There’s been a lot of interest on the blog in the question of whether Romans left bodies on crosses or allowed same-day burials.  No need to take my word for it.  Just look up the references I give, e.g., in How Jesus Became God.  Even better, I’ll give one of them here from the first century Roman world, a fictional tale told within the gloriously funny novel, The Satyricon, by the Roman author Petronius, an advisor to the emperor Nero.  The account is predicated on the widespread understanding of  historical custom, as you’ll see (and makes no sense unless it was the widespread understanding).

The tale told by one of the characters in the Satyricon — which I recommend you read in full!  I’ve taken this translation from the online Gutenberg Project.  You can find the entire text here:


I would not say that a story like this *proves* how things were everywhere at every time in Roman antiquity, but all the other references I know of from Greek and Roman authors point precisely the same way, often in graphic detail.



“There was a certain married lady at Ephesus, once upon a time, so noted for her chastity that she even drew women from the neighboring states to come to gaze upon her! When she carried out her husband she was by no means content to comply with the conventional custom and follow the funeral cortege with her hair down, beating her naked breast in sight of the onlookers! She followed the corpse, even into the tomb; and when the body had been placed in the vault, in accordance with the Greek custom, she began to stand vigil over it, weeping day and night! Neither parents nor relations could divert her from punishing herself in this manner and from bringing on death by starvation. The magistrates, the last resort, were rebuffed and went away, and the lady, mourned by all as an unusual example, dragged through the fifth day without nourishment. A most faithful maid was in attendance upon the poor woman; she either wept in company with the afflicted one or replenished the lamp which was placed in the vault, as the occasion required. Throughout the whole city there was but one opinion, men of every calling agreed that here shone the one solitary example of chastity and of love! In the meantime the governor of the province had ordered some robbers crucified

near the little vault in which the lady was bewailing her recent loss. On the following night, a soldier who was standing guard over the crosses for fear someone might drag down one of the bodies for burial, saw a light shining brightly among the tombs, and heard the sobs of someone grieving. A weakness common to mankind made him curious to know who was there and what was going on, so he descended into the tomb and, catching sight of a most beautiful woman, he stood still, afraid at first that it was some apparition or spirit from the infernal regions; but he finally comprehended the true state of affairs as his eye took in the corpse lying there, and as he noted the tears and the face lacerated by the finger-nails, he understood that the lady was unable to endure the loss of the dear departed. He then brought his own scanty ration into the vault and exhorted the sobbing mourner not to persevere in useless grief, or rend her bosom with unavailing sobs; the same end awaited us all, the same last resting place: and other platitudes by which anguished minds are recalled to sanity. But oblivious to sympathy, she beat and lacerated her bosom more vehemently than before and, tearing out her hair, she strewed it upon the breast of the corpse. Notwithstanding this, the soldier would not leave off, but persisted in exhorting the unfortunate lady to eat, until the maid, seduced by the smell of the wine, I suppose, was herself overcome and stretched out her hand to receive the bounty of their host. Refreshed by food and drink, she then began to attack the obstinacy of her mistress. ‘What good will it do you to die of hunger?’ she asked, ‘or to bury yourself alive’? Or to surrender an uncondemned spirit before the fates demand it? ‘Think you the ashes or sepultured dead can feel aught of thy woe! Would you recall the dead from the reluctant fates? Why not shake off this womanish weakness and enjoy the blessings of light while you can? The very corpse lying there ought to convince you that your duty is to live!’ When pressed to eat or to live, no one listens unwillingly, and the lady, thirsty after an abstinence of several days, finally permitted her obstinacy to be overcome; nor did she take her fill of nourishment with less avidity than had the maid who had surrendered first.”


“But to make a long story short, you know the temptations that beset a full stomach: the soldier laid siege to her virtue with the selfsame blandishments by which he had persuaded her that she ought to live. Nor, to her modest eye, did the young man seem uncouth or wanting in address. The maid pled in his behalf and kept repeating:

Why will you fight with a passion that to you is pleasure,
Remembering not in whose lands you are taking your leisure?

“But why should I keep you longer in suspense? The lady observed the same abstinence when it came to this part of her body, and the victorious soldier won both of his objectives; so they lay together, not only that night, in which they pledged their vows, but also the next, and even the third, shutting the doors of the vault, of course, so that anyone, acquaintance or stranger, coming to the tomb, would be convinced that this most virtuous of wives had expired upon the body of her husband. As for the soldier, so delighted was he with the beauty of his mistress and the secrecy of the intrigue, that he purchased all the delicacies his pay permitted and smuggled them into the vault as soon as darkness fell. Meanwhile, the parents of one of the crucified criminals, observing the laxness of the watch, dragged the hanging corpse down at night and performed the last rite. The soldier was hoodwinked while absent from his post of duty, and when on the following day he caught sight of one of the crosses without its corpse, he was in terror of punishment and explained to the lady what had taken place: He would await no sentence of court-martial, but would punish his neglect of duty with his own sword! Let her prepare a place for one about to die, let that fatal vault serve both the lover and the husband! ‘Not that,’ cried out the lady, no less merciful than chaste, ‘the gods forbid that I should look at the same time upon the corpses of the two men dearest to me; I would rather hang the dead than slay the living!’ So saying, she gave orders for the body of her husband to be lifted out of the coffin and fastened upon the vacant cross! The soldier availed himself of the expedient suggested by this very ingenious lady and next day everyone wondered how a dead man had found his way to the cross!”

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2023-08-24T17:26:31-04:00August 20th, 2023|Public Forum|

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  1. Logion49 August 20, 2023 at 7:50 am

    Dear Dr. Ehrman, I have been reading the Gospel of Thomas, your posts on the topic and the bits of commentary on and I would have a question regarding whether in your opinion the phrase in Logion 28 “I appeared in the flesh” (εν σαρκει ωφθην) should/could be interpreted as endorsing docetism (I APPERED in the flesh) or, on the contrary, as affirming a bodily appearance of Jesus (I appeared IN THE FLESH). (I’m sorry that this question is so off-topic but I would be really interested in your answer.)

    • BDEhrman August 23, 2023 at 6:06 pm

      It seems it could go either way, kinda like Phil. 2:7.

  2. Prometheus58 August 20, 2023 at 8:53 am

    This is off-topic, but I would like to know (perhaps a post) your opinion of the Jesus Seminar.

    • BDEhrman August 23, 2023 at 6:09 pm

      Ah, it’s a long story. I should probalby post on it directly. Short answer here: I think their mission was commendable, but their criteria were problematic, their views were off (especially their systematic rejection of all apocalyptic materials connected with Jesus), and their voting procedures obvioulsy created a stir (widely ridiculed, whether deservedly or not)

  3. charrua August 20, 2023 at 2:49 pm

    On the following night, a soldier who was standing guard over the crosses for fear someone MIGHT DRAG DOWN ONE OF THE BODIES for burial….

    Meanwhile, the parents of one of the crucified criminals, observing the laxness of the watch, DRAGGED THE HANGING CORPSE DOWN at night and PERFORMED THE LAST RITE….

    Wow, it was apparently so common to remove bodies from crosses that soldiers were stationed to prevent it. However, sometimes the soldiers, well, you know, a bottle, a young lady, and voila! the corpse disappeared…

    Could something like that have possibly happened with Jesus too?

    Of course, such a scenario wouldn’t be a favorable narrative for early Christians, so the version involving Joseph of Arimathea emerged!”

  4. GeoffClifton August 20, 2023 at 3:02 pm

    “A Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way To The Forum” was based on three comedies by the Roman playwright Plautus, not the Satyricon. But Federico Fellini made a film version of the Satyricon in 1969. I rather liked it.
    The Widow of Ephesus story was probably a traditional tale, which Petronius included in his work. So it’s suggestion that crucified criminals’ corpses were guarded to prevent burial might well reflect standard practice.

    • BDEhrman August 24, 2023 at 5:27 pm

      Yikes, I was writing that post in too much of a hurry. I should be ashamed! My brother wrote his master’s thesis on Plautus and talks about Fellini all the time. My bad.

  5. DrMixerGED August 20, 2023 at 5:43 pm

    Hi, Bart. Newer to you and your work. Was so happy to have found you and finally joined the blog!

    Thanks for the very interesting and entertaining post.

  6. bholly72 August 21, 2023 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s a shame we only have a small portion of the Satyricon. By the way, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is based more on Plautus, especially “The Twin Menaechmi,” than on Petronius.

    • BDEhrman August 24, 2023 at 5:45 pm

      OUCH. My bad. I wasn’t thinking clearly or carefully. Right! My brother would be appalled. He wrote his Master’s thesis on Plautus and always talks about the Fellini film.

  7. mpmull2u August 21, 2023 at 12:26 pm

    Fellini did a derived version of Satyricon, 1969, don’ remember if this vignette was included

  8. OmarRobb August 21, 2023 at 2:02 pm

    RFleming in his comments in July 22, 2023 did include some interesting citations, and I think he is right in suggesting that Jesus arms were probably tied not nailed to the cross. However, I think this was not only Jesus, but it seems to me that this was the style of crucifixion in peace time in Palestine (at least). We can name this style as Economy/Express Crucifixion.

    It seems that Palestine was special to the Romans in many ways. For example, I don’t think the Romans had a problem in recruiting soldiers from the Copts, Greeks or Canaanites, but I don’t think they recruited soldiers from the Jewish or Samaritan people. Therefore, the Romans did need to consider the limited resources they got in Palestine.

    My assumption here is that the arms of the condemned were tied to the cross. The feet might be fixed to the beam by one nail. And before the sunset, the Romans would break the legs of the condemned, take the nail off the feet (which is easy to take as it is near the ground) and go “home”, leaving the local servants to finish the work.

    As I have said: Economy Crucifixion.

  9. DrMixerGED August 22, 2023 at 6:30 pm

    Also, hopefully one day I can join Platinum and possibly share a post regarding confusion of suffering, and suffering personally. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, and didn’t get “saved” (the first time!) until after I met my wife and she cried for my soul. Now, similar to the direction your faith took you, I too am an agnostic-athiest.

  10. 2380 August 23, 2023 at 10:10 am

    What a story!
    In so many ways this could be a mockery of Christian crucification and visits to the tomb. However as it relates to Jesus being taken from the cross, it clearly indicates that the Roman rule was to forbid removal. On the other hand it indicates that human weakness and other human desires can cause serious variation in the enforcement of Roman law.

  11. balisong46 August 24, 2023 at 12:19 am

    Hi Bart! This isn’t related to this post, but I can’t find the one I’m looking for. I seem to recall one where you started twlling a tale of a document describing a birth and miracles and then becoming a God and then saying sounds familiar?! Not Jesus but a Greek (Roman?)! It was demonstrating the many texts out there describing what modern day readers would find strange. Do you recall?

    • BDEhrman August 26, 2023 at 4:04 pm

      You might try searching for Apollonius of Tyana – that’s probably whom I was referring to.

  12. SteveHouseworth August 25, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    I concur with crucifixions, not removing corpses from crosses. However, and someone help with this: Understanding that the gospels are myth in order to promote christian religious perspectives, why is anyone discussing Jesus actually being crucified? If it did not really happen, why spend so much effort discussing it?

    Seems the appropriate topic is: Why, and maybe who, would write about Jesus’ crucifixion and removal from the cross when those same author(s) knew that crucified corpses were not removed?
    A. Either the author(s) were ignorant of this, but seems unlikely.
    B. The authors intentionally wanted to promote this exception of contravening a cultural practice. But why?
    C. The authors intended audience were people who would not know corpses were not removed, so there was little chance of challenging this description.

    • BDEhrman August 26, 2023 at 4:29 pm

      Yes, if it didn’t happen then there wouldn’t be much reason to discuss the details of how it happened! My view is that it did happen.

      • SteveHouseworth August 26, 2023 at 5:24 pm

        OK. Even accepting your position, what are reasonable explanations the gospel authors would describe Jesus’ removal, which is the exact opposite of what everyone in the Roman empire understood? Readers and listeners of Mark as the first gospel document must have understood the contradiction within some context. I say listeners because with only 10-15% of the population literate, most people would probably have heard a literate person read it.

        I have not seen anyone address this conundrum.

        • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 11:04 am

          I don’t think it was the exact opposite of what everyone in the Roman empire knew. Probably 95% of the empire had never witnesses a cruifixion and had no idea what the roman plicies were (80-90% of the empire lived in rural areas).

          • SteveHouseworth September 1, 2023 at 1:28 pm

            But…the gospels did not remain in rural areas. They were conveyed both in writing and oral form to more populous areas, areas with tutors who taught students to be literate.

            Perhaps most Romans did not consider the gospels as serious documents worthy of the mental effort to refute – just a guess. Problem is, by the time christianity grew to the point it needed to be discussed, I am not aware of anyone making this a serious debate, i.e. “Hey, we Romans don’t remove those crucified, so why do these christian documents say it happened?”

            I think the question is still open.

  13. Wayne S. August 25, 2023 at 2:47 pm

    What a great story!
    I’m so happy to have joined this blog. Religion and tales from antiquity would put me to sleep when I was young, but now, thanks to you, I am finding myself hooked! I have heard every Misquoting Jesus podcast and I eagerly await the next episode. I joined the NINT 2023 conference. I’m researching related topics on my own… who knew I would be so “into” this? Thanks for sharing your knowledge and making this fascinating information accessible to thoughtful and curious laypersons like me.

    • Bewilderbeast September 1, 2023 at 4:30 am

      I echo your sentiments! I’m in a similar position to you, joined in 2014 and still fascinated and learning. Time has flown!

  14. 2380 August 26, 2023 at 9:37 am

    Dr Ehrman,
    I have continued to think about this amazing story and now think that it actually comes close to supporting the idea that the Romans did NOT allow bodies to be taken down from the cross.
    First the guard is stationed to prevent the removal at the cross. Through “weakness” he does abandon his duty but once he and his new found ladyfriend come back to reality, they both realize the consequences of his shirking of responsibility and in total desperation replace the crucified body with that of her freshly mourned departed husbands corpse reestablishing at least the appearance of what should have been all along.

    Among many other ironies, the just man loses his decent burial and ends up on a cross.

    • SteveHouseworth August 27, 2023 at 12:43 pm

      Confirming the nature of the manuscript, i.e. satire of the most consequential form.

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