“It is very difficult to establish that Jesus was actually buried in a private tomb that people could visit if they want. It would have been more common for the body of a crucified criminal to be tossed into a common grave, where within days it would have deteriorated beyond the point of recognition” – Bart Ehrman – Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 229)
After reading How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman, I got more and more convinced that it is quite possible that Jesus never received a proper burial. In this post I will try to explain why that is the case.
Crucifixion as Capital Punishment
Crucifixion was a punishment reserved by the Romans for the lowest kind of criminals, they wouldn’t even apply this punishment to their own citizens. The whole purpose of the punishment was to show the people that you shouldn’t mess around with Rome.
“When it came to crucified criminals – in this case, someone charged with crimes against the state – there was regularly no mercy and no concern for anyone’s sensitivities. The point of crucifixion was to torture and humiliate a person as fully as possible, and to show any bystanders what happens to someone who is a troublemaker in the eye of Rome. Part of the humiliation and degradation was the body being left on the cross after death to be subject to scavenging animals. Crucifixion was meant to be a public disincentive to engage in politically subversive activities, and the disincentive did not end with the pain and death – it continued on in the ravages worked on the couple afterward.” – Bart Ehrman – How Jesus Became God (p. 157)
Part of the humiliation was to leave the body hanging on the cross for a while so that scavenging animals could have their way. It was quite unusual that the body would be taken of the cross and buried.
So could Jesus have been an exception? Perhaps, but there is no reason to think he was an exception to the rule:
“The common Roman practice was to allow the bodies of crucified people to decompose on the cross and be attached by scavengers as part of the disincentive for crime. I have not run across any contrary indications in any ancient source. It is always possible that en exception was made, of course. But it must be remembered that the Christian storytellers who indicated that Jesus was an exception to the rule had an extremely compelling reason to do so. If Jesus had not been buried, his tomb could not be declared empty.” – Bart Ehrman – How Jesus Became God (p. 160)
So the common practise wasn’t to bury a crucified person, but to let him hang on the cross and to through him in a common grave afterwards.
In 1968 an ossuary containing the bones of a man crucified in the first century were discovered in Jerusalem. The man was called Johanan ben Ha-galgula. This fact is sometimes used to prove that people were buried after crucifixion. The problem with this idea is that out of all of the people that were crucified in history, and there were a lot, we only have found evidence for one instance where someone was buried after his crucifixion. This still makes it more probable that someone was left hanging on the cross and thrown in a common grave, as usually was the practise.
Paul and the Empty Tomb
Our earliest source for Jesus is Paul and he mentions no empty tomb, he does however mention Jesus being buried. But as we have seen earlier in a quote from Bart Ehrman, Christians had reasons to say that Jesus was buried. Here’s what Paul says:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” – 1 Corinthians 15:3/5
Notice how Paul doesn’t mention the discovery of an empty tomb.
Mark and the Empty Tomb
Our earliest Gospel is probably Mark. Mark does contain the discovery of an empty tomb, but doesn’t contain any resurrection appearances (the last twelve verses of Mark most probably weren’t part of the original). So Mark makes mention of the discovery of an empty tomb but no appearances. Paul mentions appearances but no empty tomb. It is possible both traditions started out as separate traditions as Bart Ehrman explains:
“Our earliest account of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3/5) discusses the appearances without mentioning an empty tomb, while our earliest Gospel, Mark, narrates the discovery of the empty tomb without discussing any of the appearances (Mark 16:1/8). This has lead some scholars to suggest that there two sets of tradition – the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus after his death – probably originated independently of one another and were put together as a single tradition only later. If this is the case, then the stories of Jesus; resurrection were indeed being expanded, embellished, modified, and possibly even invented in the long process of their being told and retold over the years.” – Bart Ehrman – How Jesus Became God (p. 142/143)
Joseph of Arimathea and the pre-Pauline Creed
1 Corinthians 15 contains what scholars call a “pre-Pauline” tradition. Bart Ehrman explains:
“This is what New Testament scholars call a pre-Pauline tradition – one that was in circulation before Paul wrote it and even before he gave it to the Corinthians when he first persuaded them to become followers of Jesus. There is evidence in the passage itself that it, or part of it, is pre-Pauline, and it is possible to determine just which parts were the original formulation. Scholars have devised a number go ways to detect the pre literary traditions. For one thing, they tend to be tightly constructed with terse statements that contain words not otherwise attested by the author in question – in this case Paul – and to use grammatical formulations that are otherwise foreign to the author. This is what we find here in the passage. For example, the phrase “in accordance with the scriptures” is found where else in Paul’s writings; nor is the verb “he appeared”; nor is any reference to “the twelve”. There are very good reasons, in fact, for thinking that the original form of the creed was simply vv. 3-5, to which Paul has added some comments of his own based on what he knew.” – Bart Ehrman – How Jesus Became God (p. 138/139)
If 1 Corinthians 15 indeed contains a pre-Pauline tradition, a creed that was in circulation before Paul wrote it down, something that should strike us as odd, is the fact that it doesn’t mention who buried Jesus.
“Given the effort that the author of this creed has taken to make every statement of the first section correspond to the parallel statement of the second section, and vice versa, this should give us pause. it would have been very easy indeed to make the parallel precise, simply by saying “he was buried by Joseph (of Arimathea).” Why didn’t the author make this precise parallel? My hunch is that it is because he knew nothing about a burial of Jesus by Jospeh of Arimathea, or the way in which Jesus was buried – not in this creed, not in the rest of 1 Corinthians, and not in any of his other letters. The tradition that he was a specific, known person who buried Jesus appears to have been a later one.” – Bart Ehrman – How Jesus Became God (p. 142)
Not only this pre-Pauline creed should give us pause, there are other reasons as to why Joseph or Arimathea probably didn’t bury Jesus:
“Joseph’s identification as a respected member of the Sanhedrin should immediately raise questions. Mark himself said that at Jesus’s trial, which took place the previous evening, the “whole council” of the Sanhedrin (not just some or most of them – but all of them) tried to find evidence “against Jesus to put him to death (Mark 14:55). At the end of this trail, because of Jesus’s statement that he was the Son of God (Mark 14:62), “they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:64). In other words, according to Mark, this unknown person, Joseph, was one of the people who had called for Jesus’s death just the night before he was crucified. Why, after Jesus is dead, is he suddenly risking himself (as implied by the fact that he had to gather up his courage) and seeking to do an act of mercy by arranging for a decent burial for Jesus’s corpse? Mark gives us no clue. My hunch is that the trial narrative and the burial narrative come form different sets of traditions inherited by Mark. Or did Mark simply invent one of the two traditions himself and overlook the apparent discrepancy? In any event, a burial by Joseph is clearly a historical problem in light of other passages just within the New Testament.” – Bart Ehrman – How Jesus Became God (p. 152/153)
Another issue that we should give some thought is the fact that even the New Testament itself isn’t concise when it comes to who buried Jesus. Another tradition can also be found in the book of Acts:
“My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” – Acts 13:26/29
Acts clearly talks about “they”, the leaders from the Sanhedrin.
Of course it is possible that despite the common practise of letting bodies hang on the cross and throwing them in a common grave, that despite the fact that it is difficult to establish whether there was an empty tomb discovered, that despite the fact that Joseph of Arimathea probably never buried Jesus, and that despite the fact that Jesus’ family was poor and from Nazareth which would make it nearly impossible that the family owned a tomb in Jerusalem, that Jesus’ body was buried. But we shouldn’t ignore the importance of Jesus being buried for Christians. To them, he wasn’t a criminal or a rabble rouser, he was their saviour, their messiah who had been resurrected by God himself.