Was Jesus Buried in a Tomb?

On the 24th, Jim Majors will be debating Michael Jones on the question, “Was Jesus buried in a tomb?” For many, the answer will seem to be a no-brainer: of course, he was buried in a tomb! Where else would he have been buried? Moreover, the canonical Gospels all agree on this very point and Paul himself reports (or recites) that the gospel consists not only of Jesus’ death and resurrection but also his burial (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Was Jesus buried in a tomb? Yes! Duh!

But hold on just a second. Our earliest reference to Jesus’ burial is Paul and he doesn’t mention where Jesus was buried, nor does he demonstrate knowledge of any empty-tomb tradition. Furthermore, the emphasis in 1 Corinthians 15 isn’t upon the discovery of an empty tomb as it is in the Gospels but upon Jesus’ repeated appearances to Peter, the Twelve, the 500, James, and, last of all, to Paul (vv. 5-8). Undoubtedly, Paul would have believed that Jesus’ body, wherever it had been laid to rest, was no longer there when he rose from the dead.[1] That is, because Jesus’ resurrection was physical and bodily, the place where his body had been placed was now gone. For Paul, the location of Jesus’ body plays virtually no role in his views on Jesus’ resurrection. Whether he had been thrown into a mass grave or carefully placed in a tomb, it matters not at all for Paul. 

So, what happened to Jesus’ body after he died? Gerd Luedemann, initially quoting John Dominic Crossan, writes, 

Nobody knew what happened to Jesus’ body.’ Evidently not even the earliest community knew. For given the significance of the tombs of saints at the time of Jesus it can be presupposed that had Jesus’ tomb been known, the early Christians would have venerated it and traditions about it would have been preserved.[2]

Bart Ehrman concurs, writing that “we do not know, and cannot know, what actually happened to Jesus’s body.”[3] But Ehrman incorrectly states that the empty tomb narratives of the canonicals were created because “[i]f Jesus had not been buried, his tomb could not be declared empty.”[4] While the empty tomb narratives undoubtedly function apologetically, Paul’s view of Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t require such a narrative and yet he could forcefully declare by implication that wherever Jesus’ body had been buried that he was no longer there. 

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching, the late Maurice Casey argued that Jesus did receive a burial though not quite like what was portrayed by the Gospel authors. Rather, he believes that Jesus was placed in a common criminals’ tomb somewhere outside of the city.[5] He notes that some aspects of the Markan version of events cohere nicely with this view. 

Aspects of Mark’s account of Jesus’ burial fit with this pattern. There is no mention of the body being washed, anointed and laid out for burial. The historicity of this should be accepted – Jesus received a shameful burial, as was normal for condemned criminals. Joseph of Arimathea led a party to bury him to prevent the land from being defiled, not out of any regard for Jesus, his followers or his family.[6]

This take is interesting if for no other reason than it explains the burial as a concern for the purity of the land of Israel, not because Joseph respected Jesus. But he wasn’t taken to a specially selected tomb but one reserved for common criminals. 

Bart Ehrman in his book How Jesus Became God thinks that this is probably wrong. 

My view now is that we do not know, and cannot know, what actually happened to Jesus’ body. But it is absolutely true that as far as we can tell from all the surviving evidence, what normally happened to a criminal’s body is that it was left to decompose and serve as food for scavenging animals. Crucifixion was meant to be a public disincentive to engage in politically subversive activities, and the disincentive did not end with the pain and death – it continued on in the ravages worked on the corpse afterward.[7]

Additionally, Ehrman thinks that “criminals of all sorts were, as a rule, tossed into common graves,”[8] and that there is no good reason for thinking Pilate would cater to the interests of local Jews and their customs regarding burial.[9] But, as Casey points out, the Romans did make exceptions and did “grant the bodies of dead crucified criminals for burial.”[10] So we cannot rule out a priori that Jesus’ body was not taken and buried. Casey also notes that the idea that Pilate would relent on this subject is not unfitting since he “might find it politically convenient to respect, especially as, from his point of view, the chief priests, scribes and elders, of whom Joseph was one, had deliberately handed this dangerous bandit [i.e. Jesus] over to him.”[11]

I hesitate to go on any further on the subject and am eager to see how the debate between Majors and Jones goes. I think Jesus probably was buried, albeit in a common grave. I’m not sold on the existence of Joseph of Arimathea and I doubt generally the empty tomb narrative involving the women. For more of my thoughts on the subject, see my post “The Christian Defenders’ 5 Reasons: The Criterion of Embarrassment.” In it, I briefly break down the empty tomb narratives and question the general validity of those stories. 

Be sure to tune in to the debate on the 24th or (as I probably will) catch it the next day. I mean, it starts at 8pm. That’s past my bedtime!

[1] See John Granger Cook, “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15,” New Testament Studies, vol. 63 (2017), 56-75. Cook’s argument is that Paul would have presupposed an empty tomb in his argument regarding the resurrection of Jesus based on three factors: the implications of the Greek verbs  anistēmi and  egeirō in the context of resurrection; that ancient Judaism conceived of resurrection as physical; and in ancient classical texts, resurrection is conceived of as physical (p. 57). While I agree with Cook on these points, I do not think that using the phrase “empty tomb” is helpful since Paul never specifically mentions such a thing. In my mind, Paul would have thought that no matter where Jesus’ body had been, it was no longer there since God had raised him from the dead.

[2] Gerd Luedemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, John Bowden, translator (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 45. The quote from Crossan is from The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 394.

[3] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 157. 

[4] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 160.

[5] Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 453.

[6] Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 451.

[7] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 157.

[8] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 160.

[9] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, 161-163.

[10] Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 448.

[11] Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 448.

Featured image: Jim Majors

3 thoughts on “Was Jesus Buried in a Tomb?

  1. Am I right in thinking that John Dominic Crossan is a Christian? While Ehrman, an agnostic (?) seems to agree with him. Casey, per Wikipedia, was apparently nonreligious. I might watch the debate, but casting it as “Atheist vs. Christian” seems counterproductive to me, if the beliefs of actual scholars don’t break along those lines.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Crossan is a Christian in only a nominal sense since he denies many of the cardinal teachings that have characterized Christian belief.


  2. You might enjoy The Burial of Jesus by James McGrath, the NT professor at Butler University. I thought it was very good not simply as a discussion of the burial issues but also as a case study for how we apply historical studies and criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

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