Review of Bart Ehrman’s book ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 11 – burial of Jesus)

down-from-crossIn this segment of my ongoing interaction with ‘How Jesus Became God’ I want to spend a moment responding to Ehrman’s suggestion that it is historically unlikely that the Romans (particularly Pilate) would have given Jesus’ corpse to his followers. He argues instead that the body would have been eaten by wild dogs or other animals. Ehrman devotes ten pages on his reconstruction of what he thinks likely happened to Jesus. He summarizes this section as follows:

In sum, the common Roman practice was to allow the bodies of crucified people to decompose on the cross and be attacked by scavengers as part of the disincentive for crime. I have not run across any contrary indications in any ancient source. (160)

I would like to take this opportunity to argue from nonbiblical sources that it is certainly plausible to suggest that Pilate, as a Roman, would have made an exception for the Jewish burial custom during the Passover, especially if the burial of the supposed political revolutionary Jesus would decrease the likelihood of a violent response on the part of his followers. My first witness whom I wish to call to the stand is Josephus, who indicates that the Romans were certainly sympathetic to Jewish customs:

We, on the contrary, owe our position in the city of Alexander, our privileges were extended by the kings, and those privileges the Romans have pleased to safeguard for all time. Apion has consequently attempted to denounce us on the ground that we do not erect statues of the emperors. As if they were ignorant of the fact or needed Apion to defend them! He should rather have admired the magnanimity and moderation of the Romans in not requiring their subjects to violate their national laws. -Against Apion 2:72-3 (Loeb translation)

The Romans, knowing the persistent stubbornness of many Jews during the first century to honor their ancestral traditions, made exceptions for them, as Josephus recounts. A similar exception is recorded by Philo of Alexandria, specifically in regard to Pilate:

[The Jews] entreated [Pilate] to alter and to rectify the innovation which he had committed in respect of the shields; and, which had hitherto been preserved without any interruption, without being in the least degree changed by any king of emperor. -Embassy to Gaius 300 (Yonge translation)

As we can see, there are first century texts which indeed speak of Roman tendencies to make exceptions for the Jews in regard to their ancestral customs. I therefore argue that it is certainly plausible, from a historian’s perspective, that Pilate would allow a council member like Joseph of Arimathea to take the body of Jesus in order to perform a proper Jewish burial. Ehrman’s skepticism seems ill founded on this subject at least.

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5 thoughts on “Review of Bart Ehrman’s book ‘How Jesus Became God’ (part 11 – burial of Jesus)

  1. Dustin, nice post.
    You might be interested in this recent post about an archaeological find in Israel (http://withmeagrepowers.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/have-we-found-the-remains-of-the-last-hasmonean-king/) which provides evidence that the bones of the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah, and one of the nails used to crucify him, were buried together in Jerusalem. Skeletal remains of other crucified victims have also been found in Israel, which is clear archaeological evidence that the Romans made exceptions to the rule of leaving crucified victims to decompose on their crosses.
    Eminent Israeli Jurist Haim Cohn notes that “The Roman law was that a convict, after execution, might not be buried: the crucified, in particular, were left on the cross until beasts and birds of prey devoured them. Guards were mounted on duty at the cross to prevent kinsfolk or friends from taking down a corpse and burying it; unauthorised burial of a crucified convict was a criminal offence. The emperor or his officers might, exceptionally, grant kinsfolk or friends authorisation to bury the convict [citing, in an endnote, Ulpian, Digesta, 48,24,1; Paulus, Digesta. 48,24,3], and what in Rome was the imperial prerogative was in a province the right of the governor.” (Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972, page 238).
    It seems that the historical and archaeological evidence is against Ehrman.

  2. Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. (Luke 13.1)

  3. I read “How Jesus Became God” and the refutation, “How God Became Jesus.” Both books explained progressive Christology, how almost all Christologies – high and low – were around very early on, and how these Christologies were chronologically *eliminated,* from low to high, as the nascent church built its orthodoxy.

    My comments, and these go to both books, are: 1) they assume that Jesus’s ministry was apocalyptic, when Crossan and others make a good case that Jesus’s ministry was sapiential – that is, present here now and attainable through good deeds and adhering to the law, and 2) that the Pauline epistles are the earliest source writings – when the Epistle of James the Just arguably pre-dates them.

    For further discussion of these comments, and a thorough review of both books, please check out my Reader’s Guide to Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God.

    This is the latest in a series which includes my best-selling Reader’s Guide to Reza Aslan’s Zealot , and my Reader’s Guide to Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus .

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