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.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I believe that the accounts of Joseph of Arimathea giving Jesus an honorable burial are "PROBABLY" a literary fiction."

Let me guess, another book? Can I find it on Amazon.com? How much does it cost. Is there a counter to it? Some Christian refuting the evidence. Is that book on Amazon.com as well. How much does it cost?

You used the word probably. Nuff said.
I also wonder, could there be another theory besides the literary fiction one that could explain the problems you find in the gospels. Yes there probaly could.
If the evidence points in any direction it is only because the authors have arragned it to pint in a certain direction. Study persuasive writting and you may find that this book is itself the fiction.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Anonymous the "Money Cynic"

Your sneering criticism might have more value if you'd demonstrated that you read the actual post by John, or had some familiarity with Crossan. (I've seen him frequently on tv shows like A&E's 'Mysteries of the Bible' and find him slightly publicity-hungry and while learned, not always the most reliable of sources. He is, btw, definitely a believer and a Christian, if not an 'inerrantist.' I do want to read more of his writings but if he has a fault, it is not greed for money but the publicity-seeking I mentioned that seems to lead him towards espousing controversial positions.)

I find John's post interesting, and if I'm not totally convinced yet, that may be because I've never seen this suggested before and I'm still digesting it.

If it is true, for me the most interesting fact about it is that it knocks the final prop out from under one of the more obvious fictions in the Bible, the 'trial before the Sanhedrin.' This was so unlikely to have occurred in the ways described -- ways because each of the evangelists contradicts the other -- given what is known about the Sanhedrin, that it probably didn't need more debunking, but this is yet another arrow in the corpse of the story.

Along with its inherent improbability, the other main problem with it was where the evangelists got the story. No disciples were in the room, and the 'passion' began immediately afterwards, so Jesus had no chance to tell anyone what occurred. The only possible witness that Christians have suggested was Joseph of Arimathea.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I just checked Questia.com. Unfortunately they have no books and only one magazine article by Crossan, but they have a number of books discussing his writing. (He was a founder of the Jesus Seminar, btw.) I'll be looking at them a bit later if I get the chance, and commenting further.

Dennis said...

>Along with its inherent improbability, the other main problem
>with it was where the evangelists got the story. No disciples
>were in the room, and the 'passion' began immediately afterwards,
>so Jesus had no chance to tell anyone what occurred. The only
>possible witness that Christians have suggested was Joseph of Arimathea.

Yes, that's certainly a big problem! Only if you believe that Jesus was the only person in the room during his trial.

John W. Loftus said...

Crossan probably is a "publicity-seeking" person, but he makes some very interesting arguments on this topic.

DagoodS said...

There is also the intriguing notion presented by Richard Carrier that “Arimathea” can be translated “Best Disciple Town.” In and of itself, that is innocuous, but coupled with Mark’s penchant for literary motifs, and the lack of a distinct town, it causes me to believe Mark was doing yet another play on words.

Jesus’ 12 had abandoned him, and now a hitherto unknown person, who was from “Best Disciple Town” was the one with Jesus at the last. “The Last Disciple of Christ” would have been the title of his bibliography.

And on a side trip to Anonymous the “Money Cynic”—one enjoyable nature about studying the Bible from a non-Christian aspect is the lack of a necessary dogma. It doesn’t make a whit of difference to me whether there was some person that buried Jesus, or whether that person was named “Joseph” but not from Arimathea, or was from Arimathea, but not named Joseph, or whether they were on a civil or religious council. Or whether the whole thing is a literary creation.

What makes it enjoyable is being free to shift through all the facts available, review all the arguments regarding any of these propositions, and at the end of the day make the personal conclusion based upon what is persuasive to each individual. There are disagreements among scholars as to what is historical and what is not within the New Testament. It is eye-opening to be free of any dogma that says this thing MUST be historical or that thing MUST not be historical.

Jim Jordan said...

There is an old saying about how people wear clothes that goes, "Just because it stretches doesn't mean it fits".

Here's a few stretches that I see.
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) Ramatha is the most likely town or "city in Judea" for Arimathea. 2) The sarcastic words "pious guesses" raises my eyebrow a few degrees.
3)If Ramatha is Arimathea then what more archaeological evidence do you need?

I don't see anything difficult about the time it would take to take Jesus' body and put it in a tomb. They had about three hours to work on this. If you had proof that Nicodemus went to the Walmart in Bethsaida to buy myrrh, then we’d have a real problem. :-)

**Crossan argues that these points lead him to think Joseph’s honorable burial is creative fiction based upon “prophecy historicized,”**

You could discount the whole NT with this “too quaint to be true” assumption.

The questions I don’t see resolved here is why this fellow appears in all four gospels and of course the great question of why the disciples died for what Crossan and co. believe is a lie. Crossan is at a disadvantage because he wasn't there.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of tough questions here. Ostensibly, you are studying Scripture here and what Christian doesn’t want to do that? Regards.

Anonymous said...

More ignorant drivel from John's gang of idiots. Here's just one example of the kind of nonsense that passes for "rational skepticism" around here:

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? So someone told Joseph that Jesus had died. 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!

First of all, we get a big bunch of argument from silence. Honestly, why would you expect the gospel writers to make specific mention of Joe of A until his own part in the narrative? There's simply no need for them to go through exactly how he found out that Jesus had died. It's enough to know that he did. The fact that the gospels don't mention him otherwise is irrelevant.

Secondly, unwarranted speculation. What makes you think it would have been considerably difficult to get a request to Pilate? Joe of A was well respected in the community, so it would stand to reason that he had some influence. It's not unreasonable to think this whole exchanged could have happened in less than an hour.

Finally, there's the absurd notion that Joe of A did everything personally. He was a rich man, and guess what? Rich men in that time had servants and other people to take care of their affairs. So why didn't the gospel writers mention his entourage? Probably for the same reason that modern writers simply say, for example, "Bill Gates started in his garage and proceeded to build the world's richest company." Should we assume that Bill Gates personally and without any help from anybody did this? Of course not. We assume, as the writers intended, that he had just a little help along the way. So Joe of A, with a just a little help could have easily gotten Jesus' body off the cross and buried within the specified time frame.

Such sloppy criticism of the text doesn't give the reader much confidence that your arguments hold any weight.

Anonymous said...

One point I forgot to mention: Jesus' burial in Joe of A's tomb was not an "honorable burial" simply because there was no honor to be had from being buried in someone else's tomb! Not to mention, the lack of mourners was also considered a great dishonor.

Anonymous said...

Those are weak arguments (ie: "we can't find the place" or "Joseph's not mentioned again"). Silence is never a good basis for argument. Just because there's no archaeological proof right now, that doesn't kill the textual evidence. This reminds me of some people that thought Nazareth didn't exist because they couldn't find the true Nazareth until archaeology proved it. Sad.

Here's some more information on the Jesus tomb:

http://www.JesusTombReview.com

Blair in KC said...

Don't worry, in a few hundred years there won't be any evidence that any of you existed either.

Therefore, you don't exist.

DagoodS said...

Jim Jordan,

Joseph of Arimathea is not all that difficult to explain why he appeared in all four Gospels. Matthew and Luke were copying Mark. Copies can have the same people as the original.

If the written gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke were circulating at the end of the First Century/beginning of the Second, could they have modified the oral tradition basis of John? In other words, by the time of John’s writing, the story with this Joseph of Arimathea was already in the Christian community surrounding the burial of Jesus. Easily incorporated in the Gospel of John.

As to all those people dying for a Lie, I wrote on that here: Die for a Lie won’t Fly.

No need to go through all of it again.

To the various Anonymi:

Argument from Silence

I would agree that on its own, argument from silence may not be very persuasive. But taken in conjunction with the claims, and other arguments, it can become troubling.

What if I told you that there are sewer rats living in your cupboard? You may point out the fact there are no rat droppings, no gnawed boxes, no sightings of rats, no sounds, and no evidence of such rats. Is it compelling for me to say, “Ah, but absence of evidence does not mean they don’t exist?” Of course not!

Here we have a member of the Sanhedrin, who has enough prominence to approach Pilate himself, who is secretly either a Christian, or desiring to be one, who has a convenient tomb readily available. We have interactions with Jesus almost immediately before this event to the Sanhedrin and with the disciples only a short period after.

We have a town we cannot find as of this date, with an extremely convenient literary name.

And this guy appears once, at the right time and right place with the right tomb, and then disappears off the map. As a skeptic, we start to question it, yep.

Anon 149: This reminds me of some people that thought Nazareth didn't exist because they couldn't find the true Nazareth until archaeology proved it.

I would like to run down this claim. Can you point out a source for me of these “some people” that say ”Nazareth didn’t exist”? (I thought the question was whether Nazareth was inhabited at the beginning of the First Century—not that it “never existed.”)

Bill said...

On Mark 15:42-7

Jesus died at 3 pm on the Friday and the next day was the Sabbath. Therefore when Jesus died, it was already the time of preparation for the Sabbath, and there was very little time to waste, for after 6 pm the Sabbath law would operate and no work could be done.

Joseph of Arimathaea acted quickly. It frequently happened that the bodies of criminals were never buried at all, but were simply taken down and left for the vultures and the scavenging wild dogs to deal with. In fact it has been suggested that Golgotha may have been called the place of a skull because it was littered with skulls from previous crucifixions. Joseph went to Pilate. It often happened that criminals hung for days on their crosses before they died, and Pilate was amazed that Jesus was dead after only six hours after he had been crucified (Don't forget the violent treatment from the soldiers). But when he had checked the facts with the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.

Joseph is a curious case.

1) It may well be that it is from Joseph that all the information came about the trial before the Sanhedrin. Certainly none of the disciples was there. The information must have come from some member of the Sanhedrin, and it is probable that Joseph was one. If that is so, he had a very real share in the writing of the gospel story.

2) There is a certain tragedy about Joseph. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and yet we have no hint that he spoke one word in Jesus' favor or intervened in any way on his behalf. Joseph is a man who gave Jesus a tomb when he was dead but was silent when he was alive. It is one of the commonest tragedies of life that we keep our wreaths for people's graves and our praises until they are dead. It would be infinitely better to give them some of these flowers and some of these words of gratitude when they are still alive.

3) But we cannot blame Joseph too much, for he was another of those people for whom the cross did what not even the life of Jesus could do. When he had seen Jesus alive, he had felt his attraction but had gone no further. But when he saw Jesus die - and he must have been present at the crucifixion - his heart was broken in love. First the centurion, then Joseph - it is an amazing thing how soon Jesus' words came true that when he was lifted up from the earth he would draw all people to himself (John 12:32)

kanajlo said...

""Barnabas 217:8 '...but by means of Nicodemus and Joseph of ABARIMATHIA they obtained from the governor, the body...to bury it.' "

Barnabas was in the earliest Bible - the Sinai Bible. The variant spelling is telling.

The historian, Flavius Josephus, had the Hebrew name (in Aramaic) of Joseph bar Mathias (Joseph son of Matthew). Now here's a no brainer! Can you work out who the Biblical Joseph of Arimathea really was?

Melinda said...

Very interesting questions. I disagree but still interesting. My question for you lies in this statement: "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."

That may have been the first public proclamation; however, the apostles were claiming he had risen three and four days and a week after his crucifixion. Wouldn't it have been easier to identify "remains" at that time? After all, that was the point of having soldiers there in the first place, to "guard" against such claims.