Where in the World Did Jesus’ Body Go?

“With regards to the body of Jesus, by Easter Sunday morning, those who cared did not know where it was, and those who knew did not care.” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 158)” – J.D. Crossan

In the years that I have been studying the NT and arguing for its general reliability, I have seen this statement thrown out dozens of times in reference to the crucifixion of Christ. How can we speak confidently of the resurrection if Jesus’ body was thrown away, given to the dogs, or carelessly placed in a pit or sorts? We cannot speak of an empty tomb if, in fact, Jesus’ body never made it to the tomb. Crossan’s remarks, which have been followed by many skeptics, are unfortunately not in line with what we can best decipher from historical research. Indeed, it should be pointed out first and foremost that Crossan’s view makes very little sense given the religious stigma Jesus carried. To say that those who cared–those who watched who they believed was the messiah die by crucifixion–had no interest in knowing where it was in fact that Jesus was buried is simply a bad historical assumption. Crossan has a lot to explain here regarding the “knowledge” of Jesus’ followers.

First, he has to explain why Jesus’ disciples would not have been in the know of where Jesus was buried. These were the people with him day in and day out for years. We know, historically, that crucifixion was a public event. There is no possible reason to suppose that as the messiah was taken to the place of crucifixion the disciples would not have watched both the death and the eventual taking down of Jesus. I think it is safe to say that the disciples really had nowhere to go that evening. Whatever was done with Jesus’ body would have been known by his very circle of followers. This means, if he was left up on the cross they would have known it. If he was cremated, they would have known it. If he was thrown into a pit for the dogs, they would have likely known it. And if he was actually buried in a tomb, they would have known it.

Secondly, Crossan has to explain why Jesus’ family would not have known where he was buried. Many of the points just mentioned are still applicable at this juncture, though it may be worth mentioning that Jesus’ family never disappeared into the backdrop of history. As we know from both Acts, the epistle of James, and Josephus, James was a high profile public figure within early Christianity and Judaism. He was, in fact, the head of the church in Jerusalem. Surely, if James knew that his brother had died and remained either on the cross or was decomposing elsewhere, his conversion to Christianity could hardly be explained.

Thirdly, Crossan must explain how this particular tradition arose as opposed to other views which would have been more accomodating to the facts of non-burial. Why place Jesus in a tomb if, historically, he wasn’t? Couldn’t the early Christians have invented something a little bit more inline with the facts. Why include the burial in the tomb if in fact it did not happen? On the same note, the early tradition associated with the burial of Jesus must be accounted for. This is found, of course, in 1 Cor 15 3b-5. J.D.G. Dunn places the formation of this creed within six months of the crucifixion of Jesus and I am not aware of any scholar who has legitimately made a case for it being any later than five or six years. This is a pre-Pauline creed which, in the estimation of many scholars, goes back to the original disciples. But even if this is not the case, one must still ask how would the early tradition of a burial be associated with Jesus if, in fact, such a notion was false and could be known as such by the Romans, Jews, and early Church. The fact is, there is no early tradition–or any tradition at all that I am aware of–that has Jesus’ body undergo anything but burial.

Fourth, the reference to Joseph of Arimethia and his request to Pilate for the body of Jesus must be explained by Crossan. According to our earliest gospel, probably based upon the recollections of Peter, Joseph of Arimethia “worked up the courage” to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus.

Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. (Mk 15.43)

Raymond Brown has noted, “Joseph’s being responsible for burying Jesus is ‘very probable,’ since a Christian fictional creation of a Jewish Sanhedrist doing what is right for Jesus is ‘almost inexplicable.” I would add that the mere invention of a political request for a corpse would have been the last thing invented for how one got a corpse. Certainly, especially given the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion for both religious and political reasons, the request for a corpse would have either been accepted or denied. Notice that Joseph needs to “work up the courage.” He knew that his request could be completely denied and, in fact, such a denial might have negative consequences for him in some way. Further, to claim permission is to throw one’s story immediately under the spotlight of government records. In the first century, anybody who doubted either the existence of Joseph of Arimethia (whom the text calls a “prominent member”) or the request and granting of the corpse of Jesus could have checked the facts with both groups. What a blow it would have been for the early Christians if the Sanhedrin had stated that there never was a “Joseph of Arimethia” or if the Roman’s declared that Jesus’ corpse was never granted permission for burial. There is a historical kernal here.

Finally, Crossan is simply insufficient in his statements about the burial customs of the Romans and Jews regarding crucified victims.

  • Roman Burial Practice For Crucifixion Victims
    • Romans believed that by leaving a corpse unburied there would be less than pleasant repercussions in the after life for the soul. Most people in Roman society were buried no matter their social status. Romans were known, however, to deny burial to executed criminals since with the lack of burial would come eternal torment and discomfort. Certainly, this warning would serve as an influential deterrent against social crimes. Indeed, those who were crucified were left on their crosses for the birds to pick and eat at their corpses. The hanging of a victim for several days would remind the citizens that Romans still had the ability to uphold legal justice. However, Philo reports cases where the crucified victims were removed and given to relatives for burial. Specifically, this happened on the eve of festivals and occasions:

 ” I have known instances before now of men who had been crucified when this festival and holiday was at hand, being taken down and given up to their relations, in order to receive the honours of sepulture, and to enjoy such observances as are due to the dead; for it used to be considered, that even the dead ought to derive some enjoyment from the natal festival of a good emperor, and also that the sacred character of the festival ought to be regarded. (Philo, Flacc. 10.83)”

This is exactly what we find in the gospels. Mk 15.42 reads, “When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath…” We find the same statement in Lk 23.54. What Philo observed done on the eve of festivals was likely what was done with Jesus.

  • Jewish Funeral Practices for Crucified Victims
    • The Jews, in contrast to the Romans, believed that even executed victims deserved burial rites. This was likely based on Deut 21.22-23: “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”
    • While the Jews buried their dead, crucified or condemned individuals were given a different sort of burial, namely that they were not allowed to be buried in family tombs, though such a notion has been challenged by the work of L. Rahmani.
    • Due to a warm climate, burial was a speedy process. If Joseph of Arimethia was allowed the body of Jesus, they may have washed it once or twice, sprinkled it with spices (to avoid stench), and wrapped it up in a linen before placing it in the tomb. The tomb would then be sealed by a huge rock held in place by a smaller stone and left for a year to decompose. After a years time, the bones would have been taken out, placed in an ossuary, and prepared for second burial. The secondary burial, aside from giving emotional closure to the family, would have ensured a certain level of forgiveness for the victim. R. Adda b. Ahabah states “The decay of flesh too is necessary [for forgiveness]” (v Sanh 47b).

Thus, what we conclude is that Crossan’s statement is too broad and generalized to account for what happened to Jesus’ corpse after crucifixion. It fails to account for a number of details which have convinced the vast majority of scholars of John A.T. Robinson’s conviction that the burial of Jesus is “one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.”

See, J.B. Green, “Burial of Jesus”, pp 88-92, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids: IVP), 1992