At the beginning of the Gospel lesson for the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers we hear how Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus so it could receive burial. In the Gospel of John, we know that Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus. While our main focus on this Sunday is the women who went to the tomb, who were Joseph and Nicodemus?
All four Gospels identify Joseph of Arimathea as the person responsible for obtaining Jesus’ body, removing it from the cross, and arranging the burial. In all four Gospels, this is the first and only time we hear of Joseph. Arimathea was the city where he was from; all we know is that it was a city somewhere in Judea.The various accounts identify Joseph as wealthy, a respected member of the council, and a good righteous man. The Gospel of John calls him a secret disciple of Jesus. To call him a member of the council in Jerusalem probably meant that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the body that condemned Christ and sent him to Pilate. By placing him as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Gospel of Mark may want to show that not all were against Jesus. By calling Joseph a secret disciple could be a similar attempt.If nothing else, Joseph of Arimathea was observing the pious traditions of his faith that day. Jewish Tradition paid a great deal of respect to the deceased. Even a criminal would be provided a burial. In the case of Jesus, there were just a few hours from the time of his death (around 3 pm, the Ninth Hour) to the burial itself (before sunset that day). In those few hours, Joseph arranged a hasty preparation observing the minimum requirements (thus also necessitating the visit of the women to the tomb “after the Sabbath had passed.”
While Joseph of Arimathea only appears in the Gospel accounts at the time of Jesus’ burial, Nicodemus has been named earlier in the Gospel of John (3:1-9; 7:50) before reappearing at the time of Jesus burial (bringing the spices, in John 19:39). The first time we encounter Nicodemus (John 3), he comes to Jesus at night, indicating that he did not want to be publicly identified with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. By the second time (John 7), he defended Jesus to the Sanhedrin, which wanted to bring blasphemy charges against Jesus. In the third time, Nicodemus is assisting with the burial preparations.
We know little more about them, except from western medieval traditions. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have traveled to England where he established the Glastonbury monastery. Other traditions call him the keeper of the Holy Grail. Pious legends associate Nicodemus with monumental crosses.
Both are saints of the Orthodox Church. We remember them this Sunday, but each has his own Feast day. Joseph of Arimathea’s feast is July 31. Nicodemus’s feast is August 2.
Both appear in the icons of the Deposition from the Cross (Apokathelosis) and Epitaphios. In the Deposition from the Cross, Joseph is depicted as an elderly man, receiving Jesus’ body as it is removed from the Cross. In the Epitaphios, he is usually at the feet of Jesus, wrapping Him with the burial shroud. In the Deposition from the Cross, Nicodemus is depicted removing the nails from Jesus’ feet. In the Epitaphios, he is usually depicted holding a ladder, with his tunic rolled up to his calves or knees.