By Tyson Thorne

October 15, 2019

John 53 Larger

"After this, Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus (but secretly, because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he went and took the body away..." And so John begins to tell us about the burial of Jesus. Our reading has already slowed down due to John's having the stories climax in the immediately preceding verses, so we ought to be paying careful attention. If so, you might be asking yourself, "Wait… Who is this Joseph guy?" He is a minor but important character who became a legend.

What We Know

By piecing together information from all four gospels we know that Joseph was from a Judean town (Luke 23.52) named Arimathea (all four Gospels attest to this city name). Some claim this town never existed since we have not found evidence of it outside the Bible. At least not yet. Given enough time I'm sure the evidence will arise. We also know that Joseph was a man of means (Matthew) and a member of the Sanhedrin. This last point is interesting, because the Sanhedrin did not believe in bodily resurrection.

The tomb Jesus was laid in was one Joseph had made for himself. Since he was very much alive, no dead body had been laid in the tomb before Jesus. It was clean (as opposed to unclean, according to Jewish tradition). Along with the tomb, he also provided the linen to wrap Jesus' body in (Mark). Nicodemus brought the rest of the materials for preparing and burying the body. The two men together took down Jesus' body, but Joseph asked Pilate for permission to bury him. Not just anyone get's in to see the governor, so Joseph was a known authority.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, maybe even Joseph's counterpart on the other side of the aisle. The two would have argued over theology, I'm sure, but they found friendship in secretly following Jesus. The two men carried Jesus' body to Joseph's nearby tomb and prepared his body according to custom just before Sabbath began. They then capped the entrance with a stone, likely in the presence of Roman guards who showed up during their time preparing the body. The guards would have sealed the tomb, though these details are from Matthew and not John.

The Legend

According to sources written a few centuries after the events, Joseph somehow obtained the cup Jesus used at the Passover meal with the disciples. The same cup that he used when conducting the first Communion. To safeguard the cup, he journeyed all the way to from Israel to a land today known as Great Britain. The people of that land were known as the Gaul's by the Romans, but in the legend the land is called Avalon and he delivered the cup to King Arthur. Thus begins the legend of the Holy Grail.

These accounts are largely suspect. The fact that these aspects of his life story were written down so far after the fact makes them shady. Further darkening their reliability is the fact that those writings claimed to have been written by other Biblical figures who died long before these treatises were penned. On the other hand, there are some historic references to Joseph being in the region at about the right time. Today, some British politicians even include Joseph of Arimathea in their ancestry. So there may be a kernel of truth to Joseph's journey.

As romantic as these ideas are, none of them rise to the level of truth that the Gospel's enjoy.

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