Monday 1 September 2014

The Legend of Joseph of Arimathea

Today Joseph of Arimathea is venerated as a Saint by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches. The traditional Roman calendar marked his feast day on 17 March, but he is now listed on 31 August in the official Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church, the same day as his companion at the Deposition, Saint Nicodemus.

The Gospels provide very little information on Joseph; he is one of the more mysterious figures in the New Testament, mentioned only briefly by the four of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The story of Joseph of Arimathea as told in the gospels reveals that he was a wealthy man who came from Arimathea in Judea. He was both a member of the Sanhedrin and, being a secret supporter of Jesus, had not agreed to their plan or action. In the evening after the Crucifixion, Joseph asked Pilate for permission to take Jesus' body and bury it properly. Pilate agreed and the body was taken down. Joseph, helped by Nicodemus, associate of Jesus according to John's Gospel, wrapped the body in a linen cloth with spices and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid, that Joseph had intended for himself. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.

Joseph and Nicodemus feature in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, including the Acts of Pilate, which was omitted from the New Testament but is the major source of early, non-canonical information regarding Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospel of Nicodemus is unique in naming the soldier who speared Jesus on the cross as Longinus and thereby sparked a further body of legend. It was claimed to have been derived from an original Hebrew work written by Nicodemus himself but few scholars today would regard this account as actually written by him and generally assign the text to the middle of the 4th century. Writing in the 6th century, Gregory of Tours certainly makes reference to this gospel.

Joseph was a popular figure in Arthurian Romance. The legend of Joseph's arrival in Britain has its roots firmly in Robert de Boron's History of the Grail in which his family left for Britain, but it does not actually say Joseph accompanied this party. At the beginning of the 13th century Robert de Boron wrote two poems; the Joseph d'Arimathe and the Merlin, the latter work surviving only in fragments; he was the first writer to make a connection between the legend of Joseph of Arimathea and the Matter of Britain; in some accounts he is a relative of King Arthur. Drawing heavily from The Gospel of Nicodemus, Robert's Joseph d'Arimathie provides the first history of the Grail and is the first author to give a Christian dimension to the legend in which it becomes the Chalice of the Eucharist. According to Robert, the Grail was the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and then used by Joseph to catch the Holy blood at either the Crucifixion or the Deposition. While imprisoned Joseph was sustained by the Grail and the true meaning of the cup was revealed to him by Christ himself. Joseph's family then brought the Grail to the vaus d'Avaron, the valleys of Avaron, in the west, interpreted by later writers as Avalon and subsequently identified with Glastonbury.

Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury
Glastonbury is one of those places which retains a certain mystique, a unique atmosphere that is easy to get wrapped up in. The little Somerset town was been taken over by the New Age since John Michell first wrote about the place in the late 1960s presenting it as a centre for earth mystery buffs. But it's unique history goes back much further than that. The Abbey gates open onto the High Street with the haunting remains of the stone walls dominating views from the town centre; on a still, misty morning it is without doubt a moving site. The Abbey was established on the site of the first church which legend claims was erected in the first century AD by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus, and endured for 1,500 years before being pulled down under direction of the king Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.

Indeed, most of what we know of Joseph comes from legend:

Joseph was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain, having been sent with other disciples by St Philip, and established the first Christian church at Glastonbury, offering the possibility of an alternative line of Apostolic descent, a tradition that would prove disastrous for the Last Abbot of Glastonbury.

He was also Mary's uncle, and thus, Jesus' great-uncle. This story may originate from the tradition that the senior male relative of a crucified person was obliged to deal with the body. Jesus' father appears to be no longer present, so if Joseph of Arimathea did volunteer for the task it suggests that he was related to Jesus in some way.

One of the most enduring legends of early English Christianity is that Joseph of Arimathea visited the West Country of England accompanied by the young Jesus. Both Somerset and Cornwall claim to have been visited by Joseph and Jesus in ancient times. Local legends say that among the places they visited were St Just in Roseland and St Michael's Mount; Joseph being a merchant who visited south west England to buy Cornish tin and took the young Jesus with him on his trips to England.

The Old Church
Following on from Robert de Boron's account, legend claims that Joseph and his companions came to England and established the first Christian community there. After landing in England, Joseph made his way to Glastonbury. When he stuck his staff into the ground at Wearyall (Wirral) Hill overnight it turned into a flowering thorn tree. The Glastonbury Thorn is said to flower on Christmas Day every year, and blossom from the plant in the churchyard of St John's Church in Glastonbury is said to be used to decorate the Christmas breakfast table of the Queen each year. St John's Church has a stained glass window commemorating Joseph of Arimathea. A late tradition claims he brought the Holy Grail to England, washing the relics of the Passion in a well at Glastonbury, now called the Chalice Well.

Joseph of Arimathea, stained-glass window
in St. John's, Glastonbury.
It begins in the 12th century when William of Malmesbury was invited to Glastonbury to write the history of the Abbey to establish the very ancient and very venerable origins of the site. His completed work was entitled De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae (Enquiry into the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury).

At this time many Celtic saints were venerated at Glastonbury, William tells us that the collection of relics at Glastonbury was so fabulous that it was a “heavenly sanctuary on earth”. But in his original work he cites relatively few saints at rest there; perhaps as few as six are clearly original to William, and significantly he does not list Joseph of Arimathea among them.

William called this first wattle structure "the oldest church in England," (vetusta ecclesia) and, henceforth, it was known simply as the Old Church, serving as a symbol for the ancientness of the establishment of Christianity at Glastonbury. However, by William's time the story of the origins of the Old Church had been completely lost to history. Legend, though, was able to supply the missing information, attributing its construction to two early missionaries sent from Rome.

In the 8th century the Venerable Bede had wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People that the British king Lucius sent a letter to the holy Eleutherius who ruled the Roman Church asking to be made a Christian. Bede tells us that the request was quickly granted, and the Britons held the Faith until the time of the Emperor Diocletian. Eleutherius, was Bishop of Rome from c.174 until his death in 189 AD. However, Lucius is a legendary 2nd-century King of the Britons, traditionally credited with introducing Christianity into Britain, first mentioned in the 6th century Liber Pontificalis.

William's "De Antiquitate” concurs with Bede and tells us that in response to King Lucius' request, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvian), to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel sometime in the 2nd century AD.

However when historians looked at the evidence, they could find no mention of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury until the 13th century. There are now no extant copies of William of Malmesbury's "De Antiquitate," but what we know of its original text comes from another of William's writings, the "Gesta Regis Anglorum" (Deeds of the Kings of England) into which large sections of the "De Antiquitate" had been transcribed. The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a 13th century copy heavily interpolated by the Glastonbury monks which makes significant additions not present in the original document as attested by the "Gesta". By about 1230 AD William's work had been completely refashioned. A further revision took place later to accommodate the emerging story of Joseph of Arimathea into the Abbey's history.

The interpolated version states that Phagan and Deruvian came to Britain, as the Charter of St. Patrick and the Deeds of the Britons attest, but they were not the original builders of the Old Church at Glastonbury, they merely restored an existing church that they had found there, thereby pushing the date of the beginning of Glastonbury's first Christian community years earlier than previously claimed. Another interpolation, not in William's original work, moved that date back a hundred years by claiming that in 63 AD Philip the Apostle sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of the Lord and appointed  Joseph of Arimathea, the man who had buried Jesus, as their leader.

Joseph had never been mentioned in any of the Abbeys early writings and seemed an odd choice for the founder of the first Christian community at Glastonbury. However, as there was little historical information on Joseph outside the Bible the monks of Glastonbury had a certain amount of freedom to construct their own history around him. Combined with the writings of Robert de Boron which suggested his family came to the west as guardians of the Grail he was the perfect choice. Yet, despite late claims that several monks fled Glastonbury with the Cup of the Last Supper (The Nanteos Cup) the night before the Abbey was 'surrendered' to Henry VIII's commissioners in 1539, the house never claimed to possess the Holy Grail.

Therefore we can conclude that there appears to be no genuine tradition of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury until the later interpolations during the 12th and 13th centuries into William of Malmesbury original work. Around 1343 AD John of Glastonbury, a monk of the Abbey, wrote Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesię (Chronicles or Antiquities of the Glastonbury Church) which enhanced the Joseph of Arimathea tradition added to Williams work.

In the prologue to John of Glastonbury's Cronica, it becomes clear that John was dependant upon an augmented version of William of Malmesbury's De Antiquitate; one containing an account of Glastonbury from the coming of St Joseph, outlining the location and extant of the 12 hides. John then writes of Joseph's imprisonment, taken from the Gospel of Nicodemus. He recalls how the Apostle Philip sent Joseph and his son Josephes to Britain with 150 men, all miraculously flying to Britain on Josephes' shirt.

Joseph, his son and ten others travel through Britain in 63 AD spreading the word, however, the pagan King Arviragus is unwilling to convert but provides the twelve men with somewhere to settle, an island known a Ynsywytryn, the 'glass island.' He places his staff in the ground on Wearyall Hill, and a hawthorn bush (Crataegus monogyna 'Biflora') sprouted on the very spot. This bush grows into the 'Holy Thorn.'

Combining material from the expanded version of William of Malmesbury's De Antiquitate and the Charter of St Patrick, John describes how a vision of the Archangel Gabriel inspires the twelve to build a wattle church at Glastonbury dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, known as the vetusta ecclesia. The site will later become the great Benedictine monastery of Glastonbury.

When they died the twelve were buried there with Joseph buried on a 'divided line'. The area is then neglected until the legendary papal missionaries Faganus and Deruvianus arrive in the 2nd century and restore the church.

John's Cronica included the first reference to the Prophecy of Melkin a 6th century bard. This prophecy claimed that Joseph lies on a forked line and brought to England two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus:

"Avalon's island... 
Amid there Joseph in marble, 
Of Arimathea by name, 
Hath found perpetual sleep: 
He lies in a two-forked [bifurcated] line 
Next the south corner of an oratory 
Fashioned of wattles 
For the adorning of a mighty virgin 
By the aforementioned sphere-betokened 
Dwellers in that place, thirteen in all. 
For Joseph hath with him 
In his sarcophagus 
Two cruets, white and silver, 
Filled with blood and sweat 
Of the prophet Jesus."

The meaning of the Prophecy has been the subject of much debate but to this day Joseph's tomb has not been located.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Chronology of a Legend
The Glastonbury Legend

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  1. An article out of Israel states that tin ingots, which were used to make bronze, dated from 1300 BC were found in Israel and analysis revealed the tin came from mines in Cornwall. This proves there is a long history of traders visiting Britain before and during the time of Christ making it entirely possible that Joseph of Arimathea could have visited there as a trader.

    1. I don't normally publish or respond to anonymous comments but here I'll make an exception as the subject matter warrants further discussion.

      An early international trade network is not in dispute, as you say Cornish tin ingots have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. The Uluburun shipwreck discovered in 1982 off the coast of Turkey carrying a cargo of a ton of tin and ten tons of copper prepared in ingots for manufacturing bronze is evidence of short distance trade; that ancient traders reached Cornwall, or on the other-hand Cornish traders may have reached the eastern Mediterranean, should be of no surprise.

      Why wouldn’t this ancient trade network extend to the British Isles; it is often said that the Romans invaded Britain for its mineral sources? It is perfectly conceivable that ancient trading ships visiting the British Isles took on board copper in North Wales and then called into a Cornish port to pick up tin, before heading for the eastern Mediterranean. The 1st century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus writes of an “island which lies off Britain called Ictis” where merchants would buy tin.

      Much of the copper mined at the Great Orme in North Wales ended up in north west Europe. It is difficult to say exactly how much copper a mine produced yet it is estimated that 1,800 tonnes of copper ore was extracted from the Great Orme.

      At this time the population of the British Isles was relatively small and it is difficult to see what they could have done with so much copper, however, bronze was used for everything from jewellery to weapons with axe heads the most common finds. To put this in perspective, the combined metal contents of all the recorded Early Bronze Age axes from Ireland only amounts to 0.75 tonnes.

      Armies throughout the ancient world were equipped with bronze weapons; the Roman soldier is said to have worn up to 48 pounds of bronze on his uniform. The demand for tin and copper must have been immense.
      The best explanation for this missing copper is that most of it was exchanged over long distances. But how far did they travel in the Bronze Age?

      There are prehistoric links between the New World and Old World; evidence of contact is seen with nicotine and cocaine found on Egyptian mummies. There is also the suggestion of copper extraction in the New World to satisfy Bronze Age demand in the Old World.

      Estimates claim that ancient miners extracted up to half a billion pounds of copper from thousands of pits on Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan by Lake Superior in North America. Dating of timbers used in these pits ranges from 2450 to 1200 BC. Only a tiny fraction of this copper can be accounted for among the artifacts of Native Americans. Where did the Michigan copper go?

      A study claims that some of the Uluburun copper ingots are greater than 99.5% pure copper. Purity this high has only been found in Michigan copper and therefore they cannot be from Cyprus as originally thought. Is it possible Michigan copper may have been used to feed the European Bronze Age?

      In conclusion, there certainly seems to have been long distance trade in the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the discovery of Cornish tin in the eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps even Michigan copper in the Uluburun shipwreck, but evidence of Joseph of Arimathea visiting Cornwall, tin merchant or not, is an entirely different matter.


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