One of the more striking scenes in the I, Claudius television series, first broadcast on the BBC in the 1970s, was the request Livia made to her grandson Claudius. She wanted to be made a goddess and have all the proper funerary rights after her death, in exchange for which she confessed to him her many crimes, including the poisoning of her husband Augustus, so that her son Tiberius could ascend to the throne. Given her sins, Livia was convinced she would suffer eternally in the underworld unless Claudius, destined to be emperor, made her a diva, or divinity.
Only the most patrician of Romans could achieve divine status, but for all others, even leading a blameless life did not guarantee a peaceful outcome after death. Without receiving the proper burial rights, an individual’s soul could be condemned to wander the world restlessly, for eternity. Nor was this just a Roman obsession. As far back as Homer’s Iliad, we read of the deliberate disgrace Achilles’ perpetrated on the body and memory of Hector, by dragging his corpse for twelve days around the walls of Troy. No greater shame could befall a man than to have his mortal remains mistreated, and many a dying soldier begged his compatriots to do everything to give him a proper funeral.
This is why what few references we have from the Roman historical record regarding crucifixion emphasized not just the agony of the death, but the shame associated with the lack of a decent burial or cremation for the victim. In the Roman mind, a criminal suffered two penalties: death by the cross, and eternal damnation thereafter, since the Romans typically required the corpse to decay on the cross. When Crassus defeated Spartacus in the slave revolt ending in 71 BCE, he had 6,000 captured slaves crucified all along the Appian Way. The stench of decay was so noisome that Roman patricians complained it was impossible for them to travel to their country estates.
In Jerusalem, there were Jewish prohibitions against the display of dead bodies, and the Romans allowed the bodies of criminals to be taken down. However, no cremation or burial would have been allowed, and most likely the bodies would have been thrown into a pit, to be devoured by wild animals. This provides at least one explanation for the word “Golgotha”, which translates as “place of the skull.” The hill, or quarry as some think, that served as the execution grounds for Jerusalem would have been littered with the bones of numerous victims.
Given the high likelihood that the body of Jesus of Nazareth was given the same treatment after death as so many other victims before him, it is easy to understand why there is such emphasis in the passion narratives of the Gospels on the mission of Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate. According to all four Gospels, Joseph requested and received the body of Jesus and placed it in a tomb. This story conveniently addresses the criticisms early followers of Jesus must have received from Romans and Jews alike when Christ’s followers declared that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Suppose, however, that there really was a Joseph of Arimathea. Why would he have a tomb in Jerusalem if he didn’t live there? More to the point, Jewish burial practices of the first century didn’t involve tombs. Bodies were placed in a cool space for three days (a telling fact which may explain the resurrection stories), and if decay set in, the bodies were placed in lime and reduced to bleached bones. The bones a year or so later were set into a stone box called an ossuary and placed in a columbarium. Whenever you read stories of some forger who claims to have found the burial remains of Jesus’ family, or of his brother James, it is always an ossuary box that is the item being forged. No forger would have any credibility if they claimed to have found the enormous stone tomb that is often pictured as Jesus’ burial place.
How much of any of this should matter to a devout Christian? The noted Biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg suggests that the resurrection of Jesus was not in physical form, but in visionary form. There is certainly evidence for this in the Gospels and in Acts of the Apostles. While St. Paul preached the bodily resurrection of Christ, his fundamental claim was that Christ’s suffering and death on the cross served as a redemption for the sins of all mankind. This claim is not in any way invalidated if a Christian chooses to believe that the resurrection was in a spiritual or visionary form, as some of his followers clearly thought was the case.
The debate on the nature of the resurrection may never be settled. But isn’t it more important for a Christian to focus on how one gets to Heaven, rather than on the form one obtains on arrival?
Garrett Glass is the author of the Jehoshua series of historical fiction books, covering the development of early Christianity, beginning with the death of Jehoshua (Jesus Christ) and incorporating both historical and fictional characters and circumstances. Visit his website here.