Friday, March 21, 2008

A Wretched Death, a Wretched Burial

I was tortured in the desert,

I was raped out on the plain.
I was murdered by the highway,
And my cries went up in vain.
My blood is on the mountain,
My blood is on the sand.
My blood runs in the river
That now washes thru their hands.
I am lost unto this world . . .

“Lost Unto This World”
Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois
(from Emmylou Harris’ 2003 album, Stumble Into Grace)

Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann writes:

[The Evangelist] John reports of a certain Joseph of Arimathea [who] took the corpse of Jesus down from the cross with the help of Nicodemus, who brought along a mixture of a “hundred pounds” (1 pound equals 1 Greek “litra,” which is 327.45 grams) of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39). The two men supposedly wrapped the body of Jesus in linen cloths, along with this enormous amount of spices, and buried it in a new tomb in a garden near the place of execution.

So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:42)

This description speaks, on the one hand, of a hasty burial and so conveys the impression that the tomb was only provisional. On the other hand, such an expensive, large-scale burial takes time. These two aspects don’t fit together, just as the whole time frame in John doesn’t fit: On a single afternoon the crucifixion, death, and burial were over by 6:00 p.m.

. . . But this Joseph of Arimathea is not a real person. He is a fictional character, though an ideal combination for the burial John describes: He is at once a disciple of Jesus and a member of the High Council, as well as someone who is on good terms with Pilate (John 19:38). Finally, he is rich (Matt. 27:57). This sort of combination is practically unthinkable. Hence, in his commentary on John, [Rudolf] Bultmann designates the entire scene (John 19:38-42) an “edifying-legendary formation.” And, of course, “in the place where Jesus was crucified” (John 19:41) there was no tomb of a rich man in a garden. There were tombs in the neighborhood of a place of execution. These, however, were presumably mass graves for the executed prisoners, which the Romans didn’t bury in a kind of boneyard but hastily dumped together.

Jesus was executed with two others, the so-called robbers, who presumably were executed, like Jesus, for political reasons. Hence, we may assume, first, that all three were condemned in one and the same trial, and that, second, all three were buried in the same mass grave. It is characteristic that according to all four Gospels, Jesus was buried neither by his family nor by his disciples (though in the Synoptics a few women witness his burial: Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55). Instead, he was buried by a third party, a point that the description of the burial still clearly remembers. But it wasn’t two rich and pious men who buried him – why should his family and his friends have stayed away from [such a] burial? It was the Romans who buried him in a mass grave. And with the large number of the graves, which were immediately flattened, no one could say anymore where it was.

There was no splendor and glory hovering over Jesus’ burial. There were no hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. After the most wretched and ignominious of all deaths, it was presumably the most miserable and wretched of all burials.

- Excerpted from Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith by Uta Ranke-Heinemann (translated by Peter Heinegg), (English translation: New York: HarperCollins,1994).

Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s commentary on the death and burial of Jesus reminds me of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg’s reflection on the “human inevitability” of Jesus’ death.

In their book,
The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, Crossan and Borg note that:

. . . [T]he execution of Jesus was virtually inevitable, not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability – this is what domination systems* did to people who publicly and vigorously challenged them. It happened often in the ancient world. It has happened to countless people throughout history. Closer to Jesus, it had happened to his mentor John the Baptizer, arrested and executed by Herod Antipas not long before. Now it happened to Jesus. Within a few more decades, it would happen to Paul, Peter, and James. We should wonder what it was about Jesus and his movement that so provoked the authorities at the top of the domination system of their time.

But Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination system’s brutality. He was also a protagonist filled with passion. His passion, his message, was about the kingdom of God. He spoke to peasants as a voice of peasant religious protest against the central economic and political institutions of his day. He attracted a following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All of this was his passion, what he was passionate about: God and the kingdom of God, God and God’s passion for justice.

Jesus’ passion got him killed. To put this meaning of passion and a narrower meaning of passion into a single sentence: Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God led to what is often called his passion, namely, his suffering and death. But to restrict Jesus’ passion to his suffering and death is to ignore the passion that brought him to Jerusalem. To think of Jesus’ passion as simply what happened on Good Friday is to separate his death from the passion that animated his life.

- Excerpted from The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

On this Good Friday, I find myself reflecting upon the “wretched” death and burial of not only Jesus, but of countless others throughout time and across cultures. I think of the victims of the Inquisition, of the Holocaust, and of terrible acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide. These and similar events have resulted in the torturous deaths of men, women, and children, and the unceremonious dumping of their bodies into mass and/or unmarked graves. I also think of the many cases where individuals met, like Jesus, such wretched fates as the result of their passion for “God and God’s passion for justice,” and thus for their challenging of unjust political and economic systems.

In particular, I think of the four American women murdered in El Salvador in 1980 by officers of that country’s National Guard. These four churchwomen were victims in a civil war that would eventually claim over 70,000 lives.

Perhaps you’re familiar with their story. It’s documented by one writer as follows:

On the evening of December 2, 1980, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, lay missioner Jean Donovan and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazell were abducted near the San Salvador airport. Ford and Clarke had just returned from a Maryknoll conference in Managua, Nicaragua. Along with four other guardsmen in civilian clothing, Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman followed the women in a military jeep and detained them. After interrogating the four women, Aleman ordered that the women be taken to a remote field about 15 miles from the airport, where they were to be “eliminated” on the instructions of his superior officer. Each of the women was raped and shot in the head by men trained and armed by the United States [government, which is the most obvious contemporary form of the domination system that Crossan and Borg speak of]. The bodies were dumped along the side of the road. The next morning, when the bodies were discovered, a local justice of the peace ordered that they be buried in shallow graves. On December 4, the four women were exhumed after Ambassador Robert White learned of the murders.

Catholic priests, nuns, and lay workers were frequently accused by the right-wing Salvadoran government of aiding communist guerillas during the decade-long civil war; religious workers – particularly those from outside El Salvador – were routinely arrested, harassed, beaten and tortured for providing food, medical aid, and other forms of relief to the tens of thousands of people displaced by the violence. Jean Donovan, one of the December 2 victims, frequently picked up bodies of peasants left by death squads on the roadsides near La Libertad, the village where she worked. Donovan and her colleagues understood that their lives were at risk each day they remained in El Salvador.

During a liturgy held in Managua the night before she was killed, Ita Ford read a passage from one of
Archbishop Oscar Romero’s last homilies, delivered shortly before he was assassinated in March 1980:

Christ invites us not to fear persecution because, believe me, brothers and sisters, the one who is committed to the poor must run the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor signifies: to disappear, be tortured, to be held captive – and to be found dead.

Under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the United States provided material assistance and training to the Slavadoran military that killed Ford, Clarke, Donovan and Kazel. Two months after the deaths of the churchwomen, Secretary of State Alexander Haig urged Ambassador White to publicly congratulate the government of El Salvador for conducting a thorough and prompt investigation of the murders. Haig was hoping to put the matter to rest so that full military assistance to the Salvadoran military could be resumed.

However, because the regime of Jose Napoleon Duarte was not in fact conducting such an investigation, White refused Haig’s request. As a result, he became the first ambassador to be fired during the Reagan administration.

I’m not “scandalized” (as some Catholics like to say) by the suggestion that the body of Jesus ended up in an unmarked mass grave after his torture and death. Indeed, given what scholars and historians tell us about those brutal times under Roman occupation, and given Jesus’ own identification with those oppressed and targeted by the domination system that was imperial Rome, such a fate was inevitable - and at some point Jesus must have known it. Yet he didn’t back down. And the horror of what followed, and of what we thus remember as Christians on this day known as Good Friday, leaves me feeling devastated and numb.

Can I get no witness, this unholy tale to tell?
Was God the only one there watching
And weeping as I fell?
O, you among the living
Will you remember me at all?
Will you write my name out
With a single finger scrawl
Across a broken window
In some long forgotten wall
That goes stretching out forever
Where the tears of heaven fall?

“Lost Unto This World”
Emmylou Harris and Daniel Lanois
(from Emmylou Harris’ 2003 album, Stumble Into Grace)


* According to Crossan and Borg, the phrase “domination system” is shorthand for the most common form of social system – a way of organizing a society – in ancient and pre-modern times, that is, in pre-industrial agrarian societies. It names a social system marked by three major features:

1. Political oppression. In such societies the many were ruled by the few, the powerful and wealthy elites: the monarchy, nobility, aristocracy, and their associates. Ordinary people had no voice in the shaping of the society.

2. Economic exploitation. A high percentage of the society’s wealth, which came primarily from agricultural production in pre-industrial societies, went into the coffers of the wealthy and powerful – between one-half and two-thirds of it. This was achieved through structures and laws about land ownership, taxation, indenture of labor through debt, etc.

3. Religious legitimation. In ancient societies, these systems were legitimated, or justified, with religious language. The people were told the king ruled by divine right, the king was the Son of God, the social order reflected the will of God, and the powers that be were ordained by God. Of course, religion sometime became the protest against these claims. But in most pre-modern societies known to us, religion has been used to legitimate the place of the wealthy and powerful in the social order over which they preside.

Crossan and Borg also point out that: “There is nothing unusual about this form of society. Monarchical and aristocratic rule by a wealthy few began about five thousand years ago and was the most common form of social system in the ancient world. With various permutations, it persisted through the medieval and early modern periods until the democratic revolutions of the last few hundred years. And one could make a case that in somewhat different form it remains with us today. In this sense ‘domination systems’ are normal, not abnormal, and thus can also be called the ‘normalcy of civilization’ . . . At a broad level of generalization, Good Friday is the result of the collision between the passion of Jesus [for God and God’s justice] and the normalcy of civilization.”

Image 1: Mass grave in Liberia, photographed by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times, 2004.
Image 2: Mass grave at the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. The clothed body on the left is of a prisoner who died after the camp’s liberation on April 15, 1945, his body added to the mass grave on May 1, 1945.
Image 3: Recovering the bodies of the four churchwomen murdered in El Salvador on December 2, 1980.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
“Here I Am!” – The Lenten Response
Palm Sunday: “A Planned Political Demonstration”
Blaming the Jews, Canonizing Pilate
Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)
Uta Ranke-Heinemann on the Future of the Catholic Church
In the Garden of Spirituality: Uta Ranke-Heinemann
Praying for George W. Bush


kevin57 said...

I grant that the "logistics" of the burial accounts in the gospels are tricky at best (timing, location, those reported to be present), but that a Joseph of Arimethea--wealthy and influential--could have been a follower of Jesus, is very believable. While the gospel message has throughout time resonated more with the marginalized, the "anawim," there has always been a strata of the rich and powerful who have followed Jesus.

The savagery of his death, though, does parallel the deaths of hundreds of millions of others down through the ages. To that list, Michael, could and should have been added the innumerable deaths of gay people, very often with the felicitous consent of the Church. In the midst of all the (necessary) apologies offered by Pope John Paul II during the millennium year (to Jews, Orthodox Christians, etc.), not one was offered to homosexuals brutalized by the Church. I wonder when that will happen. Maybe we'll have to wait until the next millennium.

Especially when one hears about idiot bishops like the one in Scotland who lamented that gays show up at every Holocaust memorial service to make the point that their genocide should also be acknoledged (it rarely is). Somehow in his mean mind and spirit gays don't deserve their moment of silence.

Unknown said...


What is your evidence that Joseph of Arimathea is a fictional person?

What is your evidence that Jesus was buried in a mass grave?

Anonymous said...

There is no empirical evidence against Joseph of Arimethea's existence, merely speculation however "scholarly". To accord such speculations a necessary credence is a leap of faith over reason as to believe otherwise. This aspect of higher criticism has been felled like big timbers by deconconstruction. It's so very behind the times in scholarly terms now. But it was the academic orthodoxy of the past generation to which all who want tenure must still pay obeisance.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Ray and Liam,

You speak as if your faith is dependent on the existence of Joseph of Arimethea! I find this perplexing.

Also, Liam, your opening statement could just as easily read: "There is no empirical evidence for Joseph of Arimethea's existence."

After all, the Gospels are not historical or biographical documents. They're faith documents, and as such they comprise a whole different genre of writing.

Whether Jesus was given the elaborate and royal-like burial described in the Gospels or whether his body ended up in a shallow mass grave makes not one iota to me with regards my faith in the Risen Christ.

I would have thought that you could say the same. And if you can't, then I'd be interested to know why that is the case.



Anonymous said...


My faith in the Resurrection is not dependent on the existence of Joseph of Arimethea. But that is not the question posed by the scholarly speculations you cite. And while we can say the the Scriptures are not historical documents in the modern sense of that term, that does not prove the lack of their historicity in many details.

Basically the burden on *Catholic* scholars is that if it's not important enough to believe, it's likewise no more important to disbelieve.

The presumption in the faith is in favor of the historicity of Scripture, including many details. The scholarly speculations fail *one their OWN terms* to qualify sufficiently to displace that presumption. Scripture, by contrast, is not burdened with those academic terms of discourse.

Thus, Scripture does not contradict its own methodology the way the scholarly speculations contradict the methods of those scholars.

Which is not terribly surprising, but it shows those speculations are only useful as fodder for something other than factual evidence. And reasonable people should stop sharing them *as if* they were proper evidentiary discussions.

It's unfortunate that many erstwhile exigetes today employ such self-contradictory and readily deconstructible methods in their speculations. And I write this as someone trained in history but with a great nose for academic BS.

But those academic emperors have often even fewer clothes than the magisterial emperor they are trying to point the finger at....

So my question back to you is: why is it important to cast doubt the veracity of the existence of Joseph of Arimethea. How does such disbelief add to your faith? How does it add to the faith of others? And how much so? And are you willing to take responsibility for the scandal it might cause others? Do you hold yourself as accountable as you expect to hold those who hold teaching office in the Church? It's not clear to me that you do, but I must presume you do even without that clarity.

A happy and blessed Easter to you. Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

Michael J. Bayly said...

And a Happy Easter to you too, Liam!

I have to say, I don’t quite follow what you’re saying about scripture and scripture scholars. For example, you say: “Scripture does not contradict its own methodology.” And what methodology would that be? And who says that the burden of Catholic scholars “is [to prove?] that if it’s not important enough to believe, it’s likewise no more important to disbelieve”?

Also, you acknowledge that “the Scriptures are not historical documents in the modern sense of that term,’ yet insist that this “does not prove the lack of their historicity in many details.” So . . . who gets to decide on these “details” and “prove” their “historicity”? Isn’t that the role of biblical scholars? And isn’t an aspect of such scholarship to look “behind the texts” to the historical realities and social customs and traditions that shaped them?

As to your concluding questions: I don’t see my sharing of the research, insights, and speculations of people like Ranke-Heinemann, Crossan, and Borg as spreading “disabelief.” Quite the opposite. My eyes, my “believing” eyes, are always on the central truths of the faith. And these truths remain – regardless of the existence or non-existence of, for example, Joseph of Arimathea.

I have to also say that I’ve come to be a bit suspicious of the motivations of people and institutions that warn that words and ideas may cause “scandal.” More often than not, I’ve discovered, such warnings are designed to silence people, to shut down thinking and discussion.

Moreover, if anyone’s faith is indeed “scandalized” by anything they read on The Wild Reed, then I have to wonder just how secure a faith it was to begin with. Maybe it needs some deconstructing, some “putting away of childish things,” in order to be rebuilt and strengthened. I look back on my own faith journey and am grateful for times of “scandal,” times of being shaken out of my complacency. More often than not, such events were only “scandalous” in the eyes of others who were unwilling to grow as adult believers, and thus disturbed and/or resentful of my journeying beyond where they were comfortable remaining.

Also, no one is forcing anyone to read what I post or, for that matter, the books of Ranke-Heinemann, Crossan, or Borg. Having said that, I definitely see such scholars as seeking to show that despite the implausibleness, incongruencies, and inconsistencies of certain aspects of Scripture, one can still have a strong and vibrant faith. This to me is a worthwhile and responsible endeavor. And it’s certainly added to my faith – and the faith of others, too. I’m a thinking, adult Christian. And have a pretty good “bullshit detector” of my own. And it’s not the myths (in the best sense of the word) of the biblical testimony that I label as “bullshit,” but the thinking that says that such myths, metaphors, and symbols must be read literally in order for one to be a faithful Catholic or Christian or whatever; the thinking that uses the fear of “scandal” and “confusion of the faithful” so as to shut down legitimate questioning, exploration, and discussion that, more often than not, interests, engages, and inspires people to grow in their faith.

For instance, when I was teaching at a local Catholic college, many of my students were well aware of the inconsistencies of various aspects of Scripture. Their response? It’s all a load of old rubbish. The writings of Ranke-Heinemann, Crossan, Borg, and others, helped them see that this wasn’t the case. As a result, they experienced a renewed interest in Scripture. Many said that felt liberated from a previous way of looking at the biblical testimony that had become for them infantile, restrictive, and stale. Thus I strongly believe that there is a place for such thinking, for such scholarship in the Church. And for that I and many others are grateful.