(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)
A Guest Post by Timothy McGrew
In this post, I conclude my critical examination of three points in V. J. Torley’s lengthy review essay, wherein Torley summarizes Michael Alter’s even more lengthy book on the resurrection. The previous two posts are here and here.
Torley’s third selected claim, taken from Michael Alter, is that the story of Jesus’ burial is improbable at multiple points, which therefore provides evidence that the Gospels have been substantially factually changed and are not historically reliable.
Here, as in the two previous points, Torley’s method (and presumably Alter’s) is that of a priori history. The idea is to say, at our distance of time, what would not have been done, to infer that therefore it was not done, and to conclude that an account that says that it was done must be false.
This is a terrible way to do history.
Prima facie, the Gospels are early documents that have some claim to be historical sources concerning practices of the time. To decide on the basis of highly indirect inference (often amounting to nothing more than bare assertion) that some practice related in the Gospels “would not” have happened, even in an entirely non-miraculous portion of the account, is to attempt to do history from one’s armchair. But history is intrinsically empirical. We would have to reject a great many things that did undoubtedly happen in secular history if we were to apply such a method consistently.
Torley begins by denying that Jesus’ body would have been buried properly except (at most) in a common grave.
The major support for this denial comes from further assertions by Bart Ehrman, who suggests that there was a hard and fast rule that those convicted of “high treason” were not allowed to be properly buried.
To begin with, the only thing that this assertion seems to have going for it is the mention in Ulpian (cited here by Craig Evans in support of Jesus’ burial) of a possible exception to the allowance of burial in the case of those convicted of high treason:
At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.
There is also the fact that, in times of total war (such as at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70), the Romans apparently did not permit burial of those crucified. That is all. But on this slender basis Ehrman (followed by Alter and Torley) manufactures a hard and fast rule that no one convicted of a crime against the Roman state, even in a time of peace, would ever have been permitted decent burial. He then argues further that Pilate would have extended this prohibition to Jesus.
The evidence for such a rule is nonexistent; and as I have argued in my previous post, the idea that Jesus was convicted of high treason is nonsense. The record of Jesus’ trial indicates that Pilate himself did not believe that Jesus was a threat to the state and that he merely gave in to pressure to crucify him. According to the Gospels he actually told the crowd that he found no guilt in Jesus on that score, and his references to Jesus as the king have more than a touch of sarcasm in them. As Torley himself says, what Pilate thought is what is important. It was up to Pilate whether to allow Jesus’ body to be properly buried. We have no reason to believe that he was bound by some definite rule requiring him to go one way or another. And, as Craig Evans points out, Josephus makes it clear that it was a fairly frequent practice for the Romans to allow people to bury the bodies of those crucified.
It requires a great deal of cherry picking to manufacture these kinds of difficulties in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ trial. On the one hand, Ehrman & co. need to use the Gospel accounts to make their argument that Jesus was “convicted of high treason.” This comes from, e.g., the leaders’ accusation of sedition and their statement that if Pilate lets Jesus go he is not a friend of Caesar. They then want to lean on their inference that Jesus was “convicted of high treason” to argue against a different part of the documents, just as soberly stated -- namely, that Jesus was buried in a tomb. This is not a principled use of historical data.
Torley’s next objection to the burial narrative is that, if the Romans had allowed anyone to take Jesus’ body for burial, it would have been the Jewish leaders rather than a friend of Jesus. He then further reasons that, on the assumption that the Jewish leaders had custody of Jesus’ body, they would have accorded it a dishonorable burial rather than an honorable burial.
This, again, is the purest a priori history. The claim that Pilate would not have given the body to a private individual but rather to the chief priests is unfounded. Pilate was under no illusions; he knew that they were procuring the death of an innocent man. There is not the slightest reason to think that the governor who had just denied their request for a rewording of the placard over Jesus’ head would deliberately reserve the body for their disposal. In carrying out the execution, he had taken out of their hands the only weapon they could have wielded against him with Caesar. The Jews were not going to send a delegation to Rome to complain to Tiberius that Pilate had crucified a self-appointed “king” but hadn’t been mean enough about his dead body afterward.
Torley implies that the reference in Mark to Joseph of Arimathea as a respected member of the council means that “even if Joseph of Arimathea played a role in Jesus’ burial, as the Gospels narrate, he would have been carrying out the chief priests’ wishes.” This inference is bizarre. Joseph of Arimathea was an individual acting on his own. He could perfectly well choose to do something the chief priest would not have wanted him to do -- allowing for the sake of argument that the chief priest really would have had an objection to Jesus’ burial. There is no reason to assume that Mark’s mention of his being a member of the council means that he was carrying out the council’s wishes about the body. In fact, Mark expressly says (15:42) that he “took up courage” to ask for the body, a point that fits very nicely with John’s statement that he had previously been fearful to admit that he was sympathetic to Jesus (John 19:38). Mark’s own narrative thus implies that Joseph was doing something that he realized could be risky in some way.
Once again, we see here the strange attempt to pit one part of the narrative speculatively against the other even though the narrative itself is quite coherent. Torley is rejecting Mark’s own account of what Joseph did with the body -- wrapping it in linen and burying it in a rock-cut tomb. But he (apparently following Alter) arbitrarily selects a different bit of Mark’s narrative (that Joseph was a member of the council), speculates without justification, and in direct contradiction to the narrative we have, that perhaps this means that Joseph was acting on behalf of the council, and then uses this speculation as a further way to reject the story of the burial, on the grounds that Joseph “would have” been carrying out the wishes of the council. Once again, this manner of handling of Mark’s information is historically irresponsible.
For all we know, Pilate might have delivered the body of Jesus to the chief priests had they asked. But our only historical sources, the Gospels, say that Joseph of Arimathea went in himself (“boldly”) and asked permission to bury the body. The suggestion that certain passages of the New Testament “reflect an older tradition that the Jewish leaders were granted custody of Jesus’ body, after he had been taken down from the Cross” is without foundation. The specious pretense to the contrary arises from an overreading of the implicit pronouns in the Greek verbs in Acts 13:29, which hardly require that all and only the same individuals be in view as those who condemned Jesus a few verses earlier. The actions were done by Jews, and Paul would not be expected to stop to expound on the differences among the members of the Sanhedrin for the purposes of giving a quick verbal outline of the story of the resurrection to the Jews in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia.
Torley next rejects the idea that Jesus was buried in a tomb, but his reasons appear to turn merely on the question-begging assumption that the Gospels’ story of Joseph of Arimathea’s personal intervention is false. He quotes Jodi Magness to the effect that there is no evidence that the Sanhedrin or Romans maintained rock-cut tombs for executed criminals. But who ever said that they did? The whole point of the story in the Gospels is that this was an individual act by an individual man (Joseph of Arimathea) who had become sympathetic to Jesus or who, at a minimum, felt that the crucifixion was sufficiently unjust that he wanted to provide honorable burial for Jesus.
Torley relies on Matthew Ferguson to cast doubt on Joseph’s intervention on the basis of a pure and extremely weak argument from silence -- the absence of any specific mention of Joseph of Arimathea in the creed in 1 Cor. 15. But the absence of Joseph from the creed says nothing about Paul’s own knowledge. By Paul’s own description the creed was delivered to him (15:3) and was therefore not a statement of his own crafting. And in any event, a creed is a brief summary. That is the point of our calling it a creed. In such a summary of course there would be no reason to include such specific details as precisely how Jesus was buried, by whom, or in whose tomb. On the contrary, there would be reason to omit them. This argument is a peculiar sort of sleight of hand, in which one distracts attention from the explicit statement that Jesus was buried by noting that this brief summary does not repeat some other specific details of the Gospel accounts.
Here it is worth noting another implied argument from silence -- namely, the statement that “even” Jodi Magness “freely acknowledges” that archeology does not prove the existence of Joseph of Arimathea! This is simply not worth mentioning as an argument. It has no probative force. If we had only one of Plutarch’s Lives, much less four, that mentioned a given Roman senator, it would be no argument at all to say that we have not also found archeological remains of that particular senator. That is simply not how history works. Millions of people lived and died in the ancient world leaving, 2,000 years later, no record of their existence, much less archeological evidence. We have four different records that describe Joseph of Arimathea in varied but mutually consistent terms. Even one sober record of his doings would be sufficient to give us grounds to believe that he existed.
Torley next borrows from Raymond Brown the claim that the location specified for Joseph’s tomb as near Golgotha would have been undesirable or unsuitable. But this is the merest assertion. What insight does Brown have about what were considered desirable neighborhoods for burial and precisely how far away (in a radius, perhaps?) a desirable burial location was supposed to be from a place sometimes used for execution? There is no reason, for example, to think that a garden could not have been located relatively near to Golgotha and hence have provided a pleasant burial spot. It is not as though we have documents specifying a number of miles, feet, or yards that a desirable burial place had to be from a place of execution, together with a sufficient notion of the “nearness” of Joseph’s tomb to make its location unlikely. The claim that there is something improbable about the statement (John 19:42) that Joseph’s tomb was relevantly near to the place of execution is sheer hand waving. Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.
Torley also uncritically accepts Brown’s assertion that the Gospel authors or their sources invented the claim that Jesus was buried in a new tomb for apologetic purposes. It should be obvious that the mere fact that Brown says this does not have any argumentative cogency, but Torley’s (and Alter’s?) method apparently is to treat any such assertion from any scholar as if it automatically shifts the burden of proof. At that point all that they ask is whether the account “could have some historical basis.” Again, this is poor methodology.
Torley rejects the claim that Jesus was buried behind a rolling stone on the ground that we have found only a small number of rock tombs with such a stone. But this is a very weak argument. Indeed, it can be turned on its head. We do have evidence that there were rock tombs with rolling stones at Jesus’ time, precisely as recounted in the Gospels. One cannot reasonably reject testimony on the basis of these statistics. Even if we could accurately and confidently infer the approximate percentage of tombs that had this feature and the wealth of their owners from our archeological discoveries (a fallible inference at best), we could easily think of parallel cases in our own time where a single sober attestation would overcome the minor burden of proof. My elderly neighbor, a decade or so ago, owned a red Cadillac and kept it in lovely condition. Should readers discount my testimony to this fact because the vast majority of Americans do not own Cadillacs, and most Cadillacs are not red?
The Gospel authors had nothing to gain by inventing a round stone for Jesus’ tomb. A rectangular stone would, if anything, be even more difficult to move than a stone that could be rolled. In light of the way that these critics are handling the narratives, I have to wonder whether, had the Gospels specified a stone that could not be rolled, we would be told that this was an apologetic invention to magnify the power of God, or of Jesus, or of the angel who shifted the stone.
Torley considers Jodi Magness’s claim that Jesus was buried in a single niche in Joseph’s family tomb, presumably with other bodies, and he rejects it. Here I agree with him. The theory that Jesus was buried only in a niche with other bodies in the same tomb is bald conjecture in any event, and there is no need for any such concession. Why not take at face value the claim that Jesus was buried in a new tomb? After all, Joseph of Arimathea himself was still alive, so if he had had the tomb made for himself, it likely wouldn’t have been needed yet.
Here again, Torley throws in a forceless argument from silence -- that Mark doesn’t mention that the tomb was new. But so what? By this sort of argument, we would have to say that any tiny detail not found in Mark is automatically suspect, which begs the question against the possible historicity of other Gospels and makes it impossible for an investigator to gain additional knowledge from sources other than the one designated the earliest. But unless we assume that any Gospel later than Mark is adding its information without historical warrant (which, again, would be question begging against the other documents), the mere fact that Mark may have been the earliest Gospel written does not create any presumption against small details added elsewhere. Indeed, as Lydia has argued in Hidden in Plain View, later Gospels sometimes interact with earlier Gospels in explanatory relationships, in both directions. This is the mark of historicity in multiple narratives of the same event.
Torley asserts without argument that surrounding a body with spices was not a Jewish practice, that it was an Egyptian practice instead. Embalming may well not have been a common Jewish practice, but of course the Gospels do not say that Jesus was embalmed, nor would there have been time for embalming on the Gospels’ own accounts. Simply wrapping the body in spices (it is not completely clear whether they were dry spices or ointments) in between the windings of the burial cloth would have been relatively quick, and Torley gives no argument against John’s explicit assertion (John 19:40) that burying a body with spices was customary for Jews. Interestingly, both the Jewish Virtual Library and the Jewish Encyclopedia, sources that presumably have no Christian axe to grind, treat John’s narrative as a source of information about the use of spices in Jewish burial practices, and neither cites any evidence indicating that burial with spices was contrary to Jewish custom. In fact, the Jewish Encyclopedia cites a specific Talmudic reference to the use of spices in burial:
A BENEDICTION MAY NOT BE SAID OVER THE LIGHTS OR THE SPICES OF THE DEAD. What is the reason? — The light is kindled only in honour of the dead, the spices are to remove the bad smell. Berakoth 53.a
Torley quotes and accepts uncritically Byron McCane’s claim that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are progressively elaborated, which Torley follows up with the comment, “So much for the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts, then.” But McCane’s claim, like other developmental theses concerning the Gospels (see here and here), is supported by cherry-picked details written up with a seasoning of rhetoric. Here is McCane:
Virtually all studies agree that as the tradition develops, every detail in the story is enhanced and improved upon. Mark begins the written tradition by saying that on Friday evening, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, requested the body of Jesus from Pilate, wrapped it in linen and sealed it in a rock-cut tomb. Never again would the story be told so simply. Joseph of Arimathea becomes a “good and righteous man” who did not consent to the action against Jesus (Luke 23:51), and then evolves into a secret disciple of Jesus (Matt 27:57; John 19:38). The “rock-cut” tomb in Mark becomes a “new” tomb (Matt 27:60), “where no one had yet been laid” (Luke 23:53). John not only combines those descriptions – the tomb is both “new” and “where no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41) – but also adds that the tomb was located in a garden. In Mark Joseph wraps the body in linen — nothing more – but subsequent Gospels describe the linen as “clean” (Matt 27:59) and claim that the body was bathed in vast quantities of perfume (John 19:39). By the time of the Gospel of Peter, during the mid-second century CE, Christians were going so far as to assert that Jesus had been sumptuously buried in the family tomb of one of Jerusalem’s most powerful and wealthy families. [Emphasis added]
This paragraph is wildly misleading. It is not that Mark’s story of the burial is “told so simply” while the later versions are progressively more “evolved.” What we actually find in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ burial is the kind of non-systematic, non-contradictory variation of detail that characterizes independent, truthful testimonies. For example, only Mark 15:44-45 mentions that Pilate was surprised to learn that Jesus was already dead and that he called the centurion to confirm that this was so. This detail is not found in any of the later accounts, even in the other Synoptic Gospels. Only Mark mentions that Joseph of Arimathea purchased the linen cloth. Mark 15:47 mentions, but John (the later Gospel) does not, the important fact that there were women who saw where Jesus was laid, and the names of some of those women, as does Matthew. These do not constitute contradictions (see below). They do, by their variation, constitute counterexamples to the claim of gradual evolution and elaboration.
Luke mentions the women but omits their names. John does not name any women or mention their involvement at the time of the burial, though he mentions Nicodemus, who is not named in the Synoptics. Mark says that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the council, but John doesn’t. On McCane’s spun account, this was apparently because John was “improving upon” his being a member of the council by causing him to “evolve” into a secret disciple of Jesus. But this is misleading. If anything, John’s account might reasonably be regarded as more disapproving, since John expressly says that Joseph had previously been afraid to admit that he was a disciple of Jesus, as had said of Nicodemus earlier in his Gospel. Mark says that Joseph went “boldly” to Pilate (“took up courage” is a more literal rendering), but none of the other Gospels refer to boldness. Luke calls him a righteous man and is careful to state that he did not consent to the actions of the council, but John does not bother to get into his relationship with the council at all. Matthew alone mentions that the tomb was Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb; neither Luke nor John does so, though they both (obviously) assume that he had access to it. The Synoptics state expressly that the tomb was “cut out of the rock,” but John does not, though he mentions the stone at the door in Chapter 20, which assumes that it was a rock tomb. It is false that subsequent Gospels, plural, state that the linen cloth was clean. In fact, only Matthew does so, though he does not include the mention of Joseph’s purchasing it. And so forth. This is not development or evolution. It is independent variation with different details mentioned in different accounts.
Notice that two facts that are arguably more important from an apologetic perspective appear in Mark but not in John, while the statements in the burial account that McCane uses to claim that John’s account is “improved” are of less apologetic value. Mark says both that Pilate confirmed that Jesus was dead by calling the centurion and also that specific, named women knew where Jesus was buried. John doesn’t have either of these but says that the tomb was in a garden and that Jesus was buried with large amounts of spices. The former are more relevant to the justification for the resurrection. We can be quite sure that, if John included while Mark did not mention the claims about the women and Pilate, we would hear that these were later apologetic additions to the burial account.
As for the amount of spices with which Jesus was buried according to John (about 100 Roman pounds), apparently we are to take the sheer quantity to mean that the account is “probably fictional” at this point. But why think a thing like that? For example, why deny that, at a minimum, the author believed that Jesus was buried with such a large quantity of spices? Apparently only because Michael Alter can invent the theory that John was trying to make Jesus’ burial sound more imposing than that of Gamaliel. But this is unsupported conjecture. (In passing -- if burial customs involving spices were Egyptian rather than Jewish, how can John be competing with the burial of Gamaliel in relating Jesus’ burial with a large quantity of myrrh and aloes?) Incredulity about the proposition that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus with such a large quantity of spices is no argument in itself. In fact, the combined details that Matthew says that Joseph was rich (Matt. 27:57) and that John, who does not mention Joseph’s wealth, mentions a large quantity of spices fit together quite well.
Torley takes McCane’s account of how Jesus “would have been buried” as the way he was buried (if he was buried at all) and makes this rather striking statement:
When we read the Gospels, however, we find that these unpleasant details are progressively airbrushed with the passage of time...
What unpleasant details? The unpleasant details that McCane has simply made up, with no support whatsoever for the claim that this is how Jesus was buried -- things like his being placed within a cave reserved for condemned criminals. To say that the Gospel authors have “airbrushed” something that we have no historical reason to think happened at all is quite astonishing. Simply because someone has baldly claimed that Jesus “would have” been given a dishonorable burial, the Gospel authors (even Mark) now all stand accused of having “airbrushed” out the details of a dishonorable burial as envisaged by McCane in their accounts of how Jesus actually was buried. This is no way to do history.
Torley lists several alleged contradictions among the Gospel burial accounts, but all of these are manufactured; they are not contradictions in the texts at all.
The first contradiction is allegedly about who took Jesus down from the cross. I have already addressed the claim that Paul says that the Jewish leaders personally took Jesus down from the cross in Acts 13:29, but Torley alleges further a contradiction between the claim in Mark and Luke that Joseph took Jesus down and the claim in John that Joseph and Nicodemus did so. But there is obviously no contradiction between saying that Joseph did so and saying that Joseph did so with Nicodemus.
Similarly, Torley alleges a contradiction from the fact that John does not mention the women as present at the burial and that the Synoptics do not mention Nicodemus. To say that non-contradictory variations are contradictions is simply a failure to understand how witness testimony works and how reliable history works. It is normal for one account to mention things that another account does not mention. For John not to mention the women is not for John to say that the women were absent at the burial. Indeed, the account in John 20 implies that Mary Magdalene (named in the Synoptic accounts of the burial) did know where the tomb was. But it shows this in an indirect fashion by describing her coming to the tomb on Sunday morning. Variation is a virtue in the accounts. It shows their independence without contradiction and allows us to gain additional information. It would not be a better indication of historicity if all of the accounts named precisely the same people at each step.
Torley claims that there is a contradiction concerning whether Jesus was buried with a linen shroud, mentioned in the Synoptics, or with linen cloths, mentioned in John. But this is a trivial difference, not a contradiction; the shroud may well have been the principal burial garment with other smaller cloths involved as well.
Torley alleges a contradiction between John’s account of the large amount of spices used by Joseph and Nicodemus and the statements in Mark and Luke that the women came on Sunday morning bringing spices. But this is not a contradiction about “whether Jesus was buried with spices.” The women may well have wanted to contribute their own spices and perfumes (Luke 24:56) to honor Jesus’ body, bringing them several days later. To give a modern example, if we heard that there were many flowers at a funeral this would not create a contradiction with our hearing that someone brought flowers to the grave at a later time. (This is not, of course, to say that the function of flowers at a funeral is identical to the function of spices and perfumes in Jewish burial. I am merely pointing out that multiple people may wish to contribute to a practice honoring the dead.)
Torley also alleges a contradiction between Luke 23:56, which says that the women prepared spices prior to the Sabbath and Mark 16:1, which says that the women bought spices when the Sabbath was ended. (This was probably not early Sunday morning but rather after sundown on Saturday, based on Mark’s wording.) But Mark names three specific women who bought spices when the Sabbath was ended, while Luke does not name the women who prepared spices before the Sabbath. Later, when listing the women who came to the tomb on Easter, Luke 24:10 not only names Joanna, not named in Mark, but also says that there were “other women with them.” There is no contradiction between saying that “the women” prepared spices that they already had on Friday night and saying that some specific women purchased spices later. It is important in investigating historical matters to use a modicum of real-world imagination. Some of the women could have already had some spices on hand while others had to buy them. Or some of the women may have decided that they wanted more. This is just the normal way that human life works. Members of groups do not all do exactly the same things at the same time.
Finally, Torley claims that the Gospel authors must be altering the facts because their details contravene Jewish law. Here he cites Leviticus 23:6-7, which forbids “regular work” on 15 Nisan, and Nehemiah 10:31, in which those rebuilding Jerusalem after the captivity (in the 400s B.C.) promise as part of a reform not to purchase from neighboring peoples if they bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath or on a holy day. The inference is that at the time of Jesus’ death four and a half centuries later, there would have been a universally recognized prohibition against any buying or selling on 15 Nisan. On the assumption that Jesus died on 15 Nisan, this supposedly means that the references or implications in both John and Mark to purchasing things for Jesus’ burial must be fictitious. John mentions that Nicodemus brought spices and Mark says that Joseph purchased the linen cloth. One infers (though John does not expressly say so) that Nicodemus bought the myrrh and aloes at that time. The same verses in Leviticus are supposed to have prohibited the women from “preparing spices” on Friday afternoon per Luke 23:56, as this would (on Torley’s and presumably Alter’s reading) have constituted work.
While I think it is correct (in both the Synoptics and John, for that matter) that Jesus died on 15 Nisan, the claim that all purchases would have been forbidden in that place and time on that day is overly rigid. Jewish interpretations regarding what constituted work and what was permitted on which days are remarkably diverse. These interpretations even varied geographically. Here is a sample from the tractate Pesachim:
[In] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed to do work on the eve of Pesach until noon, we may do [so]; [in] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed not to do [so], we may not do [so]. One who goes from a place where they do [work], to a place where they do not do [work], or from a place where they do not do [work] to a place where they do [work], we place upon him the stringencies of the place he came from, [or] the stringencies of the place that he went to. And a man should not deviate [from the established customs of a place], on account of [the] disagreement [to which such conduct may lead].... [In] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed to sell small domesticated animals [sheep, goats, etc.] to gentiles, we may sell [them to gentiles]; [in] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed not to sell [these animals to gentiles], we may not sell [them to gentiles]. In all places, we may not sell [gentiles] large domesticated animals, calves or foals of donkeys, [whether they are] intact or broken [injured]; Rabbi Yehuda permits [the sale of] a broken [one]. Ben Betera permits [the sale of] a horse.... [In] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed to do work on Tisha Be'Av, we may do [work; in] a place where [the inhabitants] were accustomed not to do work, we may not do [work]. And in all places, Torah scholars must abstain [from work thereon]; Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, says, "Truly, every one should make himself [in this respect] a Torah scholar." And the Sages say, "In Yehuda, they would do work on the eve of Pesach until noon; and in the Galilee they did not work at all [on that day]." And [with respect to] the evening [of the fourteenth of Nissan in places like the Galilee], Beit Shammai forbids [work], but Beit Hillel permits [it] until the sunrise.
This passage does not directly address the questions of whether buying and selling were permitted in Judea on the afternoon of 15 Nisan at the time of Christ or whether preparing spices counted as “regular labor.” But it does illustrate fact that what precisely constituted “work” and when it was permitted varied tremendously and were subject to rabbinic dispute and differing rulings. In view of this diversity, merely citing Leviticus provides virtually no evidence that a prohibition against “ordinary labor” (מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה) would debar the women from preparing spices. “Preparing” might be an extremely light activity taking place within their own homes.
Luke 23:56 even emphasizes that they did rest on the Sabbath “according to the commandment.” There is something highly misguided about taking a verse that shows an explicit awareness of Jewish laws and customs, explicitly stating that the women observed Jewish law, to be describing an activity that broke Jewish law. Luke did not need to go out of his way to mention that the women prepared spices on Friday before the Sabbath. If he were depending upon Mark only for his account, he would have had no reason at all to invent and insert this detail. The insertion of the detail (that they prepared spices on Friday) serves no literary or theological purpose. That Luke does add that detail and simultaneously says explicitly that the women did not break Jewish law provides reason to believe that he had what he took to be factual information about what the women did, when they did it, and why.
As for purchases on 15 Nisan, we are, again, in a worse position than the Gospel authors were to know whether purchases would have been considered (in that specific place and time) to be contrary to the Jewish law by the prohibition on “regular work” on that day. Interestingly, even on the Sabbath itself it was (according to some rabbinic rulings) possible to “purchase” (in a sense) necessary items by leaving something in trust rather than paying cash. Thus, from the tractate Shabbat:
MISHNA: A man may borrow of an acquaintance jugs of wine or oil (on Sabbath), provided he does not say to him: “Lend (them to) me.” A woman may also borrow bread from her acquaintance. If the man is refused (by his acquaintance), he may leave his upper garment (as a pledge) with the lender, and settle his account after Sabbath. Thus, also, in Jerusalem, the custom was, if the eve of Passover fell on a Sabbath, a man might leave his upper garment with the vender, take his paschal lamb, and settle his account after the holiday.
All four of the Gospels show a keen awareness of the fact that Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath and of the need to observe the Sabbath. If these early accounts indicate that purchases were possible on a Friday, 15 Nisan, but that the body had to be buried before the Sabbath began at sundown, then it is not justified for us to insist that purchases of all kinds were forbidden on 15 Nisan and to infer that the mention of purchases must be invented.
Mark had no need to refer to a purchase on the day of Jesus’ death anyway. He could have said that Joseph brought a linen cloth rather than that he bought it. If he wanted to emphasize that the cloth was not dirty, he could have said (like Matthew) that it was clean, but he did not need to mention specifically that Joseph purchased it. Mark’s own account shows an awareness of Jewish law concerning observing the Sabbath, and specifically its relation to burial and mourning for Jesus (Mark 15:42, 16:1). It thus constitutes evidence that such a purchase was possible on that Friday before sundown.
John actually does not say explicitly that Nicodemus bought the myrrh and aloes at that time, though it is not an unreasonable inference that he did so. John 19:39 literally says only that Nicodemus came “bearing” a large amount of a mixture of aloes and myrrh. If we infer that Nicodemus procured the mixture at that time, then this is yet further evidence, complementary to Mark, that it was not impossible to purchase things in the ordinary way on 15 Nisan. It is even possible, though not the most probable theory, that Joseph of Arimathea and/or Nicodemus, whose age we do not know, had on hand large amounts of these spices for later burial of themselves or family members and decided to use them at this time, as Mary of Bethany in John 12 apparently decided to use a valuable box of ointment to honor Jesus. Or it is possible that Nicodemus, perhaps working together with Joseph, left something valuable as collateral for the large amount of myrrh and aloes, as in the reference to leaving one’s garment as a pledge on the Sabbath. Given that Mark apparently independently refers to purchasing a different item (the linen cloth) on that day, the most likely conclusion is simply that, in Jerusalem at that time and place, purchasing at least some goods was not impossible on 15 Nisan, just prior to the Sabbath, in order to complete a burial before the Sabbath.
All of these issues -- what counts as work, when and whether purchases are allowed, what counts as buying and selling -- were open to minute variations of interpretation of religious law and were discussed extensively in oral rulings outside of the text of the Torah itself. Under the circumstances, it is historical arrogance to allege that authors far closer to the facts made up details for no particular reason on the basis of our own interpretation of Jewish law.
I have now reviewed Torley’s three test cases, using his summary of Alter as a foil. All of the arguments Torley offers dissolve under examination. To the extent that his summary affords us an accurate representation of the arguments in Alter’s work -- and I leave that question aside here as something that is between the two of them -- I think it is fair to say that they are grasping at straws. But they have raked together a great number of them, and the sheer quantity of their objections may leave some people with the misimpression that they have amassed a case of real weight and solidity. It is a most unfortunate illusion.