Jesus’ Dishonorable Burial

Jesus’ Dishonorable Burial March 31, 2018

The subject of Jesus’ burial is one that most readers of this blog know interests me. Hopefully you also know that my little book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have To Do With Faith is not just about the burial of Jesus, but engages specifically with the historical questions related to the rise of belief in the resurrection, and the inability of myself and anyone else in our time to use historical tools to decisively pronounce about “what really happened” to the body of Jesus after his death. In other words, it is an Easter book and not merely a late Good Friday or a Holy Saturday book.

That said, I do think that the traditions and historical questions about the burial of Jesus are interesting and important in their own right, and not only in relation to what happened thereafter.

I’ve been engaging scholars like Bart Ehrman who disagree with my own viewpoint for a number of years now. Matthew Ferguson has also entered the fray, interacting with Ehrman and Magness (among others). Bart Ehrman has also engaged with the issue on his blog, in addition to in books.

More recently, Mark Smith had an article published in The Bible and Interpretation that interacts with the claim of Bart Ehrman and others that the Romans normally prevented the burial of victims of crucifixion. He writes:

Josephus…provides more evidence of Roman executions of Jews than any other author. In his Jewish War, in the early stages of the revolt, Josephus discusses the turmoil in Jerusalem where Idumaeans, allied with Jewish Zealots, engaged in widespread slaughter of those who opposed them, including the chief priests, whose bodies they “threw out” without burial. Josephus, disgusted by this behavior, comments: “…Jews have so much regard for funeral rites that even malefactors who are justly crucified are taken down and buried before sunset” (Jewish War 4.317). Since only Romans had the authority to crucify, Josephus is referring to his knowledge of normal Roman practice, in deference to Jewish culture. This evidence is particularly illuminating when taken together with Deuteronomy, the Temple Scroll, the Gospel of John, and Philo. All concur that the executed, even the crucified, must be properly buried by sunset. Josephus and Philo further concur that Romans regularly honored this Jewish expectation. As we have seen, Josephus did not hesitate to describe the many victims of crucifixion before the walls of Jerusalem whose bodies were probably exposed on crosses. Here he seems to be drawing an important distinction between ordinary executions, and the extraordinary ones that took place in a context of war.

And in conclusion:

[E]very historical narrative of execution followed by non-burial took place in a violent context. Conversely, over the course of two centuries, we do not have evidence of a single case of corpse abuse or exposure of executed bodies under peaceful circumstances, save for the few victims of the sack wending their way down the Tiber. Therefore, we can draw an important conclusion: Non-burial of the victims of capital punishment may happen in a context of violence, but burial is far more probable in a context of peace.

Do read the rest of Smith’s article – and see my book on this topic for more from me on the subject!


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  • John MacDonald

    James Tabor has some interesting ideas that the idea of Jesus’ resurrection was not his dead body re-animating and leaving the grave, but rather exchanging/leaving that body for a new spiritual one. Tabor comments that:

    “Paul reports Jesus was transformed into a ‘life-giving spirit,’ and the subsequent ‘sightings’ of Jesus, by him and the earlier apostles, were seeing Jesus in his heavenly glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-50, compared with vv. 3-7). To be ‘lifted up’ in this way is to leave the physical body behind, like old clothing, and thus to be ‘absent from the body,’ but present with God (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). This was the earliest Christian resurrection faith … What is clearly the case is that neither Matthew nor Luke are relating history, but writing defenses against charges that are being raised by opponents who are denying the notion that Jesus literally rose from the dead. Luke is clearly worried about claims that any so-called ‘appearances’ of Jesus were simply hallucinatory apparitions–in other words, ‘ghost stories.’ He has good reason to worry. We know various pagan critics of Christianity were beginning to heap fun on the Christians for naïvely swallowing the unstable fables of women and ignorant peasants. He is keen to show that Jesus, though not always readily recognized, nonetheless could be touched, and that he ate with his followers, clearly showing his ‘bodily’ existence. He is interested in what he calls ‘proofs,’ and he repeats this concern in Acts 1:3. What we can be quite sure of, from a historical point of view, is that none of these so-called proofs has any historical basis whatsoever. Mark knows nothing of such stories, nor does Matthew. They are not part of any early and core tradition of Jesus’ resurrection and they have no correspondence to the type of visionary ‘appearances’ claimed by Paul for himself and for others.”

    • Nelson

      There’s one important detail in Mark: the body of Jesus wasn’t in the grave. That’s indicative of bodily resurrection in Mark, even if Mark doesn’t include any post-resurrection appearances.

      And although Paul does talk about leaving the body to be with the Lord at death (Philippians 1:23-24), he also speaks of the resurrection taking place at the parousia (1 Corinthians 15:23). Paul also describes the resurrection of the dead (and the transformation of the living faithful) not as leaving old clothing behind but as putting an outer garment of immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51-55).

      I think Mr. Tabor is wrong in thinking that his proposal describes the one, or even the main, early Christian believe on the resurrection of Christ.

  • Andrew

    James. I think Bart talked about this, but I didn’t want to pay for his blog. What do you think about Josephus going to Titus Ceaser, who outranked Pilate, to ask for his friends to be taken down from crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t the only exception. I know Bart wants to argue Joseph of Arimathea as a legend (which is a bad agrument since all manuscripts have Joseph of Aramithea and Bart argued for Paul writing Galatians because all manuscripts have it even though he argues we can’t know what the originals said. Same guy who got on to apologists for saying everyone agrees even thought Bart does the same thing in his books…go figure lol) Seems we have only two cases ever in recorded history where someone went to a Roman leader and asked for an exception involving crucifixion, and both worked. I think Bart is arguing from convience which he accuses apologists of doing. If Romans were so cruel to Jewish customs then why allow that?

    • How many instances are there where we know of crucifixions in a Jewish context where burial was not carried out or the right to do so was specifically denied? I’m wondering whether we know that this was exceptional. The Josephus case, asking for people who are being crucified to be taken down before they had died, seems a different sort of scenario. Josephus mentions, of course, that Jews as a rule bury even crucifixion victims before sunset as their law requires…

      • Andrew

        Hey deleted my old post because I had not read the Last Days of Jesus by Mark D Smith. That book has me thinking but history of the Bible and Pilate in a whole knew light. It makes sense that the Gospel authors had a different view of Pilate than Josephus and Philo since all are telling it from their own perspectives. It doesn’t mean any were wrong, just have a different perspective on the same event that happened. I might have gotten some ideas wrong which happens when I read since I have ADHD and Dyslexia. But Smith said something striking. He said a historian can’t really prove anything, can only examine evidence, and everyone has bias including Josephus and Philo. It blew my mind to see a classical historian admitting that and that no one is wholly objective. That to me suggested a great deal of integrity and trustworthiness in his work. It was great to use how Smith examines evidence in contrast to s Jesus historian or NT historian. It makes me question very much now when any historian of the ancient world says they have proven something. At the end, it seems we must examine the evidence the way Smith does than choose to have faith or not.