Was Joseph of Arimathea Historical?

A claim has been made that Joseph of Arimathea was a fictional character because the name "Arimathea" is said to be a pun on the phrase "best disciple" -- aristos mathetes. "Matheia" is said to mean "disciple town" and "ari-" is a common prefix for superiority.

Some regard this coincidence as "staggering" but there are two considerations (other than the problem of inventing such a prominent character) that need to be brought to the fore:

  1. The city of "Arimathea" can be duly identified with ancient Ramah, which was later named as Ramathaian or Aramathaim in various sources (Josephus Antiquities 13.4.9, 1 Macc. 11:34, the LXX).
  2. Let's not forget that the Hebrews were very much "into" punning. If Joseph was from the actual town of Aramathaim then it would not take much of a stretch for a Jewish speaker of Greek to make the pun. Since I doubt Aramathaim was named with the pun in mind, this is no stretch of credulity but something perfectly in line with Hebrew practice.

    Another example we cited elsewhere: The Hebrew portions of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar's name is ended -nezzar, as opposed to the correct -rezzar, which is the correct spelling. This is easily explained on philological grounds: It was common and acceptable in the ancient Hebrew language to change an 'r' to an 'n' when spelling. An even more interesting (and amusing) explanation for this spelling "problem," however, has been proposed by van Selms [Gold.Dan, 4n].

    The "correct" -rezzar spelling is a Hebrew adaptation from the original Akkadian version, nabu-kudurru-usur, which means, "Nabu protect(s) the eldest son" (Nabu being a Babylonian god). The -nezzar spelling used in the OT may be an adaptation from a malicious reference made by Jewish opposition groups, nabu-kudanu-usur - which translates, "Nabu protect(s) the mule"....

    Caird notes further examples in The Language and Imagery of the Bible: a basket of summer fruit (qais) becomes a portent of Israel's end (qes) in Amos 8:2; an almond tree (shaqed) is a reminder that God is keeping watch (shoqed) in Jer. 1:11; God is able to make from stones ('ebnayya) his children (benayya) in Matt. 3:9.

    The later Rabbis also engaged in punning upon personal names, as Chajes notes in The Student's Guide to the Talmud: One rabbi said for example, "If her name had not been Delilah, she ought to have been called so, since she weakened his strength and vigour." The name "Delilah" is similar to the Hebrew word dalal which means to weaken.

    So: Punning on "Aramathaim" would have been par for the course.

Far from suggesting that Joseph was a fiction, the punning actually implies that Joseph's role as a "best disciple" was as an early and well-known figure, recognized by the Jewish Greek-speakers of the church who, in line with the Jewish tendency to make puns, came up with this clever joke which became firmly implanted in the diverse Gospel tradition. The pun ironically serves as a commemoration of Joseph's role.

-JPH