Josephus and the Burial of the Crucified

Josephus and the Burial of the Crucified March 9, 2016

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

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

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


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  • J

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

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

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

    • histrogeek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          • Paul E.

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

    • John MacDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

        • John MacDonald

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

        • John MacDonald

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

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

  • John Thomas

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

  • Jerome

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

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

  • Scott P.

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

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

  • helenmarplehorvat

    I’m late to the party here James, but….yes. of course! 🙂

    • Comments are welcome even years later! 🙂

      I’m actually hoping to blog about this again soon!

  • John MacDonald

    Ehrman’s response is that Josephus was a client of the Romans and went out of his way in his writings not to alienate or say anything negative about them.

    • Except that Josephus clearly depicts Jewish resistance to other things that involved violation of their laws, such as the introduction of idolatrous images. And so that response isn’t at all adequate in view of the kinds of things that Josephus tells us about. If non-burial and prevention of burial of the dead were the norm, it is implausible that Jews would not have objected, and if they had, we would expect Josephus to mention it as he does other things.

      • John MacDonald

        That makes good sense. By the way, I was wondering if everything was all right with you because you didn’t have a new blog post today, and you always have a new blog post every day (at least to the best of my recollection, lol)?

        • Thanks for your concern! Patheos was undergoing a WordPress upgrade overnight and it took longer than expected, delaying some posts from appearing. I do indeed try to post something every day, even if it is just a bit of humor or a piece of music!

          • John MacDonald

            That’s good. I’m so used to taking for granted reading your posts first thing in the morning that I was reminded today how much I enjoy them when I was deprived of one this morning. Heidegger’s word for this emergence of Being when something is in privation is Entzug, what Aristotle called steresis.

            I really think I’m starting to learn a lot from the time I’ve spent reading your blog about the difference between liberal and conservative Christianity. I have a good friend who is a pentecostal Christian, and I am learning to ask meaningful questions to him in our discussions about God. It’s amazing how different his understanding of Christianity is from your liberal view. With him, almost everything seems to come down to how he understands the pre Pauline Corinthian Creed:

            That Christ died for our sins
            in accordance with the scriptures.
            and that he was buried;

            That he was raised on the third day
            in accordance with the scriptures,
            and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)

            For my friend, everything depends on Christ being raised from the dead. He takes Paul literally when Paul says:

            And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith. (1 Cor 15:14)

            But there are so many other possibilities beyond the idea that Cephas and the twelve actually saw a ghost. Maybe they were hallucinating. Maybe it was a hoax. I don’t agree with much of what Carrier says, but I think he makes a good point when he says:

            Of course, a case can be made for the apostles dying even for a hoax: all they needed was to believe that the teachings attached to their fabricated claim would make the world a better place, and that making the world a better place was worth dying for. Even godless Marxists voluntarily died by the millions for such a motive. So the notion that no one would, is simply false.

            Anyway, between your blog and Dr. Ehrman’s blog I am getting my education in bible theory, so keep those posts coming!

          • I think Carrier’s point about Marxism is relevant, but not in a manner that supports the hoax scenario. I think most people who are willing to die for their convictions are sincere. One of the biggest factors in my conversion to liberal Christianity was my acceptance that I, the apostles, and many others on whom my belief system depended could have been fully sincere and yet thoroughly misguided, deceived, and wrong.

            Thanks as always for your kind words, faithful readership, and engaging comments!

          • John MacDonald

            And also, we have hardly any evidence any witness ever died for their belief, and no evidence at all regarding what belief they died for. No accounts come down to us, no records, from anyone who was there or knew anyone who was. 1 Clement is the only contemporary source we have for any such deaths (and that only of Peter and Paul), and he says nothing as to what exactly they were killed for.

          • John MacDonald

            I guess my last point on the hoax theory is that religions can certainly be based on a lie. The charlatan Joseph Smith said he translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates from heaven that he found. But it gets worse. Smith produced witnesses who described the plates as weighing from 30 to 60 pounds (14 to 27 kg), being golden in color and being composed of thin metallic pages engraved on both sides and bound with three D-shaped rings. So there would be historical analogy for Jesus and the apostles being charlatans. I think the thing to focus on is not “dying for a lie.” The lie is merely the vehicle. The point would be, through lying about the resurrection appearances, lending divine clout to Jesus’ message of loving God and neighbor. All they needed was to believe that the teachings attached to their fabricated claim would make the world a better place, and that making the world a better place was worth dying for. Or maybe the Corinthian creed originated because there were 13 separate hallucinations. Or maybe the group did indeed encounter the risen Jesus. Who knows, lol? We certainly know there was justified lying in early Christianity, as Ehrman demonstrated in his two books on forgery. Clearly the forgers believed God wanted them to lie (as per 1 Kings 22:21-22), for otherwise why would they have forged?

          • arcseconds

            I think your account shows your friend has a completely different perspective on even how to look at the whole matter. You’re looking for evidence and considering alternatives for something that isn’t that personally important to you, for him this is the acknowledged keystone of the universe.

            I imagine he’s about as interested in evidence for and against and alternatives as you are in experimenting with the foundations of your house.

            (“Do we really need all these piles? What happens if we remove a few? Does play-dough work just as well? Who says houses need foundations anyway!”)

          • John MacDonald

            I think it’s important for secular people (especially children) to study religion, so as to actually understand what it is they are disagreeing with. And the topic is very important. Ehrman says:

            “For most of us, if we had to pick one person to name as the Single Most Important and Influential Figure in the history of Western Civilization, it would almost certainly be Jesus. Who else would it be? There are others that people today might choose – Hitler, Constantine, Caesar Augustus, pick your name. But I think it’s pretty obvious that none of them actually had the historical impact that Jesus has. Not only is he worshiped by two billion people in our world today, nearly a third of the entire human race, but in terms of Western civilization, what is the single most powerful and influential institution, ever, measured politically, economically, socially, or culturally – not to mention religiously? Surely, throughout the past 2000 years, the answer has to be the Christian church. And what is the Christian church? It is the group of people who worship Jesus.”

            Regarding a secular explanation for what lies behind the resurrection appearance claims in the pre Pauline Corinthian creed, I like the Hallucination Theory. I also like the Noble Lie theory. I’m also certainly open to the possibility that Cephas and the Twelve saw a ghost – I have seen too much weird stuff in my life to simply uncritically dismiss the supernatural as an explanation. I am agnostic on the matter. I will not retain Mythicism as a serious possibility for a secular explanation for the Corinthian Creed because I think that whole theory collapses under the weight of the fact that Paul met Jesus’ brother.

          • Andrew

            Apparently there were expections like When Josephus asked Titus Ceaser for his friends to be brought down. I get that they weren’t dead, but that’s an expection to the rule for sure. Jesus wasn’t the only exception to the rule.

          • John MacDonald

            Hey Andrew. As you know (if this is the Andrew I think it is), there is a strain in Robert M Price’s analysis that doesn’t have to do with mythicism, but rather another type of rethinking of the Gospels. He tries to argue the Swoon (Scheintod – Seeming Death) Theory, among other things, may have been hinted at in the earlier stages of the Gospels, even though it was subsequently redacted out.

            First, Price points out that the desperate prayer in Gethsemane may have originally been envisioned as being granted (compare Heb. 5:7). The willingness of Jesus to die, like Isaac’s, is what answers future Israel’s sins, not the actual death. Moreover, Pilate wondering that Jesus had died so quickly perhaps was meant to suggest Jesus was not dead, but merely drugged by the odorous liquid soaked cloth that was raised to Jesus’ mouth before he passed out. Perhaps, Price suggests, Jesus in Mark originally demonstrated his divine Sonship, not by being resurrected, but by escaping death. Maybe the mocking of Jesus by the Sanhedrenists (Mark 15:32) to come down from the cross is pure irony because Jesus would in fact do that. Price says Mark 15: 43-46 seems to echo the account of Josepf bar-Mattias successfully (in part) petitioning Titus to take his friends down from the cross. Matthew adding the detail that Jesus was buried in a rich man’s tomb may have been originally put there as motivation for graverobbers to break into the tomb, like in Chariton’s “Chaereas and Callirhoe,” and Xenophon’s “Ephesian Tale.” The common theme would be robbers breaking into the tomb to find the revived Jesus licking his wounds. Luke’s account of the corporeal appearance of the supposedly dead Jesus (providing evidence to his disciples that it was really him) seems to echo a similar scene when Apollonius asks his friends to touch him to prove that it was really him and not just a ghost. Price suggests the point in the Apollonius story, as perhaps the original intent of the Luke story, was not that Apollonius had returned from the dead, but rather was never really dead in the first place. Price says John may have had a problem with all of this and so added the details that Jesus was nailed to the cross and stabbed through the ribs, emphasizing that he had in fact died.