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Did Roman Laws Require Decent Burials?

In my previous post I tried to show why Craig’s argument that Roman governors on (widely!) isolated occasions showed clemency to prisoners (those not sentenced to death) has no relevance to the question of whether Jesus, condemned to crucifixion for treason against the Roman state, would have been allowed a decent burial, contrary to Roman practice.   The “clemency” argument – even in the sources that Craig himself cites, only seems to show that in cases that were completely unlike that of Jesus himself, Roman governors could on rare occasions be merciful and/or bribed.

Craig goes on to say that this clemency was extended to the burial of executed criminals.  Now in theory, this should be relevant to the question of whether Pilate showed mercy on Jesus by allowing his body to be buried on the day of his execution.  But when you actually look at the evidence, once again it is not relevant – or rather, as in the other cases, it actually supports the view that is opposite to the one Craig wants to argue.

Craig claims “that Roman justice not only allowed for the executed to be buried, but it even encouraged it in some instances.”   That sounds promising for his own, traditional, view (so when I first read this, I was holding my breath!  What did I miss when doing my research?!?).  But then comes the “evidence” that he cites.  It is drawn from the summary of Roman law known as the Digesta.  Craig doesn’t tell his readers that this is the compilation of legal opinions made under the emperor Justinian  in the sixth century CE – that is, five hundred years (!) after the death of Jesus.  But it may not matter: the Digest is citing earlier rulings (in this particular case, a third century author who claims to be quoting a first century source – again Craig doesn’t tell us this somewhat complicated history of transmission).  And so there’s a good chance that in fact this ruling did apply in the first century.   Here’s what the ruling says, as Craig quotes it:

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Why Are You Trashing the Gospels?
Did Roman Authorities Show Clemency?



  1. Avatar
    BuckNash  July 11, 2014

    As the facts regarding Roman crucifixion and burial become more widely known and accepted, I think people such as Craig Evans will eventually modify their argument in the following way: They will agree that the Romans almost never allowed a body to be taken down from a cross and buried. They will not dispute any of the research. However they will say that for reasons lost to history in the case of Jesus they did. They will say it is not impossible that Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and buried, it is only very improbable, and the very improbable sometimes happens.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  July 14, 2014

      I think that most will/would/do believe that regardless of what secular, atheist scholars might believe that it was God’s will and that no matter what seems any more or less likely that the Gospels plainly say what happened. That there is no way that God would allow his divine Son to be desecrated in such a way. Although, in my opinion, that desecration serves to strengthen the narrative.

  2. Avatar
    Matilda  July 11, 2014

    This makes sense to me. My question, one which no one can probably answer, is why would Jesus do something so stupid knowing what could be coming his way. Did he really think God was going to swoop down and save him? What could he have been thinking???? And if he was thinking this what makes him different from the other prophets running around claiming Armageddon? Was it because he was more vocal and disruptive? How did word get to the Romans about this disruptive person? Ok, sorry, I’m asking too many questions. I’m thinking out loud, so to speak. King of the Jews- how sad for Jesus.

  3. Avatar
    doug  July 11, 2014

    So Prof. Craig Evans’ main evidence for the POSSIBILITY that Jesus’ body MIGHT have received a decent burial comes from a 6th century work (the Digesta) that cites a 3rd century author who CLAIMS to be quoting a first century source. That sounds pretty shaky. And that’s even aside from the points you made, Dr. Ehrman, that show the Digesta gives little or no support for Jesus getting a decent burial.

    • Robertus
      Robertus  July 15, 2014

      No, we haven’t gotten to Craig’s better arguments yet.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 11, 2014

    Using conformation bias, people spin evidence to support views that are important to them. There is no better example than Fox News.

  5. Avatar
    gorlim  July 12, 2014

    A question: would a question of Roman law (as described in the Digest) even apply to a non-citizen, such as a first century Jewish peasant?

  6. Avatar
    BrianUlrich  July 12, 2014

    Does the “especially where persons have been convicted of high treason” actually mean never, or just that in those cases it is especially unlikely to be permitted? I also interpret the bit about bodies being burned as being mentioned especially because in those cases there was very little “body” left, rather than degrees of punishment.

    I guess following this whole discussion, I remained unconvinced the Christian accounts themselves are (to a degree) being undervalued as evidence. They would testify to a certain rare exception to general Roman practice, much like I’m under the impression Philo on the emperor’s birthday is such a unique testimony to a rare exception. You need a burial tradition of some kind very early – within a generation, so it can be part of the preliterate tradition in 1 Corinthians. Now granted, the need to fulfill the part about having a tomb by the rich in Isaiah 53 gives you a reason to invent Joseph as a rich man for Matthew; I’m less sure about Mark and John, where his wealth isn’t mentioned. (My understanding of these issues is a bit rudimentary, but there seem to be a lot of the “independent attestations” that are important to many Bible scholars.)

    Then there’s something which has been raised in the context of early Islamic history – given no one had the power to impose an orthodoxy, then if Muhammad was fundamentally different from how he is presented, why are there no sources recounting fundamental differences the way there are on lots of issues that were contested, such as his first male convert? If Jesus were not, in fact, buried, wouldn’t we expect traditions to that effect to exist somewhere in early Christianity?

    Of course a lot of the issues that come up in historical Jesus research remind me of a saying of one of my graduate school professors: “In the absence of good sources, bad sources do not thereby become good.” =)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

      Good question. You would need to come up with a *reason* why Pilate would make an exception for Jesus (and the other two crucified that day, presumably) (I don’t think the fact that he was the Son of God would be the answer). None of the reasons I’ve ever heard or thought of seem very convincing to me, knowing what we do about crucifixion practices of the Romans.

      • Avatar
        BrianUlrich  July 14, 2014

        I was thinking that you’d need an authority to put the burial tradition into circulation, but you don’t know who circulated any of your traditions, so it probably doesn’t stand out that much.

  7. Avatar
    RodolfoL  July 12, 2014

    Dear Prof. Ehrman – This may be a *little* off-topic although still concerning the crucifixion of Jesus. Considering the heterogeneous descriptions in the ancient sources of what crucifixion looked like how did Christianity settle on the Latin cross rather than the stake, tau, or ‘decussata’ ( X ) cross as the symbol of Christianity. Do you think it was chosen mostly at random, because the Latin cross was the most commonly used, or because it most fits with the belief that there needed to be some where prominent on the cross to attached the tablet reading “Here is the King of the Jews”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

      Good question. I don’t have a good answer! I’ve always assumed that the T was the most common/typical form of the Roman cross.

      • Avatar
        EricBrown  July 16, 2014

        Or was most common around the time representations began to be made.

  8. Robertus
    Robertus  July 12, 2014

    Craig should have mentioned the late date of the Digesta, but his view is not quite as strange as you present, though it is very weak. The way he reads “… *sometimes* it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason,” implies that *sometimes* it was permitted, even in some cases of high treason. Clearly, that is why he understands the passage to include burial in some cases of crucifixion of some people convicted of high treason. Thus, understanding this as evidence of some exceptional cases of burial being allowed for crucified, it is not at all strange that he goes on to concede that “Roman authorities often did not permit burial, request or not request, especially in cases of ‘high treason.’” You seem to offer an exaggerate interpretation of the Digesta in the other direction, believing “the passage is absolutely explicit: the release of bodies to be buried DOES NOT APPLY to those who have been convicted of high treason.” It seems to me the truth is probably somewhere in between Craig’s and your exaggeration. The text does seem to attest to the existence of exceptional cases where burial might have been allowed for some who had been executed for high treason.

    Is the text extant which pertains to “the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life” attesting to the rule being observed regarding the “bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives”?

  9. Avatar
    ben.holman  July 13, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Hypothetically, had Jesus claimed equality to God, or being YHWH in the flesh (Gospel-of-John-Style), is there any reason to think the Romans may have taken this in a threatening/treasonous way? That is, would “claiming divinity” be similarly interpreted (by Romans) as a claim of usurping authority/high-treason, just as claiming to be King would, and as such, still be a crime worthy of crucifixion in their eyes?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

      They probably would have just thought that he was loony.

      • Avatar
        Matilda  July 13, 2014

        If they thought he was just loony, why crucify him?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 14, 2014

          Sorry — you asked what the Romans would have done to Jesus *if* he claimed to be YHWH in the flesh. My view is that they would have thought he was loony. But that’s not what Jesus claimed to be. You should read my book on How Jesus became God.

  10. Avatar
    ben.holman  July 13, 2014

    Also, this random question just crossed my mind… do you pronounce your name “Er-man” or “Air-man”?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

      Er-man. But people say it both ways.

      • Avatar
        Gary  February 26, 2015

        “Air-man” would be the German pronunciation. Sounds like your ancestors anglicized the pronunciation, as many immigrants to this country did to sound more “American”.

        In German, “Ehre” means “honor” and “ehrlich” means “honest”, so you can refer to yourself as, Herr Honest-man!

        • Bart
          Bart  February 28, 2015

          Yes, my family comes from the region of Alsace; the name was probably Ehrmann, originally, but it was eventually anglicized.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 13, 2014

    I guess these are areas in which experts will never agree, because different people see different possibilities as “probable.”

    For example: There wasn’t much active rebellion in that particular decade because the Romans had suppressed it so brutally in previous decades. Is it more likely that they would have taken just as seriously the occasional upstart who didn’t pose a real threat…or that they would have been relaxing a bit, paying less attention to details beyond the actual crucifixion? Might not *each* of those attitudes have prevailed in some cases, depending on details we can’t know?

    BTW, why do we hear so little about Sepphoris? Two thousand rebels supposedly crucified, in a place that was easy walking distance from Nazareth. Especially since we can’t be sure of Jesus’s age…hasn’t anyone ever speculated that he might have been a few years older than generally believed, and his father might have been one of those crucified rebels?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

      My hunch is that we don’t hear a word about Sepphoris because it (like the other big cities, until Jerusalem at the end) had no effect on Jesus or his ministry or his message or his life.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 13, 2014

    You’ve acknowledged that no one really knows how Jesus’s crucifixion would have been handled if he hadn’t been arrested and charged while Pilate was in Jerusalem. I can think of three ways their system might have worked.

    1. The accused is hauled off to Caesarea, tried before Pilate, and crucified in Caesarea.

    2. He’s tried and sentenced in Caesarea, then sent back to Jerusalem and crucified there.

    3. He’s never sent to Caesarea; only the witnesses’ statements (presumably given to Temple scribes) are sent there. Pilate reviews them, makes his decision, and sends word back to Jerusalem that he should be crucified.

    My question: Who would have been in Jerusalem to carry out the sentence in Pilate’s absence, with Roman soldiers not normally being stationed there? For that matter, who would have transported the prisoner, if he was sent back and forth?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 13, 2014

      Great questions! I assume the police used to guard the Temple for the high priest and the Sanhedrin.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  July 14, 2014

        So…is it possible that more often than not (though certainly not in the case of Jesus), *Jews* would have been performing any crucifixions that took place in Jerusalem?

        And what about people who were arrested and charged with capital crimes in other cities…say, Hebron?

        Galilee would have been completely different, with Herod Antipas in charge rather than Pilate. I wonder what would have happened if Jesus had avoided capture after Judas’s betrayal and fled to Galilee? Maybe it would have depended on whether Herod Antipas and Pilate were on good terms!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 15, 2014

          My sense is that it would be hard to be an enemy of the state outside a major urban area, or out of reach of Roman troops (some *were* kept by the governor) *from* an urban center. When a group of Samaritans caused trouble at Mount Gerizim, Pilate sent out the armed forces, and it wasn’t pretty.

  13. Avatar
    John123  July 13, 2014

    BrianUlrich and Robertus brought up two great points. 1) Where the Digest passage says “especially where persons have been convicted of high treason”, it may not mean that those crucified for high treason were NEVER allowed burial, it may just mean that it was especially unlikely. 2) The bit about bodies being burned may not refer to degrees of punishment; it may mean those bodies were allowed burial “even” though there was very little of the body left (just “bones and ashes”). Your response to this was, “Yes, we do seem to read the text differently!” Shouldn’t your response have been, “Your right, I guess there are at least two valid ways to read that passage”?

    To BrianUlrich and Robertus’ excellent comments, I would like to add my own. Even if one ASSUMES that the passage intends to rule out burial for high treason, I think it can at least be said that the passage implies burial for crucifixion victims of lesser crimes. The passage says, “The bodies of those who are condemned to death…are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.” Since we know that those convicted of high treason were crucified, crucifixion must be one of the punishments that is in mind when the passage says “those who are condemned to death”. Since the passage only rules out burial for crucifixion victims convicted of high treason, crucifixion victims of lesser crimes must be in the group that is sometimes allowed to be buried. Do you still think the Digest passage says “nothing about people who are crucified”?

  14. Avatar
    gavriel  July 13, 2014

    This is definitely one of your best series of postings, and I enjoyed your book as well. Great reading, far better than your Jesus-mythicism book. I also wish you once could make a walk-through of the Passion Story, to separate fact from legend. But I am still not convinced about the hypothesis that Jesus was not buried! I accept that he most likely was not given a *decent* burial, but some very improvised form, for the following reasons:

    1. I miss some comments on the archeological case of Yehohanan, and Josephus comments in Wars 4.5.2 on burial of crucified persons among Jews as opposed to Idumeans.

    Basically, the arrest and execution of Jesus was not a typical case and consequently one cannot apply the probabilities deduced from normal Roman practice with robbers and insurgents . The fact that the disciples could return to Jerusalem shortly after (some months later?) , still under Caiaphas and Pilate, and make it their headquarter (probably removing temple-cleansing from the curriculum) proves that the purpose was to remove one single potential religious troublemaker in order to maintain the dignity of the festival without Roman intervention and bloodshed. Pilate must have known that Jesus basically was a harmless religious sectarian, but accepted the idea to remove someone who could ignite something. The messianic balloon was punctured. His disciples were quickly scared out of town. Caiaphas probably didn’t like Pilate, but used him as an instrument for a speedy execution, and made a deal including a speedy removal of the body to not stir up possible popular indignation. Josephus places the Testimonium i a series of incidents that created indignation among the Jews, and this is an additional indication that Pilate might have accepted a deal with the Jews to reduce possible side-effect of an otherwise effective arrangement. Thus contextual credibility is satisfied if we fill in the gaps in the passion story in the most reasonable way.

    It is also hard to believe that all the disciples fled the city in the very hour, leaving nobody to collect information. The women could safely do that, precisely as accounted by Mark. They watched from a distance, and did not leave until the bitter end. And very likely watched him being taken down from the cross! Probably they later tried to locate a grave, but failed, and that was the start of the legendary development of the empty grave. Thus, a simple/indecent burial have greater explanatory power. It is very hard to imagine the Markan women watching from a distance to be wholly legendary.

    2. According to the criterion of embarrassment, the expanding legendary embellishment and growth over time of the burial story seems to have an undignified burial as a starting point. This looks similar to the gospel development of the baptizing of Jesus by John. Mark knew the tradition about Jewish authorities (as in Acts) and improved it by inventing Joseph of Arimathea (or the immediately fore-running tradition did) , and Matthew, using Mark, again removed the Sanhedrin element, so that it fits in with the scriptural “rich man”. To have Jesus abandoned also in his final stage would have a better fit with Mark’s general plot and theology. So to me this looks like a high score on the embarrassment index. It is then clear that Mark improves on a tradition that makes Jewish authorities take down J. from the cross for a burial of sorts, probably something very simple or even indecent.

    3. It is multiply and independently attested, and the sources are old.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 14, 2014

    I forget in which post I read this, but it was suggested that “Arimathea” may just have been a word meaning “(some kind of) disciple.”

    I’m sure I’ve read (probably on Wikipedia) that there was a place within a few miles of Jerusalem named “Ramathaim-Zophim,” sometimes shortened to “Ramatha.” It would seem the Gospel writers, living outside of Palestine, could easily have turned that into a Greek word that would be rendered in English as “Arimathea.”

    I’m *not* sure, however, whether they had any evidence for the name’s antiquity. If that “suburb” didn’t exist in Jesus’s time, it could have been named *for* the “Arimathea” mentioned in the Gospels.

  16. Avatar
    Celsus  July 23, 2014

    Just stumbled across this interesting bit of info.

    “Mark 15 goes to some effort to emphasise that the tomb belonged to “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council”. If he was a member of the Sanhedrin he would have been a wealthy man and possibly an aristocrat. This may be a historical detail, but gMark’s account of Jesus’ death is a patchwork of deliberate references to the Old Testament, especially the “Suffering Servant” passages in Isaiah. And they included Isaiah 53:9:

    “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death”

    This makes it possible that this element is just another one added to the story to make it fit the “prophecies” better.

    Secondly, the use of the word ἀποκυλίω (to roll away) indicates that the stone closing the tomb in the gMark account is meant to be round. A survey of First Century Jewish rock cut and cave tombs by Amos Kloner found that 98% of them were closed by square stones prior to 70 AD, with only four of the surveyed sites closed by a rolling round stone. After 70 AD, however, round stones became far more common. So this detail seems to be indicating the kind of tomb in the later First Century, given that a tomb of this style was exceedingly rare in Jesus’ time. This could just be the writer of gMark indicating the kind of tomb in the time he was writing or it could be that the tomb itself, an element conspicuous by its absence in Paul’s version, was an addition to the story.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 23, 2014

      Yes, that passage in Isaiah is often appealed to in order to explain the Joseph of Arimathea story.

      On Kloner: are you sure that he says after AD 70 rolling stones were used? My archaeologist colleague Jodi Magness tells me that there were (many? any?) rock-hewed tombs used in Judea after 70 CE. (Although there are apparently some cruder ones in Galilee after that)

      • Avatar
        Celsus  July 23, 2014

        Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).

        “Most tombs in Jerusalem were carved out of the soft meleke limestone, because that was what was there, and it is especially likely that the Beth Din, keeping graves especially for criminals, would have them carved out of limestone and sealed with a stone, as most tombs were…..Most tombstones were square or rectangular. Very large round stones, which had to be rolled, have been found only in a small number of large tombs for the very rich and distinguished.” – Maurice Casey “Jesus of Nazareth” and he cites Rachel Hachili, “Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period (JSJSup 94. Leiden, Brill 2005).

      • Avatar
        Celsus  August 7, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman, have you heard of Roger Aus’ theory of where Mark came up with the “large rolling stone’?
        What is your take on it? Thanks!

        From Roger Aus’ The Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus and the Death, Burial, and Translation of Moses in Judaic Tradition:

        This was the stone that was rolled from Jacob’s well (Genesis 29:3, 8,10). This stone was “large” already at Genesis 29:2 and the shepherds explain that they cannot water the flocks until the stone is rolled away (Genesis 29:8). In later Jewish tradition, there are three shepherds who could not roll the stone away, whereas Jacob did so (Genesis 29:8, 10). In story mode, Mark has 3 women who knew they could not roll away the stone and wondered who would remove it. Jacob was a young man when he rolled away the stone from the well and in Mark 16:5 a “young man” is said to have removed the stone.

        In Jewish tradition, Jacob’s well was the same as Abraham’s well, Isaac’s well and above all Miriam’s well or Moses’ well, which accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness. The well is described as ‘like a rock’ which ‘rolled along’ (e.g. Tanh. Bemidbar 2, 21, on Numbers 1.1). Jewish tradition interpreted Numbers 21:18-20 to mean that the well ended it’s journey ‘at the top of Pisgah’, where Moses died (Deut. 34:1-5) Pisgah is interpreted as Ramatha, ‘height’ (e.g. Tg. Ps-J. Numbers 21:20 rmth’), and Joseph coming from Arimathea is sufficient to remind a storyteller of this. Pisgah is also interpreted in some passages of the LXX with terms which mean ‘hewn from rock’ (e.g. Numbers 21:20), which could have caused a storyteller to say that Joseph placed Jesus in a tomb ‘hewn from rock’ (Mark 15:46), or a genuine tradition that Jesus was placed in a tomb for criminals which was in fact ‘hewn from rock’ could have further helped a storyteller to make up his story about the big rolling stone and the young man.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 8, 2014

          No, I haven’t seen this. I wonder why you can’t account for the stone simply on the grounds that wealthy people had rock tombs before the mouth of which they placed a stone?

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