As we celebrate our ten-year anniversary of the blog (April 18) by reposting the ten most commented-on posts, here now is #9: Decent Burials for Crucified Victims in antiquity, with 180 comments.
Decent Burials for Crucified Victims
October 20, 2017
My post a couple of weeks ago about the burial of Jesus (understandably) struck a nerve for some readers; I was just now digging around in the archives, and see that I addressed most of the important issues, head on, in this rather controversial post I made back in 2012. All these years later, I’m still open to being convinced otherwise!!!
In my previous post I quoted a number of ancient sources that indicated that part of the torture and humiliation of being crucified in antiquity was being left, helpless, exposed not just to the elements but to scavenging birds and other animals. These sources suggest that the normal practice was to leave the victims on the cross to be pecked and gnawed at both before and after death; in some instances there are indications that this would go on for days.
And so the question naturally arises if the same thing could be expected in the case of people being crucified in Judea around the year 30 CE. As I pointed out John Dominic Crossan maintains that this was indeed the case and that Jesus’ corpse probably met the same fate. I used to think that was a ridiculous position to take, but now I’m not so sure.
To decide the issue, one needs to consider the ancient evidence, not simply go on what your personal opinions are based on what you’ve always heard and read about Jesus being buried by Joseph of Arimathea. The question is whether it is likely that some such decent burial was allowed by the Romans. To answer the question one has to look for instances in which Romans allowed such a thing. To my knowledge – and I will be very happy indeed if someone can tell me of more evidence! – there are four pieces of evidence that can be cited, and are cited, to suggest that the Joseph story could well be historical. None of them, however, seems to me to apply .
- As I noted in an earlier post, some people have pointed to the fact that Jews took the teaching of Deut. 21:22-23 seriously and would not allow a body to remain on a tree overnight. But that is hardly relevant, since Jews were not the ones who crucified Jesus and they would have had no say in what happens to the disposal of the body. This was the Romans’ doing, and they would do whatever they wanted. And there is nothing to suggest, as we have seen, that Pilate was generally inclined to try to please his Jewish subjects.
- It is pointed out sometimes that we have the remains of one crucified man, Yehohanan, whose skeleton – ankle pierced with an iron stake from crucifixion – was decently buried in an ossuary. This shows, it is argued, that it is conceivable that something similar happened with Jesus. I would agree that this makes it conceivable. Unfortunately, as I have also pointed out, we do not have even the slightest bit of evidence to tell us what happened in Yehohanan’s case, and so we have no way of knowing if it is analogous to the case of Jesus. And other scholars have pointed out that with the many thousands of crucified victims in antiquity, and this being the only skeletal remains of a crucified victim to survive, it appears that Yehohanan’s case was HIGHLY exceptional, not typical.
- Some have pointed to a passage in Josephus’s book The Jewish War where Josephus indicates that when the rebels were being crucified by Titus outside of Jerusalem in the year 70, he pled with the general on behalf of three of his associates, and they were taken down from their crosses at his behest. One of the three actually survived the ordeal. This is a fascinating story, but I’m afraid it is not relevant to the question, since in this case it is not a matter of asking the Roman governing official to allow for a decent burial, but to stop an execution.
- The one piece of evidence most frequently cited is from the first century Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who does indicate that corpses sometimes were taken down and allowed decent burials. Unfortunately, it is not clear that what he says – despite what modern people sometimes claim – is of any relevance to the case of Jesus. Here are his words:
“Rulers who conduct their government as they should and do not pretend to honour but do really honour their benefactors make a practice of not punishing any condemned person until those notable celebrations in honour of the birthdays of the illustrious Augustan house are over… I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them the ordinary rites. For it was meet that the dead also should have the advantage of some kind treatment upon upon the birthday of the emperor and also that the sanctity of the festival should be maintained. (TRANS in Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 159)
In assessing the relevance of this statement, the following points should be noted.
- The instance that Philo mentions appears to be the exception that proves the rule. That is, Philo mentions this one exception to the practice of leaving bodies to rot or be scavenged precisely because it goes against established practice.
- Philo is talking about Roman governors who allow for decent burials as a way of honoring the Roman emperor’s birthday. That has no relevance to the case of Jesus, when his crucifixion came during the Jewish celebration of Passover, an indigenous population’s special celebration. Nothing that Philo says indicates that there is any other exception to the normal practice (except, that is, for the emperor’s birthday).
- Even in the case mentioned by Philo, it is only relatives who were given this privilege of providing for special burial. This again has no bearing on the case of Jesus.
I am not saying that this proves that Jesus was not given a decent burial. But I am saying that if he was (unless someone knows of more evidence that is escaping me?), it would have been highly unusual and exceptional and so must strike us as historically improbable. But I am completely open to being persuaded otherwise!