Joseph of Arimathea
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 Apostolic Christian Gospels.
References in the four
Apostolic Christian Gospels
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 is most often interpreted. According to
Mark 15:43, Joseph was an "honourable counsellor, who waited (or "was
searching") for the
Pilate, reassured by a
centurion that the death had taken place allowed Joseph's request. Joseph
immediately purchased fine linen (Mark ) and proceeded to
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
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 prophesied 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.
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.
Basis for the 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, 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
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
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.
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
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 -35).
The elders Annas, Caiaphas, Nicodemus, and Joseph himself, along with Gamaliel
under whom Paul of
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
Legends about the arrival
of Christianity in
Tertullian does not say how
the Gospel came to
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.
In none of these earliest
references to Christianity’s arrival in
Leaving the shores of
The route he describes
follows that of a supposed Phoenician trade route to
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 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. 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 legends.
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.
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.
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.
The story 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.
Other legends claim Joseph was a relative of Jesus; specifically, Mary's uncle, or according to some genealogies, Joseph'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 Britain as a boy. 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.
Arimathea (The Town)
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).
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