Was Joseph of Arimathea a Myth?

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 1,120 3

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is criticized in almost every way imaginable. One of the most recent arguments is that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus, was made up by the Gospel writers. The argument goes like this: if Joseph did not exist, then Jesus was not buried in the tomb. This means that the empty tomb was made up as well. What is the result? Jesus did not resurrect.

Skeptics like John Loftus, the former preacher who turned atheist, and scholar John Dominic Crossan list many different reasons why they think that Joseph was a literary creation.[1] They believe that their arguments prove that the evangelists were not reporting the truth about Jesus, and were, in fact, making up the story of Jesus. What are the reasons for believing that Joseph was not a real person? Take a look:

1)      The location of the town of Arimathea, where Joseph was from, is unknown. According to Loftus, there is no textual evidence for the town outside the gospels, and no archaeological evidence exists as well. He concludes that this means that the town must be imaginary. This explains why Luke 23:51 calls it a “Jewish town” since no one had ever heard of it before.[2]

Loftus thinks that Mark, who he thinks created Joseph, was using a play on words since no town actually existed. The name Arimathea can be translated as “Best Disciple Town” so clearly the place did not exist. It is too consequential for a disciple of Jesus to be from a town named “Best Disciple Town.”[3]

2)      The second argument is that Joseph is never mentioned as being present at the crucifixion. He doesn’t appear until he wants to bury Jesus (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:42, 43; Luke 23:50; John 19:38). Surely someone as important as Joseph would have been mentioned before it was time to bury Jesus.

This means that Joseph must have been told about Jesus after the crucifixion (which occurred around 3PM). Quite simply, Joseph would not have had enough time to learn about Jesus’ crucifixion, go to Pilate (which was not an easy task to get an audience with), have Pilate check on Christ, then go home to get the shroud, find Nicodemus, who brought a large amount of myrrh and aloes, take the body down, bury Jesus, and roll a large stone in front of the entrance.[4] In conclusion, not enough time existed to do everything so Joseph must not have been real.

3)      Joseph is never heard of again. If Joseph was so important then why do we not hear of him again?[5]

4)      The story of Joseph grew over time. This indicates that he is a legend. Mark’s gospel is the simplest of the accounts. He says that Joseph was a prominent member of the Jewish Council and was waiting for the kingdom of God. Matthew adds details to the account of Joseph such as Joseph being a “rich man,” and “a disciple of Jesus.” He also adds details to the burial of Jesus such as the cloth that Jesus was wrapped in was “clean,” that the tomb was “new,” and that the stone was “great.”

Luke also adds details to Joseph’s story: 1) that Joseph did not agree with the plot against Jesus, and no one had ever been laid in Joseph’s tomb before. And, of course, John adds some things to the story. He says that Joseph was a “disciple” of Jesus, though a secret one because he feared the “Jews.” The implication is that since Mark’s gospel did not record these details then they must have been made up later. All of this means that the account of Joseph of Arimathea is pure legend.[6]

5)      The account of Joseph is contradictory. Acts 13:28-29 says that Jesus was buried by his enemies, whereas Joseph is said to have been a disciple of Jesus. Mark also says that “all” the Sanhedrin high court condemned Jesus. Since Joseph was a member of this council he must have condemned Jesus. This is contradictory to the fact that he was a follower of Jesus. The Gospel of John also says that Joseph feared the “Jews.” How could Joseph fear the Jews when he was a Jew himself?[7] All of this confirms that Joseph was not a real person.

6)      What about the two thieves who were killed with Jesus? John 19:31 asks that all three bodies be removed, and 19:38-42 indicates Jesus’ burial by Joseph. Does this mean that Joseph buried the other men as well? Loftus and Crossan argue that Joseph would have buried all three men, so the thieves and Jesus would have been buried together. So if one body was missing and the other two bodies were decomposed by the time the gospel was being preached, then how do we know that it was Jesus’ body that was missing?[8]

7)      The early Christian tradition was to name people in the passion accounts that were left nameless. Over time the two thieves, Pilate’s wife, the centurion at the cross, and the soldiers guarding the tomb were all named so this means that Joseph was invented as well. As Crossan says, “If you create the events, why not create names as well?”[9]

To help prove his point, Crossan uses an example from a fictional story by modern author Jorge Luis Borges (the story is “The Aleph”). In this story, he invents a street in Buenos Aires called “Garay Street.” Crossan quotes Borges as once saying that a journalist in Madrid, Spain actually believed that the story was true since the street was named. The journalist thought that the street was real, and when he was told that it was made up, he was surprised. Crossan says that, “The naming of streets is not much of a feat…”[10] The point is that if someone will believe that a made up street is real, then surely it is easy to convince people of a made up man living two thousand years ago.

Joseph was not a literary creation

If you are honest with yourself, then you may be thinking that Joseph of Arimathea was not a real person. Many of these arguments seem sound and are presented very well. However, once you closely examine the evidence it becomes clear that the arguments for a non-existent Joseph quickly fall apart.

Arimathea

In regards to a town with the name “Arimathea,” the town can be readily identified with the ancient town of Ramah. Ramah was actually later named Ramathaian or Aramathaim in different sources.[11] But does Arimathea mean “Best Disciple Town?” One of the most interesting things about ancient Jewish culture was that the Jews sometimes used puns when naming things. So it is no surprise that Arimathea may mean “Best Disciple Town” since Jews were known to do this.[12]

One example is king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in the Old Testament. There are different spellings of the name. One is “-nezzar” while another in “-rezzar.” The latter one is the proper spelling from the Akkadian language (the language of Babylon). Why did the Jews misspell the name of the king of Babylon sometimes? It was a pun! The correct spelling means “Nabu protect(s) the eldest son” (Nabu was a Babylonian god). The meaning of “-nezzar” (the incorrect spelling) in Hebrew is “Nabu protect(s) the mule.” This was a humorous way for the biblical authors to poke fun at a pagan king (yes, you read that right; the biblical authors had a sense of humor).[13] Writer J. P. Holding notes:

“Far from suggesting that Joseph was a fiction, the punning implies that Joseph’s role as a ‘best disciple’ was as an early and well-known figure, recognized by the Jewish Greek-speakers of the church who, in line with the Jewish tendency to make puns, came up with this clever joke which became implanted in the diverse Gospel tradition. The pun ironically serves as a commemoration of Joseph’s role.”[14]

Nowhere to be found

Loftus argues that Joseph was not mentioned as being at the crucifixion, and he also notes that we never hear of Joseph again. The answer to these “problems” is actually very simple. Apparently the gospel writers believed that they had no purpose to mention him before his role of burying Jesus. The gospels didn’t have to list everyone at the crucifixion, nor does any historical account have to mention every person that was involved with every historical event. Does a writer have to mention everyone present at every event? The same is with mentioning him after the resurrection. Historians and other writers only need to give the details that they feel matter to their story that they are telling and what their audiences would find important.

It must also be remembered that writing materials would have been expensive, so the gospel writers (and almost any writer during the ancient world) would have had to have been selective in their details. They didn’t have an infinite amount of room to include every little detail imaginable. I’ll be honest; I wish that the gospel writers would have included more on Joseph and many other people and events. But they didn’t. It doesn’t mean that they were making things up. Even John 21:25 says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

Joseph of Arimathea. source: http://www.allmercifulsavior.com/icons/Icons-Joseph.htm
Joseph of Arimathea. source: http://www.allmercifulsavior.com/icons/Icons-Joseph.htm

Not enough time

Loftus lists everything that occurs in the account of Joseph in a way that makes it seem like Joseph did not have enough time (only a few hours or so) to do everything. He says that Joseph would have had the time to learn about Jesus, go to Pilate, send a centurion to see if Jesus was dead, get Nicodemus, get all the supplies, and finally bury Jesus. This objection by Loftus assumes that Joseph was not at the crucifixion (which I rebuked above). Is it at all possible that the centurion already knew that Jesus was dead? Nothing in the text implies that Pilate had to send the soldier all the way to the crucifixion site. Nicodemus was probably already at the crucifixion with Joseph. Gathering the supplies and spearing Jesus would not have taken hours upon hours that Loftus seems to be implying. Loftus is simply doing whatever he can to find a potential problem with the gospels so that he may continue to be an atheist.

Legend

What about the story of Joseph growing over time? This argument doesn’t make a lot of sense when one takes the time to study the “added” details. Let us take a look at each of these:

Mark says that Joseph was “waiting for the kingdom of God” while Matthew and John say that he was a disciple of Jesus. I’ll answer this directly. How is this a contradiction? Waiting for the kingdom of God was part of being a disciple of Jesus. In fact, the same phrase is used in Mark 1:14-15 and shows that Mark viewed Joseph as a disciple like Matthew and John did. It is also interesting to note that Luke also says that Joseph was awaiting the kingdom of God (23:51).

Mark speaks only of a cloth, but Matthew says that it was a clean cloth. The answer to this is so simple: would Joseph use a dirty cloth? There is nothing wrong with Matthew wanting to use the word “clean” (the same can be said about the tomb being “new” and the stone being “great.”

Joseph is described as rich in Matthew, but not in Mark (where he is only mentioned as being a member of the Jewish Council). Once again, the answer is simple. All members of the Jewish Council were rich. There is nothing wrong with Matthew pointing out that Joseph was rich.

Contradictions?

What about Acts 13:28-29 saying that Jesus was buried by his enemies? What about Joseph fearing the “Jews?” Did Joseph vote against Jesus? In regard to the entire Sanhedrin voting against Jesus J. P. Holding says: “Those who make this objection are not observing the use of universalizing language even when there are clear exceptions. For example, in Mark 4:34, it says that Jesus expounded “all things” to his disciples. Did this include literally all things – such as how to make tacos?”[15]

Another way of looking at it is to compare it with the Congress of the United States. When Congress passes a bill we usually will say something like, “Congress passed a new law today.” Does this mean that every single member of Congress voted for the law? Not necessarily. Many times there will be members who vote against it. For example, in the Senate, you may have a bill that is passed 51-49. Although the Senate passed the bill, that does not mean that literally “all” the Senate voted for it.

What about Acts 13:29? The passage says that Jesus was buried by his enemies. In order to understand what Paul is talking about here, we must look at the context (the entire passage that this verse lies within). In this passage (Acts 13:16-41) Paul is giving a summary of Old Testament and how Jesus is the Messiah. Paul is not giving the most in-depth details here. This is, in fact, a speech given to an audience. Holding says it well:

“In context, Paul is making a kerygmatic proclamation, not doing a narrative; he is summarizing salient points of OT history and of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Hence, he has skipped over almost ALL of the details, and this passage cannot provide evidence of an alternate tradition of Jesus’ burial – for it is clearly not intended to be the complete story. As Craig notes: ‘…it is a remark made in a sermon and is not intended to be treated like a police report.’ … And, Campenhausen … agrees that this verse is ‘not enough to warrant a search for historical ‘traditions’ behind the preacher’s turn of phrase used by Luke.’ Indeed, one might as well suggest that Paul is providing evidence of an alternate tradition that the Jews were never in slavery in Egypt, but rather only prospered while there.”[16]

Lastly, what about Joseph fearing the Jews? The Gospel of John is sometimes said to be anti-Semitic. However, this is a bad argument. How could the gospel be anti-Semitic when Jesus himself was a Jew? And remember that the disciples, including John, were Jews as well. So, why does the verse in question seem so anti-Semitic? It is simple. The term “Jews” in John could mean different people depending on the context. At times the term refers to the entire Jewish nation, especially when Jewish customs are being discussed (John 2:13; 3:1; 5:1; 6:4). However, sometimes the term the “Jews” is used to refer to, not the entre Jewish nation, but particular Jews who were enemies of Jesus, particularly the religious leaders who plotted against him (John 5:15-18; 7:1, 13; 9:22; 10:31-33; 18:12; 19:7, 12, 38; 20:19).[17] Joseph did not fear the “Jewish” people because he was not a Jew. He feared the religious leaders who had just executed Jesus.

The other thieves

What about burying the other thieves? John 19:31 does not say that Joseph asked for all three bodies. All it says is that the Jews did not want the bodies hanging on the cross over Passover. More than likely the bodies of the two thieves were put into a criminal’s grave like usual. The only reason why Jesus wasn’t was because Joseph intervened.

Naming the nameless

Finally, what about the Christian tradition of naming the nameless? One only has to ask why the disciples would make up “a specific member of a specific group, whom people could check out for themselves and ask about this?”[18] Holding says, “[m]aking such a person up would be equivalent to making up a member of Congress.”[19] Holding continues that “the social function of gossip in that era was such that it would not escape notice that Jesus had (or had not) actually been buried in Joseph’s tomb.”[20] Considering that all four gospels were written during the first century it would be very difficult to name someone this important while there were still people alive who could check out this claim.

What about the street in Buenos Aires? First, only one journalist believed that the street was real, unlike the gospels which was accepted by tens of thousands of people. Second, the gospels are part of the genre of ancient biography while “The Aleph” was fiction. It did not present itself as a real story like the gospels do. Third, the gospel was spread throughout Europe and Asia whereas “The Aleph” was sold all around the world and was not part of an evangelistic outreach. The “news” was spread quite differently.

Fourth, the journalist was in Madrid, Spain, half a world away from Buenos Aires. The apostles “made their claims in the very backyard of the events they described.” It is much more difficult to make something up where people can check the details. No journalist in Buenos Aires would have made the same mistake. Fifth, the apostles had enemies who could check out their claims while Borges did not. As Holding says: “The net of this is: There is an enormous difference between making a claim about a single street in a large metropolitan city and making a claim about the existence and doings of a major (and wealthy) political figure. Crossan’s parallel is far beyond being comparable to the Gospel situation.”[21]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the arguments that are used to teach that Joseph of Arimathea was a make believe political figure fall apart at the seams when actually examined.

What do you think? Do you believe that Joseph of Arimathea was real or fake? Leave a comment below and like us on Facebook.


[1] John Loftus. Why I Became an Atheist. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2008. Pgs. 367-371. John Dominic Crossan. Who Killed Jesus? San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995. Pgs. 172-177.

[2] Loftus, 368. Also see Crossan, 176.

[3] Loftus, 370-371.

[4] Ibid., 368.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Crossan, 174-175.

[7] Loftus, 369. Crossan, 172.

[8] Loftus, 369. Crossan, 173.

[9] Crossan, 177.

[10] Crossan, 176.

[11] James Patrick Holding. Defending the Resurrection. Xulon Press, 2010. Pg. 286. See Josephus Antiquities 13.4.9, 1 Macc. 11:34, the Septuagint.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 288.

[14] Ibid. 286.

[15] Ibid. 287.

[16] James Patrick Holding. “Robert Price’s “By This Time He Stinketh”: A Critique.” http://www.tektonics.org/lp/pricer06.html#ac1328

[17] Stephen T. Davis. “The Question of Miracles, Ascension & Anti-Semitism.” In Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? Paul Copan & Ronald K. Tacelli eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000. Pg. 83.

[18] Lee Strobal. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998. Pg. 210.

[19] Holding, 2010, Pg. 285.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid. 286.

Liked it? Take a second to support Christian Worldview Press on Patreon!

Related Articles

3 thoughts on “Was Joseph of Arimathea a Myth?

  1. Terre McClellan Dickerson

    I believe that Joseph was real. Those who attempt to deceive us through fine sounding arguments will continue to deceive. That is why it is so important to have knowledge of the truth. If we do not know the truth we will not be able to fight the enemy with the “Sword of Truth!” Put on the full armor of God so in the day of trouble we will be able to stand against the enemy!

  2. Ariadne

    According to the prophecies of Isaiah, after his persecution, the messiah would find his grave among “the wicked and the rich.” Could the account of Joseph of Arimathea’s noble role, wealth, position as a Sanhedrin (a Jewish senator) and even his presence after the Crucifixion have been fabricated to embellish the Passion scene in support of a personification of Jesus as the authentic king of the Jews?

    As John Crossan argues, there is little evidence to suggest the town Arimathea existed in Judea at the time Christ as we were told it did by Luke. Yes, some scholars have associated Arimathea with Ramatha, a town about 4 or 5 miles north-west of Jerusalem, probably because it was in close proximity to the Passion scenes and because phonetically it sounds similar. Instead, Arimathea was a title. In biblical Hebrew/Aramaic, Arimathea (aryeh met [le-]Yahmeans), means: “The lion dead to the lord.” This title suggests a transformation in identity, something on the order of, “The king is dead, long live the Christ.” The symbol of the lion was emblematic of the tribe of Judah, the kingly line from which Jesus descended through his father Joseph. After an aborted crucifixion, Jesus relinquished a political mission and any hope of securing his dynastic inheritance to make way for a more divine mission as Christ and faithful husband to Mary Magdalene. This title, therefore, was a proclamation of his divinity over his dynastic (bloodline) destiny, giving way to a more realistic and even more meaningful purpose. Jesus assumed his father’s name, Joseph, to maintain the connection to his roots and paternal legacy. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GJW47I4

  3. Firefly

    “When someone is convicted of a capital offense and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall indeed bury him that same day. For anyone who is hanged is under God’s curse; you must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving to you as an inheritance.”
    – Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Comments are closed.