In the first part of my review of How God Became Jesus, I engaged the contributions of the book’s editor, Michael Bird. Today I turn to the piece by Craig Evans, “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right.”
Craig Evans’ chapter responds to Bart Ehrman’s claim that the body of Jesus was mostly likely not buried but left for scavengers to devour. Ehrman’s argument, earlier popularized by John Dominic Crossan, draws on a number of indications from Roman writers that the lack of burial was one of the horrors of crucifixion.
Evans chapter is strong in that it puts a great deal of data from a variety of types of sources on the table for further consideration. In particular, Evans looks at literary evidence for burial of executed criminals, and looks at archaeological evidence including buried bodies.
Evans finds some evidence that Roman law encouraged the handing over of bodies to be buried, except in cases of high treason (Digesta 48.24).
Perhaps more to the point, Josephus provides some indications that Romans honored the Jewish sensibilities regarding the purity of the land, including not leaving corpses unburied. That the Romans did not bury crucified rebels during the War of the late 60s and early 70s, this was “the exception that proves the rule”: an egregious offense against Jewish sensibilities was intended and perpetrated due to Israel’s revolt.
Turning to Jewish law, Evans cites Mishnaic indications that executed criminals would be buried and receive as well the customary secondary burial.
I find this evidence of mixed usefulness. The Digesta was compiled in the sixth century. It indicates that some much later Roman jurists thought that burial of executed criminals was the norm. It is possible that some first century jurists thought the same. That such a law was not standard across the empire, for both citizens and non-citizens, seems to be reflected in the indications that many times crucified bodies were, in fact, left for the animals to consume.
Similarly, the evidence from the Mishnah is compiled late, and is difficult to date with any certainty. It demonstrates possibilities, but cannot tell us what was normal.
The passages from Josephus are perhaps the most helpful. But there we have to be careful that his apologetic tendencies might be shading his presentation of this evidence.
The literary evidence is not a slam dunk, but it does problematize well what Ehrman presents as clear evidence on the other side.
The archaeological evidence includes an ossuary (bone box) from the year 20 CE that includes a heel bone that still contains an iron spike in it, likely from having been crucified. In addition to another cave that may hold the bones of a crucified man, numerous nails have been discovered in and around ossuaries that contain human calcium deposits. Perhaps these are further indications that burial was administered to victims of crucifixion.
Perhaps the best rhetorical coup of the piece comes toward the end. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist who is a colleague of Ehrman’s at UNC Chapel Hill, saying,
Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.