Christian Easter traditions state that, after Jesus was crucified, he was taken down from the cross and buried by a mysterious character named Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a wealthy Jewish leader, and, so the story goes, he used his own tomb to bury Jesus’s body, covering the tomb entrance with a large, round stone.
These images are an integral part of the Easter story, and have given rise to our concepts of the “stone” being “rolled away,” the angel perched atop the stone to announce Jesus’s resurrection, and the women “entering the tomb” to anoint Jesus’s body.
A recent scholarly account that I have come across argues that Joseph of Arimathea is a fictional character (which I believe is probably true), and that, in fact, Jesus was probably not buried in a tomb at all.
This argument is based on several intriguing textual clues, as well as the custom of the times. In ancient Rome, when criminals were crucified, their bodies were taken down by the soldiers and buried in common, mass graves. The only reason Christian tradition holds that this was not true for Jesus is because of the Joseph of Arimathea story (which the Gospel of John adds to by including another Jewish leader and secret follower of Jesus, a man named Nicodemus, who appears several times in John’s account). If evidence exists to suggest that the Joseph of Arimathea tradition is fictional, then the only assumption that can be made is that Jesus was buried by the soldiers in a mass grave. Thus, we turn to the texts.
The first clue involves the reason for the visit to the tomb by the women. In this tradition, the women come on the morning after the Sabbath to “anoint” Jesus’s body. This seems a strange thing for them to do, considering that all the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea state that Joseph anointed Jesus’s body and prepared it for burial. There would be no reason for the women to go two days later to anoint Jesus’s body again. In fact, for an ancient Jew, to mess with a dead body that had already been prepared adequately and buried would have been a desecration. This suggests, perhaps, that there are echoes of earlier traditions in this later Sunday morning tomb story – that is, an early tradition might have stated that female followers of Jesus went to find Jesus’s grave so they could give him a proper Jewish anointing, since he was otherwise buried by non-Jews in a common grave.
The second clue involves the common Gospel theme of how Jesus’s followers abandoned him at the hour of his death. With the exception of John’s Gospel, which states that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” remained by Jesus’s side to the end (a rather transparent attempt by the writer(s) of John to glorify the disciple John, who was the patron of this particular group of Christians), the Gospels tell us that all of Jesus’s followers and disciples scattered at the crucifixion. Jesus was effectively abandoned to the authorities, as his followers attempted to save their own skins. Thus, there was no one around to stop the soldiers from taking Jesus’s body and burying it according to Roman custom.
This is the reason, no doubt, for the genesis of the Joseph of Arimathea story – since it was widely known that Jesus’s followers had abandoned him at the end, Jesus’s biographers had to come up with some way of getting Jesus from a common Roman grave to a tomb that could later be found empty. Thus, Joseph of Arimathea shows up suddenly in Mark’s Gospel to take charge of Jesus’s body.
If this is true, it does not, in my opinion, mean that Mark and the other Gospel writers were making it all up. By the time of Mark’s Gospel, around 70 C.E., the empty tomb tradition was well established in the budding Christian community. Mark simply had to come up with a way to account for the fact that no one had been around to bury Jesus, other than the Roman authorities. So in order to reconcile that problem, it seems likely that he came up with the character of Joseph of Arimathea.
When we look to the earlier New Testament texts, we find no mention of this Joseph, or even of anything like an empty tomb or a rolled away stone. Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, says only that Jesus “was buried.” There is no elaboration at all – no mention of a “tomb” and no mention of any of the events surrounding the tomb. In fact, outside of the Gospels and Acts, there is no mention of a tomb for Jesus at all in any New Testament writing.
The final textual clue – and perhaps the most compelling – comes to us from the book of Acts. It is found in a sermon attributed to Paul – the same Paul who never, in his own writings, mentioned anything about an empty tomb or a burial by Joseph of Arimathea. The passage, found in Acts 13, states the following: “The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.”
Pay special attention to that final sentence. Paul, speaking through the pen of the writer of Acts, states that the Jewish authorities, through Rome, took charge of Jesus’s burial!
The writer of Acts was the same writer who wrote the Gospel of Luke, and that writer’s Gospel, like the others, includes the Joseph of Arimathea tradition. However, it would appear that, in this portion of his second volume, while transcribing a sermon attributed to Paul, Luke fell back into an earlier tradition surrounding Jesus’s burial – one that knew Jesus had been buried by the authorities, not by his own followers.
The clues all add up to indicate that perhaps Jesus was not buried in a tomb at all, but rather in a common Roman grave, with the other criminals (and there may have been many) who were executed with him.
I can’t say, at this point, that I find this argument totally convincing – I think there is probably no way to know for sure. Maybe he was buried in a private tomb and maybe he wasn’t. However, I think the clues and the conclusion are consistent and intriguing, and if nothing else, I think it points strongly to the reality that the stories of Jesus are Jewish midrash, written metaphorically and for the purpose of describing, through the lens of Jewish spiritual tradition, the transcendent God-experience met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.