Joseph of Arimathea
According to the Christian Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea is the person who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus following Jesus' crucifixion. A native of Arimathea, he was apparently a man of wealth, and probably a member of the Sanhedrin. He is described as an "honourable counsellor, who waited (or 'was searching') for the Kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43), and according to 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."
Pilate, reassured by a centurion that the death had really taken place, allowed Joseph's request. Joseph immediately purchased fine linen (Mark 15:46) and proceeded to Golgotha to take the body down from the cross. There, assisted by Nicodemus, he took the body and wrapped it in the fine linen, sprinkling it with the myrrh and aloes that Nicodemus had brought (John 19:39). The body was then conveyed to a new tomb that had been hewn for Joseph himself out of a rock in his garden nearby. There they laid it, in the presence of Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women, and rolled a great stone to the entrance, and departed (Luke 23:53, 55). 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 and 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.
Joseph's role in the Gospels
Christians interpret Joseph's role as fulfilling Isaiah's prediction that the grave of the Messiah would be with a rich man (Isaiah 53:9). The skeptical tradition, which reads the various fulfillments of prophecies in the life of Jesus as inventions designed for that purpose, reads Joseph of Arimathea as a story created to fulfill this prophecy in Isaiah. With this in mind, it is worth quoting the passage from Isaiah, chapter 53, the "Man of Sorrows" passage, because so much of the meaningfulness of Joseph of Arimathea hinges upon these words: "They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth" (Isaiah 53:9 RSV).
The Greek Septuagint text is not quite the same: "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" (Isaiah 53:9).
In the Qumran community's Great Isaiah Scroll, dated at c. 100 B.C.E. 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."
Is the "Man of Sorrows" assigned a shameful grave with the rich and wicked? Or are the wicked and rich given his grave? The question cannot be resolved simply from the three parallel surviving manuscript traditions.
Since the second century C.E., a mass of legendary details has accumulated around the figure of Joseph of Arimathea in addition to the New Testament references. Joseph is also mentioned in apocryphal and non-canonical accounts, such as the Acts of Pilate, given the medieval title Gospel of Nicodemus and The Narrative of Joseph, and early church historians such as Irenaeus (c. 125–c.189), Hippolytus (170–236), Tertullian (155–222), and Eusebius (260–340) 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, wrote, in Homilies of St. John Chrysostum on the Gospel of John, that Joseph was likely one of the Seventy Apostles appointed in Luke 10.
During the late twelfth 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 is elaborated upon in Boron's sequels and in later Arthurian works. Later re-tellings of the story contend that Joseph of Arimathea himself traveled to Britain and became the first (or at least an early) bishop of Christianity.
All four Canonical Gospels describe the involvement of Joseph with the burial of Christ, in reference to Isaiah 53:9. According to Dwight Moody, seldom is anything mentioned by all four Evangelists. If something is mentioned by Matthew and Mark, it is often omitted by Luke and John. However, in the case of Joseph of Arimathea, he and his actions are mentioned by all four writers: Matthew 27:57–60, Mark 15:43-46, Luke 23:50-55, and John 19:38-42.
Gospel of Nicodemus
The Gospel of Nicodemus, a section of 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:
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)
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 traveled back from Arimathea to Jerusalem to meet with the elders, where they questioned him 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).
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, traveled to Arimathea to interview Simeon's sons Charinus and Lenthius.
Other medieval texts
Medieval interest in Joseph centered around two themes;
- Joseph as the founder of British Christianity (even before it had taken hold in Rome).
- Joseph as the original guardian of the Holy Grail.
Joseph and Britain
Legends about the arrival of Christianity in Britain abounded during the Middle Ages, inspired by even earlier accounts. Early writers do not connect Joseph to this activity, however. Tertullian (155-222 C.E.) wrote in Adversus Judaeos that Britain had already received and accepted the Gospel in his lifetime, writing: "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 222 C.E. However, Eusebius (260-340 C.E.), Bishop of Caesarea and one of the earliest and most comprehensive of church historians, wrote in Demonstratio Evangelica, Book 3, that "the Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles." Saint Hilary of Poitiers (300-376 C.E.) also wrote (Tract XIV, Ps 8) that the Apostles had built churches and that the Gospel had passed into Britain. This claim is echoed by Saint John Chrysostom (347-407 C.E.), the Patriarch of Constantinople in Chrysostomo Orat. O Theos Xristos:
The British Isles which are beyond the sea, and which lie in the ocean, have received virtue of the Word. Churches are there found and altars erected… Though thou shouldst go to the ocean, to the British Isles, there though shouldst hear all men everywhere discoursing matters out of the scriptures, with another voice indeed, but not another faith, with a different tongue, but the same judgment.
Hippolytus (170-236 C.E.), considered to have been one of the most learned Christian historians, identifies the seventy whom Jesus sent in Luke 10, and includes Aristobulus, listed in Romans 16:10 with Joseph, and states that he ended up becoming a Pastor in Britain. This is further argued by St. Hilary in Tract XIV, Ps 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 ninth century, Life of Mary Magdalene by Rabanus Maurus (766-856 C.E.), Archbishop of Mayence. Rabanus states that Joseph of Arimathea was sent to Britain and, he explains, traveled 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." An authentic copy of the Maurus text is housed in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. 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 is that of a supposed Phoenician trade route to Britain, described by Diodorus Siculus.
William of Malmesbury mentions Joseph 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 Glastonbury Abbey was founded by them; Glastonbury would be associated specifically with Joseph in later literature. Cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1609), Vatican Librarian and historian, recorded this voyage by Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Marcella, and others in his Annales Ecclesiatici, volume 1, section 35.
Author Glenn Kimball further links the arrival, in Britain, of Joseph of Arimathea by 63 C.E. to the revolt of Boudica in England at nearly precisely that time (61 C.E.).
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. Interestingly, 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.
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. One version, popular during the Romantic period, even claims Joseph had taken Jesus to the island as a boy. This was the inspiration for William Blake's mystical hymn, Jerusalem.
The 2002 film The Gathering refers to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea in Britain. In the film the original first church in England is found near Glastonbury during the Glastonbury festival, which is said to having been built after the arrival of Joseph of Arimathe
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).
- Gospel of Matthew 27:57
- www.ao.net, Qumran text of Isaiah 53. Retrieved May 14, 2008.
- holy-catholic.org, Christ in Britain. Retrieved May 14, 2008.
- Dwight Lyman Moody, Moody’s Bible Characters Come Alive (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997, ISBN 0-520-04392-8).
- Alexander Walker (trans.), Apocryphal Gospels Acts and Revelations (T and T Clark, 1873).
- Library of Oxford, Manuscripts. Retrieved May 14, 2008.
- www.fordham.edu, Elizabeth's 1559 reply to the Catholic bishops. Retrieved May 14, 2008.
- Catholic Encyclopedia, Joseph of Arimathea. Retrieved February 5, 2007.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Boardman, William. Sun and Wind—The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea. Scepter Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-1594170393.
- Boron, Robert De. Joseph of Arimathea. Rudolf Steiner Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0854404261.
- Lewis, Lionel Smithett. St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury. Lutterworth Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0718891657.
- Moody, Dwight Lyman. Moody’s Bible Characters Come Alive. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997. ISBN 0-520-04392-8.
- Walker, Alexander. Apocryphal Gospels Acts and Revelations. T and T Clark, 1873.
All links retrieved June 8, 2018.
- A Biography of Joseph of Arimathea
- Catholic Encyclopedia 1908: "Joseph of Arimathea"
- Qumran text of Isaiah 53
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