Is Joseph of Arimathea historical?

(Investigator 182, 2018 September)


The issue

Is Joseph of Arimathea historical? The account of Joseph of Arimathea is very familiar. It is often read in churches at Easter time. Even though the story is familiar, Joseph is only mentioned during one critical episode and is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. The location of Arimathea is also uncertain. There are no references to this town in contemporary non-Christian sources. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea identified Arimathea with Ramah, the birthplace of Samuel, but this is nearly 300 years later. Thus, the brevity of the evidence has prompted some to challenge whether the event occurred at all. After all, isn't absence of evidence the evidence for absence?

On the other hand, the event is described in all 4 gospels. Each account is slightly different, and each provides a slightly different perspective. They seem like plausible accounts from multiple independent sources. There is evidence after all. So, let's have a look at each account and list the information that each gospel writer provides.


Matthew 27: 57-61

According to Matthew:

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. (Matthew 27:57-61)

The information that Matthew provides is:

•    It was evening
•    Joseph was rich
•    Joseph was a disciple of Jesus
•    His was from Arimathea
•    He asked Pilate for Jesus body
•    Pilate granted the corpse to Joseph
•    Joseph took the body
•    He wrapped Jesus in a clean linen shroud
•    He placed Jesus in a tomb
•    It was his own tomb
•    It was recently cut from rock
•    It was a new tomb
•    The tomb was cut in rock
•    He rolled a large stone against the entrance


Mark 15:42-47

According to Mark:

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

So, Mark tells us that:

•    Evening had come
•    It was the day of Preparation
•    It was the day before the Sabbath
•    He was called Joseph of Arimathea
•    He was a respected member of the council
•    He was looking for the kingdom of God
•    He took courage
•    He asked Pilate for Jesus' body
•    Pilate was surprised that Jesus was dead
•    Pilate questioned whether Jesus was dead
•    Pilate asked the captain to verify that Jesus was dead
•    Pilate granted the corpse to Joseph
•    Joseph bought a linen shroud
•    He took the body down from the cross
•    He wrapped Jesus in a linen shroud
•    He laid Jesus in a tomb
•    The tomb had been cut in rock
•    He rolled a large stone against the entrance


Luke 23:50-55

According to Luke:

Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. (Luke 23:50-55)

So, Luke tells us that:

•    It was the day of preparation, the Day before Sabbath
•    The Sabbath was about to begin
•    He was Joseph from Arimathea
•    He was a member of the council
•    He was a good and righteous man
•    He had not agreed with decision or action of the council
•    He was looking for kingdom of God
•    He asked Pilate for Jesus body
•    He took the body down from the cross
•    He wrapped Jesus in a clean linen shroud
•    He placed Jesus in a tomb
•    The tomb had been cut in rock
•    The tomb had never been used


John 19:38-42

According to John:

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. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:38-42)

So, John tells us that:

•    It was the day of preparation
•    Joseph was a disciple of Jesus
•    He was a disciple secretly for fear of Jews
•    He was Joseph of Arimathea
•    He asked Pilate for Jesus' body
•    Pilate granted the corpse to Joseph
•    Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes
•    They anointed Jesus with spices
•    They took the body
•    They wrapped Jesus in clean linens
•    There was a garden
•    The tomb was close at hand
•    They placed Jesus in a tomb
•    It was a new tomb
•    The tomb had never been used


Who mentioned what?

I have summarised all of this information in the following table:

ItemMatthew Mark
LukeJohn
Evening had comeX
X


It was the Day of preparation
X

X
Day before Sabbath
X
X

Sabbath about to begin

X

Joseph was richX



Joseph was a disciple of JesusX


X
Secretly for fear of Jews


X
Joseph of Arimathea X
X
X
X
Respected member of the council
X
X

A good and righteous man

X

Had not agreed with decision or action

X

Had not agreed with decision or action

X

Looking for kingdom of God
X
X

Took courage (dared)
X


Asked Pilate for Jesus body X
X
X
X
Pilate surprised that Jesus was dead
X


Pilate questioned whether Jesus dead
X


Asked captain to verify
X


Pilate granted corpse to Joseph X
X

X
Nicodemus with Joseph


X
Anointing with spices



X
Joseph bought linen shroud
X


Took body X
X
X
X
Took body down
X
X

Wrapped in clean linens X
X
X
X
linen shroud X
X
X

There was a garden


X
Tomb close at hand


X
Placed in tomb X
X
X
X
His own tomb X



Recently cut from rock X



New tomb X


X
Tomb cut in rock   X
X
X

Tomb never used

X
X
Rolled a large stone against entrance   X
X


             

An 'x' indicates whether the author mentioned the remark. From this table it can be seen that:
•    Each item is mentioned once, twice, three times or four times.
•    The pattern in which items are mentioned is quite random.

There are many things that can be deduced from who mentions what, but I will just summarise the information that is unique to each gospel writer and what is common to all.

The information that is unique to Matthew is:
•    Joseph was rich,
•    It was his own tomb, and
•    The tomb was recently cut from rock

The information that is unique to Mark is:
•    Joseph took courage (dared),
•    Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so soon,
•    Pilate questioned whether Jesus was dead,
•    Pilate asked the captain to verify that Jesus had died, and
•    Joseph bought a linen shroud.

The information that is unique to Luke is:
•    The Sabbath was about to begin,
•    Joseph was a good and righteous man, and
•    Had not agreed with decision or action.

The information that is unique to John is:
•    Joseph was a disciple secretly for fear of Jews,
•    Nicodemus was with Joseph,
•    They anointed Jesus with myrrh, aloes and spices,
•    There was a garden, and
•    The tomb was close at hand.

The information that is common to all gospel writers is just that:
•    His name was Joseph,
•    He was from Arimathea,
•    He asked Pilate for Jesus body,
•    He took the body,
•    He wrapped Jesus in linen, and
•    He placed Jesus in a tomb.

Thus the common information is the critical core and each account contributes unique incidental information. From all of this information it seems to me that:
•    Each writer had access to their own unique resources, and
•    They were all describing the same event.

Not only this, but some of the unique items complement the other gospel accounts.


The courage of Joseph

Mark explicitly says that Joseph plucked up courage before he approached Pilate:

Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage (dared) and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (Mark 15:43)

When Mark says he "took courage", the term is quite emphatic and has a strong sense that he even dared to do such a thing. Why did Joseph require so much courage? It should not have been so surprising to Pilate, as he well knew that the Jews buried their dead. However, the reason is provided by John:

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. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. (John 19:38-39)

The reason was that he feared retribution from his own colleagues in the council and Nicodemus felt the same way. Notice also the difference in tone between the 2 accounts. Mark is positive and emphasises Joseph's courage. It is claimed that Mark was recording Peter's testimony. Peter had denied Jesus and fled in fear. He was probably more sympathetic to the fear of persecution. However, John had not denied Jesus, he did not flee and was present at the cross. He may respect Joseph for finally coming forward, but he is less sympathetic. Thus, the differing tones are quite plausible. So in this example, John explains what is in Mark.


Why this tomb?

Both Luke and John say that Joseph buried Jesus in a tomb that had never previously been used. John also adds, "So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there." John implies that the tomb was selected because it was nearby, but surely Joseph couldn't use someone else's tomb just because it was nearby or convenient.

Matthew provides the answer. He states:

Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. Matthew (27:57-58)

He is the only one to state that Joseph laid Jesus in his own tomb and he thus makes sense of the other 3 gospels.

In the previous example, John explained what is in Mark, but in this example, Matthew explains what is in Luke and John.


Where did the authors get their information?

Even though the authors were not necessarily eye-witnesses, they all had unique resources, so where did they get their information? Matthew is traditionally ascribed to a disciple who was formerly a tax collector, but this is based on the testimony of the church fathers. None of the gospel authors specifically identify themselves. Besides this, the disciples fled and so they were not there to observe the events. Mark was not a disciple. He supposedly based his gospel primarily on Peter's memories, but Peter also fled and was not an eye-witness of the crucifixion. Luke was a gentile who was converted well after these events, so he was not there as well, but he did have access to eye-witnesses, as he was in Jerusalem for 2 years between 57 & 59 AD while Paul was in prison in Caesarea and would have been with the church in Jerusalem. Only John claims to be a specific eye-witness. So where did the others get their information? The people who were there as eye-witnesses were Jesus' women followers, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Salome, the other Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus, Joanna and Susanna. There were others at the cross, but the women were probably the primary sources for the author's testimony.


Why did the women want to anoint Jesus?

Studying the text carefully not only answers questions but also raises them. If Joseph and Nicodemus anointed Jesus with spices, why did the women take spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus on the Sunday morning? One explanation is that one or more authors got it wrong, but there are more charitable explanations. Joseph came at evening just prior to the commencement of the Sabbath and maybe they did a rushed, incomplete job. Another suggestion is that Joseph and Nicodemus only lent support at the last moment, whereas the women had followed Jesus faithfully for a couple of years. Maybe they resented being displaced by a pompous Jonny-come-lately. However, my wife disagreed. "You don't understand women. Anointing a deceased person was a woman's responsibility, and they probably needed to do it to cope with their own grief." Maybe she is right.


Conclusion on historicity

In conclusion, there are 4 accounts that provide different perspectives. Each author offers something unique and yet they do not contradict each other. They are derived from independent sources and there is little evidence of accretion or mythological development. They accidentally explain each other and look like plausible, sincere accounts.

Kevin Rogers,
Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide.

http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

http://ed5015.tripod.com/