The Truth About Jesus’ Burial

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One assertion made by anti-Christian authors, such as Bart Ehrman in his recent book, How Jesus Became God, is that Jesus was never buried in a tomb.  Contrary to gospel accounts, they say, the Roman authorities did not allow executed criminals to be buried.  Instead, Jesus would have been left hanging on the cross to become carrion for birds and dogs.  There was no “empty tomb” from which the resurrected Jesus could have emerged because, simply put, there was no tomb.

Instead, Ehrman asserts, the idea that Jesus was buried in a tomb was a late fiction, invented by supportive Christians and woven into Jesus mythology.  The trouble is, the historical and archeological evidence doesn’t support Ehrman’s claims.  In fact, the evidence makes a compelling case for the truth of the gospel accounts.

In a recent essay on this topic, Craig A. Evans, Ph.D. , addresses the issue.  Dr. Evans is the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.  His essay, Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right, is chapter 4 of the book, How God Became Jesus.

Without digressing too much, it’s worth noting that How God Became Jesus was a hastily written response to Bart Ehrman’s book, mentioned above.  It’s a collection of essays from a number of scholars, composed over a period of just a few weeks in late 2013.  The publisher allowed the authorship team only a short time to compose its response (so the two competing books could be released at the same time), and it shows.  The book contains some excellent information, but it could have been so much better if the time had been available.  However, Craig Evans’ essay on the burial laws and traditions during the first century is an exemplary piece of work, and is, by far, the best part of the book.

Of Ehrman, Evans says, “His description of Roman policy relating to crucifixion and non-burial is unnuanced and incomplete, especially as it relates to policy and practice in Israel at the time of Jesus.” (p.73)   So, let’s unpack all this and see what we have.

Textual Evidence

Part of Ehrman’s “evidence” that Jesus’ burial is a myth relates to the New Testament text itself.  He notes that an early Christian creed, related by Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth, says only that Jesus was buried, and doesn’t specify that he was buried in a tomb.  Ehrman also notes that the creed mentions Peter’s (Cephas’) name, but fails to mention Joseph of Arimathea, the member of the Jewish Council who, according to gospel accounts, donated the use of a tomb for Jesus’ burial.  That, he asserts, is reason to doubt the gospel accounts, since early Christians would have placed that fact in the creed if it were genuine.

These arguments are rather unconvincing, as they argue from omission.  First, there would be no reason for the creed to specify that Jesus was buried “in a tomb.”  To do so would be needlessly redundant in a concise creed.  Under Jewish burial practices, the deceased was typically placed in a tomb for a year.  After the flesh had gone, the bones would then be transferred to a bone box, or ossuary.  To say, “Jesus was buried in a tomb,” would be a lot like saying, “The airplane was flying in the air.”  If an airplane is flying, it is, by default, in the air.  Therefore, it’s not necessary to specify that.

The argument relating to the creed’s non-mention of Joseph of Arimathea borders on the ridiculous.  The fact that this individual donated the tomb is a minor detail, and wouldn’t have been included in a creed anyway.  It is certainly minor compared to the resurrected Jesus appearing to a key disciple, Peter, which is mentioned in the creed.

Roman and Jewish Law

Ehrman’s textual evidence fails to stand up to scrutiny, and his understanding of Roman law and practice as it related to Jewish burial traditions fares no better.

To start, Roman law did, in fact, allow for the bodies of executed criminals to be released for burial.  Evans cites a passage from book 48 of the Digesta, a summary of Roman law, which says:

The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed.  At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.  Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried. (48.24.1)

The bodies of those who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial. (48.24.3)

It is true that Roman authorities did sometimes deny requests, and leave bodies exposed as examples to others.  Evans cites several ancient sources that describe such events.  However, he provides significant evidence that that the Roman authorities in Israel actually respected Jewish law and tradition (related to burial and other issues), particularly in peace time.  Both Philo and Josephus, who were alive during the time of Jesus, indicate that first century Roman authorities in Israel acquiesced to Jewish traditions and laws.  This was especially true regarding burial traditions, which were highly important to first century Jews.

So what did Jewish law require regarding the burial of criminals?  It specified that anyone convicted of a capital offense be “hung on a tree.”  It also specified the following regarding burial:

…you must not leave his body on the tree overnight.  Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.  You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.  (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

It has become clear that Roman authorities did, in fact, often allow the bodies of executed criminals to be returned to those who made a proper request.  It’s also clear that Jewish law required the executed to be buried by nightfall, if possible, otherwise the land would be “desecrated.”   Roman authorities would have respected these laws during peace time.  Therefore, it is likely that Jesus’ body would have been released for burial.

Joseph of Arimathea

Now is a good time to further explore the circumstances of Jesus’ execution.  He was executed under Roman authority, but was handed over to the Romans by the Jewish Council, who asked that the Romans put him to death.  According to Jewish law at the time, the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) would have been responsible for ensuring the burial of persons they had condemned.  After all, it was their responsibility to ensure that the land was not defiled.

Joseph of Arimathea, who was mentioned earlier, was a member of the Sanhedrin.  His formal request to the Roman governor, and his provision of a tomb, as related in gospel accounts, would have been entirely consistent with Jewish law and practice.  The Romans’ release of Jesus’ body would have also been consistent with Roman law and practice at the time.

Archeological Evidence

Josephus, Philo, and the New Testament sources indicate that crucified people were allowed to be buried.  In 1968, archeological evidence surfaced that reinforced that notion.  An ossuary was recovered containing the bones of a Jewish man named Yehohanan.  Analysis indicated that the man had been crucified.  Most telling was that a large nail was still embedded in his heel.

Further evidence was uncovered during 1970 in the Abba Cave in Jerusalem.  An inscription was found identifying the bones in an ossuary as belonging to “Mattathias son of Judah.”  This person was identified as a ruler who was known to have been crucified.  In fact, the nails were still in the ossuary.  Yet, he had been buried.

Simply put, Bart Ehrman is wrong.  The evidence actually indicates that:

  • Roman authorities did respect Jewish tradition and law, and allow executed criminals to be buried during peace time.
  • The gospel account that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, would take responsibility for ensuring Jesus’ burial is 100% consistent with Jewish law and practice.
  • Archeological evidence supports the idea that executed criminals were buried.

To read more evidence, it’s highly recommended that you check out Craig A. Evans’ essay in How God Became Jesus.  It’s worth your time.

Image Attribution:  The Entombment of Christ, Sisto Badalocchio, 1610 via Wikimedia Commons

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