In a recent articleposted here at the Catholic Answers blog, I showed why the hallucination and vision theories fail as explanations of Jesus’ resurrection. One of the arguments I gave is the empty tomb argument: if the apostles were hallucinating or only having a vision of the dead Jesus, then the early skeptics could have produced Jesus’ body and disproved his resurrection. Since they didn’t, it’s reasonable to conclude Jesus’ tomb was empty. This is a fact the hallucination and vision theories fail to explain and thus cannot compete with the hypothesis that Jesus’ resurrection was real.
But notice this line of argument assumes something—namely, that Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried. The empty tomb argument presupposes the fact of Jesus’ burial.
Assessing the challenge
One of my readers recognized this assumption and challenged it—an insight that I commend. He argued in a comment box that Jesus probably was never removed from the cross and thus was never buried. He based his assertion on the unlikelihood of Pontius Pilate acquiescing to the request of Jesus’ followers—made, according to the Gospels, by Joseph of Arimathea—to take the body down from the cross so as not to offend Jewish sensibilities (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23). This reader argued it would have been inconsistent with the Roman practice of leaving bodies to rot on the cross for the purpose of humiliation.
Before I answer this argument, it’s important to note the mountain of historical evidence for Jesus’ burial (see William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, 47-67). For the sake of the scope of this article, I will focus only on three points.
First, consider how Paul’s testimony of Jesus’ burial in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5—“Christ died . . . he was buried . . . and he was raised”—meets the criterion of early testimony, which precludes the possibility of legendary developments. Paul wrote this letter around A.D. 55, but the evidence suggests the saying dates back even further.
For example, he informs us that this saying was a part of the apostolic preaching: “Whether then it was I or they [the apostles], so we preach and so you believed” (1 Cor. 15:11). This means Paul’s saying finds its roots in the earliest days of Christian fellowship.
But how early? According to what Paul says elsewhere, as early as six years after Jesus’ death. In Galatians 1:18, Paul mentions that he went to visit Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion—Peter and James being two witnesses of the resurrected Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 15:5-7). Since Paul’s conversion was in A.D. 33, his visit with Peter and James would have been in A.D. 36. It is here that Paul most likely received the saying about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. What else would they have talked about—the weather?
An unlikely undertaker
Another argument for the historicity of Jesus’ burial follows upon the detail of Joseph of Arimathea being the one who buries Jesus. First of all, it’s unlikely that the apostles would have made up a fictional character and placed him on the well-known Sanhedrin (a sort of Supreme Court that dealt with matters of Jewish law). Given that Joseph of Arimathea was a real person on the Jewish Sanhedrin, the apostles’ testimony that he buried Jesus meets the historiographical criterion of embarrassment (the more embarrassing a detail is, the more likely it’s a historical fact).
Why would the apostles make a member of the council that sentenced Jesus to death a sympathizer of Jesus? This would not have served well for persuasive purposes.
Unlikely observers of the burial
The observation of the burial by women serves as another line of argumentation (see Mark 15:47). Like the detail about Joseph of Arimathea, it satisfies the criterion of embarrassment. In the world of first-century Judaism, the testimony of women was not held in high esteem. (Atheist activist and historian Richard Carrier, in his book Not the Impossible Faith, objects to this appeal to women’s lowly status. For his arguments and my responses to them, see my earlier blog post.)
This being the case, it would have been an embarrassment to make the burial account rely on the witness of women. If the apostles were in the business of creating fiction, why not use the male disciples? It doesn’t make sense for the apostles to record these details about the women unless they were true.
These three lines of argumentation only scratch the surface when it comes to the historical reliability of Jesus’ burial. But even by themselves they pose a major problem for someone who wants to deny the historicity of Jesus’ burial.
Romans and Jewish sensibilities
Now, with regard to the reader’s argument, it is true, generally speaking, that Romans didn’t respect Jewish sensibilities. But, as New Testament scholar Craig Evans writes, “The evidence suggests that the Romans, during peacetime, did in fact respect Jewish sensitivities” (Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, ch. 8).
For example, in Philo’s appeal to Caesar, we discover that Roman authorities sometimes were open to respecting Jewish custom:
[The Jews] appealed to Pilate to redress the infringement of their traditions caused by the shields and not to disturb the customs which throughout all the preceding ages had been safeguarded without disturbance by kings and by emperors (De Legatione ad Gaium, 38 §300).
First-century Jewish historian Josephus gives further examples of how the Romans respected Jewish sensibilities. In Against Apion, he explains how the Romans didn’t demand “their subjects to violate their national laws” (2.6§73). He also recounts in The Jewish War that the successors to Agrippa I as Roman procurator kept the nation at peace “by abstaining from all interference with the customs of the country” (2.11.6 §220).
But what of the Roman practice of leaving bodies on the cross to rot? Although it was common practice, there were exceptions. Consider the following exceptions from the summary of Roman law known as theDigesta:
The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason (48.24.1).
The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial (48.24.3).
Josephus recounts his own request to emperor Titus for crucified captives to be removed from their crosses:
I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered (The Life of Flavius Josephus, 75;https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion#cite_ref-55).
The burial of crucified individuals is further suuported by the 1968 discovery of the ossuary at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, of one Yehohanan, who had been crucified. The remains of an iron spike 11.5 centimeters in length still pierced the right heel bone.
The idea of Roman authorities acquiescing to Jewish sensibilities, including removing crucified bodies from a cross, is supported by numerous historical accounts. When such evidence is combined with the positive historical evidence for the burial of Jesus, there is no good reason to think Jesus wasn’t taken down from the cross and buried. The empty tomb, therefore, still retains its persuasive force against the hallucination and vision theories.