Easter is the most important event in the Christian faith; the death and resurrection of Jesus on the third day of his burial after his Crucifixion on Good Friday. The days leading up to Easter Sunday are known as Holy Week which commences when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and concludes with the Easter Triduum on Maundy Thursday and the night of the Last Supper, commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as told in the four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
|The Descent from the Cross|
(Rogier van der Weyden)
“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”. [Matthew 27:57-60]
The Gospels agree on the events after the Crucifixion, but only John (19:39) includes Nicodemus as Joseph's aid in the burial of Jesus. He then disappears, as quickly as he arrived; Joseph's history begins and ends with the burial of Jesus. Sceptics maintain he is not a historical figure at all and was introduced into the Gospels as a literary creation who is purely mythological. Further, they claim, there is no evidence for Joseph's town of Arimathea, Luke refers to it as simply “a town in Judea”; its location is unknown and does not exist outside of the Gospels.
Over time legends developed about Joseph, who, being the man who took the bleeding Christ from the Cross, is always associated with the relic of the Holy Blood in the ensuant art and literature, always depicted collecting the blood of Jesus at the Deposition, never the Crucifixion. Toward the end of the 12th century the French poet Robert de Boron merged the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus with Chrétien de Troyes' Story of the Grail. Chrétien never specified the meaning of the grail procession but hinted at its connection with the Eucharist when he wrote of 'un graal' (a serving platter or dish) that contained a single mass wafer that sustained the maimed Fisher King. Chrétien never mentioned Joseph of Arimathea, however, as he left his version of the story unfinished we will never know for certain what he intended. However, Robert developed the story further with the vessel becoming the Cup of the Last Supper, the Holy Grail.
|The boy Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea|
(Pilton Church banner, Somerset)
Western legend does not mention Joseph of Arimathea in England until the 13th century which appears to be a direct response to his emergence of the Grail stories. The legend continued to develop with popular claims that the term 'nobilis decurion' identifies Joseph of Arimathea as a tin merchant who brought the young Jesus with him on trading voyages to south west Britain. Yet this tradition can only be traced to the 19th century at the earliest. If the arrival of Joseph in the West was a late development what of the tradition in the Near East?
Was Joseph buried in the Holy Land?
Alternative tradition from the Holy Land claims that Joseph was preaching in Galilee after the Crucifixion, then after dying in his homeland was buried in Jerusalem. Indeed, excavations under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem, said to have been built on the site of Christ's tomb where Helena found the True Cross in the 4th century, have revealed additional ancient Jewish tombs.
|The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem|
Constantine's Church was razed to the ground in 1009 by order of the Fatamid Caliph al-Hakim during his campaign against Christian sites in the Near East, including the shrine of St George at Lydda. The destruction of the Church was said to be so complete that its remains could only be detected by archaeology. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus restored part of the Church in 1048, but most of the present building is the result of 12th-century Crusader reconstruction. The fate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre featured in the motivation for the First Crusade, which was retaken when Latin knights entered Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.
A full program of restoration work began in 1959 with the complete archaeological exploration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within the Syriac Orthodox Chapel of St Joseph and Nicodemus two rock cut tombs were discovered during this restoration work, which, although they have no identifying features, tradition claims belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
A 7th century Syrian-Nestorian chronicle (dated 670-680) asserts that Joseph's sarcophagus was discovered near the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 605. The chronicle claims that the Jews asked the Persians for permission to seek under the grave of Jesus for treasure. Here they found a sarcophagus inscribed, “This is the sarcophagus of the councillor Joseph, who gave a tomb for the body of Jesus.”
However, Joseph's relics were apparently brought back from the Holy Land by Fortunat, Patriarch of Grado (802–820) and enshrined at Moyenmoutier Abbey in Lorraine in the 9th century. The 13th century Chronicle of Sens records that during the time of Charlemagne (c. 747 - c. 814), Fortunat fled from pagans in the Holy Land taking with him the body of Joseph of Arimathea and other sacred relics, eventually becoming Abbot of Moyenmoutier in the Vosges mountains. As we have seen [Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury] there was a Cult of Joseph of Arimathea in this region of France, the very homeland of Robert de Boron and his patron Gautier de Montbeliard who joined the Fourth Crusade and died as Constable of Jerusalem in 1212.
Before the end of the 10th century Joseph's body was taken from Moyenmoutier by visiting monks (monachis peregrinis). It is doubtful that Joseph's relics were taken by Glastonbury monks, even though they claimed to have 'recovered' the relics of St Dunstan after Canterbury had been sacked by Danes in the early 11th century, as they were not aware of the man from Arimathea's presence at the Abbey until the 13th century and even then the monks never claimed to know the location of his burial. There is certainly no record of such a venture in the Glastonbury records.
|The Holy Blood, The Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges|
Between 1878 and 1879 the Exuviae sacrae Constantinopolitanae (Religious Spoils of Constantinople) of Count Paul Riant appeared in Geneva. The publication of these two volumes assembled for the first time all the historical documents relating to the transportation of the religious relics stolen from the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1202–04). Riant claims that Joseph of Arimathea's body is preserved in the Royal Chapel of Jerusalem.
Tales From the East
It would seem the Near East has a stronger claim for Joseph's relics than Glastonbury and several sites claiming to be his tomb when England actually has none. Indeed the Glastonbury Legend has striking similarities to the 5th century Georgian legend of Lydda, which links Joseph with Philip.
In 1247 William of Malmesbury's history of Glastonbury Abbey from 63 to 1126 (De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae) was copied by the Glastonbury monks with “additions”. The amended introduction read, “St. Philip was in Gaul, as Freculphus tells us. He sent twelve disciples to preach in Britain, and as is said, he placed at their head his favourite disciple, Joseph of Arimathea”. In William's original work he did not mention Joseph of Arimathea.
A Georgian manuscript dated from the 5th century contains probably the earliest mention of Joseph's missionary work associated with St. Philip in that together the two men built a church at Lydda dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Joseph is said to have collected the blood of Jesus on the burial wrappings at Golgotha. This is closely reflected in the Glastonbury Legend; is it possible that the old Lydda tradition of Joseph and Philip as missionaries and their construction of a church to the Virgin was taken and altered by Glastonbury?
It is an odd coincidence that Joseph of Arimathea does not appear in the tradition of south west England until the emergence of the Grail Romances in the late 13th century in which he is responsible for bringing the Holy Grail, the vessel of the Holy Blood, to the West. It is clear that many of the authors of later Grail sequels that followed Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron did not truly understand the meaning of the Grail but it is always associated with relics of the Passion brought to Europe from the Holy Land by crusader knights, many of whom were the patrons of the Grail Romances.
From Robert's work it is clear the Holy Grail is the relic of the Holy Blood and Joseph of Arimathea is the carrier of that relic to the West. Joseph is depicted with two relics: collecting the Holy Blood at the Deposition in a bowl or dish; and the other is Jesus' blood soaked burial shroud.
|The Templecombe Head|
There is a strong argument that the story of the Holy Grail is based on the Turin Shroud, the burial linen that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus' body in after the Crucifixion and would have performed as a receptacle for the Holy Blood. When this blood congealed on the linen it would have been scrapped off and placed in vials as a sacred relic. The Shroud was taken to Edessa around 50 AD before moving to Constantinople in 944 from where it was taken by the Templars in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade before reappearing in France in the 14th century. It was during these missing years that images of a face appeared in Templar preceptories across Europe and led to the Order being accused of worshipping a head. Ian Wilson (2010) has shown that these images strongly correspond to the face on the Turin Shroud, that is Jesus. Images have been found in Britain, perhaps the best known the panel at Templecombe in Somerset, discovered during the 1940s.
However, this does not necessarily mean that the Shroud was located in Somerset at some time, indeed Daniel Scavone (1999) has come up with an ingenious theory in which he argues that texts placing Joseph and the Grail in Britain, actually refer to Edessa, which was also known as 'Britium', where the burial shroud of Jesus was held from 50 to 944.
This confusion of the name of Edessa (Britium) may also explain references to the legendary 2nd century British King Lucius who is traditionally credited with introducing Christianity into Britain. Lucius is first mentioned in a 6th-century version of the Liber Pontificalis (Book of Popes), which says that he sent a letter to Pope Eleutherius seeking to be made a Christian. Bede repeats this and adds that Lucius' request was granted and the Britons followed him in converting to Christianity.
In 205 King Lucius Abgar VIII, the first Christian king of Edessa, constructed the Birtha (Latin Britium), or citadel of Edessa. Subsequently, the citadel of Abgar was known as 'Britio Edessenorum'.
In the original text of William of Malmesbury, c.1125, on the early history of Glastonbury, following Bede, he writes that missionaries were sent to Britain by the pope at the request of British King Lucius in 166. As we have seen above, later additions to William's work in the 13th century add that Philip, who was who was in Gaul, sent Joseph with twelve disciples as missionaries to Britain, where they built a church to the Virgin.
From the above we can see that all elements of the Joseph of Arimathea tradition can be accounted for in the Near East at an earlier date than the Glastonbury Tradition. Additionally, there is certainly a stronger case for Joseph's burial in the Holy Land. Yet, it must be conceded, all the known tombs ascribed to Joseph are empty.
Much of the claim for Joseph of Arimathea's presence in England is drawn from interpretations of the Prophecy of Melkin which appears for the first time in John of Glastonbury's 14th century Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey. Melkin's Prophecy is an enigmatic text written in garbled Latin which, although it has proved impossible to accurately translate, clearly asserts that Joseph's tomb has not yet been discovered. Melkin claims that Joseph is buried on a “linea bifuracta”; this is typically translated as a “forked line” in the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey, but this has also been interpreted as a linen burial shroud.
Melkin is usually considered a Welsh bard who lived before Merlin. But in light of the above, in which we have seen the origins of the Holy Grail, did Melkin's Prophecy also originate in the Near East?
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
Valerie M Lagorio, The Evolving Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, Speculum Vol. 46, No. 2, 1971, pp. 209-231.
Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, Harvard University Press, 2004.
Emma Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, Princeton University Press, 1998.
Ian Wilson,The Shroud, Bantam Press, 2010.
Barbara Frale, The Templars and the Shroud of Christ, Maverick House, 2011.
Noel Currer-Briggs, The Holy Grail and the Shroud of Christ, ARA Publications, 1984.
Daniel Scavone, Jospeh of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and the Edessa Icon, Arthuriana, The Journal of Arthurian Studies, Vol 9. No. 4, 1999, pp.1-31.
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