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Even with all the cutting-edge forensics we have at our disposal to solve crimes, evidence is often disputed or later overturned. Investigators make mistakes. Eyewitnesses get things wrong. People interpret facts differently. Mystery often remains as to what actually happened. (This is what fuels the intense interest in all the “real crime” shows that keep popping up all over TV.)

In the historical sciences, scholars argue ad nauseam over what really took place, even with recent events that are recorded in multiple sources, including videotape!

When it comes to the resurrection, there was no CSI back then to process the physical evidence. No DNA was collected. Living witnesses are long gone. The “scene” has been corrupted.

Historically, only a few sources exist, and most of these are tainted by a faith perspective. Whatever archeological evidence that has been found is limited and of little relevance.

So how is it possible to be sure about anything that happened 2000 years ago—especially something as far-fetched as the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection?

The most basic fact that has to be established for the resurrection to be true is that Jesus actually died and was buried in a well-known tomb. Virtually no scholar today questions the fact that Jesus was actually dead when taken off that Roman cross. His executioners were expert at killing people and had a pretty good incentive not to make a mistake—they could be put to death if they did!

But, a number of (steadily shrinking) scholars over the years have questioned whether Jesus was actually buried in a tomb that was well-known. Some have speculated that, according to normal Roman practice, he was buried in a common grave reserved for criminals. One very prominent scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has even argued that the Romans would have left the body on the cross until the next crucifixion or buried it in a shallow grave where the vultures and wild dogs would eat the flesh. Either way, his body could no longer be identified. As a result, no one could dispute the disciples’ claim that they found the tomb of Jesus empty because, according to this group of scholars, he was never buried in a tomb in the first place.

However, Joseph of Arimathea presents an insurmountable obstacle to all this theorizing.

The Gospels claim that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus’ body in a tomb he owned. If this is true, then he is the most credible link to the exact location of the tomb and the fact that Jesus’ body was placed there immediately following the crucifixion. Since Joseph, as a member of the Sanhedrin, was fairly prominent, the location of his tomb would have been well known.

So how do we know he really buried Jesus’ body?

Joseph plays no other role in the New Testament, so it is incomprehensible why the early church would connect him, of all people, this obscure character from an insignificant town, with such a crucial piece of the story if he didn’t play this role historically.

But far more importantly, Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin. As a member of this council, he agreed to sentence Jesus to death. The scandal this would have caused the early church cannot be overstated: the man who buries Jesus, who plays such a pivotal role in the story, had voted to have him crucified!

Making it even worse, the Sanhedrin was actively persecuting the early church. They were bitter enemies. The fact that Jesus hadn’t been buried by his own beloved family and friends, as was custom, but left to a member of the church’s bitter enemy because his followers were no where to be found, would have been an enduring disgrace.

So why would the early church have given someone who was a member of the group responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and which was so hostile to their movement such an honorable role, especially in such stark contrast to the disciples’ shameful absence?

Unless, it was true.

Joseph’s role in the story is far too scandalous to have been invented.

This scandal is obvious in the way the gospels treat the incident. In Mark, the first gospel written, Joseph is simply called “a respected member of the council who was also himself awaiting the Kingdom of God.” (Mk 15:43) Mark crudely states the embarrassing fact: the same Joseph who buried Jesus in his own tomb had earlier that day taken part in his crucifixion.

Each subsequent gospel writer tries to give it a better spin. In Luke, Joseph is said to disagree with the decision. And in Matthew and John, he becomes a disciple. As a matter of fact, his favorable portrayal in the developing tradition suggests he may very well have become a disciple later on: if it was his tomb that was found empty, it is conceivable that this may have convinced him Jesus really rose. Regardless, being such an embarrassment, Mark’s scandalous portrayal of Joseph’s participation in Jesus’ death is undeniably more accurate and historical.

But if Joseph participated in the sentence against Jesus, why would he offer to bury him?

First-century Jews believed that an unburied corpse was a curse on the land. A violation of Torah, it put all the people in jeopardy. While it may be hard for us to understand this taboo and the extraordinary compulsion associated with it, as a pious Jew, Joseph couldn’t allow a dead corpse to remain exposed. So Joseph didn’t bury Jesus out of any kind of respect for him, but out of compulsion for honoring the Law.

The way he treats Jesus’ body confirms that this was his motive. It was common practice to wash the body before burial. It would be a terrible offense not to. But Joseph doesn’t do this for Jesus, even though his body would have been covered with blood from the scourging and crucifixion. He fails to perform the customary honor due a beloved family member.

Instead, he only does what is minimally required for a common criminal.

This, too, would have been an awful embarrassment for the early church, a poignant reminder of the shameful burial Jesus received. But to the point, the lack of proper preparation for burial in Jesus’ case is fully consistent with the portrayal of Joseph as a pious member of the council.

No disciple would treat Jesus so disrespectfully. If the story of Joseph was invented, it certainly would have included the proper reverence performed for a loved one. The fact that Joseph treats Jesus’ body so shamefully, as that of a common criminal, vividly corroborates the other evidence that shows he played this embarrassing role historically.

Scholars are convinced that the apostle Judas betrayed Jesus and that the apostle Peter denied him, because these are facts that are simply too embarrassing for the early church to have invented. Even though they happened 2000 years ago, scholars are in basic agreement that the scandal and embarrassment they caused constitutes solid evidence they must have happened.

The role Joseph of Arimathea plays is in the same category. Even though it happened 2000 years ago, it is simply too scandalous and embarrassing for the church to have invented. He must have played this role historically.

This means that Jesus was buried in a well-known tomb.

This also means that there is a way to find good evidence for an event that happened 2000 years ago.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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