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Yeshua in Context » Answering Objections, Background to Gospels, Disciples & Named Characters, Eyewitnesses, Resurrection of Yeshua » Yeshua’s Burial

Yeshua’s Burial

This is a rough transcript for today’s Podcast. I will post the link to the podcast here as soon as it is uploaded.

The burial of Yeshua is an early belief of his followers, cited, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:4 as a longstanding tradition by the time of the 50’s when Paul wrote the letter. In recent times it has been claimed that Yeshua’s burial is a highly unlikely event, that criminals were generally refused burial or at most put in a shallow grave where carrion animals could disgrace the corpse. The burial of Yeshua has been the center of a number of rationalistic refutations of the resurrection: the body was lost in a shallow grave and the resurrection story resulted as a mistake, the body was moved by Joseph and the disciples could not find it, etc. Therefore, we are confronted with the question: is the burial of Yeshua realistic in light of Roman practices (and especially if Yeshua’s execution fit into the category of treason)?

Whenever we ask history questions, we need to think more deeply than usual about what history is and what to believe about it. Knowing “history” is neither as simple as many make it at face value nor as impossible as many make it.

History is story. Someone tells a story. We read the story. The story has some connection to events that were witnessed and reported. We cannot recover the Event, but only the Story. No Story could ever be a completely accurate rendering of the Event. What people often want to know is whether the Story is “true.”

I have said in Yeshua in Context that we should evaluate stories based on whether they are internally coherent and externally believable. There is no such thing as “certain knowledge” about events. But if a story is internally coherent and externally believable, we should grant the likelihood that the Event has some true correspondence to the Story.

In considering the believability of the burial story of Yeshua, I have used as my main sources Raymond Brown’s The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 2 and Craig Evan’s chapter, “The Silence of Burial,” in Evans and Wright’s Jesus, the Final Days. I would point to the following as indicators of the believability and coherence of Mark’s burial story:

(1) Certain believable tensions are evident in the Mark story: Joseph needs “courage” to approach Pilate about the matter, Joseph does not cooperate with the disciples who watch from a distance, women are the only witnesses with the men apparently afraid to show themselves, and Joseph is not described here as a disciple.

(2) There is a certain ambiguity about whether Joseph is a disciple or not and the theory that he was not a disciple, or at least openly, until after the resurrection, adds believability to the account. Matthew and John report him as a disciple, but Mark does not.

(3) Jewish piety demanded burial and the demand would be heightened by the sanctity of the feast. That burial of the dead is a matter of Jewish piety is confirmed in many sources, but especially in the book of Tobit. Tobit’s righteousness is described again and again in terms of his work to bury the dead. Corpses defiled the land in Jewish thought. No one would want Jerusalem defiled at Passover.

(4) While Pilate might have been reluctant to allow burial for one executed for treason, he had political pressure not to go against Jewish piety at a crowded festival and pressure from the fact that Joseph was a high-ranking official.

(5) The tendency in the gospels, as Richard Bauckham has shown, is to name characters only if they are famous or if they were known to the Yeshua-community personally. Joseph of Arimathea is named in all four gospels. Evangelists in many cases would not name a character even if he or she were known in other gospels. Bauckham has argued that the tendency was to name only characters whose eyewitness testimony was known to the evangelist first or second-hand.

(6) The so-called evidence that Rome would absolutely refuse burial to one executed for treason is overstated. Many examples involve the Jewish War, which is a different case. The Mark story demonstrates tension over this matter, since Joseph had to muster “courage” to request the body. And when a member of the Sanhedrin at a feast with numerous thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem made a request related to Jewish piety, Pilate is not likely to refuse it.

(7) Against the argument that Yeshua would have been put in a shallow grave, which could possibly satisfy the requirement to remove the bodies and keep the land pure, is the piety of giving proper burial. A righteous man like Joseph would not likely have been satisfied with a shallow grave. It is possible that to a Sanhedrin member Yeshua did not deserve an honorable burial in the tomb of his choice. But piety would insist on a proper burial and not something that could expose the land to defilement through carrion animals.

(8) There are a number of reasons to think Joseph was not a disciple: (1) Pilate would be less likely to release the body to a disciple; (2) the women were not in cooperation with Joseph, but had to observe secretly; (3) there are reasons why a pious Jewish council member would bury Yeshua even if not a disciple; and (4) some texts such as Acts 13:29 speak of the “they” who took down Yeshua’s body; and (5) Mark, the earliest account, does not say Joseph was a disciple. Yet Matthew and John say he was a disciple. Also, the fact of Joseph being named suggests that the later Yeshua-community knew his testimony as a witness. A good scenario which handles all this evidence is that Joseph was not a disciple at the time, but became one after the resurrection. Thus, his request for the body would not have raised concerns from Pilate that the disciples would venerate the body or create a martyr.

In conclusion, then, the story, as presented in Mark, is coherent and believable. There was tension over whether a Roman ruler would allow a body to be buried when crucified on a charge related to treason. The one requesting burial had suitable motivation, was highly placed, and was not identified at that time as a disciple. The disciples (women) had to passively watch and note where the body was buried, not having any power to interfere.

Deciding whether to believe the Story of Yeshua’s burial is about a real Event is an important step in asking the bigger question: are the resurrection Stories of Yeshua about a real Event?

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Filed under: Answering Objections, Background to Gospels, Disciples & Named Characters, Eyewitnesses, Resurrection of Yeshua

2 Responses to "Yeshua’s Burial"

  1. James says:

    Thanks for posting the notes to your podcasts. Most of the time, I don’t have a large block of time to be able to sit down and listen to podcasts (probably why I like twitter), so having the text available is a great help.

  2. CHERYL says:

    THANK YOU SOO MUCH FOR THE PODCASTS WHICH LEAD ME TO THIS SITE….BLESS YOU..I HOPE YOU DON’T MIND IF I USE SOME OF YOUR KNOWLEDGE AT BIBLE STUDIES….I’M VERY TIRED OF SURFACE LEARNING…I NEED MEAT AND WOULD LIKE TO SHARE MIT……AGAIN BLESSING

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