Thoughts about Reza Aslan and Jon Sorensen


I just read Jon Sorensen’s answer to five of Reza Aslan’s claims on the Catholic Answers blog. I’m particularly interested in number 4 and 5, but let’s go with number 5 first. (Well, I’ve nothing better to do - I currently have a cold and am stuck in the house. :blush:) I’m not going through all of them mind - I’ll just limit myself to these two. I’m quoting Aslan first, then Jon, and then I’ll add my own observations. Here’s Aslan:

5. Jesus was buried in a tomb.

The Gospels say that after the crucifixion, Jesus’s body was brought down from the cross and placed in a tomb. If that were true, it would have been because of an extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, act of benevolence on the part of the Romans.

Crucifixion was not just a form of capital punishment for Rome. In fact, some criminals were first executed and then nailed to a cross. The primary purpose of crucifixion was to deter rebellion; that’s why it was always carried out in public. It was also why the criminal was always left hanging long after he died; the crucified were almost never buried. Because the point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten witnesses, the corpse would be left to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a trash heap, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus’s crucifixion, earned its name: the place of skulls.

It is possible that, unlike practically every other criminal crucified by Rome, Jesus was brought down from the cross and placed in an extravagant rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea. But it is not very likely.

Then Jon Sorensen:

Myth #5: "Jesus was buried in a tomb."

Aslan asserts that it is highly unlikely Jesus was brought down from the cross and placed in a tomb after the crucifixion. In his opinion, this would have been “an extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, act of benevolence on the part of the Romans.”

I don’t see how this could have constituted an “act of benevolence.” Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could retrieve the body of Jesus. Pilate agreed, but only after confirmation that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44). It’s not as though the Romans took the body down themselves and handed it over to the disciples. Joseph was a respected member of the Jewish community (Mark 15:43), and we are not told how he persuaded Pilate to release the body; only that he did.

Aslan also claims it is not very likely that Jesus was taken down and placed in a rock-hewn tomb fit for the wealthiest men in Judea because this would be unlike every other criminal crucified by Rome. This is true, but Joseph was a rich man with the means to provide such a tomb (Matt. 27:57), and he was secretly a follower of Jesus (John 19:38).


And here’s me.

Aslan here is basically just rehashing the theory that the scholar John Dominic Crossan had proposed: that the burial of Jesus, like much of the passion narratives, is simply fictional, and that the disciples never knew what really happened to His corpse - it could very well have rotted on the cross or thrown on a shallow grave or a pit to be picked up by dogs later, two of the things Romans are known to do to crucified criminals.

Crossan is a proponent of what he calls ‘prophecy historicized’. The idea goes that since all the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested (the male ones, at least), they had no clue just exactly what had happened from there up to the crucifixion; they know only the bare fact that Jesus was crucified rather than say, beheaded or speared or something else - mostly thanks to the women who watched “from a distance.” Beyond that bare fact, however, they knew absolutely nothing. They did not even know what eventually became of Jesus’ body. Apparently they were too scared to even bother to check.

What the disciples did discover, Crossan goes, was that Jesus’ message continued to work powerfully within the community that He had established. Convinced that Jesus must have been eventually vindicated by God (basically his version of Easter), Jesus’ followers had to fill in their very hazy knowledge of the historical details about certain parts of Jesus’ life (such as His birth or death) by looking back at the Old Testament, which the authors thought would yield some information as to how Jesus must have died. In other words, the passion narratives are an after-the-fact fictional account of Jesus’ suffering pieced together from various Old Testament prophecies, the product of the disciples guessing what they believe must have happened to Jesus on Good Friday. After all, these prophecies refer to Jesus, right? Surely things must have happened “as it is written.”

Crossan explains the concept in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography:

My proposal is that Jesus’ first followers knew almost nothing whatsoever about the details of his crucifixion, death, or burial. What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not history remembered but prophecy historicized. And it is necessary to be very clear on what I mean here by prophecy. I do not mean texts, events, or persons that predicted or foreshadowed the future, that projected themselves forward toward a distant fulfillment. I mean such units sought out backward, as it were, sought out after the events of Jesus’ life were already known and his followers declared that texts from the Hebrew Scriptures had been written with him in mind. Prophecy, in this sense, is known after rather than before the fact.

As one can see from the quote, Crossan likes to contrast this theory with what he calls ‘history remembered’ (something like each and every detail in the accounts are all purely, dare I say just historical in nature), which for him is typified in the work of the late Fr. Raymond Brown, who authored a two-volume work on the passion narratives: The Death of the Messiah.

Needless to say, this is a rather gross, over-simplified caricature of Brown’s actual idea, which surmises that while the “basic incidents” of the passion narratives are indeed derived from “early Christian memory,” also sees the whole process as involving a degree of embellishment. For Crossan and others of like mind, the ‘prophecy historicized’ model is plausible because the alternative model of ‘history remembered’ is weak. For them, it is just not plausible that mere memory could have so drenched the text with scriptural quotations and allusions. In other words, the ‘prophecy historicized’ model is better because plain ol’ ‘history remembered’ isn’t.



Crossan’s theory, while it admittedly does make sense of the various scriptural allusions in this point of the gospels, has its obvious flaws, something which quite a number of people out there who disagree with his model have pointed out. For one, wouldn’t it be gratuitous to assert that Jesus’ followers did not make any effort to find out what really happened? Were they living under a rock or too lazy/cowardly to actually be bothered to check up the facts? In addition, why is Crossan confident that the male disciples fleeing and the women watching “from afar” (apo makrothen) are factual details when these themselves are clearly scriptural allusions (Zechariah 13:7; Psalm 38:11 LXX)?
For Crossan and Aslan, this never happened.

Of particular note here is Mark Goodacre’s criticism of the idea. In place of ‘prophecy historicized’ he proposes an alternative model called ‘scripturalization’ (or ‘history scripturalized’): the idea being that the early Christians, when they spoke of the Passion, cannot help but retell it using language and imagery drawn from Scripture. The idea was that there was an intimate, dynamic interaction between event, memory, tradition and Scriptural reflection: the basic traditions about the events generated Scriptural reflection, which in turn influenced the way the traditions were remembered and retold. In other words, the tradition was ‘scripturalized’. For Goodacre, a possible location for this process of scripturalization was the liturgy: the first generations of Christians may have had, from a very early date, commemorated the passion at a fixed time period (possibly the Jewish Passover), when they would retell and relive the events surrounding Jesus’ arrest and death, in a liturgical context. The difference between ‘prophecy historicized’ and ‘history scripturalized’ then is that while the former proposes that the early Christians fabricated the passion narratives using the Old Testament because they did not know the basic historical fact, the latter proposes that the early Christians retold the basic historical fact (which they did know) using the language of and allusions to the Old Testament - in other words, they ‘scripturalized’ the tradition. This scripturally-drenched retelling of Jesus’ suffering then left its own mark on the gospel accounts.

Dale Allison in his work Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History have summed up the above views rather adequately. I’m not quoting it here - look at a former post where I quoted it instead.



Just to expand on Crossan’s idea: he believes that the non-canonical Gospel of Peter, which is regarded by most scholars as dating from the 2nd century and secondary to the canonical gospels, in fact preserves the earliest Christian attempt to transform Old Testament prophecies into history about Jesus. He calls this underlying kernel the Cross Gospel and assigns it to a date preceding the synoptic gospels - somewhere before AD 70, at the earliest somewhere during the 40s. According to Crossan, the gospel of Mark (which he thinks is the earliest of the four) elected not to use the fantastic elements found in Peter as such, but deliberately disassembled and relocated fantastic elements of the story to other, pre-death scenes; the other three Evangelists followed suit. The rather odd thing in this hypothesis is, that if this theory is correct, then the tradition apparently began with the blatantly fantastic and the overtly anti-Jewish and increasingly moved in the direction of the historically restrained and sober.

Anyways, back to the “Jesus was never buried” bit. Since for Crossan most of the details in the passion narratives (including Jesus’ burial) are fictional anyway, he proposes that what became of the dead body of the historical Jesus is unknown. Who knows? It could have simply rotted away on the cross or thrown out into a ditch or a shallow grave where dogs were waiting. I quote him again (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 2009):

(pp. 126-127) What exactly made crucifixion so terrible? The three supreme Roman penalties were the cross, fire, and the beasts. What made them supreme was not just their inhuman cruelty or their public dishonor, but the fact that there might be nothing left to bury at the end. That bodily destruction was involved in being cast into the fire or thrown to the beasts is obvious enough. But what we often forget about crucifixion is the carrion crow and scavenger dog who respectively croak above and growl below the dead or dying body.

Martin Hengel, once again, reminds us of that terrible reality. His book Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross], which is a catalog of the writings of Greco-Roman authors on the subject of crucifixion, quotes, for example, “fastened [and] nailed… [as] evil food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs” on page 9, “feed the crows on the cross” on page 58, and “hung… alive for the wild beasts and birds of prey” on page 76.

I want to emphasize that Roman crucifixion was state terrorism; that its function was to deter resistance or revolt, especially among the lower classes; and that the body was usually left on the cross to be consumed eventually by the wild beasts. No wonder we have found only one body from all those thousands crucified around Jerusalem in that single century. Remember the dogs. And if you seek the heart of darkness, follow the dogs.

(p. 174) What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts. But what was there at the beginning that necessitated such an intensive volume of apologetic insistence? If the Romans did not observe the Deuteronomic decree, Jesus’s dead body would have been left on the cross for wild beasts. And his followers who had fled would know that. If the Romans did observe the decree, the soldiers would have made certain Jesus was dead and then buried him themselves as part of their job. In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that too.

This is an expansion of an idea he had already written of in an earlier book (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 394):

All of those industrious redactions [in the canonical gospels and the *Gospel of Peter] set out to solve one simple problem. Nobody knew what happened to Jesus’ body. And the best his followers could initially hope for was that he had been buried out of Jewish piety toward Deuteronomy 21:22-23. If you turn from the burier [Joseph of Arimathea] to the tomb, exactly the same phenomenon occurs. In Mark 15:46 it was “a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock.” In Matthew 27:60 it is Joseph’s “own new tomb.” In Luke 23:53 it is “a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever been laid.” In John 19:41 it is “a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid.” But no amount of damage control can conceal what its intensity only confirms. With regard to the body of Jesus, by Easter Sunday morning, those who cared did not know where it was, and those who knew did not care. Why should even the soldiers themselves remember the death and disposal of a nobody?



What Crossan thinks is that originally in this purported Cross Gospel, it was probably Jesus’ enemies who is portrayed as burying Him. The disciples might not know what actually happened to the body, but apparently - thinks Crossan - they thought that a hasty burial by enemies is better than no burial at all. Mark, when writing his gospel, apparently could not stomach the idea, however, and so fabricated the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, who became an ambiguous and transitional figure leading from Jesus’ burial by His enemies to His burial by friends. What happened according to him is that, along the way, both Joseph and the tomb in which he is supposed to have buried Jesus gets elaborated along the way by the evangelists: it starts with Mark’s invention of a Joseph who is still “a respected member of the council who himself is waiting for the kingdom of God” and “a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” to John’s fully-developed Joseph who is now “a disciple of Jesus but secretly for fear of the Jews” and the garden tomb, “in which no man had yet been laid.” Along the way is Matthew and Luke, who themselves could not stomach Mark’s Joseph who has a foot in both worlds (being a symphatizer of Jesus while being a part of “the council”), and so made Joseph to be an outright disciple of Jesus.

Now the problem with Crossan’s (and by extension, Aslan’s) idea is that he overlooks something he himself mentions.

It is true that leaving the corpse to hang on the cross to be feasted upon by birds and animals is standard custom, as Martin Hengel has demonstrated and Crossan has stated. What is at question here is whether the plausible inference that on at least three occasions reported by Josephus - the Syrian legate Quintilius Varus’ quelling of the unrest that broke after Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC (Antiquities 17.295), the indiscriminate crucifixions ordered by Gessius Florus at the outbreak of the Jewish War in AD 66 (Jewish War 2.306-307), and the crucifixion of thousands of Jews around the walls of Jerusalem during the siege of AD 69-70 (Jewish War 5.450) - the crucified victims were left unburied reflect normal practice in peacetime Judaea.

Now Josephus does not specifically state that bodies were left unburied, but it is a likely idea - he probably did not mention it because it was taken for granted that they would be left there anyway. Review of Josephus suggests, however, that leaving the bodies of the executed unburied was exceptional, not typical. In all three occasions, you would notice one thing in common: these mass crucfixions all come from times of acute crisis, when military officers were being called in to stabilize situations that had gotten out of hand.

Judaea wasn’t always tottering on the brink of chaos as it was in the 60s, unlike what some authors would like to portray (this includes Aslan himself). In fact, around the time of Jesus the situation was ‘peaceful’ (in a qualified sense) enough that the Romans could leave daily management of local government in the hands of native officials (such as the high priest and his council - synedrion, whence comes “sanhedrin” - of advisors). What you had was the prefect/procurator and most of his troops staying in the coastal city of Caesarea (Maritima ‘by the sea’) for most of the year far away from the sight of Jews, visiting Jerusalem only during special occasions to watch out for potential unrest. For most of the year in which the prefect was absent, government was effectively in the hands of local, Jewish magistrates and aristocrats - it would be their responsibility to manage affairs the prefect is normally supposed to do (such as keeping the peace and overseeing the collection of tribute). Hey, after all, it made most people happy.
No, Jerusalem wasn’t the capital of Judaea Province.

What you had in the 1st century in general if we go by Josephus is escalating unrest, which came to a head in the Jewish-Roman War of the 60s-70s. Judaea in general wasn’t a very stable place, yes - there is always the likely possibility that trouble would erupt. But the 30s at least was still relatively free from the chaos of the latter half of the century; it would be a mistake to assume that Josephus’ picture of the mid-to-late 1st century is applicable to the early part of that century.


Maybe I’m off-base, but it seems the critics have far overcomplicated their analysis. The explicit evidence pertaining to Jesus’ post-crucifixion fate have him buried in a tomb. That’s the evidence that exists. Instead, they prefer to favor speculations absent of evidence, based on a “well, this is how it was normally done in those days,” appeal.



Josephus mentions other incidents of crucifixions in both his works Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War. But most of these instances are similar to the three mentioned above: they involve open rebellion and armed conflict on the one hand, or mob actions and anarchy on the other. None of these cases can be said to reflect “normal” practice. These cases are exceptional and involve desperate, forceful attempts to gain or retake control and/or terrorize civilian populations. These incidents usually involve kings, procurators, military commanders - Antiochus IV, Alexander Jannaeus, Quintus Varus, Tiberius Alexander, Felix, Gessius Florus, general Titus - putting their foot down hard on mob rule and open rebellion against their authority. By contrast, ‘peacetime’ prefects like Pontius Pilate were bureaucrats whose main concern was keeping the wheels of government run smoothly.

The cases of non-burial that Josephus does mention all involve murder or execution at the hands of the Jewish rebels. Outraged over the indignity that the rebels practiced on the murdered Temple priests (whose bodies were left unburied) in the 60s, Josephus remarks, “Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset” (War 4.317). Many times Josephus vilifies these Zealots who executed many of the Jewish aristocracy by charging that burial of the dead was not permitted, nor even mourning (War 4.331; 4.360; 4.383; 5.518; 5.531).

Peacetime administration on the contrary appears to have respected Jewish burial sensitivities. Both Philo and Josephus claim that Roman administration in fact did acquiesce to Jewish customs. In his appeal to Caligula, for example, Philo draws attention to the Jews who “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). Josephus meanwhile says that Romans, do not require “their subjects to violate their national laws” (Against Apion 2.6 §73). Josephus adds that the Roman procurators who succeeded Herod Agrippa I (reigned 41-44) “by abstaining from all interference with the customs of the country kept the nation at peace” (War 2.220).

Crossan himself notes that in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 you have this injunction:

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Burying the dead in the Mediterranean world was regarded as sacred duty, especially so for the Jews. Even since early Israelite history there had been a concern for caring for the dead and their proper burial (cf. Genesis 23:4-19; Genesis 50:4-14, 22-26; Joshua 24:32; 1 Samuel 31:12-13; 2 Samuel 21:12-14). Even the wicked and those who were judged by God are buried, such as those in the wilderness who were greedy for meat (Numbers 11:33–34), or individual criminals who are executed (Deuteronomy 21:22i23). Israel’s enemies, slain in battle, are buried (1 Kinggs 11:15), including the eschatological enemy hosts of Gog (Ezekiel 39:11-16). By contrast, there are the sinners and evildoers who have a horrific punishment in store for them: they will not get a proper burial (Deuteronomy 28:25-26; cf. Jeroboam in 1 Kings 14:11; Ahab in 1 Kings 21:24; Jezebel in 1 Kings 21:23; 2 Kings 9:33-37). This disturbing imagery of bodies left unburied and lying out in the open also occurs in some other passages (Jeremiah 7:33; 8:2; cf. 14:16; 16:4; 20:6; 22:19; 25:33; cf. Psalm 79:2-3; Ezekiel 29:5). This is also the reason why Tobit is a virtuous man: because he buries the dead (Tobit 1:18-20; 2:3-8; 4:3-4; 6:15; 14:10-13).

When explaining Jewish ethical obligations, Josephus says: “We must furnish fire, water, food to all who ask for them, point out the road, not leave a corpse unburied, show consideration even to declared enemies” (Against Apion 2.211; cf. 2.205). Even the rabbis of later centuries still regarded burial of the dead as a duty of the highest obligation, higher even the study of the Torah or other commands (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megillah 3b). They even thought that a priest or a Nazirite - who are normally not allowed to touch corpses, because it would make them ritually impure - must have the obligation to bury a neglected corpse, since there is no one else to do it (Sifre to Numbers 26).

There are two reasons for the emphasis on burial: for the sake of the dead themselves and to prevent the land from being defiled, as above quote from Deuteronomy shows. It is also expressed in Ezekiel 39:14-16:

They will set apart men to travel through the land regularly and bury those travelers remaining on the face of the land, so as to cleanse it. At the end of seven months they will make their search. And when these travel through the land and anyone sees a human bone, then he shall set up a sign by it, till the buriers have buried it in the Valley of Hamon-gog. (Hamonah is also the name of the city.) Thus shall they cleanse the land.


I am not sure why Crossan became so famous, unless his odd views on Jesus and the Gospel narratives fit the national-media agenda towards an atheistic society, and so he was adopted.

I will show your post, Patrick, to a friend who went to seminary school with Crossan. He will be pleased.

One factor not mentioned, and derived by Hagan using Josephus, the only viable non-NT source on those times, was that John the Baptist was executed a little more than a year before Jesus’ crucifixion. This was a hugely unsettling event. Also, less than a year before, Herod’s army had been beaten by the Arabs, and not very far from Jerusalem by modern standards.

So while the Zealots were not overtly revolting, the times were VERY unstable.

I am not sure Asian’s work is deserving of your attention.



This view is also expressed in a work found in Qumran known as the Temple Scroll (11QT/11Q19 64.7–13a, 4Q524 frag. 14, lines 2-4):

If a man slanders his people and delivers his people to a foreign nation and does evil to his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he shall die. On the testimony of two witnesses and on the testimony of three witnesses he shall be put to death and they shall hang him on the tree.

If a man is guilty of a capital crime and flees (abroad) to the nations, and curses his people, the children of Israel, you shall hang him also on the tree, and he shall die. But his body shall not stay overnight on the tree. Indeed you shall bury him on the same day. For he who is hanged on the tree is accursed of God and men. You shall not pollute the ground which I give you to inherit.

These two ordinances provide a creative expansion of the command in Deuteronomy 21 by the sectarians of Qumran. The two crimes specified are among those the Roman law punished by crucifixion: betrayal of state secrets and desertion to the enemy - treason. Whereas Deuteronomy 21 speaks of one put to death and then hanged, the work speaks of hanging first - which is the means to kill the guilty. Another Qumranic work, a commentary on Nahum (4Q169), which has a possible allusion to the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103 BC-76 BC) having 800 rebels hung (Josephus, War 1.97-98; Antiquities 13.380), uses the expression “hanging” in pretty much the same way:

Whither the lion goes, there is the lion’s cub, [with none to disturb it] (ii, 11b).
[Interpreted, this concerns Deme]trius king of Greece who sought, on the counsel of those who seek smooth things, to enter Jerusalem. [But God did not permit the city to be delivered] into the hands of the kings of Greece, from the time of Antiochus until the coming of the rulers of the Kittim. But then she shall be trampled under their feet…

The lion tears enough for its cubs, and it chokes prey for its lionesses (ii, 12a).
Interpreted, this concerns the furious young lion who strikes by means of his great men, and by means of the men of his council.

[And it chokes prey for its lionesses; and it fills] its caves [with prey] and its dens with victims (ii, 12a-b).
Interpreted, this concerns the furious young lion [who executes revenge] against on those who seek smooth things and hangs men alive, … formerly in Israel. Because of a man hanged alive on [the] tree, He proclaims, ‘Behold, I am against [you, says the Lord of Hosts’].

The requirement to bury the executed person the day of his death is also emphasized. While in Deuteronomy it simply says, “you shall bury him the same day,” the Temple Scroll adds “you must not let their bodies remain on the tree overnight.”


The tradition is attested in the later Mishnah, where in the discussion of the rules pertaining to execution, the sages teach that one hanged must not be left overnight, lest the command in Deuteronomy 21 be violated (Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin 6.4-6 [Jerusalem 6.7-10 (7-12)]):

(4) How is he [the guilty] hanged?
The post is sunk into the ground with a [cross-] piece branching off [at the top] and he brings his hands together one over the other and hangs him up [thereby].
R. Jose said: the post is leaned against the wall, and he hangs him up the way butchers do.
He is immediately let down.
If he is left [hanging] over night, a negative command is thereby transgressed, for it says, “You shall not let his corpse remain all night upon the tree, but you must bury him the same day because a hanged body is a curse against God” (Deut. 21:23).
As if to say why was he hanged? — because he cursed the name [of God]; and so the name of Heaven [God] is profaned.

(5) R. Meir said: “When man suffers, what expression does the shechinah (God’s presence) use? “My head is too light (a euphemism for heavy) for me, my arm is too light (a euphemism for heavy) for me.”
If God is so grieved over the blood of the wicked that is shed, how much more so over the blood of the righteous!
And not only of this one [a criminal did the sages not to leave him overnight] but whosoever lets his dead lie over night transgresses a negative commandment.
If he kept him over night for the sake of his honor, to procure for him a coffin or a shroud, he does not transgress.
And they did not bury him [the executed person] in his ancestral tomb, but two burial places were prepared by the court, one for those who were decapitated or strangled, and the other for those who were stoned or burned.

(6) When the flesh was completely decomposed, the bones were gathered and buried in their proper place.
The relatives then came and greeted the judges and witnesses, as if to say, we have no [ill feelings] against you, for you gave a true judgment.
And they observed no mourning rites but grieved [for him], for grief is in the heart alone.

What is important here is that even in the case of the executed criminal, proper burial was anticipated. Various restrictions may have applied, such as being forbidden burial in one’s family tomb (at least until the flesh had rotted away) or not being allowed to mourn publicly, but burial was to take place, in keeping with the scriptural command of Deuteronomy and the customs that had grown up alongside it.

There are cases in which Roman prefects like Pilate did allow crucifixion victims to be buried. Cicero mentions a governor in Sicily who released bodies to family members for a fee (In Verrem 2.5.45), and Philo writes that on the eve of Roman holidays in Egypt, crucified bodies were taken down and given to their families, “because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them ordinary rites” (In Flaccum 10.83-84).

Taking a break.


Oh, and Crossan does know about the Temple Scroll. He just chooses to, erm, handle it differently.


I am bookmarking this to use in the future. Great job! :thumbsup:


Almost all of the sources I’ve read assert that Josephus places JtB’s death in the year 36 AD. If that’s true and if Jesus died more than a year later, then wouldn’t that mean that Jesus died no sooner than 38 AD?


Depends on your source, of course.

What source says JB died in A.D. 36, and what is their reasoning?


John the Baptist and Josephus, by G.J. Goldberg, Ph.D. I’ve been unable to find details of Dr. Goldberg’s CV online, but I’ve requested them via an email to him.


This page has some on Josephus about John the Baptist also.


I’m going back a bit to what I’ve just written.

This is actually Crossan’s idea. He argues that only men of power would only have had the guts to actually go before the soldiers; the common poor would have been intimidated by the Roman guards, and Jesus’ disciples were such people (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 392):

What must have happened normally was that the soldiers who executed the crucifixion guarded the cross until death and made sure it was over by burying the crucified one themselves. Guarding was necessary to make certain that nobody intervened to save the crucified person and to make sure the full public effect of the slow and horrible death. Josephus, for example, tells us that he managed to get three friends of his taken down from crosses after the fall of Jerusalem, and though “two of them died in the physician’s hands; the third survived” (Life 421). In most cases, however, ordinary families were probably too afraid or too powerless to get close to a crucified body even after death.

Personally, however, I think this argument smacks of special pleading. Even if we suppose that Crossan is correct, and that ordinary people would have been too frightened to approach the crosses, that’s all the more reason for a person like Joseph of Arimathea to come and ask for Jesus’ body. But Crossan’s image of Jesus prevents him from thinking that there could ever be a Joseph-like figure.

Crossan’s Jesus is a wandering peasant sage who preached a radical message of socio-political reform and who attracted other peasants (read: much of the population) to Him. For Crossan, the historical Jesus was a displaced Galilean peasant artisan who had got fed up with the exploitation of the agrarian poor by the Romans and their collaborators and went about preaching an egalitarian vision of the ‘Kingdom of God’ present on earth - which Crossan interprets as a world where there are no class divisions and everybody is equal, where the rich do not exploit and oppress the poor, etc. This Jesus obviously does not have much in store for the powers that be - which is probably why Crossan could not accept that a figure like Joseph of Arimathea (presented in the gospels as “a prominent member of the council” and “a rich man”) could ever be a disciple of Jesus, much less actually exist.

(Reza Aslan’s picture of Jesus differs from Crossan’s in that Aslan interprets Jesus to be a Zealot, a political revolutionary who did not just use words against the authorities, but even possibly planned to use force of arms. While this proposal has some similarities with the main contender for the ‘Jesus as wandering sage’ model in modern historical Jesus scholarship (namely, that of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet), the difference is that the standard apocalyptic model has Jesus expecting that it is God Himself who will eschatologically step in and bring about the coming of His kingdom, while Aslan’s Jesus takes things into His own hands by preparing His disciples for a possible militant uprising to topple down the Roman/Herodian/high priestly yoke - at least, before the plan came to nothing with His crucifixion.)

Oh, and Crossan does know about the Temple Scroll. He just chooses to, erm, handle it differently.

This is Crossan on the Temple Scroll (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 173-174):

In early June of 1967 the Jewish archaeologist Yigael Yadin obtained possession of the largest of all the Dead Sea Scrolls. It had been discovered in Cave 11 at Qumran and had been copied around 50 C.E., although the original may have been composed as early as 150-125 B.C.E., after the Essenes had broken with the Sadducees, departed from Jerusalem to Qumran, and left the Sadducees in control of the Temple. It is twenty-seven feet long, contains sixty-six columns of text, and is called the Temple Scroll because most of it concerns detailed plans for Jerusalem’s purified Temple. It also, however, contains a catalog of certain crimes for which crucifixion is decreed, and in that context Deuteronomy 21:23 is again invoked in column 64, lines 11-13. Biblical injunction and Essene commentary tell us clearly what pious Jews deemed right if or when they themselves had control over the Jewish homeland and especially over Jerusalem and its Temple. We cannot, however, immediately conclude that Pilate respected Jewish piety in this regard, although it is possible that he did. Indeed, to the contrary, by telling us what the Qumran Essenes hoped to legislate when and if they regained control of Jerusalem and the Temple, the Temple Scroll tells us what was not being done when it was composed.

What Crossan says (that the Temple Scroll may reflect more an idealized situation) may well be true, but we just go back here to the question posed in the former posts: just what was the “normal” practice in Judaea aside from times of unrest? And how can we be sure that the sentiment expressed in the Temple Scroll’s - its idealizations notwithstanding - elaboration of Deuteronomy 21 was not followed in ‘peacetime’?


Because the point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten witnesses, the corpse would be left to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a trash heap, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus’s crucifixion, earned its name: the place of skulls.


I’m shifting from Crossan to Aslan here:

Because the point of crucifixion was to humiliate the victim and frighten witnesses, the corpse would be left to be eaten by dogs and picked clean by birds of prey. The bones would then be thrown onto a trash heap, which is how Golgotha, the place of Jesus’s crucifixion, earned its name: the place of skulls.

As I grow older I’ve come to dislike nitpicking minor details in an argument (grammatical errors, slips of the tongue, etc.) - in many cases, it tends to come off more like a cheap shot and an excuse to find more fault in the argument than there actually is. But I’ll break my rule here a bit: it is not “place of skulls” (plural), but “place of a skull” or “skull’s place” (singular) - kraniou topos. I suppose Aslan needed the plural to strengthen his argument that Golgotha earned its name for being a “trash heap” for the bodies of crucified criminals.

Aslan seems to be confident that Golgotha was a dumping ground for corpses - to the contrary, we just don’t know why it was named as it was. His idea isn’t really new, mind: a popular assumption which already existed for quite some time as to why Golgotha got its name was because the place was littered with the bones of people who were executed on the site. The ultimate origin of this idea is St. Jerome, who proposed that Golgotha meant “place of the beheading” (i.e. ‘execution site’), and that it received its name because of its function as an execution site. He even thought that the golgotha where Jesus died was only one of such designated areas in Jerusalem. And surely places of execution must be littered with the remains of the dead, right? It is a popular idea, but the problem with this scenario is that it would have been a violation of Jewish sensibilities: remember the huge emphasis on the dead receiving a proper burial?

There is an early Christian tradition - first attested by Origen - that the “Skull” refers to that of Adam, who was buried in that exact spot:

Concerning the place of the skull, it came to me that Hebrews hand down [the tradition that] the body of Adam has been buried there; in order that “as in Adam all die” both Adam would be raised and “in Christ all will be made alive.”

Note that only the Greek version makes reference to “Hebrews.” The Latin version makes reference to “a tradition,” but it is not specified that it is a Hebrew one. Out of all the literary references which place Adam’s burial at Golgotha, only St. Ambrose (Exposition of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke X), pseudo-Athanasius, and Basil of Seleucia (Oration XXXVIII.3) say something to the effect that it was a “Hebrew tradition.” This is a popular traditional explanation of the name among Christians: in fact, many depictions of the crucifixion make reference to this tradition by including a skull (and some bones) at the foot of the cross.

Nevertheless, it isn’t likely that the claim is historically authentic. Leaving aside the fact that this is the first man we’re talking about, there is no verifiable authentic Jewish belief that Adam was buried at Golgotha. (The traditional site - the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - functioned as a stone quarry between the 8th and the 1st centuries BC before being finally abandoned, with the land finding some use as a spot for gardening and building tombs - as well as possibly becoming an execution site.) In fact, Jerome - a former proponent of this idea himself - proposed his own explanation of what Golgotha could mean in objection to this tradition: apparently, he became familiar with one actual Jewish idea which places Adam’s tomb at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron (Talmud, Sota 13a).

Now there is one Jewish tradition which has Adam being buried beneath the bedrock, the Even ha-Shetiyah, upon which the temple of Jerusalem was built. This rock was, according to one opinion, also the place where the entire universe originated (the navel of the world). Some propose that Origen, or the ‘Hebrews’ (Jewish Christians?) who reported the tradition to him, transferred this tradition to Golgotha, either by accident (he identified the ‘temple’ as being the Roman temple that was built over the traditional site by Hadrian) or on purpose - to emphasize more the connection between Adam and Christ. This isn’t the only time Christians have appropriated Jewish beliefs about the Temple Mount and transferred it to Golgotha. Remember the mountain in “the land of Moriah” where Isaac was nearly sacrificed? 2 Chronicles 3:1 identifies the threshing-floor upon which the temple was built to be “mount Moriah” (which in turn is often identified as the same location as the one described in Genesis 22:2) but in some Christian sources, Golgotha is held to be that ‘mount’ where Abraham took Isaac - again informed by the parallels drawn between Isaac and Jesus.

God created the world as a human fetus. As a fetus begins from the navel and from there begins and expands, so the world began from its navel and from it stretched here and there.
And where is its navel? It is Jerusalem. Its navel itself is the altar.
And why did he call it Foundation Stone? Because the entire world was founded from it.

Beit ha-Midrash 5:63-70

R. Itz’hak says, “The Holy One, blessed be He, threw a stone into the sea, and therefrom a world was made. As it is written (Job 38:6), ‘Upon what are her foundation-pillars placed at rest? or who threw her corner-stone?’”

Talmud, Yoma 5:2



I’ve also encountered the idea that Golgotha is named after Goliath, whose head was supposedly buried by David on the spot: Golgotha is supposed here to be a corruption of Goliath-Gath. Now, the actual text doesn’t say that David buried Goliath’s severed head (1 Samuel 17:54 “And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put his armor in his tent”). In fact, that passage is very difficult - since first of all, Jerusalem would have still been a Jebusite city by then. We don’t know what happened to the head (did David keep it as a trophy? Did he use it as a warning against potential foes? Did he present it to the Jebusites?); in 17:57 we are told 'that “as soon as David returned from the striking down of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand.”

I don’t find the ‘Golgotha = Goliath’ connection convincing either. The name גָּלְיָת (Gāləyāṯ) is of uncertain origin (it is probably non-Semitic), although some connect it with two names attested from the Philistine settlement of Tell es-Safi (the biblical Gath) alwt and wlt, which in turn is linked with the Lydian name Alyattes. Golgotha, on the other hand, is probably from Aramaic גלגלתא gûlgaltâ and the Hebrew גֻּלְגֹּלֶת gulgōleṯ, ‘skull’. The theory rests mainly on the fact that Golgotha and ‘Goliath-Gath’ looks (but only - here’s the key - in Roman letters!) and sounds almost the same, which isn’t really a strong argument IMHO.

Yet another idea has it that Golgotha must have gotten its name because of the shape of the area. Joan Taylor, in her article considering the traditional site as the most likely candidate for biblical Golgotha (Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial), argues thus:

It is often pointed out that the Arabic equivalent to [Hebrew] rosh, ras, can be used for a hill, rising up or sticking out of the ground like a “head.” However, this need not at all imply that what we should be looking for at Golgotha is a little knoll: the “hill of Calvary” is a traditional understanding not found in the New Testament. In Hebrew also, rosh can mean the “top” of a mountain, or a hill (2 Sm 15:32), but if gulgolet can mean rosh, in some sense, and rosh can mean summit, in another sense, it does not mean that gulgolet can mean summit, or, by analogy, a hill in general. The traditional site of the church of the Holy Sepulcher is located on the tilled saddle of part of the slope of a hill, possibly known once as Mount Gareb, but this would not have looked in any way like a hill. It would have looked like an elongated crater.

…] In our book Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Shimon Gibson and I explored the geographical features of the area of the Church and beyond, as these existed in the time of Jesus. We reviewed the archaeological findings and determined that the entire area had indeed been an Iron Age quarry, characterized by irregular rock cuttings, scarps and caves (pp. 51-63). The area itself is on a slope, but it had been substantially cut away by the quarrying.

If one were looking for a region that might be named and identified as having an integrity and nameable character on this side of Jerusalem, then one would easily identify the quarry as such. If one looked down on it from the city walls, it would have had clear demarcations around its perimeter, with cuttings becoming gradually deeper towards its central area. To speculate on how a given site might have been named may be pointless, but if, in the slanting light of morning and evening, the shape of the “crater,” and the rocks and caves, started to take on the appearance of a skull, or a human head, perhaps we have a reason for the location being called “the skull place.” The site seems too elongated to be considered a skull shape from a bird’s eye view (as shown in Figure 3). However, someone standing on part of the first wall nearby and looking north would have seen it from a different perspective, which would have contracted it considerably, and it may have been supposed that its actual shape was like a human head. An experiment with my children showed that if I drew an oval shape on a piece of paper and asked them what it was they thought of it as a head or an egg. The word golgolta would have indicated not simply a skull in its skeletal form, but a detached human head, and later Jerome would consider the meaning of “Golgotha” in the Jerusalem dialect of his own day to be “place of beheading” (Comm. in Matt 27:33).

This is a more likely idea IMHO than the others discussed above, but at the same time this idea requires one to think that the possible sites for biblical Golgotha (and there are a number of them beyond the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Gordon’s Calvary/Garden Tomb, two sites which would be probably more familiar to many Christians) did resemble a human skull or head 2000 years ago. In any case, the fact that such differences in opinion could exist (I haven’t discussed all possibilities above) shows that there is still disagreement about where the name ‘Golgotha’ comes from unlike what Aslan would like us to believe.

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