That Joseph of Arimathæa was also Joseph Caiaphas
James David Audlin
The following text comprises material from the upcoming third edition of The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, from all three volumes, published by Editores Volcán Barú, copyright © 2012-2018 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.
Joseph of Arimathæa is always called this in English as if it were his full proper name, but only “Joseph” is his name. The “of Arimathæa” is not even a cognomen, but merely an additional comment to specify which Joseph is meant, that this one disposing of Jesus’s body is not his legal father, whom the reader could otherwise understandably assume was the Joseph who took charge of it. It is not a cognomen in the synoptic gospels: Mark 15:43 introduces him as Joseph and adds that he is ο απο αριμαθαιας (“the one from Arimathæa”). Matthew 27:57 calls him ανθρωπος πλουσιος απο αριμαθαιας τουνομα ιωσηφ (“a rich man from Arimathæa named Joseph”). Luke 23:50 presents him as named Joseph, and only after two informational clauses does it mention, in the next verse, that he is from Arimathæa.
The early Greek versions of John 19:38 vary somewhat; 01 says, like Mark, ιωσηφ ο απο αριμαθαιας (“Joseph, the one from Arimathæa”), 𝕻66 and 03 have ιωσηφ απο αριμαθαιας (Joseph from Arimathæa”), while 02 has ο ιωσηφ ο απο αριμαθαιας (“the Joseph from Arimathæa”). The only surviving early Aramaic texts, the Peshitta and the Palestinian Lectionaries refer to him as ܝܘܣܝܦ ܗܕܝܢ ܡܢ ܪܡܬܝܣ (“Joseph, who was from Ramtys”). This location name will be discussed shortly, but again it is clear that “of Arimathæa” should not be taken as a cognomen, but just a phrase specifying which Joseph is meant.
Like his associate Nicodemus, Joseph was clearly a man of considerable substance, and without doubt another Sanhedrin member, as is implied by the word βουλευτης (“counsellor”) in Mark 15:43. John 19:38 in Greek adds that he was a follower of Jesus but secretly because of his “fear of the Jews”; i.e., of other members of the Sanhedrin. This makes little sense, because surely Joseph realized that the religious authorities would quickly learn that he had secured the body and might take action against him.
The much earlier Palestinian Lectionaries say, far more subtly, that ܝܘܣܝܦ ܗܕܝܢ ܡܢ ܪܡܬܝܣ ܕܗܘܐ ܬܠܡܝܕܗ ܗܘܐ ܕܝ ܛܡܝܪ ܡܢ ܠܓܠܠ ܕܚܠܬܗܘܢ ܕܝܘܕܝܝ ܘܫܠܛܗ ܝܠܛܘܣ (“Joseph, who was from Ramtys, who was among his disciples, but hidden as such because of their fear of the Jew[ish authoritie]s and Pilate’s power”). This phrase will be discussed at greater length in the commentary on this verse; suffice it to say here that clearly Joseph was a very powerful ally, and so his association with Jesus’s following was kept secret such that the religious authorities might not take action to prevent him from utilizing it in behalf of that following in serious situations, such as this one.
Joseph bought a costly Egyptian grade of linen to wrap the body in, and Nicodemus provided a hundred pounds of embalming spices. This tells us that both men were very rich, as Luke confirms. It can only be concluded – even though he is not mentioned in the canonical gospels except in reference to this disposal of the body – that the man was closely connected to Jesus, especially inasmuch as he could persuade Pilate to give him the family’s right of disposal, and the man was wealthy enough to be taken very seriously by Pilate. The early apocryphal Gospel of Peter describes a supposed conversation between Joseph and Pilate; while this text is not necessarily reliable as a source of factual information, it is very early, and may reflect oral reports of a reasonably amicable connection between the two men.
A persistently repeated bit of misinformation in modern Christian apologetics insists that the Talmud (an exact location in this massive collection of writings is never given, because this is an invented attribution) claims that Joseph of Arimathæa was the younger brother of the father of Jesus’s mother Mary. And that claim I cannot with certainty trace back farther than Mediæval British polemical writing. However always with rumors of this sort we must ask ourselves if there might be a kernel of truth imbedded in them, just as (as noted elsewhere in this book), Pope Gregory the Great’s declaration that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute was in high probability derived from the likely fact that she had been a priestess in the Samaritan religion on Mount Gerizim. Therefore I wonder if this Mediæval legend simply names the wrong Mary (because the Magdalene was perceived as a “fallen woman” and thus could be countenanced as having no more relationship with Jesus than would any pitiable, humble supplicant), and that in fact Joseph of Arimathæa was the younger brother of not the father of Mary Jesus’s mother, but the mother of Mary Magdalene, Salome, who was married to a man variously known as Simon the Leper, Simon the Pharisee, Simon ben Nathanael, and Simon Iscariot. As the maternal uncle of Jesus’s wife, Joseph would be a logical family member to take a fatherly role during and after the crucifixion of her husband, given that Jesus’s own father Joseph is evidently out of the picture at this point.
There may be valuable information hidden in plain sight.
Though this man (at least in his appearance here) has gone down in history as if his name were Joseph of Arimathæa, the canonical texts always call him Joseph, with his place of origin specified. By the common style of writing at the time, in both Aramaic and Greek, this indicates that more than one Joseph has been mentioned before, and the descriptive phrase may be to say this is an additional Joseph newly mentioned, but we must entertain the possibility that the Joseph here named is one of those mentioned before. Indeed, in John and the synoptics, two Josephs have been mentioned previously – Joseph Jesus’s legal father and Joseph called Caiaphas. If this Joseph were Jesus’s adoptive father surely one of the four gospels would say so. Let us consider instead the possibility, strange as it may sound, that this is Joseph Caiaphas.
Let us look again at the Greek descriptive ο απο αριμαθαιας (“the one from Harimathaias”). Despite its common pronunciation in English, the Greek for Arimathæa has a diacritical mark on the first “a” that indicates a very un-Greek aspirated “h” sound is supposed to precede it: “Harimathaia”. The name is, in fact, a Greek version of the Hebrew הרָמַת (ha-Ramata; literally, “toward Ramah”), a town in the Shfelah Hills region, just south of Samaria, where, or close to where, the modern West Bank Palestinian town of رنتيس (Rantis) is located. In the Peshitta version of 19:30 Joseph is said to come from ܪܡܬܐ (ramtā), which is exactly how the Aramaic Tanakh has “Ramah” in, for instance, I Samuel 1:19. In the Galilean Aramaic of the earlier Palestinian Lectionaries the name is ܪܡܬܝܣ (Ramtys). A colophon in that source (see https://www.academia.edu/35996071/The_Gospel_of_John_in_the_Palestinian_
Lectionaries_A_Mere_Caesarean_Anomaly_or_the_Closest_Text_We_Have_to_the_Original) suggests, probably a step along the way to the modern name Rantis. But keep in mind that Arimathæa is הרָמַת (ha-Ramata), “toward Ramah”, and not actually Ramah itself. That places his home farther northeast and closer to the Samaritan capital, Shechem, and hence nearer to where Jesus and Mary met at the side of a spring (John 4).
The cognomen “Iscariot” is usually understood as a Greek garbling of “Ish-Kerioth”, “Man from Kerioth”, the latter being a town in far southern Judæa. On the face of it, that is reasonable, but there is nothing else to connect Judas or Simon to this distant community. A stronger alternative is that it refers instead to Kohath: אּישׁ קְהָת would be “Ish-Kohath”. The “sh” diphthong does not exist in Greek and would become an “s” sound. There being no way in Greek to put an “h” sound into the middle of a word, it was transliterated with a ρι (ri) substituting for the “h”. And since Greek words never end with the “th” diphthong (represented by θ in Greek), the last sound would have become a “t” (τ) in Greek. The result would make this word, rendered into Greek, the familiar “Iscariot”. Thus, if indeed Joseph and Simon were brothers-in-law, they may have both come from Ramathaim (Arimathæa) in Kohath.
Mary Magdalene’s cognomen also could refer to this same region. One common theory is that it comes from ܡܓܕܠܝܐ (magdala, “tower” but also suggesting “elegant” or “great”, likewise related to μαγδωλος). That brings to mind the two Zophs in the Shfelah Hills region where her family originated, a pair of mountains named from the wordצָפָה (tsaphah), which means “watchers”, even “watchtowers”. Mary, who by her “five husbands” is depicted at her introduction in John 4 as a Temple priestess on Mount Gerizim (Note: this is discussed elsewhere in the book), is closely associated in this gospel with the Samaritans. The Gospel of John also associates her at the death of Lazarus with Rachel, who wept for her “lost sons” in this land of Ramah (Jeremiah 31:15-16): Mary and Jesus met in chapter 4 at Jacob’s Spring, just as Jacob and Rachel met at a well, perhaps the same well. With all of these close family ties to Samaria, there were quite likely Samaritans in the family, which may help explain how it is that Mary Magdalene was able to enter service as a Samaritan priestess. Indeed, this raises the possibility that she often visited, even lived with, her uncle, especially considering how his brother her father Simon the Leper had pretty much rejected her.
Joseph, as the wealthy businessman brother-in-law of the wealthy businessman Simon the Leper, could go to Pontius Pilate, saying his appearance was on behalf of both father and widowed daughter, with sufficient leverage to take control of the body of Jesus before others (especially the Roman authorities and those among the Sanhedrin who thought ill of Jesus) tried to do the same. Roman practice was for a crucified body to be left for days on the cross as a “lesson” to the populace, pecked at by vultures, consumed by insects, and gnawed at by carnivores; Horace refers to crucified victims as feeding crows (Ep. 1:16:46-48). The body of Jesus, with all its volatile political implications, would need to be disposed of quickly, to say nothing of the laws in the Torah requiring this. Additionally, if Joseph and/or Nicodemus were aware of the possible plans for Jesus to take drugs, in the soured wine of 19:28-30, to put him into a deep coma (see the essay on page 395), then there was all the more reason to gain speedy control of his body.
Roman practice was for a crucified body to be left for days on the cross as a “lesson” to the populace, pecked at by vultures, consumed by insects, and gnawed at by carnivores; Horace refers to crucified victims as feeding crows (Ep. 1:16:46-48). The body of Jesus, with all its volatile political potential, would need to be disposed of quickly, to say nothing of the laws in the Torah requiring this. What is more, if Joseph and/or Nicodemus were aware of or the agents of the possible plans for Jesus to take drugs in the soured wine of 19:28-30 to put him into a deep coma (see the essay on page 395), then there was all the more reason to gain speedy control of his body. In John 19:38 the Presbyter tells us that Joseph ηρωτησεν (ērōtēsen, “asked”) Pilate if he might take control of Jesus body; this verb denotes not a humble supplication but a request made with the full expectation that it will be granted because of the close personal relationship between the one who asks and the one asked. The Peshitta and the Palestinian Lectionaries have the verb ܒܥܐ (bˁā), which carries the same sense as the Greek, especially in the latter’s Galilean Aramaic dialect, in which it can mean “to require” or even “to assert”.
That Joseph of Arimathæa went to Pilate on short notice knowing he could secure the body of Jesus argues that he was quite highly placed indeed. If Joseph could do this and maintain his “secret weapon” status that the Palestinian Lectionaries ascribe to him, such that he could collect Jesus’s body and dispose it in the tomb without fear of the Sanhedrin, requires us to conclude that he could do so because Pilate was the sole authority in Judæa with more power than the Sanhedrin. This confident request of Pilate supports the theory that this Joseph of Arimathæa must be Joseph Caiaphas, who as all early texts, notably Josephus, confirm had a strong, trusting simpatico with Pilate; their many years of tenure holding the two most powerful positions in Judæa are nearly identical. Joseph, wealthy businessman brother-in-law of the wealthy businessman Simon the Leper, could go to Pontius Pilate, saying his appearance was on behalf of both father and widowed daughter, with sufficient leverage to take control of the body of Jesus before other forces (especially those among the Sanhedrin who thought ill of Jesus) tried to do the same.
The Tosefta (Yevamot 1:10) passingly mentions Caiaphas thus: “the family of the house of Caiaphai of Beth Mekoshesh … and some of them were high priests”. Ben-Zion Rosenfeld identifies Beth Mekoshesh with Khirbet Marah el-Jum‘a (Nabi Daniy’al), in the northern Hebron Hills, based on the preservation of the word Mekoshesh in the Arabic name of the spring north of the site, ‘Ein Qusis. And David Amit, exploring the site, found plenty of archæological evidence to support this. Supporting this contention that the family of Caiaphas was from that region, the well-known Miriam ossuary is inscribed thus: מרימ ברת ישוע בר קיפא כהנמ מעזה אמרי (“Miriam daughter of Y’shua son of Caiapha, priests [of the priestly course of] Ma‘aziah, from Beth ’Imri”). Boaz Zissu and Yuval Goren (in an article in Israel Exploration Journal 61:1, 2011) conclude that, if Beth ’Imri is a toponym, then it names a place in the northern Hebron Hills. Putting these two hypotheses together, the probable locus of Caiaphas’s family, Nabi Daniy’al, is a mere fifteen kilometers southwest of Rantis, the theorized location for Joseph of Arimathæa’s family, in the area where the northern Hebron Hills meet the Shfelah Hills. This puts Joseph Caiaphas from exactly the same region as Joseph of Arimathæa, in the Shfelah Hills. Given that Rosenfeld and Amit are offering only a theoretical locative, there is a reasonable chance that Mekoshesh and Ramah were originally not just close but identical. And that raises in my mind the possibility that Joseph Caiaphas and Joseph of Arimathæa were at the least related.
As further support of that conjecture, note the following facts:
John’s gospel presents Joseph as working closely together with Nicodemus to dispose of Jesus’s both quickly yet carefully before the beginning of the Passover. Note that not only were both men allies in the Sanhedrin but, according to the Talmud (Erub 3:17), Nicodemus also had an estate in Ramah (Arimathæa). Thus he and Joseph were not just colleagues and friends but neighbors as well.
Joseph of Arimathæa is very highly placed in the Sanhedrin, according to Mark 15:43; and indeed the very early Syriac Sinaiticus version of that verse doesn’t mince words, calling him ܓܒܪܐ ܡܝܩܪܐ ܒܘܠܘܛܐ (gbra myqra bwlwṭa) which means the most honored man among the counsellors; i.e., members of the Sanhedrin. The body is placed in his own previously prepared and unused tomb, wrapped in an incredible amount of spices and fine cloth, according to John; signs of Joseph being wealthy and powerful to accomplish all this in the very short time between Jesus’s death and the sundown beginning Passover.
Consider further that according to Josephus the high priest’s name was Joseph, and Caiaphas was a Greek cognomen based on his family name, similar to how Buni took the Greek cognomen of Nicodemus and Simon that of Peter. Caiaphas, καιαφας, mentioned twice in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, is the Greek rendition of ܩܝܦܐ in Aramaic orקיפא in Hebrew (both pronounced qypā), which as noted above is mentioned in Yevamot 1:10 and on the Miriam ossuary. There is no scholarly agreement on what the name actually means. Still, in the context of the ossuary inscription, together with the names Miriam and Y’shua, Mary and Jesus, it may possibly have meant to convey the meaning of ܢܩܝܦܐ (nqypā), “followed” or “agreed with”, since Caiaphas agreed with Jesus as to a messianic death and Arimathæa followed him, albeit secretly. Also note that ܙܩܝܦܐ (zqypā) is the Aramaic word for not exactly the “cross” of dogma, but still the instrument of torture on which Jesus was executed. Such allusions may even more have been in John’s mind as he wrote.
Caiaphas’s intervention in John 11:49-52 was not antagonistic toward Jesus, as later Christian dogma has characterized it, but meant to give Jesus exactly what he wanted: a messianic death (see Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain’s brilliantly persuasive article “To Die for the People: A Kabbalistic Reinterpretation of the Crucifixion of Jesus”, The Priest: A Journal of Catholic Theology [April 1996]). Indeed, the Miriam ossuary suggests Caiaphas had a son named Y’shua (Jesus) and a granddaughter named Miriam (Mary); while neither name was unusual at the time, it is curious that his direct descendants have the names of Jesus and his mother and wife.
Finally, note that the early Gospel of Peter refers to Joseph of Arimathæa as ο φιλος πειλατου, “the friend of Pilate” and calls the burial site κηπον ιωσηφ, “the Garden of Joseph”.
If my hypothesis is correct it explains how Joseph of Arimathæa was able to secure Jesus’s body. It explains why Caiaphas cuts a brilliant course between two undesirable alternatives, managing to get the Sanhedrin to give Jesus exactly what he wants. If Jesus was married to Caiaphas’s niece, for above I conclude that Joseph of Arimathæa is her uncle, it further explains (in addition to several other reasons provided in the commentaries in this book) why the usually brutally decisive Pilate was uncustomarily delicate in his treatment of Jesus, and why the Sanhedrin took the entire issue so extremely seriously. This identification also tells us why Jesus had Judas arrange the arrest (13:27): he would thus have been nephew to Caiaphas, who worked quite collegially with Pilate.
Before he left to become a student of Jesus John the Presbyter was the sagan in the Temple, so we can gather from Polycrates and others, which is to say he was lieutenant to Caiaphas the high priest. Hence few knew him better than the author of this gospel. If we read the narrative with clear eyes we see Caiaphas presented fairly, and indeed positively. This is even more evident if we conclude that Joseph of Arimathæa is another name for Caiaphas. Indeed, the phrasing of 19:38 suggests that John assumed the reader knows just who Joseph is – he tells us no more than this Joseph disposing of the body is the one from Arimathæa, and not Jesus’s legal father.
It is also worth noting in passing that two later works of relatively dubious worth as sources, but which yet might recall an oral tradition, list Caiaphas as a secret believer in Jesus. One is a Syriac text called The Teaching of the Apostles, not to be confused with the Didachē, which is also known as The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles; the former does bear some similarities to the latter and may have been in portion based thereupon. The other is the so-called Syriac Infancy Gospel, the extant version of which was put down around the sixth century.
The problem is that two millennia of dogmatic indoctrination are hard to shed, and so scholars and general readers alike cannot see any chance that these two names point to the same man. Yet I think they do. I remind the reader that the gospel simply calls him Joseph, with the “from Arimathæa” added simply to make it clear which Joseph is meant. And indeed I think this is another sign of the Presbyter’s literary artistry: he refers to the man by his Greek cognomen, Caiaphas, when Joseph is negotiating “like a Greek” with his powerful confrères, but by his Jewish name when he exhibits compassionate humanity, as at the end of chapter 19.
There is nothing further known with any degree of certainty about Caiaphas after his removal from office in 36, at about the same time as his ally Pontius Pilate. But certainly he was by that removal free from the need for secrecy about his support for Jesus, and perhaps also he wanted or needed to get away from the seething chaos in Jerusalem that in 70 culminated in its destruction. There is also nothing further on Joseph of Arimathæa in the canonical record, though later Christian writers suggest Joseph went on to travel through Europe as a missionary beyond the reach of Paul’s dogmatic heirs; very early texts even say he reached the British Isles. Some texts make him a worker and trader in metals. None of this is incomprehensible; already in this time Ireland in particular was well on its way to being gloriously if briefly Europe’s intellectual and artistic capital.
Mediæval legends add that he bore the mystical Holy Grail, which today is the name for the common cup Jesus shared with the disciples at the Last Supper, often said to have magical properties, and often said to have been used by Joseph of Arimathæa to collect blood draining from Jesus’s body as he died. The word “grail” is without a genuine pedigree, though etymologists try to explain it as coming from gradalis, Latin for “plate, as in the flat item on which a meal is served. It more likely began as a misunderstanding of the Old French sang réal, “royal blood” (to say that the King of the Jews and possibly progeny came to Gaul) as san gréal, “Holy Grail”; you can see the confusion, since this supposed cup was used to collect Jesus’s “holy blood”, but in the literal sense. Yet when the word first appears, in a romance by Chrétien de Troyes, it is not yet the Cup. While I love Chrétien’s works, they are to be taken as entertainment, and not in any sense as good history. In his Perceval he mentions un graal (“a grail”). The indefinite article indicates that it is not unique, and that a Communion waver is served on it tells us it is a plate, not a cup. For Wolfram von Eschenbach, one of the world’s greatest poets, it was a stone, the lapsit exiliis, now best known as the Philosopher’s Stone, which transmutes common substances into gold. It is only much later, in the writings of Robert de Boron, comparable to Chrétien’s for the lack of hesitation to make things up for the sake of a good story, that we have the Grail take the form of a cup. Several scholars have traced how this grail business hooked up with pre-Christian indigenous legends of Northern Europe about the Fisher King dying of his “dolorous wound”, and so on. These matters also hooked up with Mediæval popular tales that asserted Joseph of Arimathaea came into France and England after the New Testament events. I must emphasize that the rise of the Grail legends was concurrent with the height of the Cathar movement, (see the indexed references) and then its genocidal decimation by the Roman Catholics; the Cathars believed Jesus and Mary Magdalene – who as his consort carried his seed, his sang réal – came in later years to Gaul, and even travelled up to Great Britain. Indeed, Joseph Goering (The Virgin and the Grail) describes early Grail imagery in twelfth century wall paintings in Cathar churches of Occitania, depicting for instance images of Mary bearing a bowl that radiates tongues of fire., which may be depictions or perhaps memories of a bowl or chalice that Joseph as metalworker might have made, among images of Jesus with his wife and children. These wall paintings serve as a record of the stories widely believed as truth about the sang réal coming to the fields of Gaul, as does also the Matter of Britain, all of which the organized Roman Catholic Church sought to extinguish.