Jesus from Birth to Burial

Jesus from Birth to Burial December 19, 2017

Doug Chaplin shared the following blue circle plaque that he made for Jesus, of the kind that one finds on important historic and heritage sites around the UK.


I like that the plaque states what, historically speaking, we can consider very likely, namely that Jesus was Joseph’s son. On that topic, see also Kyle Roberts’ recent book A Complicated Pregnancy. I provided an endorsement for that book, and the publisher has made a study guide as well as the introduction and first chapter available for free online.

But returning to the original subject, if a plaque like that above were to be made, where should it hang? Should there be one in Bethlehem? Nazareth is a far more plausible choice, historically speaking, when it comes to the question of where Jesus of Nazareth was born.

It seems inappropriate to mention these questions without asking where a similar plaque marking the burial place of Jesus ought to hang, considering in particular the recent National Geographic article about investigations within and under the edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Tests on mortar confirm that it dates from the era of Constantine, which was not in serious dispute, but still cements (pun intended) that link in the chain of argument about the site. See Jim Davila’s comments on an article in Haaretz for more on the subject.

Science-promoter and history-denier Jerry Coyne has made his usual sort of comments about the matter, still failing to show any awareness of the hypocrisy of his stance as he continues to complain about those who reject the academic consensus in his field, while doing likewise to the consensus of historians.

Those interested in my views will probably have already read them in my book The Burial of Jesus. If you’ve never read the book, an article I wrote for The Bible and Interpretation is excerpted from there, and it focuses specifically on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

It has been a while since I have blogged about this topic, which consumed a lot of my research attention some years ago.

Bart Ehrman leaves his meaning unhelpfully ambiguous when he talks about Jesus not having received a “decent” burial. But given that a non-decent burial is still a burial, I am going to treat him as not disagreeing with my view that Jesus was buried in a tomb for criminals, without the honor that accompanied “descent” or honorable burials. For more on Ehrman’s views, here are two of his blog posts on the topic:

Decent Burials for Crucified Victims: A Blast From the Past

The Skeletal Remains of Yehohanan: Readers Mailbag October 8, 2017

See also Ben Witherington’s post on recent work on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and also Matthew Ferguson’s which touches on Joseph of Arimathea in the context of the incorporation of historical figures into non-historical narratives (and vice versa).

Of related interest, see James Tabor’s blog post about the question of whether Simon Peter’s tomb was discovered in Jerusalem. It includes a transcription of an important older article, as well as photos of relevant archaeological evidence.

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  • John MacDonald

    I agree. That the authors had to go through such textual contortions to get Jesus born in Bethlehem, it seems pretty reasonable to infer he was actually born in Nazareth. The Bethlehem setting is fake news.

    • Gary M

      If the Bethlehem story is fake news, what about the virgin birth story (more accurately, the “virginal conception” story)? If “Matthew” and “Luke” were inventing stories about a birth in Bethlehem for theological purposes (and not intending to write an historically accurate biography), why couldn’t the virgin birth story be an invention?

      And while we are at it, why couldn’t the Joseph of Armathea Tomb story be fake news (fictional)? The Women at the Tomb story? The Appearance in the Upper Room story? The Appearance on the Shores of Lake Tiberius story? The Ascension story?

      My point: Isn’t it entirely possible that the only historical truths in the gospels are that Jesus lived in the early first century; his paternity was questioned; he became known as a religious teacher, a healer, and an exorcist; he preached an apocalyptic message that the End was very near; he irritated the Jewish authorities; they asked the Romans to crucify him; they did; and shortly after his death, some of his followers believed he had appeared to them? So the entire Resurrection belief, the foundation of Christianity, began solely due to bereaved loved ones and friends experiencing “appearances” of their dead loved one, something that tens of thousands of other grieving family and friends have claimed to have experienced down through the millennia.

      • John MacDonald

        Ancient writers were sometimes more concerned with the “purpose” they were writing for, rather than adhering to what we moderns consider to be the dictates of the “form” (in the case of the gospels, historical biography).

        For instance, we have no reason to suppose the writers who forged the writings, for instance, attributed to Paul, John, Peter, etc., thought they were doing anything wrong. To the contrary, I imagine they thought God approved of the forgeries. After all, the tradition of the Hebrew scripture says God sometimes lied through the mouths of his prophets (see Kings 22:21-22).

        I’ve been slowly reading through a collection of essays called “Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (1993, ed. Gill and Wiseman),” and here are a couple of good quotes pertaining to this issue that I’ve encountered:

        (1) “Seneca’s ironic assumption that historians are liars is a response, presumably, not only to their economies or extravagances with the truth but to their very assertions of truthfulness, their claim to be writing history at all.”

        – Michael Wood, “Prologue,” in “Lies and fiction in the Ancient World” edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — page xv

        (2) “Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events. Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself.”

        – J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in “Lies and fiction in the Ancient World” edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

        • Gary M

          Excellent information. Thanks!

          • John MacDonald

            No problem.

            I find the ancients fascinating for just things like this.

            Of course, this isn’t really new to contemporary biblical historians, so they employ strategies to mine historical nuggets out of mountains of legendary embellishment. For instance, Dr. McGrath argues for the historicity of parts of the Gethsemane pericope.

            But I think these strategies have their limitations.

            For instance, later gospel writers were quite uncomfortable with Mark’s account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, and so included that pericope in spite of their purposes, which would seem to make it historical.

            On the other hand, we have to be careful in applying these criteria here because just because later writers found Mark’s baptism pericope uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean Mark did: Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wildernes in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). Some see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior. So there isn’t really any reason to suppose the historical Jesus was baptized by John.

            On the other hand, some have tried to rescue the historicity of the Jesus/John relationship by pointing out John doubts Jesus, but this wouldn’t seem to be any more of a guarantee of the historicity of Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist than arguing on analogous grounds that Peter must have denied Jesus, or Thomas must have doubted Jesus, or the disciples actually did doubt what Jesus could do in certain situations when he had just performed a miracle resolving an analogous situation just a little while earlier, etc.

  • Nick G

    OT, but possibly amusing, in Italy outside Rome, S.P.Q.R. (which you still see everywhere in Rome itself) is often taken to stand for “Sono pazzi, questi Romani” (“These Romans are crazy”).

  • John Thomas

    Regarding the two links you shared:

    1. Dr. James Tabor’s blog about Simon Peter’s tomb in Jerusalem, his statement: “This Aramaic father/son name (i.e. Simon bar Jonah) is attested nowhere else, neither in inscriptions nor in literature” – I disagree with it. Two of the high priests of Israel during the Hellenistic Period, Simon I (280-260 BCE) and Simon II (218-185 BCE) had the name Simon Ben Onias and Onias is a
    Greek equivalent of Jonah.

    2. Regarding Matthew Ferguson’s blog, his statement: “But in Greek, the name Αριμαθαια can be formed by the Greek prefix αρι- (“best”) and μαθη, μαθησις, μαθημα, μαθητης (“teaching/disciple”)”: I think that the term, ‘Arimathea’ could also have been from Hebrew word, ‘ramathaim’ which means high place. So the name could have been ‘Joseph ha Ramathaim’ which could mean Joseph the high or esteemed one. Much similar to how the suffix Magdalene could be from Hebrew word ‘migdal or migdalah’ which means tower, again a term used to describe high or exalted person. But I take his point that these suffixes could have been originally meant to describe the person rather than the place he or she comes from. Nazarene, the suffix used to describe Jesus could have come from Hebrew word, nazir which means consecrated one.

    • I can’t seem to find any evidence that Onias was also used as a Greek form of Jonah. Can you share some places where you have found this claim and/or evidence for it?

      • John Thomas

        My understanding is that Onias is Greek form of Hebrew word, Honiyya. I read somewhere that it stands for or possibly an alternate version of the name John or Jonah. I don’t remember where. Since I cannot cite it, I will acknowledge that I could be wrong there.