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I'm trying to understand Joseph's approach to Pilate. Mark and Matthew appear to be describing his approach in different ways. Did he ask boldly or did he beg for Jesus' body?

Mark 15:43 Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus. (KJV)

Mark 15:43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. (ESV)

Matt. 27:58 He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. (KJV)

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Both of those passages use the same Greek word αἰτέω (KJV: "crave", "beg", ESV: "asked for"), so any variance in the translation of it is due to the quirks of English, not Greek. Liddell-Scott says:

ask, beg, mostly with accusative: ask for, demand

Whether the asking is bold or not is not inherent in that word. The most we can say is that the ESV is more modern English.


Instead, we infer boldness from τολμήσας (KJV: "went in boldly", ESV: "took courage"), which is only in Mark (but is not contradicted in Matthew). Liddell-Scott says:

undertake, take heart either to do or bear anything terrible or difficult ... mostly abs., dare, endure, submit

...or, with another infinitive (which we don't have here but helps color the meaning):

to have the courage, hardihood, effrontery, cruelty, or the grace, patience, to do a thing in spite of any natural feeling, dare, or bring oneself, to do...

Again, we see some ambivalence, and must look to the context to guess the shades of meaning. The King James guessed that Joseph had a good dose of thumos and wrote "went in boldly", as if he had a bit of a swagger. The ESV guessed he was more humble and wrote "took courage" (although that would be a better reading if the Greek used θαρσέω instead). I would just render it "when he dared, he went in" rather than try to cement my guess for the reader. The emphasis is more on the riskiness of the action rather than the psychological state of the actor (which isn't surprising at all since that culture "thought in allocentric (social) terms; they did not, as we do, think in idiocentric (psychological) terms" (Crook, following Malina et al).

All of which is to say, "the text doesn't make it clear".

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I think you're reading too much into the KJV translation of Matthew 27:58. For example, the ESV states,

He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.

The Greek word translated into English as "begged" is ᾐτήσατο (ēitēsato), which is a conjugation of the verb αἰτέω. αἰτέω can simply mean "to ask for." In English, "to beg someone" can mean both to plead with them or to simply request something from them.

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  • "αἰτέω can simply mean "to ask for." - Please cite a lexicon to support your assertion. While hyperlinking lexicons is certainly helpful as long as the website is accessible, if and when a URL goes down, it's useless. Just a thought. – user862 Sep 29 '15 at 4:01
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In Mark 15:43, the Greek text states,

ἦλθεν Ἰωσὴφ ὁ ἀπὸ Ἁριμαθαίας εὐσχήμων βουλευτής ὃς καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν προσδεχόμενος τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ τολμήσας εἰσῆλθεν πρὸς Πιλᾶτον καὶ ᾐτήσατο τὸ σῶμα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ (TR, 1550)

which is translated as,

Joseph, who is from Arimathaia, an honorable counselor, who himself also was awaiting the kingdom of God, came [and] entered boldly unto Pilate and «ᾐτήσατο» Jesus' body.

In Matt. 27:57-58, the Greek text states,

57 Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης ἦλθεν ἄνθρωπος πλούσιος ἀπὸ Ἁριμαθαίας, τοὔνομα Ἰωσήφ, ὃς καὶ αὐτὸς ἐμαθήτευσεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ 58 οὗτος προσελθὼν τῷ Πιλάτῳ ᾐτήσατο τὸ σῶμα τοῦ Ἰησοῦ τότε ὁ Πιλᾶτος ἐκέλευσεν ἀποδοθῆναι τὸ σῶμα (TR, 1550)

which is translated as,

57 And after it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathaia, by the name Joseph, who himself also was Jesus' disciple. 58 After this [man] came unto Pilate, he «ᾐτήσατο» Jesus' body. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.

Both verses have the verb ᾐτήσατο, a verb conjugated from the lemma αἰτέω.1 According to Joseph Henry Thayer (note the bold-faced text),

αἰτέω, -ῶ; fut. αἰτήσω, 1 aor. ᾔτησα; pf. ᾔτηκα; Mid., pres. αἰτοῦμαι; impf. ᾐτούμην; fut. αἰτήσομαι; 1 aor. ᾐτησάμην; [fr. Hom. down]; to ask mid. to ask for one’s self, request for one’s self; absol.: Jas. 1:6; Mt. 7:7; mid., Jas. 4:3; Jn. 16:26; Mk. 15:8; αἰτεῖσθαί τι, Jn. 15:7; Mt. 14:7; Mk. 6:24; 10:38; 11:24; 15:43; 1 Jn. 5:14 sq.; Lk. 23:52; Acts 25:3, 15, etc.; αἰτεῖν with acc. of the pers. to whom the request is made: Mt. 5:42; 6:8; Lk. 6:30; αἰτεῖσθαι with acc. of the pers. asked for—whether to be released, Mt. 27:20; Mk. 15:6 [here T WH Tr mrg. παραιτ. q. v.]; Lk. 23:25; or bestowed as a gift, Acts 13:21; αἰτεῖν τι ἀπό τινος, Mt. 20:20 L Tr txt. WH txt.; [Lk. 12:20 Tr WH]; 1 Jn. 5:15 L T Tr WH; (so αἰτεῖσθαι in Plut. Galb. 20) [cf. B. 149 (130)]; τὶ παρἀ τινος, Acts 3:2; Mt. 20:20 R G T Tr mrg. WH mrg.; Jas. 1:5; 1 Jn. 5:15 R G; foll. by the inf., Jn. 4:9; mid., Acts 9:2; [αἰτεῖν τι ἐν τ. ὀνόματι Χριστοῦ, Jn. 14:13; 16:24 (see ὄνομα, 2 e.); τὶ ἐν τῇ προσευχῇ, Mt. 21:22]; αἰτεῖν τινά τι, Mt. 7:9; Lk. 11:11; Mk. 6:22; Jn. [14:14 T but L WH Tr mrg. br.]; 16:23; ὑπέρ τινος foll. by ἵνα. Col. 1:9 [cf. B. 237 (204)]; αἰτεῖσθαι with the acc. and inf., Lk. 23:23; Acts 3:14; with inf. only. Acts 7:46 (ᾐτήσατο εὑρεῖν he asked that he himself might find; others wrongly translate ᾐτήσατο desired); Eph. 3:13. With the idea of demanding prominent: αἰτεῖν τι, Lk. 1:63; 1 Co. 1:22; τινά τι, Lk. 12:48; 1 Pet. 3:15.

[The constructions of this word in the Greek Bible, the Apost. Fathers, etc., are exhibited in detail by Prof. Ezra Abbot in the No. Am. Rev. for Jan. 1872, p. 182 sq. He there shows also (in opposition to Trench, § xl., and others) that it is not “the constant word for the seeking of the inferior from the superior,” and so differing from ἐρωτάω, which has been assumed to imply ‘a certain equality or familiarity between the parties’; that the distinction between the words does not turn upon the relative dignity of the person asking and the person asked; but that αἰτέω signifies to ask for something to be given not done, giving prominence to the thing asked for rather than the person, and hence is rarely used in exhortation. Ἐρωτάω, on the other hand, is to request a person to do (rarely to give) something; referring more directly to the person, it is naturally used in exhortation, etc. The views of Trench are also rejected by Cremer, 4te Aufl. s. v. The latter distinguishes αἰτέω from similar words as follows: “αἰτέω denotes the request of the will, ἐπιθυμέω that of the sensibilities, δέομαι the asking of need, while ἐρωτάω marks the form of the request, as does εὔχεσθαι also, which in classic Greek is the proper expression for a request directed to the gods and embodying itself in prayer.” Ἐρωτάω, αἰτέω and δέομαι are also compared briefly by Green, Critical Notes, etc. (on Jn. 14:13, 16), who concludes of ἐρωτάω “it cannot serve to indicate directly any peculiar position, absolute or relative, of the agent. The use of the word may, therefore, be viewed as having relation to the manner and cast of the request, namely, when carrying a certain freedom of aim and bearing; a thing inseparable from the act of direct interrogation”; cf. further Schmidt ch. 7. Comp.: ἀπ-, ἐξ-, ἐπ-, παρ·(-μαι), προσ-αιτέω.]

In summary, the same verb ᾐτήσατο occurs in both verses, but Mark adds that Joseph of Arimathaia "entered boldly unto Pilate" (τολμήσας εἰσῆλθεν πρὸς Πιλᾶτον), not fearing any repurcussions. There's no basis for suggesting that one gospel describes Joseph as begging while the other describes him as boldly requesting. The same verb expresses the same action in both, albeit Mark's account is slightly more detailed.


Footnotes

1 3rd person, singular number, aorist tense, indicative mood, middle voice

References

Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. New York: American Book, 1889.

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  • I wonder if the KJV is trying to emphasize the middle nuance of that verb by using “begged” or “craved” (i.e. asked on behalf of oneself or something). Per BDAG, αἰτέω is without any real distinction betw. act. and mid....[the distinction] found by ancient grammarians has only very limited validity for our lit. – Susan Sep 29 '15 at 7:09
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As shown above, both Mark and Matthew simply say that Joseph asked for the body of Jesus. "Begged for" is a mistranslation. Mark adds that he boldly went to Pilate (because it took courage to approach the commander of the occupying power) but this does not say exactly how he asked for the body of Jesus. So the answer is that the gospels give no indication of exactly how he asked for the body of Jesus.

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