Critics of Christianity like to suggest that a crucified victim like Jesus never would have received a proper burial. They point to cases where the Romans left victims on the cross for days while birds ate away at their flesh to serve as a reminder to everyone who walked by not mess with Rome. What’s more, the Romans usually tossed the remains into a common grave. The theory goes, in no case would Rome give permission for a crucified victim to receive a proper burial.
It’s no secret that crucifixion was a horrendous experience. It was so terrible, that ancients made up a new word to describe the agony of crucifixion — excruciating. Furthermore, Rome only crucified non-Romans guilty of the worst of crimes. When you consider this, it seems plausible that the Romans would have forbidden Jesus’ burial in a tomb. But just because something is plausible doesn’t mean that’s what actually happened.
Let me illustrate my point. A few years ago, the U.S. Navy Seals carried out a secret mission to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden. It’s standard procedure for United States special forces to capture the enemy and bring them back to a high security prison for interrogation. In this instance, however, they killed Bin Laden on the spot and dumped his body in the ocean. Now let me ask you this: Should future Americans one hundred years from now be skeptical that the U.S. Navy Seals killed Bin Laden since it was implausible — not an ordinary occurrence? No, of course not, because history is filled with implausible events.
Politics and Jewish Customs
So is it inconceivable that Jesus received a proper burial in a tomb? I don’t think so for a few of reasons. First, Pontius Pilate was a politician who wanted to keep his post. As the Roman governor, it was his responsibility to keep the peace in the region — the Pax Romana. Thus, it was in Pilate’s best interest to cooperate with the Jewish leadership and be considerate of their customs lest he instigate the masses. Jewish historian Josephus writes that emperor Tiberius had previously chastised Pilate for being insensitive to the Jewish culture when he placed pagan symbols inside the temple. This act, of course, led to a mob, which ultimately subsided when Pilate removed the artifacts. Pilate was down to his final strike; therefore, he had extra motivation to cooperate with Jewish leadership.
Now John’s gospel tells us why the Jews wanted to take Jesus’ body down from the cross instead of leaving it up indefinitely. We read in John 19:31, “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.” In other words, Pilate needed to honor the Sabbath, and the text indicates that he did just that — although the soldiers didn’t need to break Jesus’ legs. Remember, Emperor Tiberius had already rebuked him once. Pilate needed to navigate this situation carefully.
Second, we have archeological evidence that Pilate allowed crucified victims to receive a proper burial. Before I disclose what that evidence is, let me first describe ancient Jewish burial practices. When a Jewish loved one died, they were wrapped in a cloth, adorned with perfumes and spices, and placed in a tomb. After one year, the family members would return to the tomb to collect the bones of their deceased relative and place them in a smaller box called an ossuary. This allowed for more space in the tombs so that all the deceased family members could be near each other.
Amazingly, in 1968, archaeologists discovered an ossuary of a Jewish man named Yehohanan in the north-eastern quadrant of Jerusalem. This young man noticeably had been crucified. I say noticeably, because a six-inch iron spike was still attached to his heel bone with wood fragments from a cross still attached to the spike (see image above). Experts date the bones to the late 20’s — less than a decade before Jesus’ death and still during Pilate’s rule1. Here is evidence that Pilate permitted Jewish crucifixion victims to receive a proper burial. It seems, then, that Jesus’ burial in a tomb isn’t without precedent.
Joseph Of Arimathea
Third, each of the Gospel writers indicate that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus’ body in his tomb. This meets the criteria of multiple attestation which states that if multiple, independent sources report an event, it’s more probable that it happened.
More than that, it also meets the criteria of embarrassment because it makes a Jewish council member look more compassionate than Jesus’ disciples. If the gospel writers lied, why would they go out of their way to make themselves look bad? To be sure, they indicate that Joseph was a believer, but why give credit to a member of the council that was responsible for most Christianity’s early persecution? It’s hard to imagine that the early Christians wanted to give credit to the Jewish leaders for anything.
Furthermore, it makes no sense to credit a prominent member of Jewish society whom everyone knew and could be talked to — someone who could debunk the story if it was false. If the disciples lied about the story, it would have been more prudent to give themselves credit for the burial or invent a character that no one could question. The only reason, therefore, the early Christians had for giving credit to Joseph of Arimathea is that he must have, in fact, buried Jesus in his tomb.
Was Jesus Buried in A Tomb?
On the surface, the claim that Jesus wouldn’t have received a proper burial sounds compelling. Yet, when you dig a little deeper and understand more of the context, Jesus’ burial in a tomb makes the most sense of all the data. Therefore, I think we can confidently say that Jesus’ burial is not fake news.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Cold Case Resurrection Set by J. Warner Wallace (books)
Jesus, You and the Essentials of Christianity – Episode 14 Video DOWNLOAD by Frank Turek (DVD)
Ryan Leasure holds a Master of Arts from Furman University and a Masters of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Currently, he’s a Doctor of Ministry candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.
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