Deuteronomy 21. v 23
‘If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree. but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.’
Hanging on a cross was the ultimate penalty for murderers, robbers, mischief-makers, and it was a typical punishment for slaves. Crucifixion was a horrible and cruel death, including flogging beforehand and the victim being made to carry the beam of his own cross to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a wooden peg. Slaves and foreigners in the Roman Empire knew that this punishment, whether carried out by the government authorities or even landlords, might one day be their fate. When Jesus talked about being ready ‘to take up your cross’, this was the destiny and destination he had in mind for his followers. He meant it quite literally, and in many cases, it became an ultimate ‘acted parable’, as for our Lord himself. But this was, like the entry into Jerusalem and the clearing of the Temple Courts, a real historical event. A death like this could not be other than the final event in Christ’s life. This is John’s account of the aftermath of Jesus’ death upon the cross:
‘Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take down their bodies from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday, and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the sabbath, since the coming sabbath was especially holy.
‘So the soldiers went and broke the legs of the first man and then the other man who had been crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, plunged his spear into Jesus’ side, and at once blood and water poured out. (The one who saw this happen has spoken of it, so that you also may believe. What he said is true, and he knows that he speaks the truth.) This was done to make the scripture come true: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And another that says, “People will look at him whom they pierced.”
‘After this, Joseph, who was from the town of Arimathea, asked Pilate if he could take Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but in secret, because he was afraid of the Jewish authorities.) Pilate told him he could have the body, so Joseph took it away. Nicodemus, who at first had gone to see Jesus at night, went with Joseph, taking with him one hundred pounds of spices, a mixture of myrrh and aloes. The two men took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the spices according to the Jewish custom of preparing a body for burial.’
‘There was a garden in the place where Jesus had been put to death, and in it was a new tomb where no one had ever been buried. Since it was the day before the Sabbath and because the tomb was close by, they placed Jesus’ body there.’
John 19 vv 31-42
(see also Mt. 27, vv 51-61; Mk. 15, vv 38-47 and Luke 23, vv 47-56)
The only man in the Sanhedrin who we know supported Jesus, though not openly, was Joseph of Arimathea, whom Matthew tells us owned the nearby tomb, just recently dug out of solid rock. He could even have been a close relative of Jesus, perhaps his uncle, which would have permitted him to prepare the body for burial, in the tomb, with the crowd of women outside. In the gospel accounts, he appears as a transitory figure at the trial and crucifixion. However, other writers have pointed to his significance in preserving ‘The Word’, proclaiming ‘The Way’ and protecting both Jesus’ mother and the small band of disciples during the perilous years after the crucifixion. The legends surrounding his role as ‘the Apostle of Britain’ have had a profound influence on British history and culture, not least in William Blake’s great poem, Jerusalem, which has become the unofficial anthem of England. But, for now, the scriptural record tells us that it was him who laid the body of Jesus to rest, properly anointed, in his own tomb, and that it was this tomb which Pilate had sealed and guarded, the only events of Saturday, the Sabbath.
Joseph of Arimathea was a man of refinement, well-educated, possessing many talents. He had extraordinary political and business ability and was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men in the world of that time, a metal magnate controlling the tin and lead industries across much of the Roman Empire. Tin was the chief metal for making alloys and was in great demand by the Romans. Many authorities claim that his control of tin was due to his holdings in the ancient tin mines of Britain, in particular in Cornwall, where it was smelted into ingots and exported throughout the Mediterranean by Joseph’s ships. The tin trade between Cornwall and Phoenicia is frequently referred to by classical writers, especially by Dioderus Siculus as well as by Julius Caesar himself. In the Latin Vulgate of the gospels of Mark (15: 43) and Luke (23: 50), both refer to Joseph as ‘Decurio’, the common term employed by Romans to designate an official in charge of metal mines. In St Jerome‘s translation, Joseph’s official title is ‘Noblis Decurio’, indicating a prominent position as a ‘minister of mines’ for the Romans. It was quite remarkable for a Jew to hold such a high rank in the Roman State. We know he was an influential member of the Sanhedrin and a legislative member of a provincial Roman senate. He owned a palatial home in Jerusalem and a fine country residence just outside the city. In addition, he possessed another spacious estate at Arimathea, several miles to the north of the city, at Arimathea, known as Ramelleh today. Everything points to him being as a person of affluence and influence in both the Jewish and Roman hierarchies.
According to the Talmud, Joseph was the youngest brother of the Virgin Mary’s father, making him Jesus’ great uncle. Joseph the Carpenter seems to have died while Jesus was still quite young. Under these circumstances, the Law appointed the next male kin of the husband, in this case Joseph of Arimathea, as legal guardian. We now that Joseph never abandoned his great-nephew. He defended him at the trial, defied the Sanhedrin by going to Pilate and claiming the body, when all others feared to do so. His arms were the first to cradle the broken corpse, taking it from the cross to the tomb. He continued to protect the body from the conspiratorial Sanhedrin members, risking his wealth, power and position in doing so, The disciples spoke of him as ‘just’, ‘good’, ‘honourable’ and ‘a disciple of Jesus’. The Gospel of Nicodemus shows that Joseph believed in the validity of Jesus’ teaching.
The speed with which Joseph called on Pilate after Jesus’ death indicates that he had been present at the crucifixion, together with John the Divine and a number of the women following Jesus. Pilate appears to have been surprised at the news of Jesus’ death, asking those near him to verify it. According to both Jewish and Roman law, unless the body of an executed criminal was immediately claimed by the next of kin, it would be cast into a common grave with others and all physical record of them was completely obliterated. Why then, didn’t Mary the Mother, as the immediate next of kin, claim the body of her beloved son? Perhaps John, fearing for her safety, suggested leaving this duty to Joseph of Arimathea, as family guardian, to make the request. Also, Joseph had a nearby tomb ready, a private sepulchre, within the garden of his estate. Meanwhile, a reign of terror continued to prevail within the city walls. No follower of Christ was safe from the Sanhedrin, who were not just enjoying the Passover, but also a Roman holiday in the persecution of the followers of ‘The Way’.
All but two of the disciples had fled the city and gone into seclusion for fear of their lives. Nicodemus and Joseph remained, but only the latter dared walk openly in the streets without fear of physical attack. Yet he knew he was dealing with dynamite. Why then did he go to Pilate? Why didn’t he simply claim the body, according to the custom, on the hill of crucifixion itself? Under normal circumstances, there would have been no reason for him to go further than the Sanhedrin, but he knew that its fanatical Sadducean Priesthood sought the total extinction of Jesus, even in death. Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priests, would have preferred Jesus’ body to be cast into the common pit so that all memory of him would be steeped in shame. To have him decently interred within a family sepulchre would run the risk of allowing a shrine to be set up, a martyr’s tomb, to which multitudes of pilgrims might flock for generations to come. The Sanhedrin might therefore have intervened to prevent her taking the body, but they could not interfere with Joseph. Nevertheless, he went before Pilate and boldly asserted kinship rights on behalf of his niece, thus securing the procurator’s support, just in case…
Following the entombment, the Sadducees, suspicious of the disciples, and determined to prevent any possible tampering with the body, requested a guard from Pilate, reminding him that Jesus had claimed he would rise again on the third day. Whether Pilate gave them a Roman guard, or whether he simply allowed them to arrange a guard from the Temple’s own men is unclear from the gospel accounts. The fact that they met with him on the Sabbath of the Festival shows just how determined they were to take every possibly precaution. They accompanied the guard to the tomb and saw to it that the tomb was sealed.
So, on the Sabbath, the Saturday, the tomb was sealed and guarded, and the disciples, except for Joseph, were in hiding outside the city. The next day, Joseph of Arimathea was no longer guardian over his nephew’s body, but over Christ’s mission on earth.He was also to become the guardian of all the beloved against their arch-enemy, the Sanhedrin, and the Chief Priests. He made the work of Peter and Paul possible, and planted the roots of Christianity in fertile soil a long way from his homeland.
Prayer: Joseph of Arimathea
Bless all, O Lord, who worship you in secret; all whose hearts are growing round an undeclared allegiance; all whose life is laden with a treasure they would pour out at your feet; all who know with greater certainty each day that they have found the pearl of greatest price: then by the power of the Cross, O Christ, claim your victory in their heart, and lead them to the liberty of being seen by all men to be yours, for your dear name’s sake. Amen.
- Easter Saturday: Joseph, the secret follower (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- Holy Saturday: Mar. 30 (prayerscapes.wordpress.com)
- Good Friday Evening and Holy Saturday: The Waiting (johnestorge.com)
- Our Rational Faith: Examining Theories of The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (piathompson.wordpress.com)
- Spy Wednesday: The treachery of our unfaithful hearts. (chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com)
- Nicodemus, the mystery man of Holy Week (religionnews.com)
- The Public Burial of Jesus (truthmattersblog.wordpress.com)
- Some Thoughts on John’s Account of the Crucifixion (briancoatney.com)
- Thirteenth Station (riverrunchurch.wordpress.com)
- Fourteenth Station (riverrunchurch.wordpress.com)