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Joseph of Arimathea

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Joseph of Arimathea
Pietro Perugino 012.jpg
Joseph of Arimathea by Pietro Perugino, a detail from a Lamentation
Venerated in Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion
Feast March 17 in the West, July 31 in the East

Joseph of Arimathea was, according to the Gospels, the man who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus after Jesus' Crucifixion. He is mentioned in all four Gospels.

Gospel references

A native of Arimathea, Joseph of Arimathea was apparently a man of wealth, and probably a member of the Sanhedrin, which is the way bouleutēs, literally "counsellor", in Matthew 27:57 and Luke 23:50 is most often interpreted. According to Mark 15:43, Joseph was an "honourable counsellor, who waited (or "was searching") for the kingdom of God". In John 19:38 he was secretly a disciple of Jesus: as soon as he heard the news of Jesus' death, he "went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus." R.J. Miller[1] notes this act as "unexpected… Is Joseph in effect bringing Jesus into his family?"

Pilate, reassured by a centurion that the death had taken place allowed Joseph's request. Joseph immediately purchased fine linen (Mark 15:46) and proceeded to Golgotha to take Jesus down from the cross. There, assisted by Nicodemus, he took Jesus and wrapped him in the fine linen, and applied myrrh and aloes. These are substances which Nicodemus had brought (John 19:39). Jesus was then conveyed to the place prepared for Joseph of Arimathea, a man-made cave hewn from rock in the garden of his house nearby.

This was done speedily, "for the Sabbath was drawing on".


Joseph of Arimathea is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and some Anglican churches. His feast-day is March 17 in the West, July 31 in the East. The Orthodox also commemorate him on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers—the second Sunday after Pascha (Easter)—as well as on July 31. He appears in some early New Testament apocrypha, and a series of legends grew around him during the Middle Ages, which tied him to Britain and the Holy Grail.

Old Testament prophecy


Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Christians interpret Joseph's role as fulfilling Isaiah's prediction that the grave of the "Suffering Servant" would be with a rich man (Isaiah 53:9), assuming that Isaiah meant Messiah. The sceptical tradition, which reads the various fulfilments of prophecies in the life of Jesus as inventions designed for that purpose, reads Joseph of Arimathea as a story created to fulfil this prophecy in Isaiah, although the gospel accounts do not claim a prophecy fulfilment at that point. The prophecy in Isaiah chapter 53, is known as the "Man of Sorrows" passage:

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

The Greek Septuagint text:

And I will give the wicked for his burial, and the rich for his death; for he practised no iniquity, nor craft with his mouth.

In the Qumran community's Great Isaiah Scroll, dated at c. 100 BC, the words are not identical to the Masoretic text:

And they gave wicked ones his grave and [a scribbled word, probably accusative sign "eth"] rich ones in his death although he worked no violence neither deceit in his mouth.

Development of legends

Since the 2nd century a mass of legendary detail has accumulated around the figure of Joseph of Arimathea in addition to the New Testament references. Joseph is referenced in apocryphal and non-canonical accounts such as the Acts of Pilate,[2] given the medieval title Gospel of Nicodemus and The Narrative of Joseph, and in early church historians such as Irenaeus (125 – 189), Hippolytus (170 – 236), Tertullian (155 – 222), and Eusebius (260 – 340), who added details not in the canonical accounts. Hilary of Poitiers (300 – 367) enriched the legend, and Saint John Chrysostom (347 – 407), the Patriarch of Constantinople, was the first to write[3] that Joseph was one of the Seventy Apostles appointed in Luke 10.

During the late 12th century, Joseph became connected with the Arthurian cycle as the first keeper of the Holy Grail. This idea first appears in Robert de Boron's Joseph d'Arimathie, in which Joseph receives the Grail from an apparition of Jesus and sends it with his followers to Britain. This theme is elaborated upon in Boron's sequels and in later Arthurian works. Later retellings of the story contend that Joseph of Arimathea himself travelled to Britain and became the first Christian bishop in the Isles.[4]

Gospel of Nicodemus

The Gospel of Nicodemus, a text appended to the Acts of Pilate, provides additional, though even more mythologized, details. After Joseph asked for the body of Christ from Pilate, and prepared the body with Nicodemus' help, Christ's body was delivered to a new tomb that Joseph had built for himself. In the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Jewish elders express anger at Joseph for burying the body of Christ in the following exchange:

And likewise Joseph also stepped out and said to them: Why are you angry against me because I begged the body of Jesus? Behold, I have put him in my new tomb, wrapping in clean linen; and I have rolled a stone to the door of the tomb. And you have acted not well against the just man, because you have not repented of crucifying him, but also have pierced him with a spear.
Gospel of Nicodemus. Translated by Alexander Walker.

The Jewish elders then captured Joseph, and imprisoned him, and placed a seal on the door to his cell after first posting a guard. Joseph warned the elders:

The Son of God whom you hanged upon the cross, is able to deliver me out of your hands. All your wickedness will return upon you.
Once the elders returned to the cell, the seal was still in place, but Joseph was gone. The elders later discover that Joseph had returned to Arimathea. Having a change in heart, the elders desired to have a more civil conversation with Joseph about his actions and sent a letter of apology to him by means of seven of his friends. Joseph travelled back from Arimathea to Jerusalem to meet with the elders, where they questioned by them about his escape. He told them this story;
On the day of the Preparation, about the tenth hour, you shut me in, and I remained there the whole Sabbath in full. And when midnight came, as I was standing and praying, the house where you shut me in was hung up by the four corners, and there was a flashing of light in mine eyes. And I fell to the ground trembling. Then some one lifted me up from the place where I had fallen, and poured over me an abundance of water from the head even to the feet, and put round my nostrils the odour of a wonderful ointment, and rubbed my face with the water itself, as if washing me, and kissed me, and said to me, Joseph, fear not; but open thine eyes, and see who it is that speaks to thee. And looking, I saw Jesus; and being terrified, I thought it was a phantom. And with prayer and the commandments I spoke to him, and he spoke with me. And I said to him: Art thou Rabbi Elias? And he said to me: I am not Elias. And I said: Who art thou, my Lord? And he said to me: I am Jesus, whose body thou didst beg from Pilate, and wrap in clean linen; and thou didst lay a napkin on my face, and didst lay me in thy new tomb, and roll a stone to the door of the tomb. Then I said to him that was speaking to me: Show me, Lord, where I laid thee. And he led me, and showed me the place where I laid him, and the linen which I had put on him, and the napkin which I had wrapped upon his face; and I knew that it was Jesus. And he took hold of me with his hand, and put me in the midst of my house though the gates were shut, and put me in my bed, and said to me: Peace to thee! And he kissed me, and said to me: For forty days go not out of thy house; for, lo, I go to my brethren into Galilee.
Gospel of Nicodemus. Translated by Alexander Walker

According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, Joseph testified to the Jewish elders, and specifically to chief priests Caiaphas and Annas that Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven and he indicated that others were raised from the dead at the resurrection of Christ (repeating Matt 27:52-53). He specifically identified the two sons of the high-priest Simeon (again in Luke 2:25-35). The elders Annas, Caiaphas, Nicodemus, and Joseph himself, along with Gamaliel under whom Paul of Tarsus studied, travelled to Arimathea to interview Simeon's sons Charinus and Lenthius.

Other medieval texts

Medieval interest in Joseph centered on two themes, that of Joseph as the founder of British Christianity (even before it had taken hold in Rome), and that of Joseph as the original guardian of the Holy Grail.


Template:History of Christianity in Great Britain Legends about the arrival of Christianity in Britain abounded during the Middle Ages. Early writers do not connect Joseph to this activity, however. Tertullian (AD 155-222) wrote in Adversus Judaeos that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his lifetime, writing of:[5]

… all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons – inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.

Tertullian does not say how the Gospel came to Britain before AD 222. However, Eusebius, (AD 260-340) Bishop of Caesarea and one of the earliest and most comprehensive of church historians, wrote of Christ's disciples in Demonstratio Evangelica, saying that "some have crossed the Ocean and reached the Isles of Britain."[6] Saint Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-376) also wrote that the Apostles had built churches and that the Gospel had passed into Britain.[7]

Hippolytus (AD 170-236), considered to have been one of the most learned Christian historians, puts names to the seventy disciples whom Jesus sent forth in Luke 10, includes Aristobulus of Romans 16:10 with Joseph, and states that he ended up becoming a pastor in Britain.[8]

In none of these earliest references to Christianity’s arrival in Britain is Joseph of Arimathea mentioned. The first connection of Joseph of Arimathea with Britain is found in the 9th century Life of Mary Magdalene by Rabanus Maurus (AD 766-856), Archbishop of Mainz. Rabanus states that Joseph of Arimathea was sent to Britain, and he goes on to detail who travelled with him as far as France, claiming that he was accompanied by "the two Bethany sisters, Mary and Martha, Lazarus (who was raised from the dead), St. Eutropius, St. Salome, St. Cleon, St. Saturnius, St. Mary Magdalen, Marcella (the maid of the Bethany sisters), St. Maxium or Maximin, St. Martial, and St. Trophimus or Restitutus."[9] An authentic copy of the Maurus text is housed in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University.[10] Rabanus Maurus describes their voyage to Britain:

Leaving the shores of Asia and favoured by an east wind, they went round about, down the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Europe and Africa, leaving the city of Rome and all the land to the right. Then happily turning their course to the right, they came near to the city of Marseilles, in the Viennoise province of the Gauls, where the river Rhône is received by the sea. There, having called upon God, the great King of all the world, they parted; each company going to the province where the Holy Spirit directed them; presently preaching everywhere…

The route he describes follows that of a supposed Phoenician trade route to Britain, as described by Diodorus Siculus.

William of Malmesbury mentions Joseph's going to Britain in one passage of his Chronicle of the English Kings. He says Philip the Apostle sent twelve Christians to Britain, one of whom was his dearest friend, Joseph of Arimathea. William does not mention Joseph by name again, but he mentions the twelve evangelists generally. He claims that Glastonbury Abbey was founded by them; Glastonbury would be associated specifically with Joseph in later literature. Cardinal Caesar Baronius[11] the Vatican Librarian and historian (d. 1609), recorded this voyage by Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Marcella and others in his Annales Ecclesiatici, volume 1, section 35.

The accretion of legends round Joseph of Arimathea in Britain, encapsulated by the poem hymn of William Blake And did those feet in ancient time held as "an almost secret yet passionately held article of faith among certain otherwise quite orthodox Christians", was critically examined by A. W. Smith in 1989.[12] In its most developed version, Joseph, a tin merchant, visited Cornwall, accompanied by his nephew, the boy Jesus. C.C. Dobson made a case for the authenticity of the Glastonbury legenda.[13]

Holy Grail

The legend that Joseph was given the responsibility of keeping the Holy Grail was the product of Robert de Boron, who essentially expanded upon stories from Acts of Pilate. In Boron's Joseph d'Arimathe, Joseph is imprisoned much as in the Acts, but it is the Grail that sustains him during his captivity. Upon his release he founds his company of followers, who take the Grail to Britain. The origin of the association between Joseph and Britain is not entirely clear, but it is probably through this association that Boron attached him to the Grail. In the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, a vast Arthurian composition that took much from Boron, it is not Joseph but his son Josephus who is considered the primary holy man of Britain.

Later authors sometimes mistakenly or deliberately treated the Grail story as truth – John of Glastonbury, who assembled a chronicle of the history of Glastonbury Abbey around 1350 claims that when Joseph came to Britain he brought with him a wooden cup used in the Last Supper, and two cruets, one holding the blood of Christ, and the other his sweat, washed from his wounded body on the Cross. This legend is the source of the Grail claim by the Nanteos Cup on display in the museum in Aberystwyth; however, it should be noted that there is no reference to this tradition in ancient or medieval text. John further claims King Arthur was descended from Joseph, listing the following imaginative pedigree through King Arthur's mother:

Helaius, Nepos Joseph, Genuit Josus, Josue Genuit Aminadab, Aminadab Genuit Filium, qui Genuit Ygernam, de qua Rex Pen-Dragon, Genuit Nobilem et Famosum Regum Arthurum, per Quod Patet, Quod Rex Arthurus de Stirpe Joseph descendit.

Elizabeth I cited Joseph's missionary work in England when she told Roman Catholic bishops that the Church of England pre-dated the Roman Church in England.[14]

Other legends

When Joseph set his walking staff on the ground to sleep, it miraculously took root, leafed out, and blossomed as the "Glastonbury thorn". The retelling of such miracles did encourage the pilgrimage trade at Glastonbury until the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, during the English Reformation.

The mytheme of the staff that Joseph of Arimathea set in the ground at Glastonbury, which broke into leaf and flower as the Glastonbury Thorn is a common miracle in hagiography. Such a miracle is told of the Anglo-Saxon saint Etheldreda:

Continuing her flight to Ely, Etheldreda halted for some days at Alfham, near Wintringham, where she founded a church; and near this place occurred the "miracle of her staff." Wearied with her journey, she one day slept by the wayside, having fixed her staff in the ground at her head. On waking she found the dry staff had burst into leaf; it became an ash tree, the "greatest tree in all that country;" and the place of her rest, where a church was afterwards built, became known as "Etheldredestow."
Richard John King, 1862, in: Handbook of the Cathedrals of England; Eastern division: Oxford, Peterborough, Norwich, Ely, Lincoln.[15]

Other legends claim Joseph was a relative of Jesus; specifically, Mary's uncle. Other speculation makes him a tin merchant, whose connection with Britain came by the abundant tin mines there (e.g. Ding Dong mines, Gulval). One version, popular during the Romantic period, even claims Joseph had taken Jesus to the island as a boy.[16] This was the inspiration for William Blake's mystical hymn Jerusalem.

Another legend, as recorded in Flores Historiarum is that Joseph is in fact the Wandering Jew, a man cursed by Jesus to walk the Earth until the Second Coming.[17]


Arimathea itself is not otherwise documented, though it was "a city of Judea" according to Luke 23:51. Arimathea is usually identified with either Ramleh or Ramathaim-Zophim, where David came to Samuel (1 Samuel chapter 19).

See also


  1. R.J. Miller, Complete Gospels: annotated scholars version, 1994, p. 51
  2. The Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that "the additional details which are found concerning him in the apocryphal Acta Pilati ("Acts of Pilate"), are unworthy of credence."
  3. John Chrysostom, Homilies of St. John Chrysostum on the Gospel of John.
  4. "Likewise fabulous is the legend", continues the Catholic Encyclopedia, "which tells of his coming to Gaul A.D. 63, and thence to Great Britain, where he is supposed to have founded the earliest Christian oratory at Glastonbury. Finally, the story of the translation of the body of Joseph of Arimathea from Jerusalem to Moyenmonstre (Diocese of Toul) originated late and is unreliable."
  6. Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica, Book 3
  7. Hilary, Tract XIV, Psalm 8
  8. Wace, "Hippolytus"
  9. Schaff-Herzog. "Rhabanus Maurus". 
  10. Bodleian Library. "Manuscripts".  "MS. Laud 108 of the Bodleian". 
  11. [ Venerable Cesare Baronius
  12. Smith, "'And Did Those Feet...?': The 'Legend' of Christ's Visit to Britain" Folklore 100.1 (1989), pp. 63-83.
  13. Dobson, Did Our Lord Visit Britain as they say in Cornwall and Somerset? (Glastonbury: Avalon Press) 1936.
  14. Elizabeth's 1559 reply to the Catholic bishops
  15. King, Richard John (1862) Handbook of the Cathedrals of England; Eastern division: Oxford, Peterborough, Norwich, Ely, Lincoln. London: John Murray (On-line text)
  16. "Joseph of Arimathea" Catholic Encyclopedia]. Retrieved February 5, 2007.
  17. Percy, Thomas (2001) [1847]. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. 2. Adamant Media Corporation. p. 246. ISBN 1402173806. 

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