Reply to Glenn Miller on the Burial of Jesus (2002)
This is a brief reply to Glen Miller’s rebuttal (October 2002 edition) to my essay “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day” (May 2002 edition), which he entitles “Good Question: Was the burial of Jesus a temporary one, because of time constraints?” I commend Miller on organizing a very thorough collection of data and citations on the related issues, and he reminds me again of the uncertainty that faces us with regard to what really happened that weekend so long ago (assuming the story isn’t an outright fiction to begin with, of course). I will respond to Miller’s arguments following the order of his concluding summary (which is not strictly followed in the body of his essay).
(1) and (12): Miller writes, “We need to exercise caution in reconstructing first-century burial and legal procedures from the much later (and complex) rabbinical materials.” I agree. And I do. Hence my thoroughness in establishing multiple source corroboration, building plausibility arguments, and rejecting material contradicted by earlier evidence. But for an argument of my form, i.e., “this is what might have happened,” it is not necessary to prove what was the case, only what could plausibly have been, and I have done that. Therefore, my essay’s thesis remains (at least part of) a plausible naturalistic explanation for the resurrection belief. The source problem Miller points to would only challenge such an argument if there were evidence directly contradicting the case being advanced, but there is none. To establish the supernatural alternative, one must actually eliminate the possibility I have advanced, not merely show that it might be incorrect. Miller has not shown that my account is implausible (and I do not mean to throw too great a burden on him: it would be enough to show that it contradicted known facts). In other words, the supernatural alternative cannot be confidently asserted in the presence of my thesis. Assuming there were no other arguments in the debate, the supernatural explanation could be true, but so could the relocation explanation, so at best only agnosticism is justified (and at worst, the Inference to Natural Causes sides with the natural explanation in such cases).
(2) and (14): Regarding the necessity for burial on the “first night,” my essay includes citations of Talmudic cases where bodies were legally left unburied overnight as a matter of fact. They even explicitly state in some places what you can and cannot do when that happens. Since the Sabbath itself continues through one entire night, obviously someone who dies on a Sabbath could not receive burial the first night after death, so Miller cannot assert this never happened–rather, it must have happened quite a lot. Though Jesus did not die on a Sabbath, he did die on the first day of a Festival, which was equivalent to a Sabbath for this purpose, as my essay shows. Thus, my essay still justifies the conclusion that formal burial, as in the legal consecration to a grave, might not have happened for Jesus–which is sufficient for my case (i.e., that this explanation is plausible). My case is even stronger, I believe, but needn’t be for this point to stand.
(3): What some other scholars say about the status of Jewish Law is exactly what my essay aims to rebut by presenting the evidence for Jewish law being honored. Miller hypothesizes that this only applied to civil law, but that is a conjecture: the sources do not say this anywhere. Indeed, I wonder how the Augustan decree could omit the fact that it only applied to some things and not others? This entails (per the Pilate example I cite in my essay) that the Ten Commandments, including the law against icons, were civil law, which seems a strange assumption since this has the very same locus as the law against murder. Miller’s position here seems implausible to me for other reasons as well. Why was Jewish criminal law preserved in such detail, and countless real cases in the Talmud and other Rabbinica cited from the 1st century and later (including executions: just peruse the discussions in all the Judaica for hundreds and hundreds of real cases, some where convicts are even named), if it was not allowed to be practiced at all? Importantly, even the Gospel of John says that only capital cases were removed from Jewish jurisdiction, not all criminal law, and he may only have meant that approval was required (as I note in my essay). No other New Testament author says that any other laws were supervened in the time of Pilate, and more importantly, nor do Philo or Josephus. Thus, Miller again has not refuted the possibility my essay argues for, especially where I adduce that particular laws relevant to my thesis were observed (e.g., Josephus and the Zealots).
(4): We don’t know whether there was enough time to do what was necessary. Miller improperly assumes Jesus was taken down at the moment of his apparent death. But the Gospels do not say this. As I show in my essay, the phrases used for the time of burial imply that the sun was virtually in the process of going down once Joseph arrived and had the permission to get the body. All the Gospels go out of their way to emphasize the urgency of the situation. So clearly there could not have been “hours” left, otherwise the accounts as we have them do not make sense. Likewise, we are told that the women assumed the burial was not completed (they went to complete the anointing on Sunday), so we even have some positive evidence that there wasn’t enough time. However that may be, we don’t know exactly when the body was finally made available, or where the requisite tomb in the criminals’ graveyard was, or to what extent Joseph had made the necessary preparations, how many servants he applied to the task (if any), and so on. Once again Miller’s arguments do not refute the possibility that there wasn’t enough time. Most importantly, however, is that time is moot: since there was a law prohibiting burial on the first day of a Festival (as I show above), and the Friday in question was a Festival Day according to the Synoptics (and perhaps John as well), time is not even an issue. Even if it was Friday morning, Joseph still could not have legally buried Jesus.
(5)-(8): My essay does not contradict any of these (as far as I can see, correct) observations by Miller, and thus they do not argue against the possibility of my thesis.
(9)-(13): Since we know for a fact that temporary arrangements for bodies that could not be buried were allowed, Miller cannot presume that the words “temporary” or “borrowed” only ever or even typically referred to the first burial, or that they did so in the passages relevant to my essay. One passage I cite allows one to move a body into the shade, for example, and Joseph’s action may have been little more than just that: putting the body in the nearest available shade to ride out the next day, making the fact that this was an unused tomb merely an incidental convenience that actually contributed to the confusion among the women and other disciples. More problematically, Miller repeatedly confuses funeral acts with burial, yet mourning did not entail formal or legal burial–consecration is not the same thing as mourning. He thus imports numerous assumptions about what was happening that are not strictly present in the sources. As a result, the possibility I argue for remains. Likewise, the arguments I present for this interpretation in my essay remain as relevant here as always, and the reader must weigh them against Miller’s and come to their own conclusion. Ultimately, since we know moving bodies was allowed when they could not yet be formally buried, my argument does not need passages referring to the use of “temporary tombs.” Those merely corroborate the plausibility of a thesis that is already consistent with Jewish law. If we remove those passages as a result of Miller’s arguments, this only removes some corroborating evidence. It does not contradict my thesis. Moreover, it would actually make my thesis stronger in a different respect: since the removal of those passages would mean that such an act as Joseph undertook was too rare even to be mentioned in any sources, it would therefore be even more likely, had it happened, to have led to mistaken beliefs among those who found the tomb empty. And since my case for the impossibility of legal burial is stronger than any other in my essay, and therefore Joseph’s actions beg explanation, the “temporary holding place” interpretation remains for Joseph’s actions by an argument a fortiori, quite apart from any corroboration in the texts for such a practice.
(15)-(16): This line of reasoning does not apply to my argument: I agree that buried bodies typically were immovable. Rather, my thesis is that Jesus might not have been buried in any legal or religious sense. That is, I don’t see how we can be sure that Jesus’ body was actually buried in the legal sense required for this taboo (and the law against moving bodies) to apply. Thus, it is possible that it was not.
(17)-(18): The sources I cite imply, as I argue in my essay, that even those executed by the state had to receive an ignominious burial. But more importantly, though the execution was Roman, the sentence was Jewish. Miller thinks that this doesn’t matter, but again he cannot prove it, so the possibility remains. Jesus was formally and legally condemned under Jewish Law (or at least, the sources make this highly probable, as my essay argues). That must have meant something–otherwise, why would they bother? Paul would have been making an empty argument when he asserted that Jesus “became a curse” (according to the Torah Law that Paul quotes) if Jesus was not in fact cursed but treated just like an innocent. So the very reasons for a criminal graveyard should have applied to Jesus: these reasons were first and foremost to prevent righteous men from resting near unrighteous men; then (we can reasonably assume from the way it is discussed and in the context of restrictions on mourning practices) to remind the community that the moral life of the deceased was not approved; and last, if we accept the concept as early (see below), to allow the corpse to atone for its sin. It would make no sense to have allowed a man formally condemned as unrighteous to rest near the bodies of righteous men. Local Jews would surely have been outraged at the insult to their deceased relatives nearby. Thus, Miller’s challenge to this conclusion is implausible.
(20): Miller may be correct that the atonement concept was a replacement for the Temple’s role in that respect. The logic seems plausible to me, but again he does not prove this. He cites no primary evidence confirming it, only the logic of a modern Jewish scholar. The logic is persuasive but for one lurking question: if no one thought death atoned for sin before the destruction of the Temple, why did the earlier sages have an opinion on it? That only makes sense if there was a practice or belief at some point before the destruction of the Temple that held that death could at least (in part) atone for sin. Since “the Sages” who object to this practice or belief are unnamed and unidentified, we cannot ascertain whether their opinion was law in the time and place of Jesus. Rather, what we can say is that the atoning power of death must have been a live issue even then. It is possible, for example, that the rotting of the flesh from the bones was required as part of the requirements of atonement, along with the scapegoat. The Mishnah explicitly states, “death and the Day of Atonement atone when joined with repentance,” Yoma 8.8a. Since the dead technically cannot repent, the pain of the grave might have been allowed to work to this end, and thus the logic here at least does not require the absence of the Temple. But even if we reject an early date for this belief, this was not the primary rationale for the criminals’ graveyard: that was the separation of righteous from unrighteous men. So Miller’s argument does not do much here, even if successful in its aim of eliminating a different rationale.
Most of Miller’s arguments and evidence, despite their arduous and admirable extent, do not in fact contradict the scenario my thesis envisions. At best, he weakens the support for it. But since I never intended to argue that this is what in fact happened, but only what could have happened, a weakening of support really has no effect on that thesis. One would have to adduce contradictions or demonstrate implausibilities in the scenario drawn. Miller has not done so. I am moved, however, by two elements of Miller’s case. First: his pointing out the reasoning that the atoning death might be a late rather than early belief. Though not essential to my argument, this is an important matter of fact that requires qualifying in the original essay, so I have inserted a note there to that effect. Second: I am left more uncertain than before as to whether the “temporary” tomb passages I employ are definitely what I take them to be: they could be taken either way, since, in the one case, Miller inserts his assumptions about the necessity for cotermination of mourning rituals and legal burial, while in the other, I insert my assumptions to the contrary. Neither set of assumptions, as far as I can see, is any more or less legitimate (hence, I noted this possibility in the May 2002 revision).
Those two facts aside, it seems to me that none of the facts I state in my essay have been contradicted or shown false, and none of my reasoning has been shown to violate canons of logic (i.e., I do not argue fallaciously or invalidly). What Miller has done is to introduce evidence that allows my evidence to be interpreted in a different way, a way which would contradict or disallow the scenario I suggest. To that I say, “Fair enough.” It just does not affect my thesis, which is an argument for plausibility rather than fact. Even Miller, I think, must admit that the scenario painted by my essay could have happened, even if he would assign it a low probability. But is its probability low enough to rule it out altogether? I doubt it. And that is all my essay really aims to demonstrate.
 Note that a more thorough and precise version of my essay (sans the “third day” material) is now published in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, edited by Jeff Lowder and Bob Price (2005), pp. 369-92. Those with a serious interest in this issue are advised to consult that version, as well as a FAQ I have composed for it. However, Miller only had access to the original online version, so here I only address his arguments as if the online version were the only one. The differences are not very crucial, although since writing the book I have come to have even greater doubts about Miller’s position than I describe here (see FAQ).
 Of course, there are other arguments, so I am oversimplifying. For example, elsewhere I make an even better plausibility case for the hypothesis of theft: see Richard Carrier, “The Plausibility of Theft,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, edited by Jeff Lowder and Bob Price (Prometheus: 2005), pp. 349-68, with the associated FAQ; and see also my chapter on the “Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” ibid., pp. 105-232, with its associated FAQ. Otherwise, one can dive into the issues surrounding supernatural vs. natural explanations of the Resurrection (or belief therein), by canvassing the materials in the Secular Web’s section on the Resurrection of Jesus. One might also add here that if we conclude, as many scholars do, that the Gospel accounts of the burial of Jesus are to a significant extent, or even wholly, unreliable, then the naturalistic possibilities, legal relocation included, gain even greater plausibility for the reason that the real facts may have actually been such as to make one or another natural series of events happen, with those real facts being lost, misreported, or contradicted by the actual stories later told. We cannot be sure, and thus we cannot be sure of any alternative, either.
 On probability arguments adjudicating between naturalism and supernaturalism, see Section X of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle: Assessing the Odds (part of Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story“), along with sections XI and I, among others; also relevant is my essay “Doctors Pronounce Jesus Dead!” and, of course, a lot of material in my Review of In Defense of Miracles). For a thorough case arguing that naturalism is probably the correct worldview, see my book, Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism (AuthorHouse: 2005).