In 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.