Why Bart Ehrman Gets Jesus’ Burial Wrong - Part 1

Posted by Greg Monette on March 19 2014

Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

It’s that time of year again. Easter is just around the corner. Works of revisionist history have begun to hit the shelves in bookstores across the globe. Maybe Christians misunderstood the Jesus story all along. There is nothing more tantalizing and sexy than a new proposal (or a re-hashing of an older one) that paints a different historical portrait than what has been told for thousands of years. This is why Bart Ehrman continues to be such an influential scholar in the field of Christian Origins. He doesn’t repeat the same-old-same-old. Ehrman is a master at telling a different story. His latest treatment is yet another example.

Since I’m not an expert in the field of Christology (the study of Jesus’ exalted status by early Christians) I will not review his entire book. However, because Ehrman does discuss the burial of Jesus (or in Ehrman’s case, the lack of a proper burial), and since this is the topic of my current doctoral research, I will say a few words about the serious problems found within chapter 4 of Ehrman’s book (“The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know”).

Let me state that I’m not going to argue that Jesus was raised from the dead or that his tomb was discovered empty because of a miracle. I’m simply discussing the historical plausibility of the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. This is something Christians of every stripe, Jews, atheists, and agnostics can all agree on.

Ehrman begins the fourth chapter by sharing about his experience of lecturing at universities, community groups, churches, and seminaries. He is often asked the following question from his listeners: “If this is the view widely held among scholars, why have I never heard it before?” (pg. 130) Ehrman answers this question by stating that: “…why haven’t their pastors told them? I don’t know for sure, but from my conversations with former seminarians, I think that many pastors don’t want to make waves; or they don’t think their congregations are “ready” to hear what scholars are saying; or they don’t think that their congregations want to hear it. So they don’t tell them.” (pg. 130) There is some truth to what Ehrman says here. However, what bothers me is that Ehrman seems to be doing the same thing in this chapter that he is bothered by…he withholds key information from people; however in this case, it’s to shock the reader instead of to “protect” them. So, what is the shocking argument Ehrman makes in this chapter?

JESUS LIKELY WASN’T BURIED

"I think both views (his burial and his empty tomb) are unlikely"

“In my judgment, we cannot know that Jesus received a decent burial and that his tomb was later discovered to be empty.” 

-Bart D. Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pgs. 7 & 151)

Ehrman begins his assault on the Jesus burial tradition by discussing the famous pre-Pauline tradition we find in the first letter to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). This letter was likely composed approximately 20-25 years after Jesus’ time on earth. Ehrman rightly acknowledges the antiquity of the tradition found within this passage. He asks an excellent question: “Does it go back even to before the time when Paul himself joined the movement around the year 33 CE, some three years after Jesus had died? If so, it would be very ancient indeed!” (pg. 138). Ehrman makes a big deal of the fact that in 1 Cor. 15:4 it doesn’t say who buried Jesus but only that Jesus was buried. Ehrman wonders why the creator(s) of this ancient creed didn’t provide the name of the person who buried Jesus? He answers his own question by saying: “My hunch is that it is because he knew nothing about a burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea.” (pg. 142). I find this line of reasoning odd. Because Paul does not specifically name Joseph as having buried Jesus this is evidence that Paul probably didn’t know Joseph buried him? In that case, we would have to say that Paul likely didn’t know about Jesus’ mother Mary either because he doesn’t name her explicitly (Paul only says he knew Jesus was born of a woman in Galatians 4:4). But this is hard to accept considering Paul knew Cephas (Peter) and James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:18-20). Ehrman himself recognizes the importance of Paul knowing Cephas (Peter) and James as he states in his previous trade-book (Did Jesus Exsit?): “These are two good people to know if you want to know anything about the historical Jesus.” (pg. 144) Is it likely that Peter (Jesus’ top disciple) or James (his own brother) had no clue who buried Jesus? This is very unlikely. The purpose of a creed is to be memorable and easy to pass on to future generations. This means being brief and including what was absolutely necessary. Only the most important details were included within it to preserve the essential outline of what happened. Ehrman wishes Paul mentioned much more in his recounting of what the Corinthian Christians already knew. Fair enough. But this is no argument that Paul was unaware of the Jesus burial tradition. Why does Paul mention the burial of Jesus at all in verse 4? Why not skip it entirely? The fact that the burial was included in this extremely primitive creed should strike us as not only important to Paul, but also historically plausible considering how old this tradition is. James D. G. Dunn posits that this tradition was likely composed within months of the death (and resurrection?) of Jesus. (J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, vol. 1, pg. 855). If so, this is extremely early tradition that should not be discarded too quickly. 

Ehrman wonders why Joseph of Arimathea (as referenced by all four gospels) is said to have been the person who buried him since Mark’s Gospel (14:55) tells us the entire Sanhedrin voted for Jesus to be executed (including Joseph of Arimathea)? Ehrman sees this as problematic. However, in my opinion, this strengthens the historical plausibility that Joseph of Arimathea did in fact bury Jesus in his own tomb. Why would the early Christians create a fictional account of a member of the Sanhedrin doing something so noble as to place Jesus’ corpse in his own sepulcher? Ehrman argues in many different places (including this present book in pages 94-98) that historians prefer historical accounts that are attested in two or more independent sources. In the case of Joseph of Arimathea he is named in all four Gospels. Ehrman himself believes John’s Gospel is an independent source for the life of Jesus. In this case we have the Synoptic account (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the Johannine source both attesting to the burial of Jesus by one–Joseph from the town of Arimathea. 

Ehrman postulates that because Paul’s speech in Acts 13 mentions Jesus being buried by the Sanhedrin (plural) that this conflicts with the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea alone (however, see John’s Gospel 19:38-42 which mentions Nicodemus giving Arimathea a helping hand in Jesus’ interment). The problem with this line of thinking is at least two-fold. Firstly, Luke (the author of Luke-Acts) is  likely writing in generalities here by referencing the Sanhedrin as the group that had charged Jesus with a crime deserving of death and who later took him down from his cross and buried him. This actually agrees with not only the Gospels which reference at least one member of the Sanhedrin (Joseph) and maybe more (Nicodemus in John’s Gospel) as being involved in Jesus’ burial. But also, according to the Mishnah (compiled around AD 200) the Sanhedrin was responsible for the burial of the executed (m. Sanhedrin 6:5). Secondly, considering the likelihood that the same author penned both Luke and Acts it would be strange for Luke to have purposely included two contradictory traditions within his own two writings. Keep in mind that flexibility was allowed in the re-telling of ancient stories, and variation was completely acceptable (see the three differing accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, 22, 26). This is not an argument against the burial of Jesus by someone named Joseph of Arimathea who was a member of the Sanhedrin. It’s simply hard to imagine why early Christians would have fictionalized this figure.

In part 2 of this review I discuss Ehrman’s confusion in regards to the burial of the executed in and around Jerusalem during peacetime (the same confusion exhibited by John Dominic Crossan nearly two decades ago).

For more on this very topic check out my NEW book:  The Wrong Jesus: Fact, Belief, Legend, Truth... Making Sense of What You've Heard

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