John 19: 38 – 42 The burial of Jesus
Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about thirty-five kilograms. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
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All four gospels describe Joseph of Arimathea going to Pilate and asking for Jesus’ body, and, when granted it, taking the body, wrapping it in linen, and laying it in a tomb hewn out from the rock. St Matthew’s gospel even identifies the tomb as being Joseph’s own, saying “Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.” (Matthew 27: 59 – 60)
Who was this man, Joseph?
He must have been influential as well as wealthy for Pilate to have entrusted him with the body of Jesus. He must, surely, have been a disciple, or else why should the inner circle of disciples have let him be the one to perform the last rites for Jesus?
St John tells us that he was a disciple “but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders”. St Luke, though, says that Joseph was “a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action.” (Luke 23: 50 – 51) I must say I find St Luke’s version more compelling.
There are two other details that only appear in one gospel.
Mark says that when Joseph asked Pilate for Jesus’ body, Pilate sent for the centurion to have the death confirmed (Mark 15: 44 – 45)
Matthew says “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive, that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’
‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (Matthew 27: 62 – 66)
These two details are probably intended to affirm the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. The first makes it plain that the centurion who had been in charge of the crucifixion was certain Jesus was dead. The second says that nobody could have stolen the body, because the entrance to the tomb was sealed and under manned guard on the orders of Pilate.
I have doubts about the literal truth of Matthew’s account. The day after preparation day was the Sabbath. Sealing the tomb and posting a guard would, I feel sure, have been regarded as breaking the Sabbath. I think also that if they had been concerned about a faked resurrection they would have taken charge of Jesus’ body themselves. Still, it’s very difficult to be sure one way or the other.
There is another discrepancy between St John’s gospel and the gospels of St Luke and St Mark. In St John’s account, Joseph of Arimathea is accompanied by Nicodemus, who brings a heavy load of myrrh and aloes and the two men anoint Jesus body for burial. In the other two accounts, it is the women who bring spices on the first day of the week, as soon as possible after the Sabbath.
Do these discrepancies matter? I don’t think so. The crucifixion and death of Jesus left his supporters confused and deeply distressed. Probably no single person saw all the actions relating to the burial take place. The accounts we read in the gospels are a collation of people’s memories of the events.
It does seem likely, though, that Joseph of Arimathea played a significant role, and there is a lesson there for us.
Joseph may have been a secret disciple for fear of the Jews. He was powerless to prevent the crucifixion. But when it mattered, he stepped forward and did what was necessary.
I am afraid of the vested interests of our society; I would be very wary of challenging some injustices too robustly. I am pretty much powerless to change things. But I can keep my heart open to the Lord and when he calls, I can play my part.
Thank you that even those of us who are timid and weak can serve you. Please help me to do so wholeheartedly.
In Jesus’ name, Amen