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Argument Against Jesus’ Burial in HJBG, Part 2

This is the second of two posts in which I lay out (part of) my case for why I think Jesus was not given a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea.  I am not devoting a post to the second of my three specific arguments – where I talk about typical Roman burial practices for criminals – simply because Craig Evan’s does not do much with it in his counter-argument.  But my section on Pontius Pilate is especially important, as you’ll see when I begin to summarize and respond to Craig’s essay.



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.

But it coincides well with…

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Jesus Burial: My Personal Stake in the Question
Argument Against Jesus’ Burial in HJBG, Part 1



  1. Avatar
    MikeyS  July 3, 2014

    If the custom of the Jews was to be buried (in the ground) facing the East on the first evening after death why would any of them own or have a tomb anyway eg Joseph of Arimthea? Or was that a sort of transition port of call place before burial? ie Mary M going to the tomb to wash and prepare the body of Jesus PRIOR to a burial? Why would she do that? Historically which is true please?

    I’m also concerned that how did Mary and the disciples come to learn about that tomb being that they had supposedly run away on the day of the crucifixion? Not withstanding why did they not keep vigil when Jesus said he would be resurrected on the third day. Especially when they had seen Lazarus brought back to life? None of this adds up and is hurting my logic! 😉

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 5, 2014

      Jews did not bury in only one way in antiquity. The stories about Mary and disciples finding the tomb are different stories from the ones about th edisciples fleeing. And Lazarus is only in the fourth Gospel — it’s not a historical account.

  2. Avatar
    gavriel  July 3, 2014

    What the traditions have in common is that Jewish authorities took some interest in having him buried, accepting your “naming the nameless” argument regarding Joseph of A. If so, what could be their motives?

    First, your argument from common practice in the Roman Empire has some weaknesses. Capital punishment of this kind would often be applied to vagrant criminals or persons without relatives with a wish to have something to do with them. Hence an abundance of rotting bodies on public execution places. This probably applied to many types of executions for centuries on, beyond the Roman era.

    But it is methodologically a problem to draw conclusions from general probabilities in special cases in which one has more knowledge.

    The priesthood may simply have wanted to dispose the body to avoid having a cult around a grave of sorts, to avoid stirring up popular indignation as well as the traditional idea of avoiding defiling of the festival. And I think it is very likely that this was a planned joint venture because it all happened very fast, without hesitation. Pilate, having learned the lessons about Jewish sensibilities from the episode with the Roman standards, would gladly have accepted a suggestion from a former troublesome religious body realizing its potential for reducing popular unrest. He would have no reason to oppose such a suggestion, provided the priesthood insisted. He would have accepted the logic behind it as well.

    So Jesus body was taken down, watched by some female followers, and dug down somewhere without witnesses – or whatever. Mark 15:47 is not very convincing, rather a case of Shakespearean “too much protesting”. So, the burial was not decent, and that explains the fact that later gospel writers tried to improve on the dignity of the burial. This is well argued by J.F. McGrath (“The Burial of Jesus”).

    I think this is more likely, because it does not require the same amount of too early legendary growth. For instance the story about the women seeking the grave would have to be discarded completely. If Mark is near the truth, it would be inconceivable that the women did not check the execution site after having failed to locate a grave with a body in it.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 3, 2014

    I find your analysis convincing. Thanks.

  4. Avatar
    FrankJay71  July 3, 2014

    In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul states that Jesus was buried in the same paragraph in which he mentions his appearance to Peter, James, and the other disciples. He had previously met with James and Peter, with whom I supposed he would have discussed his death, burial, and resurrection, so it seems that Peter and James also believed Jesus was buried. Presumably they were all aware of Roman practices, but didn’t seem astonished that Jesus was buried. So why would Paul, Peter, and James come to the conclusion that Jesus was buried? Also do you think they had heard the story of Joseph of Arimathea?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 5, 2014

      My hunch is that the disciples back in Galilee assumed that Jesus *had* been buried, after they fled the scene.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  July 6, 2014

        If standard Roman practice was as you described and a crucified person was not given a burial— I’ve done some online reading in academic journals on crucifixion on my own recently so I agree by and large with your statements on the matter — then why would any of the disciples assume he had been buried when that would not have been normal at all? Perhaps a case of sticking their collective heads in the sand about what happened to his body?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 7, 2014

          I’m not sure. They may not have known about standard practices, since they lived their entire lives in Galilee, where there may well have never been any Roman crucifixions.

          • gmatthews
            gmatthews  July 7, 2014

            That seems like a weak supposition. Crucifixion was meant for enemies of the state and primarily for non-Roman citizens. It was intended as a deterrent, but it would be an ineffectual deterrent (in my opinion) if only those in the major cities were aware of the process and the outcome. According to Google the Galilee area is only 63 miles (as the crow flies) from Jerusalem. Crucifixion was in practice well before Jesus and I would think it a bit short sighted to think that descriptions of this manner of death had not spread beyond the gates of Jerusalem in the whole of Palestine! People are attracted to the macabre and all things gruesome (why else the need for the Colosseum?). There’s more than one reason traffic slows down when driving by an accident. The more cars and victims involved the higher the level of rubber-necking. In other words, surely word spread of crucifixion and what was involved.

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  July 6, 2014

        I guess that’s my question. Why would they assume Jesus was buried if they new crucified criminals were left on the their cross’. After all, the Joseph of Arimathea story hadn’t been invented yet, and since all the disciples were back in Galilee, who would they assume was there to give Jesus special “post crucifixion treatment” ?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 7, 2014

          I’m not sure what the original disciples thought. I wish we had their writings! But my sense is that they would not have known what Roman practices were, since they were born and raised in Galilee where there was no Roman presence.

  5. Avatar
    Sblake1  July 4, 2014

    What do you think of the tradition recorded in the Gospels that Pilate allowed the crowds to choose between Barabbas and Jesus? It seems to be to be quite unbelievable that a Roman governor would have allowed a bandit like Barabbas, who I think is accused of killing a Roman soldier, go free. Add to that the interesting linguistic element – who will you choose? Barabbas “Son of the Father” or Jesus also the son of the Father. I would be interested in your thoughts on this incidence.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 5, 2014

      Yes, I think the entire Barabbas event wsa invented by later Christian story tellers, for much the same reasons you cite.

  6. Avatar
    Hugh  July 4, 2014

    Hi Bart,
    Could the early believers have looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for ideas to support evidence for an empty tomb? Could the passage about David’s tomb in Acts 2 point to the contrasting necessity of having Jesus’ tomb empty? When do you think the book of Acts was written? I find that your historian’s view of the NT opens up interesting vistas.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 5, 2014

      Possibly. I usually date acts to around 90 CE or so, though a lot of scholars are reassessing the date, putting it more in the 120s.

      • Avatar
        VirtualAlex  July 28, 2014

        Off topic slightly, but if Acts is dated at 120′ then is it not written by the author of Luke, or is Luke dated to 120 also?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2014

          Yes, this would certainly mean that “Luke” did not write it. But even if it dates to, say, 85, I think it’s a safe bet that Luke didn’t write it….

          • Avatar
            VirtualAlex  August 1, 2014

            Yes, I realise Luke did not write Luke. I’m querying the dates of 85 for Luke’s gospel and 120 for Acts. If one accepts those dates then they can’t really have the same author. If they have the same author, they can’t sensibly have those dates, can they?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2014

            My sense is that if Acts is from 120, The Gospels of Luke was from just before then, so also 120 (or 119 or whatever). I think they certainly have the same author.

  7. Avatar
    jmorgan  July 4, 2014

    “[Pontius Pilate] 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.”

    You can’t fool those of us who’ve seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where we find out Pilate was a thoughtful and reasonable ruler who makes every attempt to free Jesus, but is forced to condemn Jesus because the Jews forced his hand.


  8. Avatar
    SJB  July 4, 2014

    Do we have any clue of the derivation of ‘Arimathea’ as a place name? Perhaps this could provide some clue as to how such a story may have begun?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 5, 2014

      Some have suggested that it is in fact a made up place, that hte word etymologically means something like “the best disciple.” But I haven’t worked on the problem yet.

  9. Avatar
    RodolfoL  July 4, 2014

    Does the reference in the Gospel of Luke to “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” mean that the author believed Pilate held some jurisdiction over Galilee as well as Judea? Or is he speaking of Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem? Is this passage an error on the author’s part or am I misunderstanding a reference?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 5, 2014

      Yes, it either means that Luke didn’t understand that Pilate’s jurisdiction was Judea (in which case it simply shows that he had this kind of reputation) or — more likely — that it refers to Galileans in Jerusalem (since that’s where sacrifices would have been performed)

  10. Avatar
    maxhirez  July 4, 2014

    I take it you have kind of mixed feelings about Crossan, but tell me-if you were a casting director looking for the perfect person to play the part of “kindly priest who runs an orphanage and changes the lives of the waifs,” can you think of anyone better? He can be a fun read, but it’s hard to figure out what he’s holding onto that he thinks of as his “faith” in light of statements like those you’re quoting here.

  11. Avatar
    Rosekeister  July 5, 2014

    The arguments against your arguments against Jesus’ burial have been interesting to follow. Even those who no longer believe the gospels and Acts to be inerrant still subscribe to their basic historicity and base their arguments on statements in the narratives. Even very good commentaries will often judge a section to be “plausible” with the implication it may be true.

    The “plausible” sections though have to be judged within the context of the documents they are in. These documents include many scenes that did not happen. The transfiguration is a good example. Jesus did not go to a mountain where he met with Moses and Elijah who came down from heaven at which time the voice of God himself affirmed that Jesus is his son.

    Then there are many scenes as well as themes of the gospel narratives that are addressing the times and community of the gospel rather than Jesus’ time. In addition there are scenes of doubtful historicity so that when the reader reaches scenes that are “plausible” they have to be judged in the context of the document. The importance of scenes such as the Transfiguration is not just that they did not happen. The importance is that they tell the reader how these documents were written.

    The gospels are not historical documents. They are apologetic theological documents addressed to their communities and the current conditions existing decades after Jesus’ life and death. When arguments are made based on statements in the gospels they miss the basic point of lack of historicity.

    You have discussed this in Acts and also Mark in this blog. Are these the sort of issues you will be discussing in the projected book on the oral gospel and is the conservative emphasis on the basic truth of the NT (which includes schools of disciples and Christians memorizing his acts and sayings) a reason for writing this new book?

  12. Avatar
    Luke9733  July 8, 2014

    How do you think the tradition about Joseph of Arimathea began? If the tradition about an actual burial was invented, it seems to make more sense that the Christians would have had one of their own carry out the burial (perhaps a disciple or a member of Jesus’ family). It seems like it’d be a bit awkward or embarrassing to admit that it was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin that carried it out (Note: maybe Matthew and John tried to make light of this embarrassment by claiming he was a secret disciple of Jesus – neither one actually even admits he was a Sanhedrist either; Matthew just says rich man).
    Another point is that all four Gospels include the detail about Joseph of Arimathea. Granted, Luke and Matthew may have been copying from Mark and just changed some details, but it seems very likely that John had his own source for this.

    I guess the big question is, is this story is not historical, how, why and when did it originate? For me, this just seems like a story that’s so out of the ordinary that it’s more likely that the detail about Joseph of Arimathea probably goes back to something that really happened. What are your thoughts on this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 8, 2014

      My sense is that there was no one else around in the traditions who could do it. The disciples have fled. There are no family members. It has to be someone who can ask the governor Pilate. So a member of the Sanhedrin is the logical choice.

      • Avatar
        Luke9733  July 9, 2014

        Would that mean that the earliest story would not have included the disciples still being in Jerusalem to discover the empty tomb? If the purpose of inventing Joseph of Arimathea is because no one else (disciples or family) were in Jerusalem at the time, so someone else needed to be the one to bury Jesus, it would seem strange and contradictory to then leave the disciples and women in Jerusalem when telling the story anyways (and also one would think they would have chosen a disciple or family member carry out the burial instead of inventing someone to do it unnecessarily).

        But this raises further questions. If the earliest stories did not have the disciples or women in Jerusalem, then there could not have been a story about the empty tomb (no one was there to discover it); but wasn’t the whole point of the burial story so that there could be a story about the discovery of the empty tomb? If the earliest story did not have the disciples in Jerusalem (and so did not have them there to discover the empty tomb) then what is the purpose of inventing the burial in the first place? This just doesn’t seem like a story that could have formed without both parts to it together, both the burial and the empty tomb.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 10, 2014

          I think there’s a difference between what happened and the stories about what happened. I think what really happened is that the disciples fled for their lives, and were not around to see Jesus get crucified. The stories about the crucifixion (and burial, discovery of the tomb, etc.) are from later story-tellers, not people who were there to see it.

          • Avatar
            Luke9733  July 11, 2014

            That’s perfectly understandable. Here’s what I’m trying to understand: If Jesus really wasn’t buried, Joseph of Arimathea was a Christian invention. But a Sanhedrin Member burying Jesus seems like a strange invention (as opposed to a disciple or family member of Jesus), so this invention needs an explanation.
            If the explanation for the invention is that the earliest Christians knew no one else (disciple or family member) was in Jerusalem after the crucifixion, so inventing a Sanhedrin member to do it seemed sensible, it would only make sense then that the earliest versions of the story should not have included any disciples or family members in Jerusalem at the time.

            If the earliest stories that were told had included the disciples/women/family still being in Jerusalem after the crucifixion, essentially, we’re right back where we started with the question of why the earliest Christian authors did not simply choose one of *them* to do it? And it doesn’t seem like they were concerned with making sure all the legal loose ends were tied up (making sure it was a Sanhedrin member so he had authority to Pilate for the body) because neither Matthew and John include that detail (though I think they did so to make light of an embarrassing fact).

            I understand your point that, historically, crucifixion victims were usually left on the cross, I still say this detail about Joseph of Arimathea seems just too strange to simply pass of as an invention. To me, it seems like a detail that at least probably has some sort of bearing in historical fact.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

            The other reality is that an illiterate peasant from Galilee (say Jesus’ brother; or Peter) would not have had access to the mighty Pilate, and everyone knew it. So the request had to come from someone who plausibly did have access. And such a person was then made up.

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