Joseph of Arimathea Was Probably a Literary Fiction

With John Dominic Crossan and Keith Parsons I believe that the accounts of Joseph of Arimathea giving Jesus an honorable burial are probably a literary fiction. This shouldn’t surprise the reader since there are good reasons to also be suspicious of the existence of Judas Iscariot, who conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus with a kiss the night before his crucifixion. With regard to Joseph being a literary creation there are several lines of evidence that point in this direction.

In the first place we have no idea where the location of the town of Arimathea is, whereas we do know the location of other Biblical cites like Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Capernaum and Damascus. According to Roy W. Hoover, “the location of Arimathea has not (yet) been identified with any assurance; the various ‘possible’ locations are nothing more than pious guesses or conjectures undocumented by any textual or archaeological evidence.”[1] More than likely Hoover means we don’t have any other textual reference to the town in any ancient text apart from those influenced by the Biblical narrative, and there is no archaeology confirming the location of this town. No wonder that Luke’s gospel, written to the Greeks from some place in the Roman Empire after the gospels of Mark and Matthew, had to explain why they had never heard of this town before, so it says Arimathea was a “Jewish town,” one which they probably weren’t so familiar (Luke 23:51).

In the second place, there are some implausible aspects about just what this Joseph did and when. In none of the gospels do we find him mentioned at the scene of the crucifixion. And yet we’re told he asked to take Jesus’ body down to bury it. When did he know Jesus had died if he wasn’t at the scene? Purportedly someone told him, otherwise, why didn't they mention that he saw Jesus die? Three Gospels tell us Jesus died specifically at 3 PM (Mark 15:34-37; Matt. 27:46-50; Luke 23:44-46). But it wasn’t until “evening approached” that Joseph went to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. To confirm that Jesus had died Pilate dispatched a centurion to see for sure, and upon returning he told Pilate Jesus was dead, so he granted Joseph his request. This had to have taken some time. Does anyone expect that gaining access to Pilate was a quick and easy thing, or that it didn’t take time to walk back and forth like they were to have done? Then upon having his request granted Joseph had to go home and get a shroud, find Nicodemus who bought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:38), take Jesus’ body down, bury it, and roll a stone across the entrance all before sundown, when this whole course of action began “when evening approached”? There wasn’t enough time!

The non-canonical Gospel of Peter first saw this problem when it says Joseph asked to have Jesus’ body at the same time Pilate sent him to be crucified. At least then Joseph would be able to make all the preparations. If the Gospel of Peter's scenario is correct, the canonical Gospels are wrong, but if the canonical Gospels are correct then there wasn’t enough time for the burial, or the Gospels placed Jesus’ death incorrectly at 3 PM for theological reasons, or Joseph worked on the Sabbath Day in burying Jesus’ body after sundown when the Jewish day began (contrary to Jewish law), or the whole story of Joseph is itself subject for great doubt.

In the third place, we never hear of Joseph again. This is significant, I think, as explained by Roy W. Hoover: “he is not among the witnesses to the empty tomb in the Gospel stories and is never subsequently said to have become a believer and a member of the early church. His cameo appearance only serves the immediate narrative interest of the Gospel authors—to ‘establish’ the location of Jesus’ tomb, the emptiness of which he was no longer around to verify.”[2]

There are other good reasons to think Joseph is a literary fiction. Look at the texts themselves. In Acts 13:28-29, we’re told that Jesus was buried by his enemies who had him crucified: “Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” This doesn’t describe Joseph of Arimathea, whom Matthew and John both claim was one of Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 27:57; John 19:38). Also problematic is that earlier in Mark’s gospel we read where all the members of the Sanhedrin high court voted to condemn Jesus to death: “Then the high priest tore his clothes and said…. ‘What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:62). How could Joseph condemn Jesus if he was his disciple? The gospel of Matthew solves this problem by saying Joseph was “a rich man,” not a member of the Sanhedrin, while John’s gospel solves it by claiming Joseph was a “secret” disciple, “because of his fear of the Jews.” Left unresolved here is how a Jewish member of high standing in the Sanhedrin itself would fear the “Jews,” since he was one.

The gospel of Mark’s own attempt to resolve what was said earlier in his own gospel is with deliberate ambiguity. According to John Dominic Crossan: “Joseph is described not as a member of the synedrion-council but as a member of the boulē-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 (bouleutēs) but not in the later one at all (synedrion). There was, of course, no such distinction in historical life; there was only one council by whatever name.”[3] Thus Mark’s gospel is deliberately ambiguous with regard to whether or not Joseph was a member of the council he had previously told us condemned Jesus.

Mark’s gospel is also deliberately ambiguous as to whether or not Joseph was a believing disciple of Jesus. In Mark we read that Joseph “was looking for the kingdom of God”(Mark 15:43). Crossan asks, “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.”[4]

When it comes to the two other thieves who died next to Jesus, we have a tradition in John (19:31) in which “the Jews” asked Pilate that the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves would be removed, indicating that all three crucified victims were removed that same day, even though John indicates later that Jesus was given a separate burial by Joseph (19:38-42). In any case we have the problem of the two thieves. If Joseph’s duty was to bury condemned criminals, or if he was just a pious humanitarian, he would’ve buried them all. But this cannot be, for if he buried them all together in a single tomb, or in a communal grave for criminals, then the problem becomes how one could prove Jesus’ corpse was the one missing when the other two bodies would’ve decomposed by the time of the first Christian preaching of the resurrection? So Matthew’s gospel rephrases Mark that Jesus was buried “in his own new tomb,” and instead of just a “stone” being placed in the entrance, it has now become a “great stone.” (Matthew 27:60), while Luke says it was a tomb “where no one had ever been laid.” (Luke 23:53).

Crossan argues that these points lead him to think Joseph’s honorable burial is creative fiction based upon “prophecy historicized,” by which he means the New Testament writers created their accounts based to some extent on the attempt to show how prophecy was fulfilled by the events they told.[5] We see this in Luke’s concoction of a census to get Mary to give birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, as but one example of many. Crossan wrote, “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.”[6] In the end he argues that Mark “did his best with an impossible problem: those in power were against Jesus; those for him had no power. How could you invent a person with power (at least access to Pilate) but for Jesus? He created Joseph as both a Sanhedrist and an almost-a-disciple of Jesus.”[7]

Two objections come to the forefront at this point. William Lane Craig charges that “the figure of Joseph is startling dissimilar to the prevailing attitude in the Church toward the Sanhedrin. Therefore, Joseph is unlikely to have been a fictional creation of the early church.”[8] Yet, if Crossan’s argument is correct, then this literary creation is due to “prophecy historicized” in which Mark had a near impossible task of satisfying the demands of the antagonism of the early church with the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus, and his need to provide evidence that there was an empty tomb which he later writes about.

The second objection is why Mark would provide a name (Joseph) and a place of residence (Arimathea) for the person who buried Jesus? He didn’t need to do that, did he? So it’s likely such a person existed, and if he did it’s likely he did something like what Mark said he did. Crossan answers this objection in these words: “The general early Christian tradition was to name those significant characters left nameless in the passion accounts.”[9] The Gospel of Peter gives the name “Petronius” to the centurion who was in charge of the soldiers who were supposed to guard the tomb. Pilate’s wife, the centurion at the cross, and the two thieves crucified with Jesus were all given subsequent names. There are examples of this in the Gospels themselves. The sword wielder and the person whose ear was cut off in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark’s gospel are later named in John 18:10 as “Peter”and “Malchus.” Crossan asks, “if you create the events, why not create names as well?”

Then there’s the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus in which Luke gives one of its characters a name, “Lazarus.” Even conservative scholars regard the story as one of Jesus’ parables, and is treated as such by Simon J. Kistemaker and by William Hendricksen, without so much as giving the reader a reason why it’s considered a parable.[10] It’s considered a parable because it has the same format of one of Jesus’ parables, and because Jesus begins many of his parables in Luke with the same phrase: “a certain man” or something similar (13:6; 14:16; 15;11; 16:1; 16:19; 18:2; 19:12). In The Parable of the Shrewd Manager that precedes this one, Luke starts out with the same exact phrase, “There was a rich man…” Names in the Bible meant something, and this is the case with Lazarus too, which means “God has helped.” The rich man is later called “Dives” in the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, meaning “wealthy.”

In a very well-argued chapter, Jeffery Jay Lowder has defended the idea that Jesus’ body was hastily buried before the Sabbath Day by Joseph of Arimathea but that it was relocated on the Sabbath Day to the public graveyard of the condemned, which would make the identification of Jesus’ decomposed body unidentifiable by the time Christians first proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus.[11] The problem with Lowder’s scenario is that it seems improbable that in obedience to Jewish law, the body of Jesus was buried before the Sabbath, and yet in defiance of Jewish law, those who buried it worked on the Sabbath by removing the body of Jesus from the initial tomb and burying it elsewhere.

Even if Joseph of Arimathea was not a literary creation, then at best he was the official whose duty it was to bury condemned criminals, who were buried in the public graveyard of the condemned, which Jewish law proscribed. And if that’s so, all three crucified men would have been buried together, and Jesus' body would have decomposed beyond the point of recognition by the time of the first Christian resurrection proclamation seven weeks later (Acts 1:3; 2:1).


[1] Roy Hoover in Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact of Figment? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann eds., Paul Copan, and Ronald K. Tacelli (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 130.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1998), p. 554.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), pp. 1-13. For those unfamiliar with how the New Testament writers constructed stories based upon Old Testament passages see Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (Amherst, NY, Prometheus Books, 1988), p.131.

[6] Ibid., p. 555.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 173

[8] As quoted in Paul Copan, and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact of Figment? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, p. 166.

[9] John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus?, p. 177.

[10] As seen in Kistemaker’s book, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), and Hendriksen’s book New Testament Commentary: An Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978).

[11] In Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Amherst: NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), pp. 261-306.