Friday, May 11, 2012

Joseph of Arimathea and the Burial of Jesus

In Mark, the earliest gospel, there is the assertion that Joseph of Arimathea, an honourable member of the council (presumably the Sanhedrin) buried Jesus (Mark 15:42–47).

But it is not even clear that this is a genuine tradition. The Christians might have invented this to give Jesus an “honourable,” rather than a shameful, burial. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Mark 15:43 does preserve an echo of historical data.

In a speech placed in the mouth of Paul by the author of the Acts of Apostles made in Antioch in Pisidia, there is a tradition that Jesus was buried by his enemies:
οἱ γὰρ κατοικοῦντες ἐν Ἰερουσαλὴμ καὶ οἱ ἄρχοντες αὐτῶν τοῦτον ἀγνοήσαντες καὶ τὰς φωνὰς τῶν προφητῶν τὰς κατὰ πᾶν σάββατον ἀναγινωσκομένας κρίναντες ἐπλήρωσαν, καὶ μηδεμίαν αἰτίαν θανάτου εὑρόντες ᾐτήσαντο Πιλᾶτον ἀναιρεθῆναι αὐτόν• ὡς δὲ ἐτέλεσαν πάντα τὰ περὶ αὐτοῦ γεγραμμένα, καθελόντες ἀπὸ τοῦ ξύλου ἔθηκαν εἰς μνημεῖον.

But those in Jerusalem and their rulers, who did not know him [sc. Jesus] and the voices of the prophets read every Sabbath, fulfilled the prophets when they condemned him. Without finding a reason for putting him to death they asked Pilate to have him killed. And when they had carried out all the things that were written about him, they took him down from the tree and put him in a tomb. (Acts 13:27–29).
The view that Jesus’s enemies buried him may well be true, but seems at variance with the gospel accounts that make Joseph of Arimathea a secret disciple who buried Jesus.

The explanation may well be that Joseph of Arimathea was remembered as the member of the Sanhedrin who supervised the burial of Jesus, but the earliest Christian gospel writers gradually embellished this datum, as follows:
(1) Mark already transforms Joseph of Arimathea from an enemy of Jesus to one “expecting the kingdom of god” (Mark 15:43), which is itself ambiguous and need not exclude the possibility that he was an enemy. Mark simply says that Joseph “placed him [Jesus] in a tomb which was hewn out of rock” (Mark 15:46). Mark does not say that it was Joseph’s tomb. An absurd detail in Mark is the visit of the women to the tomb after the Sabbath, when they are already said to have seen that a great stone (Mark 16:4) had been rolled against the entrance (Mark 15:46), a problem which strikes them only when they are already on the way to the tomb or close to it (Mark 16:3).

(2) By the time of the gospel of Matthew, Joseph has been transformed into a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57) who laid the body of Jesus in his own tomb (Matt. 27:60). Matthew does not even say that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin.

(3) In Luke, Joseph of Arimathea is a member of the Sanhedrin, but had not agreed with the council and their action in condemning Jesus (Luke 23:51). Luke takes over Mark’s assertion that he was awaiting the kingdom of god (Luke 23:51).

(4) In John, Joseph of Arimathea is now a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38), and a certain Nicodemus helps him (19:39) to bury Jesus. The tomb is not said to be Joseph’s tomb, but a new one at the site of the crucifixion.
It is clear from this how the gospel writers embellished and changed their accounts of Joseph of Arimathea.

Even the actual details of the burial in a rock cut tomb as reported in the gospel of Mark could be nothing but a fictional account. Joseph may have buried Jesus somewhere, but it is unclear whether the early Christians knew where. Already Mark’s narrative is ridiculous by the visit of the women to the tomb when they could not even have entered because of the stone blocking the entrance. This screams fiction to me.

This all suggests that even the actual details of the burial in Mark are fiction (see also Collins 1993). The Christians did not know where or how Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus. The original tradition might well have been that Joseph of Arimathea, an enemy of Jesus, buried him out of piety, not wishing to leave a corpse on the cross during the Sabbath. But it simply does not follow that the burial in Joseph’s own family tomb occurred. It may well have been nothing but an anonymous burial in a grave for criminals.

The burial in a rock cut tomb could already be a redactional, apologetic fiction of the author of gospel of Mark, which was the necessary preliminary to his invention of an empty tomb story. Nor does it necessarily follow that the disciples or the early church knew where Jesus had been buried, even if Joseph had buried him in some place.

There is not a shred of credible evidence that the early church knew the location of Jesus’s burial. There is no credible evidence whatsoever that the early church venerated the place or knew of its location.

Even if the Jewish authorities knew the location of Jesus’s body, we are told in Acts that the disciples waited for at least 40 days before proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection (Acts 1:3). Even if the authorities had produced the rotting body, this would hardly have convinced the early Christians anyway, who were religious fanatics, since the body would already have been unidentifiable.


Collins, Adela. 1993. “The Empty Tomb in the Gospel According to Mark,” in Eleonore Stump and Thomas P. Flint (eds.), Hermes and Athena: Biblical Exegesis and Philosophical Theology, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, In. 107–140.

O’Brien, K. S. 2006. “The Curse of the Law (Galatians 3.13): Crucifixion, Persecution, and Deuteronomy 21.22–23,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29: 55–76.


  1. Just to be clear, the importance of Yeshua's burial place is to see whether he was ressurected, right?

    1. Well, actually, in my opinion, I suspect the earliest Christians imagined Jesus was resurrected in what the apostle Paul called a "pneumatic body" (in soma pneumatikos in Koine Greek), and was exalted directly to heaven in this body.

      A reading of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.35–53 has suggested to quite a few scholars that Paul (and hence early Christians) may even have imagined that Jesus's new "pneumatic body" was separate from his dead body of flesh and blood which simply decomposed in the grave.

      Paul says “what you sow is not the body that is to be” (1 Corinthians 15.37) – that is (on one possible reading), what is buried (a body of flesh and blood) is not the pneumatic body. Paul says flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of god (1 Corinthians 15.50) - the "pneumatic body" will not be one of flesh and blood (but of some heavenly substance, like the bodies of angels).

      That is why the earliest Christians may not have even been interested in the body of Jesus or an empty tomb. The "proof" of Jesus's resurrection for them was nothing but dreams and oral and visual hallucinations of Jesus they had in Galilee - what they imagined were divine visions (remember people in ancient world really thought dreams were sent by the gods).

      The empty tomb was the invention of the author of the gospel of Mark some 40 years after Jesus's death for literary and theological purposes (as argued by Collins “The Empty Tomb in the Gospel According to Mark”).

      The bodily resurrection is an invention of still later Christian writers like the author of the gospel of Luke.

  2. To be clear:

    (1) we have no idea where Jesus was buried.
    (2) the early church had no idea either, and maybe even no interest in the body.
    (3) the empty tomb was a later fiction.
    (4) the "proof" of Jesus's resurrection for the early disciples was nothing but deluded "visions" - dreams, oral and visual hallucinations and probably mass, almost hysterical ecstatic experiences where they "felt" his presence (as the Pentecost story in Acts 2:1-13).

  3. Yes, Acts 2:1-13 certainly sound like a mass ecstasy felt under the influence of wine and other substances. It sounds quite like Pentecostal Church meetings today. This is not uncommon and is a valid explanation for mass experiences of unlikely events.

    How material is the story of Christ's resurrection - in pneumatic or physical form - to establishing his divinity? Is there reason to suspect that early Christians would necessarily hold him as a divine, even if they did not believe in his resurrection in any form?

    1. You ask good questions here.

      (1) of course, the resurrection was a first step on the road to divinity. But I doubt any of the earliest Jewish Christians ever thought Jesus was really divine like god. There is evidence they never believed in his pre-existence: Eusebius tells us that both sects of Jewish Christians (called "Ebionites") rejected Jesus’s pre-existence (along with rejecting Paul's gospel of freedom from the Torah/Mosaic law, by the way).

      (2) I personally think the earliest Christians did mostly believe he had been resurrected. Perhaps some thought god would resurrect him to be Messiah when the kingdom of god finally arrived at some point in the future. Such Christians would also have notthought he was divine.

      I attempt an answer to how Jesus became a god in a broader way here: