2007-05-11

Is Mark mocking Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate?

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by Neil Godfrey

Joseph of Arimathea is most commonly viewed as something of a partial redemption of the harsh conclusion of Mark, given that he is said to have had courage where courage failed the disciples; and Pilate is seen as almost an innocent bystander in some ways. But I’m playing with an interpretation here that suggests their roles in Mark’s narrative were not quite so untouched by Mark’s well-known penchant for savage irony.

Joseph’s “virtues”?

After Jesus died on the cross and as the sabbath evening was approaching the Gospel of Mark describes Joseph of Arimathea boldly going up to Pilate and asking for the body of Jesus for burial. Mark also tells us that this Joseph was waiting for the Kingdom of God. To most Bible readers both those qualities — courage and waiting for the Kingdom of God — sound like some of the most positive of virtues. The more so in this case given how the original disciples of Jesus had earlier deserted him.

But one of the first things any student learns about Mark is that he is a master of irony and dramatic reversal. Joseph of Arimathea makes his appearance at the end of a lengthy series of scenes in which Jesus is repeatedly mocked as something of an “anti-king”. Jesus entered Jerusalem hailed as the Son of David, meaning the rightful King of Israel. The first time by a man who was blind at the time and before he cast aside his garment. Commentators are quick to point to the symbolism of Bartimaeus’ casting aside his garment but I have seen none address the possible symbolism of his understanding of Jesus before his being cured of blindness. It is easy to forget that Jesus had called Peter Satan for thinking Jesus was the destined ruling messianic king, as opposed to being a messiah who was to suffer and die. The second time Jesus was hailed as the Davidic King was on his entry into Jerusalem — by the same crowds who soon afterwards demanded his crucifixion! Pilate then must try him on the charge of claiming to be the King of the Jews. Pilate addressed him as the King of the Jews both to the crowds and with his sign on the cross. Soldiers mocked him as a fake king. He was mocked as “King of Israel” by onlookers of his crucifixion.

Then he died. He was nothing but a corpse. The King of Israel was dead. There was no Davidic conquering king at all. It has all been a lie, an illusion, a false understanding. Peter had been called Satan over it.

So what is the significance of Joseph of Arimathea boldly going to Pilate to ask for the corpse of Jesus?

Joseph was a prominent member of the same Jewish council that had “all” (14:55) condemned Jesus to death! It is easy to think that Joseph was an exception, but this is to read Mark through the words of the later gospels and subsequent orthodox understanding. We can be quite sure that others in the council also waited for the kingdom of God, for a Davidic messiah. Jesus had spoken a parable against Jewish leaders who knew the Messiah was to come but who also intended to oppose him (Mark 12). One of the scribes who challenged Jesus was even said to be “not far from the kingdom of God” (12:28). And Mark 13 warns not to be misled by following a Messiah who appeared to be bringing the Kingdom to them.

Joseph’s “courage”?

But what about Joseph’s courage. Surely Mark is commending Joseph here given the cowardice of the original followers of Jesus. Possibly, but also possibly not. What point is courage that patently failed when it was needed, during the trial of Jesus, and only finds itself now that the innocent man is dead? I know some commentators hold that Joseph is at least following the steps of John the Baptist’s disciples in seeking to bury the body of Jesus, and that wanting to bury the body before the sabbath is a law-abiding virtue. Yet did not John the Baptist and his followers remain apart from Jesus? And did not Jesus himself point to the law as being as worthless as old wineskins? (I know some dispute this and say Jesus upheld the Law even in Mark, but I won’t debate that point here. Needless to say it’s not my interpretation of chapters 2-3 of Mark.) Josephs’ courage failed him at the critical hour as surely as did Peter’s! It is a mockery of “courage” now for Mark to describe Joseph coming out from the crowd and “boldly” trying to save, not the living Jesus, but a failed corpse!

Joseph’s “waiting for the kingdom”?

So what does looking for the Kingdom of God mean by the time of the appearance of Joseph of Arimathea? Peter was called Satan over it. The crowds who welcomed it soon demanded the crucifixion of their king. The King, the one who was looked to as the Davidic King and Messiah meant to save and conquer, was mocked and tormented to death on the cross. And after Jesus’ death, those looking for the Kingdom of God can only see the corpse of their would-be King! Joseph is looking for the Kingdom but sees only the dead body of Jesus. All he can do is seek to entomb the King, or the Kingdom he was waiting for.

Pilate

And what of Pilate? Why does Mark have his all-knowing narrator observe the inner mind of Pilate when approached by Joseph and have him “marvell” that Jesus was dead so quickly. So much of the Passion Narrative was foreshadowed in the Little Apocalypse of Mark 13: the cock crowing, the sleeping, the need to watch, the being hauled before governors and rules, betrayals and fleeing desertions, the fig tree, the darkness at noon. And there’s one more very notable one: the unexpected suddenness of the coming of the kingdom (13:32-37). Does this have any relation to Pilate’s being surprised, and having to send a centurion to confirm, the report that Jesus had “departed” this world so soon? And having departed it through the cross, was not this at the very here and now point of the coming of the real kingdom, the unseen kingdom, which will not come with so-called prophets declaring, “Look, here it (or he) is!”, which will come with the shortening of the days (13:20-21).

Is it not possible that Mark is declaring Pilate himself to be marvelling at the unexpected, something he does not yet understand. But the initiated readers know what has struck him is the suddenness, the unexpectedly soon arrival of the unseen Kingdom of God — not through a Davidic conquering king but through suffering and the death of the cross.

Joseph, the women and the tomb

And all Joseph can do is save the body of his would-be Davidic king to bury it. And the fearful women who stood off from afar now “bravely” come forward to anoint the body for burial, a task that of course had already been performed at Bethany (14:3). Both they and Joseph are still looking for something that has died, and that was never to be anyway. All they can do is waste their energies on burial of a body that will not be buried. They worry about a huge stone that has no need to be moved (16:3). They are still all part of this world and blind to where and what the real Kingdom of God is. The darkness that overtook the world at midday (15:33) has not left them.

When they look inside the tomb they see one seated on the right side, indicating that the place where the body lay is the scene of the Power! Compare Mark 14:62 and 16:5. The Power is not in the body — that is no longer there — but in the place where they seen nothing. They need to be told that Jesus has been resurrected and gone ahead away from the centre of the failed hopes that once centred in Jerusalem to the place of the Kindgom, symbolized by Galilee. The tomb itself had been a midrash of the doomed Temple of Jerusalem — compare Mark 15:46 and Isaiah 22:16. And the word for the “tomb” is also of course a pun the word for “body” (soma). Mark’s Jesus had been warning of the end of the temple, and of his body — and that the time of the Kingdom had come now that he was here!

Conclusion

Joseph of Arimathea and even Pilate have generally been seen at least in partly favourable colours but I wonder if that is partly because of our expectation to see Mark’s gospel as part of the orthodox canon. The same motive has in large part compelled many to refuse to see 16:8 as the original ending of the gospel. But if we see Joseph of Arimathea and Pilate as part of the common ironical lietmotifs that dot the gospel it may also be easier to see the gospel as a whole as it was intended to be read by its original audience.

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