The burial of Jesus, in light of Jewish tradition, is almost certain for at least two reasons: (1) strong Jewish concerns that the dead—righteous or unrighteous—be properly buried; and (2) desire to avoid defilement of the land. Jewish writers from late antiquity, such as Philo and Josephus, indicate that Roman officials permitted executed Jews to be buried before nightfall. Only in times of rebellion— when Roman authorities did not honour Jewish sensitivities—were bodies not taken down from crosses or gibbets and given proper burial. It is highly improbable, therefore, that the bodies of Jesus and the other two men crucified with him would have been left unburied overnight, on the eve of a major Jewish holiday, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Scholarly discussion of the resurrection of Jesus should reckon with the likelihood that Jesus was buried in an identifiable tomb, a tomb that may well have been known to have been found empty.
Evans' concern is that scholars do not always sufficiently address the Jewish practices of death and burial in treatments of the resurrection. For example, Crossan's suggestion that, in line with Roman practices, Jesus was not given a customary Jewish burial. If Jesus was not properly buried, the stories of the empty tomb are simply theology and apologetics.
The Necessity of Burial in Jewish Thinking
- In the Mediteranean world at the time, burial of the dead was a "sacred duty". For Jewish culture, this is well attested to in scripture (Gen 23:4-19, 50:4-14, 50:22-26 Joshua 24:32 1 Sam 31:12-13, 2 Sam 2:4-5, 21:12-14) which even extends to the "wicked" and enemies of Israel (Numbers 11:33-34, Deut 21:22-23, 1 Kings 11:15, Ezekiel 39:11-16). In Tobit, Tobit's greatest virtue is burying the dead (1.18-20, 2.3-8; 4.3-4; 6.15; 14.10-13). These buried also include those that were executed (Tobit 2:3) Similarly, Josephus states "We must fumish fire, water, food to all who ask for them, point out the road, not leave a corpse unburied show consideration even to declared enemies' (Apion 2.29 §211; cf 2.26 §205).(236) The importance is also evident in the rabbinic writings where even a Nazarie or High Priest is obligated to bury an abandoned body (B. Meg. 3b, Sipre Num on Numbers 6:6-8) The importance of this is set against the backdrop of those who will not be buried, often in relation to eschatological warnings. E.g. Moses' warning to Israel that birds will consume their unburied bodies ((Deut. 28:25-26) or Jeremiah's warning (Jer. 7:33)
- Burial is also important "to avoid defilement of the land of Israel" (236) See Deut. 21:22-23; Ezekiel 39:14, 16 which is expanded in the Temple Scroll 11QT 64.7-13a. "In Deuteronomy it simply says, 'you shall bury him the same day'; but the Temple Scroll adds 'you must not let their bodies remain on the tree overnight'. The reason given for taking the bodies down and burying them the day (or evening) of death is to avoid defiling the land, for the executed person is 'cursed of God'." (237) On various fragmentary DSS he believes that while God will give them victory of the Romans, the High Priest will still need to oversee the burial of the bodies to save the land from defilement. In the Mishnah one hanged must not be left over night, but not buried in the "place of their fathers" but a place allocated for criminals. After decomposition, the bones may then be taken to the family burial place. (m. Sanh. 6.4-6). He concludes, "even in the case of the executed criminal, proper burial was anticipated. Various restrictions may have applied, such as being forbidden burial in one's family tomb—at least until the fiesh had decomposed— or not being allowed to moum publicly, but burial was to take place, in keeping with the scriptural command of Deut. 21.22-23 and the Jewish customs that had grown up alongside it." (238)
Deals with objection to the gospel narratives that appeal to the Roman practice of non-burial. Evans wishes to question the assumption that the practices of Rome during the siege of Jerusalem is indicative of normal Roman practices in Palestine. He contends that a review of Josephus shows this to be an exception from normal practices.
- Josephus mentions many mass executions/crucifixions but does not mention the burial. This may be indicative of an assumption that they would not have been buried. Cases explicitly mentioning no burial are those of executions by Jewish rebels. On this behaviour Josephus remarked 'Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset." (240) These cases, however, are not representative of peace time Roman administration.
- Josephus and Philo suggest that Roman administration did not interferece with Jewish customs; for example John the Baptist's disciples are allowed to bury his body (Mark 6:14-29; Ant 18.5.2). Roman law also provided that "those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives" (Digesta 48.24.2). That said, non-burial was often part of the punishment of crucifixion, but would this still apply in peace time?
- Conclusions: In all probability Jesus and the two others crucified would have been buried, especially with concern of defilement of the land. Furthermore, politically Pilate would not have wished to provoke the Jewish population, nor would the Jewish authorities.
"The Gospels' portrait of the execution of Jesus is consistent with what we know of crucifixion." (241) And the judicial procedure is very similar to that of Jesus ben Ananias 30 years later (Josephus, War 6.5.3 §§300-309). The ossuary of a crucified man c.20CE (Ossuary no. 4. in Tomb I, at Giv'at ha-
Mivtar) - evidences nailed feet (although not nailed hands/wrists which is evidenced in literary sources); broken legs, possibly to hasten death. And this, and other tombs, evidence the burial of execution victims. He returns to the archaeological evidence in 246-7, that a lack of other crucifixion victims buried has many explanations.
Some historical probable elements of the narrative:
- The story of Joseph of Arimathea at its core is probably historical. At the core, he may have volunteered or been assigned to the burial.
- "The story of the women who witness Jesus' burial and then return early on Sunday to anoint his body smacks of historicity." (245). The women's prominent position in the narrative is unlikely to be fictitious. "Carefully observing where Jesus is buried and then retuning on Sunday morning to confirm and even mark, for identification, his corpse, is in keeping with Jewish burial customs." (246)
- Pre-Pauline 1 Cor 15:4 evidences the burial and elsewhere Paul presupposes the burial (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).
It is concluded that it is very probable that Jesus was buried, in keeping with Jewish customs, and was not left hanging on his cross, nor was cast into a ditch, exposed to animals. It is further concluded that it is very probable that some of Jesus' followers (such as the women mentioned in the Gospel accounts) knew where Jesus' body had been placed and intended to mark the location, perfume his body, and moum, in keeping with Jewish customs. The intention was to take possession of Jesus' remains, at some point in the future, and transfer them to his family burial place.
In my estimation, discussion of the resurrection of Jesus should take into account a known place of burial. Interpretation of the resurrection should take into account, not only Jewish beliefs about resurrection, but Jewish beliefs about death and burial. (247-8)