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JOSEPH AB AROMATIS

Up to the point of the burial the evangelists followed the chronology of Seneca, which was determined by the requirement of ancient tragedy that the entire action develop in a short period of time, usually not longer than a day. The death of Jesus marked the end of Act Three. In the play the beginning of a new act was usually indicated by some reference to the progression of dramatic time. That is why Matthew begins his account of the burial of Jesus with the words:

Since it had already gotten late, a rich man from Arimathea arrived; his name was Joseph, and he also was a disciple of Jesus.

Interpreters understand this as a reference to the lateness of the hour‑it was afternoon or early evening. But it seems that Matthew was translating literally a Latin phrase signifying lateness for the performance of a certain task, in this case the burial of the executed criminals before the coming of the holy day.[1]  This urgency is made clear by John (19:31). The phrasing of Matthew suggests that there was a lull of time between the death of Jesus and the arrival of Joseph of Arimathea, who was to bury Jesus, an impression that is supported by the other two gospels. The interval was occupied by a choral song chanted by the Daughters of Jerusalem, one of those longer songs that marked the division between two conscutive acts of a play. It is in this song that the portents were described.

In all four gospels the character called Joseph of Arimathea is introduced through a sudden transition in the text. For Luke the appearance of Joseph of Arimathea on the stage as the one who buried Jesus appears to have come as a surprise, even though he tries to identify him:

And behold, there was a man by the name of Joseph who was a member of the Council... from Arimathea, a city of the Jews. This one, going to where Pilate was, asked for the body of Jesus.

The expression to where Pilate was (tô Pilatô) confirms that Pilate was no longer on the stage. To approach him, Joseph had to go inside the praetorium through one of the side entrances that were reserved for the use of messengers and servants. Since Joseph was coming from the city, he entered the stage from the right and, after identifying himself to the women, used the entrance on the same side of the stage to enter the praetorium.

For about two centuries interpreters have tried to explain why the gospels should make a point of identifying by name a person to whom no reference is made anywhere else. Schonfield remarks about Joseph of Arimathea:

He is one of the great mysteries of the gospelshe enters the story unheralded, and after his task is fulfilled he disappears completely from the New Testament records. There is no indication whatever of his association with the apostles or that he openly joined the Nazorean movement.[2]

Raymond Brown uses the incongruity of the precise identification of Joseph to argue that it must be a matter of a specific historical recollection.[3] But it is rather the lack of any such historical recollection that caused the evangelists to gather biographical details about him. As David F. Strauss remarked about a hundred and fifty years ago,

That we have here a personal description gradually developed into more and more preciseness is evident.[4]

As indicated by Paul’s letters, the earthly life of Jesus was of little interest to the first Christians: their faith centered on the event of the resurrection to which the burial was directly related. Therefore on the matter of the burial they may have kept precise traditions. To their knowledge it was Nicodemus who had buried Jesus. Nicodemus is mentioned several times by John. He was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, a member of the Council who was favorably inclined towards Jesus and paid him a night visit.

John solved the problem of the unexpected mention of Joseph of Arimathea as the one who buried Jesus by letting Jesus be buried by Joseph and Nicodemus together. The other gospels tried to give substance to the unexpected figure by ascribing to him some of the traits of Nicodemus. This process is most evident in Luke:

Luke's description is the most detailed:

And behold, there was a man by the name of Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a noble and just manhe had not agreed with the decision and actions of the other members from Arimathea, a city of the Jews.

The other gospels do not explain of which council Joseph was a member; and, in fact, there are interpreters who argue that Joseph may have been a member of the local council of the city of Arimathea. But Luke understood that Joseph was a member of the same Jewish Council of Jerusalem that had decided that Jesus should be put to death; hence, in order to explain how a member of the same group would have intervened to bury Jesus, Luke had to introduce the novel information that there was one member of this Council who had dissented from all the others.

In Mark, the name Joseph, the one from Arimathea, is followed by the note:

a distinguished member of the Council who too was waiting for the kingdom of God.

Like Luke, Mark made Joseph a member of the Council, but thought it better to omit Matthew’s information that he was a disciple of Jesus. Had such a disciple existed, the Christians would have heard of him earlier.

John offers a similar explanation of the unexpected appearance of Joseph of Arimathea, and for his being unknown to the Christian community; he lets his name be followed by the note:

He was a disciple of Jesus, a secret one because of fear of the Jews.

The fact that he was a secret disciple would explain the sudden and unexpected appearance of a person previously unknown.

The explanation for the puzzlement of the gospel writers about the figure of Joseph of Arimathea is a simple one. Seneca must have made appear on the stage a character identified as Joseph ab aromatis. The phrase ab aromatis indicated that Joseph was a dealer in spices, but since corpses were smeared with spices, it had the general meaning of embalmer, or undertaker. The kernel of the entire problem is that the Christian audience of Seneca’s play did not understand the expression "Joseph ab aromatis" because it embodied a particular twist of the Latin language which did not have any parallel in Greek, the language with which this audience was familiar; [5] they understood that Joseph was coming epi [from] Arimathaias.

The gospel writers must have had difficulty in locating this Arimathea: Luke would not have added a city of the Jews if it had been a known place. There is no evidence that a place with a name similar to Arimathea existed in Palestine in the time of Jesus;[6] on the other hand, the gospels themselves stress the link between Joseph and aromata.

According to John, Nicodemus came to help Joseph by carrying about one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe. A traditional interpretation holds that Nicodemus brought this huge amount because he felt guilty for not having openly supported Jesus earlier. More modern explanations try to gather evidence to the effect that there is a Johanine penchant for extravagant numbers.[7] But, since this evidence is doubtful, it has been argued that that the figure one hundred is the result of a scribal error.[8] But it cannot be the result of a scribal error, because if the weight of the spices had been an ordinary one, like ten, twenty, or even thirty pounds, John would not have had any reason to mention it.

There may be a scribal error in the verse in question, but not in the figure for the weight of the spices. Most editions of the gospels follow the manuscripts according to which Nicodemus came carrying a mixture [migma] of myrrh and aloe, about one hundred pounds, but there are authoritative manuscripts in which instead of migma there is written heligma, bundle.[9] This indicates that Joseph appeared on the stage followed by an assistant who carried a big bundle of spices, a bundle which indicated Joseph’s profession and task. This bundle had to be big for the sake of visibility on the stage. Joseph was a professional embalmer, whose task it was to bury all of the executed criminals before the coming of the holy day. Hence he had on hand a large supply of the tools of his trade, some of which he later offered for sale to the women. But not all of the spices he was carrying were intended for Jesus.

After identifying himself to the women as an ab aromatis, and emphasizing the urgency of his missionIt is already getting lateJoseph entered the praetorium, presenting himself before Pilate, who was understood to be inside. Only the chorus and Joseph’s assistant remained on the stage. There must have been in the play some dialogue between Joseph’s helper and the chorus, in which he extolled the services that his master could render, and indicated that he had an abundant supply of all kinds of spices, by pointing to the bundle he was carrying. Seneca had introduced the helper in order to sustain action on the stage during this episode of the third act, because according to the conventions of ancient drama the chorus could be left alone on the stage only during the interludes between acts. The presence of an actor, in conjunction with the chorus, meant that the dramatic action was in progress. Besides, Joseph would later need an assistant  to carry the body of Jesus to the tomb.

The three synoptic gospels relate that Joseph asked Pilate for permission to take down the body of Jesus, but John mentions also a preceding episode in which it is the Jews who ask Pilate for the same permission, pointing out that according to Jewish customs a body cannot lie unburied through the Sabbath. This verse of John has created difficulty for traditional commentators: Was the permission to take down the body submitted to Pilate by the Jews or by Joseph? Many interpreters agree that the Jews of whom John is speaking must be some Jewish authority such as the high priests. A request of this kind had to be submitted to the Roman governor in a most formal way and hence was a proper action for the Jewish Council.

In the play the undertaker Joseph, upon entering the stage with his assistant, announced to the women that he was an ab aromatis who had been charged by the Jewish Council to obtain Pilate’s permission to take down the bodies of all the executed criminals and bury them. The request to Pilate was thus submitted by the Council through Joseph. In this respect Joseph acted merely as a messenger. Luke, however, preferred to understand that the request came out of the good heart of Joseph himself; yet he preserved part of the original story by making Joseph into a member of the Jewish Council. The idea that Joseph was a member of the Council resulted from the fact that in his first speech upon entering the stage he mentioned being sent by the Council. John, having mentioned the application by the Jews, did not have to make Joseph into a member of the Council.

The entire episode of the petition to Pilate must have come as a suprise to the Christian audience; Seneca had introduced it in order to put across a tenet of his philosophy. In his On Clemency, which was the major statement of his philosophical and political ideals, Seneca lists specifically among the acts of mercy that must be performed by the good ruler that of allowing the burial even of exectuted criminals. The Roman custom was to let the bodies of those executed by crucifixion hang until they were destroyed by decay or by predatory animals; according to the Romans this was a way for crucifixion to achieve its salutary effect of preserving the existing social order. Seneca, who was already repelled by the penalty of crucifixion, would have been most pleased to point out that there was a Jewish law to the effect that even executed criminals should be given burial.[10]

The Jewish rule, however, was not based on humanitarian principles. All commentators of the gospels, ancient and modern, agree that the rule was based on Deuteronomy (21:22-23), and that this is the text pertinent to the taking down of Jesus.[11] The so-called Gospel of Peter quotes this passage of Deuteronomy. The passage prescribes that the body of an executed criminal must be hung on a tree, but it must not remain unburied through the night because a hanged man is accursed by God. From Josephus we learn that the Jews extended the rule of Deuteronomy to the case of crucifixon.[12]

The reason why interpreters are loath to amit that Joseph was relaying to Pilate a request originating from the Council, is that they cannot face the fact, stated so clearly by John, that the purpose of the Jewish request was to accelerate Jesus’ death, so that he could be buried, along with the other criminals, before the arrival of the holy day. When Joseph transmitted the Jewish Council’s request to Pilate, he did not yet know that Jesus was already dead. Joseph had arrived from the right, the direction of the city, and was not yet aware of the circumstances of Jesus’ death that had been narrated to the mourning women in the previous act. Joseph evidently assumed that Jesus was still alive, since he had been on the cross for only a few hours; death on the cross was a protracted affair, normally lasting several days.[13]

Joseph’s request to Pilate was not only for permission to bury the executed criminals, but to hurry along their deaths, so that the burials could be completed without delay. The proof is that in acceding to the request, Pilate instructed the soldiers to proceed to the crurifragium, the breaking of the legs, which accelerated death in the case of crucifixion. If the legs were broken, the crucified could no longer struggle to hold himself upwhich was one of the basic tortuous elements of crucifixionand would die of suffocation. The centurion sent by Pilate to carry out this decision did not speak to anybody on the stagehe returned to the praetorium and reported directly to Pilate.


[1] In the play the information about the time was given by Joseph, probably using an expression such as et iam serum factum est. In the Silver Age Latin of Seneca' time, et iam was often used in cases where classical authors would have employed cum iam. Hence the import Joseph's words is: "Because time is running out, and the holiday is approaching, the Jewish Council has sent me to present to Pilate their request that the executions be finished and the bodies buried." Cf. Seneca' Thyestes (line 487): serum cavendi tempus: "it is a late hour to be warning."

[2] Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (New York, 1967), pp. 156-157.

[3] Brown, op. cit., p. 938.

[4] David F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, p. 701.

[5] When in the century preceding the Christian era the economic life of Rome became more complex than it used to be, it became necessary to find a way to designate professional specializations that had not existed before. The Romans solved the problem by using expressions such as a stabula, a balneis, ab apotheca, a bibliotheca, to indicate a person in charthe stable, the baths, the storeroom, the library. When these expressions were first used in the Latin language they were often preceded by the noun servus, such as servus a stabula, "the svant from the stable." These new formulations with a were awkward and gave to the preposition a an unexpected meaning. As a result, in the course of the first century A.D. they we replaced by new words like stabularius, apothecarius, and bibliothecarius. But these neologisms were avoided in formal and literary speech, which continued to employ the peculiar a stabula, ab apotheca and a bibliotheca.

[6] Early Christians appear to have decided that the place was Ramathaim-Sophim mentioed in theOld Testament as the birthplace of Samuel (I. Sam. I.1). Modern interpreters have pointed out that the Old Testament mentions Ramathaim in the context of events that preceded the death of Jesus by about one thousand years.

[7] Brown, op. cit., p 941.

[8]  M.-J. Lagrange, Evangile selon Sait Jean (8 ed; Paris: Gabalda, 1948), p. 503.

[9] This reading is found notably in the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus mss.

[10] A text of the jurist Ulpian, who reflects the humanitarian ideals of the Empire in the second century, indicates that it was common to grant this grace to the family of the crucified.

[11] Paul refers to the rule of Deuteronomy in Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed us from the malediction of the Law by becoming himself an accursed thing for our sake, since it is written: A curse is on everyone who is hung on a pole.

[12] The Jewish War,

[13] Herodotus (VII.194) mentions the case of Sandoces, governor of Cyme, who had been crucified by Darius some time before...but while he yet hung on the cross, Darius... confessing that he had acted with more haste than wisdom, ordered him to be taken down and set at large. Thus Sandoces escaped destruction at the hands of Darius and was alive at this time.


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