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Do Jewish beliefs about burial help establish the burial of Jesus?

There are a number of reasons to conclude the burial of Jesus is historical. Some of the more compelling are (1) it is it abundantly attested in early, independent sources, (2) it fulfils the criterion of embarrassment, (3) the necessity of burial in Jewish thinking, and (4) there is no alternative burial narrative that survives. For these reasons and others there has emerged something of a consensus among critical scholars of this fact. The prominent scholar John A. T. Robinson has said the burial of Jesus in a tomb is “one of the earliest and best attested facts regarding Jesus.”[1]

In defence of this third reason I have cited a paper by Craig Evans, “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus” from the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.[2] Evan’s concludes as follows;

“It is concluded that it is very probable that Jesus was buried, in keeping with Jewish customs… It is further concluded that it is very probable that some of Jesus’ followers (such as the women mentioned in the Gospel accounts) knew where Jesus’ body had been placed and intended to mark the location, perfume his body, and mourn, in keeping with Jewish customs.”

Craig Evans

This conclusion has recently been challenged. An internet atheist was heard to have said, “Evans concedes that leaving the victim on the cross, not burying them, was the normal Roman practice…”

Reading the paragraph in context however reveals that Evans is about to dispute the conclusion of the few scholars that believe what the Romans did during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD was the typical practice during peacetime. He says, “Review of Josephus suggests, however, that leaving the bodies of the executed unburied was exceptional, not typical. It was, in fact, a departure from normal Roman practice in Jewish Palestine.” Evans goes on to argue that case in the pages that follow the cherry-picked quote.

His prolonged discussion in the first part of the paper on the importance of burial in Jewish thinking, not just for the family but for the land, and especially for the population of the close by holy city on the eve of a holy day, was to emphasise why the Romans would be eager to follow Jewish burial customs, and in Jesus’ case in particular.

With that premise established, Evan’s then gives an argument by quoting both Pliny[3] and Josephus[4] showing that the Romans would not violate national customs or laws in order to keep the country at peace, and would therefore have respected Jewish sensitivities of burial. He cites the burial of John the Baptist by his disciples after his execution as an example of this, and another example outside the Jewish setting in Roman Law.

The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.

Digesta 48.24.1

The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.

Digesta 48.24.3

Specific pieces of evidences for Evan’s case include Josephus saying, ‘Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset’ (War 4.5.2 §317). Also Pliny’s bitter complaint against Flaccus, the Roman governor of Egypt, who did not allow the burial of the crucified, saying, ‘I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them the ordinary rites… But Flaccus gave no orders to take down those who had died on the cross’ (Flaccus 10 §83). Flaccus’ action to not bury the crucified victims for reasons other than high treason can therefore be regarded as exceptional during peacetime.

The heel bone and nail from the ossuary of Yehohanan. (photo credit: Courtesy the Israel Museum, photographer: Ilan Shtulman)

The pièce de résistance of Evan’s case is the ossuary (burial box) of a crucified man named Yehohanan discovered in 1968 just outside the old city of Jerusalem. The contents of the ossuary date back to the late 20s AD while under the reign of Pilate. They knew straight away that Yehohanan had been a victim of crucifixion because the iron spike piercing his right heel was still there, imbedded in the bone. Further examination of the skeletal remains confirmed as much. Can you get better evidence that the bodies of the crucified were buried during peacetime?

The concluding remarks of Evans are well substantiated; that the historicity of the burial of Jesus is rendered more probable on the background of Jewish burial customs, which Romans accommodated for victims of crucifixion during peacetime.


Footnote

[1] John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1973), 131.

[2] Craig Evans paper on Jewish Burial Tradition can be downloaded here.

[3] ‘appealed to Pilate to redress the infringement of their traditions caused by the shields and not to disturb the customs which throughout all the preceding ages had been safeguarded without disturbance by kings and by emperors’ (De Legatione ad Gaium 38 §300)

[4] The Romans, he says, do not require ‘their subjects to violate their national laws’ (Contra Apionem 2.6 §73). Josephus 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’ (War 2.11.6 §220).

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