Bart Ehrman and Jodi Magness on the Burial of Jesus and the Empty Tomb

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.

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Numismatic Evidence that Corroborates Suetonius’ Life of Otho and Contradicts the Gospels

Keener and WrightTo follow up on my previous review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s “Otho: A Targeted Comparison” in Biographies and Jesus, I’d like to briefly discuss the relevance of numismatic evidence in evaluating Suetonius’ Life of Otho in comparison to the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is the study of ancient currency, and is particularly relevant to the study of Roman emperors, since the rulers of the Roman Empire would stamp their faces on the currency in circulation throughout the Mediterranean. A number of years ago I took a seminar on Roman numismatics with professor Edward Watts at UC San Diego, in which I did a research project on the emperor Otho and the currency he circulated with his image during his short reign. It is also relevant to another seminar that I took with professor Michele Salzman at UC Riverside in which I did a research project related to the depiction of Roman taxation in the Gospel of Matthew. My research in both seminars is relevant to evaluating Keener’s argument that Suetonius’ historical reliability can be compared to that of the NT Gospels.

Numismatics is a useful piece of data for assessing historical reliability, since ancient coins furnish archaeological evidence that we can use to corroborate (or contradict) ancient narratives. The historical claim of Suetonius in question, which is relevant to numismatics, is a peculiar of detail of Otho that he discusses about his hair (12.1):

“He had the hair of his body plucked out, and because of the thinness of his locks wore a wig so carefully fashioned and fitted to his head, that no one suspected it.”

So the emperor Otho apparently had the custom of wearing a wig. Is there any way that we could corroborate this detail that Suetonius gives with archaeological evidence? Well actually there is. During my seminar with Watts, I gave a presentation on some Roman denarii minted during his reign, and one of the things that Watts pointed out during my presentation is that the coins actually depict Otho wearing a wig. If you take a close look at the denarius below, you may notice that there is something funny about his hair:

To make the detail of his wig more prominent, I’ve included another denarius of the emperor Nero below, in which his hair is depicted in the standard fashion:

And so, outside material remains confirm that Suetonius had gotten this detail of Otho correct in his biography. We can also use numismatics to corroborate other information Suetonius gives about the Roman emperors, such as another detail about the emperor Galba. In his Life of Galba (5.2), Suetonius claims that the emperor Galba had a special connection with Augustus’ wife Livia, writing:

He showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of fifty million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to five hundred thousand, and Galba never received even that amount.”

Once more numismatic evidence comes to our aid in corroborating this detail, since it turns out that, when Galba first became emperor, he actually minted coins that depict Livia Augusta on the reverse. Below is another Roman denarius that depicts both Galba and Livia together:

The connection that Galba drew with the house of Augustus and the empress Livia was a special part of his propaganda when he first became emperor, which is discussed by scholar Colin Kraay in The Coinage of Vindex and Gaiba A.D. 68, and the Continuity of the Augustan Principate.

And so, when it comes to his anecdotes about these Roman emperors, what the evidence of ancient currency bears out is that Suetonius tends to know what he is talking about. Can such numismatic evidence be used to evaluate the depiction of events found in the NT Gospels? Well, it turns out that it can. But rather than corroborating the Gospels, what scholar Fabian Udoh finds in To Caesar What Is Caesar’s–a scholarly monograph on tax administration in Roman Palestine from 63 BCE to 70 CE–is that the archaeological record actually contradicts the Gospel narratives.

Surely all of us have heard the famous saying of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Mk. 12:17; Mt. 22:21; Lk. 20:25). The context of the saying is when hostile questioners try to trap Jesus into taking a stance on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. Clever as he is, Jesus reframes the matter, by specifying that Roman taxes are a secular matter, as the denarius they hand Jesus bears the face of Caesar, and is thus one his possessions, rather than something pertaining to God. In the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22), the full passage reads:

“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.

‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’ 

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ 

They brought him a denariusand he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’

Caesar’s,’ they replied. 

Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ 

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” 

While an excellent moment for displaying Jesus’ rhetorical wit, however, the scene does pose a historical-critical question: did the Judeans of this period actually pay Roman taxes using the denarius?

Roman denarius of Tiberius

By studying archaeological evidence such as the coin hoards excavated from this period, Udoh argues that this is unlikely. Interacting with the research of Donald Ariel in “A Survey of Coin Finds in Jerusalem,” who provides a systematic analysis of surface excavations and coin finds, Udoh points out that significant numbers of denarii are found in Palestine only after 69 CE, particularly from the reign of Vespasian onward. This was because, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, the currency and government in Judea changed dramatically. However, prior to this time (and during the time of Jesus) the primary silver currency in Palestine (that used for taxation) was the Tyrian shekel. For example, a coin hoard discovered at Isfiya, which contained coins dating from 40 BCE-53 CE, contained 4,400 Tyrian coins compared to only 160 denarii, of which about 30 were of Tiberius (Udoh, pg. 235). To be sure, a few denarii made their way to Palestine through circulation, but this proportion shows that Tyrian shekels were the dominant currency that would have been used in taxation.

In light of this evidence, Udoh (pg. 236) concludes, “the imperial denarii were not required for Roman taxation, and they did not form the basis of the silver currency of the region. The connection that is made in the Gospels, especially in Matt 22:19, between Roman taxation in Judea and the denarius does not offer any specific historical information about taxation in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime.” What is especially interesting about this insight is that the traditional author of the Gospels of Matthew is even reputed to have been a tax collector, specifically a toll collector (τελώνης) in Galilee. That he would thus make a mistake about the currency used for taxation is rather peculiar, though such an error does fit with the fact that the majority of mainstream biblical scholars agree that the traditional authorial attribution is spurious.

Furthermore, taxation in Palestine was not administered by the Romans, but by the Jewish authorities, and it was collected by Jewish agents rather than Roman agents (this was done to make the presence of Roman imperialism less obvious). In the case of Matthew’s occupation as a toll collector, Udoh (pg. 241) explains, “If toll collection was leased out to contractors in Judea, it appears that both the contractors and their agents were Jews.” In Galilee, after the taxes were collected by Herod Antipas’ government, tribute was then paid to the Romans, but there was no direct Roman taxation.

As reviewer Ed Cohen explains, summarizing Udoh’s findings in Notre Dame Magazine (“Biblical Tax Story Rendered Implausible”):

“To determine the authenticity of Jesus’ pronouncement, Udoh looked at elements of the story: Did a Roman tax exist in Jesus’s time that everyone was required to pay? Was payment required in a particular Roman coin? Would that coin have borne the likeness of the emperor, and if so, would it have been circulating in such abundance that Jesus could have reasonably expected one to be produced on the spot?

First, Udoh finds no evidence from the period of a census-based, per-capita tribute or ‘poll tax,’ as the word in Matthew and Mark is customarily translated. Any assessments by Rome, he says, likely would have been based on agricultural production and paid in-kind with farm products like grain. In fact, by Udoh’s analysis, Rome did not impose a ‘per capita’ tribute on the people in Judea until 70 CE. He also finds no evidence of a direct tribute requiring payment in Roman money. Finally, he observes that since colonial taxes are notoriously difficult to collect, requiring payment in a specific coin would have only made collection more difficult.

As for the Roman coin Jesus calls for, a silver denarius, these did exist during the time of his ministry, and they would have borne the likeness of Caesar Augustus or Tiberius. But while denarii would have been recognized by people in Jewish Palestine during Jesus’s time, Udoh says, archeological findings suggest they were not the silver coin being used at the time. That coin was the Tyrian shekel.

For these reasons Udoh believes that the render-unto-Caesar story probably originated from a later time or another place.”

And so, the passage is either anachronistic or is conflating a tax imposed from another region than Palestine. If it refers to a tax imposed at a later date, it could be because Mark (the first gospel in which it appears) was composed after 70 CE, which was the earliest time that such a tax was imposed in Palestine. If it is from another region, it could be because Christians in those areas were struggling with the issue of whether they should pay Roman taxes [1], and the authors of the NT Gospels felt the need to address the question, by spuriously placing a saying on the lips of Jesus that he actually never spoke.

But unlike in the case of Suetonius’ writings, wherein numismatic evidence confirms the details of his narrative, here the evidence of ancient coins does not bear out the narrative of the Gospels. Beyond the problems I noted in my previous review of Keener, this is another reason why we probably shouldn’t be comparing legendary texts like the Gospels to a historical biographer like Suetonius.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] An additional argument from silence may be added against the notion that the historical Jesus had spoken in favor of paying taxes to the Roman authorities, based on Paul’s letters. In Romans 13:6-7, Paul states:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

Paul tends to mention when he had a previous teaching of Jesus available on a matter of Christian practice (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1411:22-24), and so his failure to mention Jesus’ alleged teaching on paying Roman taxes carries some weight in this passage against the notion that there was such a previous teaching. It’s also worth noting that Paul’s reasoning differs somewhat from Jesus’, since Paul equates the governing authorities with being servants of God, whereas Jesus disassociates Caesar from God.

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Nicholas Covington Reviews “The Case for Christ: The Movie”

Nicholas Covington, who blogs at Hume’s Apprentice, has recently written a review on Amazon of the new The Case for Christ movie edition. Covington’s review discusses issues such as the preponderance of post-mortem hallucinations in religious movements, the growing legendary development in the NT accounts of Jesus’ burial and empty tomb, and the broader Mediterranean context of resurrection and deification.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 5.47.53 PM

I’ve discussed problems with the book version of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ on this blog before. Reading Strobel’s arguments, when I was getting my M.A. in Classics and Ancient History, was one of the first things that got me involved in counter-apologetics. As someone who was independently looking at historical methodology and ancient texts, I was appalled at how greatly Strobel dumbed down the critical issues, misrepresented scholarship, and gave false impression to his lay readers.

Check out Convington’s Amazon review for a detailed discussion of more problems with Strobel’s arguments: “Read this review to find out why Strobel can’t convince Atheists

-Matthew Ferguson

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Upcoming Interview with Michael Cain on the Freeligion Podcast

I am quite busy with dissertation work right now, so I will get back to my dialogue with Trevor Luke on the miracles of Jesus as soon as I can. In the meantime, I have an announcement to make about an upcoming podcast interview that I have planned. I will be interviewed by Michael Cain, who runs the Freeligion Podcast, on the subject of historical apologetics.

Cain served as the moderator during my panel debate in Riverside last year. We are still working out what topics we will discuss, but we may cover how to distinguish stronger historical apologetics from weaker ones. During that debate, for example, a number of arguments came up about trying to defend the Gospels as forensic, court documents, which is frankly bogus methodology. There is no precedent in Classical Studies for investigating a historian like Tacitus, for example, as we would a witness in court. Even minimal facts apologetics, which attempt to use historical methodology, are a far more valid approach to defending things like the resurrection than juridicial apologetics, which have no parallel in other areas of ancient history.

Right now, Cain and I are planning to hold the interview sometime later this year, and the podcast should be available shortly after that. Let me know in the comments if there are any topics relating to historical apologetics that you are also interested in us discussing!

-Matthew Ferguson

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Support Κέλσος for the Holidays Starting as Low as $1 a Month

To follow up on Michael Alter’s excellent blog exposing the disproportionate amount of money and resources in Christian apologetics–compared to far less numerous secular resources–I would like to ask readers of this blog to consider offering support on Patreon this holiday season for Κέλσος and Civitas Humana:

Donations start as low as $1 per month, meaning that you would only be paying the equivalent of a $12 a year subscription for the content on this blog. One-time donations can also be offered through PayPal:

I’ve been blogging for over five years now, and have built up a very large archive on this blog. When considering whether to pledge support for my blogging and academic work, here are some factors that are worth taking into account:

  • I did a word count on my two academic blogs recently, and the total amount for substantive posts (excluding announcements, etc.) was 508,198 words. That is the equivalent of roughly 2,032 double-spaced pages of content. That’s enough material for a multi-volume work. And since I hyperlink my citations, the bibliography would be much shorter, which factors in even more substantive material.
  • This blog recently exceeded over 400,000 thousand page views around the world. Considering that the average non-fiction book sells less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime, this is a much wider distribution of knowledge and material than is normally achieved through standard publishing. By just pledging $1 a month for a $12 a year subscription, you would only be paying a low price for a non-fiction book for all of the content on this blog.
  • Much of the information on this blog can be found nowhere else. For example, when I first started blogging here, I debunked an egregiously false apologetic statistic claiming that there were more literary sources from antiquity for Jesus than for the contemporary emperor Tiberius Caesar. I’ve recently documented that this false statistic has been circulated in eleven different apologetic publications, which span six different Christian publishers. And yet, the full refutation of this misinformation can only be found on this blog, and nowhere else.
  • What’s worse is that I’ve also discovered that, even after apologist Mike Licona conceded in 2013 that the sources for Jesus vs. Tiberius apologetic is wrong, Christian authors are still circulating the claim! Out of the eleven publications discussed above, five of them were published after 2013!
  • So even after apologetic misinformation has been debunked, and even been conceded to have been debunked by their own authorities, apologetic authors are still spreading the same misinformation like wildfire! And yet, to find the truth on such matters, this blog can sometimes be your only source.
  • Finally, to find secular answers to many apologetic arguments, you often have to track down secular scholars who are not widely known in atheist circles. On this blog, I don’t just cite popular New Atheist authors like Richard Dawkins. Instead, I always work to connect people to the best secular authorities on relevant issues in history and philosophy, some of whom only publish in books and journals that are not accessible to the public. Supporting my academic works helps me to continue to bridge the gap between mainstream academia and the public.

As Michael Alter has discussed on this blog, the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) can literally boast $1.8 billion in total annual revenue and $8 billion in total long-term investments.

Consider what you can do to help the far less numerous resources for secularism by supporting this blog, starting at as low as $1 a month.

-Matthew Ferguson

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“Follow the Money”: Guest Blog by Michael Alter on Faith-Based Education and Publishing

81aZyu05ClLBelow is a guest blog by Michael Alter, author of The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, which is a 912 page tome offering one of the most important contributions to challenging historical apologetics for the resurrection. During his research, Alter learned a great deal about the vast amount of resources that are invested in Christian apologetics–spanning universities, organizations, and publishers–which eclipse the scattered authors and handful of organizations that engage in counter-apologetics. In this post, Alter provides a researched summary that offers just a glimpse at the tip of the iceberg for how much money and resources are invested in Christian apologetics. 

I’ve been talking about problems with how faith-based universities distort critical biblical scholarship for years now, due to doctrinal statements that their faculty are required to sign, which force them to adhere to predetermined conclusions that are friendly to Christian dogma. As someone who works in Classical Studies, researching ancient texts from the same historical period, written in the same ancient languages, and using the same historical methodology, I am not aware of any Classics department or university that requires professors to sign doctrinal statements asking them to affirm tenets of Pagan theology or Greco-Roman religion. The fact that the Christian religion is treated in an abnormal manner in this regard is very disturbing, therefore, and a bad sign for the health of higher education.

As a note, while the essay below discusses faith-based universities with doctrinal statements, not all institutions of higher education that have a Christian affiliation fall into this category. While the University of Notre Dame has a Catholic affiliation, for example, the school still fosters a secular research environment and its religious affiliation is more traditional. While I do not think that a religious affiliation is beneficial for the structure of any university (even if it can be relatively innocuous), it should not be assumed that a loose religious affiliation based on a school’s history implies that it belongs to the apologetic-type campuses discussed below.


The phrase “Follow the money” or “Follow the money trail” (the later was a catchphrase popularized by the 1976 drama-documentary motion picture All The President’s Men) is a credo that has been popularized in movies, politics, investigative reporting, and political debates. The sage advice to “Follow the money” is also true in the arena of religion. Yes, it is about the money. The objective of this article/blog is to discuss the importance of those “silver shekels” as related to Christian evangelism, and more specific, apologetics. Opponents of Christian apologists, whether they be theists, agnostics, or theists of other faiths face definite challenges. And, as previously stated, the odds are often stacked against these skeptics, regardless of the theistic aisle they find themselves.

TOPIC I: Apologetic Grad Programs

Let’s assume that you are a committed Christian and you want to seek a graduate degree in apologetics. Where would you go to earn that degree? What type of degree could you earn? How much would it cost to earn an appropriate degree? What can you do with your earned degree? One partial source of information that discussed some of these issues was located at TheBestSchools.org. This organization states:

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Dialogue with Classicist Trevor Luke on Roman Imperial Ideology and the Miracles of Jesus: Part 1

About two years ago I met Classicist Trevor Luke (Associate Professor of Classics, Florida State University) at the Society for Classical Studies national annual meeting in San Francisco. Luke was presenting a paper at the time on his research regarding the healing miracles of Roman emperors. It is a common misconception that only the emperor Vespasian was associated with an isolated incident of healing a blind and crippled man in Alexandria (Suet. Vesp. 7.2-3). But Luke’s research demonstrates that there were actually several Roman emperors who were reputed to have performed miracles. As Luke explains (“A Healing Touch for Empire,” pg. 78 n. 5):

“Titus attempted to end a plague (Suet. Tit. 8.4). Pliny the Younger (Pan. 22.3) writes of sick people’s belief in Trajan’s healing power. Hadrian ended drought in Africa (SHA Hadr. 22.14) and healed two people (ibid25.1–4). Marcus Aurelius was credited with lightning (SHA Marc. 24.4) and rain miracles (Dio Cass. 71.8.10; SHA Marc. 24.4).”

In addition to the miracles discussed above, it should also be noted that the emperor Augustus, like Jesus after him, was attributed with a divine conception (which Luke discusses further in the blog post below). Likewise, Roman emperors were associated more broadly with the ancient Mediterranean trope of divine translation after their death, which likely influenced the formation of the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection, as Richard Miller discusses in Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity.

What follows is the first post in a dialogue that Luke and I will be holding as part of a blog series to explore why Jesus gained a reputation as a miracle worker, and how this repute was influenced by Roman imperial ideology, as well as both Jewish and Greco-Roman motifs about miracles. I’ll be writing the next post in this exchange, in reply to Luke’s observations below. One of the points that I will be incorporating is a response to Craig Keener’s observation that Jesus, in comparison to Roman emperors like Vespasian, has a greater number of miracles attributed to him (something that I discuss in this previous book review here).

One argument that I will be proposing is that it actually makes a lot of sense that Jesus has more miracles attributed to him than Vespasian. A Roman emperor like Vespasian had a large resume upon which he could boast his reputation, which included such feats as quelling the uprising in Judea and bringing a victorious conclusion to the Roman civil war of 69 CE. For Vespasian, therefore, a couple of miracles were only a fraction of his propaganda. For Jesus, however, without his miracles, he would have been a nobody, itinerant peasant in the small region of Galilee who ended his life ignominiously by crucifixion. One or two miracles attributed to him wouldn’t have cut it, therefore, to demonstrate why the early Christians should have transferred their loyalty from Caesar to Christ.

A whole range of miracles needed to be claimed about Jesus, especially ones which modeled him on Jewish figures like Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, in order to demonstrate that the Christian Messiah had fulfilled promises in the Old Testament. Likewise, by fashioning Jesus as a miracle worker on steroids, the Gospels could depict him as a figure above and beyond that of Roman emperors, which suited their apologetic purposes of promoting a counter-cultural movement quite well. Finally, whereas Vespasian was a figure in the public spotlight, for whom it would have been more difficult to invent stories that could be fact-checked, almost nobody in the broader Greco-Roman world knew anything about Jesus. The authors of the Gospels had far more creative license, therefore, in getting away with whatever miracle stories they wished to tell about Jesus, which could have very easily inflated the numerical count of miracles that are attributed to him.

I’ll be discussing these points further in my next post. For now, Trevor Luke’s first blog in starting our exchange follows below:

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