In considering whether Jesus was buried on the day of his death, does it matter what Roman typical practices were? Or should these just be overlooked, not taken into consideration?
In addition to the rather general considerations I have given in my previous post for calling into question the idea that Jesus received a decent burial by Joseph of Arimathea, there are three more specific reasons for doubting the tradition that Jesus received a decent burial at all, in a tomb that could later be recognized as emptied.
Roman Practices of Crucifixion
Sometimes Christian apologists argue that Jesus had to be taken off the cross before sunset on Friday, because the next day was Sabbath and it was against Jewish Law, or at least Jewish sensitivities, to allow a person to remain on the cross during the Sabbath. Unfortunately, the historical record suggests just the opposite. It was not Jews who killed Jesus, and so they had no say about when he would be taken down from the cross. Moreover, the Romans who did crucify him had no concern to obey Jewish Law, and virtually no concern about Jewish sensitivities. Quite the contrary. When it came to crucified criminals – in this case, someone charged with crimes against the state – there was regularly no mercy and no concern for anyone’s sensitivities. The point of crucifixion was to torture and humiliate a person as fully as possible, and to show any bystanders what happens to someone who is a troublemaker in the eyes of Rome. Part of the humiliation and degradation was being left on the cross after death, to be subject to the scavenging animals.
John Dominic Crossan has made the rather infamous suggestion that Jesus’ body was not raised from the dead but was eaten by dogs. When I first heard this suggestion I was no longer a Christian, and so was not religiously outraged, but I did think it was excessive and sensationalist. That was before I did any real research on the matter. My view now is that we don’t know, and cannot know, what actually happened to Jesus’ body. But it is absolutely true that so far as we can tell from all the surviving evidence, what normally happened is that a person was left to decompose and to serve as food for the scavenging animals. Crucifixion was meant to be a public disincentive to engage in politically subversive activities; and the disincentive did not end with the pain – it continued on in the ravages worked on the corpse afterward.
Evidence for this comes from a wide range of sources. We have an ancient inscription found on the tombstone of a man who was murdered by his slave, in the city of Caria, on which we learn that the murderer was “hung … alive for the wild beasts and birds of prey.” The Roman author Horace says in one of his letters, that a slave was claiming to have done nothing wrong, to which his master replied, “You shall not therefore feed the carrion crows on the cross” (Epistle 1.16.46-48). The Roman satirist Juvenal speaks of “The vulture [that] hurries from the dead cattle and dogs and corpses, to bring some of the carrion to her offspring” (Satires 14.77-78). The most famous interpreter of dreams from the ancient world, a Greek Sigmund Freud named Artemidorus, indicates that it is auspicious for a poor man in particular to have a dream about being crucified, since “a crucified man is raised high and his substance is sufficient to keep many birds” (Dream Book 2.53). And there is a bit of gallows humor in the Satyricon of Petronius, a one-time advisor to the emperor Nero, about a crucified victim being left for days on the cross (chs. 11-12).
It is unfortunate that we do not have from the ancient world any single literary description of the process of crucifixion, so we are left guessing about the details of how exactly it was carried out. But consistent references to the fate of the crucified show that part of the ordeal involved being left as fodder for the scavengers upon death. As the conservative, but brilliant, Christian commentator Martin Hengel once observed, “Crucifixion was aggravated further by the fact that quite often its victims were never buried. It was a stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In this way his humiliation was made complete.”
I should point out that other conservative Christian commentators have claimed that there were exceptions to this rule as indicated in the writings of Philo, that Jews were sometimes allowed to provide decent burials for people who had been crucified. In fact, this is a complete misreading of the evidence from Philo, as can be seen simply by quoting his words at length (I have placed some of the key words in bold-face italics):
Rulers who conduct their government as they should and do not pretend to honour but do really honour their benefactors make a practice of not punishing any condemned person until those notable celebrations in honour of the birthdays of the illustrious Augustan house are over… I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them the ordinary rites. For it was meet that the dead also should have the advantage of some kind treatment upon the birthday of the emperor and also that the sanctity of the festival should be maintained.
When the statement is read in toto, it is clearly seen to provide the exception that proves the rule. Philo is mentioning this kind of exceptional case precisely because it goes against established practice. Two things are to be noted. The first, and less important, is that in the cases that Philo mentions, the bodies were taken down so that they could be given to the crucified persons’ family members for decent burial – that is, it was a favor done for certain families, and one might assume these were elite families with high connections. Jesus’ family did not have high connections, his family did not have the means of burying anyone in Jerusalem, they weren’t even from Jerusalem, none of them knew any of the ruling authorities to ask for the body, and what is more, in our earliest accounts none of them, even his mother, was actually at the event.
The bigger point has to do with when and why these exceptions mentioned by Philo were made. They were made when a Roman governor chose to honor a Roman emperor’s birthday – in other words, to honor a Roman leader on a Roman holiday. That has nothing to do with Jesus’ crucifixion, which was not on an emperor’s birthday. It was during a Jewish Passover feast – a Jewish festival widely recognized as fostering anti-Roman sentiments. It is just the opposite kind of occasion from that mentioned in Philo. And we have no record at all – zero record – of governors making exceptions in any case such as that.
In sum, it was the common Roman practice to allow the bodies of crucified persons to decompose and be attacked by scavengers on the cross, as part of the disincentive for crime. I have not run across any contrary indications in any ancient source. It is always possible that an exception was made, of course. But it must be remembered that the Christian storytellers who indicated that Jesus was an exception to the rule had an extremely compelling reason to do so. If Jesus were not buried, his tomb could not be declared empty.
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