Here on the first day of the new year, I was digging around on the blog and I found a post that I *meant* to make a couple of months ago that I never did. Don’t remember why! But here it is. It is from the Readers’ Mailbag, and about a very interesting and controversial issue: would the Romans have allowed anyone to bury Jesus the afternoon on which he was crucified? I think not, even though I’m in the decided minority on that one. Here’s the post:
QUESTION: In Josephus’s Jewish Wars he states:: “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although 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.”
It looks like (to me) that the Jews were allowed to bury the crucified before sunset – how do you interpret this passage?
I dealt at length in a number of posts, some years ago, the evidence of Josephus that Jews were allowed to bury crucified victims before sundown (since I don’t think they allowed Jesus to be buried that day). Those posts were in response to Craig Evans’s claims that the Joseph of Arimathea story (where Jesus is said to be buried) fits perfectly well with standard Roman practice. I heartily disagree(d).
Here is what I said about this particular passage in Josephus:
We come now, at last, to the best argument in Craig Evans’ arsenal, in his attack on the views of Jesus’ burial that I set forth in in How Jesus Became God. The argument is this. In one passage of Josephus’s writings, in an extremely brief few words (it’s only half of one sentence) (this is the only half sentence in the entire corpus not only of Josephus’s 30 volumes of writing but in the entire corpus of pagan and Jewish literature of all of antiquity that makes this claim) he explicitly indicates that Jews buried victims of crucifixion before sunset. Craig’s commentary on the passage amounts only to two sentences.
At the end of the day I don’t find even this piece of evidence persuasive, and in this post I will explain why. This will be a long one:
First I quote the passage, also found in Craig’s essay (pp. 78-79). This is in reference to events transpiring in Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman War, and to violent cruelties happening within the city before the Romans arrived:
“They [this is referring to the Idumeaens, a group of foreigners that Josephus considers impious and evil] actually went so far in their impiety as to cast out their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews are so careful about burial rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset” (Jewish War, 4.317)
This would be a good time to review what I said several posts ago about the need to be consistently critical when we are dealing with our sources. At every point the historian – if she or he wants to be a historian and not an apologist for a particular point of view, ideology, or theology – has to subject the historical sources at our disposal to critical evaluation to determine if and how far they are historically trustworthy. And so here: is Josephus telling the truth when he says that Jews (sometimes? usually? always?) buried victims of crucifixion before sunset on the days of their deaths? If so, we have a very neat indeed tie-in to the Gospels of the New Testament, where the otherwise unknown Joseph of Arimathea does just that with the body of Jesus.
To evaluate Josephus’s comment, we should first consider its context. The quotation above occurs in a passage in the Jewish War when there was terrible infighting within Jerusalem, as the Romans were bearing down on the city, and the leaders of one of the conflicting parties invited the foreign Idumeans into the city. They came in and brought horrible slaughter and bloodshed with them. It’s a complicated historical situation and not easy to summarize neatly. You can read the account here: http://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/war-4.htm
Josephus wants to stress that those whom the Idumeans killed were dishonored: they were not given decent burials. He contrasts this heinous behavior with that of “the Jews,” who allegedly buried even crucified victims in accordance with the Law of Moses, before sunset.
Several things to say here, each individual point being important, in my opinion: