As the sun went down the Jewish Sabbath began. This evening was the beginning of the Passover Sabbath commemorating the Exodus of God’s people from slavery to freedom. It was a holy day and the Jewish leaders, who had used the Romans to murder Jesus, asked the crucified men die quickly and be taken off their crosses. Pilate agreed and ordered the condemned men’s legs be broken so they would die before sundown. Jesus’ legs were not broken because he was already died.
All four documents tell about Joseph of Arimathea. He was two things. He was a disciple of Jesus. “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus” [Matthew 27:57 ESV]. But, he was also a respected member of the council, probably the Sanhedrin. “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” [Mark 15:43 ESV]. According to Luke, Joseph had not agreed with the High Priest and others who wanted Jesus executed. “He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action” [Luke 23:50-51 ESV]. He is called honorable and good and righteous, and was “looking for the kingdom of God” [Luke 23:51].
John gives what may be considered conflicting evidence about Joseph. Whereas the three synoptic documents tell Joseph was a disciple of Jesus and voted against the rest of the council when they wanted to murder him John says he was a secret disciple of Jesus because of fear. “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” [John 19:38 ESV]. John also tells us he was accompanied by Nichodemus, another member of the council. Nichodemus visited Jesus several years earlier and at night so he might not be seen talking intimately with someone the rest of the council had already condemned as dangerous. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him” [John 3:1-2 ESV]. John was known by the High Priest and admitted into the courtyard where the hastily assembled council met at night to pass judgment and condemn him (see John 18:15). He watched some of what occurred and may not have seen Joseph disagree with the council. Since Joseph and Nicodemus may have been secret disciples of Jesus before his crucifixion it is not hard to understand John’s comment about Joseph being one secretly.
Joseph asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. He was no longer a secret disciple of Jesus. This was a bold move on his part. Going to the Roman Governor as a known member of the council and asking for the body of a man condemned by the council would compromise any political influence he may have had. Jesus was dead, executed as a common criminal, and there is no indication they would have treated his body with respect after he died any more than they would have while he was alive and during his death. Pilate may have already given the order to finish off the criminals at the request of the council but was surprised Jesus was already dead when Joseph made his request. “Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph” [Mark 15:44-45 ESV].
When Joseph and Nicodemus took Jesus body from the cross they made themselves ritually unclean and were then unable to participate in the Passover celebration. They touched a dead body. They not only touched him but wrestled him from the cross, carried him to a tomb and prepared his body for burial.“And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud” [Matthew 27:59 ESV]. When Joseph took Jesus’ body he had to first take it off the cross. Luke’s says he “took it down” [Luke 25:53] while Mark says he “took him down” [Mark 15:46 ESV]. This is a curious mix of English phrases translated for identical wording in the Greek. Luke, a physician, would look at the body as a thing no longer inhabited by a person while Mark would still see a person. This does not explain the differing translation of the identical words.
Had Jesus still be alive, even a spark of life in the body, these two men, and the servants who accompanied them, would have seen it. Jesus was dead and they are reliable witnesses to his death. Even the confusion of phrases between the documents is not evidence of the reality of the actions of these men. When Jesus was seen alive a few days later it was not resuscitation but a resurrection.