March 18 – Joseph of Arimathea

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Joseph of Arimathea, witness to Jesus

Joseph of Arimathea makes a brief but significant appearance in all four Gospels as the person who saw to the burial of Jesus. Arimathea is probably to be identified with a Judean town northwest of Jerusalem known in Hebrew as Ramah and associated in biblical tradition with the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 1: 1:1, 19: 2:1; 7: 17; 8: 4). The designation ‘of Arimathea’ probably simply indicates Joseph’s place of origin; as a member of the Jewish council he is likely to have been a longterm resident of Jerusalem.

While agreeing in the essential point that Joseph was responsible for the burial of Jesus’ body, the four gospels vary considerably in their presentation of the scene and of Joseph himself (Matt 25 :57-60; Mark 15: 42-46; Luke 23: 50-54; John 19: 38-42), especially in regard to the motivation that led him to take the action that he did.

In what is generally agreed to be the earliest account, Mark presents Joseph “as a respected member of the Council (Sanhedrin), who was himself looking for the kingdom of God” (15: 43). This information does not necessarily imply that Joseph was already a disciple of Jesus (as in Matthew and John). Many Jews at the time of Jesus were “looking for the kingdom of God”; it was in the context of such widespread expectation that Jesus entered upon his proclamation of the onset of the kingdom (1: 14-15). Joseph, then, may have been led to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus and see to its burial simply because, as an observant Jew with a strong sense of social responsibility, he felt an obligation to see to the fulfilment of the prescription in Deut 21: 22-23 that the bodies of executed criminals should not be left unburied by nightfall. Nonetheless, as Mark indicates (15: 43), going to Pilate and requesting the body of Jesus involved courage; in so doing Joseph ran the risk of association with the person and cause of one whom the authorities had executed as a threat to the state.

If, then, Joseph was not a disciple at the time of his burial of Jesus (as also seems to emerge from the account of Luke), he was probably on the way to that allegiance. In presenting him unambiguously as a disciple, Matthew (27: 57) and John (‘a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews’ [19: 38]) would then be foreshadowing a commitment on his part that occurred later on but had its origins in an act of social responsibility towards an outcast that soon became enshrined in Christian memory and devotion. In the troubled history of relations between Christians and Jews, the courageous and generous action of this Jewish leader at the beginnings of that history deserves an honourable place.

Later Christian tradition, besides conferring sainthood on Joseph, had him journeying, as far as Britain, founding a church at Glastonbury and bringing the Holy Grail. At this point, however, we are in the realm of legend rather than reliable historical interpretation.

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ