It’s been almost four years since Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God was published, and one of the points of controversy that arose when the book was first released is the fact that Ehrman does not endorse the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus, nor the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb as a “historical fact” surrounding the earliest beliefs in the resurrection. Ehrman is hardly the only biblical scholar to hold this view, since as I have discussed before, there are several scholars who doubt these claims, showing that there is nothing like an academic consensus agreeing that they are “minimal facts” about the origins of Christianity.
One of the biggest criticisms of Ehrman’s book was his discussion of Jesus’ burial, and that he did not interact with his colleague Jodi Magness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the bibliography of the book, despite Magness’ expertise on burial practices in Palestine during the time of Jesus. As Greg Monette writes:
“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.”
Based on Ehrman’s arguments for doubting the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial, however, and from what I have read of Magness’ own scholarship, I will argue that Ehrman’s thesis can be only slightly modified to still argue that Jesus was given an anonymous ground burial. To be sure, I agree with Monette that Ehrman’s discussion could be expanded to include Magness’ scholarship. But it is not to defend the empty tomb tradition in the Gospels.
First off, while Magness in “What Did Jesus Tomb Look Like?” (BAS 32:1) does argue that the Gospel accounts of Joseph’s burial are consistent with the archaeological evidence and Jewish law, she does not argue that they prove the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea, or his burial. The Gospel authors (or their sources) could have invented a burial tradition which aligned with the customs of the time, for a wealthy Judean offering Jesus a burial place in his family tomb. As Magness (pg. 13) writes:
“[A]rchaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body…”
Now, it should be specified here that Magness’ view does contradict some of the other arguments that Ehrman makes in his book about the plausibility of the Romans granting such a burial request. On that point, I will not seek to modify or defend Ehrman’s thesis . What I do wish to explore are the implications of Magness’ scholarship for what would have happened to Jesus’ body, had Joseph not intervened to offer Jesus a burial place in his rock-hewn family tomb.
A rock-hewn tomb, as described in the Gospels, is a known burial place above the ground, which in each of the Gospel narratives serves as the scene for which Jesus’ body is found to be missing. Since publishing his book, however, Ehrman has argued that Jesus was probably buried in a common grave with other criminals beneath the surface, in a mass pit in which his body would have decomposed, and not have been discoverable in the same way as the Gospels describe. As Erhman (“The Burial of Jesus: A Blast from the Past”) later wrote on his blog in responding to criticism after the books release:
“More commonly they would simply have left the carcass to rot on the cross, as part of the humiliation, or possibly thrown it into an open pit with other decaying bodies … What then really happened to the body of Jesus? We really don’t know. My guess is that like others (the two killed with Jesus that day, for example, and others crucified during that same Passover season), Jesus was thrown into a common tomb where he experience corruption like everyone else, so that within days he was no longer even recognizable.”
Now, Ehrman even describes this as his best “guess” as to what happened to Jesus’ body. His position is not rigid. But what is quite noteworthy is that Ehrman’s thesis is not terribly different from what Magness argues is what happened to crucified criminals, who were buried, when they came from lower class families that did not own a rock-hewn tomb in Jerusalem. Jesus’ family would have been of this category. As Magness (pg. 13) writes:
“Had Joseph of Arimathea not offered Jesus a spot in his family tomb, Jesus likely would have been disposed of in the manner of the poorer classes: in an individual trench grave dug into the ground. “
The main difference here is that, rather than a mass pit, on Magness’ view Jesus would have been buried in an individual trench grave. But without Joseph’s burial, both views would have Jesus buried beneath the surface, where the body would have soon decomposed and become unrecognizable. Magness also discusses how there is no surviving archaeological evidence that these trench graves would have been inscribed with the names of those buried there. As she writes (pg. 13):
“After the trench was filled in, a rough headstone was often erected at one end. The headstones are uninscribed, although some may once have had painted decoration or inscriptions that have not survived. Because trench graves are poor in finds and are much less conspicuous and more susceptible to destruction than rock-cut tombs, relatively few examples are recorded.”
And so, the evidence that survives is perfectly compatible with Jesus being buried in an anonymous trench grave in the ground, had Joseph of Arimathea not intervened to give Jesus a place in a rock-hewn tomb above the surface. According to Magness, neither the Sanhedrin nor the Roman authorities paid for the upkeep of rock-hewn tombs for lower-class criminals. As she writes (pg. 13):
“There is no evidence that the Sanhedrin or the Roman authorities paid for and maintained rock-cut tombs for executed criminals from impoverished families. Instead, these unfortunates would have been buried in individual trench graves or pits. This sort of tradition is preserved in the reference to “the Potter’s Field, to bury strangers in” (Matthew 27:7-8).”
Here, the Gospel of Matthew actually provides evidence that burial plots in the ground were commonly used as graves, which were likely assigned to executed criminals. In fact, Matthew furnishes evidence from the 1st century CE which suggests that it was the Sanhedrin who paid for the fields in which criminals were given ground burials. This evidence is provided by what the Sanhedrin chooses to do with the silver that Judas returns to them before he hangs himself. In Matthew 27:6-8, the following description is given of the field that the Sanhedrin purchases with the money:
“The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field [ἀγρός] as a burial place for foreigners [ξένος]. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”
Now, I have inserted the Greek vocabulary for two key words in this passage. The first is ἀγρός (“field”). The fact that “potter’s field” is described as, well, a “field” emphasizes that it is used for ground burials, not rock-hewn tombs. The other Greek word I have emphasized is ξένος (“stranger/visitor”). Although this word is given in translations as “foreigner,” it does not mean “Gentile” (which is ἐθνικός). Rather, it means someone who is not a living resident of an area, in this case Jerusalem. Jesus would have been a ξένος in Jerusalem when he was executed, since he was a native and living resident of Galilee. And so, without having a family burial place nearby, he would have been buried in a place like potter’s field. The fact that it is also called “the Field of Blood” probably likewise suggests that it is frequently used as a burial place for non-resident criminals, thus gaining a stigma as something like a de facto criminals’ graveyard (here, reappropriated to Judas’ “blood money”).
Another pre-Gospel source may likewise suggests that Jesus was probably buried by the Sanhedrin as a whole, rather than Joseph of Arimathea, in particular. And taken together with the passage in Matthew above, which suggests that it was the Sanhedrin’s job to take care of the burial grounds for criminals, it would imply that Jesus was buried in a place like potter’s field. The source is found in a pre-Lucan tradition in one of Paul’s speeches in Acts. In Acts 13:28-31, Paul is depicted saying:
“Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb [μνημεῖον]. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.”
The passage above is regarded as pre-Lucan among scholars for a number of stylistic and lexical considerations that suggest it was part of Luke-Acts’ source material, rather than penned by the author himself. I have also emphasized another Greek word in this passage. The word μνημεῖον is often translated as “tomb,” but it does not have to mean a rock-hewn tomb. The Gospel of Mark (15:46) specifies that Jesus was buried in a “rock-hewn tomb,” by adding the additional vocabulary λελατομημένον ἐκ πέτρας, which means “cut out of rock. But this passage in Acts is lacking such a description. More generally, μνημεῖον by itself just means “burial place,” and it can equally mean a “grave” dug into the ground, including those that are unmarked and anonymous. In fact, this is even demonstrated by another passage in Luke-Acts using the same vocabulary. In Luke 11:44, it is stated:
“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves [μνημεῖον], which people walk over without knowing it.”
And so, this pre-Lucan passage could suggest that the Sanhedrin merely laid Jesus in an unmarked grave in the ground. The implication that they actually did so, however, can be supported by a cross-reading of Matthew 27:6-8. In that passage, quoted above, it was shown that the Sanhedrin paid for the burial grounds of non-residents to the region, who were probably criminals (as Jesus would have been as a crucified criminal). And, those burial grounds are described as a “field,” not a rock-hewn tomb. Here, the Sanhedrin is described burying Jesus. And so, they would have likely buried Jesus in a burial plot in the ground, in a place like potter’s field. This is supported by Magness’ research, which states that crucified criminals of the lower classes would have been buried in trench graves dug into the ground, aligning with just such a description.
All of this so far is fairly compatible with Ehrman’s arguments against the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial in How Jesus Became God. Regarding the pre-Lucan source in Acts, Ehrman (pg. 154) points out, “here it is not a single member of the Sanhedrin [Joseph] who buries Jesus, but the council as a whole.” Ehrman likewise notes that, without Joseph’s family tomb, the passage emphasizes that it would have been the Sanhedrin’s responsibility to take care of Jesus’ burial. Ehrman (pg. 155) writes
“Jesus did not have any family in Jerusalem, and so there was no possibility of a family tomb in which to lay him or family members to do the requisite work of burial … [H]is followers had all fled the scene, so they could not do the job. The Romans were not about to do it … That leaves only one choice. If the followers of Jesus knew that he “had” to be buried in a tomb–since otherwise there could be no story about the tomb being empty–and they had to invent a story that described this burial, then the only ones who could possibly do the deed were the Jewish authorities themselves.”
One thing I disagree with on Ehrman here, though, is that there is no reason to think that the account of the Sanhedrin burying Jesus in Acts was necessary for the empty tomb. As I have already discussed, the passage in Acts does not even have to be taken as supporting a rock-hewn tomb. The passage can be equally read as implying a ground burial in a grave, and a cross-reading of potter’s field in Matthew even supports this interpretation. Moreover, the passage in Acts doesn’t even make mention of the empty tomb being discovered, and so there is little reason to think that the pre-Lucan source reflects the empty tomb tradition, which is otherwise not seen until Mark. I am also inclined to think that the story reported in this pre-Lucan source may very well have not been invented. Following Magness’ research, the Sanhedrin may have quite likely buried Jesus in a trench grave, and this is what was claimed in the earliest traditions.
What I do agree with on Ehrman (pg. 154), however, is that when comparing the pre-Lucan source to the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial, “It would make sense that this was the older tradition of the two.” I also agree with Ehrman (pg. 155) that this tradition may lie “behind 1 Corinthians 15:4 as well.” For the next stage of this analysis, therefore, I will turn to what Ehrman has to say about why Paul probably did not think that Joseph buried Jesus, when he discusses the resurrection in his letters.
Like the pre-Lucan source in Acts, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 likewise makes no mention of Joseph of Arimathea, nor an empty tomb being discovered as part of the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. This absence of the empty tomb in the earliest tradition is a striking silence, considering that in 1 Cor. 15, Paul is so emphatic about utilizing whatever argument he has at his disposal as a proof for Jesus’ resurrection. As scholar G.W.H. Lampe (The Resurrection, pg. 43) points out:
“In this case I think that the argument from silence has unusual force. For the situation in which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 was that some of the Corinthians were denying there is a resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:12). In answer to them Paul marshals every possible argument … If Jesus’ resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he was raised consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known a tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.”
But in his book, Ehrman brings in an additional argument pertaining to how the very wording of the creed, which Paul quotes in 1 Cor. 15, is awkwardly silent about Joseph. The “awkwardness” that I note is due the creed’s structure. The creed is broken into two parallel sections. The first section reads:
The second second section of the creed reads:
- he was raised on the third day
- according to the Scriptures
- he appeared to Cephas
Now, I have bolded Cephas (Peter) in this creed, since the inclusion of his name in the second section of this creed creates asymmetry with the first section. As Ehrman (pp. 141-142) points out about the bottom part of each section:
“[I]t is important to realize that all of the statement of the two sections of the creed are tightly parallel to one another in every respect–except one. The second contains a name as part of the tangible proof for the statement that Jesus was raised “He appeared to [literally: “he was seen by”] Cephas.” The fourth statement of the first section does not name any authorizing party. There we are told simply that “he was buried”–not that he was buried by anyone in particular. Given the effort that the author of this creed has taken to make every statement of the first section correspond to the parallel statement of the second section, and vice versa, this should give us pause. It would have been very easy indeed to make the parallel precise, simply by saying “he was buried by Joseph [of Arimathea].” Why didn’t the author make this precise parallel? My hunch is that it is because he knew nothing about a burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. I should point out that nowhere else does Paul ever say anything about Joseph of Arimathea, or the way in which Jesus was buried–not in this creed, not in the rest of 1 Corinthians, and not in any of his other letters.”
Here, we have a strong formulaic reason to think that Paul had no knowledge of Joseph of Arimathea. The wording of the creed is clunky and incomplete, and it lacks symmetry. Moreover, we can cross-reference this creed with the pre-Lucan material in Acts. In that source, which also probably pre-dates the Gospels, Joseph is not described burying Jesus, but the whole Sanhedrin. Given that these are probably the two earliest traditions of Jesus’ burial in the New Testament, it is striking that neither mention Joseph of Arimathea. As Ehrman (pg. 155) writes about the possibility of Jospeh’s invention:
“As the burial tradition came to be told and retold, it possibly became embellished and made more concrete. Storytellers were apt to add details to stories that were vague, or to give names to people otherwise left nameless in a tradition, or to add named individuals to stories that originally mentioned only nameless individuals or undifferentiated groups of people. This is a tradition that lived on long after the New Testament period, as my own teacher Bruce Metzger showed so elegantly in his article “Names for the Nameless.” Here he showed all the traditions of people who were unnamed in New Testament stories receiving names later; for example, the wise men are named in later traditions, as are priests serving on the Sanhedrin when they condemned Jesus and the two robbers who were crucified with him. In the story of Joseph of Arimathea we may have an early instance of the phenomenon: what was originally a vague statement that the unnamed Jewish leaders buried Jesus becomes a story of one leader, in particular, who is named doing so.”
It is also striking that neither of these two earliest sources mention either a rock-hewn tomb nor the discovery of an empty burial place as a sign of the resurrection. Instead, both of these details do not appear until Mark, after which they are then picked up by the subsequent Gospels. Matthew and Luke are both widely known in scholarship to have been dependent upon Mark, as part of the Synoptic problem. John’s dependence on Mark is more controversial, but John would have at least been dependent on common sources shared with Mark, particularly in the Passion and burial section, where Joseph of Arimathea and the empty tomb appear. This means that all four Gospels are notoriously dependent on a common tradition for this story, a tradition that is lacking in 1 Cor. 15 and the pre-Lucan source in Acts . As for a motive for inventing the empty tomb tradition, Ehrman (pg. 168) writes:
“I’m not saying that I think Mark invented the story. But if we can easily imagine a reason for Mark to have invented it, it doesn’t take much of a leap to think that one or more of his predecessors may also have had reasons for doing so. In the end, we simply cannot say that there would have be “no reason” for someone to invent the story of women discovering the empty tomb … [T]here are lots of reasons for someone wanting to invent the story that Jesus was buried in a known tomb and that it was discovered empty (whoever would have discovered it). And the most important is that the discovery of the empty is central to the claim that Jesus was resurrected.”
Ehrman goes on to note that this claim became more central when early Christians were combatting views that Jesus was only spiritually raised, and left his body behind, and thus wanted to emphasize that Jesus physically rose from the dead in the same body. The empty tomb could have likewise simply served as greater proof for those in doubt that the resurrection was a real event. But either way, the earliest evidence in 1 Cor. 15 makes no mention of an empty burial place, and neither does the pre-Lucan tradition in Acts. Instead, both Paul and the pre-Lucan source stress the appearance of Jesus to his followers after his death. And it was because certain Christians believed that Jesus had appeared to them, I think, that they first started to believe in the resurrection, not an empty tomb.
Of course, Paul does not specify whether or not Jesus “appeared” to his followers on earth or in celestial visions. In fact, Paul employs the same Greek vocabulary to describe Jesus’ appearance to himself (1 Cor. 15:8), as he does to the rest of the appearances in the passage. The Greek word Paul uses is ὤφθη (“was seen/appeared”), which can likewise mean “was seen in visions.” If we turn to the description of Paul’s own vision of Jesus in Acts (9:3-5; 22:6-8; 26:13-15), Paul merely sees Jesus from a light in the sky, which would not be an earthly appearance, but rather a celestial vision. As Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 534) points out:
“The concluding reference to himself is extremely important since Paul is the only NT writer who claims personally to have witnessed an appearance of the risen Jesus … Paul places the appearance to himself, even if it was last, on the same level as the appearance to all the other listed witnesses.”
The use of the exact same Greek vocabulary could easily imply that the other first witnesses to the resurrection, described in 1 Cor. 15, had no greater an experience than Paul, and merely witnessed celestial visions of Jesus. This is the view that Ehrman takes in How Jesus Became God. On pp. 205-206, Ehrman writes:
“They believed that Jesus had come back from the dead — but he was not still living among them as one of them. He was nowhere to be found. He did not resume his teaching activities in the hills of Galilee … The disciples, knowing that Jesus was raised that he was no longer among them, concluded that he had been exalted to heaven. When Jesus came back to life, it was not merely that his body had been reanimated. God had taken Jesus up to himself in the heavenly realm, to be with him … This is why the disciples told the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances the way they did. Jesus did not resume his earthly body. He had a heavenly body. When he appeared to his disciples, in the earliest traditions, he appeared from heaven.”
My own personal view is that, following Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the Sanhedrin most likely buried Jesus in a trench grave in the ground (which could have very likely been unmarked) in a place like potter’s field. There was no rock-hewn tomb, or empty burial place discovered by women. The disciples fled Jerusalem and some time later had personal experiences (which were most likely subjective visions), which caused them to believe that Jesus had been elevated to heaven by God after his death. They believed that Jesus had appeared to them from heaven. Later, the stories of Jesus’ burial became embellished over time, and so Joseph of Arimathea’s role was invented to give Jesus a more honorable burial in a rock-hewn tomb. This tomb served as the scene for an empty burial place, which suited later apologetic purposes, to stress that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and not just in the spirit. This later burial tradition by Joseph, which first appears in Mark, was developed by each of the later Gospel authors in their own ways, as were the resurrection accounts that depict Jesus appearing to his disciples in an earthly setting (which is not specified in Paul, the earliest source). The rest, as they say, is history.
But what is noteworthy is that Bart Ehrman’s views on Jesus’ burial can be amended quite easily to be compatible with those of Jodi Magness. The biggest area where they diverge is that Ehrman argues that Joseph of Arimathea’s burial is out of line with the burial practices for crucified criminals in 1st century Roman Palestine. Magness disagrees, and thinks that the type of burial described in the Gospels is consistent with the background evidence. But, Magness takes no stance on the historicity of Joseph’s burial. The Gospel authors (or their sources) could have easily invented a burial tradition which aligned with the practices of their time. But, Ehrman’s view that Jesus was buried in the ground still lines up with what Magness says would have happened to Jesus, without someone like Joseph. The only major difference is, rather than being buried in a mass pit, Jesus would have been buried in an individual trench grave. I do think that Ehrman’s thesis would have benefited from making this nuance, and this is how I think he should have incorporated Magness’ research into How Jesus Became God.
 In his follow-up response to Craig Evans, starting with the blog “Did the Romans Allow Decent Burials?,” Bart Ehrman does go through several primary sources relating to Roman crucifixion, to argue that there is not much evidence that the Roman authorities in Palestine granted burial for criminals executed by crucifixion. In “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James” (pg. 141, n. 94), Jodi Magness cites McCane (Roll Back the Stone, pp. 90, 105) and Brown (Death of the Messiah, 2:1207), as evidence for the the claim: “Although victims of crucifixion could be left on their crosses for days, this was not usually the case.” Magness also cites Joseph of Arimathea’s burial in the Gospels as evidence for this claim.
For the purposes of determining whether the Romans allowed burials for crucified criminals, in terms of background data for assessing the reliability of the Gospel burial traditions, appealing to the traditions themselves is circular. I have not studied the primary sources that McCane and Brown analyze, and so I’m not sure how much they overlap with those that Ehrman critiques in his blog series. As such, Ehrman may have already addressed many of their points, and he certainly does make an effort to defend his position that the Romans did not allow burials for crucified criminals, by engaging primary evidence.
For the purposes of this blog essay, I will assume Magness’ position that the Romans did grant such burials to the crucified, for the sake of argument, to show that the Magness’ position can still be applied to a modified version of Ehrman’s argument, to defend his thesis against the empty tomb and in favor of an obscure ground burial of Jesus.
 As evidence that the pre-Marcan burial traditions probably lacked the belief in a rock-hewn tomb, it should be noted that the post-Marcan traditions add embellishments to the story. In Mark (15:46), the tomb is simply said to be “cut out of rock.” Luke (23:53) adds the detail that the tomb had never been used before, however, making the burial more honorable. Matthew (27:59-6) adds both the detail that the tomb was both unused and that it was even Joseph’s own tomb. John (19:39-41) even further adds the detail that Jesus was anointed with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes before his burial, even when this largely contradicts Mark 16:1, which implies that Jesus was not anointed before his burial. John also adds the detail that Jesus was buried in a garden.
If the burial traditions after Mark add details to the burial location, in the direction of making it more honorable, it makes sense that the burial traditions before Mark would have been added to by the Marcan tradition, and would have been less honorable than the rock-hewn tomb in Mark. This fits with the Marcan tradition adding λελατομημένον ἐκ πέτρας (“cut out of rock”) to μνημεῖον (“burial place”), in order to add the detail of a rock-hewn tomb. Without the additional description, μνημεῖον by itself can equally mean a ground burial plot, and the fact that the Marcan tradition takes pains to add the extra description, probably implies that it meant just that, before Mark had to overtly state otherwise.