Reading Time: 4 minutes

 Okay, so really the quote of the day is from John Dominic Crossan, but thanks to Damion for posting it. Damion’s words are italicised:

John Dominic Crossan makes the case that the tomb itself is a literary creation of Mark, in The Birth of Christianity, pp. 553-555.

The problem with Joseph of Arimathea is not on the level of could but of did. It is not on the level of possibility but of actuality. In one’s best historical reconstruction, did such a person do what Mark described? Two points convince me that Mark 15:42-47 is Mark’s own creation.

The first point concerns who Joseph was, as Mark tells it and as Matthew and Luke rewrite it. Mark 15:43 describes him as “[1] a respected member of the council [bouleutes], [2] who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” That is doubly (and I think) deliberately ambiguous. The ambiguity with regard to the first part is this: Was Joseph among those who judged Jesus? In 14:55 and 15:1 Mark calls those who judged Jesus “the whole council [synedrion]” or sanhedrin, and he says in 14:64 that “all of them condemned him as deserving death.” But Joseph is described not as a member of the synedrion council but as a member of the boule-council, as if there were two councils in charge of Jerusalem, a civil council and a religious council, with Joseph a member of the former body (bouleutes) but not in the latter one at all (synedrion). There was, of course, no such distinction in historical life; there was only one council by whatever name. Convened whenever Pilate and/or Caiaphas had need of it, that body was made up of those citizens they deemed appropriate. Those divergent terms indicating the council–bouleutes and synedrion–make it impossible to know whether Joseph was among the judges of Jesus, and that is precisely their Markan purpose. But the text is equally ambiguous with regard to that second half- Was Joseph among those who followed Jesus? We know from as early as 1:14 that the kingdom of God is a crucial term for Mark. But is “looking for it” the same as accepting it, entering it, believing in it? That oblique expression “looking for” makes it impossible to be sure whether Joseph was among the followers of Jesus; again, that is precisely its Markan purpose.

Matthew and Luke, those first and most careful readers of Mark, see that double problem and respond to Mark’s calculated ambiguity. Matthew 27:57 eliminates any mention of the council and makes Joseph explicitly a follower of Jesus. He is now “a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus.” Luke 22:66 picks up the term synedrion-council from Mark but solves the problem of Joseph the sanhedrist-disciple in 23:50-5I: “[T]here was a good and righteous man named Josesph, who, though a member of the council [bouleutes], had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” Notice that Luke does not repeat Mark’s comment (14:64) that “all” of the council’s judges had condemned Jesus to death.

The second point concerns what Joseph did, as Mark tells it and as Matthew and Luke rewrite it. Mark 15:46 says that Joseph took Jesus’ body and “laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.” That is clear enough unless you wonder who Joseph was and why he buried Jesus. If he acted out of either personal piety or communal duty, would he not have done the same for the two other criminals crucified with Jesus? And unless one imagines three separate tombs, they would all have been buried together in a single tomb or even in a communal tomb for criminals. Were that the case, though, how could you continue into an empty-tomb story? How ghastly to imagine probing among corpses to identify the missing one as that of Jesus.

Once again, Matthew and Luke see the problem and respond to it separately but emphatically. They both find the obvious solution: Joseph’s tomb has to be one in which nobody is buried before or with Jesus; he must be alone in that tomb. Matthew 27:60 rephrases Mark this way: Joseph took the body of Jesus “and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock.” Luke 23:53 rephrases Mark this way: Joseph took the body of Jesus “and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.”

Mark’s story presented the tradition with double dilemmas. First, if Joseph was in the council, he was against Jesus; if he was for Jesus, he was not in the council. Second, if Joseph buried Jesus from piety or duty, he would have done the same for the two other crucified criminals; yet if he did that, there could be no empty-tomb sequence. None of those points is unanswerable, but together they persuade me that Mark created that burial by Joseph of Arimathea in 15:42-47. It contains no pre-Markan tradition.

As the tradition developed, Jesus’ burial moved from enemies to friends and from an inadequate and hurried entombment to one of regal magnificence. The Cross Gospel has only the hope that his enemies would have buried him out of obedience to Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Mark is much more consoling with his Joseph story, and Matthew and Luke both improve on that. But John’s account is in climactic accord with his theology of passion-as-resurrection, crucifixion-ascension to the Father whence Jesus came. Joseph is a secret disciple; he is accompanied by another one, Nicodemus, and they bury Jesus with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds”, in 19:39. I find there a trajectory of hope but not of history. Behind that hope lies, at worst, the horror of a body left on the cross as carrion or, at best, a body consigned like others to a “limed pit,” as Sawicki put it above. I would hope for a Joseph, but what you hope for is not always what happens.

If Crossan is correct, it would quite tidily explain why it took until the fourth century for Christians to settle on a spot worth venerating.

I will be reposting my articles on Joseph of Arimathea over the next couple of days, but this should whet your appetite.

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...