Burial of Jesus and Bart Ehrman

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"God dies!" In a nutshell, that's the Gospel according to Stephen Colbert, and he's not too far off the mark.

If you haven't seen this video clip yet (and even if you have), it's worth watching (again) regardless of your taste for Colbert's style of humor. In it, he trounces the typically smug fundamentalist-turned-liberal Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who is so used to being fawned over by members of the media that Colbert's defiance leaves him at a near loss for words.

Admittedly, Colbert's objections range from thoughtful to asinine, but his main points do have some merit.

Now in case you're wondering why I'm referencing this ancient footage (way back from 2006), it's because of some recent reading I have done. During my respite after Holy Week, I devoured two books I'd been longing to read ever since their simultaneous release at the end of March. One is Ehrman's newest attempt to reshape the general public's perception of Christian origins, while the other is a direct rebuttal from a handful of critical scholars who were given a pre-published copy of Ehrman's work to peruse and examine.

Since these books reach opposing conclusions about the topic of earliest Christology-namely, when and how the followers of Jesus came to regard him as God-they are fittingly titled How Jesus Became God and How God Became Jesus.

Since both are slightly technical, I recommend reading them together.

Much of what Ehrman says in How Jesus Became God can be found in several of his previous publications. Indeed, it is this persistent recycling of his own material that warrants another look at the video. In his latest tome, however, one does find something new from Ehrman (though hardly innovative in itself). He thinks the Gospel writers invented the burial of Jesus.

The request for the crucified body of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea, the ceremonial care it received according to Jewish stipulations, and its placement in Joseph's tomb is, according to Ehrman, a completely fabricated narrative.

After Jesus' followers had mystical experiences of a supposedly risen Jesus, the argument goes, they then had to bridge the gap between their esoteric claims of a resurrection and the public knowledge of Jesus' crucifixion. So the burial of Jesus in an empty tomb was devised, after which the fictional burial story emerged.

The problems with this are manifold, as demonstrated in How God Became Jesus by Craig Evans, a scholar who has written extensively on Jewish burial traditions. (Ehrman, on the other hand, said he came to his conclusions after a mere eight months of prepping for his book.) Though other helpful reviews exist as well, allow me to offer a few observations here:

  1. Ehrman says the earliest creed about Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-4) states he was buried, but not that he was buried in a tomb.This calls into question the existence of an empty tomb, for surely Christians would have thought it worth mentioning had they known about it. How Ehrman knows what people living in a different culture 2,000 years ago should have included in their creed is beyond me.But since creeds are short and to the point by their very nature, the words "in a tomb" may well have been omitted because they're somewhat redundant. Where else was one likely to be buried at that time if not in a tomb? That would be like us today saying someone was buried "in a grave" or cremated "into ashes." It goes without saying.
  2. It is possible, however, that Jesus was buried in a common grave for criminals, as was often the case for crucified victims. On this point, Ehrman likewise draws attention to the fact that Joseph of Arimathea who owned the alleged tomb is not named in the earliest creed, even though shortly afterward Paul mentions numerous other people by name. (1 Cor 15:5-8) This again is taken to mean there was no tomb into which Jesus was placed.By this logic, the part that anyone played in the death of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels should become suspect if they are not also named in the earliest creed. That includes Judas, Caiaphas, Peter, and Pilate. But Ehrman does, in fact, affirm their respective roles in Jesus' betrayal, trial, abandonment, and crucifixion. Why? Partly because multiple Gospels record the same basic actions performed by these named individuals.It is a complete double-standard, then, to dismiss Joseph of Arimathea and his tomb simply because he does not appear in the creed. Moreover, those whom Paul did name were key witnesses of Christ's physical resurrection (which is quite a different phenomenon than viewing his death or burial) because their testimony had immense value.
  3. Ehrman tries to shore up his argument by saying it was standard Roman practice to disallow a proper burial for those who were crucified. He notes one instance found in the writings of Philo (Flaccus 81-84) where the Romans mercifully permitted it, and says it's the exception that proves the rule.Though refusal of burial was generally the norm, plenty of exceptions can be found. For example: Roman law reads ... [and] should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial" (Digesta 48.24.1, 3); the Jewish historian Josephus said "even malefactors who have been sentenced to be crucified are taken down and buried before sunset" (Jewish War 4.317); and Jewish law states that the Jewish Council (or Sanhedrin, of which Joseph of Arimathea was a member) was responsible for burying executed criminals (m. Sanhedrin 6:5).Additionally, the remains of a Jewish male-executed under Pontius Pilate in the late AD 20s-were found inside of an ossuary, which shows burials for crucified victims was not entirely uncommon.Ossuaries were used to gather up the bones of previously buried individuals sometime after their skin had all rotted away. This fellow's skeleton still had a Roman nail sticking through the heal bone. Thus, there is no reason to think the request for Jesus' body would have been denied during peacetime, especially as sunset approached on the eve of the Sabbath.

The upshot of all this is that Jesus' burial in Joseph's tomb is the best explanation of the evidence. Thus, claims of an empty tomb give rise to the all-important question, "What happened to the body?"

While there is much to consider about this, suffice it to say for now that if Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, then his claims of divinity are vindicated (cf. Matt 12:38-40; John 2:18-22). Looking through the lens of Easter Sunday, we can therefore agree with Mr. Colbert's banner headline for Good Friday: God dies!