Watch how the Joseph of Arimathea Legend Grows in the Gospels

Copied from:  “Why I am not a Christian” by Keith M. Parsons

Acts 13:29 states simply that Jesus was buried by those Jews who had asked Pilate to execute him, i.e., representatives of the Sanhedrin. Their motivation would hardly have been charity; rabble-rousing blasphemers and troublemakers deserved no such consideration. In their eyes Jesus was a criminal who had been executed in the most shameful possible way. The burial was done to prevent the pollution of the Sabbath by the public exposure of the corpse (as John 19:31 attests). There is no reason to think that Jesus’s body was treated any differently than any other executed criminal’sprobably unceremoniously dumped in a common grave. The next verse (Acts 13:30) is “But God raised him from the dead.” So the tradition recorded by the Acts author contrasts the dishonor of Jesus’s burial with the glory of his resurrection.

The gospels, on the other hand, tell a charming story about Joseph of Arimathea and how he gave Jesus’s body a decent burial. However, this story contradicts the tradition, preserved in Mark and Luke, of women going to the tomb on the Easter morning for the purpose of anointing the corpse. This story presupposes that the body had been dishonorably buried, i.e., without the proper rites and ceremonies. Had Joseph of Arimathea buried the body honorably in accordance with Jewish custom, as the gospel burial pericopes imply (and as John states outright, 19:40), there would have been no reason for the women to undertake such a task. Such considerations lead noted NT scholar Reginald Fuller to argue that the bare-bones Acts account is an older stratum than the gospel elaborations and that the tales about Joseph of Arimathea were pious legends invented by Christians ashamed at the disciples’ failure to treat Jesus’s body more honorably (Fuller, 1971, pp. 54-56).

(William Lane) Craig claims that Joseph of Arimathea was a real person:

It seems very unlikely that Christian tradition would invent a story of Jesus’ honorable burial by his enemies, or even that it could invent Joseph of Arimathea, give him a name, place him on the Sanhedrin, and say the was responsible for Jesus’ burial if this were not true. The members of the Sanhedrin were too well-known to allow either fictitious persons to be placed on it or false stories to be spread about one it its actual members’ being responsible for Jesus’ burial. Therefore, it seems very likely that Joseph was the actual, historical person who buried Jesus in the tomb (Craig, 1994, p. 273).

On the contrary, we can watch the Joseph of Arimathea legend grow in the gospels. In Mark (15:43), the earliest source, he is just a “respected member of the Council, a man who looked forward to the kingdom of God.” In Luke (23:51) he is described as “a member of the Council, a good, upright man, who had dissented from their policy and the action they had taken.” In Matthew (27:57) he has become “a man of means, … [who] had himself become a disciple of Jesus.” In John (19:38) he is described as “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret disciple for fear of the Jews…” Thus in the gospels Joseph goes from a good and pious Jew, to one who actively dissented from the Sanhedrin’s policy, to an actual follower of Jesus, to a secret disciple. Clearly, we have a growing legend, one that can be explained by the early Christians’ embarrassment at the failure of the disciples to properly care for Jesus’s body. Further, legends often name actual historical persons. The legends surrounding the 1947 “saucer crash” at Roswell, New Mexico, name many actual historical persons.

As Gerd Lüdemann notes, the burial itself is represented in increasingly positive tones:

Whereas Mark merely says that it was a rock tomb, the parallels not only presuppose this but also know that it was Joseph’s own tomb (Matthew 27:60) … (John 20:15) and Gospel of Peter 6:24 even locate it in the garden, which is a distinction…. Finally, Matthew (27:60), Luke (23:53) and John (19:41ff) describe the tomb as new; this is a mark of honour for Jesus and also excludes the possibility that Jesus was put, for example, in a criminal’s grave (Lüdemann, 1995, p. 21).

Clearly, the gospel writers have created an elaborate legend of Jesus’s honorable burial to mitigate early Christians’ shame at what in all likelihood was the dishonorable fate of Jesus’s corpse.


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