Who buried Jesus – was he even buried?

Aractus 15, June, 2017

One lie perpetrated by Evangelicals is that we atheists can’t explain what happened to the body of Jesus after he was crucified. We actually don’t know what happened, and don’t claim to know, but can put forward a number of different options all of which enjoy scholarly support. In addition I have formed a new hypothesis over how the resurrection myth started.

Why is this important, does it matter?

I think the brutal attacks from fundamentalists on both extremes go to show why it is. Fundamentalists, whether theists or atheists, have a narrow closed-minded perception of reality, with a dogmatic view that their beliefs are without any error and anyone who disagrees is stupid. And they are the ones that have in my experience used this question as a personal attack on my intelligence, or on the intelligence of others. Often claiming that it’s not worth consideration. Well, there are several academic disciplines of study that disagree. Saying that it’s stupid is no different to saying that studying science or philosophy is a complete waste of time. In fact I now believe that children should be taught in schools about all the major religions – not indoctrinated, but taught about their beliefs, their histories, their creeds, their ceremonies, their requirements, their texts, and their religious leaders. That is how we advance – through education. Religion is a natural phenomena of the world, just like language is, and culture, and social structures. We find language and social structures in animals as well. Mindlessly attacking people’s religions is about as intelligent as mindlessly attacking their culture or language.

I have been looking into piecing together what happened in the first century after Jesus died for the last 5 years. Since before I de-converted from Christianity.  It interests me, it may not interest anyone else, but I’ve already developed new and fresh ideas. I’m not claiming they’re unique, in fact I rather doubt it, but they are my ideas that I came up with independently.

Was Jesus crucified?

It is fair to ask whether Jesus was even crucified at all. Perhaps he fled to India as some believe, or perhaps he was executed through a less public spectacle such as beheading. On this I am happy to take the New Testament accounts. For two reasons, the most important of which is the fact that it formed the basis of early Christian theological thought right from the very start as evidenced in the Pauline epistles, the gospels and other early Christian books and writings. Many scholars have pointed out the difficulty in explaining the origin of such a mythology if it had no historical basis. But look, with that said they struggle to explain the origins of many other mythologies also that are not believed to have a historical basis either. Most historians agree that if Jesus was killed through a less humiliating method then that narrative would have survived, and if he had not died that he would have continued peaching for which there is no evidence.

Was Jesus buried?

I honestly don’t know. What I can say for certain is that scholars can trace the belief that he was buried right back to the 30’s AD. It’s important as it serves the basis for early Christian theology. But that the early apostles believed it to have happened of course doesn’t prove it for certain, just as their belief that Jesus had been risen to the heavens isn’t proven but was also an important early theological belief. The difference between the two is that one is a claim to the natural world, and the other the supernatural. Supernatural claims don’t require ordinary terrestrial evidence.

But what is the evidence? The synoptic gospels make it clear that the disciples abandon Jesus before he’s strung up to die – so they weren’t there to witness his anguish, or his death, or his burial. The earliest accounts that are given (particularly Mark, but also Acts and Luke) say that the Jews buried Jesus.

You may have read the claim that Bart Ehrman makes that Jesus would have been left to rot on the cross and not buried. I doubt he’s the only scholar that thinks that way. It’s certainly possible that Jesus was left on the cross and was not buried, and the literature reveals that possibility cannot be ruled out despite what the gospels claim. I suppose one good reason for this is the fact that it was known that some people chose suicide over crucifixion in the ancient world because they knew their bodies would be buried. There are several things however that makes this less likely: 1. If Jesus’ crime was seen by the Romans as being so bad as to refuse burial, why did they not persecute the disciples? The Romans appear to have been satisfied to execute only Jesus, and leave his followers alone. 2. Jewish culture would not have allowed the Jews to tolerate it, without at least protesting and requesting burial from the Roman authorities. 3. The earliest account of the Passion (Mark) is not that flattering to Jesus. For this I will draw on the teachings found in Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World by John Granger Cook…

Crucifixion was a slow, miserable, and utterly shameful way to die. Jesus of Nazareth did not wish to be crucified, and he certainly didn’t enjoy the experience. And in fact the Bible says as much as Jesus is said to let out a cry of dereliction “Eloi Eloi Lema Sabachthani”/ “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” Of course we don’t know that Jesus actually cried this out, in fact I rather doubt it for reasons that will become apparent. However the gospel writer did not attempt to insert any “song of victory” into Jesus’ misery on the cross, unlike modern Christian theology. And after Jesus died he was not even buried by his loved ones or given a decent burial, a fact pointed in the New Oxford Annotated Bible:

“Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council that had condemned Jesus (see 14.64), but like the scribe in 12.28–34, interested in the kingdom of God, asked for the body. Apparently eager to dispose of it before the sabbath, he wrapped it,and secured it in a rock tomb sealed with a heavy stone (cf. 16.3n), without even a gesture of proper burial rites.” (p.1823).

As the Biblical account of Jesus’ burial is so unflattering I find it difficult to believe it has no basis in reality. If you were going to make up a burial for your messiah, why not invent a proper burial?

Who buried Jesus?

I have had a hard time believing that a disciple buried Jesus. I hypothesised that the family of Jesus would have been far more likely to bury him than his disciples who fled from Jerusalem when he was arrested. But then I discovered something interesting, something very few Christians are even aware of (I certainly wasn’t), and that is that there are not four accounts of Jesus’ death and burial in the Bible, there is in fact a fifth in Acts 13:

“Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” (Acts 13:27-29, NRSV)

Armed with this knowledge I delved deeper by reading some academic literature and considering the information in a new light. All the gospels claim that a man named Joseph of Arimathea claimed the corpse of Jesus from Pilate and then went and laid him into a stone-cut tomb. All the gospels agree that he was a “member of the council”. It’s only two gospels, Matthew and John that make the claim that he was a disciple. A claim that is almost certainly false for a number of obvious reasons, and if true would contradict the account in Acts completely.

Now, some Christians claim that the “they” in Acts 13:29 refers to a different group. To that I say, I have a difficult time believing that the author meant another group that he didn’t mention. And if that is the case, if it can be read that way, why is it that all English translations give the clear reading that the “they” are the Jews that brought Jesus to Pilate to have him killed? When all English translations read exactly the same way and you want to read it in a different way then you better have a pretty good piece of evidence to support your reading as the onus of proof is on you.

My hypothesis was that the family would be the most likely to bury someone who had been crucified. This hypothesis brought on problems however for Jesus’ burial. Nowhere in the gospels does it claim that the family of Jesus claimed the body. And if they had then the empty tomb myth could not have developed, at least not unchallenged.

So the conclusion is this – the Jews buried Jesus, just as the Bible claims they did. Probably not though in a nice stone-cut tomb as claimed though.

How did the empty tomb myth begin?

I have developed a new hypothesis. The disciples as we know fled before Jesus was crucified. They had no way of knowing how long it took for him to die, what he said on the cross, or where he was buried by the Jews. Furthermore, the family of Jesus did not know either, because if they were there then they would have been the ones to claim the body and bury it.

So here is what I think happened: Some of the disciples returned after Jesus had been crucified. It might only have been one disciple such as Peter, or it could even have been one of the women. They went and searched out his cross and found it empty. The body was gone. Not from the tomb, but from the cross. They then went and told the other disciples “the body is gone”. I don’t think they realised that the Jews had gone ahead and buried the body at that time, and by the time they did realise it they couldn’t find where it had been laid. For this reasons I doubt the narrative that a specific person named Joseph of Arimathea buried the body, because if they did know who buried it then they could have found the tomb/grave.

What about the resurrection myth?

This is actually rather easy to explain. Interestingly Evangelicals often claim that the disciples would not have believed without proof, and that therefore Christianity would not have started. Nonsense. These same Evangelical Christians believe that their loved ones are risen to the heavens after death with no empirical evidence. Belief in the afterlife does not now, and never has before, require proof. And that’s all that the resurrection started out as – the belief that Jesus had been risen to the heavens.

I think we can say pretty confidently that some of the disciples had visions of Jesus soon after his death. Again, Evangelicals claim this is evidence – it’s not. It happens. It’s perfectly normal that some people experience visions of deceased loved ones. Sometimes they’re extremely vivid and contain conversations.

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