burying the victims of crucifixion?

      You aren’t by any chance alluding to the story which the Gospel of Matthew adds to his story? Please don’t tell me you are so naive as to treat such a later apologetic addition to the tradition as something other than what it clearly is…

    • histrogeek

      Rules like that do have a tendency to be sporadically enforced depending on how close big wigs are, how much of an asshole the NCOs (read centurions and decurions) were, how much other soldiers cover for you.
      And I’m not sure that the tomb guards were Roman legionaires. They could have been mercenaries or local vigiles, rather than the full-blown soldiers.

      • James F. McGrath

        Again, that is something that Matthew adds to his source material, requiring implausible changes to the narrative he inherited. And so there is no point in discussing the practical logistics and plausibility of something that historical criticism suggests never actually happened.

  • Larry Behrendt

    If Ehrman is wrong, then why would Joseph of Arimathea have had to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body? Why couldn’t he have shown up at the cross to collect Jesus’ body as a routine matter? Mark says that Joseph’s request was an act of courage, indicating that what he was asking for may not have been the normal practice. Matthew’s statement that Joseph was rich implies the possibility that Joseph bribed Pilate. Luke indicates that Joseph had dissented from the decision of the Council to condemn Jesus, implying that if Joseph had not come forward, Jesus might have remained on the cross. John is similar to Luke, taking care to mention that Joseph was unlike other Jews.

    None of this shows that Jesus wasn’t buried, but it does tend to argue that burial of crucified Jews was not the normal practice. Doesn’t it? In which case, the passage you cited from Josephus seems to contradict the Gospel accounts. I’d leave it to you, the professional historian, to decide which account is more reliable, but I don’t see how these two accounts can be reconciled.

    • James F. McGrath

      I think that subsequent Gospels take steps to make Jesus’ burial more honorable, in ways that are not historically trustworthy. Looking at our earliest source, Joseph gives Jesus a dishonorable burial. The boldness required may not have been seeking permission to carry out a burial, but (1) the fact that, since Pilate was in town, the request had to go to him, and his reputation may have made one nervous, especially considering (2) the fact that this was a request for the body of someone against whom the accusation was claiming to be king, and however routine the request when Pilate was not there, one would not want to be misperceived as a sympathizer with the executed individual.

      • Larry Behrendt

        Good answer! But you ARE indicating that burial of crucified Judeans was not exactly routine, that it might have required at least a pro forma request to a powerful Roman official who might have regarded the petitioner as a confederate of the executed Jew. You seem to be indicating that it would not have been safe for Peter to approach Pilate for Jesus’ body. Some one like Joseph needed to step forward, someone with enough wealth and prestige to avoid being the next guy nailed to a cross. And of course, not every Jew had someone like Joseph in their corner! It might be better, then, to conclude that Jews often SOUGHT to bury their crucified fellow Jews, perhaps at some risk, and that they succeeded in at least some cases? I know this amounts to a great big “maybe,” but that’s all the evidence seems to allow.

        • James F. McGrath

          I’m not sure whether it was requesting the body that was what made him nervous, or the fact that he had to petition Pilate while he was present. Such requests could not normally have been sent to the governor, procurator, or prefect residing in Caesarea, since by the time a response was obtained, the Jewish law requiring burial before sundown would already have been broken. If I had to make a petition to the government about something in a routine fashion, it might come to seem trivial. If I was told on one occasion that I can ask the governor or the president himself, since he is in town, it would require some extra courage.

          It would not have been safe for Peter to request the body, for the same reasons that Peter seems to have fled town after Jesus was arrested.

          • Paul E.

            It may be worthwhile to distinguish between the text calling Joseph “bold,” and whether that translated into any state of mind on Joseph’s part, i.e. whether he was “nervous.” Mark provides no foundation for any of his knowledge of Joseph, let alone for something so intimate as Joseph’s state of mind. It may well be that Joseph’s actions as perceived by the later community were “bold” for all the reasons you’ve identified (and perhaps others), but in the moment, it may well have simply been a routine bureaucratic function.

    • John MacDonald

      Reductionists argue that both Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus’ burial might be legendary:
      1. Dennis R. MacDonald argues Joseph is a combination of King Priam, who courageously comes to Achilles’ camp to beg the body of his son Hector (Dennis MacDonald) and the Patriarch Joseph who asked Pharaoh’s permission to bury the body of Jacob in the cave-tomb Jacob had hewn for himself back beyond the Jordan (Genesis 50:4-5) (Miller). Whence Joseph’s epithet “of Arimathea”? Richard C. Carrier has shown that the apparent place name is wholly a pun (no historical “Arimathea” has ever been identified), meaning “Best (ari[stoV]} Disciple (maqh[thV]) Town.” Thus “the Arimathean” is equivalent to “the Beloved Disciple.” He is, accordingly, an ideal, fictive figure.

      2. Crossan and Miller and Miller note that the empty tomb narrative requires no source beyond Joshua (=Jesus, remember!) chapter 10. The five kings have fled from Joshua, taking refuge in the cave at Makkedah. When they are discovered, Joshua orders his men to “Roll great stones against the mouth of the cave and set men by it to guard them” (10:18). Once the mopping-up operation of the kings’ troops is finished, Joshua directs: “Open the mouth of the cave, and bring those five kings out to me from the cave” (10:22). “And afterward Joshua smote them and put them to death, and he hung them on five trees. And they hung upon the trees until evening; but at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees, and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set great stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day” (10:26-27). Observe that here it is “Jesus” who plays the role of Pilate, and that Mark needed only to reverse the order of the main narrative moments of this story. Joshua 10: first, stone rolled away and kings emerge alive; second, kings die; third, kings are crucified until sundown. Mark: Jesus as King of the Jews is crucified, where his body will hang till sundown; second, he dies; third, he emerges alive (Mark implies) from the tomb once the stone is rolled away.

      The vigil of the mourning women likely reflects the women’s mourning cult of the dying and rising god, long familiar in Israel (Ezekiel 8:14, “Behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz;” Zechariah 12:11, “On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo;” Canticles 3:1-4, “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but found him not; I called him but he gave no answer,” etc.).

      • James F. McGrath

        Carrier has claimed it is a pun. He has not demonstrated that it is a pun.

        A story about women mourning resembles another story which reflects ancient mourning practices – how surprising!

        These examples make very clear why mythicism seems so laughable to so many people.

        • John MacDonald

          I get it – you’re not a fan of grounding the New Testament in literary prototypes, lol.

        • John MacDonald

          I think you underestimate the extent to which the New Testament writers constructed the narrative about Jesus as scripture fulfillment. For example, John 5:39 says “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.” This is illustrated in John, where explicit scripture citations are given, e.g., for Jesus’ legs not being broken to hasten his death (John 19:36), either Exodus 12:10, Numbers 9:12, or Psalm 34:19-20 (Crossan).

          • James F. McGrath

            In view of the fact that New Testament authors highlight those places where either they see convergences between the story of Jesus and Scripture, or use Scripture to create stories about Jesus, I find it very odd, and most implausible, that some readers are determined to force every story into that mold.

  • John Thomas

    Yeah, personally I wouldn’t go with universal statements like Romans did not allow any criminals to be brought down the cross until they are dead like Christian apologists would say or Romans did not allow any crucified criminals decent burials like Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan would say. Even though I agree that it might have been the case in the majority of situations, I wouldn’t say it was the case in all such situations, there could be exceptions in every case. If we read Josephus’ accounts, we will see that there are exceptions for both the above scenarios. Romans did allow some Jews to have their loved ones buried according to their customs. And in one other account, Josephus speaks about his three close friends who were innocent and were crucified by Romans. Someone requested Romans to save them as they were innocent, and they were brought down and one of them did not die of crucifixion while two others had already died.

  • Jerome

    I still believe that the GoJ actually contains fragments of what truly happened: Jesus’ corpse was put in a temporary tomb that happened to be near by because people were in a hurry (Sabbath coming) and the women saw this. Once the Sabbath had ended Joseph of Arimathea had the corpse then moved to another tomb, washed, properly buried etc. The women did not witness this. Hence their surprise and despair when the corpse was not in that first tomb anymore. No chance for them to find out what happened.

    The apostles and followers of Jesus then go back to Galilee where some (Peter, Mary) have an epiphany: Jesus did not just die, he was exalted by God, etc. Later on that got misunderstood and people thought they had been referring to a physical resurrection with a kind of zombie leaving a tomb. That version won out and that’s the version that’s survived until today.

  • Scott P.

    Compare the way American politicians will criticize other nations and groups for committing torture.

    • James F. McGrath

      I’m not sure how that is supposed to be comparable. Or are you suggesting that, despite all the literary and physical evidence, Jews in the first century actually didn’t care about observing this law?