Did Joseph of Arimathea Bring the Holy Grail to Britain?
According to the Biblical Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea played a key role in the days following Jesus’ death and leading up to his resurrection. It is claimed that he removed Jesus’ body from the cross and placed him in the tomb from which he would rise three days later. This article delves into the details of Joseph's life and the legends that now exist around him, including claims that he travelled to Britain.
Who Was Joseph of Arimathea?
It is said that Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy but righteous man who came from a place called Arimathea. He managed to be both a member of the Sanhedrin (the supreme council and tribunal of the Jews which was headed by a High Priest) and a secret supporter of Jesus. When the Sanhedrin took action against Jesus, Joseph did not join in. He rose to biblical fame when he volunteered to remove Jesus’ body from the cross after his crucifixion and prepare it for a proper, respectful burial.
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Joseph of Arimathea (Public Domain)
What the Gospels Say
Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four of the Gospels, the biblical narratives that cover the life and death of Jesus, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They can be found at the beginning of the New Testament and make up about half of the entire text.
Matthew 27:57 describes Joseph of Arimathea as a ‘rich man’, who had ‘become a disciple of Jesus.’ This Gospel states that Joseph went to Pilate (the man responsible for trying and crucifying Christ) to ask for Jesus’ body, which Pilate accepted. Joseph then took Jesus’ body, which he wrapped in linen cloth and placed in ‘his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.’
Mark 15:43 describes Joseph of Arimathea as a ‘prominent member of the Council’ who had requested Jesus’s body. Luke 23:50-56 also confirms he was a member of the Council and states he was ‘a good upright man, who had disagreed with [the Council’s] decision and actions.’ This Gospel also states that he went to Pilate in order to request Jesus’s body, a request which was granted. Much like Matthew 27:57, it then states that he wrapped Jesus’s body in linen cloth and took him to a tomb that had been carved from stone.
John 19:38 also states that Joseph had been responsible for taking Jesus’s body after requesting permission from Pilate. This Gospel states that Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus because he feared the Jewish leaders.
While all of the Gospels claim that Joseph was the disciple who took Jesus’s body and prepared it for a proper burial, only the Gospel of Matthew claims that it was Joseph’s own tomb in which Jesus was placed. This is particularly interesting when Joseph's personal relationship to Jesus is considered - more on this topic below.
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The Entombment of Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saint John, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea (Public Domain)
Joseph of Arimathea’s Alleged Travels to England
Some of the most famous legends about Joseph of Arimathea claim that he visited England. The accounts vary somewhat, from source to source.
One legend claims that Joseph of Arimathea was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain after being sent to do so by Saint Philip. Another argues that he was a merchant who visited England to buy Cornish tin. Yet another states that he took Jesus to England when the latter was just a teenager.
There is one version that even claims Joseph was Mary’s uncle and therefore, Jesus’ great-uncle. This legend may stem from a tradition involved in burial. According to this tradition, the senior male relative of a crucified person was responsible for dealing with the body. Jesus’ father was not around, so if Joseph volunteered himself, some believe this suggests he was related to Jesus.
One of the most popular legends argues that Joseph brought the Holy Grail (the cup from the Last Supper) and hid it in a Glastonbury well, now called the Chalice Well. This legend stems from French poet Robert de Boron’s verse romance called Joseph d’Arimathie (1200). In this poem, Joseph is entrusted with the Holy Grail, and imprisoned in Jerusalem by the Jewish elders after they realize he had removed Jesus’ body from the cross. However, upon his release, rather than returning to Arimathea, Joseph gathers a company of followers who take the Grail to Britain.
Other, later poems also make similar claims. In the subsequent romance Perlesvaus (an Old French Arthurian romance, 13th century), it is said that Joseph travels to Britain with relics. This vast Arthurian composition took much inspiration from de Boron, but in this telling, it is not just Joseph who is considered the primary holy man of Britain, but his son Josephus as well.
These accounts were also inspired by the account of John of Glastonbury who compiled a history of Glastonbury Abbey in around 1350 and wrote that Joseph had come to Britain and brought vessels containing the blood and sweat of Christ, but does not use the word “grail.”
The Origins of the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury
There is a variety of hawthorn that flowers twice a year in spring and in winter - or if the temperature is right, Easter and Christmas in Britain. Legend states that after the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea became a missionary. He was eventually sent to England where he was ordered to preach the Gospel. With him, he took the Holy Grail, as well as his pilgrim’s staff. Once he arrived in England, he traveled to Glastonbury in what is now Somerset.
There, at Wearyall Hill, he struck his staff on the ground and by the next morning, it had turned into a flowering thorn tree. Joseph then proceeded to convert thousands to Christianity. This included normal, everyday English people, as well as the local king Ethelbert. Joseph did not stop there, however, and it is said he went on to found Glastonbury Abbey.
Joseph became so famous and respected that upon his death at age 86, legend states that his body was carried by six kings in the funeral procession. To this day it is said that the Glastonbury Thorn flowers every year on Christmas Day. It is also said that a hawthorn plant in the churchyard of St John’s Church in Glastonbury blossoms and is used to decorate the Christmas breakfast table of the Queen of England every year.
Joseph & Jesus in Britain: Truth or Fiction?
Despite the legends, however, when historians looked into the claims that Joseph came to England, they found little evidence, and found no mention of Joseph in England until the 13th century.
Furthermore, the legends about Joseph’s trips to England are also connected to the legends about the arrival of Christianity in Britain. Many of these early writers did not connect their legends to Joseph. For example, Tertullian (155 AD - 220 AD) wrote in his work Adversus Judseos that Britain had already accepted the Gospel during his lifetime, but does not state how. Eusebius of Caesaria wrote of Christ’s disciples in England. He states they crossed the ocean and reached Britain. Saint Hilary of Poitiers also wrote that the Apostles had built churches and passed on the Gospel in Britain, and the writings of Pseudo-Hippolytus includes a list of the 70 disciples who Jesus sent forth in Luke 10. He mentions one who was called the Bishop of Britain.
These are some of the earliest mentions of Christianity in Britain and none of them mention a Joseph of Arimathea. One of the main pieces of evidence for Joseph’s presence in Glastonbury is William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae ("On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury", 1125). Most of this original text has not survived, and the sections that mention Joseph have been added in subsequent additions by Glastonbury monks.
In his Gesta Regum Anglorum (History of The English Kings of England, 1125) William of Malmesbury states that Glastonbury Abbey was actually built by preachers sent by Pope Eleuterus to Britain. He argues that there are documents that explicitly state that no other hands than those of the disciples of God constructed this church. Again, there is no mention in this account of a Joseph of Arimathea.
In 1989, the legends surrounding Joseph were critically examined by A. W. Smith, a British folklore scholar. As his main source, he used the poem/hymn by William Blake ‘And did those feet in ancient times.’ This poem is commonly held as evidence that someone of considerable religious standing traveled to Britain. Most consistently, it is assumed that the poem is about Jesus. Smith concluded that there is little to suggest that an “oral tradition concerning a visit made by Jesus to Britain existed before the early part of the twentieth century” (Smith and Blake, 1989).
Pietà (The Dead Christ Mourned by Nicodemus and Two Angels), c. 1500 (Public Domain)
Joseph’s Escape, as told in the Acts of Pilate
The Acts of Pilate, also known as the Gospel of Nicodemus, is an apocryphal Gospel claimed to be derived from the work of Nicodemus, who was an associate of Jesus. This Gospel provides additional information on Joseph, including Jewish reaction to Joseph’s actions. It states that the Jewish elders were angered by the fact that Joseph had buried Jesus’ body.
The Jewish elders went as far as to capture Joseph and imprison him. They placed a seal on the door of his cell and posted a guard there. Joseph then warned the elders that "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." (Gospel of Nicodemus, p.76)
When the elders returned to the cell later they found the seal still in place but Joseph nowhere to be seen. The elders were later told that Joseph had returned to Arimathea. The elders changed their tactics and decided to have a conversation with Joseph. They sent a letter of apology to him, and Joseph then agreed to return to Jerusalem to meet with them where they questioned his escape.
According to this Gospel, Joseph testified that Jesus had risen, and claimed that others had risen also. These individuals included the two sons of the high-priest Simeon who resided in Arimathea. So, Joseph took the elders (Annas, Caiaphas, Nicodemus and Gamaliel) to Arimathea to interview the two sons, Charinus and Lenthius.
Location of Historic Arimathea
Unfortunately, the exact location of Arimathea has been lost to time. It is said that it was a city of Judea (a city of the Jews) and there has been speculation about its location for centuries. During the Roman era, the historian Eusebius of Caesarea identified it with Ramathaim-Zophim, in the hill-country of Ephraim in his Onomasticon. He places it near Timah on the borders of Judah and Dan.
In the Byzantine era, a town by the name of Arimathea or Armathema appears on a sixth-century map called the Madaba. During the period of the Crusades, the crusaders seem to have identified Ramla as Arimathea, a town founded around 705-715 by the Umayyads.
To conclude, as is the case with many biblical figures, it is often hard to draw a line between biblical truth and myth or legend. It is evident that many of the claims that Joseph visited England arise at a much later date, and it is noteworthy that such a tale is never mentioned in the Gospels. This is not to say the stories cannot be true; however, such claims must be taken with a hint of skepticism. Nevertheless, the story of Joseph of Arimathea is an interesting one.
Top Image: Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo – Christ with Joseph of Arimathea Source: Public Domain
By Molly Dowdeswell
Saint Joseph of Arimathea. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Joseph-of-Arimathea
Smith, A.W. and William Blake. ‘ And Did Those Feet…?’: The ‘Legend’ of Christ’s Visit to Britain. Folklore. 1989. Vol.100, No.1.
The Story of Joseph of Arimathea. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/thepassion/articles/joseph_of_arimathea.shtml