Why Bart Ehrman Gets Jesus’ Burial Wrong - Part 2Posted by Greg Monette on March 21 2014
Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.
In my previous post I discussed some of the problems found within the pages of Bart Ehrman’s latest book (How Jesus Became God) concerning the burial (or lack-there-of according to Ehrman) of Jesus. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In this post we will probe a little deeper.
Ehrman can easily be accused of “cherry-picking” in order to make his case. When I first picked the book up off the shelf at Chapters Bookstore I did what I was trained to do; I thumbed through the bibliography and index at the back of the book to see who he had read in connection to Jewish burial practices and the burial of Jesus. I was shocked to discover that Ehrman does not engage with the scholarly (or popular) works of any experts in the field. One would have expected Ehrman to have read and shown awareness of the works of Eric Meyers, professor at Duke just down the road from where Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nor does Ehrman show any knowledge of the works of Byron McCane, Craig A. Evans, Rachel Hachlili (who wrote the Bible on Second Temple Jewish funerary practices), John Cook, or Shimon Gibson, just to name a few. Probably most surprising of all is that he does not once draw from the work of Jodi Magness, one of the world’s leading archaeologists and experts on Jewish burial in the time of Jesus–who Bart Ehrman hired to teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Consider the words of professor Magness:
“Today many scholars believe that since crucifixion was a sadistic and humiliating form of corporal punishment reserved by the Romans for the lower classes (including slaves), Jesus “died a criminal’s death on the tree of shame.” John Dominic Crossan [and now Bart Ehrman], for example, argues that Jesus would not have been buried at all, but would have been eaten by dogs. In my opinion, the notion that Jesus was unburied or buried in disgrace is based on a misunderstanding of the archaeological evidence and of Jewish law….I believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archeological evidence…the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law" (Jodi Magness “Jesus’ Tomb–What Did It Look Like?” in H. Shanks (ed.), Where Christianity Was Born (Washington, D.C.: BAS, 2006), 220-21, 24).
One could only wished for Ehrman's sake that he knocked on professor Magness’ door down the hall from his own at the University of North Carolina. His book would have greatly benefited from it.
In any case, Ehrman attempts to build on his case against the burial of Jesus by discussing the practice of Roman execution. He states that:
“Sometimes Christian apologists argue that Jesus had to be taken off the cross before sunset on Friday because the next day was the Sabbath and it was against Jewish law, or at least Jewish sensitivities, to allow a person to remain on the cross during the Sabbath. Unfortunately, the historical record suggests just the opposite. It was not the Jews who killed Jesus, and so they had no say about when he would be taken down from the cross. Moreover, the Romans who did crucify him had no concern to obey Jewish law and virtually no interest in Jewish sensitivities” (How Jesus Became God, 156-57).
One should understand that when Ehrman makes statements like: “Sometimes Christian apologists…” he is doing so deliberately as a red-herring statement to say in effect that “Conservative Christian scholars are not interested in the truth of history but are just trying to defend the views they already hold, so be aware of what they say!” The bigger problem with general claims like this (besides being prejudiced) is that when it comes to the burial of Jesus (or the executed within the area of Jerusalem during peacetime) other than Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, it’s the view of the majority of scholars that criminals were buried before sundown so the land wouldn’t be defiled (Deuteronomy 21:22-23, “And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but though shalt in any wise bury him that day.”) as we will return to later on. Eric Meyers, Shimon Gibson, Rachel Hachlili and Jodi Magness are not “conservative Christian commentators.” But in fairness to Ehrman he may not have read their works and thus doesn’t know what the scholarly consensus is in regards to this topic.
Ehrman provides a number of references to ancient texts In order to bolster his argument that the executed were left on their crosses to be buffet dinners for vultures and other birds of prey (i.e. The tombstone inscription describing the death of a slave who murdered his master; Horace, Epistles 1.16.48; Juvenal, Satires 14:77-78; Artemidorus, Dream Book, 2.53; Satyricon of Petronius). These passages rightly describe some examples of people who were left on their crosses to be fodder for wild beasts. Ehrman also provides references to passages showing that criminals were often thrown into a common grave rather than being given proper burials (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 16.25.2; Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 31.85; Suetonius, Augustus 13; Tacitus, Annals 6.29). The problem with these examples is that they don’t shed any light at all on Roman execution and interment practices in and around Jerusalem during peacetime. One passage Ehrman does cite as the “exception that proves the rule” (which it isn’t) is found in the writings of the first century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 BC – 50 AD). Here is part of the passage:
"I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them the ordinary rites. For it was meet that the dead also should have the advantage of some kind treatment upon the birthday of the emperor and also that the sanctity of the festival should be maintained. (Flaccus 83)
Ehrman misunderstands the value of this passage. He believes this was the rare exception to the rule from the otherwise widely accepted practice of letting corpses remain on their crosses. In this passage Philo is building his case against Flaccus, the Roman governor of Egypt (appointed in AD 32). The point Philo is making is that Flaccus didn’t do enough to bring peace to the Jewish population of Alexandria, but actually instigated bitter hostilities between Jews and Pagans. If Flaccus cared enough about bringing peace to the region he would have allowed the same level of mercy shown in the cases of burial permitted in this passage. The point Philo is trying to make is that Flaccus should have done the right thing and granted people the “ordinary rites” of burying their executed kinsfolk. This was not the exception to the rule but rather an example of what would have made Flaccus a better governor. We actually have evidence that the Romans encouraged the burial of the executed in the Roman writing known as the Digesta:
"The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason. Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried" (Digesta 48.24.1).
"The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial" (Digesta 48.24.3).
Let’s return to Ehrman’s earlier claim that: “Sometimes Christian apologists argue that Jesus had to be taken off the cross before sunset on Friday because the next day was the Sabbath and it was against Jewish law, or at least Jewish sensitivities, to allow a person to remain on the cross during the Sabbath. Unfortuntely, the historical record suggests just the opposite.” Amazingly Ehrman does not discuss any of the evidence from the historical record that suggests that in fact Jews did provide burial to the executed prior to sundown. In fact, there is quite a lot of evidence!
Once again, Jodi Magness (archaeologist from Ehrman’s own UNC, Chapel Hill) rightly describes the rites of burying executed criminals during peacetime:
“After Judea came under direct Roman rule with Pompey’s conquest in 63 B.C.E. crucifixion was imposed only by the Roman authorities. Those found guilty by the Sanhedrin of violating Jewish law were executed by stoning (like Jesus’ brother James), or were burned, decapitated or strangled: “Four modes of execution were give in the court: stoning, burning, decapitation and strangulation” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:1). According to Biblical law (Deuteronomy 21:22), the bodies of executed criminals could be hanged for the purpose of public display only after they were already dead…The following passage from Josephus indicates that the Jews buried victims of Roman crucifixion in accordance with Jewish law: “Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun” (Josephus, Jewish War 4.5.2). The Mishnah attaches no stigma to crucifixion by the Roman authorities and does not prohibit victims of crucifixion from being buried with their families. In contrast, felons who were executed for violating Jewish law could not be buried in the burial grounds of his ancestors. But there were two graveyards made ready for the use of the court, one for those who were beheaded or strangled, and one for those who were stoned or burned” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5)" ( Magness, “Jesus’ Tomb”, 222).
Of course, Ehrman doesn’t mention any of this. There is much more literary evidence that proves the Jewish sensitivity around the burial of the executed. We see this in Josephus: “We must furnish fire, water, food to all who ask for them, point out the road, not leave a corpse unburied, show consideration even to declared enemies” (Against Apion 2.211; cf. 2.204), and Tobit who was considered virtuous for burying the dead (1:18-20; 2:3-8; 4:3-4; 6:15; 14:10-13), and again in Philo (De Iosepho 25), and even in the Dead Sea Scrolls which likely speak about burying those who were crucified (11QT 64:7-13a = 4Q524 frag. 14, lines 2-4). But this isn’t even given a passing notice from professor Ehrman.
Keep in mind that Jesus' execution took place during the Jewish high holiday of Passover. The Jews would have been infuriated if corpses were left unburied during such a sacred holiday. One can imagine the reaction from the Jewish populace if a dog made his way onto the temple mount with a human hand in his mouth or a bird dropping pieces of human carcass onto the floor of the temple!
Ehrman also doesn't give any mention of the archaeological evidence of the burial of the executed discovered around the area of Jerusalem.
In 1968, in the area of northeast Jerusalem known as Giv ́at ha-Mivtar, a group from the Israel Ministry of Housing stumbled upon some ancient Jewish tombs dating from the second century BC until the first century AD. In one of the tombs, archaeologists discovered numerous ossuaries (ancient bone boxes). Inside one of the ossuaries were the bones of a man between twenty-four and twenty-eight years of age and those of a child aged three to four years. What amazed the archaeologists was that the right heel bone of the adult male had an 11.5 centimeters-long iron spike protruding through it with a chunk of olive wood attached to the nail. What happened was that when the man was nailed to the cross (crucified), the nail/spike hit a knot in the wood and caused the nail to hook. When they tried to pry the nail out of the cross, it wouldn’t budge easily, so when they finally did get the crucified man down from the cross, the heel bone still had the nail/spike through it with a chunk of the cross attached to it. The man's name, Yehohanan, was inscribed into the side of his ossuary.
What makes this discovery so important relating to Jesus is that it supports the biblical and nonbiblical evidence that executed criminals were given a proper burial following crucifixion (for more archaeological evidence of the burial of the executed around Jerusalem in antiquity see: Craig A. Evans, “The Silence of Burial” in Jesus, The Final Days, 59-64). We may have even discovered the remains of the last member of the Hasmonean Dynasty, namely Mattathias Antigonus, who was quite possibly crucified and beheaded and then given proper burial in a tomb (see my new book The Wrong Jesus, 173-74, 221-22). Needless to say, Ehrman doesn’t appear to be aware of any of this.
In the end, Ehrman simply ignores any evidence that proves his theory to be incorrect (except for Philo who he misunderstands). He doesn’t cite any authorities on the subject of Jewish burial practices in antiquity, and appears to have selectively side-stepped any information which might undermine his provocative claim. There is more that could be said, but this should suffice to demonstrate why Ehrman’s book should be handled extremely carefully. One wonders if this is how he dealt with this particular detail in his book, what does he do with other ones? (should I mention that the book is on the topic of Christology and he doesn’t cite Richard Bauckham!!!)
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
I also highly recommend the EXCELLENT response book to Ehrman's with contributions by world reknowned scholars like Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gatercole, Charles E. Hill and Chris Tilling titled: How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature