Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Joseph of Arimathea Buries Jesus

Posted by foryourfaith on March 29, 2010

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The deposition of Jesus – that is, the removal of his body from the cross – is a cherished subject of Christian art. All four of the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea retrieved Jesus’ body, and John records the additional presence of Nicodemus at the site of Jesus’ burial. But in the Acts of the Apostles, the apostle Paul is reported to have said, in a speech given at Antioch of Pisidia, that the Jews – apparently meaning those hostile to Jesus – “took him down from the tree [the cross], and laid him in a tomb” (13:29).

Did Paul not know of Joseph of Arimathea? Luke, the writer of Acts, had written about Joseph in his gospel as the one who had taken primary responsibility for the deposition of the body of Jesus (23:50-53). What could account for this apparent contradiction? It is possible that Joseph and Nicodemus were members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that turned Jesus over to Pilate. Though Luke specifies that Joseph “had not consented to their purpose and deed,” perhaps the Jews of Paul’s speech were in fact these two men.

The death of Jesus came about the middle of the afternoon on the day of crucifixion. It was the custom to bury a body on the day of death. This was all the more urgent in the case of Jesus, not only because the Sabbath was approaching, but because the Law of Moses provided that someone put to death as a criminal should not be left to hang overnight. It would defile the land (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

to save the body of Jesus from the indignity of remaining on the cross, and as an act of piety, Joseph of Arimathea got up his courage and asked Pilate for permission to take the body, so that he might arrange for the immediate burial of Jesus. Our accounts tell us that Joseph was a good man and a secret follower of Jesus.

According to Mark, Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead – victims of crucifixion often lingered for days. So he checked with the centurion in charge. On hearing that Jesus was indeed dead, he granted Joseph’s request. Mark and Luke tell us that Joseph of Arimathea took the body down. Matthew and Luke say he took it away. He could hardly have done either alone. The wording allows us to deduce that he had the help of others. In fact, John suggests Nicodemus helped. There is no evidence that Jesus was not really dead when his body was removed from the cross. The spear thrust in the side (John 19:34), the testimony of the Roman centurion to Pilate, and the women who “saw the tomb, and how the body was laid” all emphasize that Jesus was, indeed, dead.

As for the actual burial of Jesus, we learn that he was laid in a new tomb which had been hewn into the rock. It belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and had never before been used. The opening for the tomb must have been rather low, as the “other disciple,” Peter’s companion when they arrived at the site Sunday morning, had to stoop to look in. There would have been a niche or ledge in the wall of the tomb, perhaps one of several, for placing the body. Finally, there was a large stone for covering the opening – probably a wheel-shaped slab that rolled in a groove.

Part of the preparation for burial was the provision by Nicodemus of a huge amount of myrrh and aloes – about 100 (Roman) pounds, or about 75 English pounds. Produced from plants not native to Palestine, these substances must have been extremely expensive. They were used by the Jews for preparing the body. John tells us that Joseph and Nicodemus bound the body “in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”

While the Synoptic Gospels speak of a linen shroud for wrapping the body, it is not quite clear what John means by “linen cloths.” It is possible that the term really means a single large piece of cloth. When the body of Jesus had been put in place, the stone was rolled over the opening.

The next day, according to Matthew, the chief priests and some Pharisees met with Pilate and told him they were afraid that Jesus’ disciples would steal the body and then claim that he was raised from the dead. Pilate’s response was, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they sealed the tomb and left a guard on watch. It is not clear whether those assigned to this task were Roman soldiers or Jewish Temple guards.

The women who had followed Jesus from Galilee prepared spices for anointing his body. Thus they made ready to pay their final respects to their beloved master. By custom, they rested on the Sabbath (the modern Saturday). So through the night and the next day, the body rested in the darkness and silence of the tomb.

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