Barabbas and the Crucified

Barabbas and the Crucified May 6, 2014

George Athas blogged last week about the possibility that the remains of the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus II Matthathiah, may have been identified – “discovered” would be the wrong word, since this is not a recent discovery, but a reconsideration of an earlier find, the study of which seems to have confronted unfortunate mishaps and hurdles.

As Jim Davila pointed out, if the identification is correct, then this would be our second find of someone who had been buried after having been executed by crucifixion. See also James Tabor’s thoughts.

These remains and the recent discussions of them raise interesting questions in connection with the Gospels. Abba, a supporter of the Hasmoneans, and Bar-Abba, meaning “Son of Abba,” taking part in a rebellion and facing execution himself? Could there be a connection? The timing could fit – Mattathiah Antigonus II ruled from 40-37 BCE, when he was captured by Herod and executed by Marc Antony. Abba, according to the inscription, subsequently recovered and had the remains of Antigonus placed in an ossuary. It is not clear that this happened very soon after his execution. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, our earliest ossuaries (unless this one is an exception) date from some decades later.

One also needs to consider the possibility of borrowing from or interference between a historical story about a Hasmonean who is crucified and denied honorable burial and subsequently given a burial in a borrowed grave, and the story of something similar happening to Jesus. But it is also possible that this sort of thing happened more than once, and that it would not have been unexpected for Jesus’ followers to have sought to recover his remains and give them a proper burial with the honor they felt he deserved.

A key historical question, of course, is whether they were successful, and why we end up with the divergent strands of (1) God honoring Jesus by raising him from death, and (2) other humans trying to, and then in later sources succeeding to, actually accord Jesus an honorable burial. I wrestle with those questions and other related ones in my book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?. But the puzzle remains.

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  • Caleb G

    Craig Evans argues that there is
    evidence of that the Romans allowed Jews to bury crucifixion victims
    during peacetime. His paper is accessible here (
    Evans, to cite one argument, points to the discovery of remains of a
    crucified victim found in a tomb at Giv’at Ha-Mivtar, as a example of a
    1st century crucified Jew who was buried. I assume this is the first case of a buried crucified victim of which you speak of above. Do you these findings provide evidence against Ehrman’s position in his new book that there is no evidence of crucified victims being buried? I emailed Ehrman to clarify his position, and while he did not give me a response to this specific evidence, he did say he thought *something* had been done to Jesus body (tossed into a common tomb?)”

    Can you expound on this for those of us who have not been able to read your book?

    • MattB

      I think Ehrman used to believe in the burial account of Jesus, however, I don’t know if he’s changed his position on the burial accounts.

    • And they may have found a second one, if the article I linked to earlier today is correct!

      My thinking is very much along the same lines as Evans. The evidence points to Jesus having been buried dishonorably.

      Given how important it was for Jews to ensure that corpses were buried before sundown, it would be truly remarkable if the Romans regularly refused to permit burial, and yet no Jewish author mentioned it. In fact, Josephus mentions precisely that Jews gave this such importance that they buried even criminals.

      Byron McCane and Raymond Brown are also good sources on this topic.

      • MattB

        So you’re saying that it’s more plausible that Jesus was given a tomb, rather than a burial plot?

        • A “burial plot” of the sort one gets in modern ceremonies would obviously be unlikely in this time period. I do not think he was “given a tomb,” I think he was placed in a tomb, one used for burying criminals executed on the site. The bedrock is close to the surface in this area and it would have been challenging to regularly dig trench graves for criminals executed there.

          • MattB

            Interesting, do you think the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most likely spot?

          • Yes.

          • Matthew Wade Ferguson

            Dr. McGrath,

            What do you think happened to the bodies in these criminal tombs? Were they reburied? Allowed to be reclaimed by relatives after a period of time?

            Would the tomb have been filled with a bunch of bodies in different levels of decomposition?

            If we follow the earliest traditions that the disciples fled to Galilee after the crucifixion and perhaps returned after a span of time, could they locate the body? Presumably it would have decomposed to the point of not being recognizable. But could it be identified?

          • These are great questions, and unfortunately ones that are difficult to answer. It does seem that at least some criminals were later reburied in family tombs. It is hard to know what happened with most of the corpses after they had decomposed. As for the question about the body of Jesus, I have long thought that the apologetic claim that the authorities would have simply produced the body if its whereabouts were known reflects a complete lack of awareness of the process of decomposition. It is unlikely that, even if the authorities had done that, most of those who claimed that Jesus had risen would have recognized the body as that of Jesus.

            I wonder how bodies were kept track of in family tombs, to say nothing of a tomb like the one that the Sanhedrin seems to have maintained for the burial of criminals, in which it is possible that Jesus was buried. Even in tombs where there is evidence of reuse of burial niches over multiple generations, there is no clear evidence that I know of that they etched names on the stone or did something of that sort.

          • Matthew Wade Ferguson

            Thanks for the feedback!

            I also have a question pertaining to Joseph of Arimathea. In “The Burial of Jesus” you argue that Mark originally depicts Jesus as having a dishonorable burial, and that the later Gospels tried to cover this up. Part of this cover-up involves Joseph of Arimathea being depicted as a sympathizer of Jesus in the later Gospels. As such, we get descriptions, such as Joseph of Arimathea not being present when the Sanhedrin voted to condemn Jesus (Lk 23:50-51), or secretly being a follower of Jesus (Jn 19:38).

            However, if we interpret these later statements as cover-ups in order to give Jesus an honorable burial, we are then left to reconsider Joseph of Arimathea’s role in the burial. You (and I believe Craig Evans) argue that Joseph of Arimathea was likely an ordinary member of the Sanhedrin acting in accordance with Jewish Law and burial customs in order to make sure that Jesus was hastily buried in a criminal tomb before sundown. This scenario presents Joseph of Arimathea as giving Jesus a dishonorable burial in a common criminal tomb. Likewise, you argue that the Romans were tolerant of Jewish burial customs and would have probably permitted this.

            My only question is why does Mark (15:43) state that Joseph of Arimathea τολμήσας (“dared”) to ask Pontius Pilate to remove the body?

            Wasn’t he just following ordinary Jewish burial customs? And, wouldn’t Pilate normally acquiesce to such a request? If so, why does Mark then use vocabulary to say that Joseph of Arimathea “dared” to make this request? Dale Allison in “Resurrecting Jesus” (pg. 363), who also believes in a tomb burial, said that this is one of his unanswered questions about the hypothesis that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in accordance with Jewish burial practices.

            Personally, I think that there are at least some signs that Joseph of Arimathea might be depicted as sympathetic to Jesus in Mark. Hence why he “dares” to request his burial. Likewise, why is he described as “himself waiting for the kingdom of God”? I suppose that we can understand this statement to only mean that Joseph was a pious Jew, but why weren’t Caiaphas or the Pharisees given such descriptions as well? They were also pious Jews. Why give Joseph of Arimathea such a description, if he was really a supporter of the other side? Likewise, since a town called Arimathea has never concretely been identified, is it possible that this description might involve a pun? “Ari” = best and “Mathea” = teaching/doctrine? This is only a possibility, but, if so, it could be another way in which Joseph of Arimathea is depicted as sympathetic to Jesus even in Mark. Joseph, from the place of best doctrine. It is certainly a weird coincidence, if nothing else.

            Last year I wrote a graduate seminar paper exploring Dennis MacDonald’s theory about Homeric parallels in Mark, in which he argued that Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus may parallel Priam’s burial of Hector:


            Disclaimer: I only regard this paper to be a “plausible”
            hypothesis (out of multiple hypotheses). I do not think that we can say it is “probable” that the author of Mark used Homer when constructing the scene of Jesus’ burial and the role of Joseph of Arimathea.

            However, MacDonald’s thesis is interesting, since it
            explains the τολμήσας. Priam certainly “dared” to retrieve Hector’s body in Iliad 24, and likewise Joseph of Arimathea (who has the same name as Jesus’ father) “dares” to retrieve his body.

            I do not argue that we can prove any of this, but it does
            offer an interesting literary motive for explaining τολμήσας and some other aspects of the scene.

            But, if τολμήσας refers to something else, do you have any thought on what it might mean? Is there any way that we can reconcile it with the view that Joseph of Arimathea is not depicted as sympathetic to Jesus in Mark?

          • Thanks for more great points and questions! I think that Mark clearly viewed Joseph of Arimathea somewhat more positively than he viewed Caiaphas. Perhaps, given Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 21:23, the view prior to Mark was that Jesus had not been given a swift burial, and so was one that had suffered the curse mentioned there. But even if that was not the case, by having Jesus not be left on the cross past sundown, Joseph was sparing Jesus still greater dishonor, even if Joseph did not give Jesus a burial with honor of the sort that his followers thought he deserved.

            I don’t get the impression that Pilate was typically directly involved in executions in Jerusalem. Some representative of Roman authority may have been, but it is unlikely that Pilate was always directly involved. I think that, for someone in the Jewish council to have approached Pilate would have involved some boldness. Presumably the appropriate person to interact with someone of Pilate’s stature would have been the high priest, and so Mark may be depicting Caiaphas as himself a dishonorable individual, someone whose hatred of Jesus and lack of genuine concern for righteousness was such that he would have ignored the commandment of Deuteronomy regarding the burial even of those hung on a tree.

            Obviously I’m going beyond what the evidence explicitly says above. But I think what I’m proposing is compatible with the evidence, and the context as we know it. What do you think?

          • Matthew Wade Ferguson

            Interesting thoughts!

            Here is my take:

            I think that by saying that Joseph “dared” to ask for the
            removal of the body, we are given the impression that not all crucified criminals were removed or buried. At least, the participle seems to suggest that there was a real possibility that Jesus might not be buried. Likewise, the scene seems to represent Pilate as granting indulgence to the request, but not necessarily following it as a matter of routine.

            If so, even if some criminal bodies were taken down and put in tombs, should we think that *all* or even *most* of them were? Could Crossan be right that many crucified criminals were fed to dogs, even in peacetime, and yet Evans could also be correct that many crucified criminals were given burial in a tomb?

            My point is that I am not sure how certain we can be that there was a standardized process for the burial of crucified criminals that was always obeyed. Mark 15:43 doesn’t seem to represent Joseph’s act as a normal, routine procedure.

            Also, why does Mark (15:46) give the following description of the tomb?

            ἔθηκεν αὐτὸν ἐν μνημείῳ ὃ ἦν λελατομημένον ἐκ πέτρας, καὶ προσεκύλισεν λίθον ἐπὶ τὴν θύραν τοῦ μνημείου.

            “He [Joseph] laid it [the body] in a tomb, which was cut of rock, and rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.”

            If this is a well-known tomb used for the burial of
            criminals, why not say *τὸ* μνημείον, “the” tomb, i.e. the one used for the burial of criminals. I realize that Greek does not have an indefinite article, and Mark doesn’t say *τις*, a “certain” tomb. But, the description doesn’t give me the impression that Mark is referring to a common criminal graveyard. Instead, the stone placed at the door and the mention of the tomb being cut from rock suggests to me that this isn’t meant to be some large cave full of criminals, but rather a private or smaller tomb. That’s at least how the later Gospels seemed to take it (though, they may have been covering things up).

            As for Joseph of Arimathea making the request in place of Caiaphas (who presumably should have), we would have to at least reconcile this interpretation with some earlier traditions. Acts 13:28-29, generally regarded to an earlier tradition that predates Acts, states:

            “Though they [the Sanhedrin] could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked for Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb [or, possibly, ‘grave’].”

            Now, this traditions presents the whole Sanhedrin as doing the burial. Not Caiaphas refusing and another
            Sanhedrin member “daring” to ask in his place. Of course, Mark may have not heard of this tradition or disagreed with it, so perhaps he is telling the story in a different way. But the scene still is strange. By having Joseph make the request, he may be representing him as better than Caiaphas, but there are other possibilities for how Joseph is being used as a character as well.

            If Mark is depicting Caiaphas as someone who would have let Jesus suffer the curse mentioned in Deuteronomy 21:23, are we to understand that the Sanhedrin picked and choosed which crucified criminals they buried? If so, then I think there could be a precedent for them occasionally not obeying the Law.

            If that is the case, it is at least plausible that Jesus was never properly buried at all, honorably or dishonorably, even if that was an occasional custom during times of peace, and Mark may be changing this by having a secondary member of the Sanhedrin, in place of Caiaphas, make the request to at least make sure that Jesus got that honor.

            I say that this is “plausible.” I of course do not know if this happened (and, to be consistent, Acts 13:28-29
            does not imply this scenario). However, I think that this consideration does call into question how much confidence we can have in the notion that crucified criminals were always taken down or put in a criminal graveyard. We have to consider that some were not and that Jesus possibly may have belonged to such a category. It at least cannot be ruled out as impossible.

          • The challenge, as you rightly point out, is that we don’t know for certain what was the rule and what was the exception in this period. My own suspicion is that, if Jews were regularly prevented from carrying out the burial of corpses as their Law required, we would hear about it. Instead, we find that Josephus writes, “The Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even those who are crucified because they were found guilty are taken down and buried before sunset.”

            Also against the likelihood that Josephus’ act was an expression of a deep sympathy with Jesus, is the fact that Jesus’ female relatives and followers are not given the opportunity to participate in the burial. And so I am not sure that there is any evidence of an actual disparity between Joseph of Arimathea and Joseph Caiaphas. Perhaps the former’s obscure place of origin reflects some tinkering with the tradition that obscured the fact that Joseph Caiaphas was the one who was ultimately responsible for Jesus’ burial? But that is pure speculation, even more so than some of the other things we’ve talked about!

            And so, when it comes to the burial or not of Jesus, as you say, we cannot definitively rule out either possibility, and the attempt to determine that one or the other is more likely depends on a weighing of the evidence regarding (1) what was common, (2) what the earliest sources about Jesus say, and (3) what if anything the earliest Christian sources seem to be leaving unsaid or trying to deliberately obscure.

          • Matthew Wade Ferguson

            Thanks! I agree with the criteria in your last paragraph.

            I ask since I am currently working on a book that will, in part, offer natural explanations for the resurrection belief and the rise of Christianity. I certainly plan to rebut the apologetic arguments that the resurrection belief has no natural explanation.

            To do so, however, I am not going to advance any pet theory (“Jesus’ body was stolen!” or “they fed his body to dogs!”). Instead, I am going to start by laying out the facts that I think are most probable (e.g. the crucifixion). Then I will lay out details that I think are less certain (e.g. was Jesus really buried by Joseph of Arimathea?). And finally, I will lay out things I think probably could not have happened.

            In doing so, I will be highlighting multiple points of doubt and alternative possibilities. For example, I will argue that it is certainly possible that Jesus’ body was stolen, even if we can never know if it was.

            What I hope to do, by the end, is show that there are multiple natural explanations and that doubting the resurrection does not involve any pet theory. Instead, I will argue that the combined probability of alternative natural explanations outweighs the probability of the resurrection. Even if we do not know the exact scenario, a pool of plausible natural scenarios can be assessed for the combined probability of something other than the resurrection.

            So, in the section dealing with Jesus’ burial, I am not going to say “this happened,” but I will be laying out multiple ways in which Jesus’ body could have plausibly gone missing, without necessarily a resurrection to do so. Hence my interest in this post.

          • Interesting! Do let me know more about the book when it is closer to being published. And in the mean time, I’m happy to talk more about this topic, as you could probably already tell – it interests me a great deal!

  • Michael Wilson

    Interesting stuff. My opinion is that the account of Barabbas in the bible was based on Philo’s account of Carabbas in Flacus. Regarding the tomb of Jesus, I was thinking that since Mark says the women told no one of what the saw, the implication is that their empty tomb story did not emerge until after the apostles claimed Jesus was raised. Since it is likely that the other apostles fled Jerusalem and the visit of Peter at the tomb is likely an invention, the women are the only witness to an empty tomb that day. Is it possible that the women’s story of an empty tomb is an invention after the fact to demonstrate Jesus did rise on the third day? I think it is quite possible that after his death Jesus’ body was anonymously disposed of.