Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy Jewish man who buried the body of Jesus Christ after the Crucifixion.

There are many legends about him, including one that he visited Britain with the young Jesus, and another that after the Crucifixion he brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury in Somerset and established the first Christian church there.

The story of Joseph of Arimathea

The story of Joseph of Arimathea is told in all four gospels.

Joseph was a wealthy man who came from Arimathea in Judea.

He was a good and righteous man who managed to be both a member of the Council (the Sanhedrin) and a secret supporter of Jesus - which is why he did not join in the Council's actions against Jesus.

After the death of Jesus, Joseph asked Pilate for permission to take Jesus' body and bury it properly.

Permission was granted and the body was taken down. Joseph, helped by Nicodemus, wrapped the body in cloth with the addition of myrrh and aloes.

They buried Jesus in an unused tomb that Joseph may have intended for himself, where it was protected by a heavy stone rolled against the opening.

What the Bible says about Joseph of Arimathea

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.

So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.

Matthew 27:57-60

When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.

Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.

Mark 15:42-64

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.

This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.

Luke 23:50-53

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.

They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

John 19:38-42

The legends of Joseph of Arimathea

But there's much more to Joseph of Arimathea than is found in the gospels. A whole host of other stories have grown up around him...

  • He was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain, having been sent with other disciples by St Philip
  • He built Britain's first church (some say this was actually the first church in the world)
  • He was Mary's uncle, and thus Jesus' great-uncle
  • He was a merchant who visited England to buy Cornish tin
  • He took Jesus with him to England when Jesus was a teenager (local legends say that among the places they visited were St Just in Roseland and St Michael's Mount)
  • He brought to England two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus (or two vials containing the sweat of Jesus)
  • He brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in a well at Glastonbury, now called the Chalice Well

Joseph was related to Jesus

This story may originate from the tradition that the senior male relative of a crucified person was obliged to deal with the body. Jesus' father was no longer around, so if Joseph of Arimathea did volunteer for the task, that suggests that he must have been related to Jesus in some important way.

Joseph of Arimathea in England

There are two well-known legends about visits Joseph paid to the West of England.

However when historians looked at the evidence, they could find no mention of Joseph of Arimathea until the 13th century. It's been suggested that the association of Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury was a deliberate ploy to add to the status of Glastonbury by associating it with such a prestigious person.

Joseph visited England with the young Jesus

One of the abiding legends of early English Christianity is that Joseph of Arimathea visited the West Country of England with the teenage Jesus. Both Somerset and Cornwall claim to have been visited by Joseph and Jesus.

The contemporary troubadour Van Morrison has put the legend to music in his song Summertime in England...

...Won't you meet me down by Avalon
In the summertime in England
In the Church of St. John...
Did you ever hear about Jesus walkin'
Jesus walkin' down by Avalon?

Van Morrison, Summertime In England, from the album Common One

The name 'Avalon' refers to Glastonbury, and Glastonbury parish church is dedicated to St John.

But far better known is this poem by William Blake, based on the same legend, and famously set to music by Sir Hubert Parry as 'Jerusalem':

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

William Blake (1757-1827)

The legend of the Glastonbury Thorn

The Glastonbury Thorn (Crataegus monogyna 'Biflora') is a variety of hawthorn that flowers twice a year in winter and spring - or, given suitable conditions, at Christmas and Easter.

The legend states that Joseph of Arimathea became a missionary after the death of Jesus and was eventually sent to England to preach the Gospel. He took with him the Holy Grail, and his pilgrim's staff.

After landing in England he made his way to Glastonbury. When he stuck his pilgrim's staff in the ground at Wearyall Hill it overnight turned into a flowering thorn tree.

In time Joseph converted thousands to Christianity, including, it is said, 18,000 in a single day at the town of Wells. He also converted Ethelbert, the local king.

Joseph went on to found Glastonbury Abbey.

He became so well-known and admired that when he died at the age of 86, his body was carried by six kings in the funeral procession.

The Glastonbury Thorn is said to flower on Christmas Day every year, and blossom from the plant in the churchyard of St John's Church Glastonbury is said to be used to decorate the Christmas breakfast table of the Queen each year.

St John's Church has a stained glass window commemorating Joseph of Arimathea.

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