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How Jesus Became God/How God Became Jesus – Part 3 (The Burial Accounts)

See the rest of the series here.

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman)
Ehrman believes that it was belief in Jesus’s resurrection that eventually led his followers to claim that he was God. In Chapter 4, he addresses the things we cannot know about the resurrection. He notes that as a historian, it cannot be shown that Jesus was raised from the dead (noting that the opposite cannot be shown historically either). However, the belief in Jesus’s resurrection is a historical fact. Ehrman begins his investigation by again attacking the credibility of the Bible and asserting that the Gospels are filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled.

Ehrman maintains that the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail of the resurrection accounts and notes some of these supposed discrepancies. He also addresses the preliterary tradition of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, using the parallelism in verses 3-5 to argue that Paul knew nothing about a burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea, and that “[t]he tradition that there was a specific, known person who buried Jesus appears to have been a later one”(142). And so, we come to Ehrman’s thesis in chapter 4 – that “we cannot know that Jesus received a decent burial and that his tomb was later discovered to be empty” (151). Below are Ehrman’s arguments for doubting the tradition of Jesus’s burial by Joseph of Arimathea:

  1. According to Mark’s narrative, the whole council of the Sanhedrin (14:55) tried to find evidence against Jesus and they all (14:62) condemned him to death. Therefore, there is no reason why Joseph would have risked himself later to arrange a decent burial for Jesus.
  2. If it had been known that Joseph buried Jesus, this datum would have been included in the early creed that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 since leaving that out creates an imbalance in the parallelism.
  3. Paul’s speech in Acts notes that the whole council buried Jesus (13:28-29), not a single member (discrepancy with Mark’s account). And nothing is said of Joseph of Arimathea.

Ehrman goes on to give three reasons for doubting that Jesus received a decent burial at all, citing literary sources from the time.

  1. Regarding the Christian argument that Jesus had to be taken off the cross before sunset on Friday because it was against Jewish sensitivities to leave a person on the cross during the Sabbath, Ehrman argues that Romans had no concern about Jewish sensitivities, and that normally the bodies of crucified criminals were left to decompose and serve as food from animals.
  2. At the time, criminals were tossed into common graves where their bodies decomposed and became indistinguishable from one another.
  3. Pontius Pilate “was a fierce, violent, mean-spirited ruler who displayed no interest at all in showing mercy and kindness to his subjects and showed no respect for Jewish sensitivities” (161).

Having cast doubt on the burial tradition, it only makes sense that the discovery of the empty tomb of Jesus is equally dubious. For Ehrman, any of the unlikely alternative scenarios (the disciples stole the body, Jesus didn’t actually die, etc.) are more plausible than the miraculous act of God raising Jesus from the dead.

It’s interesting that the response book does not interact with chapter 5 of Ehrman’s book, which concerns what we can know about the resurrection. Summarized briefly, we can know three things about the resurrection according to Ehrman: “(1) some of Jesus’s followers believed that he had been raised from the dead; (2) they believed this because some of them had visions of him after his crucifixion; and (3) this belief led them to reevaluate who Jesus was, so that the Jewish apocalyptic preacher from rural Galilee came to be considered, in some sense, God” (174). Ehrman goes on to explore three options for what “raised from the dead” meant to early Christians: 1) raised from the dead in a spiritual body, 2) raised in the spirit but not in the body, and 3) raised in the same mortal body. For Ehrman, what made Jesus’s early followers believe that he had been bodily raised from the dead was the fact that some had visions of him after he had been crucified. The remainder of the chapter investigates visionary experiences, with particular focus on bereavement visions and visions of esteemed religious figures before returning to the disciples visions of Jesus and the Christological turning point that belief in his resurrection caused.

How God Became Jesus (Bird et al.)
In Chapter 4, Craig Evans masterfully presents bountiful literary and archeological evidence that crucified criminals received proper burials. Evans concedes that there are ancient references to bodies being left to the animals and cites some of these. However, he contests that the evidence is more variegated than Ehrman assumes. Evans begins by engaging a passage from Philo that Ehrman uses to show that allowing burial of crucified persons was the exception, and argues that the passage actually demonstrates that it was Roman practice to permit burial of crucified victims under certain circumstances. Evans goes on to cite various ancient sources pointing to the Roman practice of granting clemency, including for burial of the executed.

Evans also notes that Ehrman’s points here would be valid in Alexandria, but that peacetime administration in Palestine appears to have customarily respected Jewish customs and religious sensitivities, including burial sensitivities (77). Helpful texts from Philo and Josephus are cited here, including one from Josephus indicating that even crucified criminals were normally taken down and buried before sunset. Another important point is that the process that led to Jesus’s crucifixion was initiated by the Jewish Council. “According to law and custom, when the Jewish Council condemned to death…it fell to the council to have the person buried. The executed were to be buried properly, but not in places of honor, such as the family tomb” (80).

Next, Evans presents archeological evidence that confirms what we find in the literary sources – that those who were executed, including by crucifixion, received proper burials. He notes that dozens, perhaps more than one hundred, nails have been recovered from tombs and ossuaries, some of which bear traces of human calcium indicating crucifixion (86). One of the specific examples he describes is that of the ossuary of Yehohanan, which dates to the late 20s CE (during the administration of Pilate, who condemned Jesus to the cross). The remains of an iron spike is clearly seen encrusted in the right heel bone (image p. 84).

Evans subsequently tackles Ehrman’s arguments for doubting the tradition of Jesus’s burial by Joseph of Arimathea. Contra Ehrman’s argument that it is unlikely that Joseph would have had a change of heart after condemning him with the rest of the council, Evans has demonstrated from the legal and cultural backdrop that because the Jewish Council had delivered Jesus to the Roman authorities for execution, it was the council’s responsibility to arrange for proper burial. Though archeological evidence does not prove that Joseph of Arimathea arranged for the burial of Jesus, the Gospel accounts of the circumustances surrounding Jesus’s burial are consistent with archeological evidence and Jewish law. Evans concludes the chapter by contesting Ehrman’s assertions concerning women discovering the empty tomb, his argument from 1 Corinthians 15 against the burial tradition, and his claim that there was really no need of an empty tomb for the followers of Jesus to believe that he had been resurrected.

Evans’s chapter is probably the standout chapter of How God Became Jesus in terms of refuting Ehrman’s claims purely from historical grounds. As much as the entire book seeks to engage Ehrman from the perspective of history, there’s no denying that many of the topics are theologically laden and therefore unlikely to convince an agnostic or atheist. But the topic of Ehrman’s fourth chapter is one that can be investigated purely from historical evidence, and here he is completely slaughtered by Evans, who blows him out of the water with literary and archeological evidence for the credibility of the burial accounts of the canonical Gospels. I think Ehrman himself would, if he were honest with himself, concede that Evans is the overwhelming victor of the “Christology war” in regards these two chapters.

In this chapter Ehrman noted the problems with three arguments frequently made by Christian apologists. One is addressed by Evans – that of the reliability of the resurrection accounts because of the fact women discovered the empty tomb.The second is the argument that the only way to explain the enormous success of Christianity is to believe that God is actually behind it all (what about other major religions, e.g. Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism?). The third concerns arguments for the resurrection – what about comparable “evidence” for other miracles, e.g. the dozens of Roman senators who claimed that King Romulus was snatched up into heaven from their midst? These legitimate holes poked by Ehrman stuck out to me because as a Christian I have always been passionate about apologetics (I had to “apologize” myself first, but that’s another story for another day). Sometimes the arguments Christians typically put forth are just lame, and lay Christians that care about presenting a credible defense for the central tenets of our faith need to make efforts to do better. We need to read more, think harder, and…get out there and share the gospel more. Ok, I’m getting off the soapbox.

*Greg Monette, who is doing doctoral work under Dr. Craig Evans, has written two excellent blog posts on why Ehrman gets Jesus’ burial wrong: Part 1 | Part 2

How Jesus Became God (Ehrman): Amazon
How God Became Jesus (Bird et al.): Amazon | Westminster

**Free copies of both books were provided by the publishers in exchange for unbiased reviews.

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