From Jesus of Nazareth to Church of Jerusalem

From Jesus of Nazareth to Church of Jerusalem May 21, 2015

A commenter asked a good question about the geographical shift in early Christianity, from Jesus of Nazareth active primarily in Galilee according to the Synoptic Gospels, to a church whose leaders are based in Jerusalem.

One can certainly articulate reasons why a move of this sort would have made sense – Jerusalem was the hub of Jewish life and identity, after all.

But there is still less that is indicated about this explicitly in the New Testament than a historian would like.

We should of course ask whether the portrait of Jerusalem as the locus of activity is correct. On the one hand, Luke is the only of the Gospels that emphasizes that the disciples should remain in Jerusalem, and then in Acts he depicts the church spreading outward from there. But Paul, our earliest source, confirms this. And so why then do Mark and Matthew have the disciples returning to Galilee? They do not necessarily remain there, of course.

Other questions are worth asking. Might Jesus have moved his “base of operations” to Jerusalem by the end of his public activity? Perhaps the Gospel of John, and hints in the other Gospels, provide clues to this?

If the shift to being based in Jerusalem is post-crucifixion, then might the relocation have something to do with reverence for the tomb of Jesus?

What are your thoughts on this topic?


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  • Michael Wilson

    I get the impression that Jesus’s movement was primarily a Galliean movement but not unsurprisingly it had devotees from beyond. Jesus apparently interacted with John’s movement along the Jordan and his own movement attracted some of John’s followers. The accounts from Mark and Act’s point to Jesus having followers that lived in Jerusalem and after his death I think his disciples would have gravitated there to Better reach Jews internationally along with engagement with prominent Jewish leaders. I suspect there was a time that the disciples remained in Gaililee but soon began operating more in Jerusalem. I suspect it is probably true that an inner core operated in Jerusalem while other disciples went to other major Jewish centers.

    I doubt there was a tomb of Jesus until later(I’m in favor of the anonymous ditch burial) but have you concidered the possibility that Jesus’s mother lived in Jerusalem? In John Jesus is said to entrust his mother to the disciple he loved and I suspect that the house that hosted the last supper was his(the disciples) families’.

  • Jim

    This is a great question, and it sure would be nice to have some writings from this Jerusalem group. Post-Passover, Pilate and his cohort would likely have returned to their base in Caesarea, so one might envision that there was not much stress from the Romans on this new Jerusalem church.

    Yet if the local temple cult (Sadducees), had as much to do with the crucifixion as implied in the gospels, you’d think that Jerusalem might be a bad location for headquartering a group that followed a recently crucified political criminal as the messiah. This seems contrary to that old start-up business proverb about location being everything, especially if you set up shop next door to hostile competitors.

    Michael W, the account in John that you refer to seems a bit weird to me because if Jesus had other brothers, that responsibility would naturally fall on their shoulders, especially if one of them (James) was capable of leading the Jerusalem church. I wonder if the story in John developed alongside other legends, like the developing stories of Mary being a perpetual virgin and/or the legends of John dragging off Jesus’ mother to Ephesus?

    I really don’t know, but asking the disciple John to look after Mary, whether in Jerusalem or Ephesus, tends to seem a bit like legend to me. Just an opinion though.

    • Michael Wilson

      Naturally the responsibility would fall on them, but Jesus didn’t consider blood relations very important, and his brother doesn’t seem to be on board until sometime after his death.

      Yes, but Jerusalem was a great location to spread a message to all Jews. They all came to Jerusalem, they didn’t all pilgrimage to Galilee. Further it was the symbolic capital of Judism so if your touting your self as the true Judaism it looks good to have a Jerusalem headquarter.

      Of course it wasn’t that great a location safety wise. Consider what happened to both Jameses and Paul.

  • Mike K.

    There is the work of Merrill P. Miller and the Redescribing Christian Origins seminar that tries to cast doubt on the historicity of a centralized Jerusalem Church as a Lukan construct, but I am not sure many will be convinced by their reconstruction of alternative Jesus groups in Galilee and southern Syria. I would grant that they do ask an interesting question of how, on more traditional models, Jesus could be executed in Jerusalem as the “king of the Jews” and yet the apostles remain largely free to preach a messianic Jesus in Jerusalem for a few decades.

    • Michael Wilson

      Mike, and Jim and Paul, I suspect that the crucifixion of Jesus was a reflexive response to his actions that passover. Jesus had a lot of attention focused on him and likely messianic buzz. He rioted in the temple court. That was dangerous, and frankly irresponsible for Jesus to do. The Sadduces thinking as presented in John sound reasonable to me. If Jesus starts a riot in Jerusalem it could cause a large loss of life when the Romans step in. On the other hand, Pilate’s indifference to Jesus seems reasonable as well. He likely didn’t worry about every preacher in the region and Jesus didn’t seem to have a militant message. But if you gave him a rabble rouser I don’t think he would hesitate to kill, sends a good message. Be quiet.

      Given the scope of religious factions in Palestine, Pharisees, various Essens and so forth, I doubt that the authorities could execute everyone they disagreed with without causing a full scale war. As we see in Josephus regarding James, killing a popular figure was dicey politics. After Jesus died the church did not seem to elevate one of their own as the new messiah, but maintained that Jesus would descend with God to rule the next age, which any rational ruler could discount. And there were lots of Jews that thought God was going to supernaturally take over the world. Again stamping that out fast would cause a war, so it wasn’t a real problem until a living person claimed to be taking on that project for God.

      And on doubts about Luke-acts, doesn’t Paul and Josephus both place James(and in Paul’s case, Peter to) in Jerusalem?

      • Andrew Dowling

        I think the disagreement isn’t that there was a major early Christian church in Jerusalem (I don’t think that’s debatable) . . it’s whether the Christian church “started” in Jersualem, and I would agree with those who say that is far more questionable.

        A good number of scholars now believe “Luke” used Josephus.

        • Michael Wilson

          I doubt it started in Jerusalem. I suspect that all the “resurection” appearances Paul speaks of, including the appearance to the 500 were in Galilee, where the bulk of Jesus’s preaching took place. He likely had followers in Jerusalem, but I don’t think its center of gravity shifted there until after the notion that Jesus had been exalted to glory was established, but I suspect that the shift to Jerusalem happened soon after it did.

          • Andrew Dowling

            Well Paul included his Jesus appearance with the others, and his may have occurred 4-6 years after the Crucifixion, so I wouldn’t count out some of the appearances occurring in Jerusalem, but again, those could have happened several years after Jesus’s death.

            I’ve long thought it a good hypothesis that Pentecost was the same thing as the “500 at one time” Paul describes. Makes sense some sort of large, ecstatic religious gathering of early Christians “catching the holy ghost” as it were would’ve happened in Jerusalem.

          • Michael Wilson

            Yes, absolutely possible! My reasoning on the location and time frame goes like this…
            After Jesus’s arrest the Apostles make their way to Galilee possibly seeking a nearby safe house, but the one in Jerusalem may not have been a good choice since Judas knew of it. I’m not sure the depiction of Peter following to the courtyard is accurate. This might have been a literary invention. Mark gives the impression the Apostles were to go Galilee. I don’t know if Jesus actually expected to die and told them, but it seens Mark felt that where they went. The women told no one so I think that their story of an empty tomb, if not an invention by Mark, did not emerge until after the Apostles claimed visions. The lake side appearance of John I suspect was either Mark’s original ending, or added to a later edition of Mark, and suggest the Apostles saw Jesus in Galilee some time later. Now I suspect that the lake side appearance is fiction, but it preseves Paul’s order of Peter recognizing Jesus first, if only by moments. Paul’s creed however suggest to me time between each appearance. Peter starts the idea, influences the Apostles, then they get James on board.

            I suspect that it was not until Peter’s vision that he regains his faith in Jesus’s messiahship. The boat story suggest they went back to their old occupations and the other appearance tales suggest the Apostles were despondent until they saw him, not thinking about Christianity’s next step. The visions renew their faith. Since Jesus mostly preached in Galilee, the bulk of his followers I suspect were there. No doubt the crucifixion reduced is group, but I think that after the Apostles visions, they set about convincing old followers that he was glorified culminating in a vision to 500, probably the near total of Christians then, and not far from their homes. The mass vision really begins the movement and I think the move to Jerusalem and the long evangelical journeys. I’m not sure the motivation would be there before what must have beeen an estatic rally.

  • Paul D.

    I’ve been reading some of the Acts Seminar papers on the topic, as well as some earlier books on Christian origins. I suspect there *was* no Jerusalem mother church. The earliest Gospel, Mark, certainly suggests Galilean origins of the Jesus movement, as does Matthew. Nothing about the founding of the church in Jerusalem appears in Christian writings until Luke-Acts, which quite explicitly contradicts the first two Gospels.

    Not sure what you mean by “reverence for the tomb of Jesus”. It is interesting that no one knew (or cared) where the supposed tomb of Jesus was located until several centuries later, which lends support (I think) to non-Jerusalemite origins.

    Plus, the story of a fanatical religious leader being executed while his followers are free to set up shop, in the same city, unmolested just doesn’t hang together very well.

    • Michael Wilson

      See above

    • Mark

      As McGrath notes, Paul seems to think that Jerusalem is where you’ll find the notables, and refers to the churches of/in Judea (which might in this context include Galilee admittedly) and so on. Any differences between Luke and Mark are most reasonably resolved by reflecting that the one does and the other doesn’t propose to give an account of the Jerusalem “church”, which is obviously an important next stage in the historical development.

      • Paul D.

        Dennis E. Smith, “Was There a Jerusalem Church?”, Forum, New Series 3,1 Spring 2000 gives numerous reasons why these vague references by Paul don’t provide good evidence for a Jerusalem mother church (unless you presuppose the contents of Acts).

        • Mark

          Yes, Smith argues inter alia that Jerusalem isn’t where ‘the holy ones at Jerusalem’ are. (I’m looking at something in the book “Redescribing Christian Origins”) In order to explain this he has to presuppose that e.g. Paul has broken with something called ‘Judaism’ and on and on with typical Protestant aprioris.

          It’s all perfectly possible, but seems like a completely unmotivated skepticism.

          I guess it seems different to a certain class of Q-Galilee enthusiasts. Do you think when Paul was ‘persecuting the ekklesia’ he was hanging out in Galilee? He doesn’t even seem to know it exists.

    • What is your reason for saying that no one knew/cared where the tomb was until later? The location of the tomb ended up within the city walls due to expansion that took place within about a decade, and so the mention of Jesus being crucified outside the city would have led to another place being identified, if the identification took place at the time the Gospels were written or later. And the fact that local Christians identified the place Jesus had been buried as under a stone platform connected with a temple, and when that was removed tombs were found, provides evidence that there was a continuous tradition about the location.

      • Andrew Dowling

        “and so the mention of Jesus being crucified outside the city would have led to another place being identified,”

        Or it was just common knowledge that those crucified in Jerusalem went to Calvary/Golgotha . .

        “And the fact that local Christians identified the place Jesus had been buried as under a stone platform connected with a temple”

        Who are these “local Christians?”

        • Would it have been common knowledge after the city walls were extended and it no longer occurred there?

          The local Christians I referred to are those who kept the location of the graveyard during the period when it was covered over, and told the delegation from Constantine where to find it.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I don’t place much legitimacy in what were 4th century local legends regarding where Jesus was buried (locals supposedly also told Helena where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the location of Moses’s burning bush . . .)

          • I am skeptical, too. It is only rarely that I think the evidence points towards there having been a tradition that was preserved and which see,s likely to be correct. In most instances, locals surely said whatever was necessary to get the emperor to build churches at no expense to them.

      • Paul D.

        Here’s how I see it. For starters, it is somewhat unlikely for Jesus, as a crucifixion victim, to be placed in a tomb at all, as Allison, Ehrman, Crossan and others say. It’s equally plausible that the Gospel tomb story is inspired by scriptures like Isaiah 53:9 and Gen 47:29–31; and Joseph of Arimathea (of where?) seems to be a legendary character whose role is whatever that particular Gospel author needs it to be. Pre-gospel writers mention no tomb, and it is not impossible that it is a theological/symbolic innovation by Mark or his sources — literary scaffolding to communicate something more significant: that Jesus has been raised from the dead. There are other problems with taking Mark’s account literally that I need not go into here. It is not unusual for scholars to regard the (contradictory) empty tomb traditions as later innovations to explain the visions the disciples had in Galilee. So on a literary and historical basis, I think it is a reasonable conclusion, if one is not a biblical literalist, that no tomb existed to be venerated in the first place.

        As for “local Christians” who could identify the location of such a tomb in later centuries, I don’t think there were any such people. The populace was essentially wiped out during the Jewish War (Eusebius’ improbable legend of the magical oracle and flight to Pella notwithstanding). From what I understand, the church that arose in Aelia Capitolina under Hadrian was entirely composed of gentiles, not Jews or natives of the area. I find it unlikely that the “discovery” of the site of Golgotha in the year 326, some three centuries after Christ’s death, would have been based on any local indigenous knowledge. It seems more likely that yet another pagan site (in this case, a temple to Venus) was being claimed in the name of Constantine’s Christianity. The same, of course, goes for other holy sites, like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where few (if any) historical Jesus researchers think Jesus was actually born.

        Furthermore, the New Testament and other early Christian writings give us no reason (that I am aware of) to think that the tomb of Jesus was venerated by early Christians. Paul visits Jerusalem three years after his conversion and never mentions visiting Calvary or a tomb. (The standard apologetics response, of course, is that Christians didn’t venerate it because it was empty. Apparently this reasoning didn’t hold for Constantine’s mother and the crusaders.) Even N.T. Wright (2003, p. 73) agrees that the tomb was not venerated by Christians. Similarly Gerd Lüdemann (1996), who writes:

        “As neither the disciples nor Jesus’ next of kin bothered about Jesus’ body, it is hardly conceivable that they were informed about its resting place. Evidently not even the earliest community knew. For given the significance of tombs of saints in the time of Jesus, it can be presupposed that had Jesus’ tomb been known, the early Christians would have venerated it, and traditions about it would have been preserved.” (p. 23-24)

        • Andrew Dowling

          I find it likely Jesus’s body was placed in a tomb reserved for criminals (likely buried with the others who were crucified with him, assuming that part of the accounts’ historicity) and that none of the disciples had any idea where it was.

          While I don’t think the “flight to Pella” account is completely fictional (it seems plausible a small group of Jerusalem Christians fled the city either before or after the Fall to the Mediterranean as Josephus notes other Jews did), you do make a strong point the the Jerusalem church of the 4th century was completely distinct from what would’ve existed in the 1st century-completely different people, with their own culture and traditions. From Eusebius’s account it appears that although a fragment of the original church in Jerusalem may have survived the revolt of the 1st century, the subsequent revolt of Bar Kokhba was the death knell.

          Whatever managed to survive was likely the communities attributed to the “Ebionite” sects.

        • Crossan has moved away from his earlier stance, and Ehrman hedges his bets by saying that Jesus did not get a “decent” burial. The fact that what is evidenced at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a graveyard and not a rich man’s private tomb is striking, since it agrees with what historians conclude on the basis of our earliest source, over against the impression the later Gospels sought to give. I find the suggestion that the earliest Jerusalem Christians never communicated with anyone who was Christian there subsequently unpersuasive. And I do not consider it likely that later Christians invented a tradition which put the tomb of Jesus beneath a pagan temple compound out of their reach, and that coincidentally that spot just happened to have tombs beneath it when the temple structure was removed.

          • Paul D.

            Well, the identification of the Holy Sepulchre with Golgotha and the site of Christ’s tomb is contested, as no doubt you are aware. The archaeological picture is uncertain too, as Taylor (1993) notes after an extensive survey of patristic references to Golgotha:

            “Very little now remains of the tomb identified as that in which
            Christ was laid, since it was hacked down by Caliph Hakim’s men in
            1009. We cannot even establish that it was from the first century…this type of tomb was used for many centuries prior to the time of Jesus.” (p. 114) and “the evidence suggests that Hadrian did not build
            his temple exactly over Golgotha, and that neither the Rock of
            Calvary nor the supposed Tomb of Christ was venerated by
            Christians before the fourth century.” (p. 142)

            Really, the point most relevant to my argument is the last one, which seems to be the scholarly consensus — that the early Christians did not venerate the tomb of Christ.

          • The tomb seems to have been under a platform connected to the temple precinct and not under the temple itself. Does Taylor suggest otherwise? Or is he combatting a misunderstanding of the relationship between tomb and temple?

            That the earliest Christians did not venerate tombs does not imply that they did not know where tombs were that were important to them.

          • Michael Wilson

            But I suppose other possibilities are the women found and dressed his body then later lied when the apostles started talking resurrection or that the women never actually saw in the tomb and were just convinced he had risen and didn’t bother trying to find a body to dress and kept it to them selves.

          • Michael Wilson

            Now, in the back of my mind I do entertain the idea that Jesus resurrection was not a surprise to all. I like to avoid the conspiratorial until all else is ruled out, but I have wondered if Jesus knew others that took his body to fool his disciples. It does seem to me with consideration that Jesus thought he would die and told his diciples. While possible they spirited him off after he died, they may have also left afraid as reported but that a network of underground Jerusalem followers stole the body. Have you heard the suggestion that Peter, John and James were always around Jesus because they were bodyguards? Sensible for guys named “Rocky” and “Thunder brothers”perhapes? In which case Jesus may have had less intimidating but more intellectual supporters.

          • I am not sure that “Rocky” had ovetones of Sylvester Stallone in Jesus’ day…

          • Andrew Dowling

            “That the earliest Christians did not venerate tombs”

            Tomb veneration was a fundamental part of ancient culture . . .it’s extremely unlikely early Christian communities, especially given their diversity, would have not venerated the location of Jesus’s tomb. It would have been a BIG deal.

            “And I do not consider it likely that later Christians invented a tradition which put the tomb of Jesus beneath a pagan temple compound out of their reach”

            ?? Why not? Surely Christians in Jerusalem would’ve wondered where these locations had been . . makes sense a tradition could’ve easily arisen about the tomb being under a structure built post Jewish rebellion. Look at the multitude of Christian traditions about relics . . .it gets down to insane things like baby Jesus’s poop and Mary’s placenta. And people REALLY believed this stuff.

          • The apocalyptic character of the earliest Christian movement may be the reason why tombs and relics are not mentioned.

            Why would later Christians have invented a location for the tomb that was inside the city, when the stories said Jesus was crucified outside of it?

          • Andrew Dowling

            Large swaths of Christianity were still apocalyptic (to varying degrees) when we know tomb veneration of the martyrs began. We also know not all early Christians were apocalyptic in orientation.

            “Why would later Christians have invented a location for the tomb that was inside the city”

            I mean, why would’ve they invented a crown of thorns they also claimed was the real deal? Or the “true cross” (which legend says healed illness when people touched it)? Maybe they wanted to simply please Helena and get some type of credit/rewards for appeasing the empress . . .I don’t think I’m being hyper-skeptical here. If we can agree the other relics Helena “discovered” are bogus (it’s also highly suspicious all of these relics suddenly “appeared” when the empress went looking for them . . they’re completely absent from Christian literature before that), why would the tomb site be a sole exception?

          • But in those cases they aren’t allegedly inventing something which is at odds with the later Gospels yet consonant with the conclusions of historians.

            There is no need to compromise skepticism to accept these points. The clear evidence that in most instances they did not have relics or traditions and invented them, is fully compatible with there having been some things that were genuine traditions. It is no different than the conclusion that later Christians invented sayings of and stories about Jesus, and still accepting that the evidence points to some not being later fabrications.

          • Andrew Dowling

            In the absence of any literary allusions pre-4th century, I would disagree.

            That it didn’t square with the biblical accounts doesn’t matter . . .this was still an age in which lay people believed the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was as historical as Matthew. In the Catholic tradition, the Bible was not designated as the supreme standard-bearer of truth in the same way it was in the Protestant tradition (especially in the poorer, uneducated enclaves of believers) Traditions and folk tales played just as big a role . . probably a bigger role in the faith lives of believers. And that such and such account/story didn’t gel completely with what was in the Bible didn’t really matter; especially in the 4th century you still had oral tradition circulating that didn’t always gel with the canonical texts.

          • I don’t understand. Are you suggesting that there are texts from these centuries which placed the crucifixion and burial of Jesus within the walls of Jerusalem? Which ones do you have in mind?

          • Andrew Dowling

            No, I’m saying I don’t see any conflict between legends/traditions arising about certain sites associated with the life/death of Jesus conflicting with the biblical accounts, as the lay people spreading these stories wouldn’t have been “proof-texting” those stories with what was in the canonical texts . . regarding Golgotha, it seems highly plausible the people would’ve known where the site was, but not plausible they knew of any actual location of Jesus’s burial. All of the sudden discovery of “relics” in the 4th century may have simply been a power play to enhance Jerusalem’s church position over Caeserea, given the theological conflicts between the two cities regarding Christology.

          • One can always say “someone could have simply made it up” about anything. But when the thing that was supposedly made up later fits the earliest sources as historians understand them, but not as they were interpreted in the interim period, that seems inadequate.

          • Andrew Dowling

            ?I’m confused by the post above. That the temple would’ve been built over the location of tombs/graves would’ve been pretty common cultural knowledge among people in Jerusalem. It was no secret. So it strikes me as plausible a legend arose (maybe in the 3rd century, but more likely the 4th) about that being the site of Jesus’s burial. You seem to be arguing that since this tradition conflicts with the location purported n the Gospels, the tradition must be mostly accurate including it being the location of Jesus’s tomb . . is that correct?

            And on that point I disagree, I think the fact that there is no mention of it before the 4th century whatsoever, the highly suspicious circumstances/origins of the Helena relic legends and of Christian relics in general, plus the fact that the Jerusalem Christian community that existed in the 4th century was completely different and had no direct linkage with the 1st century church, and I think it’s highly improbable these 4th century Jerusalem Christians had accurate information about the location of Jesus’s tomb.

          • What motive would later Christians have had for identifying tombs that were no longer accessible in their time, were underneath another structure, and were inside the city walls, and which were a graveyard and not a private rich man’s tomb, as the place Jesus was buried? And why is there no hurdle to people knowing that the tombs were there, yet hurdles to local Christians having preserved a tradition about the tomb that Jesus had actually been placed in? That too was before the expulsion of Jews which supposedly eliminated all transmission of information.

            I don’t see what makes your scenario seem more likely to you.

          • Nick G

            Surely they could have known that the walls had been moved? You say above:

            The location of the tomb ended up within the city walls due to expansion that took place within about a decade, and so the mention of Jesus being crucified outside the city would have led to another place being identified, if the identification took place at the time the Gospels were written or later.

            Your hypothesis requires that knowledge of the location of the tomb was preserved. If this could happen, why coulldn’t knowledge that the walls had moved – a much more public piece of knowledge than one man’s burial?

          • The point is that either way one has to posit the transmission of information. The later sources that I am aware of do not seem to know the solution which archaeologists would later provide regarding the expansion of the walls, and so the evidentiary basis for the transmission of the location of the tomb where Jesus was buried is stronger than the evidence that generic information about a place where there were tombs and about the expansion of the city was passed on.

          • Paul E.

            This is true, but I think there may be an important distinction as to the type of information and the manner of (or perhaps reason for) transmission. The place of Jesus’ burial in particular is a specific type of information and would require specific people to transmit it for specific reasons. Local knowledge about traditional places of execution and/or old city/new city distinctions are more generic. One could posit a complete wipe-out of the Jerusalem church or some other reason for a break in the transmission of Jesus-specific tradition, while retaining continuous transmission of the more general traditions mentioned.

            Interestingly, either hypothesis may in this case lead to the same conclusion as to the greatest likelihood as to the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. If there were a generic traditional location associated with executions and burials that also looked very much like it could be called “the place of the skull” (because of the limestone rock formations, or whatever), and this location was in the new city but outside of the old city, then the loss of a specific place-tradition may not be as important as it would be in other cases.

          • Michael Wilson

            James, if this was the tomb he was laid in, do you think supporters of Jesus removed it in the night for secret burial, or that the interval between his burial and anyone investigating the tomb for Jesus to anoint or confirm his resurrection was to long to be able to identify him? Could he have been placed in and subsequently and clandestinely dumped in a trash heap or ditch grave by enemies who didn’t think he deserved polite burial? At any rate given the later claims I doubt there was a tomb where one could see the body of Jesus, and if he were anonymously buried in an unknown location, I suspect that soon an upgrade to an empty tomb would be invented to dispel the suggestion that he is just in an unmarked grave.

          • Mark

            All of this reasoning seems to presuppose that there is _a priori_ some great impediment to believing he was put in a tomb. Paul says he was buried, Mark says he was buried; why bother not accepting it? It seems better to reserve one’s skeptical energy for things like the resurrection. That he was buried doesn’t make the story about resurrection any more or less plausible or non-miraculous.

          • Mark

            What reason do you have for resisting the claim that he was buried? Paul and Mark both think he was. It is the resurrection story that needs skeptical treatment, not the trivial burial story which is a perfectly credible but minor detail, as is the assertion that someone named ‘Joseph of Arimathea’ had something to do with it. The only reason for entaining thoughts like he was “dumped in a trash heap or ditch” is that they are required by a good theory of the origin of the resurrection story. But a good theory of that would require a very deep theory of the possibilities of religious psychology. Apart from such a theory, retailing skeptical counter-possibilities to the burial story is just as much subjective assertion and the operation of phantasia as skepticism about the crucifixion itself is. Once this happens, we exit historical description and enter into an alternative religion, as ‘mythicists’ do.

          • Michael Wilson

            Thanks Mark. I thought that the idea he was left to the scavengers was based on historical precedent. I could be wrong. I didn’t check Crossan’s work. I thought Paul’s statement could refer to any internment not just a tomb, but I could be wrong to, I’m not sure how the Greek was taken. Your right that it does simplify the problem of where did they think his body was, but there could be other explanations, as I discuss elsewhere here.

          • Mark

            The only physical evidence that the Romans ever actually crucified anyone is (unsurprisingly) the case of someone who was crucified and buried … in greater Jerusalem. The evidence for throwing corpses in a pile seems to be from descriptions of mass crucifixion – maybe I’m missing something – but the crucifixion of Jesus doesn’t seem to be have been like this. There would be reason to consider the possibility if we needed it to explain things that need to be explained like belief in a resurrection; apart from that it’s just imagination running riot in the direction of New-Ageism, mythicism, counter-religion religion etc. Objections to a ‘tomb’ seem to be based on the unproven assertion that these were characteristic of the rich, but it seems pretty clear that the use envisaged was temporary: once sufficiently rotted, the bones would be put in an ossuary and put who-knows-where. It seems that it was really only a decomposition-room that Joseph of Arimathea can be supposed to have been supplying.

          • Michael Wilson

            Thanks Mark, am reconsidering the merit of the mass grave theory. Certainly a tomb burial can be consistent with a belief in his resurrection. Do you think it could have emerged with the general knowledge of where you could see Jesus’s remains?

          • Andrew Dowling

            “The only physical evidence that the Romans ever actually crucified anyone is (unsurprisingly) the case of someone who was crucified and buried … in greater Jerusalem.”

            You do realize that supports the argument that the wide majority of crucified victims were left to the animals; unless all of those ancient authors were simply making everything up about common Roman practice.

            I can accept the hypothesis Jesus was buried as the Romans probably threw the Jews a few bones in terms of their reverence for burial, but I think this was done minimally, and that it’s not probable Jesus was given his “own” tomb; even if a Joseph type character had existed and buried Jesus out of Jewish piety, he wouldn’t have left the others to rot; Jesus would’ve been buried with the others he was crucified with.

          • What reason do you have for using a question-begging word like “resisting”? I don’t resist the claim that Jesus was buried. I simply don’t see the evidence on that point as being sufficient to consider the matter a fact. My understanding is that the usual Roman practice would have been to leave the body on the cross to rot as a warning to other would be troublemakers. After that, the next most common practice would have been a dishonorable burial. My reason for entertaining those possibilities has nothing to do with any specific theory concerning the origin of the resurrection story.

          • Mark

            It is clearer that a very small percentage of people under the Roman Empire were crucified. Thus we might as well doubt the story that Jesus was crucified. The evidence, namely Paul and Mark, is in either case exactly the same. From there, we might go on to doubt that Jesus existed etc. At this point the imagination is liberated completely from evidence and can move where it pleases.

            The resurrection business is something they also agree on; but since we don’t believe it, our difficulty is thus to explain the origin of the belief or affirmation. If, in order to explain this, we have to give up on the burial, the crucifixion, the existence of Jesus, etc., then by all means we should do it.

            In any case, as was stated above, we know from physical evidence that some crucified Judeans were buried and ended up in ossuaries; and from Josephus that this was standard practice. Interested parties delight in over-ruling him in order to reduce the evidence to rubble — in order, in turn, to give free reign to quasi-religious fantasia. In fact, in the presence of the statement of Josephus, all evidence about general Roman crucifixion practices in Asia Minor and Italy &c goes out the window as irrelevant in Jerusalem.

            It is clear that Paul’s belief that Jesus bore some sort of ‘curse’, which presumably pre-dated and was carried on after his ‘conversion’, is closely bound up with the Deuteronomy passage that requires burial. One doesn’t get the impression that he considers burial already to be a miracle. In the passage in Mark there is little to suggest that ‘Joseph of Arimathea’ is any sort of sympathizer, rather than just attempting to validate Deuteronomy.

            But it is exhausting keeping up with this fake, motivated pseudo-skepticism.

          • Michael Wilson

            I’m enjoying this conversation on whether Jesus was entombed or not, though im not sure why doubting it is fake pseudo scepticism.

          • The passage in Josephus is evidence of Jewish practices. It is not evidence that the Romans routinely permitted those practices.

            The reason one might reasonably doubt that Jesus was actually crucified is that people subsequently claimed to have seen him walking around alive. Whenever one sees a live person, it is reasonable to infer that he is not dead and that he has never been dead.

          • Mark

            If you want for some reason to think that Jesus wasn’t buried, you will doubt that Josephus is suggesting that pious Jews would attempt to bury people ‘suspended’ by the Romans.

            As part of a compelling naturalistic theory of the origin of resurrection belief, it might be reasonable to affirm e.g. that Jesus escaped and made like he had been crucified etc. But there is no reasonably and compelling such theory, as far as I know. Thus though someone _might_ reasonably doubt it, no one _does_ reasonably doubt it.

          • I think Josephus clearly states that the Jews were scared out of burying their dead by the Romans. Although it had been their former practice to take down the bodies of executed criminals for burial, I don’t see any suggestion that they attempted to do so in defiance of the Romans.

          • Mark

            In Jewish War IV, 317 ? The Idumeans are being castigated. Certainly if the Jerusalem clerical authorities were involved in the Jesus business, they will be subject to the same castigation. (Note, however, that though Deut 21:22-3 is addressed to the Israelites as agents of capital punishment, the ground for removing hanged men is independent of the agent: it is clearly supposed to “defile” the land whoever does it. There would thus seem to be motive to remove such people, if possible, irrespective of the agent of punishment.)

          • Mark

            Note, by the way, there is no suggestion that ‘Joseph of Arimathea’ was acting ‘in defiance of the Romans’; he asks for permission in Mark’s version.

          • So what? Josephus still indicate that they managed to terrorize the Jews out of following their traditional burial practices.

          • Mark

            I don’t know what passage you are thinking of. This has nothing to do with Jewish War IV, 317 in which there is not normal Roman rule, but war; under Pilate there is normal Roman rule. In any case Josephus is taking the occasion to smugly impute to ‘half breed’ Idumeans what he imagines ‘real’ Jews wouldn’t do. What he is saying means that ‘real’ Jews pause to bury even crucified people; but warring Idumeans are too barbaric to do this.

          • I am thinking of the passage following the one you are citing, where Josephus writes:

            [T]he terror that was upon the people was so great, that no one had courage enough either to weep openly for the dead man that was related to him, or to bury him; but those that were shut up in their own houses could only shed tears in secret, and durst not even groan without great caution, lest any of their enemies should hear them; for if they did, those that mourned for others soon underwent the same death with those whom they mourned for. Only in the night time they would take up a little dust, and throw it upon their bodies; and even some that were the most ready to expose themselves to danger would do it in the day time: and there were twelve thousand of the better sort who perished in this manner.

            Clearly even real Jews could be deterred by fear from following their traditional burial practices.

          • Mark

            In the passage you are quoting, twelve thousand people (‘the better sort’) are willing to become martyrs for ‘traditional burial practices’.

          • It’s not a particularly coherent passage is it? No one has the courage to weep openly, but 12,000 people are killed for throwing dust. I can’t see how you can think that a passage like that settles anything.

          • Mark

            It’s perfectly coherent. They are trying to ‘throw dust’ in secret, so as not to show their colors, but fail. It is the earlier passage that mentions crucifixion of criminals, however, and seems en passant to allude to Deut. 21. The rest of the passage coheres with it perfectly, as it describes other people attaching inordinate importance to getting bodies buried. (Deut. 21 is about this, but is much more specialized.) No one is thinking anything settles anything. The question is, is there anything incredible about Mark’s suggestion that a clerical notable would want the body buried? It is as credible as the statement that there was a crucifixion.

            Ehrman seems to think there is conflict between Joseph of A’s tending to the burial and his being a member of ‘the council’ which might well be the one Mark says was involved in the crucifixion. The opposite is the case. The later gospels are distracting because they tend, unsurprisingly, to sanctify and ‘christianize’ Joseph of A (maybe this corresponds to something in history, who knows.) But what Mark is describing is pious obedience to law on the part of someone involved in the case or connected to those who were, and corresponding exactly to Deut 21.

          • If the 12,000 who were killed were trying to be secretive, I have to think they were only a fraction of the total number who were throwing dust during the day. In turn, since it was the exception to throw dust during the day, the day throwers were only a fraction of the people who were doing it at night. So Josephus tells us that no one had the courage to bury his relatives, but he tells us at the same time that hundreds of thousands of people were in fact trying to do so. I would call that incoherent.

            I don’t believe that there is “anything incredible” about a pious Jew wanting to bury Jesus’ body, but you claimed that the passage in Josephus makes it unreasonable to doubt that it happened, i.e., that it settles the matter. It doesn’t do anything of the kind. At best, it corroborates the motive that a pious Jew might have had.

          • Mark

            You are just being willful and motivated in not finding the discussion in Josephus perfectly clear and coherent. In fact, it is a violation of law to carry off your dead relative, when you know this will get you killed, or in such a way as will get you killed — according, at least, to later rabbinical accounts (as also the halakhah imputed to Jesus, clearly).

          • If you cannot reconcile Josephus’s claim that no one had the courage to bury his relative with his apparent belief that hundreds of thousands of people were doing so, I guess that ad hominem is the way to go.

            It was nice of them to give people a pass on burying dead relatives when it risked death to do so, although it would have been nice for the 12,000 if the rules had been changed earlier.

          • Mark

            There isn’t any incoherence in the passage; it is just the willful desire to keep it from suggesting that maybe Jesus was buried that is motivating your description. This is religious fanaticism pure and simple and total indifference to reality and evidence.

          • Once again, your ad hominem attack doesn’t actually address my point. However, you have completely misunderstood me if you think I have some problem with the idea that Jesus was buried. I don’t think the evidence is sufficient to resolve the issue, but I certainly acknowledge the possibility.

            I would also concede that the passage in Josephus weighs in favor of burial. What I object to is your ridiculous claim that “in the presence of the statement of Josephus, all evidence about general Roman crucifixion practices in Asia Minor and Italy goes out the window as irrelevant in Jerusalem.” It is simply no where near such a powerful piece of evidence.

          • Mark

            You managed to avoid discussing the text in question by moving to another. Nothing that you said had any bearing on the ‘ridiculous’ statement you suddenly imagine yourself to have been objecting to. Nothing I said was ‘ad hominem’ since everything I said was founded on your statements, not on independent knowledge of you or your character.

          • I agree that your statements were not founded on any knowledge of me or my character whatsoever. Nonetheless, accusing me of “religious fanaticism pure and simple” is an ad hominem attack.

          • Mark

            It was a characterization of the propositions affirmed.

          • Really? So if I were to characterize your last statement as “moronic,” you wouldn’t consider that to be ad hominem.?

          • Mark

            Not at all, it would just be moronic.

          • Paul E.

            Josephus, while not dispositive of course, provides some of the evidence showing strong Jewish motivation to keep burial law, especially in the communal sense of preventing defilement of the land. Whether the Romans allowed them to in any particular instance is another matter, of course (especially where the malefactor was convicted of something akin to sedition or treason). The Romans may have been motivated, in relative peacetime (especially during a festival), to give a generalized variance to their normal crucifixion/non-burial practices as a concession to Jewish sensitivities for reasons of law, order and stability. Particular Roman governors may also have been motivated in particular instances by bribes or personal relationships, etc.

            The fact is, there is a very early tradition, in Paul, that Jesus was “buried” (unspecific as to how, by whom, etc.). In the context of this thread, I think that this presents one of the many possibilities (some type of tomb veneration) as to why the disciples may have been motivated to move their base of operations to Jerusalem (if that is, in fact, what happened). If one entertains that possibility, that would lead to a question of what type of resurrection was envisioned. Was the burial place (tomb or not) venerated as the place from whence a flesh and blood Jesus emerged? Was it important simply as the place where the body had been known to have rested? Etc., etc. I.e., what exactly may have been any connection between the burial place and the posited decision to move to Jerusalem?

            Lots and lots of “ifs” there, of course. I would be interested in your thoughts about the original post, too. What do you think was going on?

          • The problem I have with the burial traditions is that they seem apologetically necessary. As the earliest disciples claimed to have seen the risen Christ, skeptics would have inevitably claimed that they were dreaming or hallucinating. It would then become necessary to add details to the story to establish the physicality of the appearance experiences, such as burial, an empty tomb, eating, and physical contact. It doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t buried, but the fact that there are pretty obvious reasons for inventing such a story makes it subject to greater uncertainty.

            As far as the post goes, I don’t know see how we do much more than speculate. I think it can reasonably be inferred that some people claimed that Jesus has appeared in Jerusalem while others claimed that he appeared in Galilee. Was there actually a shift from Galilee to Jerusalem or was it simply that the former group lost out to the latter? I’m doubtful that there can be any definitive answers.

          • Mark

            Burial doesn’t particularly advance the resurrection story, since one can be resurrected from a heap of corpses just as easily as from a decomposition bench. The impression that this wouldn’t have improved the story surely just arises from familiarity with the story we have. You are basically suggesing ‘Maybe they invented the burial story _so that it would fit with a burial-and-resurrection story_”

            On the other hand, the burial business may help explain how such a resurrection belief could have originated. Explanation of the origin of the resurrection story is the principal historical desideratum. The best such account, whatever it is, will have features that ‘fit well’ with the resurrection account that emerged in the end.

          • The mere fact of burial doesn’t advance the resurrection story beyond confirming that Jesus was really dead. As I noted above, if someone is seen alive, the logical inference is that he never died.

            However, the tradition of an honorable burial is apologetically important. The empty tomb story counters the claim that the disciples had a hallucination or saw a ghost. The honorable burial explains how the body came to be in a known tomb and counters the claim that the women went to the wrong tomb.

          • Making Jesus’ burial honorable explains the changes made by later Gospels. But for the historian, Mark’s depiction of Jesus buried dishonorably is more likely to reflect the reality of what happened.

          • Two questions:
            1) More likely than what?
            2) What makes the burial depicted in Mark dishonorable?

          • 1) Than the apologetically revised versions.
            2) The lack of anointing when he was buried.

            Please see the many previous discussions of this topic on the blog.

          • Paul E.

            I agree. It’s fun to speculate, though! I kind of like the idea of a dispersed following after the crucifixion that at some point “needed” a centrality and authority that Jerusalem provided. And maybe things had cooled down and James was already there, making it easier. But, yeah, all speculation.

          • Paul E.

            This is an important point, imo, and goes to the problem of where the burden of persuasion/proof lies, and and what stage. Does one begin with a generalized “this is how the Romans usually did it” position and then anyone arguing against it has the burden? Or should one begin with “this is how it worked in early to mid-first century Palestine”? Or does the very early tradition of Jesus having been buried carry an initial burden of persuasion, and shifts the burden to one claiming Jesus wasn’t buried? This issue gets lost in these discussions sometimes, so it’s good you bring it up.

          • Mark

            If you concede that Jesus was crucified, the passage in Josephus is adequate to make it unreasonable to believe that he was left hanging or thrown on a heap etc., and also to explain why a clerical ‘establishment’ type arranged a burial. Of course it is possible that he was left hanging or thrown on a heap, though.

  • Paul E.

    Thanks for this post! A lot of interesting comments so far. I would echo the comments about the problematic safety of Jerusalem, both with respect to prominent Jewish leaders and the Romans. I wonder if the geographic dispersal of the movement somehow “required” a centrality and authority that almost necessitated a Jerusalem church? If so, what was the continued role of the Temple? I also wonder if Jerusalem more broadly as the place of the crucifixion/resurrection was more important than, more specifically, tomb veneration? I also wonder about the church’s association with James. Was he located in Jerusalem? Did the church come to him, so to speak? So many interesting questions…

  • Andrew Dowling

    Crossan deals with this issue masterfully in “The Birth of Christianity” . . the original Jesus movement spread from Galilee, with communities still remaining in that less urban setting for decades, while James and others moved the ‘base’ of operations to Jerusalem (when this occurred can be debated, but it could have been a year later or 5 years . . ), as Jerusalem would be where one would expect a parousia or other type of cumulative Jewish eschatological event to center in.