Joseph of Arimathea is a key character in Jesus’ passion story. He was the one who gave his own tomb to the crucified Jesus for his burial. According to the gospels he was a member of the Sanhedrin, a group of seventy-one leaders whose members were very well known among the populace. But let’s quickly ask the question of Joseph’s historicity.
Essentially our attestation of Joseph of Arimathea passes the criterion of multiple attestation. He is mentioned in all four gospels: the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and John. That is at least attestation in two independent sources. This is a first big tick in the historian’s book.
Secondly, arguments provide some context here. For example, our gospel authors would not have invented a person who did not exist and then say he was on the Sanhedrin if such was not the case. Why? Because almost everyone knew who was on the Sanhedrin. Thus, a fictitious character would almost certainly be antithetical for the very purposes of our gospels authors who were intent on relaying Jesus’ ministry for the world to read and to be convinced. Professor Stein adds: “The fact that Joseph of Arimathea did not hold any particular position of authority or fame in the early Church also argues in favour of the historicity of this tradition” (1).
Thirdly, other smaller details about Joseph in the gospel narrative support his historicity. Joseph is called a rich man in the text (Mat. 27:57) and archaeological discoveries have confirmed that only rich people owned the sort of tombs described in the burial account. Further, John tells us that Jesus’ tomb was located in a garden (John 19:41) and archaeology has likewise confirmed that this was characteristic of the tombs of wealthy or prominent people. These are small details but they give the narrative that ring of truth that historians look for.
These three reasons give me confidence of the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea. There’s just no plausible reason to doubt his role in the gospel narratives and all our evidence points in his favour. Multiple attestation, sound arguments, and the incidental details that give that ring of truth all attest to this.
1. Stein, R. 1979. Was the Tomb Really Empty? Available.