Matthew 27:57-61

THE GIFT OF A TOMB

Matt. 27:57-61

Late in the day there came a rich man from Arimathaea, Joseph by name, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and requested the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in clean linen, and laid it in a new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock. And he rolled a great stone across the door of the tomb and went away. And Mary from Magdala was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the tomb.

According to Jewish law, even a criminal’s body might not be left hanging all night, but had to be buried that day. “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day” (Deut.21:22-23). This was doubly binding when, as in the case of Jesus, the next day was the Sabbath. According to Roman law, the relatives of a criminal might claim his body for burial, but if it was not claimed it was simply left to rot until the scavenger dogs dealt with it.

Now none of Jesus’ relatives were in a position to claim his body, for they were all Galilaeans and none of them possessed a tomb in Jerusalem. So the wealthy Joseph from Arimathaea stepped in. He went to Pilate and asked that the body of Jesus should be given to him; and he cared for it, and put it into the rock tomb where no man had ever been laid. Joseph must be forever famous as the man who gave Jesus a tomb.

Legends have gathered around the name of Joseph and legends which are of particular interest to those who live in England. The best known is that in A.D. 61 Philip sent Joseph from Gaul to preach the gospel in England. He came bearing with him the chalice which was used at the Last Supper, and which now held the blood of Jesus shed upon the Cross. That chalice was to become the Holy Grad which is so famous in the stories of the Knights of King Arthur. When Joseph and his band of missionaries had climbed Weary-all Hill and come to the other side, they came to Glastonbury; there Joseph struck his staff into the earth and from it grew the Glastonbury Thorn. It is certainly true that for years Glastonbury was the holiest place in England; and it is still a place of pilgrimage. The story is that the original thorn was hacked down by a Puritan, but that the thorn which grows there to this day came from a shoot of it; and to this day slips of it are sent all over the world.
So, then, legend connects Joseph of Arimathaea with Glastonbury and England.

But there is a lesser-known legend, commemorated in one of the most famous, hymns and poems in the English language. It is a legend which is still current in Somerset. Joseph, so the legend runs, was a tin merchant, and came, long before he was sent by Philip, on quite frequent visits to the tin mines of Cornwall. The town of Marazion in Cornwall has another name. It is sometimes called Market Jew, and is said to have been the centre of a colony of Jews who traded in tin. The legend goes still further. Joseph of Arimathaea, it says, was the uncle of Mary, the mother of Jesus. (Can it possibly be that he did actually exercise a relative’s right to claim the body of Jesus under Roman law?) And, it is said, he brought the young boy Jesus with him on one of his voyages to Cornwall.. That is what William Blake was thinking of when he wrote his famous poem:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
In England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark Satanic mills?

The dark Satanic mills were the tin mines of Cornwall. It is a lovely legend which we would like to be true, for there would be a thrill in the thought that the feet of the boy Jesus once touched English earth.

It is often said that Joseph gave to Jesus a tomb after he was dead, but did not support him during his life. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin (Lk.23:50); and Luke tells us that “he had not consented to the (council’s) purpose and deed” (Lk.23:51). It is possible that the meeting of the Sanhedrin called in the house of Caiaphas in the middle of the night was selectively called? It hardly seems likely that the whole Sanhedrin could have been there. It may well be that Caiaphas summoned those whom he wished to be present and packed the meeting with his supporters, and that Joseph never even got a chance to be there.

It is certainly true that in the end Joseph displayed the greatest courage. He came out on the side of a crucified criminal; he braved the possible resentment of Pilate; and he faced the certain hatred of the Jews. It may well be that Joseph of Arimathea did everything that it was possible for him to do.

One obscure point remains. The woman who is called the other Mary is identified as Mary, the mother of Joses by Mk.15:47. We have already seen that these women were present at the Cross; their love made them follow Jesus in life and in death.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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