By Craig Evans
The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who was put to death on a Roman cross, in Jerusalem, in the early spring of either AD 30 or 33, lies at the very heart of Christian faith and is the principal datum that accounts for the emergence of the Christian church. Skeptics, not surprisingly, express doubt. They usually say that the resurrection story is legend, myth, inadequately supported by eyewitness testimony, or the result of some elaborate hoax or conspiracy. In recent years a number of skeptics, including scholars who ought to know better, have charged that the story of the burial of Jesus itself is unhistorical, that Roman law did not in fact permit the burial of the crucified, and that the story of the burial is therefore simply part of early Christian apologetic, designed to confirm the story of the resurrection. A few of these scholars have suggested that in all probability the body of Jesus was not buried but left hanging on the cross or at best was cast into a ditch where it was mauled by animals. Skepticism regarding the burial of Jesus is ill-founded, in the light of Roman law and Jewish law, custom, and practice. The present essay will review both of these elements.
ROMAN LAW ACCORDING TO THE DIGESTA
Roman law regarding the burial of the executed is far more nuanced —and lenient — than many suppose. In the Digesta, compiled by Romanemperor Justinian in the sixth century (AD 530–533) but comprising a great deal of law from the first and second centuries, we find important and relevant material in chapter 24 of book 48. All three of the paragraphs that make up chapter 24, the final chapter, entitled De cadaveribus punitorum (“On the bodies of the punished”), are helpful. I shall treat paragraphs §1 and §3, both of which directly bear on the question of the burial of the executed.
JOSEPHUS ON CRUCIFIXION AND BURIAL
What Josephus says here is especially relevant for the question of the burial of the crucified Jesus. Josephus is speaking of his own time, that is, from the time of Pontius Pilate, prefect of Samaria and Judea, to the time of the Jewish revolt. He clearly states that those executed by crucifixion were “taken down and buried before sunset.” Because only Roman authority in Samaria and Judea could execute anyone ( Josephus, J.W. 2.117; Ant. 20.200–203; John 18:31), we must assume in the statement by Josephus that those who do the crucifying are the Romans. Though executed by the Romans, those crucified were buried. If condemned by the Jewish council, it was incumbent on the council to arrange for the burial of the executed (m. Sanhedrin 6.5–6; more on this below). This was done out of concern for the purity of the land, not out of pity for the executed or his family (Deut 21:23).
There is also archaeological evidence that corroborates the literary evidence. One thinks of the crucified remains of one Yehohanan, crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate. Though crucified, he was nevertheless properly buried (with an iron spike still embedded in his right heel). The skeletal remains of at least three other executed persons have been recovered from tombs and ossuaries, as well as dozens of nails and spikes, many of which had been used in crucifixion.
The evidence in hand probably represents only a small fraction of what existed at one time. This is because the small bones (hands and feet), which provide evidence of crucifixion, rarely survive intact. Moreover, we should assume that the remains of most of those crucified were from the lower classes and so would not have been placed in ossuaries in secure tombs, as were the remains of Yehohanan, who evidently belonged to a family of means. The archaeological evidence, as limited as it is, supports the literary evidence in suggesting that in Palestine in the time of Jesus the crucified were in fact buried.
The burial narratives of the New Testament Gospels are not only “consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law,” as archaeologist Jodi Magness has said1 they are consistent with Roman law and with Roman literary and archaeological evidence. The legal opinions provided in the sixth-century Digesta 48.24 are early and are corroborated by first century literary and archaeological evidence. Joseph’s request to bury the body of Jesus was fully in keeping with law and practice throughout the Roman Empire and, especially, in the Jewish homeland, where a corpse left unburied overnight was seen as a defilement of the land. (This equally applies in an eschatological setting ; see 4Q285 frag. 5= 11Q14 frag. 1, col. i, where after the Kittim [ = Romans] are defeated in battle, the priests give oversight to purification “from the guilty blood of the corpses” of the enemy.)
Every source we have indicates that the practice in Israel, especially in the vicinity of Jerusalem, in peacetime, was to bury the executed before nightfall. This was a practice that Roman authority permitted. War was another matter, of course. When Titus besieged Jerusalem from AD 69 to 70, thousands of Jews were crucified and very few of them were buried. The whole point of these thousands left unburied in plain view of the inhabitants of Jerusalem was to terrorize the resistance and bring the rebellion to an end (as recounted by Josephus, J.W. 5.289, 449). This was the true “exception that proves the rule”: Roman authority in Israel normally did permit burial of executed criminals, including those executed by crucifixion (as Josephus implies), but it did not during the rebellion of 66–70.
There is another important point that needs to be made. The process that led to the execution of Jesus, and perhaps also the two men crucified with him, was initiated by the Jewish Council. According to law and custom when the Jewish council (or Sanhedrin) condemned someone to death, by whatever means, it fell to the council to have that person buried. This was the role played by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council (Mark 15:43). The executed were to be buried properly, but not in places of honor, such as the family tomb. This is clearly taught in the earliest writings of the rabbis: “They did not bury (the executed criminal) in the burying-place of his fathers. But two burying-places were kept in readiness by the Sanhedrin, one for them that were beheaded or strangled, and one for them that were stoned or burnt” (m. Sanhedrin 6:5, emphasis added; “strangled” would include those hanged and those crucified). The place reserved for burial of criminals was sometimes referred to as a “wretched place”: “Neither a corpse nor the bones of a corpse may be transferred from a wretched place to an honored place, nor, needless to say, from an honored placed to a wretched place; but if to the family tomb, even from an honored place to a wretched place, it is permitted” (Semahot 13.7).
Not only was the body of a criminal not to be buried in a place of honor, no public mourning for executed criminals was permitted: “they used not to make [open] lamentation . . . for mourning has place in the heart alone” (m. Sanhedrin 6:6). None of this law would make any sense if executed criminals were not in fact buried. There would have been no need to set aside tombs for executed criminals. There would simply be no remains to transfer from a “wretched place” to an “honored place.”
The Jewish council was responsible to oversee the proper burial of the executed because the bodies of the executed were normally not surrendered to family and friends. The burial of the executed in “wretched places,” that is, in tombs set aside for criminals, was part of the punishment. No public mourning and lamentation were permitted. The remains of the executed could not be transferred from these dishonorable tombs for one year. After one year (see b. Qiddushin 31b), the remains could be taken by family members to the family tomb or to some other place of honor.
The terse, almost matter-of-fact burial narrative we find in Mark 15 exhibits realism at every point. The narrative agrees with what is known of the relevant literature and archaeological data, both Jewish and Roman, both Palestinian and elsewhere in the empire. That the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and placed in a known tomb, under the direction of someone acting on behalf of the Jewish Council, should be accepted as historical.
In view of the evidence relating to burial, whether in the Roman Empire in general or more specifically in Israel whose Jewish population was greatly concerned with protecting the purity of the land, it seems highly probable that Jesus and others who were executed were in fact buried. Discussion of the resurrection of Jesus should assume that Jesus had been buried. One must then ask in what sense the first Christians would have spoken of “resurrection,” had the body of Jesus remained in a tomb, awaiting the future gathering of its skeletal remains for interment in the family tomb? It seems to me that the burial of Jesus has profound implications for the discussion of his resurrection.
The resurrection of Jesus launched the Christian movement. Its proclamation was the initial message, and along with it was the assumption, as well as knowledge, of the burial of the body of Jesus. Debate centered on the question of the resurrection will make no progress by gratuitously asserting that no burial took place or, if it did, no one knew where it took place. Believers and skeptics alike should judge the burial tradition as early and highly probable tradition.
1J. Magness, “Jesus’ Tomb : What Did it Look Like ?” in H. Shanks (ed.), Where Christianity Was Born ( Washing ton, D C : Biblical Archaeology Society, 2006) 212–26, with quotation from p. 224. Magness is rightly contradicting John Dominic Crossan’s claim that the burial of Yehohanan was unusual and that Jesus of Nazareth probably was not buried.
About the Author
CRAIG A. EVANS, PhD, DHabil, is the John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins and dean of the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. He has published extensively on Jesus and the Gospels and has appeared in several television documentaries and news programs.