So far in this thread I have been laying out the argument found in my book How Jesus Became God of why I do not think Jesus was given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea on the day he was crucified. This will be the last post on the question.
After this the fun begins. My friend, New Testament scholar Craig Evans, laid out a detailed argument for why he thinks I am very wrong, as one of the essays in the response-book, How God Became Jesus. Starting in the next post, in a new thread of a number of response-to-the-response posts, I will respond to Craig’s arguments one-by-one, to show in turn why I don’t find his arguments at all convincing.
In my post yesterday I talked about one specific reason for doubting the tradition of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea. Now I give two more reasons.
Greek and Roman Practices of Using Common Graves for Criminals
My second reason for doubting that Jesus received a decent burial is that – quite apart from the question of crucified persons – criminals of all sorts, executed in a variety of ways, were generally not given decent burials but were, as a rule, so far as we can tell, tossed into common graves.
Again there is a range of evidence available from many times and places. The Greek historian of the first century BCE, Diodorus Siculus, speaks of a war between Philip of Macedonia (he was the father of Alexander the Great) in which he lost twenty men to the enemy, the Locrians. When he asked for their bodies for a decent burial, the Locrians refused indicating that “it was the general law that temple-robbers should be cast forth without burial” (Library of History, 16.25.2). From around 100 CE, the Greek author Dio Chrystostom indicates that in Athens, anyone who suffered “at the hands of the state for a crime” was “denied burial, so that in the future there may be no trace of a wicked man” (Discourses 31.85). Among the Romans, we learn that after a battle fought by Octavian (the later Caesar Augustus, emperor when Jesus was born), one of his captives begged for a burial, to which Octavian replied, “The birds will soon settle that question” (Suetonius, Augustus 13). And we are told by the Roman historian Tacitus of a man who committed suicide to avoid being executed by the state, since anyone who was legally condemned and executed “forfeited his estate and was debarred from burial” (Annals 6.29h).
Again, it is possible that Jesus was an exception; but our evidence that this was the case must be judged to be rather thin. Crucified victims were usually left on their crosses as food for scavengers, and part of the punishment for ignominious crimes was burial in a common grave, where very soon one decomposed body could not be distinguished from another. In the traditions about Jesus, of course, his body had to be distinguished from all others. Otherwise it could not be demonstrated to have been raised physically from the dead.
The Policies of Pontius Pilate in Particular
My third specific reason for doubting the burial tradition has to do with the Roman rule of Judea at the time. One of the chief regrets of any historian of early Christianity is that we do not have more – lots more – information about Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea from 26-36 CE, who, among many other things, condemned Jesus to be crucified. What we do know about him, however, all points in the same direction. He was a fierce, violent, mean-spirited ruler who displayed no interest at all in showing mercy and kindness to his subjects and showed no respect for Jewish sensitivities.
Pilate’s governorship is lightly documented in the surviving material record, as we have some coins that were issued during his reign and an inscription, discovered in modern times at Caesarea, that mentions him. The New Testament record is somewhat mixed, for reasons I earlier mentioned. As time wore on, Christian authors, including those of our Gospels, portrayed Pilate as more and more sympathetic toward Jesus and more and more opposed to the recalcitrant Jews who demand Jesus’ death. As I have suggested, this progressive exoneration of Pilate serves clear anti-Jewish purposes, so that the accounts of Jesus’ trial in the later Gospels – Matthew, Luke, and John –must be taken with a pound of salt. In an earlier tradition of Luke we get a clearer picture what the man was like, as we hear, very opaquely, of “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). This sounds like Pilate had Jews murdered while they were performing their religious duties. It’s an unsettling picture.