We read in Jn 19:38 of the preparation for burial of Jesus after his death on the cross:

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.

This verse gives the reader a feeling that Pilate had the choice of not letting the Lord's body to his relatives and friends.

Now, Lk 23: 2 gives an account of the charges leveled against Jesus:

And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.

Perhaps, charge of sedition mandated the ruler to withhold the body of the convict after the execution, and to dispose it of in the manner he pleased. The sign of INRI which was in fact a charge-sheet, was intended to serve as a warning to the Jews who contemplated revolt against the Romans. That said, Pilate was free in not releasing Jesus's body , but for the intervention of Joseph of Arimathea.

My question therefore is: Was Pilate mandated by law to withhold the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion, going by the account given in Jn 19:38?

  • John19:38 says "After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body." Pilate granted permission, but there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that he had any sort of a "mandate" to prevent a crucified body from being buried. Why would Pilate care what happened to any dead Jew?
    – Lesley
    Jun 18, 2021 at 13:16
  • Thayer says of ἐρωτάω Strong 2065 'request, entreat, beg, beseech' indicating more than a merely formal ask. (KJV 'besought Pilate'.) In the same vein as Pilate attempted to release Jesus (rather than Barabbas) does he, here, try to prevent the Jews from taking the body and violently disposing of it to prevent the prophesied resurrection, thus obliging the Jews to watch over the tomb to prevent suspected 'theft' and supposed false claims ? And does he do this despite having a mandate to retain executed bodies ? Interesting question. (Up-voted +1.)
    – Nigel J
    Jun 18, 2021 at 14:28
  • I removed the Catholicism tag, since this question deals with historical proofs. You can rollback the edit if you want. It is a valid historical question.
    – Ken Graham
    Jun 18, 2021 at 15:43
  • Perhaps I am missing something, but how could Pilate "give permission" to Joseph of Arimathea to "remove his body", while, at the same time being "mandated by law to withhold the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion"? (Unless Joseph expected Pilate to break the law in his favor, of course ...) Jun 21, 2021 at 17:22
  • Thanks Ken Graham for editing the question. Jun 22, 2021 at 9:02

3 Answers 3


Was Pilate mandated to withhold the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion?

The short answer is no. He had the authority to release the body of Jesus to his family, but only after verifying that Christ was indeed dead.

But by Roman tradition, Romans left the bodies on the Cross for the animals to be devoured by wild animals and birds of prey. Notwithstanding, Pilate, as Governor of Judea, has the authority to release the bodies of those condemned to Crucifixion.

As one of the main objectives of this cruel method of execution was its deterrent value, Roman authorities also devised various means whereby the victim could remain on the cross for days in public before eventually expiring. Thus the manner in which the victims were crucified was not fixed by law but appears dependent on the number of individuals involved, the sadistic ingenuity of those carrying out the execution and the time needed for this spectacle to have its maximum deterrent effect.

Giving the victim a proper burial following death on the cross, during the Roman period was rare and in most cases simply not permitted in order to continue the humiliation. Thus the victim was in many cases simply thrown on the garbage dump of the city or left on the cross as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. - Crucifixion in Antiquity- The Evidence

Let us see what the Sacred Scriptures say about Jesus’ death.

Afterward, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus (but secretly for fear of the Jews), asked Pilate to let him remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and removed His body. - John 19:38

St. John goes on to explain the conditions surrounding Jesus’ descent from the Cross.

31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” 37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”

38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.[e] 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. - John 19:32-42

When the Romans saw that Jesus was already dead “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”

This piercing of the side of a Crucified, is know as the “coup de grace” which in French means to deal a deathly blow for the purpose of ending suffering. The ultimate coup de grace took place when God chose to wipe out all of our sin in a single blow — and in doing so, bridged the gap for us to have a new life in Him. When Jesus died on the cross, He offered a death blow to our sinful nature forever.

When victims were permitted to taken down from the cross, the Roman Centurion had to make sure that the person was nor walking away with life still in him. Historically a few victims were handed over to their families but only after the proofs of death were assured. The executioners were not medical professionals and thus their brutally could be seen in hastening and in verifying death!

By Roman law, the family of the condemned could take the body for burial, after obtaining permission from the Roman judge.

Since no one was intended to survive crucifixion, the body was not released to the family until the soldiers were sure that the victim was dead. By custom, one of the Roman guards would pierce the body with a sword or lance. Traditionally, this had been considered a spear wound to the heart through the right side of the chest—a fatal wound probably taught to most Roman soldiers. Moreover, the standard infantry spear, which was 5 to 6 ft (1.5 to 1.8 m) long could easily have reached the chest of a man crucified on the customary low cross. - Scourging and Crucifixion In Roman Tradition


I can't offer a Catholic perspective here, but since this is fundamentally a question about history, I'll chime from that angle.

Those who deny the resurrection of Jesus are fond of claiming that a convict would have been thrown into an unmarked, mass grave (e.g. Ehrman, Ludemnn), because this was standard Roman process for executed criminals. In addition to the tortuous, humiliating death, the Romans added insult to injury by denying the person a proper burial (this is their means of getting around empty tomb arguments).

However, the Gospels are explicit that an exception was made for Jesus. A wealthy follower of Jesus went to the trouble of offering Jesus a respectful burial and obtained permission from Rome to do so. Pilate was under no more obligation to have Jesus buried in a mass grave than he was to have Jesus executed in the first place.

Pilate was (naively) trying to prevent unrest: he gave the followers of Jesus their respectful burial and gave approval to the enemies of Jesus for a guard at the tomb.

The back and forth on the empty tomb, as recorded in Matthew 28, presupposes that both the Jews and the Christians knew full well that a decent burial had been granted and that the tomb was empty. Neither denied this fact. Rather, they offered different explanations for why the tomb was empty.

Matthew couldn't have gotten away with writing this unless the reality of Jesus' burial was too well-known for anyone to deny.

  • The question is specifically asking about Catholic teaching.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 18, 2021 at 14:19
  • 3
    @NigelJ I am not sure there is anything meaningful to add for a specifically Catholic teaching. Many questions get tagged or directly ask for a Catholic perspective, often on minutiae of Scripture, but about which there isn't a specifically Catholic point (either that Catholicism doesn't explicitly have one position OR that its position(s) don't differ substantially from non-Catholics)
    – eques
    Jun 18, 2021 at 14:30
  • The question has been suitably modified to make it pan-denominational. Please go ahead, Hold To The Rod. Jun 22, 2021 at 10:06

We may find the answer to the OP question a few verses earlier in John 19 and in Roman law of the time.

Was Pilate mandated to withhold the body of Jesus? No, Pilate had already "freed" the body when other Jewish parties requested that the bodies of the three criminals be dealt with due to the High Sabbath (the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread).

The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. John 19:31

Many readers miss Pilate's two commands. Break their legs (if not already dead). Take away or down the bodies from their crosses.

"Take away" is airo. Per Vines, it means (b) "to take away what is attached to anything, to remove," as of Christ; further Stron'gs to bear away what has been raised, carry off, to move from its place, to take off or away what is attached to anything, to remove

We read that they broke the legs of the criminals, but not of Christ.

But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: v 33

They fulfilled the first command. What of the second command to remove them from their crosses. John does not mention this, but trained soldiers would have followed the commands. They left the bodies.

To "steal" a body without permission from Roman rulers would be a crime.

by Roman law, the family of the condemned could take the body for burial, after obtaining permission from the Roman judge. -source-

Greco-Roman texts show that in certain cases the bodies of the crucified were left to decompose in place. In other cases, the crucified bodies were buried. -source-

So, to be specific, John's text shows two commands. Make sure the criminals were dead. Leave the bodies to rot in disrespect.

But, Joseph of Arimathea would approach Pilate, ask for the body, be given permission, and take it away for burial.

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