Ok, let’s all look at the full article by NT scholar Craig Evans on the subject of whether or not the Romans allowed the Jews to bury persons crucified for high treason:
Read Mr. Evans article: here
Evans opens his article with a quote from a Roman document called the Digesta:
(FYI: Justinian’s Digesta was written in the sixth century.)
“More than forty percent of Justinian’s Digesta has been drawn from the writings of the jurist Ulpian (c. AD 170–223). One of his frequently cited works is his officio proconsulis (Duties of Proconsul). In the first paragraph of chapter 24 the Digesta quotes an opinon from the ninth book of officio proconsulis: “The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives.” Ulpian supports his opinion by appealing to the precedent of the great emperor Augustus (ruled 31 BC – AD 14), which was expressed in his autobiography written near the end of his life.”
Gary: Augustus was NOT the Roman Emperor when Jesus was crucified. Tiberius was emperor. Evans is making the assumption that Roman burial policies for crucified criminals was exactly the same under Tiberius as it had been under Augustus. How does Evans know this?
Evans: “But what about Ulpian’s comment, “sometimes it [burial] is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason?” Was Jesus “convicted of high treason” (maxime maiestatis causa damnatorum) and therefore permission might not have been granted for the burial of his corpse? It seems most unlikely that Jesus was condemned for “high treason,” given the discussion of treason (maiestas) in Digesta 48.4.1–11. Cited authorities include Ulpian, Marcian, Scaevola, and others. Almost all of the examples discussed in chapter 4 of book 48 involve serious violence against the state, “against the Roman people or against their safety,” including plotting the death of the emperor, plotting or attempting to assassinate a Roman official, raising an army, failing to relinquish command of an army, siding with an enemy of the empire, fomenting armed rebellion, turning an ally against Rome, etc. Jesus did nothing that approximated these kinds of actions.”
Gary: The Gospels state that thousands of Jews greeted Jesus as the King of the Jews who would bring about the re-established Davidic Monarchy on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Even Jesus’ disciples were expecting a military revolt—some of them were carrying weapons of war. Jesus’ disciples assaulted an officer of the law. They were not pacifists. Jesus, yes. His disciples, no. They believed that they were leaders of a revolution against the hated Romans and that they would rule over the new Davidic kingdom with Jesus. They had quarreled over which of their princely thrones would be closest to Jesus. With Jerusalem bursting at the seams with Jews from all over the world for the Passover holiday, the city was simmering to explode with revolt. Jesus was very much a threat to Roman rule that Passover weekend…if the gospels are historically accurate.
Evans: “The opinion of Paulus (Views, book 1), or Julius Paulus Prudentissimus, a jurist who flourished in the late second and early third centuries AD, is cited without qualification or exception: “The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests [petentibus] them for the purpose of burial.” Bodies of the executed should be allowed burial, but official requests must be made; bodies cannot simply be taken down from crosses or gibbets without permission. Josephus (AD 37 – c. 100) himself makes such a request of Titus, son of Vespasian, and it is granted (Life 420–21) It is clear from the early laws and opinions cited in the Digesta that in most cases the bodies of the executed, including those crucified, were permitted burial, if requests were made.”
Gary: Note that the only quote from Julius Paulus is this: “The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests [petentibus] them for the purpose of burial.” Ok, punished for WHAT? Standing naked next to a statue of the Emperor? This brief statement cannot be stretched to include persons crucified for treason without a little more information from the original author. I’m curious where Craig got this statement, it is not in quotes, “bodies cannot simply be taken down from crosses or gibbets without permission”. Is Craig paraphrasing here? Since it is not in quotes, who is making this claim?? For all we know the statement in quotes refers only to Roman citizens who have been beheaded, not peasant Jews who have been crucified for claiming to be a usurper to the throne of Caesar.
Evans: “It is clear from the early laws and opinions cited in the Digesta that in most cases the bodies of the executed, including those crucified, were permitted burial, if requests were made. We see this in the case of Jesus, whose body for burial was requested by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish council (Mark 15:42–47 parr.). This is completely consistent with Jewish law and custom, which placed the burden of burial on the Jewish council (or Sanhedrin) when it condemned and executed someone.”
Gary: WRONG! Mr. Evans has only shown evidence that a sixth century document quotes a late second century document which purports to describe the burial procedures during the reign of Caesar Augustus for persons condemned to death. It does NOT prove that this was the custom during the reign of Tiberius nor does it state that this practice pertained to all Roman executions of all subjects of the Roman empire or only Roman citizens. Even if it applied to all subjects of the Empire, does this statement cover persons executed for high treason? No. It specifically says that persons executed for high treason were typically not afforded the privilege of an honorable burial. Then Evans tries to say that Jesus was not executed for high treason! How can he possibly know that Jesus was not executed for high treason? Mr. Evans ASSUMES that the Romans viewed Jesus in the same light as Mr. Evans does: the loving pacifist Jesus who wouldn’t harm a fly. However, this view is a major Christian assumption that the descriptions in the Gospels of the timid, hand-wringing Pontius Pilate is historically accurate. The historical evidence says otherwise. If the Jews wanted a trouble maker executed for treason, the historical evidence indicates that the real Pilate would have been more than happy to oblige. The idea that he would then hand over the body of someone he had just crucified for treason to some rich Jew to receive a proper burial is preposterous.
Evans: “This is completely consistent with Jewish law and custom, which placed the burden of burial on the Jewish council (or Sanhedrin) when it condemned and executed someone.”
Gary: The Jewish council did not execute Jesus. The Romans did! Romans were not obligated to follow, observe, nor did they give a rat’s behind about Jewish burial rites. Once Jesus entered the Roman penal system as a traitor to Caesar, all Jewish religious sensitivities would have been ignored.
Evans: “The most pertinent statement comes from Josephus, who complains of the crimes of the rebels during the great Jewish revolt (AD 66–73). He finds particularly heinous the rebels’ treatment of the ruling priests, whom they murdered:
‘They actually went so far in their impiety as to cast out the corpses without burial, though the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset.’ (J.W. 4.317)
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.” ”
Gary: As Bart Ehrman has pointed out on his blog about Craig’s statement here, we know as an historical fact that General Titus crucified FIVE HUNDRED JEWS A DAY during the siege of Jerusalem. Does anyone really believe that Titus let Jews from inside the city come out every afternoon to bury all these Jews prior to sunset??? Ridiculous. So most Jews crucified by the Romans during Josephus lifetime were NOT buried on the same day before sunset. And Jesus was never referred to as a “malefactor”, a term for a common thief. Jesus was condemned as a traitor to Rome and was executed as one.
Evans: “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).”
Gary: The Jewish Council did NOT condemn Jesus to death. They did not have that power. If they had, they would have taken Jesus out that very night and stoned him. They needed the Romans to condemn and execute Jesus to get rid of him. The ROMANS condemned Jesus to death and therefore the disposition of his body was a Roman matter.
Evans: “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.”
Gary: Nails have been found in many graves from ancient Palestine…they were seen as good luck charms. It doesn’t mean the person was crucified. As for the case of Mr. Yehohanan, how long had he hung on the cross before his body was taken down? Does Evans have any proof that his body was taken down the same day as his crucifixion and put in the ossuary? For all we know his body hung on the cross for weeks and when what remained was taken down weeks later, it was given to his (probably aristocratic) family…because he had been crucified for standing naked next to a statue of the emperor, not that he was executed as a traitor like Jesus.
Evans: “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.”
Gary: Wow! Evans finds one heel with a nail in it and he is ready to claim that the caves of Palestine are full of undiscovered ossuaries full of the remains of Jews who had been crucified for treason against Caesar. Pathetic.
Evans: 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.
Gary: Where does Josephus imply that the bodies of persons crucified for treason were allowed a proper burial during the time of Jesus??? Sorry, I must have missed that.
Evans: “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).”
Gary: Ok, I will have to look into that. If the Sanhedrin initiated accusations against Jesus, did that make them responsible for burying the body? I don’t know. However, the more important question to ask would be: Would the Romans have cared??? If Jesus was executed for treason, then all Jewish sensitivities would be ignored. The entire reason for the Romans to crucify a Jew who claimed to be the King of the Jews would be to humiliate and torture him so horribly in front of his fellow Jews as a warning to OTHER JEWS not to make the same claim. It is just ridiculous to suggest that the Romans would hand over the body of a Jewish traitor against Caesar to Jews so that he can have a proper Jewish burial.
Then there is this discussion about Jesus being buried in the Sanhedrin’s criminal plot. Do the Gospels say that??? If we believe the author of the Gospel of John, Joseph of Arimathea was a (secret) disciple of Jesus. Why would ol’ Joe stick his neck out to ask Pilate for the body if he knew that the Sanhedrin had automatic dibbs on the body??? That is ludicrous. And if Joe knew that the Sanhedrin required executed criminals to be buried in a wicked place; a place of dishonor, what makes him think that the Sanhedrin is going to allow him to bury Jesus in his brand-spanking new, hand-hewn, family mausoleum???? Who is making this story up, for Pete’s sake?
Evans: “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.”
Gary: Nope. The Jews may have been very keen in keeping the land of Israel “pure” but the Romans couldn’t have cared less about land purity when they believed someone had committed treason against Caesar. Evans has failed to prove that Jesus was not crucified for high treason. He only assumes he was not because of his own biases.
Discussion of Jesus should most likely assume that Jesus was buried, or at least what was left of him after hanging on the cross for days exposed to the elements and scavengers was buried…but not in a rich man’s tomb. Romans just didn’t do that for traitors. Thieves and other “malefactors”, yes. Traitors, no. In what sense did the first Christians speak of a “resurrection”, Evans asks. Well, the most likely scenario is that Jesus body hung on the cross for days and what was finally left days or weeks later was tossed into a common criminal grave and covered over with dirt, as was the Roman custom. Some of Jesus’ disciples may have witnessed this common grave burial of Jesus. Then, some time later, one or a couple of disciples “sees” Jesus in a vivid dream, vision, false sighting, or misperception of natural phenomenon (a bright light)…and the resurrection legend begins.
Addition (May 17, 2016)
Conservative Christian on Theology Web:
Upon what authority do you make your own proclamations about what did and did not happen. Your years bumbling around between denominations as you struggled with a strict surface reading of the bible in English?
Our discussion has involved this question: For what crime was Jesus crucified? I think we both agree it was treason, however, you and Evans believe is was a less serious form of treason, and based on the comments in the Digesta, if Jesus was crucified for a lesser form of treason, it is more likely than not that his body could have been released for proper burial.
I do not contest that it is possible that Jesus’ body was given a proper burial, I only question the probability. For one thing, the activities for which one could be charged for “Treason-Lite” were things like insulting the Emperor’s name or standing next to a statue of the Emperor naked. Jesus claimed to be the true and proper king of the Jewish people. Caesar was the king of the Jewish people in the first century. So the question is, would a totalitarian dictatorship view someone’s claim of usurping the throne of Caesar on the same level as standing naked next to his statue? Would it make a difference to a military dictatorship if the person claiming to be king had no known military force and sounded like a looney pacifist? I don’t think so. I think that any challenge to the legitimacy of the dictator would be squashed like a bug on the wall, no matter how insignificant its real threat to the system it may have been.
But I can’t prove that Pilate saw it that way. But neither can conservative Christians prove that he did not.
But my point has never been to prove that it is IMPOSSIBLE that Jesus was buried in Arimathea’s tomb, only that it is improbable. And I believe that Christians’ use of the stories in the Gospels to support their position on the Empty Tomb has some real issues. Let’s look at Evans claim that if the Sanhedrin “initiated” a claim of treason against a Jew, the crucified body would be returned to the Sanhedrin to be buried in a “Sanhedrin tomb for criminals”; a place of dishonor.
So if Pilate and the Romans had an established protocol for persons crucified for “treason-lite” worked out with the Sanhedrin by which the Sanhedrin had automatic rights to the body for burial, why did Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, go to Pilate and ask for the body??? That doesn’t make sense. If the Roman guards at the cross knew that the Sanhedrin had the right to take the body of Jesus to their “criminal tomb”, why did Arimathea need to bother going to Pilate to ask permission? And if Evans is correct about this “Sanhedrin criminal tomb” in which the body of the victims had to decompose “in a dishonorable place” before it was finally given to the family for burial in the family plot, why on earth would the Sanhedrin allow Arimathea to place Jesus’ body in his new, hand-hewn, PERSONAL, FAMILY tomb???
The story makes no sense.
Doesn’t it seem more likely that the author of Mark simply invented the Arimathea tomb detail for theological purposes? As told in the Gospels, it just doesn’t make sense. If Jesus’ body was automatically the property of the Sanhedrin, who wanted to bury him in a place of dishonor, why in the world would they tolerate Jesus’ body being placed in a place of extreme honor: the mausoleum of a rich man? And if Arimathea acted on his own, wouldn’t he have put himself in danger with the Sanhedrin by defying their wish to bury Jesus in their place of dishonor? Shouldn’t we read something about their outrage and complaints to Pilate about Arimathea’s violation of the Roman-Jewish pact regarding the burial of persons executed for “treason-lite”?
To me the only way to get out of this dilemma is to deny the historicity of part of the J. of A. story but insist on the historicity of the rest of it: deny “John’s” claim that Arimathea was a secret disciple and that the tomb was Arimathea’s personal, family tomb. If one sticks to the entire story, without deleting the parts that are contradictory , I think the probability of this event plummets to “implausible”.
Conservative Christian: “Having established that Jesus was dishonorably buried, even if in Joseph’s tomb, do you know of any manuscript evidence that specifically forbade dishonorable burial in a member of the Sanhedrin’s tomb? We do have manuscript evidence that there existed criminal tombs for the crucified that were prepared by the Sanhedrin, but even in that document we see nothing about the special case of burial in a personal tomb of the Jewish Council, only that it could not be in the executed’s family tomb (at least not until the flesh had decayed away).”
Gary: Come on, Christians! Do you really believe that the Jesus-hating Sanhedrin would allow Arimathea to bury Jesus in Arimathea’s personal, family tomb if they already had a “criminal tomb”? To what ridiculous lengths must you take this story to keep in intact??? Is it POSSIBLE that the Sanhedrin allowed Arimathea to bury Jesus in his family tomb just because the “criminal tomb” had just filled up and they needed to get him in the ground before sunset that Friday? Sure!! It’s possible. But just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it is probable.
And that is the problem with this Christian supernatural tale. It is held together with so many “possible” scenarios. Isn’t it so much more probable that a natural explanation is behind the Resurrection Belief and not this long, strung out, miracle (magic) laden story filled with all kinds of assumptions and “possible, but improbable” scenarios?
Christian: “At any rate, why should it be surprising that scholars, Christian ones at that, acknowledge certain embellishments in the gospel record (and to be clear, the issues that McCane thinks are likely embellishments is the newness of the tomb, and the heavy use of spices to perfume the body)? I doubt that any of the scholars I’ve cited are Biblical literalists or even inerrantists. Yet, the majority of scholars, even critical scholars, accept the empty tomb tradition. The historical evidence supports it.”
Gary: There is zero hard evidence for an empty tomb other than scholarly opinion which is considered a form of soft evidence. The majority of scholars are Christian believers. And among evangelical scholars, which today form a large percentage of NT scholars, their very eternal salvation is based on believing that the Resurrection was a literal, bodily event. So claiming that the majority of NT scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb is not like saying the majority of historians believe that Alexander sacked Tyre or that Titus destroyed Jerusalem. There is a heavy bias for the former.
The more important point is that except for a few fundamentalist scholars, most NT scholars believe that the Gospels contain some embellishments. So if the Gospels contain embellishments, many of the unsubstantiated claims could also be embellishments such as the Virgin Birth, the Ascension, and an Empty Tomb. We have ZERO evidence, outside of the Gospels, that any first or second century Christian knew the location of the Empty Tomb. To me, that is very strong evidence that “Mark” made it up!
5 thoughts on “Refuting NT Scholar Craig Evans on Whether the Romans allowed Jews to bury persons Crucified for Treason”
Accept the obvious, folks: We have no record that the Christians of the first FOUR centuries venerated or even knew about the location of Jesus' tomb, THE most important geographical location in the history of the Christian religion. It isn't as if Jerusalem became a ghost town after 70 AD. People continued to live there. Are we to believe that Jesus' Resurrection in circa 30 AD was accompanied by two massive earthquakes, the tearing down the middle of the curtain in the Holy of Holies, dead saints roaming the streets, appearances of the dead Jesus in Judea and Galilee to over FIVE HUNDRED eyewitnesses…and yet within a couple of decades, everyone, including Christians, forgot where this man was buried???
The Christians of the first four centuries did not venerate an empty tomb nor mention its location in any of their many writings most probably because they knew that the Empty Tomb was a theological embellishment. Only after centuries had passed and the new religion had become thoroughly Gentile (pagan), did the Roman Empress enter Jerusalem in the fourth century and “discover” THE Empty Tomb.
The Empty Tomb is a legend. It is not historical. Christians can hypothesize about how probable it is that Pilate would have allowed Jesus to be given a proper burial by the Sanhedrin; how improbable it is that first century Jews would have stolen/moved a recently dead body, etc., etc., but the fact is that there is no record of any Christian, Jew, or Roman, in the first FOUR centuries of Christianity, having any clue as to the location of the greatest event to have ever occurred on planet earth.
Hey, it has been a while since I commented. Just wanted you to know that I still check in on you. I see you are still writing (last time I checked you were unsure if you would keep the blog up).
I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts on this topic.
I appreciate the encouragement.
After disposing of your post against Gary Habermas and your attempted response to my post on David and Solomon, I’ve decided to take some time to educate you (at least a little bit) here as well.
1. Gary writes “Evans has failed to prove that Jesus was not crucified for high treason.” The burden of proof, however, is not on Evans to prove Jesus *wasn’t* executed for high treason, if anyone wants to claim high treason was the cause of the execution it must be they who prove it. Gary attempts to do just that, claiming that Jesus had thousands of followers proclaiming Him to be the future precedent of the Davidic dynasty who would overthrow Rome (or something like that), however, Jesus was taken in Jerusalem by the Romans. Jesus did not have any followers at all at Jerusalem, the crowds were chanting his execution when He was standing before them
In all likeliness, Jesus was executed for committing blasphemy.
Mark 14:60-64: Then the high priest stood up before them all and questioned Jesus, “Don’t You have an answer to what these men are testifying against You?” 61 But He kept silent and did not answer anything. Again the high priest questioned Him, “Are You the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus, “and all of you[a] will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard the blasphemy! What is your decision?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death.
Thus, there is no evidence for Jesus being executed on any form of treason, and we have all the evidence that the execution was for blasphemy. The Sanhedrin and the Jews condemned Jesus to death, and Pilate probably just went through with it (because who give yourself the trouble with these hordes of angry Jews otherwise?).
2. One of the most important points Gary tries to maintain is that Romans always neglected Jewish law and cared not a single bit. This, of course, is false. The Romans usually did allow the Jews to do what they pleased of in peacetime. It was only after the Jewish Revolt between 66-73 AD that the Romans pounded their iron fists on Jewish sensitivities. The Jews had shown many times that they are willing to revolt and cause significant damage to the Romans, and the Romans probably wouldn’t want to get their hands dirty by riling up the Jews on the very Eve of Passover.
3. Yehohanan, perhaps, by himself solves this entire dispute. Gary’s objection (drawing from Ehrman) is a weak one, complaining that we don’t know exactly how long Yehohanan was buried after his crucifixion. But that’s irrelevant, what we *do* know is that Yehohanan was crucified and then buried, confirming that the practice existed and was allowed by the Romans. The fact that Yehohanan establishes this proves that the practice was widespread, because the only reason why we discovered this about Yehohanan in the first place was because of a complete accident during the crucifixion process: the sharp end of Yehohanan’s nail was bent back (like a fish hook) making it impossible to remove for the burial.
4. You claim Josephus doesn’t confirm the accounts of Evans, but they do. Josephus writes, for example, “We must furnish fire, water, food to all who ask for them, point out the road, not leave a corpse unburied, show consideration even to declared enemies” and “Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset.” The reason why it was so important for Jews to bury their dead is that it was thoroughly commanded in the Old Testament laws.
5. The Digesta and Augustus. Because the Digesta draws from a 2nd century source, purporting to describe events in the days of Augustus (mid 1st century BC – early 1st century AD) it gives us some pretty reliable material on burial. And indeed, there’s no reason to think Tiberius (or anyone else for the manner) scrapped the laws of his predecessor, Augustus.
I can’t possibly get through the entirety of this amazingly long post, but it uses bad history throughout to promulgate its claims.