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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, October 28 2021

Joseph of Arimathea

The Scriptures refer to Joseph of Arimathea as a "rich man," a "prominent council member," and a "good and just man" who "had not consented" to the trial that condemned Jesus (see Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; Luke 23:50-53).

Joseph of Arimathea
After Christ's death, Joseph prepared His body for burial and laid Him in a rock-hewn tomb in a garden. (John 39-42)
by Melvin Rhodes

After Christ’s death, Joseph, "being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked [the Roman governor Pontius] Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission" (John 19:38). Then, after preparing Christ’s body for burial, Joseph laid the body in a rock-hewn tomb in a garden (verses 39-42). This tomb was probably owned by Joseph, as the Messiah was prophesied to be buried in a rich man’s grave (see Isaiah 53:9).

Mark says that Joseph went boldly to Pilate to request the body of Jesus (Mark 15:43)—and just in time. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament comments: "Unless there had been a special application to Pilate on behalf of Jesus, his body would have been buried that night in the common grave with the malefactors, for it was a law of the Jews that the body of an executed man should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath [John 19:31]" (1970, note on Mark 15:43).

But on what grounds did Joseph so boldly claim the body of Christ? The Jewish authorities, who hated and despised Jesus, would surely have resisted Him being given an honorable burial in a private tomb—unless there were irrefutable grounds in favour of Joseph having the right to receive the body.

Joseph of Arimathea was most likely a close relative of Jesus and, according to some traditions, he had become an adoptive father to the family after the death of Mary’s husband Joseph. More specifically, "Joseph of Arimathea is by Eastern [Orthodox] tradition said to have been the younger brother of the father of the Virgin Mary" (Richard W. Morgan, St. Paul in Britain, 1860, 1984, pp. 69-70 footnote)—thus making him Mary’s uncle and Jesus’ great uncle. Mary’s father Heli was essentially a royal prince of the Davidic line of Nathan—and so would Heli’s brother have been. So Joseph of Arimathea may well have been of royal blood. (Some even claim an earlier tradition that Joseph was the brother of Mary and thus Jesus’ direct uncle—which would still have made him of the same family.)

As mentioned, Joseph was also described as a "prominent council member" (Mark 15:43). The original Greek here is ‘euschemon bouletes’, which the Amplified Bible describes as a "noble and honorable in rank and a respected member of the council...He is also called by St. Mark and by St. Luke a ‘bouleutes’, literally, ‘a senator,’ ... a member of the Sanhedrin or supreme council of the Jews" ("Joseph of Arimathea," The Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1910, Vol. 8, Online Edition, 1999,

There are also traditions connecting Joseph with Britain and in particular with "Glastonbury Abbey, a ruined abbey in Somersetshire, about 6 miles south of Wells, England. Tradition has it that it was here that Joseph of Arimathea established the first Christian Church in England" (Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1959, Vol. 9, p. 120). It is understood that he was involved in tin mining and, more importantly, the tin trade with the Mediterranean.

Among other evidence Dr. Susser further says: "A persistent legend also refers to the presence of at least one Jew in England at the beginning of the Christian era. He was Joseph of Arimathaea, a wealthy Essene Jew who, it is said, out of sympathy with Jesus, gave him burial in a rock tomb near Jerusalem . . . (Jewish Encyclopaedia (New York, 1901) . . .). A variant of the legend makes Joseph travel through Cornwall accompanied by Jesus . . ." (chap. 1).

In the early 300s, the renowned church historian Eusebius wrote: "The holy apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over the whole world. Thomas, tradition tells us, was chosen for Parthia, Andrew for Scythia, John for Asia [Minor], where he remained till his death at Ephesus. Peter seems to have preached in Pontus, Galatia and Bithynia, Cappadocia and Asia [Minor], to the Jews [or, rather, Israelites] of the Dispersion" (Book 3, chap. 1). Paul specifically mentioned his intention to go to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28) and, in another of his works Eusebius wrote, "The apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles" (Demonstratio Evangelica or Proof of the Gospel, book 3, chap. 7).

Thus, with such prevalent traditions surrounding Joseph of Arimathea’s presence in southern England in the first century A.D., and numerous corroborating factors, it seems quite probable he was there, after he witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and may have also visited earlier in order to oversee his trading interests in the area.

Herod the Great

Herod had ruled the province of Judea, which encompassed most of the geographical areas of the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah, for almost 40 years at the time Jesus Christ was born, with secular history and archaeology confirming his reign (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8).

He was a great builder, initiating construction projects in at least 20 cities or towns in Israel and more than 10 in foreign cities: "Archaeological excavations have uncovered a surprisingly large amount of evidence pertaining to Herod the Great Idumean who, in 41 B.C., was granted provisional rule of Galilee by Mark Antony [the friend of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra´s last lover] .... In 30 B.C. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) affirmed Herod's rule over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee .... Herod remained in power until his death in 4 B.C…." (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 91).

But Herod was not just known for his great building, political and military skills, but also for his great cruelty. The Bible records his utter disregard for human life by describing his reaction to the birth of Jesus. When his scheme to identify the newborn Messiah failed (verses 7-8, 12), Herod lashed out with great violence: "Then Herod … sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under [the approximate age of Jesus], according to the time which he had determined from the wise men" (verse 16).

This massacre in Bethlehem was not out of character for Herod, who also had many members of his family put to death: “Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne [his wife] (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus." (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer Software, 1997).

The New Testament description of Herod the Great is thus confirmed by what historians and archaeologists have found concerning his rulership, building projects, political strength and uncontrollable wrath toward anyone threatening his kingship.

The Census of Caesar Augustus

Luke, a meticulous historian, introduces other famous personages in his account of the birth of Christ. "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered … So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city" (Luke 2:1-3).

Ancient papyrus census decrees have been found for the years 20, 34, 48, 62 and 104. These show a wide-ranging census normally took place every 14 years, although local counts were, at times, taken more frequently. A papyrus in the British Museum describes a census similar to Luke's account, taken in 104, in which people were ordered to return to their birthplaces: "Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those ... to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments" (Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30).

Joseph's Occupation in Nazareth

Joseph was a skilled craftsman who worked not only with wood, but with stone masonry. The usual term translated as "carpenter" in the Bible (Mark 6:3) is from the Greek term ‘tekton’, which has the broader meaning of 'artisan,' referring to a skilled worker who works on hard material such as wood or stone or even horn or ivory. “In Jesus' day construction workers were not as highly specialized as in today's workforce. For example, the tasks performed by carpenters and masons could easily overlap" (Richard A. Batey, Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, p. 76).

Although Nazareth was a small village in Galilee of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, Joseph and Jesus likely found steady work in the city of Sepphoris four miles away, where huge construction projects were transforming the city into a large, regional centre.

Recent archaeological excavations in Sepphoris show it to have been a bustling, prosperous city during the years Jesus grew up in nearby Nazareth. Shirley Jackson Case, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, remarks “.... It requires no very daring flight of the imagination to picture the youthful Jesus seeking and finding employment in the neighboring city of Sepphoris. But whether or not he actually labored there, his presence in the city on various occasions can scarcely be doubted..." (Batey, pp. 70-71).

These historical records help us better understand the background of Christ's teachings, which included illustrations drawn not just from farming and animal husbandry, but also construction, rulers and nobility, the theater, government, finance and other aspects of city life.