Fearing but Faithful: Joseph and the Myrrh Bearers

“THE NOBLE JOSEPH down from the tree Your spotless body, wrapped it in pure linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb.” This troparion, which summarizes the Gospel account of the Lord’s burial, is sung as the holy shroud (epitaphios) is placed in the tomb on Great Friday evening. It is sung again on the Third Sunday of Pascha, but with this addition: “But on the third day, You arose, O Lord, and bestowed great mercy upon the world!”

The noble or righteous Joseph of Arimathea, along with Nicodemus, is commemorated on this Sunday together with the myrrh-bearing women who ministered to Christ at the tomb. As we read in the Gospels, Joseph was “a rich man” (Matthew 25:57) and “a prominent member of the council” (Mark 15:43). This “council” may refer to one of the regional courts in Israel or to the Great Sanhedrin, the chief religious court of the Jews which met in Jerusalem. In any case, Joseph and Nicodemus, whom John describes as “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1) and one of those in the high priest’s circle (see John 7:50-52), had sufficient influence to approach Pontius Pilate and ask to bury Jesus’ body.

Jesus is often described as being poor – He Himself alluded to this when He said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Matthew 8:19-21; Luke 9:58). He had put aside His carpenter’s craft to preach the kingdom of God and depended on others to provide His needs. He attracted other tradesmen, like Andrew and Peter, James and John who did the same. His followers included the poor as well as some prominent individuals. The Evangelist Matthew was a tax collector, a civil servant in the Roman administration, as was Zacchaeus who had grown rich in that pursuit (see Luke 19:1-10). Others, like the rich young man whom He invited to follow Him (Matthew 19:16-22), were attracted to Jesus but could not break with their wealth or position to follow Him.

Jesus’ Secret Disciples

While Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels before Christ’s death, Nicodemus is featured twice in John’s Gospel, giving us an insight into the struggle which a member of the Jewish establishment would have experienced when drawn to Jesus. Nicodemus first approached Jesus at night when he would not be noticed. This encounter is described in John’s Gospel: “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, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’

“Jesus answered, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

“Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’”
(John 3:1-10).

Nicodemus appears in the Gospel a second time when the chief priests and Pharisees, alarmed at the people’s reaction to Jesus, were considering how to deal with Him (see John 7:45-52). Nicodemus offers a timid resistance to their resentment. “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” (John 7:51). In response, the Pharisees ridiculed him: “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (John 7:52).

Their rebuke may have served to increase Nicodemus’ attachment to Jesus. He next appears as a public follower of Jesus at His death, assisting Joseph of Arimathea in burying His body. “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as is the custom of the Jews to bury” (John 19:39-40).

While the Jews regularly buried their dead enshrouded in spices, there is something more indicated here. Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume study Jesus of Nazareth, writes: “The quantity of balm is extra-ordinary and exceeds all normal proportions: this is a royal burial. If Jesus was manifested to us as high priest by the casting of lots for his robe [Christ’s chiton, like the High Priest’s, was seamless], so now he is revealed to us as king by the manner of His burial.”

After Christ’s Burial

There is no further mention of either Joseph or Nicodemus in the Gospels or other contemporary sources. Many later writings, such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, became popular in the first millennium ad, but today their historical accuracy is questioned.

One of the most popular is a homily on the Burial of the Divine Body of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ attributed to St Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (c.310–403). It is often read in monasteries on Great Saturday and an excerpt is frequently sung as people venerate the holy shroud.

“When evening had come – for the sun of Righteousness had then set into Hades – a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a secret disciple for fear of the Jews, came with Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night. Two secret disciples came to conceal Jesus in a tomb, thus teaching by this concealment the mystery of God concealed in Hades in the flesh. Each of them surpassed the other in their affection for Christ. Nicodemus proved his magnanimity by the myrrh and aloes while Joseph proved worthy of praise by his daring and boldness before Pilate.

“Now when Joseph went in he acted very shrewdly in order to achieve his desired goal. He did not employ high sounding and pompous words but a humble plea: ‘O Judge, I have come with a trifling request. Give me a dead man for burial: Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the poor, Jesus the homeless, Jesus the crucified, the naked … Give me this Stranger, for what profit does this body bring you? Give me this Stranger whose country we know not, whose Father we know not, whose place of birth and ways we know not …’

“Tell me, O Joseph, do you really bury toward the East a dead man who is the Dayspring of the East? Do you close the eyes of Him who opened the eyes of the blind? … Do you empty out myrrh upon the celestial Myrrh who emptied Himself and sanctified the world? … Do you wash with water God’s body which cleanses all and bestows purification? …

“Fearlessly Joseph and Nicodemus bury Him before whom the cherubim stand with reverent fear. Looking upon You dead, stripped and exposed, in his grief and tender compassion he lamented, saying: ‘How shall I bury You, my God? How shall I wrap You in a winding sheet? How shall I touch Your most pure body with my hands? … I magnify Your sufferings. I sing the praises of Your burial and resurrection, crying: O Lord, glory to You!’”