In his final reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, Professor McGrew takes issue with my claim that the story of Jesus’ burial is improbable at multiple points, accusing me of doing a priori history, of relying on doubtful assertions by Biblical scholars, of making too much of the argument from silence” (which he rejects in toto), of finding contradictions between the Gospel burial accounts where none exist, and of arrogantly alleging that the Gospel authors, who were far closer to the facts than we are today, must have fabricated details in their accounts, simply because they clash with our contemporary interpretation of Jewish law at that time. Am I guilty as charged? Or is it Professor McGrew whose understanding of history is faulty?
While reading Professor McGrew’s reply, it immediately struck me that there was one thing that he didn’t do: namely, quote from contemporary Biblical scholars who support his position. That’s because there are very few Biblical scholars who would agree with McGrew’s claim that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are internally consistent, free from contradictions, and free from historical inaccuracies. With the exception of Ehrman’s contentious claim (which I defended, but did not endorse) that Jesus’ body was probably left to hang on the Cross for several days before being dumped in a burial pit, all of the other assertions made in my review regarding Jesus’ burial fall squarely within the mainstream of Biblical scholarship. In setting himself in opposition to the conclusions reached in my review, Professor McGrew (who is a philosopher, not a historian) is arraying himself against an entire field of scholarship.
I’m going to divide my post into four parts. In the first part, I’ll examine Professor McGrew’s factual blunders. In the second part, I shall critique his historical methodology. In the third part, I shall propose a better way to do history, and in the fourth and final part, I’ll briefly rebut his claim that I am guilty of doing armchair history.
1. McGrew’s Factual Blunders
Professor McGrew is a dedicated Christian apologist, who has defended the historicity and reliability of Scripture with great skill and gusto on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, his latest reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book contains numerous factual blunders, which I’ll discuss below.
(a) Yes, there are contradictions between the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial
Although he is not a Biblical inerrantist, Professor McGrew goes to great pains to show that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial do not contradict one another, in his latest post. However, there are at least two instances of clear-cut contradictions between the Gospel narratives.
(i) Was Pilate shocked to hear the news about Jesus’ death?
First, there is a clear and obvious contradiction between Mark 15:44, which states that when Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body, “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead,” and John 19:31, which declares: “Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.” After the dead bodies of Jesus and the two thieves have been removed from their crosses, Joseph of Arimathea makes his first appearance in the Gospel, in John 19:38: “Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus.” Upon hearing Joseph’s request, Pilate evinces no surprise in John’s narrative, because he has already given the order for the crucified victims’ legs to be broken, in order to bring on their deaths as rapidly as possible. Strangely, Professor McGrew makes no attempt to harmonize these narratives in his post, despite the fact that I highlighted this contradiction in my review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, last year.
(ii) When did the women who visited Jesus’ tomb buy spices to anoint his body?
The second clear-cut contradiction in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ burial relates to when the women who visited Jesus’ tomb purchased spices to anoint Jesus’ body with. Mark 16:1 declares, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.” At the very earliest, this would have been on Saturday evening. Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, declares that the spices were bought on Friday, just before sundown: “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment” (Luke 23:55-56). “Who were these women?” the perceptive reader might ask. Were they, perhaps, different women from those mentioned in Mark’s Gospel, as Professor McGrew suggests in his latest post? Luke answers this question in the very next chapter of his Gospel, when he resumes his narrative: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.” In other words, Luke is talking about the women mentioned in Luke 23:56. What happened next? At the tomb, “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning” suddenly appeared and informed these women that Jesus had risen. A few verses later, Luke finally names the women: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles” (Luke 24:9-10). Two of the names match up perfectly with the women named in Mark’s Gospel, while Salome and Joanna may well refer to the same individual. In an attempt to harmonize the two Gospels, McGrew then puts forward another proposal: “Some of the women could have already had some spices on hand while others had to buy them.” But Luke has already stated that the women “went home and prepared spices and perfumes” before resting on the Sabbath, and that they “took the spices they had prepared to the tomb,” so that won’t wash. In a final, desperate attempt at reconciling Mark with Luke, McGrew suggests that some of the women may have decided that they wanted more spices. But that won’t work, either: Luke 24:1 states clearly that “the women took the spices they had prepared [on Friday – VJT] and went to the tomb.” In other words, the spices they brought with them were not some newly purchased spices.
On this topic, the last word should surely go to the late Fr. Raymond Brown (1928-1998), a leading Catholic Biblical scholar who was acclaimed as “the premier Johannine scholar in the English-speaking world,” and who authored the highly acclaimed work, The Death of the Messiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1994). In his discussion of Luke 23:53-56, Fr. Brown concludes:
Useless are the ingenious attempts to harmonize Luke, where the women had the spices before the Sabbath began, with Mark, where the women did not buy the spices until the Sabbath was over. Luke, having read Mark, deliberately changed the sequence as part of his writing “a more orderly account” (1:3). Presumably he wanted readers to think that in their loving foresight these women had already acquired what would be necessary. (1994, vol. II, p. 1257)
Three reasons why the women’s purchase of the spices matters so much
I realize that the above contradiction may appear rather insignificant to some readers. However, it matters for three reasons, which I’d now like to discuss.
Reason #1: It calls into question the accuracy of Luke’s account of Jesus’ burial
Luke, in his gospel, describes Jesus’s burial by Joseph of Arimathea, which was observed by the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee:
Going to Pilate, he [Joseph of Arimathea] asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 5Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
What’s wrong with this account? While Luke shows a commendable concern for Jewish Sabbath observance, he portrays Jesus’ crucifixion as taking place on a high holy day: the Jewish Passover (Luke 22:1, 7-14). He also states that the women at Jesus’ burial “went home and prepared spices and perfumes” (Luke 23:56). But as William Graham Scroggie (1877-1958) a Baptist minister, Bible expositor and author, acknowledges in his book, A Guide to the Gospels (1948, Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, p. 572), preparing the spices entailed grinding and cooking the raw ingredients – in other words, doing physical work, which Jewish law expressly forbade on a high holy day (Leviticus 23:7, Nehemiah 10:31). What this suggests is that Luke, a Gentile, had only a limited acquaintance with the legal and religious requirements of Judaism. In attempting to correct the date when Mark states that the women purchased spices to anoint Jesus’ body, Luke introduces a new error of his own making, by having the women prepare the spices on a day on a day when it would have been forbidden for them to do so.
Reason #2: Anointing Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday morning would have made no sense
But there’s a much more fundamental question posed by Michael Alter in his book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, which Professor McGrew never even alludes to in his post, despite the fact that I highlighted it in my review of Michael Alter’s book:
… [W]hy would the women have gone to anoint Jesus’ dead body on Easter Sunday morning, as Mark records, if they were then going to rewrap it in dirty linen cloths afterwards? That really doesn’t make sense.
Why, indeed? It’s gaping holes like these in the Gospel narratives that give the game away. What they tell us is that even by the time Mark’s Gospel was written, the popularly received account of Jesus’ burial was already in the process of being embellished. And it’s also worth noting that only two of the four Gospels (Mark and Luke) portray the women as going to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ body. Matthew 28:1 simply states that on Sunday morning, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.” That makes more sense.
Reason #3: Were the women even present at Jesus burial?
But there’s more: Catholic Biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown (1928-1998) doesn’t think the women were present at Jesus’ burial at all. As he puts it in his magnum opus, The Death of the Messiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1994):
It is more difficult to argue for an early common tradition underlying their [the women’s] presence at the burial. Negative signs are that they are absent from John, that in Mark (the basic Synoptic account) they have no active participation in the burial, and that they observe the burial in the tomb so that they can come back to the tomb on Easter and make up for what was lacking in the burial. The thesis of back-formation, then, is very attractive: namely, that from the role of Mary Magdalene and companions in the empty-tomb tradition and from the early tradition of the presence of three Galilean women at the crucifixion it was logically assumed that they were at the burial. They were included in the Marcan story of the burial (followed by Matt and Luke) in order to make the burial story more clearly a connective between the crucifixion and the resurrection. (Vol. II, p. 1276)
I should point out that Fr. Brown was far from being a radical. Here’s how Professor John Dominic Crossan summed up the differences between his radical approach to the Gospel Passion narratives and Fr. Brown’s more conservative approach, in an interview with The New York Times (March 27, 1994):
“Basically the issue is whether the Passion accounts are prophecy historicized or history remembered,” said John Dominic Crossan, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago. “Ray Brown is 80 percent in the direction of history remembered. I’m 80 percent in the opposite direction.”
I have cited Fr. Brown’s testimony to illustrate how far to the right of contemporary Biblical scholarship Professor McGrew is, in his defense of the literal accuracy of each and every detail in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and burial. Brown was a traditionalist, but willing to change his mind as new evidence came to light; McGrew is a non-specialist from another academic discipline (philosophy), who appears to have rather preconceived views on the accuracy of the Bible.
Professor McGrew strenuously denies that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial contradict one another. I believe that fair-minded readers will grant that they do contradict one another, and that their inaccuracies are by no means small ones.
(b) Did Jesus get an honorable burial?
As if that were not bad enough, Professor McGrew is, at times, guilty of sloppy scholarship in his latest reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, as the following example will serve to illustrate.
In his reply, Professor McGrew scoffs at my suggestion (which I based on a 1998 essay by Byron McCane, a Professor of Religion at Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina) that Jesus did not receive an honorable burial:
Simply because someone [McCane] has baldly claimed that Jesus “would have” been given a dishonorable burial, the Gospel authors (even Mark) now all stand accused of having “airbrushed” out the details of a dishonorable burial as envisaged by McCane in their accounts of how Jesus actually was buried. This is no way to do history.
Evidently, Professor McGrew did not bother to read McCane’s essay, “Where No One Had Yet Been Laid: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998) pp. 431-452), despite the fact that I linked to it. Had he done so, he would have discovered that McCane’s conclusion is based on how all four Gospels depict Jesus’ burial (not just Mark):
…[O]ne characteristic of the burial narratives stands out as strikingly significant: the canonical Gospels depict Jesus’ burial as shameful. Even though they take obvious steps to dignify the burial of Jesus, these documents still depict a burial which a Jew in Roman Palestine would have recognized as dishonorable. For in every Gospel up to the Gospel of Peter, Jesus is not buried in a family tomb, and he is not mourned. This fact is both surprising and revealing. It is surprising because it shows that even with all their embellishments and improvements, there was a limit beyond which the early stages of the tradition would not go. Brown, for example, has demonstrated that the burial described in the Gospel of Mark is a dishonorable burial at the hands of a Torah-observant council member.  In keeping with Jewish custom, Joseph of Arimathea buries the body at sunset, probably in a tomb reserved for criminals. What has been shown for Mark holds true for the other canonical burial narratives as well. The story is steadily improved upon, but the two defining marks of shame continue and persist: no family tomb, and no mourning. (1998, p. 448)
McCane goes on to argue that even if Jesus was buried in a new tomb (as Matthew, Luke and John claim), the burial was still a dishonorable one:
A detail added by Matthew, Luke, and John is particularly revealing in this regard. The tomb of Jesus, they all say, is new, “where not one had yet been laid” (Matt 27:60; Luke 23:3; John 19:43). Many scholars have noted that this description lends dignity to Jesus’ burial, because it clearly differentiates his resting place from a criminals’ burial place like the ones mentioned in the Mishnah. But as both David Daube and Josef Blinzler have pointed out, a new tomb would still be a shameful place of interment.  In fact a new tomb, never before used by sinner or saint, would be the only culturally acceptable alternative to a criminal’s burial place, for it would be the only other way to preserve the boundary of shame which separated Jesus from his people. By putting him alone in a new tomb, Matthew, Luke, and John do not deny the shame of Jesus’ burial; they merely spare him the disgrace of being placed in a criminals’ tomb. A residue of shame still clings to him as an executed convict.
Rites of mourning are absent from these narratives as well. When Jesus dies, no one sits…[grieving]…: a few women merely note the location of the tomb, and later visit it after the Sabbath. They go there, however, not to mourn, but merely to anoint the body or “to see the tomb.” The omission of mourning from the canonical Gospels is significant because in other contexts in all four of these Gospels have clear depictions of the initial stages of mourning for the dead. Resuscitation stories like the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43 par.), for example, or the Lazarus narrative (John 11:1-44) include explicit depictions of typical Jewish rituals of mourning. (1998, p. 448)
To sum up: Professor McGrew fails to engage with the evidence put together by Professor McCane. Instead, he either ignores it, misrepresents it, or misunderstands its significance. By refusing to acknowledge the evidence found in all four Gospels for Jesus’ dishonorable burial, McGrew undermines his own credibility and reveals himself to be out of his depth.
(c) Was Jesus buried in a new tomb?
Professor McGrew’s failure to digest McCane’s above-cited article, “Where No One Had Yet Been Laid: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998), leads him to completely misunderstand the scholarly case against Jesus’ having been buried in a new tomb, in his latest post. McGrew indignantly writes:
Why not take at face value the claim that Jesus was buried in a new tomb? After all, Joseph of Arimathea himself was still alive, so if he had had the tomb made for himself, it likely wouldn’t have been needed yet.
Here again, Torley throws in a forceless argument from silence — that Mark doesn’t mention that the tomb was new. But so what?
Had Professor McGrew familiarized himself with McCane’s article, he would have understood that the real problem here relates to Joseph himself. It is very unlikely that he would have wanted to make a new tomb for himself, because Jews in the ancient world liked to be buried with their families. As McCane puts it:
For Jews, one of those values was the importance of belonging to an extended family group. The foundational narrative for Jewish culture was a story about a man whose descendents were to be more numerous than the stars in the sky, and respect for the family was enshrined in the moral charter of Judaism: “honor your father and mother.” Jews in Jesus’ day typically lived in extended family groups, and routinely identified themselves in legal documents, inscriptions, and literature as “X, son (or daughter) of Y.” At life’s end, they thought it best to be buried with their nearest kin. To be buried away from the family tomb–by design, not by fate–was to be cast adrift from these cultural patterns, and dislodged from a place in the family. To be unmourned by one’s nearest relatives was to be effaced from the cultural landscape. It was worse than unfortunate; it was a shame. (1998, p. 444.)
Here, as with the foregoing discussion of whether or not Jesus received an honorable burial, the problem is that Professor McGrew has failed to engage with the relevant evidence: the scholarly arguments of Professor Byron McCane. I leave it to my readers to decide who has the better of the argument here.
(d) McGrew fails to grasp what an embellishment is – and isn’t
But there’s more. Professor McGrew’s latest post in response to my review of Michael Alter’s book reveals another major flaw: apparently, he has no idea what a literary embellishment is. Professor McGrew displays his misunderstanding in his critical comments on a passage he quotes from Professor Byron McCane’s article, “‘Where No One Had Yet Been Laid’: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial” (in B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998). In his article, McCane had argued that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are progressively elaborated, beginning with the simple account we find in Mark and undergoing further embellishment in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and later on, John’s Gospel:
Virtually all studies agree that as the tradition develops, every detail in the story is enhanced and improved upon. Mark begins the written tradition by saying that on Friday evening, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, requested the body of Jesus from Pilate, wrapped it in linen and sealed it in a rock-cut tomb. Never again would the story be told so simply. Joseph of Arimathea becomes a “good and righteous man” who did not consent to the action against Jesus (Luke 23:51), and then evolves into a secret disciple of Jesus (Matt 27:57; John 19:38). The “rock-cut” tomb in Mark becomes a “new” tomb (Matt 27:60), “where no one had yet been laid” (Luke 23:53). John not only combines those descriptions – the tomb is both “new” and “where no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41) – but also adds that the tomb was located in a garden. In Mark Joseph wraps the body in linen — nothing more – but subsequent Gospels describe the linen as “clean” (Matt 27:59) and claim that the body was bathed in vast quantities of perfume (John 19:39). By the time of the Gospel of Peter, during the mid-second century CE, Christians were going so far as to assert that Jesus had been sumptuously buried in the family tomb of one of Jerusalem’s most powerful and wealthy families. [Emphasis added] (1998, p. 447)
McGrew essays valiantly to show that McCane’s claim of a progressive embellishment in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ burial is based on an illusion: contrary to what McCane states, the earliest Gospel (Mark) includes several historical details which are omitted by the other evangelists (e.g. Pilate’s surprise upon hearing the news of Jesus’ death, as well as the fact that it was Joseph of Arimathea who purchased the linen cloth for Jesus’ burial), rendering McCane’s claims of an incremental addition of details by later Gospel writers untenable. But it is McGrew, and not McCane, who has gotten the wrong end of the stick, here. A fishing analogy will serve to illustrate my point.
Suppose that one morning, I tell you that I caught a fish, and shortly afterwards, I add the detail that it appeared blue, when viewed from above. Next, I tell you that its liver was covered in blood vessels. Then, I reveal that it was four meters long. Finally, I mention that it weighed a tonne. Now, which of these statements are embellishments? Not the first two: those additional revelations are mere details, which indicate that the fish I caught was a bluefin tuna. Rather, it is the last two statements that qualify as embellishments, because they are manifestly intended to make me look like a good fisherman (which I’m not): I’m so good that I can even catch a world-record-sized bluefin tuna! In other words, with an embellishment, there is a discernible motive for including the details added.
Pilate’s surprise upon hearing the news of Jesus’ death, in Mark’s Gospel, serves no apologetic purpose; consequently, there is no reason to consider it an embellishment. By contrast, John’s claim that the body was bathed in vast quantities of perfume has a strongly theological motive: to make Jesus look like a king. Seventy-five pounds of perfume? Now that’s an embellishment.
Lest I be accused of bias, I’d like to quote from Professor Craig A. Evans, an evangelical New Testament scholar and author, with 70 books and over 600 journal articles and reviews to his name. In his article, “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus [JSHJ 3.2 (2005),187-202], Professor Evans freely acknowledges the presence of embellishments in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial, over the course of time, even as he argues for a kernel of historicity:
The story of Joseph of Arimathea, who otherwise is not known, is probably historical. There are apologetic touches, to be sure. In the telling of the story, Joseph grows in sympathy and allegiance to Jesus. But at its core is a story, in which Joseph either volunteers or was assigned the task of seeing to the prompt and unceremonious burial of Jesus and, probably, the other two men. (2005, p. 199)
Footnote : Other embellishments are seen, such as the introduction of Nicodemus, a huge amount of spices (fit for a king, evidently), the claim that the tomb was new, rather a criminal’s tomb with previous use, etc. (ibid.)
Professor Evans is a conservative, Evangelical scholar. I respectfully submit that his academic credibility on the subject of literary embellishment trumps that of Professor McGrew, who is a philosopher, not a Biblical scholar.
(e) Did Jesus get a proper burial? McGrew’s lack of background reading
In his reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, Professor McGrew mounts a trenchant critique of Professor Bart Ehrman’s claim that Jesus’ dead body was probably left to hang on the Cross for a few days, before being tossed into a common burial pit for criminals.
Now, had McGrew contented himself with pointing out that Ehrman’s claim is highly questionable, he would have been in a very strong argumentative position. Ehrman’s view remains a minority one, among Biblical scholars – as Ehrman himself freely admits, although he also believes that “in *principle* they would not necessarily be opposed to the alternative view that I’ve been mapping out.” But McGrew goes further than merely casting doubt on Ehrman’s views. First, he dismisses Ehrman’s assertion that Jesus was crucified on a charge of high treason as “nonsense“; and second, he dismisses Ehrman’s contention that those convicted of “high treason” were not allowed to be properly buried as resting on the “slender basis” of a vague statement in Ulpian, before going on to accuse Ehrman of manufacturing “a hard and fast rule that no one convicted of a crime against the Roman state, even in a time of peace, would ever have been permitted decent burial,” in order to support his assertion that Jesus’ body was not buried in a known grave, but in a common burial pit for criminals.
Regarding Professor McGrew’s first charge: I pointed out in my previous post in reply to McGrew that the question of whether Jesus was actually convicted on a charge of high treason (as Ehrman contends) remains a contentious one among scholars. I even cited John Granger Cook’s article, ‘Crucifixion and Burial’ (New Testament Studies, 57 (2011), 193–213). Cook is of the view that Jesus was probably convicted not on a charge of high treason, but on a lesser charge of sedition. I also pointed out that Fr. Raymond Brown was of a contrary view: he believed that Jesus was found guilty of treason. What is not disputed, however, is that Jesus was executed for calling himself the King of the Jews – a political charge, and therefore a crime against the Roman state. That’s what the charge against him read, on the inscription above his head on the Cross.
And this brings me to the key point which McGrew misses: when it came to being allowed a decent burial, the “big divide” was not between criminals who were found guilty of high treason and criminals who were found guilty of a lesser offense (with families of the latter usually being given permission to bury the bodies of the crucified victims, in peacetime Palestine), but rather, between criminals who were regarded as “enemies of the state” and criminals found guilty of a non-political offense. Ehrman discusses this point in a blog here. Even if Jesus was convicted on a charge of sedition rather than high treason, he was still crucified for allegedly calling himself King of the Jews. The evidence for this point is overwhelming. First, that was the charge against him: “The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26). Pilate, when addressing the mob howling for Jesus’ death, referred to Jesus as “the one you call King of the Jews” (Mark 15:12). Jesus was also dressed in a purple robe by Roman soldiers, who placed a crown of thorns on his head and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:16-20). Mark adds that the chief priests and teachers of the law mocked Jesus, saying, “Let this Messiah, this King of Israel, come down now from the Cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32). Professor McGrew’s response to this mountain of evidence is that the political charge against Jesus was a phony one, reflecting “a touch of sarcasm” on Pilate’s part. But to quote the Professor’s own words against him: Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. Ehrman himself believes that Pilate probably thought Jesus was a nut (see his comments here). But a nut who allegedly called himself the King of the Jews had to be firmly dealt with, and made an example of, in order to show that Rome could not be messed with. (I might add, in passing, that the two thieves crucified with Jesus were actually insurrectionists – as such, they were also enemies of the State.)
McGrew argues that unless there was “a hard and fast rule that no one convicted of a crime against the Roman state, even in a time of peace, would ever have been permitted decent burial,” we should give the Gospel accounts the benefit of the doubt, when they assert that he was given a proper burial by Joseph of Arimathea. What he fails to understand is that there are only a handful of known cases in recorded history of the Romans allowing people who’d been crucified to be given a decent burial, and there are no known cases of them allowing people who’d been crucified on a political charge to be given a decent burial. None. To quote from Ehrman’s 2014 blog article, Did Roman Authorities Show Clemency?:
If we want to say that Pilate showed clemency to Jesus by allowing him a decent burial immediately after he died, and we want to say that this was part of the “Roman practice of granting clemency,” then the very best evidence would indicate that Romans regularly allowed criminals who were crucified for high treason to be buried. Craig [Evans] doesn’t cite any instances of this. That’s because none exist. The next best thing would be evidence that Romans allowed criminals crucified for other reasons to be given decent burials. Again, the only evidence of this is Philo, which does not show a Roman *pattern* or “practice” of clemency, but was a specific instance done for a particular reason – not to show clemency but to honor the birthday of an emperor. Other than that, there are no examples for Craig [Evans] to cite…
The examples Craig does provide are not of people who were executed, let alone crucified, let alone crucified as enemies of the state. They are of people convicted of lesser crimes who were let go: there is one man condemned to be scourged in Egypt in 85 CE; some who were released from prison in 112 CE; an undated instance of some prisoners set free; and an instance of prisoners who had their chains removed in the first century BCE (in Rome? The reference is Pliny)…
Later (on p. 76) Craig does indicate that there was an instance of clemency in the land of Israel: some 35 years after Jesus the governor Albinus, as he was leaving office (and in order to show what a kind fellow he was?) released from prison those who were guilty of crimes “other than murder” (that’s Craig’s phrase; see below) – that is petty crimes…
So, is this an instance of Roman clemency? Well, yes, to the petty robbers stuck in prison – whom he released after receiving bribes (!). But not for anyone who deserved a death sentence. These he summarily executed.
So there we have it. There aren’t any known cases of people, even in peacetime Palestine, being crucified on a political charge (as Jesus was) and being allowed to receive a proper burial. I’d now like to quote from a leading Christian apologist who (unlike McGrew) acknowledges that a request for Jesus’ body to be given a proper burial would have contravened longstanding Roman practices:
Mark says that he [Joseph of Arimathea] went in bravely to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. The authorities did not ordinarily give over the corpse of a victim executed for a major crime, so it took courage for Joseph to ask for Jesus’ body. According to Mark, Joseph apparently gave Jesus a proper burial.
Who said that? None other than William Lane Craig, in his book, The Son Rises: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (2000, Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, Oregon, p. 54).
Now, as it happens, I do believe that Jesus’ body was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. But if it happened, then we have the right to ask: how did Joseph manage to pull off this extraordinary feat? Fr. Raymond Brown offers an interesting answer, in his book, The Death of the Messiah. Fr. Brown’s take on Jesus’ burial is aptly summarized in a 1994 article in The New York Times about the burial of Jesus:
Pilate might well have shown enough clemency or calculation to honor Jewish sensitivities about burial. But would he depart so far from Roman practice as to turn over to a follower the corpse of a person executed as a dangerous upstart?
This leads Father Brown to conclude that Jesus was buried probably not by a friend but by someone, at least technically, a foe. Despite the impression of most Christians, Joseph of Arimathea fits that description…
But who was Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospels? Matthew and John call him a disciple of Jesus; Mark and Luke call him a member of the Sanhedrin (council), the very group of Jewish authorities that the Gospels describe as condemning Jesus and urging Pilate to execute him.
This, Father Brown argues, would have given him the necessary leverage with Pilate. Out of reverence for the law and at some personal risk, Joseph undertook to give at least a minimal burial to a person condemned by the religious court to which he himself belonged, Father Brown says.
It is worth noting that in Mark’s Gospel, the entire Sanhedrin votes for Jesus’ death. That included Joseph of Arimathea. If Fr. Brown is right, then Pilate acquiesced to his request, precisely because he believed that Joseph, acting on behalf of the Sanhedrin, planned to give Jesus a dishonorable burial.
Professor McGrew could have addressed Ehrman’s arguments by reading his online articles, some of which I linked to in my review of Michael Alter’s book.
2. McGrew’s peculiar historical methodology
In my last post, I stated that the most profound difference between Professor McGrew and myself relates not to the historical evidence presented, but to the manner in which it should be assessed. I identified two rules which Professor McGrew followed, in his investigation of the historicity of events narrated in the Gospels – namely,
the Plain Vanilla rule, which states that the Gospels should be assessed in the same manner as any other historical document, and the Privileged Position rule, which stipulates that the historical narratives contained in the Gospels should be regarded as true and accurate, unless they can be shown to be highly implausible, on purely historical grounds. I argued that these methodological rules were inappropriate, when we are dealing with documents which are both biased and embellished – as the Gospels appear to be. Instead, inference to the best explanation should be our guiding principle.
Professor McGrew’s latest post contains further revelations regarding his historical methodology, which I shall set out for the benefit of readers. I have identified four additional rules which he appeals to, which I shall label the Well-Attested rule, the Never Say Never rule, the No Telling rule and the Were You There rule. As we’ll see, all of these rules are simply corollaries of McGrew’s Plain Vanilla rule and his Privileged Position rule.
(a) The Well-Attested Rule and the Red Cadillac
The Well-Attested rule states that if an alleged occurrence is a priori highly improbable, but historically well-attested, we should accept that it really happened. After all, improbability is not the same thing as impossibility, and improbable events happen all the time. McGrew appeals to this rule when responding to Mike Alter’s observation (based on research conducted by archaeologist Professor Amos Kloner), that of the more than 900 burial caves found in and around Jerusalem and dating from the first century B.C. to 70 A.D., only four (i.e. just 0.4%) are known to have used round (disk-shaped) blocking stones – and the four that used round blocking stones all belonged to the extremely rich. In my review of Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, I argued that these facts undermined the historicity of Mark’s account, which says that the stone covering Jesus’ tomb was “very large” and had to be “rolled back” (Mark 16:3-4). But McGrew will have none of it:
One cannot reasonably reject testimony on the basis of these statistics. Even if we could accurately and confidently infer the approximate percentage of tombs that had this feature and the wealth of their owners from our archeological discoveries (a fallible inference at best), we could easily think of parallel cases in our own time where a single sober attestation would overcome the minor burden of proof. My elderly neighbor, a decade or so ago, owned a red Cadillac and kept it in lovely condition. Should readers discount my testimony to this fact because the vast majority of Americans do not own Cadillacs, and most Cadillacs are not red?
(b) The Never Say Never rule
The Never Say Never rule is an extension of the Well-Attested rule: it declares that if an alleged occurrence contravenes laws and/or established practices dating from the time in which it is supposed to have occurred, but there is legitimate doubt as to the universal applicability of those laws and practices, then we should give credence to well-attested historical accounts saying that the occurrence really happened. In other words, we should never say that such-and-such an event could never have happened, unless we are very, very sure of our facts.
In his post, McGrew draws upon this principle when discussing Michael Alter’s claim (which I discussed in my review) that Luke 23:56 (which states that the women who were present at Jesus’ burial went home and prepared spices and ointments, before resting on the Sabbath) is at odds with Jewish law, which forbade people to work on a high holy day, such as the Passover. Alter argued that preparing spices and perfumes would have been considered work. McGrew disagrees, contending that “Jewish interpretations regarding what constituted work and what was permitted on which days are remarkably diverse.” He suggests that preparing spices and ointments might not have fallen under the legal prohibition (see Leviticus 23:7, Nehemiah 10:31) against work on a high holy day: “‘Preparing’ might be an extremely light activity taking place within their own homes.” The underlying logic here is that since there’s legitimate doubt as to the universal applicability of the law against work on a high holy day, we should credit Luke’s report. To quote McGrew:
There is something highly misguided about taking a verse that shows an explicit awareness of Jewish laws and customs, explicitly stating that the women observed Jewish law, to be describing an activity that broke Jewish law… The insertion of the detail (that they prepared spices on Friday) serves no literary or theological purpose. That Luke does add that detail and simultaneously says explicitly that the women did not break Jewish law provides reason to believe that he had what he took to be factual information about what the women did, when they did it, and why.
Let me point out, in passing, that Luke does not explicitly state that the women observed “Jewish law”; rather, he states that they observed the Jewish Sabbath. The question, however, is not whether Luke knew of the Sabbath obligation, but rather whether he was aware of the Jewish obligation to refrain from work on a high holy day, such as the Passover.
McGrew’s suggestion that preparing spices would have been “an extremely light activity” doesn’t appear to square with the facts, either. As we saw above, Scroggie (1948, p. 572) observes that preparing the spices specifically entailed grinding and cooking their ingredients.
(c) The No Telling rule
The No Telling rule is another extension of the Well-Attested rule, which states that when an alleged occurrence depicts an historical character as acting in a manner that is contrary to the way in which he/she usually acted, we should credit the occurrence, provided that we possess well-attested historical accounts saying that the occurrence really happened. Why? Because there’s no telling what people will do, in a new situation: past precedent is not an infallible guide.
McGrew appeals to this rule when defending the veracity of John’s account of Pilate granting a private individual (Joseph of Arimathea, whom John declares to have been a secret disciple of Jesus) permission to remove Jesus’ body from the Cross, instead of letting the chief priests have the body. He contends that we are in no position to say what Pilate would or would not have done, at a distance of some 2,000 years from the Crucifixion of Jesus. Indeed, he thinks it’s quite possible that Pilate might have spitefully decided to deny the dead body of Jesus to the chief priests, out of sheer annoyance at being manipulated against his wishes into approving their politically motivated request for Jesus’ crucifixion:
The claim that Pilate would not have given the body to a private individual but rather to the chief priests is unfounded. Pilate was under no illusions; he knew that they were procuring the death of an innocent man. There is not the slightest reason to think that the governor who had just denied their request for a rewording of the placard over Jesus’ head would deliberately reserve the body for their disposal. In carrying out the execution, he had taken out of their hands the only weapon they could have wielded against him with Caesar. The Jews were not going to send a delegation to Rome to complain to Tiberius that Pilate had crucified a self-appointed “king” but hadn’t been mean enough about his dead body afterward.
I shall discuss this argument further in Part 4 below, where I put forward an evidential rule of my own: the Creatures of Habit rule.
(d) The Were You There rule
Finally, the Were You There rule says that we should credit the testimony of ancient authors who describe an alleged occurrence, even when it seems to be at odds with laws and/or established practices dating from that time, on the grounds that these authors were far closer to the facts then we are today, and therefore probably possessed a much better understanding of the laws and practices of their time than we do. Contemporary historians who accuse ancient authors of being mistaken in their understanding of laws and practices dating from their own era are thus guilty of the worst kind of academic hubris. One very simple way of deflating the ego of these arrogant historians and bringing them down to earth is to pose them the question: “Were you there?”
McGrew appeals to this rule when responding to Michael Alter’s objection (which I highlighted in my review) that Luke’s account of the women purchasing spices to anoint Jesus’ body on the Passover would have violated Jewish law. McGrew finds objections of this sort outrageously arrogant:
As for purchases on 15 Nisan, we are, again, in a worse position than the Gospel authors were to know whether purchases would have been considered (in that specific place and time) to be contrary to the Jewish law by the prohibition on “regular work” on that day…
All of these issues — what counts as work, when and whether purchases are allowed, what counts as buying and selling — were open to minute variations of interpretation of religious law and were discussed extensively in oral rulings outside of the text of the Torah itself. Under the circumstances, it is historical arrogance to allege that authors far closer to the facts made up details for no particular reason on the basis of our own interpretation of Jewish law.
What’s wrong with McGrew’s methodology?
McGrew’s rules would make sense, if we were dealing with historical accounts where we had no good reason to suspect that the authors were biased or prone to embellishment, and if we had good reasons to believe that the authors were familiar with the laws and practices they describe in their narratives. Unfortunately, the Gospels fail to meet these criteria. The Gospels are avowedly biased documents, which were written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). And they also appear to be embellished, as shown by Matthew’s dramatic account of the earthquake at Jesus’ death and of the tombs of Jewish saints being opened, Mark’s story of the veil of the Temple being torn in two from top to bottom when Jesus breathed his last, Luke’s vivid depiction of Jesus prophesying Jerusalem’s doom as he was being led away to his death, and John’s description of Jesus being buried with 75 pounds of spices – an amount that was literally fit for a king, as Pope Benedict XVI freely acknowledges in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (2011, Ignatius Press), where he observes that “The quantity of the balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions. This is a royal burial.”
By contrast, the reason why I accept Professor McGrew’s story of the red Cadillac at face value is precisely that I know he is not a man prone to embellishment, but a very honest individual. If he says he saw such a vehicle, then I believe him.
And how familiar were the evangelists with the laws and practices prevalent in Palestine, in Jesus’ day? That remains a contentious question among scholars. What is not disputed, however, is that the Gospels were not written in Jesus’ native language (Aramaic), or even in Hebrew, but in Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, along with Latin). What’s more, the authors of the Gospels are anonymous, with the majority of scholars agreeing that the traditional authorial attributions (to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are spurious. Indeed, scholars aren’t even sure if the evangelists were Jews or Gentiles, although the author of Matthew Gospel is thought to have been an educated ethnic Jew, living in Antioch, while the authorship of John’s Gospel continues to elude scholars. Finally, most Biblical scholars believe that the Gospels (with the possible exception of Mark) were written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. – a cataclysmic event in the history of Jews, as their Temple was also destroyed, and with it, many of their long-standing religious traditions. In other words, the Gospels were written at some distance from the events they describe – chronologically (40 to 60 years), geographically and linguistically. As such, their historical reliability cannot be guaranteed. For all of these reasons, then, McGrew’s proposed historical rules must be rejected.
3. A better way to do history
In place of McGrew’s rules for doing history, I’d like to propose some rules of my own, when dealing with biased and embellished documents.
(i) The Looks-Like-A-Duck rule
The Looks-Like-A-Duck rule is a corollary of my earlier thesis that inference to the best explanation should be our guiding principle, when doing history. It follows that when we are looking at a historical document which might well be biased and embellished, we need to ask ourselves whether the author’s bias or desire to embellish might provide a better explanation of an account which appears in the document than the “plain vanilla” hypothesis that the account is factually correct.
The duck test, which is a form of abductive reasoning, is usually expressed as follows:
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
In a similar fashion, I would argue for the adoption of the following principles:
If a statement found in a historical document which is already known to be (or is strongly suspected of being) biased and embellished, can be easily accounted for as a product of the author’s bias and/or desire to embellish the facts, but its historical accuracy is difficult to defend (as it appears rather unlikely), then it probably is nothing more than an expression of the author’s bias and/or an embellishment. As such, it should not be considered historical. Put simply: if it doesn’t look like history, but it does look like bias, then it probably is bias. Likewise, if it doesn’t look like history, but it does look like an embellishment, then it probably is an embellishment.
Similarly, if a statement found in a historical document which is already known to contain (or is strongly suspected of containing) geographical, historical or linguistic faux-pas, can be easily explained as such a faux-pas, while on the other hand its factual accuracy is difficult to defend, then it probably is a faux-pas, after all.
A case in point is Mark’s Gospel’s depiction of Jesus being buried in a tomb covered with a round stone. In his book, Alter argued that Mark’s account, which says that the stone covering the entrance to Jesus’ tomb was “very large” and had to be “rolled back” (Mark 16:3-4), was likely anachronistic, as archaeologist Professor Amos Kloner’s research, which is set out in his article, Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb? (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, September/October 1999), has shown that round blocking stones were very rare before 70 A.D., but became much more common after 70 A.D. Appealing to the Looks-Like-A-Faux Pas rule, we can say that a Gospel passage that looks like an anachronism, probably is one.
(ii) The Established Practice rule
This rule states that we should treat established practices as the norm or default, when assessing what’s historically likely. Consequently, if a biased or embellished document contains claims which go against these practices, then those claims are probably wrong. Additionally, if a document written by an unknown individual who may have been some distance removed (linguistically, geographically or chronologically) from the culture he/she is describing contains claims which go against established practices, then those claims should be treated with suspicion.
What, then, are we to make of Luke’s claim (Luke 23:56) that the women present at Jesus’ burial prepared spices on the Passover (a high holy day), just before the Sabbath? As McGrew points out, the claim does not appear to be an embellishment – although Alter suggests (2015, p. 286) that Luke may have intended it as a correction of Mark’s Gospel “because he knew that purchasing goods on Saturday evening or Sunday morning was not probable.” However, because Luke’s anonymous Gospel was most likely written by a Gentile, some decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, historians should be wary of Luke’s claim, which finds support in no other Gospel.
(iii) The Creatures of Habit rule
This rule states that humans are creatures of habit; hence we should treat their regular habits as the norm or default, when assessing what’s historically likely. Consequently, if a biased or embellished document depicts a human being as acting in a way which is totally out-of-character for them, then it’s probably mistaken.
In my review of Michael Alter’s book, I argued that it would have been very out-of-character of Pilate to give the body of Jesus to a private individual for honorable burial – which is the scenario Professor McGrew defends. It would also have run contrary to established practice, for reasons which I have discussed above. It is possible, however, that Pilate may have consented to give the body of a political criminal (Jesus) to an individual (Joseph of Arimathea) representing a body (the Sanhedrin) which had expressly stated its wish to give the body a dishonorable burial. Mark’s Gospel can be read in this way.
4. Armchair history?
We are now in a position to critique Professor McGrew’s central argument, in his latest reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book:
Prima facie, the Gospels are early documents that have some claim to be historical sources concerning practices of the time. To decide on the basis of highly indirect inference (often amounting to nothing more than bare assertion) that some practice related in the Gospels “would not” have happened, even in an entirely non-miraculous portion of the account, is to attempt to do history from one’s armchair. But history is intrinsically empirical. We would have to reject a great many things that did undoubtedly happen in secular history if we were to apply such a method consistently.
The problem with this argument should be readily apparent: the Gospels are not “plain vanilla” historical documents, but biased and embellished documents. As such, they warrant a certain degree of skepticism which standard secular historical accounts do not.
I’d like to close with a quote from a 2014 blog article by Professor Bart Ehrman, which is aptly titled, Why are you trashing the Gospels?:
Different scholars have different assessments of *just* how inaccurate the Gospels are. Some think they are reliable in most of the basics, with lots of details being unreliable; others think that major stories are not historically accurate (birth narratives, e.g.); others think that in fact very many of the stories need to be questioned. But for all of these scholars there is a basic sense that, at the end of the day, the Gospels are not dispassionate, accurate accounts of the things Jesus said and did. Some things in them are accurate. Some things are not accurate. And one of the tasks is to figure out which is which: which stories actually describe something that happened (e.g., Jesus’ baptism, his proclamation of the coming kingdom, his crucifixion) and which stories describe things that, historically, did not actually happen (e.g., Jesus’ Temptations in the wilderness or his Transfiguration or his turning water into wine).
These decisions are not made simply on an ad hoc basis or by guessing. They are made by slow, deliberate, conscientious, rigorous application of historical criteria based on a very wide range of knowledge of the surviving texts and of lots of other things (history of Palestine; Roman world; Greek language; history of early Christianity – and more). It’s not a matter of picking and choosing what you like or don’t like.
I have presented evidence that Professor McGrew, as a non-specialist, does not grasp “slow, deliberate, conscientious, rigorous application of historical criteria” which Ehrman describes. I shall leave it to readers to decide whether I have mounted an effective case.
Let me conclude this post by stating that I share Professor McGrew’s belief that Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the grave in a glorified body, to die no more. Where I differ from him is in his belief – which I once shared but now see as misguided – that the historical evidence for the Resurrection is strong enough to convince an open-minded skeptic. I believe that it is not, for many reasons, one of which relates to the historical reliability of the Gospels (which McGrew and I have been debating in our exchanges). I think the Gospels can tell us a lot about Jesus, but they are not reliable enough to render belief in Jesus’ Resurrection historically probable. Faith is required to make that extra leap.
But it would be churlish of me to write anything which might be construed as disparaging of the Gospels in Holy Week (which begins tomorrow), so I shall lay down my pen here, and let Professor McGrew have the last word, if he wishes. In the meantime, I would like to wish him and his family a happy Easter.
For those readers who are interested, here’s a summary of the debate so far.
My review of Michael Alter’s book:
Part 1 of the McGrew-Torley debate: