I have not covered all of the points that Craig Evans makes in his essay “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right,” which is his response to the position I stake out in How Jesus Became God.  My view is that Jesus probably was not given a decent burial on the day of his death by the otherwise unknown figure, Joseph of Arimathea.   In this thread I have tried to focus on Craig’s main points.   In my judgment, despite all the various issues he raises there are really only two of that are directly relevant and that need to be taken with utmost seriousness:  Josephus appears to say that Jews were allowed to bury their dead (Craig makes two arguments about this) and we have the skeletal remains of one crucified victim from Judea at about the time of Jesus.

First I’ll be dealing with the evidence from Josephus.  My view is that of the two arguments Craig makes, based on Josephus, the first also carries almost no weight and the second cannot mean what he claims it does.

His first argument seems straightforward, but in fact it is a bit convoluted – I will have to unpack it to explain why I do not find it persuasive.   This will take two posts.  Here is the argument, in Craig’s own words.

“Josephus asserts the same thing.  The Romans, he says, do not require “their subjects to violate their national laws” (Against Apion 2.73).

The Jewish historian then adds that the Roman procurators who succeeded Agrippa I “by abstaining from all interference with the customs of the country kept the nation at peace” (Jewish War 2.220)…

“… customs that included never leaving a “corpse unburied” (Against Apion 2.211).

Craig has made a clever move here, combining fragments of what Josephus says in one book devoted to one topic with another from another book on another topic, and then a third from the same book as the first.  The first and third quotations

come from Against Apion, a book in which Josephus, near the end of his life, defends Judaism against the attacks of a pagan opponent, Apion.  In this book Josephus argues, among other things, that Judaism is a very ancient and therefore respectable religion, that the slurs against it are unfounded, and that it is a highly moral and socially conscious religion.  The other book is called the Jewish War; it is a six-volume historical narrative that describes the history leading up to the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE, and that gives a blow-by-blow account of the war itself by someone who was intimately connected to it, first as a general in the Jewish army, and then as the liaison between the combating parties, serving as an interpreter for the Romans, written after he had been appointed a kind of court historian by the Roman emperor Vespasian, to whom he had surrendered in the course of the war.

So, what do we make of Craig’s concatenation of these three passages from Jospehus?  It would help to take them one by one.

1)       The first one is from Apion 2.73 (reread it, above). I would like to make two points about it:

    1. a. Josephus is not talking about burial laws or customs (the issue of relevance).  You can read the passage on line for yourself.  Josephus is referring to the national law of the Jews that did not allow them to make images, let alone images of foreign rulers.   If Jews were required to make images, it would be a violation of their religious tradition – as in, e.g., the Ten Commandments.  Josephus is saying something specific here: when the Romans conquered Judea, they did not force them to break their national laws against idolatry and so they exempted them from requiring images of the emperor, allowing them, instead, to pray for the emperor and sacrifice on his behalf in order to show all due honor to him.  Josephus is not talking about *all* Jewish practices; only about their customs with respect to idolatry.

You may say in response that even though that is what Josephus is talking about in this context, his general claim would still be valid, that Romans did not require their subjects to break their laws, and since there was a Jewish law that executed criminals were to be buried before sunset, they must have kept that law as well.  My view is that this generalized interpretation is a stretch, since burial customs are not in view in the passage.  But let’s say that the generalized interpretation does hold. Then what?  That’s my second point about it.

    b. In that case the passage would indicate that Jews were not forced to break their laws by, say, executing someone and then leaving him unburied — since the law of Moses says that Jews are to bury their victims of capital punishment by sundown.  But there’s an obvious problem here.  In the case of Jesus we’re not talking about someone whom the Jews executed and then left unburied.  Jews didn’t execute Jesus.  The Romans did.  And they – not the Jews – were the ones who decided on when he would be buried.  Even if Josephus is taken to mean that Jews buried their own executed criminals, it is not relevant to the question of whether ROMANS were compelled to bury theirs. The law doesn’t condemn Jews for what foreigners did, only for what they themselves did.

Look at it this way.  No one would say that since the Jews of Judea followed the law of the Sabbath, and had to do so if they were to be faithful to their traditions, that therefore Roman soldiers  in Israel also were not allowed to work on the Sabbath.  Roman soldiers didn’t give a twit for Jewish law (with respect to themselves) and didn’t keep it in any way.  They didn’t keep kosher.  They didn’t keep Sabbath.  They didn’t keep the festivals.  They did what they, the Romans, did, not what the Jews did.

And it was they, the Romans, who executed Jesus.

Some readers on the blog have insisted that since the Jewish leaders *wanted* Jesus executed (I’m not sure of that, but grant the point for the sake of the argument) that this was the same as executing him, and so they were bound to bury him.  But wanting someone executed or even urging that someone be executed is not the same thing as executing the person.  It was the Romans who executed Jesus and who had to decide when and how to have him buried.  No Jews were directly involved in Jesus’ crucifixion.  And so NO JEW was forced to violate the law by not burying him.

Still, one might ask: wouldn’t Jews have been insulted by a Roman decision to leave a corpse unburied?  Yes, indeed, they would have been.  Just as they were insulted by a *lot* of things that the Romans did (e.g.:  Controlling the promised land! Requiring tribute.  Intervening in local affairs at will.  And on and on).  Possibly with respect to some issues the Romans gave way to the  Jews, for example, not requiring Jews to break the Sabbath, not making them eat pork, not forcing them to make statues of the emperor, not insisting that they make offerings to pagan divinities.  But on other issues, Romans were intransigent.  When someone was executed for crimes against the state, as, say, an insurgent or guerilla fighter or, worse, a “rival king,” the Romans were intent on showing to all that the power of Rome was not to be opposed.

Jesus was killed as someone who claimed to be a rival king.  If Jews had executed him for being a blasphemer, they would have been required to bury him by sundown.  But he was killed by Romans, not Jews, and for political sedition in opposition to Rome, not for blasphemy.  Romans knew full well how to handle people like that, and they did it with well-known ruthlessness.  No one could openly oppose the power of Rome.  And anyone who was even thinking about it could see full well what it would lead to: death on a cross and the further humiliation of being left hanging in full view for days.

2)      I will be dealing with Craig’s second and third quotations in my next post.

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2023-08-29T07:17:45-04:00August 29th, 2023|Early Judaism, Greco-Roman Religions and Culture|

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45 Comments

  1. DoubtingTom August 29, 2023 at 7:46 am

    Was First century Judaism an ancient religion though? Yonathan Adler, a professor and archaeologist in Israel, contends the Jewish common folk didn’t practice the religion in its current form until the second century BCE. His findings are based on physical evidence provided by archeology, including the oldest presence of synagogues and ritual baths, and discarded catfish bones among other things.

    The Mormons have been around a relatively similar time, and are derived from Christianity, but are not generally considered ancient

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:15 pm

      They were definitely a religion (and a culture and an ethnicity etc.) But yes, it was different from Judaism a couple of centuries later. And that was different from most of Judaism today!

    • SteveHouseworth August 30, 2023 at 9:48 pm

      You are correct. Another source is Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past. A scholarly treatise of equal quality to Bart’s books.

  2. VerdantChief August 29, 2023 at 10:56 am

    Bart, isn’t it reasonable to assume that the Romans, after the execution, would have handed over the body of Jesus to the Jewish leaders to do with him what is according to their customs? Why would the Romans have cared what happened to a person after a crucifixion? Unless they wanted to leave them on the cross as a warning for others…

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:19 pm

      I’m afraid we really don’t know how they disposed of the body. But I don’t know of anything to suggst they did much of anything but get rid of it (in a pit, e.g., or a narrow trench).

  3. nicolausaldanha August 29, 2023 at 11:55 am

    “Jesus was killed as someone who claimed to be a rival king.”

    Since we are discussing Craig here, does Craig agree that *that* was the reason Jesus was executed?

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:22 pm

      I assume so, since that’s what the texts themselve say, but don’t recall him ever saying.

  4. NTDeist August 29, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    Dr, Ehrman I agree with you that the Romans executed Jesus and then disposed of his body probably in an unmarked grave, but I don’t see any evidence that Jesus’ dead body hung on the cross “in full view for days”. Although according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus’ disciples fled for their lives back to Galilee, all four Gospels are clear that some of Jesus’ followers, including Mary Magdalene, his mother Mary, and others stayed and witnessed his death on the cross. If Jesus’s dead body was left to hang and rot for days on the cross then many people including some of his followers would have seen that. I doubt the Gospel writers could hid that fact and I’m sure Paul would have heard about that. Definitely James, Jesus’ brother would have heard about that from Mary and would have told Paul. Also, I’m sure if Jesus’s body hung on the cross for days that would have been used against Christians who claimed he rose from the dead three days later. Everyone in Jerusalem would have seen him hanging on the cross well past three days.

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:22 pm

      My sense is that almost no one in Jerusalem even knew who he was, let alone what he looked like.

    • SteveHouseworth August 30, 2023 at 10:04 pm

      I commend your comment. Why would not some of the eyewitnesses have retained and shared this knowledge with others, who presumably have shared it with even more. My only counter is that because his supporters supposedly fled, they would not have known. Also, his supposed ministry was not in and around Jerusalem, so who in Jerusalem would have known him. Also, keep in mind that Paul was up in Syria.

      Mark and then the other gospels were written decades later, very far away in the Roman empire, in Greek and must have been based on circulating stories rather than first-hand accounts. Knowing all this I don’t understand how scholars can treat the gospels as history rather than myth. Not even as partial history. Sure a person named Jesus may have existed, even been crucified. This does not mean the gospels aren’t 100% myth built around a central Jesus character, which can include other characters such as Pilate. To treat any of the gospels as describing any level of history mystifies me. This is why I say “…his supporters supposedly fled.” Who knows if any supporters actually fled. This is part of the mythology story.

    • sLiu September 8, 2023 at 7:07 pm

      this is where I have difficulties. Why did Saul not see or hear of this execution. Living in Shanghai, my grand aunt remembered events from WW2 clearly.
      & why didn’t his teacher at least Gamaliel speak of the trials as he was a leading Pharisee?
      usually G-Bard AI is more accurate, but evasive answer
      POEAi
      While Gamaliel’s significance as a Pharisee and teacher is recognized, the historical records do not provide any direct information about his involvement or presence during Jesus’ trials or crucifixion. Therefore, it would be speculative to assert that Gamaliel was present at those events in the same way as Joseph of Arimathea.

  5. wbhiggins August 29, 2023 at 1:29 pm

    Professor Ehrman, you said that you were not sure that the Jewish leaders *wanted* Jesus executed. Would you expand on that a little bit please?

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:26 pm

      I’m not sure if maybe the Romans simply heard about a trouble maker claiming that a new kingdom was coming to replace Rome and that he would be the king, and found out how / where to find the fellow, and went after him themselves — so that the Jewish involvement was a later legend developed by Xns to blame Jews for rejecting their own messiah. It would make better sense in many ways, since the Jewish “trial” is completely implausible on the Passover or the day of preparation for the passover.

      • Oceanc August 30, 2023 at 6:09 pm

        Do you have any recommendations for essays or books (yours or otherwise) that dive into Jewish involvement or the potential lack thereof in the arrest and execution of Jesus? I’m interested since many popular depictions in film and screenplays (thinking Jesus Christ Superstar) take their involvement for granted.

        • BDEhrman September 2, 2023 at 1:41 pm

          Most any book on the historical Jesus will deal with it. I have a view that I mapped out in Jesus; Apocayptic Prophet of the New Millennium. And you might take a look at John Dominic Crossans book Who Killed jesus?

  6. JamesFouassier August 29, 2023 at 3:10 pm

    Professor, not related to this post but to your podcast of August 29, 2023 (today). In your discussion with Ms. Lewis you referred to Jesus eating the “Passover Meal” with his disciples. Did you actually mean the Seder or do you hold to the belief that the Last Supper was not the Seder but was a meal the evening before the Seder, on the evening of the Day of Preparation? Thank you.

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:26 pm

      The oldest traditions indicate it was the Seder. The Gospel of John places it to the evening before.

  7. edecter August 29, 2023 at 4:20 pm

    Towards the end of your piece, you say that the Romans were willing to bend on some issues but not others. But I’m not clear what the evidence is that they were or were not willing to bend on the burial of executed criminals. Isn’t that what the whole multi-post debate is about? So I’m not sure I understand on what basis you’re making the assertion here.

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:27 pm

      We don’t have any record of them doing that. The only “bending” that we know of happens when there are large crowds willing to be slaughtered if the Roman authorities didn’t budge. Crucifixions were nothing like that.

      • moshpitjo September 28, 2023 at 2:32 pm

        How do we know there wouldn’t have been the same kind of resistance towards defiling the land as in Deut. 21:22-23?

        • BDEhrman October 1, 2023 at 6:09 pm

          I’m not sure I understand your question. Do you mean how do we know that some Jews would not have resisted the Roman authorities in the land? They sometimes did and it led to very bad situations (including eventually the destruction of Jerusalem).

  8. kellygene63 August 29, 2023 at 4:43 pm

    What about all the other Jews crucified, the 2 thieves, what about Joseph friends he saw walking that was crucified was they probably buried, what if Jews had no family or friends did priest send someone bury them.

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:28 pm

      Yup, they apparently would have been left hanging as corpses, as usual.

  9. brenmcg August 29, 2023 at 6:22 pm

    The law from Deuteronomy is about the land itself being desecrated, doesn’t matter who it was that left the corpse there.

    “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.”

    If the Romans left the corpse on the cross the land itself would be defiled and the Jews would be punished for something Jesus did. The Romans and Jews weren’t enemies at the time. Why wouldn’t this fit nicely in to Roman accommodation of Jewish religious sensibilities?

  10. peterstone August 30, 2023 at 5:13 am

    “If Jews had executed him for being a blasphemer, they would have been required to bury him by sundown.” Would the Jews have been allowed to do this? My understanding was that only the Romans had the power to issue death sentences.

    • BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:29 pm

      That’s right.

      • Celsus September 1, 2023 at 2:16 pm

        One other thing that doesn’t get brought up enough is the blatant obviousness that a crucified person would eventually expire and, if Craig is correct, require a burial. It makes more sense, then, that a makeshift trench grave would *already be prepared* or an area designated for these individuals. The narrative makes the Jewish people look completely unprepared to bury the body. Why would they wait until the person died and then worry about digging/finding a grave?

        Why does Joseph of Arimathea have to interrupt his Passover celebration by offering Jesus a space in his own family tomb? That makes no sense if crucifixion was a common occurrence and burial was of the utmost importance. There would obviously have been a system in place for dealing with this sort of thing which would not require special intervention.

  11. MarkWiz August 30, 2023 at 11:23 am

    Please forgive me for this, as the subject is off-topic. The former English teacher in me is fighting its way to the surface. Bart, you sometimes use the phrase, “didn’t give a twit.” I think you are looking for “didn’t give a whit” (“whit” being archaic English for “small amount”).

    Excellent points in the essay. I keep thinking that throughout this series of posts that Jesus’s execution by the Romans for sedition supersedes any respect they might have had for Jewish customs. Public execution is not only a punishment; it is a warning. If the Romans did not overlook the threat of execution for “the king of the Jews” because of respect for local culture, why would they hold back on the entire punishment/warning package? If we are to believe all the other scriptural elements (vicious scouring, crowning with thorns, dressing in purple robes, spitting, parading through the streets, etc.), the clear theme is Roman humiliation of a Jewish king. The brutality seems total; does it make sense to reverse the process at the end?

    • BDEhrman September 2, 2023 at 1:32 pm

      Not a problem. I frequently change around standard phrases in an attempt to seem clever. I consider it a more amusing exercise than what typically happens (as in: “he could care less” !). Then again, I do simply botch it sometimes.
      And I agree with your perspective on the execution. Couldn’t have said it more clearer.

  12. BDEhrman August 30, 2023 at 12:24 pm

    I think all the Jews who were cruified were taken down from their crosses by the Romans. But it was days later. I don’t know of any record of Romans doing anything else, apart from the Gospel stories of Jesus and the problematic statement of Josephus.

  13. mreichert August 30, 2023 at 12:46 pm

    So Bart, you have doubts that Jewish leaders *wanted* Jesus executed? I wonder about the same thing. Is there any other case you know of where autonomous or semi-autonomous Jewish leaders turn over a fellow Jew to Romans for execution? It makes no sense to me, if Jews still had some kind of autonomy, that they would turn over one of their own to the Romans for execution, not without a really, really good reason. I see no such good reason in the Passion narratives.

    • BDEhrman September 2, 2023 at 1:36 pm

      I’m afraid we don’t have any record about how Jewish leaders at the time dealt with people they wanted to get rid of, at least none that I can think of. maybe someone else has an example or two in mind?

  14. curiojeff August 31, 2023 at 1:06 pm

    If the Jews had such a principled urgency for burying Jesus before sundown, wouldn’t that apply to all the Jews hanging on crosses that day? Why would their concern be limited to Jesus? Wouldn’t the two Lestai on either side — plus whomever might still be on crosses from days before — offend their sensibilities just as much? Or are we to believe that Joseph of Arimathea had such affection for Jesus that he braved going to Pilate (Mark 15:43: “took courage and went to Pilate”) to specifically petition for Jesus’ body as a special case?

    • BDEhrman September 2, 2023 at 4:02 pm

      Right! And why would Joseph have to ask for the body?

    • BDEhrman September 2, 2023 at 6:46 pm

      Right! And why would Joseph have to ask for the body if it’s what always happened?

  15. Celsus September 1, 2023 at 2:08 pm

    Josephus tells us how criminals were buried in AJ 5.44 – ‘And after being immediately put to death, he was given at night the dishonorable burial proper to the condemned’ and AJ 4.202 – ‘He that blasphemeth God, let him be hung during the day, and let him be buried dishonorably and secretly.’

    The latter is in reference to a blasphemer, which is Jesus’ supposed crime according to the gospels.

    This is quite hard to square with being given a proper burial in a well to do Aristocrat’s tomb.

    • AngeloB September 7, 2023 at 8:15 pm

      Jesus having received a dishonourable burial seems the most likely scenario

  16. Moshe September 2, 2023 at 9:26 pm

    I’d like to respond to James Fouassier’s question and Bart’s reply to correct a misconception I find to be common among Christians discussing the Last Supper, (especially those with the unfortunate custom of holding Christian pseudo-Seders).

    Whichever gospel you choose to believe, that meal was NOT a Seder as we now know it. John has it occurring a day too early to even be the meal for consuming the paschal lamb. The Synoptics place it a day later, specifying consumption of that sacrifice as the gathering’s purpose. That’s plausible, but doesn’t make it a Seder, a term, please notice, not used in the gospels.

    The reason is simply that “Seder” hadn’t yet been coined, nor the elaborate ceremonial meal it refers to yet invented! Both depend on the Haggadah, the text around which the Seder is built, and which was only written in the Mishnaic era, probably between the second and fourth centuries CE. Their whole purpose was to compensate for the paschal lamb’s absence after the Temple’s destruction.

    So Jesus and company may have eaten sacrificed lamb at their Passover meal, but they did not read the Haggadah, and they were NOT at a Seder.

    • BDEhrman September 4, 2023 at 2:11 pm

      That’s right. It’s kinda like talking about Jesus celebrating Hannakuh. BUT, there was a passover meal that was long traditional by that time.

  17. Moshe September 2, 2023 at 10:29 pm

    After writing the above comment, I found this detailed discussion of the Last Supper/Seder question by Jonathan Klawans, Professor of Religion at Boston University. He also deals with other aspects of the relationship between Passover and Easter, especially in the early centuries of Christianity. If these topics interest you, it’s definitely worth reading.

    https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/was-jesus-last-supper-a-seder/

  18. Moshe September 2, 2023 at 10:42 pm

    Professor Klawans later wrote a followup article entitled “Jesus’ Last Supper Still Wasn’t a Passover Seder Meal.”

    https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/jesus-last-supper-passover-seder-meal/

  19. moshpitjo September 28, 2023 at 8:16 am

    Since the Romans were the ones forcing the Jews to hang up pictures of Caesar, couldn’t it be argued that the Romans didn’t force their traditions on local people, and thus that the Jews would be allowed to bury Jesus if they wished? It makes sense if the Romans were not forcing the Jews to adopt a new legal code, but the Romans could have easily forced the Jews to just deal with the images and Jewish law would not have technically been against it because Jews didn’t hang them up. I think that if the Romans could have forced the Jews to violate their laws but chose not to, then they may have done the same with crucifixion victims, since it would be very easy to just quell any opposition to the images being up through force. I don’t know why you are saying that crucifixion would have been different. Is there any evidence from literary sources of crucifixion practices in Judea specifically being the Roman standard?

    • BDEhrman October 1, 2023 at 6:05 pm

      I don’t recall any incidents where Jews were forced to hang up pictures of Caesar.

  20. JRB67 December 6, 2023 at 10:46 pm

    I understand the Roman officials were the only ones with the authority to pronounce a death sentence. However, I’ve read that there actually weren’t any “Roman soldiers” in Jerusalem (the nearest units were in Syria), and the military folks who were there were along the lines of local reservists. Is that accurate? And if so, couldn’t some of these local reservists have been Jews?

    • BDEhrman December 9, 2023 at 12:58 pm

      There weren’t normally Roman soldiers there, but the governor typically came into the city with his own troops at major festival times to ensure there woudn’t be riots.

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