The Secret Disciple: Joseph of Arimathea in John's Gospel
Joseph of Arimathea seems to be on the fringe of the New Testament. He is unique in appearing in each canonical gospel, only taking the stage briefly, until the proper ceremonial act of burial is complete. As each writer mentions Joseph’s burying of Jesus, he adds his own enhancements to subtly articulate something of importance to the perceived readership.
Joseph is described in Mark, the first gospel written , as one who is a respected member of the Sanhedrin, or council, who was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” (Mark 15:43) He approaches Pilate to ask for the dead body of Jesus in order to bury him. Pilate, after making sure Jesus is in fact dead, grants Joseph permission. Joseph then wraps Jesus in a linen cloth, places him in a tomb, and places a stone in front of the tomb’s entrance. (Mark 15:42-47)
Matthew and Luke, who use parts of Mark when they write their respective gospels, also include Joseph in their burial narratives. Matthew is the only writer to describe Joseph as rich and as placing Jesus in his own, personal tomb. The two additions go hand-in-hand to verify one another: only a rich man would freely offer his own tomb up for another whose family was not around to offer a proper burial. Matthew’s choice to describe Joseph as a wealthy tomb-owner meshes with the Matthean them of wealth present in his gospel. Matthew also mentions that Joseph is discipled to Jesus.
Luke’s description of Joseph is the closest to Mark’s, but he is not without his own additions. Luke does not describe Joseph as wealthy or as offering up a personal tomb for Jesus’ use. However, Luke does note that Joseph is part of the Sanhedrin and was one who, as in Mark, was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 23:51) Luke does take the liberty to excuse Joseph for any wrongdoing, adding that although a member of the council, “had not agreed to their [other members of the Sanhedrin] plan and action.” (Luke 23:51) Luke wants his readers to know that Joseph was not part of the group who set in motion the events that led to the crucifixion.
In terms of the specifics of the tomb used, Luke only calls his readers’ attention to the fact that no one had ever been laid in this particular tomb. (Luke 23:53) Luke adds this detail in light of the resurrection, as if he is trying to clear up any confusion that might have resulted on that morning. There would have been no other bodies in this particular tomb, so there should be no confusion that an empty tomb meant only that Jesus had come back to life.
John notes that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but only one in secret, “because of his fear of the Jews.” (John 19:38) This addition, along with his acquaintance in the burial, Nicodemus, are uniquely Johannine. Each gospel writer includes Joseph with a particular description for very specific reasons. The remainder of this paper will address why the writer of John would have chosen to add these two details, and what such an addition may reveal about the gospel itself.
The Johannine Community
J. L. Martyn has perhaps done the most comprehensive work concerning Johannine writings and what they reveal about the community that produced them. Martyn’s view is that the Johannine writings reveal as much about the community producing them as they do about the Jesus they describe. In other words, the characters and themes present in John’s gospel are deliberately chosen to address issues within the Johannine community at the time of the composition of the gospel.
Central in Martyn’s understanding is his assertion that the Johannine community, which wrote the Gospel of John and the three Johannine epistles, was comprised of Jews who had been excommunicated from the synagogue. Because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, these individuals and families had been eliminated from a central part of their culture and heritage and now found themselves as part of a community of new, Jewish Christians. As such, their story of Jesus and his life’s work would have distinctly Jewish undertones.
In order to explain the origin of this community, or to offer comfort in the midst of their adversity, John’s gospel includes a unique story about a man healed by Jesus who believes and then feels the pain of exclusion. (John 9) This pericope is the hub around which Martyn’s hypothesis rotates. This story, when taken in concert with the rest of the gospel, begins to tell a story about the community at the time of the writing of John. Martyn notes, “The literary history behind the Fourth Gospel reflects to a large degree the history of a single community which maintained over a period of some duration its particular and rather peculiar identity.”
Because this community is unique in its composition (predominantly made up of excommunicated Jewish Christians) the documents it produces are unique, not just in the stories they include, but how and why these stories are included. Martyn summarizes that John “was written for a community of people who had a shared history and who in the course of that history developed a highly symbolic language with numerous expressions what they would easily understand as referring to their shared history.”
Robert Karris seconds Martyn’s ideas about that the gospel of John has much to reveal about the community that penned it. But Karris believes that the reason these Jews have been removed from the synagogue has less to do with a simple belief in Jesus as the Messiah and more to do with their understanding of what it means to be a Jew in light of that belief. The Sitz im Leben of John’s gospel is “a situation in which the Johannine Jewish Christians were experiencing opposition from the Jewish synagogue because of their Christology and lax membership standards.” At the heart of this opposition and exclusion, according to Karris, are theological and political issues: “They run the risk of being cast out of the synagogue because they believe in a Messiah Jesus, who waters down the “election” of Israel by bringing into God’s people the marginalized.”
A quick look at John will see that the writer frequently uses “the Jews” to describe Jesus’ enemies. As the victims of exclusion because of their beliefs, the Johannine community sought to point the finger at their oppressors. By describing oppressive individuals still in the synagogue as the people who fought with Jesus and ultimately initiated the steps that led to his death, John knows he will resonate with his readers, who have been excluded or marginalized by these same people.
However, not everyone agrees with Martyn’s idea about what John reveals about the early Johannine community. Richard Bauckham argues, “It is implausible that someone would write a gospel simply for members of the specific community in which he was then living, with its specific, local issues determining the scope and nature of his presentation.” Bauckham even posits that the audience even included those outside the church, making this gospel the most widely circulated.
Assuming that every detail of John’s gospel had a deliberate reference to the Sitz Im Leben of the Johannine community in 90 CE is a bit naïve. After all, certain aspects would have to be included, particularly the most known excerpts from the life of Jesus that had already been circulated written or orally. However, certain additions, whether entire pericopae or small details, should be understood as having a key literary function for a specific community, especially when these additions are missing from other writings. This is even more evident when John’s gospel is examined within in a larger Johannine corpus, which includes 1, 2, and 3 John. There was also known conflict between this community and Jews still within the synagogue. John’s gospel would, then, be an ideal document to inspire insiders to correctly influence others to join their way of life while combating their perceived enemies at the time.
The Johannine Description of Joseph of Arimathea
If the text and its additions or differences are deliberate, then the nuances, no matter how small, should reveal certain theological understandings of this community. There is a specific reason in John, then, as to why Joseph or Arimathea is described as he is, just as Mark, Matthew and Luke have their reasons for including Joseph as describing him as they saw fit. John’s description of Joseph then, should have something deeply important to say about the Johannine community and their identity, just as John’s characterization of “the Jews” and his inclusion of the John 9 pericope does.
Because Mark, Matthew and Luke had already used Joseph as the mechanism by which Jesus was buried, John likely named him to be consistent with a deeply embedded oral tradition. After all, Jesus needs to be buried in order to be resurrected. But, John, like the three evangelists before him, adds his own details to complete the story, letting his audience know that Joseph was a disciple, but a secret one.
It is most peculiar that John claims Joseph is a secret disciple, especially when this secrecy would be removed by his very act of asking Pilate for the body of Jesus. This was an act performed during the day, when crowds would have still been present from Jesus’ trial and crucifixion only hours earlier.
Perhaps one reason for the mention of secrecy lies in the differences in the texts themselves. John’s description may be an attempt to explain why Mark and Luke do not mention that Joseph was a disciple. If Joseph was only a secret follower of Jesus, then this explains why Mark and Luke did not mention his discipleship at all. Thus, a source unique to Matthew knew of Joseph’s devotion, and John explains the omission by Mark and Luke due to Joseph’s choice to keep others in the dark about his discipleship.
While such an explanation seems sensible, it presupposes a close network between the writer of John and the other written gospels. And, if one of John’s main goals in writing his gospel is to tell the story of the Johannine understanding of Jesus, then he is not setting out to become some sort of master redactor, correcting Luke and Matthew’s discrepancies in light of Mark. There are also too many unique pericopae in John to assume this is his reason in calling Joseph a secret disciple.
Another reason for John’s description may have to do with simple literary function and explanation. Perhaps John’s readers, who would not have been present at the crucifixion, would have wondered why Pilate would grant the body of Jesus to one of his followers. Joseph’s description of secrecy would have been needed for this to make sense. Joseph, while influential and possibly rich, could still not be an open follower of Jesus and be expected to take custody of Jesus’ body. R. E. Brown notes, “The Roman prefect would scarcely have granted favors to an acknowledged follower of a man executed as a revolutionary.”
Another possible explanation of John’s choice of a description may be closely connected with a uniquely Johannine character: Nicodemus. Coming to Jesus at night, Nicodemus is described as part of the religious leadership who has some questions for Jesus. (John 3:1-21) After listening to Jesus about being born again, Nicodemus disappears, only be seen briefly twice more. Once, he questions the Pharisees (a group of whom he is a part) about their desire to arrest and kill Jesus without a trial. (John 7:50) His only other appearance is as Joseph’s acquaintance at the tomb as he brings the spices and oil needed to properly bury Jesus.
Because there is no mention of Nicodemus in the synoptics, it is thought that he is John’s creation, a literary tool to personify those Jews who did believe that Jesus was the promised messiah. Because he approached Jesus at night, the reader is led to believe that Nicodemus does not want anyone to know he is curious about Jesus’ claims. A shared secrecy would then make the two perfect companions: both are believing Jews who must keep their newfound faith quiet. Or, this public act of devotion might have been the tool by which John hoped to encourage believing Jews at the time to be bold like these two men and publicly profess their belief in Jesus.
Some even suggest that the relationship between these two men, at least for John, was only to highlight Nicodemus’ professed faith. John needs to wrap up who Nicodemus becomes as a result of his conversation earlier in the gospel. Karris remarks: “It seems that John was more interested in highlighting the actions of one of his own characters, Nicodemus, than in bending the tradition about Joseph of Arimathea in the same direction.” Because Nicodemus had not made his faith public yet, John claims that neither had Joseph. Relying on the strength and courage of the other, both men publicly express their devotion for Jesus together.
While many, such as R. E. Brown, suggest that John mentions Joseph’s secrecy only to have him come out in the open through such a remembered act of devotion, it is possible that Joseph may have buried Jesus not so much out of respect for Jesus as out of respect for Judaism. After all, if Joseph is a devout and respected member of the Sanhedrin, then he would have religious duties and rules to uphold, namely ensuring that bodies receive a proper and timely burial before sundown, and he just might have acted accordingly.
Even though “Joseph of Arimathea, probably acting on behalf of the Sanhedrin, which typically tried to observe Deut. 21:22-23, sought and obtained permission from the Roman authorities to make arrangements for Jesus’ hurried and dishonorable burial,” he might have still done so because of his commitment to Jesus. Only someone who was both a devout Jew and cared for Jesus would have gone to the lengths to do what he did. Simple devotion to the law would not have been enough to take the risks inherent in asking Pilate for the body and properly burying such a popular enemy. Jesus’ body could have simply been disposed of like other criminals before him. But Joseph takes special precautions and stands out as a believing Jew in the midst of unbelieving ones. Even at a minimum, there was something about Jesus that compelled Joseph to give Jesus a proper burial.
While John could have included his description of Joseph’s discipleship simply to explain a gap in tradition, complete his Nicodemus character, or to show that Joseph was doing more than just following religious protocol, it is my opinion that John called attention to Joseph’s secret discipleship to round out one of the implicit features of this gospel: to paint “the Jews” as ignorant enemies of both Jesus and the community founded upon his life and teachings. This community had now expanded to a group of excommunicated Jews and Ephesian Gentiles that produced documents that revealed as much about this identity as they did about Jesus and his commands. One way to keep this theme central was to allude to it at every turn in the drama that unfolds leading to the death of Jesus.
Of central importance in this death narrative is Jesus’ burial. Because it had already become accepted tradition that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, John took this opportunity to paint “the Jews” as enemies of Jesus. “Almost half of the cases of Jesus’ conflict with his opponents involve ‘the Jews.’ They attempt to kill him, want to stone him, and emerge as decisive opponents in his trial. The main charge against Jesus is that he makes himself equal to God. The disciples, Nicodemus, the parents of the man born blind and Joseph of Arimathea are all afraid of the Jews, who are finally described not as children of Abraham or God, but as sons of the devil.” Quite simply, John cites this as the main reason Joseph’s discipleship was a secret – “the Jews” hated Jesus and they would hate any of his followers – from Joseph down through history, 60 years after his death.
While his secrecy also compliments that of Nicodemus, and could explain Mark and Luke’s lack of mention of Joseph as a disciple, John mainly uses Joseph to show that those Jews who do not believe in Jesus have got it all wrong.
The Jews still inside the synagogue, who have oppressed and excluded the Jews who are a part of the Johannine community, have seemed to miss it. For John, they simply don’t get it – the message that Jesus is the promised messiah that has come. As a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph follows the same law as synagogue insiders, evidenced by the fact that he makes sure a criminal is buried properly. But in addition to his devotion to the Torah is a devotion to the person of Jesus. Joseph is a Jew who realizes that Jesus was right about his claims. He is the first in a long line of Jews (which continued to the Johannine community) that claims Jesus as messiah.
John presents Joseph and Nicodemus as a pair to show that each is not an anomaly. Joseph’s belief is not a simple exception to the rule. John wants to show that this is the new rule. So, by having two authoritative Jews believe in Jesus enough to publicly bury him, John uses his gospel as a way to show Jews that this Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) If one prominent Jew thought this, then there might not be anything to worry about. But two just might be the stirrings of a religious revolution.
Joseph of Arimathea, particularly his description in John, is a subtle, yet powerful way in which John takes one more jab at “the Jews” who have hurt and ostracized people in his community. Joseph’s secrecy, like the revelation of Jesus’ messiahship, is now public to all, forcing all people to make a decision about this man who died and rose again.