The burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is a very important event surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus. If Joseph of Arimathea did not exist, then he obviously didn’t help bury Jesus. If this was the case, how would we know what happened to Jesus’ body after his death? How would we know if the empty tomb that was discovered by Jesus’ followers was the right one?
Using the “Indications of Authenticity” discussed here, there is a strong case to be made for the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea (JoA) and the burial account.
First, JoA has early, independent attestation. Second, the recorded details surrounding JoA fit perfectly with well-known historical facts about that time period (Historical Congruence).
The burial of Jesus by JoA has attestation in all four Gospels with each Gospel containing unique details (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42). Here is a breakdown of these details.
- Burial took place near Sabbath/Preparation
- JoA was from Arimathea
- JoA asked Pilate for the body
- JoA wrapped the body in linen
- Stone was rolled in front of tomb
- There were no other corpses in the tomb before Jesus (Matthew, Luke, John)
- Tomb was cut out of the rock (Matthew, Mark, Luke)
- JoA was a disciple of Jesus (Matthew, John)
- JoA was a member of the council (Mark, Luke)
- JoA was looking for the kingdom of God (Mark, Luke)
- JoA was rich (Matthew)
- JoA owned and cut the tomb himself (Matthew)
- JoA asked Pilate for the body with courage (Mark)
- JoA bought the linen himself (Mark)
- Arimathea was a Jewish town (Luke)
- JoA feared the Jews (John)
- JoA was helped by Nicodemus (John)
- JoA and Nicodemus used spices for the burial (John)
- The tomb was in a nearby garden (John)
- Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb because of its proximity (John)
As far as ancient history is concerned, this is quite a lot of information and evidence as it stands. There is a lot of agreement between the accounts, none of the details conflict at face value, and there are very specific pieces of information (tomb was in a nearby garden, JoA approached Pilate with courage, etc.).
But wait, there’s more!
In his book The Son Rises, William Lane Craig points out several historical facts that align with what the Gospels tell us about JoA and Jesus’ burial. First, it was common practice to use linen and spices in the burial process. Second, the hurriedness of trying to get Jesus buried before sundown makes perfect sense with the Sabbath, a time when work was not allowed, looming near.
Third, the type of tomb described matches two common types of tombs from that time period that used a roll stone as a door. Lastly, since JoA was a prominent and rich person, he is the exact type of person that you would expect to own this type of tomb.
I find the story of JoA to be very unlikely to be fabricated. If the disciples were going to make up someone, why say that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, a group of 71 well-known people in the Jewish community? It would have been very easy to disprove this back then.
Allow me to submit one last line of evidence. Jesus’ burial by JoA was prophesied in Isaiah 53:9 centuries before Jesus’ death:
“And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death.”
The evidence for Joseph of Arimathea is quite strong indeed.