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I am having a massive debate on my facebook page at the moment with someone from the Unbelievable forum, which I have now left (tiring of the time-wasting silliness of some of the posters) about the Roman/Jewish burial practices after crucifixion with regard  to Jesus’ death. Here is my latest comment on the thread:

Ok, so here is what I think. First, it is important to note that I take a sort of Bayesian approach; that being, the most plausible hypothesis should be taken to be the most likely to be true, and this involves evidence, prior probability and background knowledge.

What happened? Jesus was condemned to death and executed for the highest known crime: blasphemy/treason. He had no family in the city willing to provide burial/support for hi that we know of.

So what is our background knowledge? Well, we have no known precedent for the highest form of criminal being given anything like honour in their death. The whole notion of crucifixion is punishment beyond death. This has two ramifications: 1) that the person needs to be punished beyond their death, the dishonour of a protracted death involving carrion and a probable shallow grave; 2) the point of crucifixion was as a deterrent – people were kept up in order to serve as a warning to others.

From the various sources I have provided above, we can garner that bodies were left for wild beasts, dogs and crows etc. They were then put into shallow graves. Even Craig Evans admits that a shallow grave or ditch was the norm – he just seems to argue Jesus was the exception.

No, the key here is to remember that Jesus, hated by the Jewish council and the Romans for his proclamations, would have been accorded the worst punishment possible. In fact, the lead up to the death in the Gospel accounts supports this.

Exceptions. So, do we have exceptions to the general idea of a prolonged stay on the cross and a shallow grave burial afterwards?

Well, we know in Egypt that Philo talks about being taken off the cross on the Emperor’s birthday. So this is a totally special exception, occasionally, on account of the Emperor. Nothing to do with Jewish Passover or anything Jewish.

We then need to look at whether Pilate was the sort of person who would show an exception to Jesus. Well, we do have evidence from Josephus and Philo, that he was very mean-spirited, cruel and not likely to pander to the sensitivities of the Jews. Crucially, there is no good reason why Pilate would, having just given Jesus the most dishonourable death, go back on that straight away in giving him an honourable burial.

The Digesta (though written hundreds of years later, it is at times referring to previous rulings) suggests that people condemned to death should be given to their kinsfolk. However, this is explicitly not for criminals convicted of high treason. Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews and was condemned for such, so he explicitly does not qualify for exemption. This was for simple crimes etc. Moreover, Jesus had no kinfolk around, and there is no evidence that kinfolk requested this – it was Joseph of Arimathea. Furthermore, there was the general belief that you couldn’t bury criminals near the righteous, thus making it unlikely that anyone owning tombs near Joseph’s would have been happy for Jesus to be buried there.

We return back to the idea that Jesus was especially toxic, and people went utterly out of their way to get him crucified. The likelihood of going back on this to give honour in death is preposterous. It makes no sense. The precedent question is more specific – there is no precedence for someone in the same situation as Jesus being given an honourable burial. In other words, there are very particular occasions of low criminals having bodies taken down for proper burial, but for treason, as Jesus, uh-uh, nope.

We have one other nugget often thrown in to show precedence for honourable burials of criminals. There was, in an ossuary, some ankle bones of a crucified person. These had to be hewn off the legs to get them off the cross. We have no idea how long the person was on the cross, and whether he was taken from the shallow grave. I did read somewhere that when they were buried in shallow graves, they could be identifiable, so there is every chance he was later dug up. In fact, Carrier states on this, in his essay Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day:

“A cautionary note is needed to prevent confusing temporary storage of a body with secondary burial. It is well known that the Jews practiced secondary burial: a corpse would receive a funeral and burial, then when the flesh rotted away (typically some months to a year later) the bones would be gathered, cleaned, and placed in an ossuary, a small box or chest for holding the bones of the reburied. Hence the Mishnah states “When the flesh has rotted, they collect the bones and bury them in their appropriate place” (Sanhedrin 6.6a; also, Talmud Mo’ed Katan 8a, Tractate Semahot 12.6-9; Tosefta, Sanhedrin, 9.8c, etc.). Numerous ossuaries have been found attesting to the practice, including one case of a clearly crucified man.”

Though that would be more difficult for a burial in a shallow grave, I would think.

So we are beginning to see that the biblical narrative runs against what we know. If we piece together other ideas, like Joseph being fictional (Arimathea meaning “best disciple” and him providing ample evidence of the reversal of expectation motif in Mark, particularly as the place is utterly unknown in history, and he is never heard from again), the accounts of the resurrection being contradictory, the tomb not being venerated (thus unknown), private discussions being known and written down, and so on.

So what do I think happened? Well, all the naturalistic theories seem to be far more probable than the biblical narrative, which must also seek coherence in a godmanspirit sacrificing himself to himself to pay for sins which he knew would happen, designed into the system, and would have no coherent need of being balanced. So I think Jesus was crucified (although there is an interesting claim that he should have been stoned for that crime), left up there for some time, and then discarded into a shallow grave where perhaps he was left, with many others. The cognitive dissonance of the followers then took over as the Messiah was dead, as we have seen in so many other cults, including the very cult which led to Festinger’s theories of CD, and it went from there.

However, one of Carrier’s theories looks pretty good (though tweaking Joseph – especially as he himself no longer sees JoA as historical):

“Jesus was finally buried by Joseph Saturday night in the criminal’s graveyard. As the sources show, no one else saw this or knew where Jesus was really buried. Joseph would then have left town (he was not from Jerusalem), and as sources like Acts show, was never heard from again. Hysterical surprise by the women at the missing body, who went expecting to complete the burial, then contributed to an eventual belief in a resurrection, probably in conjunction with interpretations of scripture, things Jesus said, and/or dreams or visions of Peter or others.”

We have low prior probability of this account because such stories of god types resurrecting, of miraculous claims, are disbelieved. We do know that bodies were stolen, we do know that the probability of mistakes being made, of people moving things and other people not knowing, is much higher. These naturalistic theories, together with the idea that the background knowledge calls the Gospel claims into prima facie doubt, are much more probable than the Gospel accounts.

EDIT – I do plan on writing up the case with references and links in due course.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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