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Did Roman Authorities Show Clemency?

In my previous post I began to discuss Craig Evan’s essay “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right,” which was his attempt to show that the views I set forth in How Jesus Became God were flawed.   In his view, the New Testament portrayal of Jesus’ burial is almost certainly historical: Jesus really was buried, in a known tomb, on the afternoon of his death, immediately after he expired, by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who had, the night before, called for his execution.   My view is that this is entirely unlikely, that Jesus was probably left on his cross to suffer the ravages of time and, possibly, scavenging animals, as was the practice of Romans for crucified victims.  In no instance was this practice more constant than in the case of “enemies of the state,” anyone, for example, who was involved in an insurrection or who threatened a violent opposition to Roman rule (or was thought to have threatened).   Jesus himself, of course, was executed on just this charge, of planning to supplant the Roman governorship of Judea in order to set himself up as king.

In the previous post I dealt with Craig’s discussion of a passage in Philo – the one text from antiquity that explicitly indicates that a governor might sometimes show clemency in allowing a crucified victim to be buried.  I argued that Craig completely misconstrues this evidence.

Craig goes on to argue that clemency was in fact a Roman practice more generally.  His reason for arguing so is to show that it is not inconceivable that Pilate would be merciful and would allow Jesus to be buried, since Roman authorities frequently, in Craig’s opinion, did show mercy.   In his words, “the Romans not only permitted the bodies of the executed, including the crucified, to be buried [Craig never does show this was a policy or custom – he only has the quotation from Philo], they even pardoned those in prison and sometimes even pardoned those awaiting or faced with the thread of execution, whether by crucifixion or my other means”  (p. 75).  Craig refers to this as the “Roman practice of granting clemency.”

When I read this statement for the first time I expected Craig to cite some examples of Roman administrators who staid the execution by crucifixion of criminals – or even just their execution by any means.  Oddly enough, Craig next cites four instances of clemency –none of them from the days of Jesus and none of them in the land of Israel – and none of them involves a person convicted to be executed, let alone crucified, let alone for committing high treason against the state.  So why does he say…

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So why does he say that Romans regularly forgave those worthy of execution, even by crucifixion, if he isn’t able to cite any evidence?   My suspicion is that he’s hoping that we won’t notice!  🙂

Before proceeding, I need to stress again the important point.  If we want to say that Pilate showed clemency to Jesus by allowing him a decent burial immediately after he died, and we want to say that this was part of the “Roman practice of granting clemency,” then the very best evidence would indicate that Romans regularly allowed criminals who were crucified for high treason to be buried.  Craig doesn’t cite any instances of this.  That’s because none exist.  The next best thing would be evidence that Romans allowed criminals crucified for other reasons to be given decent burials.  Again, the only evidence of this is Philo, which does not show a Roman *pattern* or “practice” of clemency, but was a specific instance done for a particular reason – not to show clemency but to honor the birthday of an emperor.  Other than that, there are no examples for Craig to cite.

Jesus was executed for high treason.  Romans executed people like that by crucifixion and allowed their bodies to decompose on their crosses to show with absolute clarity and force that Roman power was not to be crossed.   In cases such as this, they showed no mercy.  I don’t know of any counter-examples.

The examples Craig does provide are not of people who were executed, let alone crucified, let alone crucified as enemies of the state.  They are of people convicted of lesser crimes who were let go:  there is one man condemned to be scourged in Egypt in 85 CE; some who were released from prison in 112 CE; an undated instance of some prisoners set free; and an instance of prisoners who had their chains removed in the first century BCE (in Rome?  The reference is Pliny).

So here we have four instances spread out over the course of 200 years.   In my view, to say that this shows that it is probable that Pilate allowed Jesus to be buried is a huge stretch.   The people to whom clemency were shown were not just in completely different times and places; they were guilty of different crimes, they all had other extenuating circumstances that do not apply to Jesus, and none of them is said to have been condemned to death, let alone death by crucifixion, let alone on grounds of being an enemy of the state.     (And none of them, of course, involves a person being allowed a decent burial.)

Later (on p. 76) Craig does indicate that there was an instance of clemency in the land of Israel: some 35 years after Jesus the governor Albinus, as he was leaving office (and in order to show what a kind fellow he was?) released from prison those who were guilty of crimes “other than murder” (that’s Craig’s phrase; see below) – that is petty crimes.  This is a better example, since it is from Judea – although it is not in the days of Jesus and does not involve Pilate (about whom I’ll be saying more in a later post).  But Craig doesn’t actually cite the passage from the Jewish historian Josephus in which this incident is mentioned.  It makes a difference.  Here it is. Judge its relevance for yourself:

But when Albinus heard that Gessius Florus was coming to succeed him, he was desirous to appear to do somewhat that might be grateful to the people of Jerusalem; so he brought out all those prisoners who seemed to him to be most plainly worthy of death, and ordered them to be put to death accordingly. But as to those who had been put into prison on some trifling occasions, he took money of them, and dismissed them; by which means the prisons were indeed emptied, but the country was filled with robbers. (Antiquities 20, 215).

So, is this an instance of Roman clemency?  Well, yes, to the petty robbers stuck in prison – whom he released after receiving bribes (!).  But not for anyone who deserved a death sentence.  These he summarily executed.

Romans did not show mercy to people who committed a capital offense (note: it is not just murderers – it is anyone who deserved death in his opinion; that could have been any range of person.)   Even worse than capital offenders, of course, were enemies of the state.  These would not have been left in prison for a while.  They would have been crucified to suffer a prolonged and unbelievably painful death in the public eye, humiliated, debased, and tortured for all to see, and then left to rot on their crosses.

Did Roman Laws Require Decent Burials?
Did Romans Allow Decent Burials?



  1. Avatar
    Matilda  July 10, 2014

    I agree with you Bart although I’m not a scholar. Just reading history demonstrates continuing cruelty and total disregard for human life. People want so much to believe our species is good and kind and that Jesus was God so they will do or say anything to make it so. It’s called denial- the strongest force in the universe! I think this is why people who should know better go through contortions to prove what just isn’t true. Those of us who face the music, so to speak, are brave but a bit sad, don’t you think? Anyway, thank you again for your clear sightedness and setting things in their proper perspective. You have helped me a lot in overcoming a lot of doubt and confusion. Yes, this is my confession, can you tell I’m an ex-Catholic? 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Hank_Z  July 10, 2014

    Bart, is it common for a “scholar” to publish arguments based on zero relevant evidence?

  3. Avatar
    danielkurtenbach  July 10, 2014

    “Enemy of the state” — I know this is contrary to your theory that Jesus believed that he would be made king of the new kingdom brought in by the Son of Man, but I’ll ask anyway: Is it possible that Jesus was condemned without ever actually making the claim that he himself was the Messiah or that he himself would be king? Suppose Pilate was simply told by Jewish leaders that (1) Jesus was a troublemaker (the disturbance in the temple) who could well stir up violence at Passover, and (2) every day Jesus was in the temple gathering followers to join him in a new kingdom that would soon overturn the existing power structure? Based on what we know of Pilate’s personality and practices, it doesn’t seem like it would take much for him to condemn Jesus as a would-be “king of the Jews,” and perhaps do so without any trial at all.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

      Yes, it’s possible that they executed him for saying/thinking something about himself that he did not say/think about himself. But I think there are other good reasons for thinking this is what Jesus said and thought, as I explain in my book.

  4. Avatar
    Matt7  July 10, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have a question about this comment:

    “So why does he say that Romans regularly forgave those worthy of execution, even by crucifixion, if he isn’t able to cite any evidence? My suspicion is that he’s hoping that we won’t notice! :-)”

    It seems to me that the last sentence in this quote is probably the closest you come in your writings/interviews/debates to accusing an opponent of dishonesty. Do you think it is possible for an educated Bible scholar to maintain a belief in biblical inerrancy without being intellectually dishonest at some level? One of the reasons I ask this question is that I have an NIV Study Bible published by Zondervan in which the commentators claim (among other things) that Paul was the author of all 13 of the books accredited to him. Someone isn’t telling the truth, and it’s really annoying.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

      Oh, OOPS!!! I was not at all meaning to accuse him of dishonesty!! I was just making a joke. It may be that he himself sees a connection between his cited evidence and his claims. But I don’t think there is one myself.

  5. Avatar
    rsNvt  July 11, 2014

    Your recent posts (very informative and interesting…OK I’m gonna buy your book, I think I have most of your non-academic writings, but I range perpendicular), seem to call into question a significant section of the gospels. While I agree that a lack of burial does not preclude a resurrection, it does indicate that there must of been *some* reason for concocting the stories of the demise of Jesus. Maybe you address this in your book, and if so, pardon my bringing it up, but if there is strong evidence that his body would have been left up to rot, why create the whole burial myth (myths, actually, as there are more than one)? Having read enough mythology, I can see how this would be the “explanation” for Easter, or the co-opting of pagan spring/fertility rites (Christian history is filled with co-opting). Being an amateur (as no doubt you figured out awhile ago), my dates of things are fuzzy, but wasn’t it much later, after the writing of the gospels, that there was debate concerning Jesus’ resurrection being in body, and not just in spirit?

    I guess to simplify, it isn’t necessary, as you point out, for Jesus to be buried for the essential tenants of the religion. So, why concoct a burial at all?

    (As an aside, this thread reminds me of a TV commercial hawking Christian literature, which depicts an empty tomb, with a nicely folded robe/shroud on the stones. I thought it was pretty funny that Jesus would take the time to fold his burial clothes before ascending bodily [and, thus, naked!] up to heaven.)

    Thanks for your time,
    -Robert shearer

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

      Yes, possibly the empty tomb was an attempt to explain the physicality of the resurrection to those who denied it (I do talk about “spiritual” views of the resurrection in my book)

  6. Avatar
    yes_hua  July 11, 2014

    What does this say about the dating or authorship of the gospel accounts? The authors clearly aren’t speaking to Judeans and they seem to speak to people who wouldn’t call out their accounts of crucifixion. One thing that apologists claim re the veracity of the accounts is that the other apostles would have called them out for mistakes. Of course by their own traditions the apostles would have been martyred by the time the gospels were written. But they must be writing to people in the Roman world. They must have some assurance that they won’t be criticized. It causes me to date the gospels later than usually thought.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

      Yes, the Gospels are certainly written outside of Palestine, in Greek, some 30-65 years after the events they narrate. There’s not a lot of dispute about that among scholars who are not fundamentalist or extremely conservative evangelicals.

      • Avatar
        yes_hua  July 11, 2014

        But why can they get away with this narrative of clemency? Did they know Pilate’s reputation? They assume their followers do not. But those followers would be familiar with crucifixion, yes, but maybe not as it was handled in the provinces? It seems to put greater distance between Jesus, in both time elapsed and miles, and the gospel accounts of his life. I’m guessing you don’t see any reason to push the dates of authorship any later than they typically are accepted by scholars. And maybe I’m leaping into conspiracy here, but that might put authorship into the very early second century by people closer to Rome than Jerusalem, e.g. Polycarp. Or am I reading too much into this?

        • Avatar
          yes_hua  July 11, 2014

          And you are amazing for reading and responding so regular to all of our questions. Thank you.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

          I don’t think you need many years (not even a year) (not even a week) for ill-founded rumors to start to fly….

  7. Avatar
    JoeWallack  July 11, 2014

    I don’t understand why Craig has such a problem with your theory that Jesus expanded the Eucharist from humans to animals. It would just support Craig’s more important assertion that the tomb was empty.

  8. Avatar
    JBSeth1  July 11, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    Maybe the real question here is why the Joseph of Arimathea / Jesus burial story, exists as it does.

    In Chapter 10 of his book, “Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong presents the idea that the story purporting to describe the crucifixion of Jesus has been built on narratives from the Hebrew Scriptures.

    Starting in Isaiah 52, God starts talking about his servant. This servant appears to be the Messiah. Then in Isaiah 53:9, it says “And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death;….”

    Then, in Matthew 27:57, it says, “When the even has come, there came a rich man of Arimathea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple;”

    Perhaps, by during the oral tradition, it was believed that since Jesus was the Messiah, then he must have fulfilled all the Hebrew scriptures requirements of the Messiah. As a result, the Joseph of Arimathea / Jesus burial story was developed in order to address this need to have a “rich man” involved in the burial / grave of Jesus in some way.

    Any thoughts.


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 11, 2014

      Yup, that’s been bandied about. I seem to remember that John Dominic Crossan has a similar view….

  9. Avatar
    Rosekeister  July 11, 2014

    “In his (Craig Evan’s) view, the New Testament portrayal of Jesus’ burial is almost certainly historical”

    I guess I believe just about the exact opposite. The orginal passion story was simply the acknowledgement that Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate and the Romans. As time passed exaltation and resurrection beliefs develope and the empty tomb becomes necessary. The stories included within the Passion Narrative are apologetic stories by the later church reflecting the time of the gospels rather than Jesus’ time. This is the time of the Jewish wars when the church’s oral tradition changed to reflect a pro-Roman, anti-Judaism position. An evergrowing tradition of physical resurrection was then appended after the empty tomb story. The point is the stories are apologetic rather than historical.

    How much actual history do you believe is reflected in the passion narrative as opposed to later oral tradition changing to reflect the church distancing itself from Judaism?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

      I think the account needs to be analyzed section by section — it’s hard to come up with a percentage of accurate vs. inaccurate.

      • Avatar
        VirtualAlex  July 29, 2014

        Sounds like a book to write…

  10. Avatar
    John  July 5, 2015

    One thing you mentioned was that you wanted to get some other views on scholarship out there especially around the burial of Jesus and the empty tomb. Could I suggest that you take the membership restrictions off the posts where you replied to Craig Evans on his chapter in When God became Jesus.

    This topic comes up a lot in the Unbelievable? Facebook group and elsewhere, I’m sure. Since you were able to deal with each of Evans’ points in detail, it may provide a wider opportunity for people to get involved and open the topic up still further.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 6, 2015

      Yes, it’s a good idea. But the whole point of the restrictions is to get people who *want* the information to join up!

  11. Avatar
    John  July 6, 2015

    yes, i know that but you may want to make an exception on occasion when it opens up the discussion as you wanted to do.

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