Bart Ehrman on the Improbability that the Romans Granted Jesus a Proper Burial

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An excerpt from a recent post on Bart Ehrman’s Blog:

The reasons Jesus would not have been one of these for whom burial would be allowed are the ones that I have given extensively over the course of the past three weeks.  To sum it up, not only during war but also in times of (relative) peace the Romans publicly humiliated and tortured to death enemies of state precisely in order to keep the peace.  Jesus was condemned not for blasphemy, not for cleansing the temple, not for irritating the Sadducees, not for bad-mouthing the Pharisees, not for … well, not for anything but one thing.  He was crucified for calling himself the King of the Jews.

Only Romans could appoint the King.  If Jesus thought he himself was going to be the King, for the Romans this would have been a declaration of war (since he would have to usurp their power and authority to have himself installed as king) (I’m talking about how Romans would have interpreted Jesus’ claim to be king, not what he himself may have meant by it).  They may have found it astounding, if not pathetic, that this unknown peasant from the rural hinterlands would be imagining that he could overthrow Roman rule in Judea.  But Romans didn’t much care if someone was a megalomaniac, a feasible charismatic preacher, or a bona-fide soldier in arms.  If the person declared “war” on Rome – which a claim to being the King amounted to – the Romans knew how to deal with him.  He would be publicly tortured and humiliated, left to rot on a cross so everyone could see what happens to someone who thinks he can cross the power of Rome.  There was no mercy and no reprieve.   And there was no decent burial, precisely because there was no mercy or reprieve in cases such as this.

After the point was made – after time, the elements, and the scavengers had done their work – the body could be dumped into some kind of pit or common grave.   But not until the humiliation and the punishment were complete.   Yes, it’s true that in Jesus’ day, the country was not in armed rebellion against Rome.  There was a general peace.  But this is the very reason *why* there was peace.   Would-be offenders – insurrectionists, political enemies, guerilla warriors, rival kings, enemies of the state – were brought face to face with the power of Rome in a very gruesome way, and most people, who for as a rule preferred very much not to be food for the birds and dogs, stayed in line as a result.

In sum, even if Josephus is stating a general practice among Jews (I’m not sure we can trust that he is.  But even if he is), it is not a practice that applied to times of war or threats of war.  As we have seen repeatedly in the past three weeks, it did not apply to enemies of the state.  Jesus was an enemy of the state, crucified for calling himself King of the Jews.

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman

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12 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman on the Improbability that the Romans Granted Jesus a Proper Burial

  1. Josephus also talks of people surviving crucifixtion.

    “I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.”

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  2. Good points. The relative calm had a pretty strong undercurrent at the time of Jesus, the Zealots, who fought in the wars that brought down the Jewish state in the 70s. One of the disciples was a Zealot, and the Zealots were active from early in the century through Masada. So putting down insurrectionists might not have been so unusual. We can’t know for sure … but it appears to be calm on the surface with rumblings underneath. Just a little note to add to your excellent explanation.

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  3. Think about this, folks: In a recent post reviewing Raymond Brown’s book, The Death of the Messiah, we saw that the Gospel authors included fictional folklore in their gospels. Now, add to that, the evidence Bart Ehrman presents above regarding the improbability of the Romans granting Jesus a proper burial.

    How probable, then, is it that the Joseph of Arimathea Rock Tomb Story is fiction???

    I would bet pretty high. Raymond Brown states in his book that the early Christians incorporated stories from the Old Testament into folklore about Jesus. They added “flesh” to the bare bones story that Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, and buried. I suggest that the story of Arimathea’s tomb is a flash-back to the OT passage about the servant of God being “buried with the rich”.

    I believe the Arimathea Rock Tomb Story is very likely pure literary fiction.

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  4. Unless, well we have three independent sources that record that Jesus was buried: Paul, Mark, and John.

    Oh, Acts also records that sermons were preached telling of Jesus’ burial.

    Considering that we also have independent sources for the material unique to Matthew and unique to Luke – would that make it 5 sources?

    Or 6, since Acts’ material isn’t dependant on the Gospels for its record?

    Lots of sources just to dismiss…

    Unless you subscribe to the fallacy that collecting historical sources together undermines their historicity?

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    1. I agree that there are several sources which state that Jesus was buried. But what evidence do you have that there is more than one source for the story that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s rock tomb?

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    2. No, I don’t think so. I think you don’t exactly have the authorships correct. Luke wrote Acts, so you can’t consider Luke & Acts separately — they are basically one book, and definitely dependent on each other. Paul wasn’t a witness to anything — all his comments are at least 2nd hand. Mark was not a witness to anything either — he wrote down stories of Peter. John is problematic since it was written after John was most likely dead. Finally, it would be a true miracle that all the gospel writers randomly chose the exact same stories, sometimes the same words. They all copied from another source. So they are all versions of each other, not separate witness statements. For all I know, you are correct — but if you want to make arguments to that effect, you have to get your background straight.

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      1. It’s my understanding that the author of Acts may or may not be Luke. Some experts say yes, some say no. So this could throw a monkey wrench into a lot of interpretations. 🙂

        Further, Paul’s writing were BEFORE any of the gospel writers.

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        1. Huh? Paul’s writing earlier still doesn’t make him a witness to anything. He was going on the stories he had been told. The problem with these arguments is that any of us can find an “expert” to support whatever point we want to make. From which we can make logical arguments ad nauseum. I think Gary’s method of presenting the biases and background of each author is at least up front. I’d rather you cited your sources, too. We can say “some experts say this or that” but all experts are not created equal.

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          1. I think what Nan may have meant is that the majority of scholars doubt that Luke, the physician and traveling companion of Paul, wrote the Book of Acts (or the Gospel of Luke). She can correct me if I am wrong. However, you are correct that the overwhelming majority of scholars believe that the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts.

            The question is: Who was he (or she)?

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            1. Yes Gary. A slight distinction but accurate re: the author of Acts.

              I haven’t studied the scriptures anywhere near the depth that Gary has. It’s just when I see a statement that I know is off-base, I tend to jump in. 🙂

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