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Decent Burials for Crucified Victims

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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Pilate and Barabbas
Crucified Bodies and Scavengers



  1. Avatar
    Jim  October 22, 2012

    John’s gospel regarding leg-busting (19.31-33) might be totally made up (to work in OT prophecies), or true/partly true. I’m speculating that a Roman governor may have had some flexibility in adjusting the crucifixion ceremony based on exploiting local psyche. Maybe Pilate decided that coordinating public executions with the Jewish Passover would prove most effective at offending Jewish sensitivities. The goal would be not just spoiling supper but a festival commemorating Jewish freedom from oppressors, even if it meant some deviation from execution protocol.

    Since “Passover/Days of Unleavened Bread” was a week-long festival, the Romans might have anticipated that the Jews would be much too preoccupied with daily festivities to monitor birds pecking. Also, the visuals might have been less effective on Jerusalem residents as the Gehenna refuse dump (where bodies of criminals were usually turfed) was nearby and locals could watch birds pecking human bodies all year round if so inclined. Obviously I do not have any literature references to back any of this, so it remains only my wild speculation.

    Finally my question: where could a notion like leg-busting come in, do you think it is totally made up or based on some form of reality?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2012

      I think it is a necessary part of the story, since the resurrection account requires Jesus to have been buried, and if he was buried, the other two had to be buried. But it is also important to show that Jesus himself was in greater agony than them (from being flogged) and so died sooner (since he suffered more than anyone).

    • Avatar
      kyoseki  October 24, 2012

      Going back to my school days, the explanation I was given was that breaking their legs means they can no longer use their legs to support their weight.. Consequently the arms pull the rib cage up and apart making it very difficult to breathe and the crucified man suffocates.

      I’ve no idea whether there’s any truth to this and whether the Romans would have a reason to do this however is an entirely different matter.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

        Yes, that’s the standard explanation. Outside of the Gospels I don’t know of any instances where this was said to have been practiced. Maybe someone else has a reference??

    • Avatar
      kyoseki  October 24, 2012

      This might seem like a really stupid question, but is it possible that the interment was only temporary?

      ie. Let’s assume that, for whatever reason, the Romans were inclined to let the Jewish authorities take the bodies down before sunset, whereupon they were stored in a tomb overnight and then carted off to landfill the following day?

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

        Yes, it’s possible. But it’s not clear why it would be easier to give the body a decent burial first and then a common one later, when a common one would have been easy enough.

  2. Avatar
    Christian  October 22, 2012

    How would we know that a given skeleton found in an ossuary is that of a crucified man? The case of Yehohanan, we have the nail because there was a knot in the tree or cross which forced the nail to bend, making it impossible to extract post-mortem without breaking the ankle. What makes the matter even more thorny (if I may say) is that we don’t even know exactly how people were crucified (hands tied, nails in wrist, on the forearm etc.), so the identification of the remains is highly problematic.

    It is puzzling that we know so little about the precise technique of crucifixion, when it was so common.

    But I agree on your other points.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2012

      Good question. I’m not sure I know. Apparently forensics experts have looked at a variety of skeletons — including those buried with Yehohanan, and have ascertained the cause of their deaths. (Some by starvation; some by being cudgeled; etc.) How they do it — I don’t know!

  3. Avatar
    Don M. Burrows  October 22, 2012

    Two pieces of evidence I don’t think I saw in either of the posts on this, which (may) speak to each side of this issue:
    1. Josephus in Jewish Wars 4.5.2 that “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.” (τοσαύτην Ἰουδαίων περὶ τὰς ταφὰς πρόνοιαν ποιουμένων, ὥστε καὶ τοὺς ἐκ καταδίκης ἀνεσταυρωμένους πρὸ δύντος ἡλίου καθελεῖν τε καὶ θάπτειν).
    2. In Apuleius’ Golden Ass, one bandit suggests they do something similar to crucifixion for a maiden they wish to kill, and another mentions that in this way, she’ll suffer the “torture of the cross (or “forked yoke”) when dogs and vultures drag out her innermost guts” (patibuli cruciatum, cum canes et vultures intima protrahent viscera).

    I read Crossan’s take a decade ago, and found it somewhat convincing. It seems clear from the evidence that crucifixion was a sort of advertisement, and denial of burial was part of it. That said, uniformity is of course not to be found in any approach they took. The Matron of Ephesus is Crossan’s key piece of evidence, but it should be remembered that this is a farcical story within a farcical story; I’m sure it speaks to commonplaces, but it serves a larger narrative goal of making the matron seem fickle.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2012

      1. Yes, thanks! This is one of those instances in which Josephus is discussing what Jews typically did when they crucified people (he is arguing at this point that in those horrible days at the height of the Jewish war, these policies were not being followed); my point is that Romans did not follow these Jewish customs.

      2. Yup, it’s a terrific passage — the Golden Ass is one ancient work that *everyone* ought to read!

      • Avatar
        Scott F  October 23, 2012

        If crucifixion was a Roman practice then that fact that the Jews “took down those that were condemned and crucified” would mean that the Romans were either allowing it or that during the war the Romans were not in enough control that they could stop it. So I guess my question would be: Did the Jews crucify criminals?

  4. Avatar
    Zainab  October 22, 2012

    Hi Mr Ehrman, I am studying the prophecies for Jesus’ death & resurrection according to the Bible and one prophecy that is of interest is the Sign that Jesus gives the ‘evil & adulterous generation’. The Sign of Jonah.
    “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”(Matt 12:40).
    I have been asking different Christians of their opinion as to the state of Prophet Jonah in the belly of the fish. Every response is different. So per your expert opinion, what do you understand from this ‘prophecy’, and from the ‘original’ story of Jonah from the OT, as to what was the state of Prophet Jonah in the belly of the fish?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

      I”m not sure what you mean by the “state” of the prophet. He was certainly in bad shape and not an enviable position!

  5. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  October 22, 2012

    As brutal as Pilate’s reputation may be, might not his sensitivity about disturbances over the Passover have resulted in some moderation in the usual policies ? We have a tradition about the “governor” releasing a prisoner at Passover (probably for the same reason; why else would this leniency be shown?) Why not allow families to retrieve bodies for proper burials ?

  6. Avatar
    Scott F  October 22, 2012

    So these are the sources on which the “the Romans allowed Jews to pull down their crucified out of deference” meme are based? Kind of thin, isn’t it?

  7. Avatar
    Adam  October 22, 2012

    Since it seems it was very unusual for a crucified body to be given a proper burial, why do you think early Christians would invent a far fetched story? Why would they have a problem saying Jesus simply rose again when he was eventually taken down? Being raised is being raised – whether at an empty tomb or not.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2012

      If they wanted to stress that he was physically raised from the dead, then the body had to be identifiably not in the tomb later. I think that is why we have the stories.

      • Avatar
        Scott F  October 23, 2012

        This would imply that concern for probability was quite low among the NT authors. It didn’t matter to them that the details were far fetched.

  8. Avatar
    samchahal  October 22, 2012

    hi Bart dont you think the reference to the “breaking of the legs” of the victims in the gospels suggests that the Romans were not planning to leave the bodies hanging on crosses for a long time?

    If they broke the legs , I assume they wanted to “hurry” the death in order to take them down off the crosses , I presume either to place in a Roma sespit of some sort or to allow burial? (the ;atter being unlikely) , however it still sureky shows that the body most likely did not hang there for days for scavengers to eat! I mean why else would they break the legs , surely if they wanted to have the bodie hanging for a while , they would have wanted the victim alive for extra agony!

    Also I know that the gospels say they didnt break the legs of Jesus but dont You think its likely they did and that the story says they didnt because of prophecy?
    Also I

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 22, 2012

      I think the breaking of the legs is all part of the legendary additions to the narrative. It shows that the Romans were concerned to bury the victims, and for the Christian story tellers that was very important, because for Jesus to be raised physically from the dead on the third day, he had to be physically dead (and buried) on the first day. It may make sense that Jesus died within six hours (since he was flogged and, for the Christian story tellers, suffered so much already), but it would have seemed implausible that all three of them had died so quickly — since normally it took days. And so the leg-breaking story was come up with to explain how they all were dead and buried right away, in my judgment.

  9. Avatar
    SJB  October 23, 2012

    Tangential to the discussion here but what do you think of the idea symbolized by the Joseph of Arimathea character hat there may have been closeted sympathizers or even fellow travelers of the Jesus movement among members of the Sanhedrin?

  10. Avatar
    zemi  October 23, 2012

    Hi Bart, for now I’ll stick to the point about Yehohanan. Craig Evans in his “Jesus and His World: An Archaeological Evidence” makes some points about why it is not correct to infer that this his case was “HIGHLY exceptional”.

    He cites some other possibly executed remains of people in the Giv’at Ha-Mivtar tombs, 2 or 3 that might have been decapitated, i.e. executed. I don’t think however this is relevant to Jesus as they were buried according to the Jewish burial custom (they were not condemned to be crucified by the Romans as Jesus). But shortly his 4 objections are

    (1) almost all bones from the time of Jesus are poorly preserved, especially smaller bones o the feet and hands would normally provide evidence of crucifixion. The fact that Yehohahan’s bone was preserved was merely a fluke (knot in the wood), so no statistics can be derived from this
    (2) Many victims were tied to the cross, not nailed. This also leaves, of course, no evidence in the poorly preserved bones
    (3) The best-preserved skeletons we have belong to the rich (in bone pits or ossuaries). Poor were put usually in the ground or in smaller natural caves and not many of their skeletons were found. So those skeletons that would give us most evidence are those least likely to survive
    (4) Vast majority of the thousands Jews in the first century in the vicinity of Jerusalem died in the Jewish War of 66-70. They were not buried, but this was to be expected as it was no peacetime. In fact, it was during Pontius Pilate that Yehohahan and Jesus were crucified (citing Philo’s Embassy 300 and Josephus’s Ag. Ap. 2.73 and J.W. 2.220 for the point of Romans not violating the Jewish customs; also allowing John the Baptis being buried after the execution by the tetrarch Antipas: Mark 6.14-29, Ant. 18.119; also citing Roman law, Digesta, including the passage the bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives [yes, “relatives”]; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said this rule had been observed.”

    Does this give you any new thoughts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 23, 2012

      Yes, I’ve read Craig on this. No, I don’t find it all that convincing! But scholars line up on different sides of almost all these issues.

      • Avatar
        zemi  October 23, 2012

        Thanks! As you perhaps know, your colleague, Jodi Magness, suggests there was nothing against the Jewish law to simply remove Jesus’ body by, for example, Joseph of Arimatea, after the Sabbath finished, and bury him elsewhere (perhaps also in the common grave?). Do you think this could be a plausible explanation as to what happened to his body?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

          Hey, if Jodi says it, I believe it! (Although I should say it’s hard to say why Joseph would take the body from a nice new grave to throw it in a common grave; why not just put it in the common grave to begin with? That kind of burial was much easier.)

  11. Avatar
    larafakhouri  March 20, 2013

    I think the practice of the romans in regard to crucified bodies is not a physical law so the incident of burying Jesus would not be impossible based on probability and statistics.
    Does Contemporary literature at Jesus time, not affiliated to early Christians, contain anything about his burial? I know that it mentioned his crucifixion

  12. Avatar
    Keith Collura  May 22, 2014

    Dr Ehrman:

    I’d like to know your thoughts on Pilate making an acception for a tomb burial of Jesus’ body because of what’s written in Matthew 27:24?

    thank you!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 23, 2014

      I don’t think there’s any good reason to think he made an exception in the case of Jesus. See the discussion of my book.

      • Avatar
        Keith Collura  May 24, 2014

        Hi Dr Ehrman:

        I do have your book and did read it, did you mention that passage? I don’t remember it. I know you said Pilate didn’t care much about this incident being it was a Jewish concern more than anything; but if he nonchalantly washed his hands in a carefree manner why would an acception for a proper burial request be out of the question if he basically wasn’t all for the execution to begin with?

        Thanks for your work I really enjoy it!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 26, 2014

          The hand washing is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and is usually not regarded as a historical event.

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