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More on Josephus and Jewish Burial Practices

In my previous post I began to deal with the first of two arguments that Craig Evans provides from Josephus.  Craig wants to argue that Josephus, a first-century Jewish authority, explicitly indicates that Romans allowed Jews to provide decent burials for their dead.   In this first argument Craig provides a concatenation of passages from Josephus that together, Craig argues, indicate that Jews would not leave a corpse (such as that of Jesus) on the cross, but would provide a burial for it.  Here is the argument again.

“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).

I dealt with the first quotation in yesterday’s post, where I pointed out that in Against Apion Josephus is not referring to burial practices but to idolatry: Jews were not forced to worship representations of the emperor against their customs.  Even if one generalizes the point broadly to say that Romans never forced Jews to do anything contrary to their customs, I argued that (a) this is not true and (b) leaving Jesus’ body on the cross would not require Jews to violate their customs because it was not Jews who put him on the cross in the first place.  Jewish law applied to Jews, not to Romans, and it was Romans who executed Jesus.  Jews of course would not have liked for bodies to remain unburied – just as they would not have liked other things Romans did, such as ruling the promised land and requiring Jews to pay tribute.  But in some instances, Romans frankly didn’t care what the Jews liked and didn’t liked.  When it came to punishing enemies of the state, Romans did what they thought was in their own best self-interests.  In my reading of the sources, this included not just crucifying enemies, but also leaving their bodies exposed to the elements and scavenging animals.

Now I can turn to the other two quotations.

2)  The second one, taken from the Jewish War, is a bit puzzling to me: I’m not sure why Craig quotes it.   Here Josephus indicates that Roman procurators after Agrippa I did not interfere with Jewish customs.  But Agrippa 1 ruled Judea over a decade after Jesus.  The “procurators who succeeded” him were later.   This passage is not talking about what was happening under the rule of Pontius Pilate during the days of Jesus.   Possibly Craig is quoting it to say what Roman procurators *typically* did?   If so, it flies in the face of what we know about Pilate specifically, as I have shown at length in previous posts.  Pilate was completely brutal and did not give a toss for Jewish sensitivities, at least according to the only two sources that we have that speak about his reign, one of whom happens to be Josephus.

3)  I find the third quotation, this one coming again from Against Apion, also to be of little relevance.   Craig does not indicate, again, what the context is within which this comment is made.  So let me unpack it here.

At this point of his treatise Josephus is summarizing the laws given by Moses in the Hebrew Bible, as a way of showing just how upright Jews are ethically and socially.   Jews are not immoral reprobates the way their intellectual, pagan adversary Apion claimed.  They are highly moral, engaging in all sorts of upright and admirable activities, because they do what the great lawgiver told them to do.  In making a very long list of the things that Jews were enjoined to do by Moses, Josephus mentions the law that bodies were to be buried.  It should be noted: Josephus here is not describing the social realities of life in Judea: he is summarizing what Jews were commanded to do by Moses.  This involve lots and lots of things, some practiced and some, obviously (as I will show) not.

To give you the sense of how much this is an off-the-cuff comment  and that it is not a description of social realities…

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Josephus’s Clearest Claim about the Burial of Crucified Victims
Does Josephus Show that Jews Always Buried Their Dead?

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Comments

  1. whicks1  July 28, 2014

    Luke 9:60? Out of line to say at least one Jewish guy of the day didn’t hold to strict adherence to social norms of the day?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 29, 2014

      There were many, many. These are whom the Pharisees called the am ha-aretz (“people of the land”) — those who were not scrupulous (or at all caring) to keep the law.

  2. Wilusa  July 28, 2014

    Before I even start reading, thought I’d share this Gallup Poll result I just saw:

    “The survey found that 41 percent of Americans call themselves ‘very religious,’ while 30 percent say they are nonreligious, and 29 percent say they are moderately religious.”

    For those who haven’t seen the poll, it was mostly about correlating degrees of being “religious” with political leanings. Not surprisingly (at least to me), the more religious people tend to be Republicans, the less religious Democrats. But while that makes sense for broader geographic areas, I wonder about my own city, which is heavily Catholic *and* heavily Democratic. I think many of those Democrats are in fact conservative. But might many of the Catholics not be very religious? I certainly don’t think most nominally Catholic men are as religious as non-Catholic Christian men seem to be.

  3. Wilusa  July 28, 2014

    I certainly agree with you! But I still can’t help thinking that *in practice*, the rules may sometimes have been bent. For example, an underling’s accepting a bribe when the Prefect had “one foot out the door.”

  4. Wilusa  July 28, 2014

    Say, an off-topic question I’ve been thinking about… I’ve tended to trust “Mark” – the earliest Gospel writer – re Jesus’s mother and siblings not having supported him early in his ministry. But “Mark,” as you’ve said, was presenting Jesus as a Messiah whom none of his intimates understood. A literary/theological choice. Do you think it possible that “earliest source” really *didn’t know, one way or the other*, whether Jesus’s family supported him?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 29, 2014

      Interesting idea. I think the reason for thinking that Mark is right about this one is that it is attested in other sources too. But this would certainly be the reason Mark wanted to preserve the tradition.

  5. Steefen  July 28, 2014

    Bart Ehrman: leaving Jesus’ body on the cross would not require Jews to violate their customs because it was not Jews who put him on the cross in the first place.

    Steefen: leaving slaughtered Jewish soldiers on the battlefield would not require Jews to violate their customs because it was not friendly fire that killed the soldiers in the first place is what this sounds like. A Jewish person is left to the elements without decent burial because somebody else killed him. Approximately 40 years later Josephus gives an account of the dead bodies of other enemies of the state killed in the Jewish Roman War being taken care of as opposed to being left to the dogs, birds, and weather. Josephus himself had three people taken down from crosses and the best care given to the victims. That best care revived one (one survived crucifixion) and the other two were not left to dogs, birds, and weather.

    Bart Ehrman: When it came to punishing enemies of the state, Romans did what they thought was in their own best self-interests.

    Steefen: There were consequences. “According to Josephus, Pilate was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising, arriving just after the death of Tiberius, which occurred on 16 March in AD 37. He was replaced by Marcellus.”

    Remember, as long as Jesus’ mother was alive with or without John the Beloved, with or without those whose lives were touched by Jesus, Mary not only wept when Jesus hung on the cross, but, in your scenario, she wept when she, by herself, without or with others, used a stick to run dogs off and threw rocks at birds. If she had to cry in the rain, so be it. Someone pitied her, with or without Joseph of Arimethea.

    • Scott F  July 30, 2014

      One important point here is not that Jewish authorities could only take care of those bodies that they had control over. The body of a crucified insurrectionist was under control of the Romans.

      The fact that Pilate was recalled for treating the locals harshly does not help your case. A man who suppressed an uprising so harshly that it upset even the Romans, is not going to think twice about the sensibilities of the Jewish custom when it comes to an executed rebel.

      • Steefen  August 1, 2014

        It helps my case because the rule in Rome wasn’t to disrespect Judaism and incite the people to disturb the peace.

        “For at least a century before the establishment of the Augustan principate, Jews and Judaism were tolerated in Rome by diplomatic treaty with Judaea’s Hellenised elite. Diaspora Jews had much in common with the overwhelmingly Hellenic or Hellenised communities that surrounded them. Early Italian synagogues have left few traces; but one was dedicated in Ostia around the mid-1st century BC and several more are attested during the Imperial period. Judaea’s enrollment as a client kingdom in 63 BC increased the Jewish diaspora; in Rome, this led to closer official scrutiny of their religion. Their synagogues were recognised as legitimate collegia by Julius Caesar. By the Augustan era, the city of Rome was home to several thousand Jews. In some periods under Roman rule, Jews were legally exempt from official sacrifice, under certain conditions. Judaism was a superstitio to Cicero [Excessive devotion and enthusiasm in religious observance were superstitio, in the sense of “doing or believing more than was necessary”,[123] to which women and foreigners were considered particularly prone], but the Church Father Tertullian described it as religio licita (an officially permitted religion).”

        Scott F, your point misses the mark. The fact that Pilate was recalled for treating the locals harshly helps my case because Bart Ehrman is speaking of standard practice. It was not sanctioned standard practice and indeed, there was a negative consequence for Pilate’s actions.

        Scott F: [Pilate] is not going to think twice about the sensibilities of the Jewish custom when it comes to an executed rebel.

        Steefen: Jesus before Pilate is sandwiched between Jewish authorities. Pilate/Rome wasn’t even the first to arrest Jesus. Nonviolent Jesus as enemy of the state of Rome is quite weak.

        1) First, disprove

        a) Pilate asks what do you have to say for yourself as opposed to Roman soldiers caught you in the act of being an enemy of the state of Rome. Did Rome arrest Jesus on Palm Sunday? No. Did Rome arrest Jesus when he allegedly turned over the tables of the money changers? No. So, what statement Rome has to make by not letting Jesus’ mother and Joseph of Arimethea transport Jesus’ body to a place of decent burial?

        b) this was more of a Jewish matter than a Roman matter because Jesus was arrested by Jews and was questioned by Jews. Jesus answered, they cried, carried on, and sentenced him: “Rome, we want you to execute Jesus.” They did not cry and carry on because of Jesus was an enemy of the state of Rome. They couldn’t even get Jesus to admit people should not pay taxes to Rome. Roman policing activities did not catch Jesus in an act of sedition. Rome did not make a case against Jesus, the case was pre-made.

  6. fishician  July 28, 2014

    God could have long ago settled all issues about Jesus’ resurrection if He chose to (assuming He exists and cares about us). Does He want people to know the truth about Jesus or not? Or is He more concerned with somehow testing us to see who is simple-minded enough to believe without good evidence, as if that is a positive attribute for someone in His kingdom? The more apologists argue these fine details the less I believe what they are trying to prove. If God doesn’t care to prove it, why should they?

  7. Joseph  July 29, 2014

    “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)”
    The fact that we find this in Jewish War, to me, implies that procurators *before* Agrippa I *were* interfering with the Jewish customs. Otherwise, why mention it?
    Doesn’t this further weaken Dr. Evans argument?

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