Pilate and the body of Jesus

A question arises from my previous post: why would the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, be so willing to allow the body of Jesus to be buried rather than disposed of in the manner common to executed criminals?

Joseph of Arimathaea

Joseph of Arimathaea is one of the most crucial characters in the early accounts about the death of Jesus. Without his appearance in the story Jesus’ body might have been left on the cross to be devoured by animals, or thrown into the city rubbish dump, known as Gehenna. His role in Jesus’ burial was one of the details which are recorded in all four Gospels, yet each writer gives us some information peculiar to his account. Mark tells us that Joseph was “a prominent member of the Council, who was himself looking for the Kingdom of God” (Mark 13:43). Luke informs us that he was “a good and upright man” who had not consented to the decision and action of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50-51). Matthew tells us that he was a rich man and had become a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57) and John adds that he was a disciple “secretly because he feared the Jews”[1] (John 19:38).

Pilate – After the Trial

The Gospels tell us nothing about the activities of Pilate between the time he sentenced Jesus and his audience with Joseph. Commenting on the early hour of Jesus’ trial, A.N. Sherwin–White remarks: “There is ample evidence about the arrangement of the upper-class Roman official’s daily round” to know that Pilate would be “at his official duties even before the hour of dawn” and would have enjoyed “the elaborately organised leisure of a Roman gentleman” by an early hour.[2]

We can confidently deduce a number of other things. First, Pilate would have been in an inhospitable mood, for several reasons. His authority as Governor and his political aspirations had been challenged by the Jews who threatened to report him to Caesar (implied in John 19:12).[3] He had been shown to be judicially impotent, having declared Jesus to be “not guilty” three times before feeling compelled to sentence him to death. He was in trouble on the domestic front as well. His wife had sent him a message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). Imagine his reception when he had to report to her that he had had “that innocent man” put to death!

Secondly, it is likely that Pilate was determined, by the events of the morning, to make the best of his afternoon leisure time. He may well have given instructions to his secretary that he was not to be disturbed, especially by local politicians!

The Arrival of Joseph

Jesus being prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

Jesus being prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

All four gospels tell us that Joseph was from Arimathaea, possibly Ramathaim-zophim, a short distance north-west of Jerusalem. Matthew adds the detail that Joseph arrived in Jerusalem from Arimathaea that afternoon “as evening approached” – in other words around 3 p.m.[4] How long he had been away from Jerusalem, and why, we can only speculate. According to Luke, Joseph had not consented to the actions of the Sanhedrin of which he was a member. It may even have been his cross–examination which had revealed the accusers of Jesus to be “false witnesses”, although that is mere speculation. As a result, he may have felt threatened or intimidated by the hostile enemies of Jesus, and had consequently gone into hiding in Arimathaea. John’s description of him as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jerusalem religious leaders” can be translated to read that Joseph was “a disciple in hiding, for fear …” (the word translated “secretly” – κρύπτω kryptō – is a perfect participle passive). Joseph may have recently gone into hiding but he now came out of his seclusion. We can only guess what caused him to return so soon. It may have been the isolation of Arimathaea and the opportunity to think about the circumstances of the day in the quietness of his own home which allowed Joseph to re-assess his position.

Joseph Before Pilate

Joseph must have arrived in Jerusalem at about the time of Jesus’ death, and did not have a moment to waste. He had approximately three hours to arrange and expedite the burial of Jesus. By Roman law the body of a criminal would normally be disposed of ignominiously[5]. “The Roman law was that a convict, after execution, might not be buried: the crucified, in particular, were left on the cross until beasts and birds of prey devoured them. Guards were mounted on duty at the cross to prevent kinsfolk or friends from taking down a corpse and burying it; unauthorised burial of a crucified convict was a criminal offence. The emperor or his officers might, exceptionally, grant kinsfolk or friends authorisation to bury the convict.”[6]

However, according to Jewish law, even a criminal’s body might not be left hanging all night, but had to be buried that day (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), even more so when the next day was one of the most important Sabbaths in the year (John 19:31). Jesus’ family and friends, however, were in no position to claim the body. His disciples had all fled after his arrest in the garden and would not have risked their lives to beg for his body. His family, being Galilean, would almost certainly have great difficulty in finding anywhere in Jerusalem to bury him with such short notice. Had it not been for the appearance of Joseph, Jesus’ body would no doubt have been consigned to Gehenna, the city’s rubbish dump.

Why was it that Pilate was persuaded to grant Joseph’s request? It is improbable that Pilate would have known of Joseph’s opposition to the Sanhedrin’s actions and, having been forced to deliver Jesus for crucifixion in the morning, it is strange that he should be prepared so generously to deliver his body to one of their number for burial. I speculated earlier that Pilate would have been in no mood to receive any Jewish visitors that afternoon. Perhaps the reason he agreed to this audience was that he knew Joseph to be a very rich man. Philo tells us that Pilate was accustomed to taking, or demanding, bribes. He may have hoped to make this wealthy ruler pay dearly for whatever he was to ask, and so agreed to see him, hoping he might be compensated for the earlier aggravation. Surprisingly, he immediately granted Joseph his request. Mark’s use of the word δωρέομαι dōreomai (Mark 15:45) indicates that he made a gift of the body, as though to emphasise that no bribe or payment was sought – something quite unusual for Pilate. Something transpired during that meeting that persuaded Pilate to allow the body to be taken down from the cross and be buried. But what?

It has been said that Roman crucifixion was designed to prolong the agony for days and Pilate was surprised to hear of Jesus’ death after only six hours (Mark 15:44). He called for a report by the centurion. Almost certainly this was the same centurion who was in command of the execution; the centurion who, having seen the way in which Jesus died, was persuaded that he was ‘a Son of God’ (Mark 15:39). He may have seen a countless number of crucifixions, but never had he seen a man die so willingly; never had he seen a man “yield up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50) as Jesus did. The manner of his death may have persuaded him that this was no ordinary crucifixion – and that this was no ordinary man. The centurion may have expressed this conviction in his report – we will never know. But hearing Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God previously, Pilate was afraid (John 19:7-9). If the Centurion had expressed his own conviction in his report then Pilate’s fears would have intensified and, perhaps in a superstitious effort to appease the gods for executing one of their sons, he immediately granted Joseph his request.


[1] Joseph himself was, of course, a Jew. So too were Jesus and all his disciples. The term “the Jews” in John’s Gospel refers to the religious leaders in Jerusalem and not to Jews in general.

[2] A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, page 45.

[3] Pilate was no doubt sensitive to such threats, as complaints against his handling of important issues had been made previously to Tiberius who over-ruled him. His career ended as a result of such a complaint and he was recalled to Rome in AD 37.

[4] Evening was reckoned to be approx. 3 p.m. to sunset.

[5] It was after Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion (Matthew 26:2) that Mary anointed him with costly perfume which she was saving for his burial (John 12:7). No doubt she understood that if Jesus was to be crucified she would not be allowed the privilege of anointing his body, so she did it in advance.

[6] Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus, page 238.

2 comments on “Pilate and the body of Jesus

  1. Thanks for your research on this. Two points:
    Something made Pilate willing to speak to Joseph and his surprise that Jesus was already dead may have been the impetus to grant Joseph’s request.
    I think that, as you point out, the superstition that most had is something we find hard to grasp. I believe superstition among Jews and Gentiles was very strong, and carried far more weight that we realise. In today’s godless world, superstition has no meaning.

    Mary anointed Jesus before the crucifixion. While she may not have known it, this tender act may have prevented the vultures, vermin, etc from attacking the body of Jesus too soon before he was buried.

  2. Wendy Johnsen says:

    Although at the time of his interaction with Jesus Pilate’s priority would have been to prevent a Jewish uprising, he would later have had time to ruminate with superstitious unease on his wife’s dream as well as perhaps on Jesus’ own aura of authority which would have come through during their discussion. As you say, he would therefore have wanted to appease the gods ‘just in case.’

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