The account of Jesus' burial is given in all four gospels. As usual we will give Mark's version in full and use that as the starting point of our analysis.
Many problems and inconsistencies are present in the Markan passage above and in its relation to the same episode in the other three gospels:
Mark 15:42-47 |
When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.
Procedural Difficulties with the Burial Account
The first problem starts with the very first verse of the above passage. "When evening had come" means that it was already sundown (i.e. 6pm) and the new day, which was the Sabbath, had already started. (Even if evening can be taken the mean an earlier time [say about 4pm] the problem remains because according to the synoptics that day was the first day of Passover.) On a Sabbath or a Passover no business transaction is allowed. Yet we are told that Joseph purchased a linen shroud on that day. The wording and arrangement of the passage does not permit the interpretation that Joseph bought the shroud earlier. And the work of laying Jesus in a tomb and rolling a stone to close it are all the kind of labour Jews avoid on the Sabbath and on the Passover. These difficulties led the theologian D.E. Nineham to conclude:
What this means, when translated to lay terms is this: the whole story of Jesus' last few days being closely tied to the Jewish feast of Passover and the story of the burial of Jesus are mutually exclusive; they cannot both be true at the same time. At least one of these must be fictitious and the possibility that both of these being unhistorical is not excluded on logical grounds. Indeed, given the track record of the gospels so far, it is perhaps more likely that both the crucifixion happening on a Passover and the burial are unhistorical.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the story originates from a cycle of tradition which knew of no chronological tie-up between the crucifixion and the Passover. 
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The Identity of Joseph of Arimathea
The second problem involves the person of Joseph of Arimathea. According to Mark he was the member of the council, i.e. the Sanhedrin, who was also looking for the kingdom of God. The gospel of John even made him a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). But this is obviously incompatible with what Mark had described earlier: 
If Joseph of Arimathea was in the Sanhedrin, which according to Mark, unanimously condemned Jesus, it is unlikely that he would be described as one who was "looking for the kingdom of God." It is even more unlikely that he would be a disciple of Jesus, as John would have us believe. The two evangelists who used Mark as their source, Matthew and Luke, each tried to modify the story to make it more convincing. Luke added the statement that Joseph had not agreed with the action of the Sanhedrin:
Mark 14:55 |
And the chief priests and all the council [i.e. the whole Sanhedrin-PT] sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none.
This statement in Luke is possible because he had deliberately avoided saying earlier that the whole council was present during the trial of Jesus:
Luke 23:50-51 |
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.
Matthew, to avoid Mark's pitfall, made a more drastic alteration to the identity of Joseph:
Luke 22:66 |
When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council.
Anyone reading Matthew's gospel alone (as doubtless its author never originally intended the gospel to be compared to other gospels) will not know that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin and the problem in Mark is evaded. The source for Matthew's alteration is, again, not from history but from the Old Testament:
Matthew 27:57 |
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus.
This problem about Joseph of Arimathea does not end here. John, in keeping with his maverick style, gave Joseph a collaborator, Nicodemus:
Isaiah 53:9 |
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death...
Needless to say, John's account completely contradicts the account in the synoptics. In the first place, no mention is made in the other gospels of Joseph having an assistant. In the second place, John had Joseph and Nicodemus anoint the body of Jesus, something which completely contradicts the account in Mark. Not only is the anointing not mentioned in Mark it was expressly excluded. For Mark had the women witness Joseph laying Jesus in the tomb (Mark 15:47), and then came on Sunday with the specific purpose of anointing Jesus' body:
John 19:38-42 |
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
It is impossible to try to reconcile John's account with Mark's. For the women would obviously had known that Jesus body was already anointed by Joseph and would not bought spices to do the same on Sunday. 
Mark 16:1 (Luke 23:56-24:1)|
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
In fact the whole account of the burial by Joseph of Arimathea has a fatal logical flaw. This was aptly stated by Craveri:
We can conclude a few things based on our study above. It is apparent that Luke and Matthew had nothing new to add to the Markan account but each made changes they deemed necessary to correct the inconsistency in their source. John's version is so different form Mark, and, indeed, is in direct contradiction to it, that both the passage cannot be true at the same time. The story itself, regardless of which version, is rather unbelievable. We are asked to believe that at a time when Peter, James, John and the rest had fled for fear of prosecution, a Jew (let alone a council member) would dare to risk all to associate himself with someone so soon after his sentence by the Romans and condemnation by the Sanhedrin. All in all the story of Jesus burial by Joseph of Arimathea cannot be historical.
They [the evangelists] take no account of their own invention. At the very time when the most fanatical followers of Jesus are in flight lest they be accused of complicity, this eleventh hour convert dares to risk expulsion from the Sanhedrin and from his own social circle in order to perform an act of mercy towards the cadaver of a rebel whom everyone had deserted. 
This leads us naturally to the next question: was Joseph of Arimathea an historical person? We can immediately see the difficulty involved here, when we note that even the town of Arimathea is a fictitious town! As the scholar E. Goldin Hyman pointed out, there is no record in the Old Testament, Torah, Talmud or anywhere else except in the gospels of a place called Arimathea.  Attempts to identify the place with Ramathaim (I Maccabees 11:34) and Ramathaim-Zophim (I Samuel 1:1) is based on pure conjecture.  How certain can we be of the existence of a person who came from a non-existent town? Some theologians have nevertheless employed some rather convoluted reasoning to enforce the opposite view:
The passage above shows how even critical theologians, as Nineham doubtless is, could lose their objectivity when dealing with fundamental issues crucial to their faith. The whole point is this: there is an obvious reason. If the early Christians (as we will see later) defended the resurrection of Christ by pointing to the empty tomb, they must first relate that Jesus was placed in a tomb and it became necessary to invent the story and probably the main protagonist. Our earlier considerations had shown as that the account of the trial and crucifixion was not based on eyewitness account but on conjecture derived mainly from Old Testament passages. We have no reason, therefore, to believe that the evangelists had any special eyewitness sources for the burial account. That Joseph of Arimathea was not known to early Christendom outside this passage proves not the reality of the passage but the non-existence of the protagonist!
[Joseph of Arimathea] Apart from this incident, an entirely unknown figure; if he subsequently became a Christian, he does not appear to be a particularly well known one, so there would be no obvious reason[italics-mine, PT] for attributing the burial of Jesus to him unless he had in fact been responsible for it. 
If he did not exist, the next question would be where Mark got his story (and the name) from. There is a very likely candidate for this. As the Jewish scholar, Hugh Schonfield , pointed out, the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the gospels resembles very closely an episode from Josephus' Autobiography. In it, Josephus relates his own experience upon seeing his friends on the cross:
One can immediately see that the above passage closely parallels the Markan account. First there were three victims of crucifixion that played a role in Josephus' story just like in the gospels where Jesus was crucified together with two robbers. Just as Josephus went to the Roman commander to beg for his friends' lives, Joseph of Arimathea went to the Roman governor to asked for Jesus' body. And just as Jesus was resurrected where the other two died, in Josephus' story one of his three acquaintances survived. 
Once more when I was sent by Titus Caesar...to a village called Tekoa to prospect whether it was a suitable camp, and, on my return, saw many prisoners who had been crucified, and recognized three of my acquaintances among them, I was cut to the heart, and came and told Titus with tears what I have seen. He gave orders immediately that they should be taken down and receive the most careful treatment. Two of them died in the physician's hands, the third survived. 
The similarity in the names of the main protagonist is also considerable. In the same work, Josephus elucidated his distinguished ancestry. His grandfather, also named Joseph, begot Matthias his father in the tenth year of the reign of Archelaus (AD6). In the Greek text (the language Josephus wrote in) Joseph begot Matthias is rendered as Josepou Matthias. In Mark's gospel, Joseph of Arimathea is written in Greek as Joseph apo Arimathias, the similarity is curious. To quote Schonfield:
Thus we have in the autobiography of Josephus an episode very similar to that of Mark. We have even found a possible way how the name Joseph of Arimathea could have been constructed. The correspondence is uncanny if these similarities are purely due to coincidence. Now Josephus' book was published in the last years of Josephus' life; the exact year of his death is uncertain, but it most probably falls within the year AD95 to 100.[a] Thus the publication date is well within the probable time scale we set for Mark; i.e. that Mark could have been written after the publication of the Autobiography.
It is certainly curious that we have Josephus, himself a Josepou Matthias, begging the Roman commander for the bodies of three crucified friends, one of whom is brought back to life. 
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The Probable Path of the Development of the Burial Legend
Regardless of whether Mark got his idea from Josephus or not, the basic fact remains that, as depicted in the gospels, the story of the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea cannot be historical.
It is now time to show how the tradition that Jesus' body was laid in a tomb by a Jew named Joseph of Arimathea could have developed.  Remember that the earliest Christian document we have are not the gospels, but the epistles of Paul (all of them written between AD50 to 64). Here we have only the barest details, we are told only that Jesus was buried:
The next line in the chronological development is to be found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. This work although later than the gospel of Luke, is believed by many scholars to contain utterances which may have been derived from the authentic primitive tradition of the first generation of Jewish Christians.  Here we find that the tradition has developed further: Jesus was buried by the same group of people who had him killed. Given below is an excerpt from a sermon put into the mouth of Paul:
I Corinthians 15:3-4 |
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
Here the people who buried Jesus were the same one who had him killed. The burial was mainly an act of disposing of his body This tradition was probably not palatable to the early Christians and it developed to a point where the one who did the burying, although still a Jew, was a good Jew. Here the burial was not merely to dispose of him but to render fitting honors that befit the founder of Christianity. Gerd Ludemann, reaches a similar conclusion in his book What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection:
Acts 13:28-29 |
"Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. "
This was probably the state of tradition when it reached Mark and it was possible, as we discussed earlier, that it was Mark who gave this Jew a name, Joseph of Arimathea. Finally Matthew and Luke copied Mark and tried to correct the inconsistencies in their own way. It was not unlikely that the author of John would have heard of this story by the time he put his gospel into writing.
From the evidence...in all probabability we can conlcude that the tradition of a burial of Jesus existed in two independent narratives: (a) Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body of Jesus and buries it; (b) Jews ask Pilate for the body of Jesus and bury it. Here is is clear that tradition (b) will be the earlier one and (a) represents a later formation, at least as far as the tendencies towards a Christian interpretation...are concerned. 
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|a.||Autobiography immediately after he finished the Antiquities of the Jews in AD93. His last work, published after the Autobiography, was Against Apion. Thus, if Josephus died in the year 95, he must have finished his Autobiography, at the latest, around the year 94, to allow time for the writing and publishing of Against Apion.
|1.||Nineham, Saint Mark: p433-434|
|2.||Guignebert, Jesus: p491
|4.||Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p403|
|5.||E. Goldin Hyman, The Case of the Nazarene Reopened, New York 1948 quoted in Yerby, Judas, My Brother: p508|
|6.||Nineham, Saint Mark: p434|
|8.||Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p157|
|9.||quoted in Yerby, Judas, My Brother: p508
|10.||Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p157|
|12.||Guignebert, Jesus: p492-493|
|14.||Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: p22-23|
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