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Decent Burials for Crucified Victims: A Blast From the Past

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 .

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Was My Weird Background a Help or a Hindrance: Mailbag October 22, 2017
Jesus, the Sheep, and the Goats



  1. Avatar
    Hume  October 22, 2017

    The Epistle of Eugnostos has such strong similarities to the Sophia of Jesus that the monks from Nag Hammadi were caught in the midst of forging the SoJ. Agree or disagree?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2017

      They weren’t *forging*. Forgery means writing a book in the name of a famous author (when you are someone else). The author was creating a new edition of the text for his own new situation. It’s not clear that this would have been seen as improper in an ancient context.

  2. Avatar
    Hume  October 22, 2017

    Does the Fig Tree represent the Temple in the NT? And the fact that it’s withered is that the Temple has been theologically destroyed?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2017

      It almost certainly refers to the nation of Israel, which was not bearing fruit, and so was going to be destroyed.

  3. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 22, 2017

    In Deuteronomy 21
    22 If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, 23 you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.

    “the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even those who are crucified because they were guilty are taken down and buried before sunset.” [Ibid. and Josephus in War 44.5.2 #317]

    Someone left on a cross for several days was considered a denial of burial rites. It was a humiliation to deny a burial. Paul said Jesus was buried. He also said we were buried with Jesus in baptism. There’s no suggestion that being tossed into a mass grave was considered a burial in the minds of the Jews. It was the exact opposite of a burial—a denial of one.

    Matthew alludes to Jesus’ body being stolen by grave robbers. There was a huge problem with disturbing graves during Jesus’ lifetime. There’s archeological evidence for it.
    The Nazareth Inscription—
    “Proclamation of Caesar. It is my desire that graves and tombs remain sealed for the benefit of those who have made them and for their children, family members and their religion. If, however, anyone accuses that another has either destroyed them, removed the buried, or with ill intent has taken them to other places in order to wrong them, or has removed the sealing on other stones, I order that person be brought to trial. Just as a man should respect the gods, so also with regard to men, for all should respect the buried. It is therefore forbidden for anyone to disturb them. Should this edict be violated, the offender is to be sentenced to capital punishment on the charge of violating a sepulcher.”

    Everything surrounding Jesus’ story says he was buried. Does Philo trump Paul and the Gospels? Philo doesn’t seem to know anything about Jesus or his circumstances.The one evidence we do have for a crucified victim is a buried one.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2017

      Why do you think being tossed into a grave would not count as a burial? Most Jews could not afford tombs.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  October 22, 2017

        According to Kaufmann Kohler, “To be denied burial was the most humiliating indignity that could be offered to the deceased, for it meant “to become food for beasts of prey” (Deut. xxviii. 26; I Kings xiii. 22, xiv. 11, xxi. 24; II Kings ix. 34-37; Jer. vii. 33; viii. 1, 2; ix. 21 [22]; xiv. 16; Ezek. xxix. 5; Ps. lxxix. 2, 3).”

        Being left on a cross to exposure is a denial of burial. Not having possession of his body means they couldn’t perform any burial rites for him. In 2 Samuel 21:13, David took the bones of Saul and Jonathan back from those who had stolen them. They had been hanged, so I think it mattered to the Jews whether or not someone had to be in their possession in order to be considered buried. Every source I’ve read so far says that not having a decent burial was one of the worst fears a Jew could have because they thought it affected atonement for sin.

        I know the Romans didn’t care about Jewish law, but didn’t Jesus’ crucifixion affect every Jew since it was in Jerusalem and during a holiday no less? A wealthy, Jewish man offering to place him in a tomb so he won’t defile the city seems plausible to me.

        The Meanings of Death in Rabbinic Judaism by David Kraemer, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics
        Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World by John Granger Cook

        (Side note: The Jews watched their tombs for 3 days to make sure those they buried were dead? It’s the first I’ve heard of it!)

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  October 23, 2017

          Follow up to my comment for burial—
          The sources I’ve read say that when burying the dead, they waited three days before officially declaring the buried person dead. They would leave the tomb seal open for a three day period to see whether the dead had come to life again. I take that to mean, in their minds, God had brought the person back to life when the reality was that they were mistakenly burying people who were still alive.

          The three day theme is dominant in Paul’s letters and the Gospels.

  4. Avatar
    Evan  October 22, 2017

    An obvious problem with the burial story would seem to be that those tombs were private property. Depositing the body in an unused tomb on the spur of the moment due to its convenience would presumably have required its relocation immediately after the Sabbath. If this had happened it provides a practical explanation for the empty tomb. Clearly some were making this observation, for Matthew tries to neutralize it by asserting that Joseph himself owned the tomb, and by concocting the stolen body controversy as a red herring. From a historical perspective, the question is whether Matthew was covering up actual events, or trying to fix a burial myth with a big hole in it. I agree with you that Crossan’s suggestion that Jesus was not buried at all is intuitively the most probable. But at the end of the day, the data seem to be insufficient to support a conclusion.

  5. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 22, 2017

    Have you written some posts regarding historicity of the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus appearing and spending time with his disciplines, why there is so little 1st century oral traditions about what Jesus taught during the 40 odd days he spent with the disciplines post-resurrection, whether Paul seemed aware or unaware of teachings and actions of Jesus purported delivered and performed post-resurrection, whether it is historically plausible the early followers could have kept quiet to the wider public about Jesus’ resurrection appearances until day of the Pentecost?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2017

      The idea of “40 days” is found only in Acts 1:3, it’s not in the Gospels. And all it indicates is that Jesus spent the time proving that he was raised and talking about the kingdom. A very strange verse.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 22, 2017

    I was surprised that you didn’t include here, among these posts, what I remembered as your strongest argument against a burial by “Joseph of Arimathea”: a seemingly earlier attribution of the burial to some unnamed Jewish leaders (possibly the Sanhedrin as a group), coupled with evidence that in other parts of the New Testament, names came to be invented for originally unnamed characters – seemingly for the purpose of showing there’d been some “good guy” among the “bad guys.” (Like “Dismas,” the “good thief.”) For anyone who’s interested, I found your argument in *How Jesus Became God*, beginning on page 154.

    I’m still not convinced! “Luke” had heard two different burial accounts, but we can’t know for sure whether the one he puts in Paul’s mouth here is the older one. You acknowledge that this would have been the *earliest* case of a name-invention.

    Of course, I *would* find it harder to believe the entire Sanhedrin cooperated in burying Jesus!

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 22, 2017

      In fact, “Luke” might have put those words in Paul’s mouth for believability, because he thought Paul wouldn’t have heard the name of the specific person who’d arranged the burial. After all, Paul hadn’t spent much time in Judea, and had only a slight acquaintance with Peter and Jesus’s brother James.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 22, 2017

    I just had another thought about this. *If* there was a burial by Joseph of Arimathea, and a natural explanation for the tomb’s being found empty (my preferred explanation being that the interment there had always been intended as temporary), Peter and the other disciples probably would have been *told* that natural explanation! It wouldn’t have affected *their beliefs* at all, because those beliefs were based on “visions” or compelling dreams. But they might well have let other followers go on thinking the empty tomb was proof of a miracle.

    They probably wouldn’t have mentioned it at all to the real-life Paul. And that would explain why *he* doesn’t mention it in his Epistles.

  8. Avatar
    Eric  October 23, 2017

    And alas, Tiberius’ birthday is November 16, not close to Passover.

  9. Telling
    Telling  October 23, 2017

    Pilate would give Jesus no special consideration but an angry crowd certainly might. Can we consider that Pilate ordered the body taken down to avert a riot?

    • Telling
      Telling  October 23, 2017

      Reviewing the thread more carefully, I see this suggestion has been discussed: Pilate taking him down from the cross for fear of a riot.

      But I don’t see it convincing that Jesus was an ordinary man with just a few followers. We have the narrative of Pilate being unable to release Jesus because he feared the crowd. And there are other narratives of Jesus gathering a large crowd. This seems to be the very reason he was arrested.

      How is this explained?

      Professor Amy Levine, a Jewish and Christian historian, gave an interesting scenario in a Great Courses class, suggesting a way ensuring he was buried properly according to Jewish law, which required a body to be buried within 24 hours, yet burial is forbidden on the Sabbath. She suggests that a man offered his family tomb temporarily so that he could be buried before the Sabbath. It would be improper to bury a man in another man’s family tomb, but there was nothing in Jewish law preventing a temporary such burial. After the Sabbath, his family would arrive from afar and take the body back home to bury him in the family grave. The empty tomb then sparks the rumors or myth or whatever. She offered this as a suggestion, but did not discuss the issue of the body being taken down from the cross. It would seem though that she thought it plausable, unless she overlooked it.

      • Bart
        Bart  October 24, 2017

        See today’s post. It’s true that in the Gospels Jesus has a massive following, but I’m saying that historically I don’t think he did.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2017

      I think the mistake we make is to think of Jesus as the most important thing going on in the mind of Pilate and the crowds in Jerusalem. My sense is that Pilate ordered three people executed that day; maybe a few the day before, a few the day after, and he never realized that he had just crucified the person that later would be called the son of God and savior of the world.

      • Telling
        Telling  October 24, 2017

        If Jesus was such a completely insignificant nobody, it would seem that Price has the right idea that the whole thing is pure myth, or maybe a concoction of apocalyptic lunatic “Messiahs” having same common Jesus name.

  10. Avatar
    aaron512  October 23, 2017

    Would you say that Jesus Christ’s death on 14 Nissan or 15 Nissan is virtually certain? Is it possible that this was made up very early on to tie Jesus in with the suffering servant (so that even John, presumably not using Mark/Matthew/Luke, could have heard of these rumors)?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2017

      I think he certainly died during Passover. But there’s nothing in the Suffering Servant tradition that says anything about him suffering at that time in particular.

  11. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 24, 2017

    To me, Paul presents the greatest difficulty in reconciling the historical evidence with how he describes Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Would Paul have used the term “buried” in a technical sense? I can’t find anything that shows they thought in such a way, even Philo in this excerpt. I’d actually like to know how they viewed those who were denied a burial. Other than it being a disgrace, I couldn’t find anything. Did it affect the afterlife?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      It certainly did in traditional Greek and Roman religions. But among Jews who thought that the person went to Sheol — it’s hard to say!

  12. Avatar
    fred  October 24, 2017

    Dr. Bart – Could you please discuss the comment below, which suggests Romans allowed relatives to petition for the body of an executed criminal and this was often granted.

    This is a footnote in an article by Gaye Strathearn, “Christ’s Crucifixion: Reclamation of the Cross,” Religious Educator 14, no. 1 (2013): 45–57.

    [16] “The bodies of those who suffer capital punishment are not be refused to their relatives; and the deified Augustus writes in the tenth book of his de Vita Sua that he also had observed this [custom]. Today, however, the bodies of those who are executed are buried in the same manner as if this had been sought and granted. But sometimes it is not allowed, particularly [with the bodies] of those condemned for treason. . . . The bodies of executed persons are to be granted to any who seek them for burial.” Corpus Iuris Civilis, Pandectae 48.24.1–3; English translation in The Digest of Justinian, ed. Theodor Mommsen and Paul Kreuger, trans. Alan Watson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 4:863.
    The article is available here: https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/volume-14-number-1-2013/crucifixion-reclamation-cross

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      Note the date of this law (in relation to the date of Jesus’ death); and that it does not apply to those guilty of treason (which was the charge against Jesus); and that it is only family members to whom the body was to be given (which was not the case in the accounts of Joseph of Arimathea. I talk about all this in my book How Jesus Became God.

  13. Lev
    Lev  November 20, 2017

    Hi Bart,

    I’ve just come across Josephus, Jewish War 4:317, which informs us that prior to the temple’s destruction in AD 70, the Romans allowed Jerusalem Jews to give crucified victims a proper burial prior to sunset.

    Does this not provide us with evidence that Jesus was most likely given a proper burial?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      I’m not sure you’re reading that correctly.

      • Lev
        Lev  November 20, 2017

        War of the Jews, book 5, chapter 4, para 2: “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.”

        It looks like (to me) that the Jews were allowed to bury the crucified before sunset – how do you interpret this passage?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2017

          I’ve posted on that question before: I’ll repost it in a week or two.

  14. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 17, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Great debate with Bob Price. You mentioned ‘was buried’ from 1 Cor. 15:4 as evidence that Jesus wasn’t some myth from outter space. So do you think the burial Paul notes here is in a pit grave? And since Paul believes in bodily resurrection, does he indeed imply an empty grave in 1 Cor. 15:4?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2018

      We don’t know what Paul had in mind for the precise burial. But the point is that Paul thought Jesus’ body was actually buried in some sense. So he wasn’t a space man….

  15. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 21, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree with Tabor as far as what Paul thought, and with Magness about what actually happened? If not kindly elucidate

    “Paul must have assumed that Jesus was peacefully laid to rest in a tomb in Jerusalem according to the Jewish burial customs of the time.” by James Tabor ‘Paul and Jesus’ (Simon & Schuster 2013):p. 11

    “…by pit or trench grave I mean an arrangement similar to the way we bury our dead today – six feet deep and covered with earth.” – Jodi Magness

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2018

      1. Tabor, no; 2. I don’t know, but I don’t think six feet under is an ancient construction. I may be wrong about that.

  16. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 18, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do I have this correct: you say that your change of mind on the empty tomb issue shouldn’t concern believers because it was really the resurrection appearances and not an empty tomb that convinced Jesus’ followers of his resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2019

      My views shouldn’t concern anyone, since they’re simply my views!

  17. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 20, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    When you did deem the empty tomb as historical is this how you figured, and in the correct order starting with best reason? Anything missing?

    1) ‘Women as witnesses’ argument
    2) Multiple attestation

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2019

      You mean back in my earlier days? (I actually held this view even long after I was an agnostic.) Yes, I suppose those were the two main reasons, but by far more important to me was the multiple attestation.

  18. Avatar
    paulogia  February 3, 2020

    I’ve heard Habermas and Licona both affirm that mass graves would have been the typical fate for a Roman crucifixion victim, but I can’t seem to find sources to affirm this. If true, what would be the best affirmation sources for this mass grave idea?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      I’m not sure specifically. We have found mass graves from Roman times, and we do know that only the elite could afford individual tombs; most people who were in neither would have been buried in the ground by loved ones, but it’s almost certainly the case that Romans wouldn’t allow that for state criminals. So the best option is mass graves: cheap and easiest, rather than wasting soldiers’ time digging individual graves day in and day out.

  19. Barfo
    Barfo  March 1, 2020

    Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea was able to convince and or manipulate lower ranking Roman “guards” to surrender the body of Jesus to him for a decent burial. Jesus was then placed into a tomb and a couple of days later the superiors of the Roman guards became aware and ordered Jesus’ body to be removed and tossed into a mass grave for the condemned. There you have it. Jesus’ body has disappeared and the rest is history.

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