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 Ican still speak to you.

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.

If a slave were to say to me, "I never stole nor ran away": my reply wouldbe, "you have your reward; you are not flogged." [If a slave were to say tome,] "I never killed anyone":[my reply would be,] "You'll hang on no crossto feed crows." (Epistles I.16:46-48)

Crucifieds were left, kept, or guarded on the cross even after death if therewas any chance that relatives or friends might take them down for properburial before it was absolutely too late. Such an act would be, of course,extremely dangerous unless done with bribes or permissions.

....Even if Deuteronomy 21:22-23* was ignored in the Jewish homeland under, say,a governor like Pilate, insensitive to Jewish religious concerns, and a highpriest like Caiaphas, sensitive to Roman political concerns, there is onepossibility left. The body of a crucified person could be released tofriends or relatives as an act of mercy. We have explicit mention of thatin a text from Philo. In his attack on A. Avillius Flaccus, governor ofEgypt, Philo mentions two ways that decent governors, as distinct fromFlaccus, handle crucifixions on festal occasions. They either postponethem, as seen in a text quoted earlier in discussing Barabbas, or they allowburial:

I have know cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind [imperialbirthdays], people who have been crucified have been taken down and theirbodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give themburial and allow them the ordinary rites. For it was meet that the deadalso should have the advantage of some kind treatment upon the birthday ofthe emperor and also that the sanctity of the festival should be maintained.But Flaccus gave no orders to take down those who had died on the cross.(Against Flaccus 83)

Burial of crucifieds by their families is certainly possible. In fact, wenow have both material as well as textual evidence for their possibility.

...However it was managed, be it through bribery, mercy, or indifference, acrucified person could receive honorable burial in the family tomb in theearly or middle first-century Jewish homeland. Second, with all thosethousands of people crucified around Jerusalem in the first century alone,we have so far found only a single crucified skeleton, and that, of course,preserved in an ossuary. Was burial, then, the exception rather than therule, the extraordinary rather than the ordinary case?


* Deuteronomy 21:22-23
If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and is then hung on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must bury him that same day, for the one who is hung on a tree is cursed by God.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus