During the Easter service this passage was read:

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. (John 19:38 ESV)

The pastor stated Pilate's actions were unusual since Roman practice was a dead body would be given only to a family member. (This was not the case with John the Baptist's body.)

Under Roman law (or tradition) what was the status of the body of a person who was executed? Was it "state" property" which Pilate had the right to hand over or did a family member have a legal claim to the body?

3 Answers 3


Summary of Pilate's involvement with Jesus (Matthew's account):

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The circumstances surrounding Pilate's part in Jesus' crucifixion are surely extraordinary by anyone's measure -- there would not have been another one like it.

It is pretty clear, to me at least, that Pilate's sympathy in regard to Jesus' innocence of any "real" crime, and his obvious contempt for the leaders who brought him, would compel him to grant the request of an influential man such as Joseph of Arimathaea, regardless of any Roman practice.

Even though we have no evidence of the conversation Joseph had with Pilate, it would be unreasonable to imagine they didn't discuss the details of what had transpired that day.


The sole purpose of crucifixion was to humiliate, torture, and kill criminals in clear view of the public. The Romans left criminals on the cross to discourage people from committing similar crimes. So it's unlikely that criminals were ever brought down from the cross at the request of family members etc. In fact, bringing their bodies down from the cross for burial would defeat the whole purpose of crucifixion.

Instead, they left criminals on the cross so the birds and dogs could devour their bodies. When nothing was left, their bones were taken down from the cross and not placed in nice burials, but tossed into places like Golgotha (place of skulls).

So the bodies of crucified criminals were considered Roman property.

  • I agree with your answer. I saw some info that Romans were superstitious about handling dead bodies and treated them with respect but did not see anything which applied to criminals. I think the division of His clothing supports your last statement. Do you have any reference to this statement? Especially interested in criminals who were not Roman citizens. Maybe the issue falls within the parameters governed by general Roman property laws? Apr 22, 2017 at 1:13
  • The record of Joseph of Arimathaea seeking audience with Pilate to ask for Jesus' body, also supports the notion that the bodies of criminals were considered Roman property.
    – enegue
    Apr 22, 2017 at 9:48

Generally, Pilate didn't care what happened to the body of Jesus once it had been determined that He was dead. Pilate's concern was only that the sentence had been carried out. That being verified, he could give the order for the soldiers to hand the body over to anyone he wished. So, if a family member wanted to claim the body of a "criminal", they would approach the governor for permission to do so. Without specific instructions, a victim of crucifixion would be removed by the Roman soldiers on duty and hauled to a nearby valley called "Himnon" where it would be unceremoniously "dumped" into the pit located there with the rest of the city's trash, then sprinkled with sulphur powder and left to burn and rot.

It is unlikely that Mary was in a state of mind OR had resources to acquire the body of her Son, and the disciples had all fled the city in fear for their own lives.

But, to avoid further humiliation of his Lord, Joseph hastened to secure the body for proper Jewish burial lest the priests, hypocritically "concerned about the approaching Sabbath", encouraged the soldiers to immediately carry out the usual practice. They must have been upset when they discovered that Joseph had done so, so they hastened back to Pilate to request a guard be posted over the grave to prevent the disciples from "...stealing his body and proclaiming him 'raised from the dead', making the last deception worse than the first!" (Matt. 27:64)

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange G2M, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites.
    – Steve can help
    Apr 20, 2017 at 7:11
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    (-1) As this is a hermeneutics Q&A site, it would be beneficial for you to demonstrate how you've arrived at these conclusions from the text and any relevant evidence. This reads more like speculation, and doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it.
    – Steve can help
    Apr 20, 2017 at 7:13

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