John's account of the burial may continue to develop the theme of Jesus' royal identity. The large amount of spice used (v. 39) obviously expresses their love for Jesus, as had the extravagance of Mary's gesture earlier (12:3). Such excessive amounts of spice were a feature of at least some royal funerals (2 Chron 16:14; Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 17.199). Further associations with royalty may be implied from the fact that Joseph's tomb is a garden tomb (v. 41), since the kings of Judah were buried in garden tombs (2 Kings 21:18, 26), including King David (Neh 3:16 LXX; cf. Brown 1994:2:1270). Plenty of people besides kings had extravagant funerals and were buried in garden tombs, but given all the emphasis in the Passion account on Jesus as king, such details may continue the theme here at the burial.
The fact that it is a new tomb is emphasized by John (v. 41). Some think John's point is that Jesus would not be brought into contact with corruption (Westcott 1908:2:324), or that there would be no question of mistaken identity when the tomb was empty (Chrysostom In John 85.4; Brown 1970:959). John may have been conscious of these notions, but it would seem the main point is simply that a new tomb is a token of appropriate honor given to a king. It may also tie in with the theme of the creation of the new community: Jesus has reordered the lives of his mother and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 26-27), in keeping with the new order of relationships of those who are united to him (cf. Mt 12:46-50 par. Mk 3:31-35 par. Lk 8:19-21). Jesus has no ancestral tomb but rather has begun a new family of those born from above who will never die (11:26).
Indeed, in this story we see this family gaining two new members. For the two men who bury Jesus had not publicly associated with him before. Joseph of Arimathea was indeed a disciple, but he was so secretly because he feared the Jews (v. 38). And Nicodemus, though not actually called a "disciple," nevertheless had visited Jesus at night (v. 39) and had affirmed at that time that Jesus was a teacher come from God (3:2). Thus, these are two of the people referred to earlier, who were secret believers, "for they loved praise from men more than praise from God" (12:42-43). Now, at Jesus' death, they are no longer under this condemnation; they have passed from hiding in the darkness to coming into the light.
From the Synoptics we learn that Joseph was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who was looking for the coming of the kingdom and who had not consented to the Sanhedrin's condemnation of Jesus (Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50-51). Nicodemus, who is not mentioned in the Synoptics, was also a member of the Sanhedrin (Jn 3:1) and, presumably, was wealthy, given the amount of spice he provides for Jesus' burial (v. 39). John A. T. Robinson considers Nicodemus to be from a well-established family of Jerusalem, while Joseph is "the nouveau riche country cousin with his brand-new tomb [cf. v. 41; Mt 27:60], which may suggest the lack of an established family mausoleum in the city" (1985:287). In any case, these are both men of power, privilege and wealth. Although Joseph, and presumably Nicodemus, had dissented from the vote, as members of the Sanhedrin they were indeed those who pierced Jesus and now they are looking upon him and mourning (see comment on v. 37). Jesus has been lifted up and is now beginning to draw all people to himself (12:32), beginning with these hidden disciples, who were members of the very group that insisted on Jesus' death.
It is ironic that these two men come out of hiding and clearly associate themselves with Jesus at his death, since they would have thought his movement had come to an end. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose. This action makes the extent of their dissent evident to their fellow Jewish leaders. Their request for the body was also a very courageous act. The Romans would often leave the body on the cross for days, though they might allow the family to take down the body for burial. They would not do this, however, in the case of treason (Beasley-Murray 1987:358). Thus, Joseph had no claims on the body and, depending on how Pilate viewed the case, would have been putting himself in considerable danger. But Pilate had clearly said three times that Jesus was innocent, which may account for his allowing Joseph to take the body. In addition, by allowing Jesus to have a decent burial Pilate would be able to further annoy the Jewish leadership.
The men did not have time to give Jesus a proper burial, which would include washing the body, anointing it with oil and then clothing and wrapping it (Brown 1994:2:1261). Instead, the seventy-five pounds of spices, which were probably in granular or powder form, could be packed under and around the body and in the strips of linen with which they wrapped the body. This would offset the smell of decay and help preserve the body until it could be properly attended to after the sabbath (v. 42; Robinson 1985:282-83). The meaning of the word for strips of linen (othoniois) is unclear. There does not seem to be evidence that Jews wrapped corpses in strips, as Egyptian mummies were wrapped (Brown 1994:2:1265), and the Synoptics say a single sheet was the main covering (Mt 27:59 par. Mk 15:46 par. Lk 23:53). Upon his being raised from the dead, Lazarus came out with "his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face" (11:44), but the word for "strips of linen" (keiria) in that verse is not the same word used here (othonion). Though the plural is used here, it may refer to a single sheet (cf. Brown 1994:2:1265) or be used generically for "grave clothes" (Robinson 1985:291). Thus, it is not clear how exactly they wrapped the body.The action taken by Joseph and Nicodemus signals a change in their own discipleship as they clearly break with the rest of the Jewish leadership. By handling the body they have made themselves ritually unclean and are thus disqualified from participating in the feast. According to some accounts of the dating (see comment on 18:28; 19:14), this means they would miss the Passover itself, in which case Christ has replaced the Passover for them in keeping with John's focus on Jesus as the Lamb of God and the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts in general.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.