Uncle Joseph of Arimathea

The following comes from the in-progress restoration of the original version of the Gospel of John, which includes a fresh translation from the original Greek:

Like his associate Nicodemus, Joseph was clearly a man of considerable wealth, and almost certainly another Sanhedrin member, as is implied by the word βουλευτης (“counsellor”) in Mark 15:43. John 19:38 says he was secretly a follower of Jesus because of his “fear of the Jews”; i.e., of other members of the Sanhedrin.

Despite his “secret follower” status, Joseph went to Pontius Pilate to claim the body of Jesus. He bought linen to wrap the body in, and Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of embalming spices. It can only be concluded that – even though he is not mentioned in the canonical gospels except in reference to this disposal of the body – the man was closely connected to Jesus, especially inasmuch as he was able to persuade Pilate to give him this right of disposal.

Other than the canonical record, there are only unreliable references in several early Christian writers to the effect that, after the above events, Joseph supposedly travelled through Europe as a missionary; some even imply that he got to Britain. Mediæval legends abound that further embellish these hints.

Yet I believe we have one significant yet heretofore overlooked clue about Joseph’s life hidden in his name.

Despite its common pronunciation in English, the Greek for “Arimathea” (Ἁριμαθαία) has the diacritical mark on the first “a” that indicates an aspirated “h” sound is supposed to precede it. That makes it a version in Greek of the Hebrew ha-Ramata (literally, “toward Ramah”), a community referred to in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Tanakh familiar to Jesus and his contemporaries) as Armathaim (Αρμαθαιμ). The town is in the Shfelah Hills region, just south of Samaria, which would account for the name Ramah (Hebrew for “height”); it it is probably where, or close to where, the modern town of Rantis (or Ranthis) is located. Scholars often declare the modern towns of ar-Ram or al-Birah-Ramallah (both a few miles north of Jerusalem) to be where Arimathea was located, but, while it is less often cited, the Rantis area actually has the stronger claim. Anciently a monastery dedicated to Joseph of Arimathea was located there. And Eusebius (in his Onomasticon, 144:28) identifies this location as Aramathem-Sophim. The name given by Eusebius coheres with another traditional name for the community, Ramathaim-Zophim, which means the two heights of the “Zophs”, referring to the ancient land of Zuph (I Samuel 9:5), supposedly an ancestor of Samuel (I Samuel 1:1) – though this is probably just a fictional attempt in I Samuel to provide a tight connection between the prophet and this region. The Hebrew word צָפָה (tsaphah) actually means “watchers” or even “watchtowers” – in the sense of lookouts, scouts, or even spies, atop these two heights.

This community is where it is said that Samuel the prophet was born and died. It is associated with Rachel weeping for the “lost sons” she never had (Jeremiah 31:15-16). While technically still in Judæa, it was located on the verge of Samaritan territory and no doubt had a considerable Samaritan minority among its residents.

Another piece of the puzzle is that this land of Zuph, which includes the location known variously as Ramah, Ramathaim-Zophim, and Arimathea, was also called Kohath (קְהָת). This is because it was assigned to one of the four Levitical family descended from Kohath son of Levi. The Testament of Levi, part of the pseudepigraphical Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, says that when Kohath was born Levi had a prophetic vision of him as “on high in the midst of the congregation”, as raised higher than his siblings. Besides the obvious figurative sense, this meaning could point literally to the heights called Ramathaim-Zophim.

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 Arimathea was the younger brother of the father of Jesus’s mother Mary. This rumor can be traced back no 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), the Mediæval rumor that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute was derived from the high probability that she was a priestess in the Samaritan Temple 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 Arimathea was the younger brother of Mary Magdalene’s father, variously known as Simon the Leper, Simon the Pharisee, and Simon Iscariot. As the Magdalene’s paternal uncle, Joseph would be the logical family member to take a fatherly role during and after the crucifixion of her husband – since, as noted elsewhere, she and her father, Simon the Leper, have clearly been estranged ever since she becdame a priestess on Mount Gerizim.

Again, there may be valuable information hidden in names. 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. Another reasonable alternative is that it refers instead to Kohath.: קְהָת אּישׁ would be “Ish-Kohath”, and, since there is no way in Greek to put an “h” into the middle of a word, it was transliterated with a ρι (“ri”) substituting for the “h”, making it the familiar “Iscariot”. Thus, if indeed Joseph and Simon were brothers, they may have both come from Ramathaim (Arimathea) in Kohath.

In the biographical notes on Judas Iscariot that follow I suggest that the cognomen Iscariot is a Greek garbling of another Hebrew word, צרעת, meaning “leprosy”, pronounced in the Romanized Tiberian Hebrew of the time as ṣāraʻaṯ; and that Ish-ṣāraʻaṯ (man with leprosy), was given a “k” when transitioning into Greek to make it sound more natural in Greek-attuned ears. If the reader is wondering “Which is it?”, my answer is “Both.” As with the cognomen Magdalene, which has a number of clearly intended meanings, I think this cognomen Iscariot has one meaning for the family (“Man from Kohath”) but, in Simon’s case, this second meaning as well.

Mary Magdalene, as a former Temple priestess on Mount Gerizim, is also closely associated in this gospel with the Samaritans. Indeed, her cognomen, which might be rooted in the word migdal (“tower” or “watchtower”) might refer to this land of Zuph, the land of watchers. And Mary Magdalene has already been associated by this gospel 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 Well, just as Jacob and Rachel met at a well, perhaps the same well. With all of these close family ties to the Samaritan territory, 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 Temple priestess.

These connections also would give us insight as to why Joseph of Arimathea was a “secret disciple” of Jesus (John 19:38). He and his family, with all of these close connections to the Samaritans, would not want to celebrate the most notorious of them, Mary Magdalene’s service as a priestess followed by her marriage (without the permission of her estranged father Simon) to the equally notorious Jesus. Still, as the wealthy businessman uncle of Mary, the brother of the wealthy businessman Simon the Leper, Joseph could go to Pontius Pilate, representing father and widowed daughter, with sufficient leverage to take control of the body of Jesus before others (especially the Roman authorities and those on the Sanhedrin who thought ill of Jesus) did. Normally a crucified body would be left for days on the cross as a “lesson” to the populace, to be pecked at by vultures, consumed by insects, and gnawed at by carnivorous animals. The body of Jesus, with all its volatile political implications, would need to be disposed of quickly. What is more, if Joseph and/or Nicodemus were aware of the possible plans for Jesus to take drugs (in the sour wine of 19:28-30) to put him into a deep coma (see the essay in this volume “The Trial, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus”), then there was all the more reason to gain speedy control of his body.

James David Audlin (91 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.

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