Book Review: James McGrath, The Burial of Jesus

McGrath, James. The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have To Do With Faith? Englewood,Col.: Patheos Press, 2011. $12.99, pb. Kindle $2.99.

I bought this Kindle book in February mostly because it is written by James McGrath, author of the Exploring our Matrix blog. His blog is an enjoyable mix of the serious and humorous, but this book is intended as a contribution to the discussion of Historical Jesus from a serious scholar.  Since the Easter season usually brings out the Historical Jesus scholars on the Discovery Channel, this is a timely book.  McGrath does a better job introducing Jewish burial practices in the first century that the media will over the next month.  He has a brief section on tombs and ossuaries and a short comment on the Talpiot tomb, although the book was finished before the latest wave of media attention.

My other motivation for reading the book was to experience how a short Kindle Book reads. This is not a lengthy work and is inexpensive even in paperback. The book is well worth $2.99 for a Kindle version. The text is properly formatted for Kindle, unlike several other books I have recently read that are obviously designed as physical books. Since this is not a long book written without footnotes, it works well as a Kindle book. Patheos is doing a good job bringing short works of scholarship to Kindle and other eBook formats, such as Scot McKnight’s Junia Is Not Alone. One frustration for me is that Kindle does not have real page numbers, making citation of a particular page impossible. I suppose I could cite pages by locations, but that will be inconsistent from reader to reader. Perhaps I ought to say “at about the 22% mark of the book, McGrath says….” The bottom line is that eBooks are not quite ready to be cited in the same way traditional books are.

The title of the book is intriguing, although the subtitle reflects the main theme of the book better than The Burial of Jesus. The book is really about historical method and the integration of history and faith. McGrath wants to study what can be known on a historical level about the death and burial of Jesus, but he also wants to explore how this historical work impacts one’s Christian faith in the resurrection of Jesus. McGrath rejects the fundamentalist version of innerancy, pointing out that even “modest claims of Biblical accuracy are often coupled with dismissal of the results of historical and scientific investigations.” But that does not mean that this book is a Jesus Seminar style rejection of the gospels. In his investigation, McGrath reaches historical conclusions about the crucifixion and burial of Jesus which are consistent with the story of the gospels.

McGrath points out that the gospels develop the story of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus from the rather simple version in Mark to the more complex and theological version in John. The fact that his own disciples cannot provide their teacher a proper burial is another “shame” for Jesus. In Mark, Jesus is simply placed in a tomb with minimal care, but in Matthew he is buried in a rich man’s tomb. By John’s Gospel, Joseph of Arimetha and Nicodemus are secret disciples who care for the body of Jesus as one might bury an honor, wealthy man. This trajectory attempts to re-tell the story of Jesus to make the burial more honorable than it originally was.

But the fact that Jesus was buried seems clear, and the fact that the tomb was empty after the burial can be judged as historical. McGrath moves through several claims of the Gospels and concludes that any development “should be taken to indicate that the Gospels are anything but honest when they say that the disciples were too late, that when they got to the tomb the body was no longer there.” But he is quick to point out that the empty tomb does not necessarily mean that Jesus was raised from the dead. In fact, it is not even the same sort of question. “What happened to the body” cannot be answered by historical investigation, it is a theological question.

This theological question is the topic of the final part of the book. McGrath does a good job explaining Jewish views on resurrection at the end of the age. It is this resurrection which was used to explain what happened to Jesus’ body. McGrath concludes that resurrection faith was not “born from historical deductions regarding the whereabouts of a body, but from life-transforming religious experiences.” Some of the disciples, Jesus’ brother, and even Paul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus and this transformed their lives. But this experience is not subject to direct historical investigation.

In conclusion, this is a study on a rather controversial aspect of Historical Jesus research.  McGrath explains the historical problems well and does a fine job placing the burial of Jesus into a proper historical context.  While some of his comments will bother more-conservative readers, others will annoy less-conservative readers.  The book wrestles with important problems of history and faith, and while these are often thought of as rivals, McGrath shows that they are quite complementary as long as the right questions are asked.  If I had any frustration with the book, it was the lack of interaction with scholarship via footnotes, but that was not the point of the book, nor does the format allow for the sort of scholarly citation that I personally look for in a book of this kind.  Perhaps a way around this is to add a “Reading List”  at the end of each chapter point readers to more on each topic.

As a Kindle book it is about the cost of of cup of coffee at Starbucks,  so there is little reason not to buy McGrath’s book.