THE PASSION OF OUR LORD:
DETAILING THE EVENTS OF OUR LORD’S SUFFERING AND DEATH
Session #23 (Most quotes are NIV)
JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA, ACTING MORTICIAN
If the deceased was considered to be guilty of treason against the Roman Empire, the body would NOT be released to anyone. The Prelate would be afraid that the family and friends might make a shrine out of it. So, the request for the body would be denied on principle!
Pilate as the Prelate had total control over the disposition of the body. In this case, Pilate didn’t consider Jesus to be treasonous. In fact, he didn’t consider him to be guilty of anything and wished none of this had happened. But before Pilate can release the body, he has to make sure that Jesus is really dead. John 19:31-34 had already told us about the soliders breaking the legs of the other two and stabbing Jesus in the chest to make sure.
Now that death has been determined, all four of the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea gathered his courage and came to Pilate and asked for the body. Mark 15:44-45 adds a touch of eye-witness reality: “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died.When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.”
Generally, the rule of law in the Roman Empire was that only the family could ask for the body of an executed prisoner, and even that was often denied. We might see in Mark’s verses a touch of guilt in Pilate who, instead of concerning himself with legality, said “Sure, go ahead and take the corpse (the Greek doesn’t really say “body”).” Or, we might see Pilate behaving with surprise and not thinking the request through completely: “He’s dead already? Really? Uh, yeah, go ahead and take the corpse.”
Joseph of Arimathea is not family, but Pilate releases Jesus’ corpse to him anyway—perhaps only because he had the nerve to ask for it! After all, Jesus taught, Matt. 7:7-8 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.For everyone who asks receives….” Maybe Joseph heard the Sermon on the Mount and was paying attention! Mark 15:38 says Joseph went to Pilate “boldly” (courageously).
What do we know about Joseph? The first seems obvious: he comes from the village of Arimathea—or does he? There are even arguments about this, with some scholars arguing that there is no such place! Archeology has been of no help—yet! Best of the guesses seems to be that it is a very small village, perhaps identified as today’s Ramathaim in Ephraim, toward the coast from Jerusalem.
Secondly, we are much more certain that he was a Council Member in the Jewish Sanhedrin, as Luke 23:50-51 says: “Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man,who had not consented to their decision and action.”
There is a legend that Joseph of Arimathea somehow gained possession of the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper), brought it to England, and built the first church in the entire country at Glastonbury. This 12th century legend (known as De Antiquitate Blastoniensis Ecclesiae) is best considered a fairy tale created for tourism purposes!
But the real surprise comes from John 19:38: “Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders.” Snap quiz: who else do we know who was a Council member AND a disciple of Jesus? Nicodemus! Remember him? John 3:1-2 “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.He came to Jesus at night.” He didn’t show up at night because he was “booked solid” during the day; he did it because he didn’t want the Chief Priests to know he admired Jesus’ teachings and wanted to hear more.
And now guess who shows up to help Joseph of Arimathea with the burial? Yes—our old friend Nicodemus lends a hand. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and Joseph is apparently one of those who fall into the “elders of the people” class (patriarch of a leading, wealthy family). Together they take upon themselves the task of getting Jesus buried.
BUT, in engaging in the handling a dead body, they make themselves “unclean” according to Jewish Law, and have thus excluded themselves from the great celebration on Saturday.
THE GRAVE SITE AND BURIAL
To the Jewish Leaders, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are nothing more than fools—handling a dead body like Frankenstein and Igor. They excluded themselves from the great festival because of a dead man! To be in the Temple on the High Sabbath was like being in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Your idea of fun may not be to mingle with 100,000 of your closest friends, but to the Jews this celebration was everything, and being a Jew is all about community and being a part of things.
We learn from the burial details in the Bible that Joseph and Nicodemus were both rich. (Jesus never hated rich people—he just hated what money can do to a person’s soul!) First is Joseph who provides a tomb cut out of rock—that’s a rich man’s tomb!
All of the Gospels provide this fact, but there are added details: Mark 15:46 simply says “he placed it in a tomb cut out of rock.” Matthew 27:60 “he placed the body in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.” Luke 23:53 says “placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.” John 19:41 “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.”
Looking at all these details, one might think we know exactly where Jesus’ tomb is located. We don’t. IF he was crucified just outside the north gate, the garden tomb should be in this general vicinity. That’s the best we can do. In today’s Jerusalem, hewn graves such as are described in the Bible are plentiful. But which one held our Lord’s body for a brief while?
Now Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are experts in Jewish law! Therefore, they must have known this strange passage in Deuteronomy 21:22-23: “If someone guilty of a capitaloffense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole,you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” WHY would God tell Moses to write such a passage? Was crucifixion at the hands of the Jewish people common in Moses’ time? (I believe not!) I’ll let you ponder that one—I have no answer other than he predicted the death and burial of our Lord.
A crucified man would normally receive little else than a common grave. Our Lord is given the great honor of a rich man’s tomb, the VERY FIRST SIGN that the Father will honor His Son with all the glory of heaven and earth: He has accomplished his task. He has paid for the sins of the world. He has defeated Satan and all his evil power. Now we await the final victory: the defeat of death itself!
There is no hint in any of the Gospels that the followers of Jesus now hope for His Resurrection. Far from it. What we see is a simple resignation. Nicodemus comes with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. The Tractate Sanhedrin 5 Mishnah 6 states “But everyone who leaves unburied his corpse overnight transgresses the negative commandment. However, if he left it overnight for the sake of its honor, as for instance to prepare for it a coffin or shroud, he does not transgress.” But this cannot apply: no bodies can be left for the High Sabbath. There is an urgency here—6:00 p.m. and the start of the Sabbath day is coming fast.
Herodotus 2, 86 gives the details in all their gory splendor of the Egyptian method of embalming. This is too intense to quote here, but he mentions that the Egyptians used, among other things, a mixture of spices and myrrh. So here in John’s Gospel (19:39-40) it says “Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.” Yes, that’s a lot!
Commentators have had a field day criticizing John’s Gospel. “This is all wrong” they yell. But this was a rush job, and no one was prepared for it. This was not the normal way to bury a body, but Jerusalem isn’t Siberia. In this warm climate, the body will smell fairly rapidly.