The Joseph of Arimathea scene in the Gospel of Mark, revisited


When I wrote my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I assumed that the received text of the Joseph of Arimathea scene in the Gospel of Mark (Mk 15:42-46) preserved the performance of Mark’s play. I assumed that the audience heard the spoken words “Iōsēph ho apo Harimathaias.” I assumed that the audience heard that this actor was a member of the council and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. All three characterizations evoked Flavius Josephus to the audience. Here I revisit the staging of this scene. I now think that only his council membership was spoken during the scene, and by Pilate, not Joseph. The audience recognized this actor: he was one of the Sadducees who had asked Jesus about the resurrection, in the Temple. I am not convinced that the audience also recognized the actor as Josephus. I do not have a good reason for Mark to insult Josephus in the text. In addition, I suggest that the “Joseph” actor spoke a “prologue” to the ascension scene; both were cut by the editor who wrote the empty-tomb scene.

Joseph of Arimathea = Flavius Josephus

Here I assume that the words “Iōsēph ho apo Harimathaias” point to Flavius Josephus. Why do I think this? First, the character is “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Mk 15:43). This phrase (rather cattily) describes Josephus when he predicted to Vespasian that he would become emperor (Jewish War 3.8.9). (This story from The Jewish War could have been known to Mark, as it was published at least a decade before Mark’s play.) Second, the name “Iōsēph ho apo Harimathaias” is similar to Josephus’s birth name in Aramaic, “Yoseph bar Mattiya.” Third, Michael Turton writes, “Here the writer shifts from using synedrion, a Jewish technical term for Sanhedrin rendered in Greek, to the more common bouleutes (“council member”), from the Greek word boule, which any Greek-speaker would recognize as a ruling council.” The term bouleutes applied to Flavius Josephus: he was an advisor to the emperor and could be described as a member of the emperor’s civilian (boule) council.

This character requests and receives Jesus’s body. Josephus was by birth a priest. Contact with a dead body would have made him impure. The reader/hearer of Mark’s narrative text, who linked Joseph of Arimathea to Josephus, would have perceived an insult to Josephus. But would the audience at the play link this actor to Josephus? Read on.

The actor’s name and motive were not spoken during the performance

Let us follow the received text and imagine the performance. The audience sees an actor approach Pilate. The actor says something like, “Greetings, Pilate. I am Joseph of/from Arimathea. I am a member of the boule council. I have come to request the body of that crucified man….” Wait a second. Only a beginner playwright would have a character introduce themself in this fashion. The audience is being burdened with irrelevant information: the name has no significance within the world of the play, and it is not used again. If the name refers to Flavius Josephus (as I think), then it provokes a laugh of recognition. That laugh is inappropriate following the strong emotion brought on by the recent crucifixion.

In addition, this straightforward introduction of the character is clumsy playwriting. Elsewhere, we see that Mark practices basic playwriting technique: he introduces characters during the course of a relevant action. For example, Jesus does not address Simon, James and John by their names until he renames them at the mountain (3:16-17), when their names are relevant. A demon first reveals the Jesus actor’s name at 1:24 “Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth?” In the Recognition scene (8:29), Peter calls Jesus “the Christ”; Jesus does not use that term for himself. So I think that the Joseph actor did not speak his name during the Pilate scene.

As for the (apparent) motive “waiting for the kingdom of God,” the actor would not mention such a motivation to Pilate. Again, it is irrelevant information for the audience. It must be a feature of the narrative text only.

What about the actor’s identification as a member of the boule council? Was that information conveyed to the audience? I think so. The actor had to provide some credential that would convince Pilate to release Jesus’ body. But I suggest that the action in the play was this: The audience sees an actor approach Pilate. Pilate is on the second level of the stage, the actor is on the main stage. Salute. Pilate calls to the centurion, “Ho, centurion. This man says he is a member of the boule council and has come to claim the body of that malefactor. Is he already dead?” This centurion, logically, is the same one who had just observed Jesus’s death and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39). So the centurion answers immediately, “Yes, sir, he is already dead.” Pilate then gestures or briefly speaks to the “Joseph” actor, who bows/salutes and exits. I think this is approximately what happened.

The foregoing reconstruction has Pilate speak the “Joseph” actor’s credentials, in the course of a relevant action. The audience never hears the Joseph actor say this–or indeed, any dialogue in the scene.

The Sadducee connection

But let us assume that the audience has not seen this actor before. They would ask themselves/each other, “Who is that guy? I haven’t seen him before. Why does he want to entomb Jesus’s body?” The scene should immediately answer those questions. But it doesn’t.

This confusion is not generated if the actor has already appeared in the play. In that case, the audience recognizes him. “Oh yes, I’ve seen him before.” The audience brings their knowledge from that earlier scene to the Pilate scene. The dramatic hypnosis remains intact.

So I asked if the actor had already appeared in the play. He had to have authority and wealth (access to a tomb). Was there a previous scene that could generate such a character?

Well, I found something that fits, and even enhances the play. I suggest that the “Joseph” actor was one of the Sadducees who asked Jesus about the resurrection (12:18). When he returns to the stage in Mark 15, the audience links the question of resurrection with the disposal of a dead body. Now the Pilate scene is meaningful within the play. The entombment of Jesus’s body tests the question posed in the Temple: are people resurrected?

The question is answered—sort of—in the next scene: Jesus does ascend to heaven and his body disappears from the tomb! But is Jesus a human being? In Mark 12, the Sadducees said there is no resurrection for human beings. In Mark 16, they are proved wrong: a human body has ascended. But the audience has a different perspective. They know that Jesus is a heavenly being, and only appeared to live on earth. So his resurrection in the play is not relevant to whether natural human beings are resurrected. So the Sadducees are wrong in the world of the play, but (possibly) right in the world of the audience. This is another shimmering ambiguity from the hand of Mark.

Did the “Joseph” actor evoke Josephus?

It therefore seems that the name and motivation of the “Joseph” actor were solely phenomena of the narrative text. Which raises the question, would Mark have made the audience visually identify the “Joseph” actor as Josephus? (Such an identification was easy to create using costume, make-up, demeanor, etc.)

First century bust possibly of Flavius Josephus
Did the audience see an actor who looked like this?

I don’t know. There is a good argument against, and no good arguments for, the audience’s identification of the “Joseph” actor with Josephus (see below). On the other hand, the text does seem unambiguously to refer to Josephus. I think it was written by Mark: the clever description “waiting for the kingdom of God” fits Josephus perfectly. Also, I do not see an editor of Mark’s text unilaterally deciding to insult Josephus.

Here is the good argument against the audience’s identification of the “Joseph” actor with Josephus. The real Flavia Domitilla is spotlighted in the scene of the anointing at Bethany. Her presence onstage collapsed the world of the play and the world of the audience. This breach of playwriting technique was excusable in order to honor the benefactor/producer of the play. A similar collapse generated by an actor who the audience recognized as Josephus—who had no role in the production of the play or in the audience’s religious world—would have detracted from the honor given to Flavia Domitilla.

There is no clear reason for Mark to insult Josephus

The “Joseph” actor touches a dead body. Josephus was a priest and would have been made impure. If the audience identified the actor with Josephus, then the scene insulted Josephus. Why would Mark insult Josephus and expect his entire audience to approve? Why did Mark feel it was necessary to insult Josephus even if the audience was thereby distracted from the action of the play? I offer four possibilities, none of which I find convincing.

Possibly Josephus disapproved of a heavenly Jesus figure, and thought it was heretical for Judean religious practice. However, we have no evidence of that from his writings.

Another possibility is rivalry. Mark’s congregation, I think, was Alexandrian in origin, founded before Josephus settled in Rome. In Rome, Josephus’s Judean priestly lineage was irrelevant and gave him no status in Mark’s established, well-to-do congregation. Perhaps Josephus felt rejected, and spoke against Mark’s congregation. But that is hard to imagine given Josephus’s self-presentation as a philosopher and aristocrat. And I can’t see Mark inserting payback via insult into a play that celebrated Flavia’s patronage.

Alternatively, perhaps Josephus had advised Titus not to marry Princess Berenice of Judea. If, as I believe, Berenice was subsequently a mentor/surrogate mother for Flavia Domitilla, and both were members of Mark’s congregation in the 80s, then at the time of the play c. 95, the entire congregation would have been on Berenice’s side. (Even if Berenice was deceased.) At some point, the congregation made Josephus persona non grata, for his prioritizing Titus’s political career over the Judean people’s well-being. That is, Josephus’s advice to Titus meant that Judeans had missed their chance to be represented at the center of Roman power. But again, I think this kind of payback is out of place in a celebration of Flavia’s patronage.

Another possibility is a slap at Josephus’s (hypothesized) political ambitions. Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis notes, “Josephus’ hero was John Hyrcanus who perfectly embodies the high priesthood, kingship and prophecy” Fletcher-Louis, Crispin H. T. 2003. “Jesus and the High Priest.” Paper (47 pages) given at British New Testament Conference 2003: Jesus Seminar. (Online at Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism, p. 13. He adds “Perhaps, as Bruce Chilton has suggested, [Josephus] was seeking himself to be given a position of high priestly governance in Judaea by his Flavian patrons [Chilton, Bruce. Temple of Jesus, 77]” p. 13n51. However, once the Temple was destroyed there was no need for a high priest, and being far away in Rome Josephus had no hope of gaining political support for the role of “high priest in exile.” Perhaps Josephus had asserted, openly or implicitly, that if he had been high priest the Jewish War wouldn’t have ended as it did. In that case, Mark’s linking of the Sadducee in the play to Josephus was a take-down of his arrogance. But again, why put it in the play?

All four hypothetical situations above explain why Mark and his entire congregation could be opposed to Josephus. None of them are strong enough for Mark to have inserted an insult to Josephus into Mark’s play. Perhaps an answer could be found in the history of Justus of Tiberius, or other historians of the time. As a historian, I can go no further.

The defective chiasm of the Joseph of Arimathea scene

I have one more point to make about the Joseph of Arimathea scene:

Here for reference is 15:42-46 (KJV)

[42] And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,

[43] Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counseller, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.

[44] And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead.

[45] And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.

[46] And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre.

The action of the scene is not balanced:  
 A The Sadducee actor addresses Pilate
    B Pilate speaks to the centurion
      C The centurion speaks to Pilate
      C’ Pilate gestures to the Sadducee actor, giving him permission
    B’ The Sadducee actor leaves and buys linen
 A’ The Sadducee actor returns to the stage with Jesus’s wrapped body, and entombs it 

All of the dialogue is in the top half of this chiasm. To balance it, the Sadducee actor should speak a line or two after he leaves Pilate. If he did, his line should remind the audience of the earlier scene in the Temple. Logically, the line should concern resurrection.

Where would this line fit? The simplest staging is this: after the Sadducee actor places the linen-wrapped body in the tomb, he says something like, “There! Now, let’s see if you rise, malefactor!” The spoken line, in A’, balances the A bracket. The line is suitable in the play because it extends in time the audience’s sympathy for Jesus, even after his death. No one understands him.

There is another possibility, which I reject. The actor buys fine linen (15:46). The actor could interact onstage with a linen vendor (from the Chorus). But the Sadducee actor is an aristocrat. I do not see him explaining the motivation for his purchase to a humble linen vendor.

Could the Sadducee actor’s spoken line (just after 15:46) be missing from the received text? The line that I proposed would be a good prologue to an ascension scene. Which would explain why it could have been removed by the editor who removed the ascension scene and wrote the empty tomb scene in its place. And why it was replaced with a verse that set up the empty-tomb scene (“And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid”). I think that is what happened. An editor excised the Sadducee actor’s line along with the ascension scene. For more on the ascension scene, see my book.

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