Burial of Jesus FAQ
By Richard Carrier
This page presents answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Richard Carrier's chapter "The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law," in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, pp. 369-92, edited by Jeff Lowder and Robert Price (Prometheus Books: 2005). Launched in October of 2005, this FAQ will be updated continually. It is assumed you have already read the original chapter in its entirety. You may submit new questions to Richard Carrier.
QUESTION: Have you responded to published critiques of your work in The Empty Tomb?
QUESTION: What do you think of Glenn Miller's rebuttal?
QUESTION: In your previous rebuttal to Miller you said he might be right that the "atonement" justification for having separate graveyards for condemned criminals could be a post-Temple development, but in the book you argue the contrary. What changed?
QUESTION: In your previous rebuttal to Miller you said he might be right that some of the "temporary tomb" passages you cite could instead refer to secondary burial, if you were wrong and Miller right about whether mourning and burial rites had to coincide, but in the book you conclude "they are probably not referring to secondary burial." What changed?
QUESTION: Even if the body was relocated and not discovered, how would that explain the Christians' claim to have seen the risen Jesus?
QUESTION: But weren't crucified criminals just thrown into pits or left to rot?
QUESTION: Don't some scholars argue that Jesus may have been tried and convicted (falsely or not) of being a false prophet, and not blasphemy or any of the other crimes you suggest?
QUESTION: Do you really think the relocation hypothesis "has even greater merit than the possibility of theft, since the present theory entails Jesus had to have been moved" (p. 370)?
QUESTION: Isn't it contradictory to argue for your theory when you believe Jesus didn't really exist after all?
Q: Have you responded to published critiques of your work in The Empty Tomb?
A: Yes. So far only two critiques have appeared in print: Stephen T. Davis, "The Counterattack of the Resurrection Skeptics: A Review Article" in Philosophia Christi 8.1 (2006): pp. 39-63; and Normal Geisler, "A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave" in Christian Apologetics Journal 5.1 (Spring 2006): pp. 45-106. Only the Davis review is worth the bother of a reply. There is now an entire site devoted to answering critics of the book (The Empty Tomb Official Companion Website), where I have contributed my own response to the Davis review, which supplements this FAQ considerably. See Stephen Davis Gets it Wrong.
Q: What do you think of Glenn Miller's rebuttal?
A: Glenn Miller wrote a detailed rebuttal to my argument when it originally appeared online. I already responded to his rebuttal in Reply to Glenn Miller on the Burial of Jesus (2002). However, my argument has also undergone significant revision and improvement since then, and must be assessed as presented in The Empty Tomb, rather than the online version, which is now somewhat obsolete.
Q: In your previous rebuttal to Miller you said he might be right that the "atonement" justification for having separate graveyards for condemned criminals could be a post-Temple development, but in the book you argue the contrary. What changed?
A: I studied the issue more extensively when rewriting that chapter for the book, and as a result I became less convinced by Miller's arguments than even before. On his claim that the "atonement" justification for separate graveyards (which I mention on p. 384) might be a "late development," see my old rebuttal and now my remarks in The Empty Tomb, note 22 (p. 389) and note 32 (p. 390). To this I would add that the Day of Atonement seems only to absolve the living, and only once a year, per Mishnah, Yoma 8.8-8.9 (cf. 6.2). Logically, therefore, for those executed on account of their sin between Days of Atonement, some means must have been available even when the Temple still stood, and Mishnah, Sanhedrin 6.2 (together with Yoma 8.8) explains the logic of why confession and burial provide that means. This does not look like a late development, but a fundamental element of Oral Torah. There is no real evidence to the contrary.
Q: In your previous rebuttal to Miller you said he might be right that some of the "temporary tomb" passages you cite could instead refer to secondary burial, if you were wrong and Miller right about whether mourning and burial rites had to coincide, but in the book you conclude "they are probably not referring to secondary burial." What changed?
A: As I note in the book (pp. 383-84), the passages in question "speak of placing a body, not gathering bones," and therefore Miller's conjecture seems even more implausible than I had once thought. Also, the Semahot already discusses the laws of secondary burial separately (in chapter 12), so it is a stretch to assume it has revisited the issue in other chapters without explanation, and then explicitly describing it (e.g. in Semahot 10.8) as an exception to ordinary practice. Secondary burial would not be treated as an obscure exception to ordinary practice. But storage would. Indeed, it would be incorrect to refer to initial burial as "temporary," since it was certainly illegal to move an initially buried body, except under the very specific conditions of secondary burial (which require the corpse to have rotted into dry bones, for example), and neither of the Semahot passages that I cite declare any of the limitations upon moving bodies undergoing secondary burial, nor mention the long passage of time required for decay of the bones, nor mention bones at all but only an entire body, which is all improbable. Therefore, the Semahot passages I cite are less likely to be casual references to secondary burial than to bodies not yet formally buried in the first place. Finally, as I already noted in the old rebuttal and even further in the book, we still have passages that cannot be interpreted in Miller's sense at all: even if we distrust the Semahot, we have numerous references from other sources that make it clear that temporarily relocating bodies before burial was allowed, though of course there were rules limiting when and why it could be done.
Q: Even if the body was relocated and not discovered, how would that explain the Christians' claim to have seen the risen Jesus?
A: In order to avoid repetition, I addressed the logic of this concern in my chapter "The Plausibility of Theft" (see pp. 354-55). In light of what I said there, I briefly proposed adjunct hypotheses in the introduction to "The Burial of Jesus" and then I elaborated in its conclusion (pp. 387-88, with notes on pp. 391-92). In the introduction (p. 369) I said the relocation hypothesis must be assessed "in conjunction with other factors," such as "reinterpretations of scripture and things Jesus said, the dreams and visions of leading disciples, and the desire to seize an opportunity to advance the moral cause of Jesus," and the hypothesis that the original belief was "Jesus had risen...by direct ascension to heaven," i.e. the claim to have physically seen, touched, and eaten with the risen Jesus may be a legendary development and not an original element of the faith.
The latter point I argue in detail in my chapter "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb" (pp. 105-232), where I also present the case for scriptural origins and visions. Regarding the latter, a lot of what I say there (esp. pp. 184-88) is pertinent to the adjunct hypotheses proposed in "Burial of Jesus." Also, in my chapter on theft I briefly discuss the "moral cause" possibility (pp. 351-52), but I address that in even more detail in an article I wrote for the Journal of Higher Criticism ("Whence Christianity? A Meta-Theory for the Origins of Christianity," 11.1, Spring 2005), which I cited in "Spiritual Body" (n. 346, p. 228). All of this must be considered when seeking a complete explanation of the origin of Christianity. Hence my chapters on relocation and theft only attempt to answer the question "what about the empty tomb?" for those who remain convinced there was one (despite my arguments in "Spiritual Body").
Q: But weren't crucified criminals just thrown into pits or left to rot?
A: The evidence I present in my chapter is already sufficient to refute this claim. But by fortuitous coincidence, in the same year Empty Tomb went to press, a noted scholar published an article supporting some of the (least controversial) elements of my analysis of Jewish burial customs, including an even more extensive refutation of arguments for the nonburial of crucified Jews. See: Craig Evans, "Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus," Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3.2 (2005): pp. 233-248 (available online as a PDF).
Q: Don't some scholars argue that Jesus may have been tried and convicted (falsely or not) of being a false prophet, and not blasphemy or any of the other crimes you suggest?
A: I argue the crime was blasphemy (at least as the earliest authors understood it or represented it to be), but despite the evidence I present (e.g. Mark 14:63-64, cf. p. 377) one could argue against this that a conviction for blasphemy doesn't fit even the false evidence given against Jesus in the Gospels ("He who blasphemes is liable only when he will have fully pronounced the divine name," Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.5, which Jesus never does in any extant story, nor would he have had any plausible reason to in the context they describe). Hence I also suggest profaning the Sabbath, sorcery, and dishonoring parents (pp. 381 and 390 n. 31).
Other stoning offenses that may have fit include idolotry and inciting to idolatry (which is, along with sorcery, what the Talmud seems to have said was his crime: cf. Robert Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament 2000: 104-22). I now see this actually fits the reported facts better: Jewish law (cf. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.6c and 7.10), though directed at the usual practice of treating inanimate objects as gods, would certainly apply to calling a person (or any animal) a god, including oneself. So if Jesus were taken (or mistaken or framed or later portrayed) as claiming he was a divine being of some sort (as the evidence of Mark 14:58 and 14:61-64 could be used to "prove," at least in a kangaroo court), this would qualify under the law as idolatry or inciting to idolatry, not blasphemy.
But I can also see how one might argue that Mark implies (truthfully or not) that at least one of the crimes Jesus was tried for was false prophecy, since Mark 14:65 has the Romans mocking his claim to being a prophet, and that implies this was what he was claiming or accused of claiming, and the evidence of Mark 14:58 and 14:61-64 could certainly also have been offered to "prove" he was prophesying falsely, at least if the court corruptly skipped over the nicety of waiting for confirmation in events. A full Sanhedrin would also require a charge of false prophecy, even if he wasn't convicted of it (see Osiris Myths Inspired Mark?). Of course, the penalty for false prophecy was strangulation, not stoning (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11.1b), and it isn't clear if the bodies of the strangled were also hung as the bodies of the stoned were (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.3g-j), but those convicted of multiple crimes were to endure the worst punishment warranted (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 9.4a), and it is possible Jesus was (or was depicted as being) convicted of several different crimes (and as I already noted, theologically a stoning conviction was required by the gospel, even if it was never a fact: p. 390 n. 31). This all assumes, of course, that the Gospel authors even knew such details of the law and cared to get them right.
Q: Do you really think the relocation hypothesis "has even greater merit than the possibility of theft, since the present theory entails Jesus had to have been moved" (p. 370)?
A: No longer. Since I wrote all my chapters for The Empty Tomb I have come to believe even less than before in the credibility of the Gospels, for a variety of reasons too lengthy to detail here. But as I already stated in my conclusion (pp. 385-86), my relocation hypothesis assumes that at least some of the details added by the Gospels after Mark are historical (those "common to the majority," p. 386). However, I no longer believe that any of the details added by later Gospels are historical. In fact, I doubt any of the details in Mark are historical. But if we at least grant that Mark is reporting more or less what really happened, while the later Gospels elaborate on this without basis in fact, then my relocation hypothesis is not thereby refuted, but it loses some elements of support (in particular, we no longer have any evidence that Joseph didn't bury Jesus in the criminal's graveyard from the start). And in that light, in my opinion theft becomes at least as likely, since it is then no longer the case that the body "had" to be moved.
I still believe the relocation hypothesis is "a distinct possibility" (p. 369) that is "neither improbable nor implausible" (p. 370), by which I mean its probability may be low, but not so low as to warrant dismissing it in favor of a supernatural alternative. But I also still believe it is "impossible to determine which explanation is correct, since the evidence we would need to decide the matter is gone" (p. 370), and that is true even if something supernatural did happen. At the same time, I have learned more about the sociology of ancient religion that elevates the probability of theft beyond what I had assumed when writing my chapters for The Empty Tomb. I now believe a pious theft is even more a live option for that time and place than I had imagined (cf. pp. 351-52; and see a related question in my Plausibility of Theft FAQ). I am also more convinced than before that a discovered theft would likely have no notable effect on our current evidence or the success of the Church (cf. pp. 355-57). Both conclusions in my mind, in conjunction with what I concluded above, now raise the probability of theft higher than that of relocation.
Even so, since I now doubt the historical veracity of anything in the Gospels, even in Mark, I still think, as I stated in the book, that my "spiritual resurrection" hypothesis is more probable than theft. It is to date the most likely explanation of the facts known to me, as I explain in "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb" (pp. 105-232). See also the next question.
Q: Isn't it contradictory to argue for your theory when you believe Jesus didn't really exist after all?
A: I don't actually argue for the relocation hypothesis. I argue for a very different theory, in my chapter "The Spiritual Body of Christ" (pp. 105-232) which is what I believe most likely happened (p. 370). I only present "The Burial of Jesus" as another defensible possibility that is consistent with the evidence available. Anyone who is convinced there was a real Jesus will have to contend with the case I lay out there, especially if they are not persuaded by the theory I actually think is more likely (which is compatible with there being no historical Jesus: see my answer to this same question in my Spiritual Body FAQ). On the relevant idea of ranking theories by relative probability see the Conclusion of my reply to Davis.