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The Skeletal Remains of Yehohanan and Their Significance

I plan to make this the last post responding to Craig Evans’s article, “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right,” in which he attempts to refute my argument in How Jesus Became God, that Jesus was probably not given a decent burial on the day of his crucifixion.   Several readers have asked me interesting questions about this or that thing that I’ve said, and I may try to answer these questions in a few days or, well, eventually; but for now, this will be my last post on it.   It think maybe this thread has been more than enough!

I have dealt with a wide range of Craig’s arguments, and have saved his two strongest arguments for last.  In my last post I dealt with the claim of Josephus that Jews (always? usually? sometimes?) buried crucifixion victims before sunset, and I showed that as a general statement it simply isn’t true, and argued that in any event it would not have applied to a case such as that of Jesus, one who was crucified as an enemy of the state.   Today I deal with the second argument that had been seen by some readers to have a good deal force: an archaeological discovery of a crucified man.  Once again, I do not think this provides Craig with the evidence that he wants and needs in order to make his case.

Let me first introduce what this evidence is.   What follows is a very brief description of the discovery of the skeletal remains of Yehohanan, the crucified man.

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Josephus’s Clearest Claim about the Burial of Crucified Victims

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Comments

  1. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  July 31, 2014

    was wondering? if you have published belief yours?
    or is that mainstream belief, is it coming directly from you beliefs?

    mark resurrection ( for members )

    Without posing the historical question of what “really” happened to the curtain in the Temple (in fact there is no reference in any non-Christian source of it being torn or damaged in any way), one might ask how the reader is supposed to understand Mark’s claim that it was ripped asunder. As we have seen, most ancient Jews ascribed a particular holiness to the Temple as the one place in which sacrifices could be offered up to God. This was a sacred place to be revered and respected. The most sacred area within the holy Temple was the Holy of Holies, the square room in whose darkness God’s very presence was thought to dwell. This room was so holy that no one could enter, except one day of the year — on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) — when the Jewish High priest could go behind the thick curtain into the presence of God to perform a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people.

    Mark indicates that when Jesus died, the curtain separating this holiest of places from the outside world was torn in half. This appears to mean that God is no longer removed from his people; his holiness is now available to all. No longer do his people need to rely on the Jewish high priest and his sacrifice for their sins on the Day of Atonement. The ultimate sacrifice has been made, voiding the necessity of all others. Jesus, the Son of God, has “given his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). People now have direct access to God, who comes to them in the death of Jesus.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2014

      Yes, I discuss my beliefs in a number of my books, e.g., Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, and God’s Problem.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  September 24, 2014

        Hmm still that is an amazing
        Interpretation
        I picture it in my mind
        The event maybe I should be a director
        It starts of like an old western redish sky
        But 3 crosses there and everything else

  2. wesperber  August 1, 2014

    Enjoyed this thread very much… a nice addition to the book. Thanks!

  3. toejam  August 1, 2014

    Thanks for this series of posts. I’ve really enjoyed reading them and have learned a lot!

  4. JudithW.Coyle  August 1, 2014

    “Jesus was condemned as an enemy of the state. ” Obviously he was not considered a major enemy if Pilate offered Barabbas in his place.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2014

      I don’t think the Barabbas tradition can be historical. Seems like I’ve posted on that — but if not, maybe I will!

  5. RonaldTaska  August 1, 2014

    Good series. Thanks for the considerable time and effort you spent on clarifying these matters. I will never again look at the burial of Jesus in quite the same way.

  6. Hank_Z  August 1, 2014

    Bart, I enjoyed your thread addressing Craig’s main arguments. I appreciated your taking all that time to summarize his arguments and then look at the relevant evidence. Even though your argument about the burial was not central to the thesis of HJBG, I found it fascinating and well done. Thanks.

  7. Wilusa  August 1, 2014

    If there was bone with a nail in it that proved a person had been crucified, and that part of his body had wound up in the ossuary, I can’t understand how it matters which of a possible three people he was. Otherwise, I certainly agree with you. This find seemingly proves that at least one person, crucified for some unknown offense, was given decent burial in an ossuary; but no general conclusions can be drawn from it.

    BTW, am I right in understanding that ossuaries were only used for a short time? A hundred years or so? Any idea why the practice was begun, and why discontinued?

    A further question. It’s been my understanding that Roman soldiers occasionally, *as an act of mercy*, broke crucified victims’ legs to hasten death. Is that idea not only erroneous, but based solely on the broken legs of this corpse?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2014

      It was the *leg* bones that were broken, and they weren’t connected to the ankle. The idea of them breaking bones is based on what hte Gospels say. So far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence outside the Gospels that that happened.

      • Wilusa  August 2, 2014

        Something I’ve been meaning to ask, related to this…do you think it’s true that a Roman thrust a spear into Jesus’s side to determine whether he was dead? If his body was going to be left on the cross for days, it doesn’t seem they should have cared when he died.

        I’m guessing the “spear” story isn’t historical, whatever may have been done with his body.

        Thinking of spears…as a child, I attended a Catholic church that had all kinds of symbolism in its stained glass windows. I couldn’t for the life of me understand the religious significance of what I saw as “a potato with an arrow stuck in it.” And I never asked anyone, because I was ashamed to admit I didn’t know all these things that I was presumably supposed to know.

        As an adult, I realized I’d misjudged the perspective. It wasn’t a potato with an arrow stuck in it, it was a sponge with a spear stuck in it! Offering the crucified Jesus something to drink, that turned out to be vinegar. But really, of course, it was a yin/yang symbol, with sexual overtones of something, er, penetrating something else. Interesting religion!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 5, 2014

          No, I don’t think the spear thrust is historical. It is a story meant to show he was *really* dead, not in a faint.

        • Servelan  November 6, 2014

          I ran across something referencing sponges on sticks, and they were used in Roman bathhouses as toilet paper (reusable, disinfected in vinegar) and that would have been a tremendous way of showing disdain for a criminal to offer him that to quench his thirst….

          • Wilusa  November 7, 2014

            Fascinating! Thanks for posting it.

  8. magpie  August 1, 2014

    I echo the thanks expressed in the other comments. I have learned so much from your posts!

    A bit off topic, but I have been listening again to The audiobook of Did Jesus Exist? And it struck me that in looking for historical records of the existence of Jesus, nothing is mentioned about any record of denials of his existence. If there were doubt about his actual existence, would that not have been mentioned, perhaps in the epistles? Something along the lines of “for those blasphemers who raise doubts about our messiah ….”? Is absence of denial not an indirect affirmation of Jesus’ existence, or is it just that I have missed something you have already covered?

    • magpie  August 1, 2014

      Nevermind, I am listening again to your text in Chapter Five, which clearly states that none of the known writings say only thing that indicates that Jesus was not considered to have been an actual, living person. Yup, mind like a steel sieve I have.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 2, 2014

      Yes, it’s true that no one in the ancient world (or until the 18th century) imagined that he didn’t exist.

  9. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  August 1, 2014

    what do people if you dance ( talk ) this kind of music
    have you heard of this ?
    is there a regligion as such?
    orthadox egyptian chant ( coptic hymn – hos erouf )

  10. clvn_mrshll@yahoo.com  August 2, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman – I had the same question as Wilusa above: “If there was bone with a nail in it that proved a person had been crucified, and that part of his body had wound up in the ossuary, I can’t understand how it matters which of a possible three people he was.” Can you comment on this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 2, 2014

      Sorry — I probably wasn’t clear. Craig argues that since the leg bones in the ossuary were broken, that therefore the Romans had broken Yehohanan’s legs to facilitate death so that he could be buried on the day of his death. But the leg bones that are broken are *not connected* in the ossuary to the ankle bone that has the nail in it. So the broken bones could belong to a different person — as Craig admits! More than that, the forensic scholar who examined the remains maintains that the bones were broken after death, not before, so it wouldn’t matter (since they weren’t broken then to speed death.)

  11. Hana1080  August 2, 2014

    Thank you too. Another “eye opener” and much to think about.

  12. willow  August 3, 2014

    Okay, so, I gave you a break from my long tirades. Expect this to be long, and forgive me in advance for it.

    Other than having been away, I’ve also been immersed in, and most recently completed, Charlesworth’s: The Tomb of Jesus and His Family, and cannot recommend it highly enough, for the wealth of information it contains regarding this very subject! What makes the book all the more remarkable is that though it was compiled by Dr. Charlesworth, it contains the scholarly, and differing, opinions of numerous specialists in the field of Biblical Archeology. To name but a few: Charlesworth; of course. Andre Lemaire. Jonathan Price. James Tabor; and many others who have involved themselves in such as this matter of Jewish burial custom v. Roman Rule, for quite some time, now.

    The book, I find, is even a rather nice compliment to How Jesus Became God, for those of my own mindset who have long since come to believe that when it comes right down to the nitty gritty, for as much as there is no “real evidence” to suggest otherwise, Jesus was but a God-fearing/loving man – however gifted, talented, charismatic a man he was, and like any other man he was born, he lived and he died and upon his death – what?

    All of Christianity depends upon that “what”, and what I have come to conclude, from so many sources (to include the inconsistencies contained in the Gospel accounts) of information, is that Jesus very well may have been buried, and in my opinion, most probably was, though in a manner that opposes the Biblical account and most certainly common belief among Christians who adhere themselves to alleged eye witness accounts of a resurrection, and the empty tomb scenario, neither of which prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jesus rose from the dead.

    At best we have varying stories of a temporary tomb that was found empty. No one, not any one of the women, or woman, or Peter, who went to the tomb and who found it empty declare, at that moment, that “Jesus must have risen from the dead, just as he said he would, so let’s go find him!” Instead, we have fear and uncertainty as to what became of his body. I tend to wonder, then, how it was that they weren’t expecting Jesus to rise up, on the third day, and why they weren’t all gathered together and so anxiously awaiting the event IF, in fact, this is what Jesus told them would happen. How is it possible that they would have forgotten something as significant as his resurrection within at most 72 hours after the crucifixion? It isn’t.

    Pilate was unusually cruel. We know that. Jesus was crucified for sedition. We know that too. Pilate would not have been merciful, under the circumstances, so taking all of the historical evidences that we have, outside the New Testament accounts, I have come to conclude (though I don’t really know for certain, not having been there, but this all seems far more reasonable to me) that the body of Jesus was NOT taken down from the cross, but was left to rot, to be exposed to beast and element alike, until there was next to nothing left of him that no Roman, to include Pilate, would have concerned himself with.

    What would it have mattered to Pilate if a member of Jesus’ family or one of his followers requested (and this was a biggy, the bodies of the crucified had to be requested, and the request approved) his remains, little of which were left? Surely, the crucified weren’t left on their crosses forever! Someone had to remove them, at some point in time; usually the Roman soldiers, but not always; so all things considered it just makes sense to me that someone close to Jesus requested what was left of him and proceeded to bury him, as was customary, and okay so I will just come right out and say it – this would well explain the uncanny find at Talpiot that scholars debate (and heatedly so) to this very day, such as Zias, who vehemently opposes the possibility that the James ossuary belongs, too, to the Talpiot Tomb, no matter the matching time frame and patina. It also makes more sense of Jesus, himself, who expected the Kingdom of God to descend upon the earth THEN, and who believed himself to me no less than the Messiah (one anointed for a Godly purpose) and who felt utterly betrayed by God as he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

    These are NOT the words of a man who fully expected to be raised in three days. The fleeing of his disciples are not acts of the faithful expectant. Honorably, customarily, burying one’s beloved dead, if even many days if not weeks later, is to be expected, and what would Pilate have cared about that?

    • prestonp  August 6, 2014

      It also makes more sense of Jesus, himself, who expected the Kingdom of God to descend upon the earth THEN, and who believed himself to me no less than the Messiah (one anointed for a Godly purpose) and who felt utterly betrayed by God as he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
      These are NOT the words of a man who fully expected to be raised in three days.

      From what I’m learning, relying upon what Jesus said, at least according to the Biblical text, is not a valid means of discerning the historical accuracy of his words.

      • willow  August 14, 2014

        Prestonp, I would agree with you, completely, but for the these particular words, that are in stark contrast to such things as “This day you will be with me in Paradise”, and “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.” They just don’t fit the overall scenario of an only begotten Son of God who came into the world knowing full well his mission, and that was to live and to die as a “once and for all” ultimate sacrifice, and thereafter assume his place on a throne at the right hand of God, though most certainly words such as, “This day you will be with me in Paradise” do. Certainly the words have caused the church a bit of trouble over the years. I’ve known many an apologist who has struggled to make sense of them. For the oddity of them, then, I tend to believe that if Jesus actually said anything, these are the words he is most likely to have said.

    • prestonp  October 11, 2014

      “These are NOT the words of a man who fully expected to be raised in three days. The fleeing of his disciples are not acts of the faithful expectant.” willow

      Why?

      • prestonp  October 12, 2014

        “The fleeing of his disciples are not acts of the faithful expectant.” willow

        What happened to cause them to be bold and fearless all at once less than 2 months after they ran away?

    • prestonp  October 12, 2014

      “It also makes more sense of Jesus, himself, who expected the Kingdom of God to descend upon the earth THEN, and who believed himself to me no less than the Messiah (one anointed for a Godly purpose) and who felt utterly betrayed by God as he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” These are NOT the words of a man who fully expected to be raised in three days.” willow

      Didn’t he say the kingdom of god is within you? If so, then in his opinion his kingdom had arrived, perhaps. Why would a healthy human being, psychologically that is, believe himself to be the messiah? If he was crazy, why have we spent 2,000 years focusing on what he said and did?

      “who… felt utterly betrayed by God as he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” willow

      How should he have felt as a man?

    • prestonp  October 12, 2014

      “… for as much as there is no “real evidence” to suggest otherwise, Jesus was but a God-fearing/loving man – however gifted, talented, charismatic a man he was, and like any other man he was born, he lived and he died and upon his death – what?” willow

      If you have found evidence you can depend on that indicates he was indeed a man, why do you dismiss all the other evidence that he was god?

    • prestonp  October 12, 2014

      “Pilate was unusually cruel. We know that. Jesus was crucified for sedition. We know that too” willow

      Upon what evidence do you rely to say this?

    • prestonp  October 12, 2014

      “what I have come to conclude, from so many sources (to include the inconsistencies contained in the Gospel accounts) of information, is that Jesus very well may have been buried, and in my opinion, most probably was, though in a manner that opposes the Biblical account and most certainly common belief among Christians who adhere themselves to alleged eye witness accounts of a resurrection, and the empty tomb scenario, neither of which prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jesus rose from the dead.” willow

      “what I have come to conclude, from so many sources…” willow

      Would you share what those other sources are, besides the discrepancy filled New Testament?

  13. gabilaranjeira  August 3, 2014

    Yes… I agree. The only assumptions we can make is that this man could have been crucified and his bones eventually ended up in an ossuary. I don’t think it’s impossible that this nail was place at this ankle for some other reason and he died of tetanus!

  14. gavriel  August 3, 2014

    Now that you have completed your walk-through it has made me change my opinions on some points. But I still have some doubts:

    First, the discussion should include more alternatives: (1) Honorable burial, (2) The simplest possible according to Jewish customs(3), Dishonourable and (4) Left on the cross. And possible intermediate solutions.

    Rather than work from general probabilities and apply them to this case , it would be better to work from the hardest «facts» in the passion narratives and try to deduce the remaining elements using the less secured «facts». As well as known Roman execution practices, of course. Using probability theory to historical key events will often fail, contrary to when applied to «normal» lower level historical events in past societies, where probability theory really yields better results. This is what make counterfactual history-writing so impossible. One only has to think of what would have happened if Hitler had been admitted to the academy of arts he applied for.

    I think there is ample evidence that there were cases where burial of crucified victims took place. A case like Yehohanan could be explained with wealthy relatives/benefactors bribing Roman officials, who most often considered bribing as a fringe benefit. And it would in many cases be a Jewish will to do it, provided the right circumstances. The extent to which this was possible is hard to judge.

    One of the hard facts, I believe, is the very early belief in a sort of burial. Paul not only quotes an early burial creed, but includes it in his participationist theology. This very early creed, the female witnesses story in Mark, and also several other «hard» elements tend to move the preference to the beginning of the list above. Your walk-through of Roman practices and Pilate’s political reputation moves it towards the end. This provides degrees of freedom to select more than the extreme points. My favourite is no 3 and possibly hinted at in Mark 12:8.

    There would have to be a cause for the exception to the rule, it would have to serve some purpose for both the Priesthood as well as for Pilate. I think Pilate knew that he was facing a religious sectarian, unarmed group. Or else they couldn’t have returned later. He simply joined forces with the Priesthood in removing a possible cause of religiously motivated rioting then and there. One only has to think of the disaster Festival under Fadus as narrated by Josephus. And I don’t see why he should have denied a request from the very same Priesthood, if they on second thought applied for a removal of the bodies in order to not stir up unforeseen unrest and also to shield the sanctity of the festival. He received a quick solution gratuitously without using any resources at all and could easily return a favour if it served the same purpose. Even if he was as cruel prefect, he would not have entertained cruelty as a purpose in itself, but subject to some rational political purpose.

  15. prestonp  August 3, 2014

    ” Anyone who crosses the power of Rome is faced with that power in the most brutal way possible.”

    ” They all said, “Crucify Him!” And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 5, 2014

      Yes, that is why that passage is almost certainly not a historical account.

      • prestonp  August 6, 2014

        I will seek answers in the literature to my questions, why? What motive lies behind such fabrications? Who had such motives? Did they coordinate their efforts or was it a piecemeal, impulsive spattering?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 6, 2014

          Yup, very important questions. I’d suggest you start either with my book Jesus Interrupted or Forged.

          • prestonp  August 8, 2014

            I think it can become a habit to view everything with skepticism to the point where interpreting what may be simple, humane decisions are cast aside, unnecessarily, in a form of betrayal to the broader truth that not everyone seeks to do harm all the time. Perhaps there was no fault in him requiring death, in Pilate’s eyes. He’s allowed to make decisions, based on his own humanity. Apparently, someone was charged with serious crimes and he had to approve his execution to quell a riot, which is what he did. If Jesus was such an unimportant figure, he could have been eliminated privately. A mob hit. Done. Just like that. It is difficult to imagine scribes or anyone else inventing so much of the story of Christ’s life that the bulk of what we know of him has no merit. If he really did live, then who was he? What is attributed to him that describes what he was like? If accuracy isn’t important, there’s no need to probe and to dig. If it is the case that the gospel writers intended to share spiritual lessons with posterity from his life based on their perspectives, then what did they want us to learn, specifically? What did they see in him that was important? Upon what did they base their views? Who was he to them and why? What if we were to focus on those things alone, just those lessons to see what we have. We could even list them. Everything else is dross.

            Dr. Bart, these are not questions for you per se. Just questions that come to mind, to stimulate analysis, and that I must research and answer.

  16. Jesse  August 4, 2014

    John 31 and on mentions that the two (other) criminals with Jesus had their legs broken to hasten death so that they could ALL be buried before sunset. And that Jesus didn’t because he was already dead. Although I understand the vast majority of John is comprised of embellishments I find this Detail to be interesting. I believe one possibility on this detail is that it is placed into the story because all three had their legs broken and John is making the point that Jesus didn’t so it fulfilled scripture. Also, the story doesn’t single out Jesus as being buried because of a special relationship with Joseph. (Of course the entire story could just be placed into John so that there is a reason to believe that Jesus was indeed buried that day.)

    Also – related – I think we have to be careful to make too much of a point of what Pilate typically did based on his general behavior with regards to crucifixion. A more important question is what did Pilate typically do during Passover regarding burying rites? And I don’t think we have any information on that.

    I go back and forth on this one – somewhere between Tabor and Mr. Ehrman 🙂

  17. mini1071
    mini1071  August 5, 2014

    As I understand it, deceased first century Hebrews bones were placed in ossuaries after temporary “burial” in a tomb where natural processes reduced the body to skeletal remains. Yehohonan’s bones in an ossuary simply means his body was retrieved and (eventually) put in the box. If the vertical poles of crosses were reused for later crucifixions would it be safe to assume previous crucifixion remains were eventually discarded? … somewhere such that bodies could be retrieved and before unclaimed ones were otherwise disposed of? There surely was a point where the Romans no longer cared…

  18. cjcruz  August 7, 2014

    Is it also worth noting (and perhaps you did and I missed it) that we don’t know under whom this person was crucified, that it could have been a more lenient Roman official?

  19. sharding4  October 21, 2014

    Did any writer in antiquity address the question of whether Jesus was buried after the crucifixion? There are numerous instances in Jewish, pagan, and Christian works where accusations that Jesus’ disciples removed his body from the tomb are mentioned. If the burial of a Jew crucified in Judea really were that peculiar, why wouldn’t critics of Christianity have pointed that out? How unusual a circumstance could it have been, if it raised no questions for the first few centuries while Roman rule (and practice) continued? Of course what I think is a lack of evidence from antiquity doesn’t constitute proof that Jesus was buried. Some lost passage from Celsus could appear and demolish the argument. While many of the arguments against a burial are persuasive, I think the silence of ancient authors argues against a cut-and-dried conclusion that there was no burial.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 22, 2014

      No, there are no discussions that I know of. My sense is that everyone (even me!) agrees that *something* happened to Jesus’ remains, and whatever that was would have been considered a “burial”.

  20. jbjbjbjbjb  January 21, 2015

    Hi Bart, small clarification please, when you say that of the tens of thousands crucified we only have the remains of this guy, is it possible that we also have the remains of others who:
    – Were crucified but not attached to the cross/stake by nails
    – were crucified via nails but no bone damage / bone damage not clear

    • Bart
      Bart  January 21, 2015

      Yes, both are absolutely possible. What I meant is that this is the only set of remains for which we have any suggestion of crucifixion.

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