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We’ve recently been discussing the timing of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. My mind went to one of the key characters involved in Jesus’ burial.

Joseph of Arimathea did not have a moment to waste. He had approximately three hours to arrange and expedite the burial of Jesus. By Roman law the body of a criminal would normally be disposed of ignominiously [1]. “The Roman law was that a convict, after execution, might not be buried: the crucified, in particular, were left on the cross until beasts and birds of prey devoured them. Guards were mounted on duty at the cross to prevent kinsfolk or friends from taking down a corpse and burying it; unauthorised burial of a crucified convict was a criminal offence. The emperor or his officers might, exceptionally, grant kinsfolk or friends authorisation to bury the convict.” [2]

However, according to Jewish law, even a criminal’s body might not be left hanging all night, but had to be buried that day (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), even more so when the next day was one of the most important Sabbaths in the year (John 19:31). Jesus’ family and friends, however, were in no position to claim the body. His disciples had all fled after his arrest in the garden and would not have risked their lives to beg for his body. Nor had his family anywhere in Jerusalem to bury him. Had it not been for the providential appearance of Joseph, Jesus’ body would no doubt have been consigned to Gehenna, the city’s rubbish dump in ge Hinnom, the valley of Hinnom.

Why was it that Pilate was persuaded to grant Joseph’s request? It is improbable that Pilate would have known of Joseph’s opposition to the Sanhedrin’s actions (Luke 23:50-51) and, having been forced to deliver Jesus for crucifixion in the morning, it is strange that he should be prepared so generously to deliver his body to one of their number for burial.

We could speculate that Pilate would have been in no mood to receive any Jewish visitors that afternoon. Perhaps the reason he agreed to this audience was that he knew Joseph to be a very rich man (Matthew 27:57). Philo tells us that Pilate was accustomed to taking, or demanding, bribes. He may have hoped to make this wealthy ruler pay dearly for whatever he was to ask, and so agreed to see him, hoping he might be compensated for the earlier aggravation.

This request, however, came as some surprise. It has been said that Roman crucifixion was designed to prolong the agony for days and Pilate was surprised to hear of Jesus’ death after only six hours (Mark 15:44). He called for a report by the centurion. Almost certainly this was the same centurion who was in command of the execution; the centurion who, having seen the way in which Jesus died, was persuaded that he was the Son of God (Mark 15:39). He may have seen a countless number of crucifixions, but never had he seen a man die so willingly; never had he seen a man “yield up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50, KJV) as Jesus did. The manner of his death persuaded him that this was no ordinary crucifixion – this was no ordinary man.

The centurion may have expressed this conviction in his report. Hearing Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, Pilate was afraid (John 19:7-9). His fears were now intensified and, as if to make some kind of amends, he immediately granted Joseph his request. Mark’s use of the word “granted” [3] (Mark 15:45, RV) indicates that he made a gift of the body, as though to emphasise that no bribe or payment was sought – something quite unusual for Pilate.

So it was that through the intervention of this “secret disciple” (John 19:38) Jesus’ body was spared from almost certainly being consigned to Gehenna, and found a place instead in a garden tomb among the rich in His death.

[1] It was after Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion (Matthew 26:2) that Mary anointed him with costly perfume which she was saving for his burial (John 12:7). No doubt she understood that if Jesus was to be crucified she would not be allowed the privilege of anointing his body, so she did it in advance.
[2] Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus, page 238.
[3] Gk. Doreo. See W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.


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