Saturday, August 1, 2009

Apologists Say the Darndest Things

I was recently discussing the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea with a Christian apologist and I was challenged with a typical argument:
Why in the world would the Gospel writers lie about who buried Jesus, especially since early Christians would have been shocked that one of the Sanhedrin buried him. They were the very group that had Jesus executed! It also makes the disciples of Jesus look very bad to have had someone else bury Jesus instead of them. Why would they report this if it weren't true?
My initial response is that Mark needed to explain how Jesus got buried in the first place. The usual Roman practice was to leave the bodies of crucified criminals on the cross to rot as a warning to other potential troublemakers. In order to get the Romans to allow Jesus’ body to be buried, the request would have to come from someone with some influence in the community. Therefore, Mark has one of the Jewish priests, albeit a pious one, make the request. “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body.” Mark 15:43.

My second response is that the other three gospel writers seem to be distressed by the very things that bothered the apologist. For example, Luke is careful to absolve Joseph of any responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion: “Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God.” Luke 23:50-51.

Matthew and John, on the other hand, apparently agreed that a disciple should have buried Jesus. Matthew makes Joseph a rich disciple: “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.” Matthew 27:57-58. John makes Joseph a secret disciple: "Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away." John 19:38.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that Matthew, Luke, and John have changed Mark’s story in exactly the way that my apologist friend thinks a liar would. Given that, is there any reason to think that Mark wouldn't be perfectly willing to change the stories as well?


  1. @I would love for the author of Mark’s Gospel to come to our times and see how we interpret his writing. I suspect he would be amazed at how we miss his nuance, irony and subtlety. He would probably be secretly proud some of us actually assume it was written as biographical truism.

    Look, he loved contrast. “The first shall be last; the last shall be first.” The women not telling anyone what they saw, but obviously they did, or we wouldn’t know what they saw! And one theme we see is that those who should understand Jesus (his disciples) did not. And those who should not…did. Notice the centurion, in a mocking sense, identifies Jesus as the Son of God. A person who shouldn’t recognize Jesus does—albeit unknowingly. Another level of contrast. While those who should be supporting him—his disciples—have abandoned him.

    “Joseph of Arimathea” has multiple levels of contrast. First we have a member of the Sanhedrin who, ironically, is known as coming from the town named “disciple-town.” Like a cop with the last name “Burglar” or a Lawyer with the last name “Sly.” Get it?

    I agree the most likely result of Jesus’ crucifixion is that of having his body rot on the cross. The second being tossed into a common criminal’s grave. But if he was buried, it should have been done by his family in the family tomb.

    Yet another contrast Mark cannot help but have is having a member of the Sanhedrin (Jesus’ enemy) doing the burying instead of Jesus’ family. A council member who came from disciple town.

    I agree Matthew and Luke try to clear this up by additional details. John adds Nicodemus into the mix!

    By the time the story was circulating, Joseph of Arimathea had become part of the tale and would be necessary for subsequent writers to include. Just like if you were writing a parody of Wizard of Oz you would need a comparable Tin Man. If you were writing a gospel subsequent to Mark’s—you need Joseph.

    I hate the word “lie.” It shows the Christian apologist doesn’t have a clue regarding the Gospel’s genre.

  2. I suspect Mark would be insulted by the implication that he wasn't smart enough to come up with the narrative devices that he came up with.