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:
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1. Josephus does not say who crucified these Jews who were given decent burials. The normal assumption is that he means that these people were crucified by the Romans rather than by the Jews. That may be the correct reading, although he is contrasting how the Idumeans treated people they killed with how Jews acted — so is it not in reference to people that Jews executed? It’s worth remembering that, at earlier periods (e.g., under Alexander Jannaeus in the Maccabean period) we do know that Jewish leaders crucified Jews. Is that what Josephus is referring to? I’m inclined to think so, but one could argue either way.
2. Even if he is talking about Jews typically burying victims crucified by Romans (of which we have no other record, apart from the legend of Joseph of Arimathea) another bit of doubt is cast on his claim by the fact that two of his goals in writing are:
a. To celebrate the great piety of the Jews. Remember how Josephus does this elsewhere, in ways that simply cannot be believed: he actually claims that Jews executed their children when they planned to do something unjust to their parents!
b. To exonerate the Romans, in part by saying that the war was not their fault. Here the implication would be that the Romans were highly merciful, even allowing decent burials contrary to their own customs. Again, contrast those hated Idumeans.
These two objectives are never far below the surface in Josephus’s works – and they dictate what he has to say, so that he often stretches the truth in order to make his point. Is that the case here?
3. It is important to note that in this short statement, Josephus does not say that burial of crucified victims had been the Jewish custom from time immemorial. He is writing about events that transpired 35-40 years after the days of Jesus, in a very different circumstance. It’s not immediately obvious that he can be taken to mean this always, or typically, happened – only that it was, in his claim, something that took place in his day.
4. More important – this is probably the key point – his statement is simply not true as a general practice. During the Jewish War, about which Josephus is writing, there were massive crucifixions. At one point, the Roman general Titus was capturing and crucifying 500 Jews a day – a day! – in front of the walls of Jerusalem, while those inside looked on. There is no one on the planet (now or in antiquity) who honestly thinks that Jews inside Jerusalem regularly left the relative safely of the walls to ask the Roman commanders for permission to take down the bodies because they didn’t want their laws to be broken. Why not? Because it was a time of war.
5. In other words, if Josephus’s statement *was* true – even if this was a Jewish practice – it was not true all the time, but only in some circumstances, when the conditions allowed. For most of the crucifixions of the first century, conditions did not allow.
6. Did conditions allow in the case of Jesus? At this time, around 30 CE, the Romans were not laying siege to Jerusalem and there was not a war going on. But it’s important to look closely at what Josephus actually says. When he says that “even malefactors” who were crucified were given decent burials, for the term “malefactor” he uses a generic term (καταδικη). He uses the term or its derivatives 17 times in his surviving writings, always to refer generally to someone who is condemned to something (e.g., slavery, dishonor, or crucifixion). In none of the 17 times that he uses it does he use it to refer to someone who was condemned to crucifixion as an “enemy of the state” or an “insurrectionist.” Jesus in the New Testament is never referred to with this term (translated here as “malefactor”). When he is crucified, he is not simply “condemned.” He is charged with calling himself the King of the Jews – i.e., it is a charge of political insurgency. He was an enemy of the Romans.
7. Most people who were crucified throughout the Roman empire in times of relative peace, in Judea or elsewhere, were simply “malefactors” – e.g., murderers, robbers, run-away-slaves. If Josephus is right in the claim that I’ve quoted – i.e., if he is not exaggerating the piety of the Jews in order to have a nice contrast with the Idumeans and to emphasize the benevolence of the Romans – and if it is the case, as it *has* to be, that he does not and cannot mean that Jews *always* buried crucified victims (since they didn’t for many thousands), then it may be plausible (though I’m not convinced it’s true) that in times of peace, Jews were sometimes given the right to bury some crucified victims when they were guilty of lesser crimes, when they were simply “malefactors,” as opposed to being “enemies of the state.”
8. The reasons Jesus would not have been one of these for whom burial would be allowed are the ones that I have given extensively over the course of the past three weeks. To sum it up, not only during war but also in times of (relative) peace the Romans publicly humiliated and tortured to death enemies of state precisely in order to keep the peace. Jesus was condemned not for blasphemy, not for cleansing the temple, not for irritating the Sadducees, not for bad-mouthing the Pharisees, not for … well, not for anything but one thing. He was crucified for calling himself the King of the Jews. Only Romans could appoint the King. If Jesus thought he himself was going to be the King, for the Romans this would have been a declaration of war (since he would have to usurp their power and authority to have himself installed as king) (I’m talking about how Romans would have interpreted Jesus’ claim to be king, not what he himself may have meant by it). They may have found it astounding, if not pathetic, that this unknown peasant from the rural hinterlands would be imagining that he could overthrow Roman rule in Judea. But Romans didn’t much care if someone was a megalomaniac, a feasible charismatic preacher, or a bona-fide soldier in arms. If the person declared “war” on Rome – which a claim to being the King amounted to – the Romans knew how to deal with him. He would be publicly tortured and humiliated, left to rot on a cross so everyone could see what happens to someone who thinks he can cross the power of Rome. There was no mercy and no reprieve. And there was no decent burial, precisely because there was no mercy or reprieve in cases such as this. After the point was made – after time, the elements, and the scavengers had done their work – the body could be dumped into some kind of pit or common grave. But not until the humiliation and the punishment were complete. Yes, it’s true that in Jesus’ day, the country was not in armed rebellion against Rome. There was a general peace. But this is the very reason *why* there was peace. Would-be offenders – insurrectionists, political enemies, guerilla warriors, rival kings, enemies of the state – were brought face to face with the power of Rome in a very gruesome way, and most people, who for as a rule preferred very much not to be food for the birds and dogs, stayed in line as a result.
9. In sum, even if Josephus is stating a general practice among Jews (I’m not sure we can trust that he is. But even if he is), it is not a practice that applied to times of war or threats of war. As we have seen repeatedly in the past three weeks, it did not apply to enemies of the state. Jesus was an enemy of the state, crucified for calling himself King of the Jews.