Was Jesus Buried?

A scholar looks at what might be expected to happen to the body of a crucified criminal in Roman practice

Excerpted from "Who Killed Jesus?" Reprinted with permission of Harper SanFrancisco.

The hierarchy of horror was loss of life, loss of possessions, loss ofburial, that is, destruction of body, destruction of family, destruction ofidentity. For the ancient world, the final penalty was to lie unburied asfood for carrion birds and beasts. After Octavius, later emperor Augustus,had defeated Julius Caesar's murderers at Philippi in October of 42 B.C.E.,

He did not use his victory with moderation, but after sending Brutus' head toRome, to be cast at the feet of Caesar's statute, he vented his spleen uponthe most distinguished of his captives, not even sparing them insultinglanguage. For instance, to one man who begged humbly for burial, he is saidto have replied: "The [carrion] birds will soon settle that question."(Suetonius, The Deified Augustus 13.1-2)

As with Brutus' companions for Augustus, so with Sejanus's companions forTiberius. Between 26 and 31 the emperor Tiberius ruled Rome from the islandof Capri off Naples, and Sejanus, prefect of the praetorian or imperialbodyguard, plotted against him in Rome itself. But in October of 31 C.E.Tiberius moved swiftly against him, and many of his fellow plotters choseimmediate suicide:

For these modes of dying were rendered popular by fear of the executionerand by the fact that a man legally condemned forfeited his estate and wasdebarred from burial; while he who passed sentence upon himself had hiscelerity so far rewarded that his body was interred and his will respected.(Tacitus, Annals 6.29)


Lack of proper burial was not just ultimate insult, it was ultimateannihilation in the ancient Roman world. There would be no place where thedead one could be mourned, visited, or remembered. Think of all those Romangraves whose epitaphs address the passerby in direct discourse: the


can still speak to



It was precisely that lack of burial that consummated the three supremepenalties of being burned alive, cast to the beasts in the amphitheater, orcrucified. They all involved inhuman cruelty, public dishonor, andimpossible burial. In the first two cases, that's obvious: there would behardly anything left for burial. In the case of crucifixion, it presumesthat the body was left on the cross until birds and beasts of prey haddestroyed it. Indeed, in Roman texts two items occur again and again inconnection with crucifixion. First, the crucified one is especially adisobedient slave or anyone considered an equivalent nobody, hence itsdesignation as the slave penalty. Second, the crucified one is leftunburied on the cross as carrion. Those twin concepts come together in animagined interchange between Horace and one of his slaves published in 20B.C.E.

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