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Josephus’s Clearest Claim about the Burial of Crucified Victims

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.   Tomorrow I will deal with the second best – an argument from archaeology.   Craig makes a somewhat bigger deal of the second best; in fact he throws off this, his best argument rather quickly.  But it’s the most important point of the many (many!) issues he raises.   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:  I’m getting a bit weary of this topic and want to bring it on home….

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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The Skeletal Remains of Yehohanan and Their Significance
More on Josephus and Jewish Burial Practices

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Theonedue  September 7, 2016

    Hey Bart. Do you still believe that Jesus was probably buried in a pit after being left on the cross by the Romans?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      I think it is probable that the Romans left him on the cross for a few days and I suppose the best guess is that they disposed of the body the way they normally did, as you suggest.

  2. Avatar
    John  April 28, 2017

    Hi Bart

    Sorry to resurrect this (ha ha) but I have a question.

    You mention that standard procedure would be to leave the body on the cross then then throw it into a pit.

    I was looking for a source for this, did you use one for the book?

    Thanks

    John

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2017

      I cite the evidence in my book How Jesus Became God.

      • Avatar
        John  April 29, 2017

        Thanks Bart. I was referring to this:

        “Again, it is possible that Jesus was an exception, but our evidence that this might have been the case must be judged to be rather thin. People who were crucified were usually left on their crosses as food for scavengers, and part of the punishment for ignominious crimes was being tossed into a common grave, where very soon one decomposed body could not be distinguished from another. In the traditions about Jesus, of course, his body had to be distinguished from all others; otherwise, it could not be demonstrated to have been raised physically from the dead.”

        I am using the Kindle version and I can’t see any source references there. In previous references, you mention the bodies being left on the cross only.

        Is there a specific source that says they were taken done and buried in a common grave?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 30, 2017

          I don’t cite any references to a common grave, since it is common knowledge that most people in antiquity were not given private burial plots/caves but were just buried in the dirt. The Romans had to do something with the carcasses, so I assume they just [put them in the dirt and I don’t think there’s any reason to suspect they dug a new grave for everyone they executed. The references to bodies being left on the crosses are in the text of my discussion (I quote the sources).

  3. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 2, 2017

    This is an interesting read–

    Archaeologists Uncover Ancient Entrance to Caesarea in Israel
    ‘Herod’s megalomaniac spirit hovers over Caesarea’: Discoveries lend credence to the Roman historian Josephus’ the ‘Wars of the Jews’
    read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.785858

  4. Avatar
    robertbricker  June 9, 2018

    I am late to this discussion. The apparent importance given in this Book (and discussion) to what appears to be a speculative claim – that Jesus was not buried but left on the Cross for the carrion birds, seems to me to unnecessarily weaken an otherwise convincingly explained sequence to Jesus’ historical divinity (re the related Book). To cut to the core:
    = We have a largely parallel and unelaborated explanation of the burial of Jesus in a tomb on the request of “Joseph of Arimathea”, who, according to all the accounts, had some social standing in Jerusalem.
    = We have the nearly contemporaneous explanations of Josephus of the ordinary treatment of Jewish crucifixion victims (in ordinary times, at least).
    = We have the only-known (at least that I’ve heard of) actual crucifixion victim’s remains of 2000 years ago found in Jerusalem in a family tomb (by Vassilios Tzaferis) occurring prior to the Jewish rebellion. Sadly – ‘n=1’ isn’t a lot to go on, but it at least indicates that tomb burial of Roman-crucified men did occur in Jerusalem in the years prior to the Rebellion.

    There are arguments refuting this, of course, as are outlined in Professor Ehrman’s blog and comments/replies. It is hard to see how they are not considerably less convincing than the conventional account, particularly given the known practices, historical records, Gospel accounts, and (limited) evidence.

    I also don’t appreciate how it matters in the chronology Prof Ehrman outlines with respect to Jesus’ divinity – I concede that leaving him on the Cross eliminates the possibilities of Jesus rising from the tomb- he obviously simply could not have if he wasn’t there. But it mainly presents a tempting critical target to bring in to question the entire line of reasoning (to paraphrase Prof Ehrman – if the little things are wrong, why can’t the big things be wrong too?). If Prof Ehrman’s personal history is generalizable, his ‘radical’ argument is also likely to cause fundamentalist readers to tune out, while, if Jesus is (far more plausibly) buried in the Tomb, I suspect that readers will either be of the type to (1) accept the idea that a person could miraculously be raised from death and (somehow) ascend into heaven or (2) think this is not a credible account of what happened.

    As I say, I’m ‘late to the party’ on this topic, but decided to weigh-in anyways. My career background, BTW – is in academia in business history, not religious history, so I readily admit that I don’t have the background of many of the clearly-well-studied contributors to this thread.

    My ‘bottom line’ is just that Prof Ehrman’s argument about Jesus’ burial (?) certainly is attention-getting, but largely weakens the whole line presented in his book, because Jesus’ burial in a tomb seems more convincing based on the evidence at hand.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2018

      You may be right, but you should look at my blog posts in response to Craig Evans on this issue. Just search for Evans in the search engine on the blog, and you’ll see them.

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