An Exegesis of the Synoptic Gospels

Among the three Synoptic Gospels, it is the nature of the identity of Joseph of Arimathea that determines the author’s intent. Within that last half of each of the books of Luke, Matthew, and Mark, it is precisely how Joseph stands in the community that ties the respective literary similarities and differences together. Ironically, even this crucial factor is not always consistent. The question of whether Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin Council which executed Jesus points to the context which the authors of the Synoptics were subject to in attempting their narratives. Though this question is but one of many contributing to the search for the common source which synthesizes Luke, Matthew, and Mark, it is a suitable starting point.

If one chooses to examine these three books by commencing at a common point in their shared narrative, the petition of Joseph to Pilate for the body of Jesus seems worthy. At this point in each of the three, the gospel authors each make an attempt to demonstrate Joseph’s community standing and personal character, he

“ . . . was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council [which killed Jesus], had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from  the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Lk 23:30, NRSV).

And by another account, he was “ . . . a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mt 27:57). And again, Joseph of Arimathea was “ . . . a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, [and] went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mk 15:42). By two accounts, those of Luke and Mark, Joseph was definitely a member of the body of leaders within Jesus’ community that endorsed and strived for the eradication of his ministry and life.

Why then, in Matthew is Joseph not on this council, and why is it a bold action to ask Pilate—the Roman governor at the time, who would have no doubt been versed in local sects and administrative bodies, such as that very council Joseph was, by two out of three accounts a member of—for the body of Jesus? Especially when he beseeching Pilate is of such administrative standing, albeit with a group governing different matters than that of Pilate? Yet in Matthew, Joseph is merely a civilian, though rich, with no council membership or governing position, and seems quite at ease to approach one of the most powerful figures in the community for the body of a known, recently-executed traitor and heretic? It will be posited that this peculiarity of protocol and character is reflective of the stress the particular author wishes to place in his gospel on the endurance of Christ’s movement immediately following his death. With this in mind, Luke and Mark are on par, and Matthew is the renegade account, but that must not elevate the interpretation to veracity by majority alone.

In those Lukan and Markan accounts whereby Joseph is among those, perhaps indirectly, that slaughter Jesus, he is also noted as waiting expectantly on the kingdom of God. Perhaps this is an allusion to Joseph anticipating that state which Christ spoke of in his ministry and prophesied as being close at hand. It could also be that Joseph is nearing his entry into that very kingdom in a more traditional sense, viewing it as heaven, and that expectant waiting as the wait for death. Could it be that Joseph seeks Christ’s body to dignify with the noble tomb he ends up giving it, in an attempt to absolve the guilt he feels for participating in the council which executed the very man? If this intent of the figure in question were true, then it would explain why both authors intimate the boldness of the action. He is a sort of sinner seeking the body, literally, of the redeemer.

Yet another interesting variation and synchronization betwixt the Synoptic Gospels is the response of Pilate to Joseph of Arimathea’s request. In Luke, Joseph went “ . . . to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down” (Lk 23:52). Here, Pilate virtually has no notable reaction to the request of the Sanhedrin council member asking for the body of a traitor recently killed by that same organization. Again, in Mark, the transaction is as smooth as it possibly could be, yet it is a still a bold action having

“ . . . asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph” (Mk 15:43-44). For being such a bold action, Pilate seems rather willing to give the body to this council member desirous of interring it. In this second of the accounts, Pilate is even unsure of the state of the body, and ultimately as one can ascertain from such ignorance, of the crucifixion ordeal itself, save for his endorsement of it earlier on.

Matthew paints Pilate differently, and while initially, Pilate very quickly and easily grants the remains to Joseph—“[h]e went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him” (Mt 27:58)—it is following Joseph’s disposal of the remain that the account of Pilate’s reaction changes. One must also note that in this scenario, though almost identical to those in Luke and Mark, Joseph serves on no council, and is even said to be a veritable disciple of Jesus. In other words, Pilate, who by the accounts of Luke and Mark, instantaneously gives Joseph the body—Joseph in those accounts being a wealthy and privileged man, serving even on the Sanhedrin Council—seems to do so on account of that ‘in’ status that Joseph has, being on the good side of Pilate. Yet in Matthew, Joseph is a disciple, denoting probable poverty, and automatically, guilt by association. Joseph is in the Matthean version, a card-carrying member of Jesus’ sect, so to speak, and yet just as easily granted the criminal Lord’s body as though he were on the side of the executors as in other versions. This, naturally, seems to be what provokes Pilate’s ensuing change of heart when, on

“[t]he next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor [Jesus] said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples [such as Joseph, whom was just granted the body] may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first” (Mt 27:62-64).

Responding to the angry petitioners, numbered among whom were essentially those sorts of people with whom Joseph is identified by Luke and Mark, but not in Matthew, “Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure” (Mt 27:65-66). This is the only such reaction on the part of Pilate in this context within the Synoptics. The only differing factor which seems to give it rise is that Joseph is not said to be among the Sanhedrin, and is rather a follower of Jesus. Granted that it is accepted by virtually all Biblical scholars that Mark predates the other gospels and served at least in part as the source used to write the others, should one disregard this notion of Joseph being a humble, rebellious disciple?

Further complicating the threads of these interwoven texts with their numerous similarities alongside differences is the issue, not so much of Joseph of Arimathea’s standing and character, but that of the other personages in the last halves of Luke, Matthew, and Mark. With Joseph’s nature examined here as the prime example of the synchronicity, one can now move onto the next issue. It arises in the form of place in regard to Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection and persons witnessing them. Perhaps the most confusing is that of the women.

By all three accounts, Joseph’s interment of Christ is witnessed by a small group of women within Jesus’ circle of followers. Two women are continually present in each account, but often a third woman is there, too, but her identity varies depending on which Synoptic writer is in question. These consistent women are Mary Magdelene—who by each account is always the first enumerated—as well as she whom Matthew so eloquently terms “ . . . the other Mary” (Mt 27:61); that is to say, Mary, the mother of James. The additional woman is either Salome—as in Mark when he writes “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him [in his tomb]” (Mk 16:1)—or she is a mysterious figure called Joanna, as in the Lukan tradition with its mention, “[n]ow it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” (Lk 24:10). As for the “other women” of the accounts, they are never named.

It is not only the women who constitute a question of person in the appearance of Jesus after his death. The question is not merely that of discerning which women witnessed him or his agents—and each Luke, Matthew, and Mark do mention the women encountering holy men who are sometimes described as angels and sometimes not so explicitly defined—but also a question of which disciples see Jesus and where. During the walk of two disappointed disciples to Emmaus following the inspection of the empty tomb upon the women announcing it, Jesus appears resurrected but in disguise. “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:15) and only in this account is such a notion made. The two disciples only realize the identity of the stranger while offering him dinner in one of their homes, only to have him vanish. Mark’s gospel does not involve a single appearance of Jesus after his resurrection, and ends merely with the women, who “ . . . fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mk 16:8), and the reader or listener of the gospel is left to discern for himself if the news of the risen Christ had even reached the disciples as intended.

Already, one can see a major conflict betwixt the appearance of Jesus and the presence of persons to witness it. Mark, the probable source of the two other gospels, Luke and Matthew, both of which have Jesus appearing to his disciples following his resurrection, does not even have such a tale. For a source text, much was left to be added. A Mosaic connection is made in the final verses of Matthew, and forcibly imparts and possibly even embellishes the Christian mission by closing with a veritable Sermon on the Mount, with Jesus, in true Mosaic fashion, laying down a sort of law from a mountaintop after having left his followers for a brief spiritual sojourn to receive that law. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and . . . obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:18, 20).

The importance of this particular passage and its gross difference from the appearances excluded in Mark and briefly mentioned in Luke, is that it serves as a literary device to create an intertextual synthesis in Matthew, though not a Synoptic synthesis; tying as has been noted, Jesus’ final sermon to his initial one, and bringing full circle, the scriptural prophecy which pervaded his temporal life. Moses begins his ministry on a mountain, as does Christ, and both end it there, at least fundamentally, as well. That these resurrection appearances of Jesus are not at all consistent among the three is perhaps the greatest hint that the authors had very different intents.

These different emphases mark the expectations and needs of the particular audiences to whom they would have been presented. It is debatable, of course, whatever political motives may have been present, but within the early Church, that these gospels were each written in different communities at vastly different times after Christ’s death accounts for their differences. Mark is very convincingly a common source between the later two. The big question of why Mark, the supposed original, has no appearances of Jesus after his death, is one maybe of humanity. Jesus is very much a real person in that book, though in Luke and Matthew is an exemplification of the ideal which would have only begun to have been propagated once Mark had already been widely-read. Necessity of interpretation and not of political gain or manipulation lent itself to the expansion of the resurrection story, while subsequent interpretations, perhaps misinterpretations of Joseph of Arimathea’s role in the death and resurrection of Jesus set the tone for those communities receiving the stories. There must definitely, however, be additional sources which would have been used by the gospel authors. Today, one must rely on the contextual clues of the texts to appreciate the flaws in synthesis.


The New Revised Standard Version Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.