Pearce’s Potshots #52: No Tomb for Jesus?

Pearce’s Potshots #52: No Tomb for Jesus? November 10, 2021

Skeptical Fairy Tales and Fables vs. the Physical Corroborating Evidence of Archaeology in Jerusalem

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” 

This is a partial reply to a guest post on Jonathan’s blog by David Austin, entitled, The “Empty Tomb” & The “Minimal Facts” argument (11-10-21). Austin’s words will be in green.


It seems that depriving the victim of an honourable burial was part of the humiliation of the miscreant, since the main reason for executing a seditionist by crucifixion was to send a strong deterrent message for anyone considering challenging the ruling Roman authorities. Usually, the victim’s body was left on the cross to be attacked by animals or birds, before being buried in a mass grave, criminal graveyard, or a criminal mausoleum. No mourning rites were allowed. 

As usual, the atheist just throws things out with no supporting evidence. I guess Austin (like Pearce) thinks his words are GOSPEL TRVTH. No one would ever dream of questioning them! After all, they attempt to knock down Christianity, so it’s all good! Anything goes!

Now here is some actual evidence from the period, regarding these matters. Craig A. Evans, Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins and dean of the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University, wrote the article, “The Resurrection of Jesus in the Light of Jewish Burial Practices” (5-4-16). He prefers to stick to known facts:

In recent years a number of skeptics, including scholars who ought to know better, have charged that the story of the burial of Jesus itself is unhistorical, that Roman law did not in fact permit the burial of the crucified, and that the story of the burial is therefore simply part of early Christian apologetic, designed to confirm the story of the resurrection. A few of these scholars have suggested that in all probability the body of Jesus was not buried but left hanging on the cross or at best was cast into a ditch where it was mauled by animals. Skepticism regarding the burial of Jesus is ill-founded, in the light of Roman law and Jewish law, custom, and practice. The present essay will review both of these elements.

Roman law regarding the burial of the executed is far more nuanced —and lenient — than many suppose. In the Digesta, compiled by Roman emperor Justinian in the sixth century (AD 530–533) but comprising a great deal of law from the first and second centuries, we find important and relevant material in chapter 24 of book 48. All three of the paragraphs that make up chapter 24, the final chapter, entitled De cadaveribus punitorum (“On the bodies of the punished”), are helpful. I shall treat paragraphs §1 and §3, both of which directly bear on the question of the burial of the executed.

§1 Ulpian,  Duties of Proconsul, book 9: The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason. Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried.
§3 Paulus, Views, book 1: The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.
More than forty percent of Justinian’s Digesta has been drawn from the writings of the jurist Ulpian (c. AD 170–223). One of his frequently cited works is his officio proconsulis (Duties of Proconsul). In the first paragraph of chapter 24 the Digesta quotes an opinion from the ninth book of officio proconsulis: “The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives.” Ulpian supports his opinion by appealing to the precedent of the great emperor Augustus (ruled 31 BC – AD 14), which was expressed in his autobiography written near the end of his life. Ulpian goes on to say that “the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted.” . . .
The Gospel narratives are fully consistent with Roman practice and legal opinion. . . .
[Jewish historian] Josephus (AD 37 – c. 100) himself makes such a request of Titus, son of Vespasian, and it is granted (Life 420–21).
So the bodies of the crucified were not always properly buried, but they were “given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial” (in other words, precisely what we have in Jesus’ case). Austin provides fairy tales and mythology; I reply with historical facts, documented from the Roman laws of the time. And in all likelihood, he will ignore this critique, because the anti-theist crusade is not one of seeking truth, but of mocking and deriding Christianity and the Bible at every turn.
It is very unlikely that Jesus’s body would have been entombed, although it is possible his body was removed shortly after death by a pious Jew, as Jews were allowed certain “freedoms” to follow certain Jewish practices, even under Roman rule. An entombment was very unlikely as the tomb would have been thought of as being “defiled” if it held the body of a criminal.
Dr. Evans continues:
It is clear from the early laws and opinions cited in the Digesta that in most cases the bodies of the executed, including those crucified, were permitted burial, if requests were made. We see this in the case of Jesus, whose body for burial was requested by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council (Mark 15:42–47 parr.). This is completely consistent with Jewish law and custom, which placed the burden of burial on the Jewish council (or Sanhedrin) when it condemned and executed someone. . . .
There is also archaeological  evidence  that corroborates the literary evidence. One  thinks  of  the  crucified remains  of  one  Yehohanan, crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate. Though crucified, he was nevertheless properly buried (with an iron spike still embedded in his right heel). The skeletal remains of at least three other executed persons have been recovered from tombs and ossuaries, as well as dozens of nails and spikes, many of which had been used in crucifixion.
Austin claimed that Jesus wouldn’t be buried in a tomb, having been condemned as a criminal: that this would “defile” a tomb. He provides no actual support whatever for this claim. But Dr. Evans has already refuted it. Secondly, the families of those crucified would not have considered them criminals, since they had usually been unjustly persecuted by the Romans (by the hundreds of thousands in that terrible era). Therefore, their dead bodies would not defile a tomb; and again, this is precisely the same as in the case of Jesus.
But even if we provisionally accept Austin’s claim that a dead “criminal” (real or alleged) would defile a tomb, the fact remains that we now have hard archaeological evidence of a crucified person in a tomb in Jerusalem during the reign of Pontius Pilate, as Dr. Evans noted above (precisely the opposite of Austin’s bald, unsubstantiated claim).
Bible History Daily, connected to the Biblical Archaeology Society, produced an article on 22 July 2011, entitled, “A Tomb in Jerusalem Reveals the History of Crucifixion and Roman Crucifixion Methods”. I cite its main points:
In the history of crucifixion, the death of Jesus of Nazareth stands out as the best-known example by far. Crucifixion in antiquity was actually a fairly common punishment, but there were no known physical remains from a crucifixion. Then, in 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis excavated a Jerusalem tomb that contained the bones of a crucified man named Yehohanan. . . .
The bones were found in an ossuary, or bone box, inscribed several times with Yehohanan’s name (“Yehohanan son of Hagakol”). This ossuary, along with several others, had been placed in a tomb complex consisting of two chambers and 12 burial niches. During the Roman period (first century B.C.–first century A.D.) Jews who could afford this type of burial would lay out the dead bodies of loved ones on stone benches in rock-cut tombs. A year later, after the flesh had desiccated, the bones were collected into an ossuary and left in the tomb with those of other family members.

Vassilios Tzaferis received a Ph.D. from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has directed many excavations, including those at Ashkelon, Tiberius, Beth Shean, Capernaum and at various locations in Jerusalem. His report “Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence”  originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Jan/Feb 1985, 44-53. He describes his excavations of 1968, involving a crucified man:

In that year I excavated the only victim of crucifixion ever discovered. He was a Jew, of a good family, who may have been convicted of a political crime. He lived in Jerusalem shortly after the turn of the era and sometime before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. . . .

And one man in this family had been crucified. He was between 24 and 28 years old, according to our osteologists.

Strange though it may seem, when I excavated the bones of this crucified man, I did not know how he had died. Only when the contents of Ossuary No. 4 from Chamber B of Tomb No. 1 were sent for osteological analysis was it discovered that it contained one three- or four-year-old child and a crucified man—a nail held his heel bones together. The nail was about 7 inches (17–18 cm) long. . . .

The most dramatic evidence that this young man was crucified was the nail which penetrated his heel bones. But for this nail, we might never have discovered that the young man had died in this way. The nail was preserved only because it hit a hard knot when it was pounded into the olive wood upright of the cross. The olive wood knot was so hard that, as the blows on the nail became heavier, the end of the nail bent and curled. We found a bit of the olive wood (between 1 and 2 cm) on the tip of the nail. This wood had probably been forced out of the knot where the curled nail hooked into it.

When it came time for the dead victim to be removed from the cross, the executioners could not pull out this nail, bent as it was within the cross. The only way to remove the body was to take an ax or hatchet and amputate the feet. Thereafter, the feet, the nail and a plaque of wood that had been fastened between the head of the nail and the feet remained attached to one another as we found them in Ossuary No. 4. . . .

As the evidence from our crucified man demonstrates, the nails were driven into the victim’s arms, just above the wrists, because this part of the arm is sufficiently strong to hold the weight of a slack body. [the evidence from the Shroud of Turin also indicates the same location for the nails: the wrist area rather than hands] . . .

There’s something else we know about this victim. We know his name. Scratched on the side of the ossuary containing his bones were the words “Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol.”

Note that this evidence has been around since 1968 (or at the latest since this report in 1985), so Austin is at least 36 years behind the times. Somehow, that oft-claimed exclusive atheist concern for reason and evidence failed to lead him to the relevant archaeological findings.

For extensive additional related material, see: “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James” (Jodi Magness, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 124, No. 1 [Spring, 2005], pp. 121-154.


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Photo credit: Ian Scott (12-31-11). Entrance to an intact niche (or kokkhim) tomb on the grounds of the Dominus Flevit church on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Such tombs were distinctive of Hellenistic and early-Roman Periods in the Holy Land. [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license]


Summary: Guest writer, atheist David Austin argues that there was no tomb for Jesus, because the Romans “usually” left crucified criminals to rot rather than be buried. Wrong!

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