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Does Josephus Show that Jews Always Buried Their Dead?

I have not covered all of the points that Craig Evans makes in his essay “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right,” which is his response to the position I stake out in How Jesus Became God.  My view is that Jesus probably was not given a decent burial on the day of his death by the otherwise unknown figure, Joseph of Arimathea.   In this thread I have tried to focus on Craig’s main points – but I will be happy to address any of the others if anyone is interested.   In my judgment, despite all the various issues he raises there are really only two of that are directly relevant and that need to be taken with utmost seriousness:  Josephus appears to say that Jews were allowed to bury their dead (Craig makes two arguments about this) and we have the skeletal remains of one crucified victim from Judea at about the time of Jesus.

First I’ll be dealing with the evidence from Josephus.  My view is that of the two arguments Craig makes, based on Josephus, the first also carries almost no weight and the second cannot mean what he claims it does.

His first argument seems straightforward, but in fact it is a bit convoluted – I will have to unpack it to explain why I do not find it persuasive.   This will take two posts.  Here is the argument, in Craig’s own words.

“Josephus asserts the same thing.  The Romans, he says, do not require “their subjects to violate their national laws” (Against Apion 2.73).  The Jewish historian and adds that the Roman procurators who succeeded Agrippa I “by abstaining from all interference with the customs of the country kept the nation at peace” (Jewish War 2.220), customs that included never leaving a “corpse unburied” (Against Apion 2.211).

Craig has made a clever move here, combining fragments of what Josephus says in one book devoted to one topic with another from another book on another topic, and then a third from the same book as the first.    The first and third quotations come from Against Apion, a book in which Josephus, near the end of his life, defends Judaism against the attacks of a pagan opponent, Apion.  In this book Josephus argues, among other things, that Judaism is a very ancient and therefore respectable religion, that the slurs against it are unfounded, and that it is a highly moral and socially conscious religion.  The other book is called the Jewish War; it is a six-volume historical narrative that describes the history leading up to the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE, and that gives a blow-by-blow account of the war itself by someone who was intimately connected to it, first as a general in the Jewish army, and then as the liaison between the combating parties, serving as an interpreter for the Romans, written after he had been appointed a kind of court historian by the Roman emperor Vespasian, to whom he had surrendered in the course of the war.

So, what do we make of Craig’s concatenation of these three passages from Jospehus?  It would help to take them one by one.

1)       The first one from Apion 2.73 (reread it, above). I would like to make two points about it:

    a. Josephus is not talking about burial laws or customs.  You can read the passage on line for yourself.  Josephus is referring to the national law of the Jews that did not allow them to make images, let alone images of foreign rulers.   If Jews were required to make images, it would be a violation of their religious tradition – as in, e.g., the Ten Commandments.   Josephus is saying something specific here:  when the Romans conquered Judea, they did not force them to break their national laws against idolatry and so they exempted them from requiring images of the emperor, allowing them, instead, to pray for the emperor and sacrifice on his behalf in order to show all due honor to him.   Josephus is not talking about *all* Jewish practices; only about their customs with respect to idolatry.

You may say in response that even though…

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  1. Avatar
    tcroberts02  July 27, 2014

    John 18:31 contains a response from the “Jews” to Pilate that “We do not have the right to execute anyone”. Will you comment on this passage in relation to this post, as you imply that Jewish authorities did in fact execute people? I note that none of the Synoptic Gospels contain such a statement.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2014

      No, my view is precisely that Jewish authorities in Jesus day were *not* allowed to execute anyone.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  July 29, 2014

        except John the Baptist?

        • Avatar
          Nabal  July 31, 2014

          John the Baptist was executed by Herod Antipas, an independent Tetrarch of an independent Tetrarchy. At the time in question, only Judea had been annexed as a Roman province (really as part of the Province of Syria). Galilee and Perea (the latter is the territory where the Baptist was ostensibly executed) were still under the independent authority of Antipas. The Jewishness of the Herods is thought to have been nominal at best in any case.

      • Avatar
        Scott F  July 30, 2014

        Then would that make the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 merely a spontaneous mob action?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 31, 2014

          Yes, I think it was.

          • Avatar
            Nabal  July 31, 2014

            What do you think of Eisenmann’s theory that the stoning of Stephen in Acts is an overwrite on the execution of James?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2014

            I don’t buy it.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  July 28, 2014

      In “Jews, God and History” (1962) by Jewish historian Max I. Dimont he states:

      “All evidence points to a Roman atrocity, not a miscarriage of Jewish justice. Jews in their history never crucified anybody, nor ever demanded crucifixion for anyone.”

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  July 29, 2014

        He is completely wrong about that. He apparently just didn’t do his homework. Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Pharisees, as a prominent example.

  2. Robertus
    Robertus  July 27, 2014

    There seems to be an assumption here, an idea that is really introduced first in the gospel of Mark, that if Jesus had been executed based on Jewish opposition it would have been for blasphemy, a crime only against Jewish religious law, and not for sedition against Roman rule.

    My view is that the sunedria in Jerusalem and elsewhere, the form of aristocratic government imposed by Rome to augment or limit or even replace the earlier Judean/Idumean monarchy, would also have been categorically opposed to any royal or messianic claim. Even the earlier monarchy had already seen themselves as allies of Rome; when and where the monarchy/tetrarchy was suppressed, the sunedria were subject to even more direct cooperation to the regional representatives of Rome. Thus, Josephus, an aristocratic representative of the Jewish priestly class, understood the sunedria as meant to replace the monarchy. There is no reason to believe in a false dichotomy between Judean/Jewish vs Roman involvement in Jesus’ death. We do not find that until the gospel of Mark, when there was a greater interest in differentiating Christians from Jews and showing that the regional Roman ruler was not really opposed to Jesus or his followers. Our first account of Jesus death, given by Paul, a self-professed Jew, and demonstrably so, perhaps as early as 41 CE (so Gerd Lüdemann), was that Jesus was killed by Jews/Judeans who would suffer God’s wrath, perhaps even at the hands of the higher Roman authority (Petronius and Caligula?). No one doubts that Paul had his fiercely polemical side and perhaps it was his view that eventually came to be enshrined in the later gospels and Josephus. But it is our earliest view, 20-35 years prior to the gospel of Mark.

    How long did Pontius Pilate spend in Jerusalem for Passover? How many troops did he bring with him from Caesarea? How many were already stationed in Jerusalem? What was their relationship with the sunedrion and the temple police? How would Jesus have come to Pilate’s attention at this time as someone deserving of capital punishment? Without being able to answer these questions, I don’t think we can be very confident in saying that only Romans were directly involved in Jesus’ death.

    In general, I am much less confident than you in using the later gospel sources to reconstruct an historical Jesus. For example, I do not think you have sufficiently justified your appeal to multiple attestation, nowhere being willing to bear the burden of proof of your own methodological assumption that John could not have been even *indirectly* dependent upon any of the synoptic gospels. If you are true to your method, you must now admit that the story of Joseph of Arimathea is an independently attested pre-Markan and pre-Johannine tradition, which still nonetheless has no historical value. While I do not think it is independently attested, it seems to represent to me a very plausible core reality that members of the sunedrion in Jerusalem might have held differing opinions regarding Jesus’ message and worthiness of condemnation and crucifixion. I’m not sure how good historical method can ever hope to say anything more than that. Would Jesus have even had a trial before Pilate?

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 27, 2014

    “My view is that this generalized interpretation is a stretch, since it burial customs are not in view in the passage.”

    Given the passage you quoted, I agree with you that Evans is making a stretch. An unjustifiable stretch.

    But I still wonder whether, at times (though not in the case of Jesus), Jews *were* carrying out executions the Roman prefect had ordered. And whether that might have made burial before sundown so *customary* that it would have been allowed even when Jews weren’t in charge of the executions.

    BTW, I’d never understood that the Jews wanted burial before sundown on *any* night. I’d thought it referred only to burial before the Sabbath!

    It seems to me that we know maddeningly little about crucifixions in Jerusalem. Were its residents seeing someone crucified every week? Or was it an extremely unusual event? Even if executions were frequent, did most of them take place in Caesarea – the accused having been sent there for trial?

    What was Caesarea like, anyway? Was there a coastal city with Jewish residents (that had been renamed), or were only Romans there?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2014

      YEs, Caesarea was a coastal city with jews and GEntiles. We don’t know where most crucifixions took place.

  4. Avatar
    SJB  July 28, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    Since Josephus is such an important historical authority for us I’m wondering about the manuscripts we have of his work. How old are the earliest complete manuscripts we have of Josephus’ work? What language did he write in? Greek? Are there major textual variations between manuscripts? Are there variations to the passages dealing with Jesus? (I realize some people think they are either partial or complete interpolations.)

    If an interested non-scholar wanted to read Josephus is there a standard or a preferred translation?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2014

      I don’t have the precise details handy: but we’re talking about very few manuscripts (one or two? Someone on the blog surely knows — I’m out of the country and away from my books); one is Greek; there are some in other languages. He wrote in Greek.

    • Robertus
      Robertus  July 28, 2014

      Josephus says he originally wrote the Jewish War in Aramaic and the subsequently translated it into Greek (I, 3).

      Here is a list of extant manuscripts of his works:

      Most people consider the translation in the bilingual (Greek-English) Loeb edition to be pretty good. There a new translation being done by EJ Brill. Several volumes have already appeared.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  July 29, 2014

        Yes, he published it in Greek. The Loeb is pretty much what we have if we want a bilingual edition. The Brill volumes are coming out slow but sure.

        • Robertus
          Robertus  July 30, 2014

          Do you not think he also ‘published’ the earlier Aramaic version for the ‘upper barbarians’?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 31, 2014

            I don’t think so.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  July 31, 2014

            Why not?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2014

            Sorry, you’ve lost me.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  August 6, 2014

            Why do you think that Josephus did not ‘publish’ his original Aramaic version of the Jewish War for the ‘upper Barbarians’? Is there a reason why you don’t believe him when he says this?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 6, 2014

            Oh, sorry — I don’t have my Josephus with me here when I’m out of the country. Does he say that he published it in Aramaic? If so, then yes, I believe him! (For some reason I thought he said he *composed* it in Aramaic and then translated it into Greek)

          • Robertus
            Robertus  August 6, 2014

            He doesn’t say ‘publish’ (I only used that word ‘can you did), but here is what he says in JW 1,3:

            “I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians.”

            I think Josephus scholars sometimes appeal to this earlier version when trying to explain differences in the text tradition, but that must be very hypothetical.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 7, 2014

            Yup, he pretty much does say “publish”! Thanks.

    • Avatar
      gavriel  July 28, 2014

      Translations including Greek version on left page:


  5. Avatar
    Steefen  July 29, 2014

    Bart Ehrman: Jesus was killed as someone who claimed to be a rival king.

    Steefen: You can say that if you can prove Jesus from Galilee circa 30 C.E. was the one who staged the Palm Sunday (King Solomon’s entrance re-enactment) event. Until then, we are not really dealing with facts worthy of persuasion.

    Let’s take a closer look at your statement from a historical perspective. There certainly was another royal family in Jerusalem circa 30 C.E.: Queen Helena, King Monobaz, Prince to King Izates. Queen Helena had a palace. Queen Helena was more a royal family to Jerusalem than a Roman governor. Her royal family saved Jerusalem from famine, feeding 5,000 on multiple occasions.

    Who had a bigger political claim on Jerusalem under Rome’s eye, a little Jesus or a royal family with ties to Parthia, Rome’s sometime rival empire?

    That royal family had kings who wore crowns of thorns. Google or Bing “King of Edessa and crown of thorns” and you will see the thorns and latticework on the crown. This isn’t just artist rendering but you will find this on coins, that this royal family is the reference for crown of thorns.

    Question Two: Who was a bigger threat to Rome, a little Jesus or a royal family Josephus records as supporting the rebels during the Jewish Rebellion?

    In the end (of the Revolt) did this royal family (key members converted to Judaism) who committed sedition, get crucified and left for dogs, birds, and weather? No.

    The Bible says the one who was crucified was a problem for Rome, a king who over-reached his position locally, stepping on Rome’s toes, and wore a crown of thorns. The Jesus who was crucified was either a king in that royal family or a prince in that royal family. If he were a prince awaiting succession who made more of himself than Rome allowed, Rome mocked him saying, in three languages: King of the Jews.

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