We all recognize Joseph of Arimathea as an influential, if at first timid, disciple of Christ. All four gospels refer to him.
Evidently a native of Arimathea (Rathamin) in the Judean hills, he was a resident of Jerusalem during Jesus’ preaching career. A wealthy man, he had ordered a tomb to be carved for himself in the outcroppings of rock just outside the eastern wall of the Holy City. Joseph was a member of the Jerusalem council, the Sanhedrin; but, as St. Luke tells us, he did not approve of the council’s action in condemning Christ to death (24:51). As a matter of fact, he was himself a follower of the Messiah, although, while Jesus lived, a secret one “for fear of the Jews” (Jn 19:38). When Jesus was dead, however, this worthy man threw off his fears and boldly asked Pilate for the Savior’s body. He and another secret disciple, Nicodemus, removed the body from the cross and laid it to rest in Joseph’s new tomb. The tomb thereafter became so sacred that apparently neither Joseph nor anybody else used it afterward.
St. Luke calls this man “a virtuous and righteous man”–terms of high praise (Lk 23:50). However, this is the last time that he is mentioned by the four evangelists. It is perhaps inevitable that he, like the other faithful disciples closest to our Lord, should at length be given the title “saint.” He is venerated as such in both the Eastern and the Western Churches.
Legend has attributed to St. Joseph an adventurous life after the Resurrection. The apocryphal (forged) “Gospel of Nicodemus”, dating from the second or third century, alleges that the leaders of the Jews imprisoned Joseph for his part in the burial of Christ, and were ready to execute him. But the risen Christ appeared to him and released him from prison.
The most startling legends of Joseph, however, date from the 13th century, and center around the famous Benedictine monastery of Glastonbury in Somersetshire, England. These legends claim that St. Philip the Apostle preached the Gospel in Gaul (France), with Joseph the Arimathean as his associate. From Gaul, Philip then sent 12 of his clerics to England under Joseph’s direction, to establish a monastery at Yniswitrin (later called Glastonbury). Philip later sent 150 other Christians over to Britain. They crossed the channel miraculously, borne on the shirt of Josephus, the son of Joseph! It was at Glastonbury that St. Joseph died and was buried.
When Joseph approached Yniswitrin, says another legend, and sat down to rest, he plunged his hawthorn staff into the ground. The thornwood took root and grew at length into a tree whose blossoms flowered each Christmas Day. So popular was this tree among pilgrims to Glastonbury, that the English Puritans, considering it idolatrous, cut it down around 1649. By then, however, many devout persons had taken shoots from the original hawthorn and grown them into independent trees. These do blossom yearly on December 25.
The legend of this early Christian mission to England also became associated with the romance of the Holy Grail, and thus with the cluster of tales centering on King Arthur and the Round Table. The Holy Grail purported to be either the dish from which Jesus ate or the cup from which he drank at the Last Supper. Joseph of Arimathea was said to have gathered the Precious Blood on Calvary in this grail. Ultimately, says the romance, the vessel was carried to England by Joseph or by one of his kin. Like all such romantic fantasies, however, the grail story has many inconsistencies.
Furthermore, the historians of Britain for its first 11 centuries make no mention at all of Joseph of Arimathea’s supposed visit to the British Isles, nor do the annals of Glastonbury Abbey make any mention of the Holy Grail until 1400. Therefore, although like most romantic fiction, the tale of Joseph’s coming to Glastonbury was widely accepted, it has no real historical foundation.
The important fact remains: St. Joseph of Arimathea served Jesus well, and for that he deserves to be venerated as a saint in the Christian Church.
–Father Robert F. McNamara