RESPONDblogs: The Missing Second Burial of Jesus

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When considering the Christian claim that Jesus was raised from the dead, one historical point often overlooked is the lack of evidence that Jesus’ body received a second Jewish burial. The evidence supports his death by crucifixion, burial in an unused tomb that was then found empty and his subsequent appearances to his disciples.

What is this second Jewish burial?

In Western culture, graves are usually occupied by single people; only the rich and famous afford family tombs. But in first century Jerusalem, it was common for families to own shared tombs where deceased close friends and family members were laid on carved stone shelves. Modern western graves usually remain closed, but ancient Jewish tombs were periodically re-opened when family members died. Tomb reuse is one reason bodies were “wrapped in grave-cloths along with a significant amount of spices, to offset the smell of putrefaction, on the usual assumption that other shelves in the cave would be required soon.”[1] Within a year or so, a corpse would decompose to a skeleton, at which point the family would “collect the bones, fold them reverently and carefully according to a traditional pattern, and place them in an ossuary.”[2] This would count as the person’s normal, second burial and it cleared tomb space for subsequent family burials.

Interestingly, no Christian or pagan evidence exists recording Jesus’ second burial. Surely if his body remained in the tomb, a friend would have returned to pay respects in this way? But there’s no report of it. Wouldn’t Christianity’s enemies have appealed to this data if it existed?  Given Jesus’ public ministry and carefully documented life, death and first burial, surely a second burial would also have been documented if it happened?

While the historical record is silent on this, it’s full of information on a related matter. At the precise time when Jesus’ body should have received a second burial, his friends were instead “proclaiming him as Messiah…on the grounds that he had been raised from the dead.”[3] Further, the Christian church’s biggest persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, claimed to have encountered the risen Jesus and converted to Christian evangelist.

But was Jesus’ resurrection fabricated? Perhaps his disciples stole his body and the second burial was done privately to protect their new resurrection myth? This theory has many problems. First, why would the disciples do this? No-one in first century Judaism expected resurrection to work this way, so why would they attempt to manufacture something they weren’t expecting? [4] Second, the stolen body theory implicates the disciples in a coverup. This a problem because the historical record establishes high confidence in their martyrdom for preaching Christ’s resurrection from the dead. As Habermas observes, “Lying about something is a poor thesis for being a martyr.”[5] It makes no sense to propose the ones who stole the body as the ones who gave their lives for the belief he was raised. Further, if the disciples instituted a cover up, how did Saul go from enemy to evangelist?

Perhaps someone re-buried Jesus’ body privately? Lowder posits Joseph of Arimathea, owner of Jesus’ tomb, re-buried Jesus without the disciples’ knowledge; yet he lacks supporting evidence.[6] Also, he must account for Saul’s conversion, and the transformation of Jesus’ disciples from broken people into world changing Christian evangelists. If Jesus was still dead when Christianity erupted in the very city where he died and was buried, why wasn’t his body produced to stop it? Tacitus and Suetonius suggest Rome disliked Christianity, so was motivated to halt it.[7]

Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence; we cannot be certain beyond all doubt. But given Christian history, including Saul’s conversion, wouldn’t it be reasonable to posit Jesus’ second burial lacks evidence because no body remained; days after his public execution, the tomb was empty, and friends and enemies alike did encounter him alive again in a new way?[8]

While Jesus’ bones may have never been placed into an ossuary, his name has been found on other ancient Jewish ossuary’s dated to mid first century, [9]  alongside words that some think may constitute a prayer.[10] Also, the first century Nazareth inscription documents a Roman edict forbidding tomb tampering. This might have nothing to do with first century Christianity, but given Christianity’s active denunciation of Roman pantheon and culture in favour of Jesus, “it is quite feasible to imagine someone using the emperor’s authority to try to lock the door after the horse has bolted.”[11]

Second burial reports of Jesus don’t exist, yet history records the Christian claim Christ was raised. Don’t these facts justify the sceptic’s further investigation into the documented events of Christ’s death, his empty tomb and resurrection appearances?

[1] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (London:Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 707.

[2] Wright, 708.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wright, 372.

[5] Evidence for the Empty Tomb, The Resurrection of Jesus, Gary Habermas, in the Credo Courses, accessed May 6, 2017, http://www.credocourses.com/product/the-resurrection-of-jesus/.

[6] Jeffrey Jay Lowder, “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story A Reply to William Lane Craig”, The Secular Web, accessed 19th November, 2017, https://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html.

[7] Clay Jones, “Lacks non-Biblical support,” Prepared Defence [CD-ROM], Austin, TX: WORDsearch, 2005 (v. 2.2, 2014).

[8] 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Acts 2:32.

[9] E. L. Sukenik, The Earliest Records of Christianity, http://khazarzar.skeptik.net/books/sukenik.pdf, accessed November 14th, 2017.

[10] Mark Mittleberg, The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask, (Colorado Springs: Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 2010), 77.

[11] Wright, 708.

 

Image courtesy of Pexels, http://www.pexels.com.

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

6 thoughts on “RESPONDblogs: The Missing Second Burial of Jesus”

  1. Regards Saul of Tarsus aka St. Paul – you know that he experienced Jesus some decades AFTER the alleged death of the Jesus character. Not only that he was Jesus in a Vision which we now know as a a brain disease. He allegedly saw him on the road to Damascus.

    Then there’s my favorite that not many people know. The Council of Nicea in 325CE – that’s where they hashed out the trinity among other things.

      1. That’s right – and the historical record places his experience 2/3 years after Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. So – I’m looking for you to explain your justification for claiming it happened decades later instead?

  2. > The evidence supports his death by crucifixion, burial in an unused tomb that was then found empty and his subsequent appearances to his disciples.

    There is literally zero evidence for any of this beyond the stories of second-hand accounts.

    > But was Jesus’ resurrection fabricated? Perhaps his disciples stole his body and the second burial was done privately to protect their new resurrection myth? This theory has many problems.

    The resurrection is impossible and requires faith. A private burial covered by a few lies is plausible. I’m not sure how a plausible explanation is a problem compared with an impossible one. A plausible explanation, no matter how ridiculous, is still a better explanation than an impossible explanation.

    You need to think on these things a bit harder.

    1. If you discount the evidence and then make your own experience the absolute arbiter of what’s possible – I can see why you might have a problem with Jesus’ resurrection.

      Is there any chance you could be too hasty on both of those counts?

      A plausible explanation needs to account for all the evidence…but you first need to be willing to accept that evidence exists, I think.

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