Joseph of Arimathea

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Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Pietro Perugino (1495), showing Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (right) tending the body of Jesus

The Biblical account

When Jesus dies on the cross, the Gospels suddenly introduce an individual who has never been mentioned before: Joseph of Arimathea. We are told he was a secret disciple of Jesus who lived in the hope of seeing the kingdom of God. He also was a prominent member of the council who did not consent to the conspiracy to cause Jesus’ death.

As soon as Jesus was dead, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. He also happened to have an empty tomb nearby the place of the crucifixion. Pilate, knowing that the crucifixion took a long time, was astonished that Jesus was already dead. Pilate sent for the centurion who was in charge of the execution. When Pilate confirmed that Jesus was dead he released the body to Joseph.

Joseph took Jesus’ body down from the Cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in his own tomb. It is also written that the body was prepared by him and others with aloes and spices and herbs. He is not mentioned again in the Gospels.[1]

However, beyond the Biblical account, the myths, legends, and traditions of Joseph are many and widespread.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ, detail showing Joseph of Arimathea

Relationship with Jesus

Ancient traditions in the Eastern Orthodox Church say that Joseph of Arimathea was the great-uncle of Jesus. The Jewish Talmud says he was the younger brother of Mary’s father.

Indirect support for this relationship can be found in the Gospels: Joseph was given Jesus’ body. The vigilant Sanhedrin were unlikely to allow anyone to claim it who did not have a legal right. Jewish and Roman law permitted only next of kin to claim the body of executed criminals. Joseph asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and when he received it, laid it in his own tomb—also suggesting he was related to Jesus.

Grail legends

Extensive writings about Joseph of Arimathea are found in the medieval romances of the Holy Grail. Legend has it that Joseph took the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper and brought it to Glastonbury, which was then an island in southwest England. There is little explanation for the fact that the earliest surviving versions of these stories date from the twelfth century. To some, this sudden appearance sounds like a simple invention by medieval bards, just another romanticization attached to King Arthur. While this may be true, there is a body of evidence—archaeological fact, ancient legend, and tradition—which is hard to dismiss as pure make-believe.

Robert de Boron was the first Grail romancer to associate Joseph of Arimathea with the Camelot story. His work is divided into three parts: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, and Percival. He did not live to finish his work, but the first section is the most complete.

According to de Boron, the Grail passed into the hands of Pontius Pilate, who gave it to Joseph of Arimathea in return for his years of military service. Then, as summarized by Grail researcher Arthur Edward Waite, “in that vessel Joseph received the Blood, which was still flowing from the wounds of Christ when the body was being prepared for burial.” Joseph hid the vessel in his house. He was imprisoned by the Jews, and Christ brought the Grail to him and “communicated to him certain secret words which were the grace and power thereof.”[2]

The Grail sustained Joseph during his imprisonment and then, “the vengeance of the Jews being in fine [finally] accomplished, Joseph collected his relatives and many companions who had embraced Christianity at his instance, and by the will of God the party started westward, carrying the Holy Graal.”[3] The Grail was carried to England, “the Promised Land which the special providence of the story has allocated to the spiritual and material lineage of Joseph of Arimathæa.”[4]

De Boron’s only hint of an actual spot for the Grail’s resting place is the “Vale of Avaron.” Arthurian expert Geoffrey Ashe says that obviously “this name is a garbled version of Avalon,”[5] a name woven tightly with the King Arthur tales.

In another version, The Sweet Old Poem of Joseph of Arimathea, Joseph was a guest at the last supper. After the conclusion of the feast Joseph, contemplating the words of Jesus, decided that he must have a keepsake of the event. He returned to the Upper Room where he found the table still set with the remains of the Passover feast. Taking the cup from which all had drunk, he hid it in the folds of his garment. As he stood in the darkness at Calvary the following day, he still had Jesus’ cup in the folds of his garment—a treasure.

When the Roman soldier Longinus pierced Jesus’ side with a lance, Joseph raised the cup and caught the sacred blood which flowed from the wound. (According to John 19:34, there flowed therefrom water and blood.) Joseph preserved the cup and its contents, and the Grail became his guardian and comforter.

Ivory panel depicting the crucifixion of Christ (c. 860–870, France). Joseph of Arimathea is shown on the left holding up the Holy Grail to catch the blood issuing from the side of Jesus. This and other similar carvings show that the belief that Joseph caught the blood of Jesus can be traced back centuries before the first Grail romances.

Earlier sources for the Grail romances

Most of the authors of the Grail romances cite earlier manuscripts as their sources. There are no written sources extant, but there is evidence—hints from other works—that sources existed. Most of the authors cite earlier manuscripts as their sources.

The author of Perlesvaus [also known as The High History of the Holy Grail] ended his account with the paragraph:

The Latin from whence this history was drawn into Romance was taken in the Isle of Avalon, in a holy house of religion that standeth at the head of the Moors Adventurous, there where King Arthur and Queen Guenievre lie, according to the witness of the good men religious that are therein, that have the whole history thereof, true from the beginning even to the end.[6]

Scholars point to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus[7] as a source of de Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea. It was probably written in Greek sometime after the second century but certainly no later than the fifth century.

Reverend Lionel Smithett Lewis, late vicar of Glastonbury, wrote:

Vincent Belovacensis in his Speculum Historiale,... under the year A.D. 719, also tells of a hermit in Britain who had a vision of St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail. There is some persistently lingering memory of a hermit in connection with the Holy Grail.[8]

In the thirteenth century, Helinandus of Froidmont made a convincing citation:

I could not find this story written in Latin but it can be found, in French only, in the possession of a few nobles, and it is said not to be easy to find it in complete form.[9]

J. Bale’s Illustrium maioris Britanniae scriptorum summarium, published in 1548, references an earlier work similar to that of Helinandus.

A British hermit of unknown name, born in Wales and living there, who after the manner of the bards of that region had devoted his entire life to the study of the science of the stars and of history, assembled the notable events that had taken place in his fatherland and wrote them down with no mean labour. He wrote chiefly of the famous British King Arthur and his Round Table. He also had much to tell of Lancelot, Morgan, Percival, Gauvain, Bertram and other valiant men.... The work is known in a language unknown to me. The Holy Grail, Book I. I have seen fragments of the work. According to Vincent it was famous in the time of Ina, King of the West Saxons, somewhere around 720.[10]

Ina, ruler of Wessex from 688 to 728, was a promoter of Christianity who united the British church with the Roman church.

If evidence providing historical authenticity to the Grail romances did exist, it may have perished in the great fire of 1184 which burned most of Glastonbury Abbey, including the magnificent library. This structure, according to archaeologist and anthropologist E. Raymond Capt, housed “the finest collection of books of the period, including records covering a thousand years of Glastonbury Abbey history.”[11]

Although the above fragments are inconclusive, there is other evidence that the legends may have basis in fact.

The Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey, finished in 1186. It is built on the site of the earliest wattle church at Glastonbury, said to be the burial place of the Virgin Mary. The original church was encased in boards and covered with lead in the seventh century. A stone church was later built enclosing the structure, but all of this was destroyed in the fire of 1184.

Local traditions connecting Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury

Ancient and deep-rooted traditions say that Joseph came to Glastonbury. They say that he, with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and eleven other companions were cast adrift without sail or oars near Caesarea, a city north of Jerusalem, by the Sanhedrin. They came ashore safely at the North African city of Cyrene where they obtained sails and oars. Following Phoenician trade routes, they traveled to Marseilles. Crossing France to the Atlantic coast, they continued onward by the trade routes to Cornwall.

They then, by one account, traveled overland from Cornwall or, by another, sailed around Land’s End on the southwestern tip of England, followed the west coast of Britain north to the Severn Sea, entered the estuaries of the Parrett and Brue rivers, and sailed twelve miles inward on the Brue, arriving at a cluster of islands which, according to tradition, was Joseph’s destination—Glastonbury.

Tradition says the weary pilgrims were welcomed to Glastonbury by King Arviragus, a first-century king of the Silurian dynasty in Britain. They began building huts for themselves on the island to which Arviragus gave them title.

According to Hardyng’s Chronicle (a fifteenth-century document based on a much earlier work), Arviragus granted “twelve hides” of land—somewhere around 1,900 acres—tax-free to Joseph and his company in a place called Yniswitrin, a marshy tract later called the Isle of Avalon.[12]

Partial confirmation of this royal charter was found in the official Domesday Book, the record of a massive economic survey made for tax purposes by order of William the Conqueror in 1086. It says:

The Domus Dei, in the great monastery of Glastonbury, called The Secret of the Lord. This Glastonbury Church possesses in its own ville XII hides of land which have never paid tax.[13]

In his Traditions of Glastonbury, E. Raymond Capt wrote that these pilgrims ...

... erected what must have been the first Christian Church above ground. These early hutments would have been made from wattle daubed with mud and built in a circular form. From studies made by the late F. Bligh Bond, F.R.I.B.A. (member of the Somerset Archaeological Society and formerly director of excavations at Glastonbury Abbey) the first church was circular, having a diameter of 25 feet, with the twelve huts of the other disciples forming a circle around it.[14]

In about A.D. 540, historian Maelgwyn of Avalon wrote in his Historia de Rubus Britannicis:

In this church they worshipped and taught the people the true Christian faith. After about fifteen years Mary died and was buried at Glastonbury. The disciples died in succession and were buried in the cemetery.[15]

Another story is that King Arthur was related to Joseph of Arimathea. Reverend Lewis in his book St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury quotes historian John of Glastonbury, who traces the lineage of Arthur through his mother, Ygerna, to her father and grandfather, Lambord, to Manuel, Castellors, Aminadab, Josue, and finally back to Helaios—the “Nepos” of Joseph. According to Lewis:

One should add that, while “Nepos” often means grandson, it may merely mean kinsman.... It is said that every one of the twelve Knights of the Round Table was descended from St. Joseph.[16]

Joseph of Arimathea, stained glass window in Chichester Cathedral

Early Christian sources on Joseph of Arimathea

A second-century document places Joseph of Arimathea in Caesarea, legendary point of departure for his journey to Britain. Reverend Lewis wrote:

“The Recognitions of Clement”—a 2nd-century document tainted with Ebionite errors, probably based on an account by St. Clement of Rome (so Rufinus, who translated it in A.D. 410, thought) describes St. Barnabus and St. Clement going to Caesarea and finding there, among others, SS. Peter, Lazarus, the Holy Women, and St. Joseph of Arimathea! Here we find not only St. Joseph but some of the group whom we find later in the boat.[17]

We may surmise that Joseph’s influential position and devotion to the cause probably made him a leader in the early church. Members of the church were forced to flee the “great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem” recorded in Acts, which followed the martyrdom of St. Stephen, about A.D. 35. “They were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles,” Acts continues. “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word.”[18]

If the apostles were not the ones scattered, then who was? Traditions from Britain to the Mediterranean to India say it was the early saints—those who had been close to the Lord and part of his mission. A local tradition in Provence, France, tells of the scattering of a small group, among them Joseph of Arimathea. It says they sailed to Marseilles.

Their journey was possible in the historical framework of the time. Marseilles was a prosperous port under Roman protection. In fact, John W. Taylor, author of The Coming of the Saints, says that Marseilles and the provinces around it “became the favourite emigration ground of Rome, and generation after generation of Romans traded here, lived here, made their fortunes here, and died here.”[19] Doubtless ships regularly made the journey from the flourishing port of Caesarea to Marseilles.

More specifically, the French tradition, according to Taylor, says:

After the first persecution, when St. James was slain by the sword, those who had followed him were thrust into a boat, without oars or sails, on the coast of Palestine somewhere near to Mount Carmel, and so got rid of. In the boat were: St. Mary, wife of Cleopas, St. Salome (often called St. Mary Salome also), St. Mary Magdalene, St. Martha, and with the two latter was their maid Marcella. They were accompanied by the following men: Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, Trophimius, Maximin, Cleon, Eutropius, Sidonius (Restitutus, “the man born blind”), Martial, and Saturnius.[20]

The apocryphal Acts of Magdalen, or Life of St. Mary Magdalene, compiled in the eighth or ninth century by Rabanus Maurus, archbishop of Mainz, gives confirmation to the story:

Leaving the shores of Asia ... they came near to the city of Marseilles, in the Viennoise Province of Gaul, where the river Rhone is received by the sea. There, having called upon God, the King of all the world, they parted; each company going to the province where the Holy Spirit had directed them; presently preaching everywhere, “the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following.”[21]

Sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene, crypt of the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. This church also contains a relic venerated as the skull of Mary Magdalene

Traditions in the south of France

There is additional evidence of the saints’ ministry in France. According to the Acts of Magdalen, Lazarus stayed in Marseilles, Mary Magdalene went to Aix-en-Provence with St. Maximin, and Martha went to Tarascon. This is corroborated by local tradition. Beneath the old church of St. Victor in Marseilles is a natural cave which is reputed to be Lazarus’ refuge. Near Aix, a relic of Mary is preserved in the Basilica of Mary Magdalene at Saint–Maximin.

Relics believed to be St. Martha’s are preserved in the town of Tarascon. A church of St. Martha and numerous traditions bear witness to the long-standing belief that her ministry was there. One story tells of the cure of King Clovis around A.D. 500 after a pilgrimage to St. Martha’s tomb at Tarascon and of his consequent gift to the church.

Traditions of the other saints are scattered along the Rhône valley, but nowhere is there an account of Joseph’s settling there. The traditions place him in Britain. They also give a reason for his continuing the journey after his companions had settled.

They say that he had been to England many times before on business—that he was a tin merchant. The tradition is strongest in Cornwall, a mining county in the extreme southwest of England. It lingers also in the Mendip Hills not far from Glastonbury, in Gloucester, and in the West of Ireland.

Much of the valley around modern-day Glastonbury would have been under water when Joseph and his band sailed up the river Brue. Glastonbury Tor was a landmark rising up from the marshy ground and visible for many miles. Crowning the Tor, a tower is all that remains of a fourteenth-century chapel dedicated to St. Michael.

Connection with the tin trade

We know that for hundreds of years prior to the first century A.D. there was a well-established tin trade between Cornwall and Phoenicia. Herodotus, the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian, calls the British Isles the Cassiterides, or Tin Islands. The fourth-century B.C. navigator Pytheas visited the British Islands and mentions the tin trade. In his History of England, Sir Edward Creasey writes: “The British tin mines mainly supplied the glorious adornment of Solomon’s Temple.”[22]

That the Roman Empire mined lead in England during Joseph’s time is shown by a bar of lead found near the Mendip mines in Somerset. It was dated A.D. 49 and stamped with “Britannicus,” the name of the son of Emperor Claudius.[23]

Capt avers that the tradition is fairly ancient and widespread, noting that the children of Priddy, a hill village near the mines of the Mendips, sing a carol that begins: “‘Joseph was a tin merchant, a tin merchant, a tin merchant’, and goes on to describe him arriving from the sea in a boat.”[24]

Furthermore, there was a trade route going directly from Marseilles to Glastonbury in the first century. Diodorus Siculus, a first century B.C. Roman historian, wrote of this:

They that inhabit the British promontory of Belerium, by reason of their converse with merchants, are more civilized and courteous to strangers than the rest are. These are the people that make the tin, which with a great deal of care and labour they dig out of the ground; and that being rocky, the metal is mixed with some veins of earth, out of which they melt the metal, and then refine it; then they beat it into four-square pieces like to a dye, and carry it to a British isle near at hand, called Ictis.[25]

From Diodorus’ description, the island of Ictis is almost certainly St. Michael’s Mount, an island near Land’s End in Cornwall. He continues:

The merchants transport the tin they buy of the inhabitants to France; and for thirty days journey, they transport it on horses’ backs through France, to the mouth of the river Rhone.[26]

Joseph could have even been more than a merchant—a Roman official in the trade. Gildas the Wise, a British monk who lived A.D. c. 500–570, refers to him as “nobilis decurio.”[27] According to Capt, the title “‘decurio’ denoted an important Roman office, usually connected with the general management of a mining district. The implication is that Joseph was a provincial ... Roman Senator and in charge of Rome’s mining interests in Britain.”[28]

The traditions of Joseph in Cornwall and the mining districts do not point to any permanent resting place. The weight of evidence says his ministry was in Glastonbury, site of an ancient Christian abbey, home of Grail legends and, incidentally, only twelve miles from the site some archaeologists favor as Arthur’s castle—Cadbury.

Artist’s reconstruction of Glastonbury Lake Village, which flourished from about 50 B.C. to about A.D. 80.

The first settlements at Glastonbury

Today Glastonbury is an emerald plain with majestic ruins of a twelfth-century abbey dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. But it was once an island. Perhaps the fabled island of Avalon where Arthur is said to have died. Through the sixth century, it was surrounded by water, but gradually, according to Capt, the swampy lake surrounding the island was filled in with layers of peat, clay, and gravel “as the estuary retreated to the sea.”[29] By the early 1500s, there were still six lakes in the area.

Glastonbury was first called “Ynis-witrin”—the “Glassy Island.” It was later found to be an excellent area to cultivate apples, and was then called “Insula Avalonia” after the Welsh word for apple—Aval.

Archaeological excavations at Glastonbury show that a village flourished there from 50 B.C. to about A.D. 80, a village whose inhabitants, according to Capt, “possessed the most advanced civilization of their time in Britain.” The people “were highly cultured, and skillful in various kinds of work.”[30] They were expert carpenters, used canoes for coastal trading, built wheeled carts and worked lead, tin, and copper.

The Glastonbury village was probably related to the tin trade. Capt says that metal mined in the Mendip Hills above Glastonbury was placed on small boats to be floated down the river Brue. Therefore “the lake villages of Glastonbury would have been a natural stop-over for trading.”[31]

Thus, it is within the realm of possibility that Joseph came to Glastonbury by following well-worn trade routes and that he and his band took up residence on an island there, choosing an isolated, beautiful spot whose civilized inhabitants would be a natural choice for their first ministry.

Evidence of early Christianity in Britain

Historical evidence of an early Christianity in Britain does exist. Capt summarizes his evidence in Traditions of Glastonbury. His literary references are as follows:

Tertullian, who lived about 160 to 230, wrote that “the extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.”[32] Glastonbury fits Tertullian’s specification. It was in a region held by the British which had escaped the Roman conquest of Julius Caesar.

Sabellius, an early Roman Christian theologian, A.D. 250, wrote:

Christianity was privately confessed elsewhere, but the (first) nation that proclaimed it as their religion and (called it Christian) after the name of Christ was Britain.[33]

Eusebius (c. 260 to 340), bishop of Caesarea and father of ecclesiastical history, wrote:

The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.[34]

Saint Hilary of Poitiers, who lived 300 to 367, wrote:

Afterwards the Apostles built several tabernacles, and through all the parts of the earth wherever it was possible to go; even in the Isles of the ocean they built several habitations for God.[35]

Saint John Chrysostum (347 to 407), the Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote:

The British Isles which are beyond the sea, and which lie in the ocean, have received virtue of the Word. Churches are there found and altars erected.... Though thou shouldst go to the ocean, to the British Isles, there thou shouldst hear all men everywhere discoursing matters out of the scriptures, with another voice indeed, but not another faith, with a different tongue, but the same judgment.[36]

In the sixth century, Gildas wrote:

These islands, stiff with cold and frost, and in distant region of the world, remote from the visible sun received the beams of light, that is the holy precepts of Christ, at the latter part, as we know, of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.[37]

Tiberius died in A.D. 37. Capt concludes from his evidence that “Joseph became the Apostle of Britain, who with twelve other disciples of Christ, including his son, Josephes, and Mary the mother of Jesus, established Christianity in the Isles of Britain over five hundred years before St. Augustine [who was sent by Pope Gregory to bring Christianity to Britain] set foot on English soil.”[38]

Manuscript evidence for Joseph of Arimathea in Britain

While these sources provide evidence of a Christian church in Britain at an early date, there is one problem with the evidence regarding Joseph of Arimathea. The only extant manuscripts that point definitely to Joseph as the Christianizer were written over a thousand years after the event they record. Their sources have vanished perhaps in part because of a reign of terror begun in A.D. 303 by Diocletian, emperor of Rome. It is described in the following paragraph from Gildas:

[During] the nine years’ persecution by the tyrant Diocletian,... the Churches throughout the whole world were overthrown. All the copies of the Holy Scriptures which could be found were burned in the streets, and the chosen pastors of God’s flock butchered, together with their innocent sheep, in order that (if possible) not a vestige might remain in some provinces of Christ’s religion.[39]

This persecution, which according to one source killed 889 communicants in Britain, could easily have destroyed all written record of Joseph, leaving him alone in the memories of the Britons.

In any event, the following authors give Joseph the strongest claim to the title of earliest Christianizer.

Hugh Paulinus Cressy, an English Catholic Benedictine, says in his seventeenth-century Church History of England that Britain received “beams of the Sun of Righteousness before many other countries nearer approaching the place where He first rose.”

Cressy continues:

Now the most eminent of the primitive disciples ... was St. Joseph of Arimathea, and eleven of his companions with him, among whom is reckoned his son of his own name. These toward the latter end of Nero’s reign [it ended about A.D. 68], and before St. Peter and St. Paul were consummated by a glorious martyrdom [about A.D. 64 and 67], are by the testimony of ancient records said to have entered this island, as a place for the retiredness of it, the benignity to the British Princes, and the freedom from Roman tyranny, more, opportune, and better prepared for entertaining the Gospel of Peace, than almost any country, under the Romans.[40]

Polydore Vergil, the sixteenth-century Italian historian who traveled to Britain and published an accurate history of England entitled Anglicae Historiae Libri, wrote:

Britain, partly [because of] Joseph of Arimathea,... was of all kingdoms, first, that received the Gospel.[41]

William of Malmesbury

De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie was written by famous historian William of Malmesbury about 1135. He said he based it on “the writing of the ancients,” found in the Glastonbury library before it was destroyed. His chronicle says that St. Philip

... sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of life. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in 63 AD, the fifteenth year after the assumption of the blessed Mary, and confidently began to preach the faith of Christ. The barbarian king and his people, hearing this new and unfamiliar preaching, refused absolutely to agree with it and would not alter the teachings of their forefathers; yet because they had come from afar, and because the sobriety of their life demanded it of him, the king granted them a certain island on the outskirts of his territory on which they could live, a place surrounded by woods, bramble bushes and marshes and called by its inhabitants Yniswitrin.[42]

Although William of Malmesbury is considered a reliable historian, quite a bit of scholarly dispute has raged over this and other passages of his work relating to Joseph. Most historians agree that the mention of a Joseph was a later interpolation by the Glastonbury monks. However, they differ on the monks’ motive.

John Scott, editor of a William of Malmesbury translation, says that the monks were trying to enhance the prestige of their monastery by establishing an “ancient foundation and a saintly founder.” So they “boldly expanded William’s sober and guarded account. They gave names to the missionaries, who had been unknown to William, and invented a document in which Phagan and Deruvian [missionaries sent by Roman Church hierarch Elutherins in A.D. 166] recounted the story of the foundation of Glastonbury by the disciples of St. Philip. An even later embellishment ... brought Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury as the leader of the missionaries.”<Ibid.</ref>

However, not all scholars agree with this interpretation. Geoffrey Ashe says that an interpolation does not preclude the veracity of the statement. He wrote:

In the upshot I see no reason to doubt that by 1190 a Celtic Joseph legend, preserved in Wales, had returned to the Abbey, and that this was the common source for [Grail romancer] Robert de Borron and the De Antiquitate interpolator.[43]

If the passage about Joseph is indeed a forgery, a more reliable passage admits the early Christian settlement of Glastonbury, but leaves the settlers unnamed. William of Malmesbury wrote that “there are also letters worthy of belief to be found at St. Edmund’s to this effect: ‘the hands of other men did not make the church at Glastonbury, but the very disciples of Christ, namely those sent by St. Philip the apostle, built it.’”[44]

Joseph and the boy Jesus sail up the Brue River to Glastonbury, from the banner of the parish church of Pilton, 6 miles east of Glastonbury.

Jesus in Britain

Glastonbury tradition says that Joseph of Arimathea brought the boy Jesus on one of his business trips to England and that Jesus lived there for several years, studying and preparing for his mission.

The belief that Jesus went to England is a persistent one. William Blake, the English poet (1757–1827), conveys this belief in a poem that has been sung as a hymn.

And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
    Among these dark Satanic Mills?[45]

In a pamphlet, Did Our Lord Visit Britain As They Say in Cornwall and Somerset?, Reverend C. C. Dobson, M.A., recounts four separate and independent traditions that say Jesus came to Britain.

The first of these is found in Cornwall. In his Book of Cornwall, Baring-Gould reports a “Cornish story ... to the effect that Joseph of Arimathea came in a boat to Cornwall, and brought the Child Jesus with him, and the latter taught him how to extract the tin and purge it of its [ore] wolfram[ite].... When the tin is flashed then the tinner shouts, ‘Joseph was in the tin trade.’”[46]

The second is a Somerset County tradition describing how Jesus and Joseph came to Summerland on a ship from Tarshish and stayed in Paradise (a place name for areas around Burnham and Glastonbury).[47]

The third says that Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea stayed in the mining village of Priddy, north of Glastonbury, in the Mendip Hills of Somerset County. An old saying there is: “As sure as Our Lord was at Priddy...”[48]

The fourth tradition places Jesus and Joseph in Glastonbury.

Summarizing the beliefs, Dobson says:

[Joseph] gained his wealth as an importer in the tin trade, which existed between Cornwall and Phoenicia. On one of his voyages he took Our Lord with him when a boy. Our Lord either remained in Britain or returned later as a young man, and stayed in quiet retirement at Glastonbury. Here he erected for himself a small house of mud and wattle. Later Joseph of Arimathea, fleeing from Palestine, settled in the same place and erected a mud and wattle church.[49]

The evidence that Joseph came to Glastonbury soon after the crucifixion, reviewed above, says that Joseph was in the tin trade. If so, it is likely that he went to Britain periodically and stopped at different mining centers. Thus, it is logical that each of the four traditions could be valid.

But why would Joseph bring Jesus? If Joseph of Arimathea had been Mary’s uncle, it is a good possibility that he would have become Jesus’ legal guardian upon the passing of Joseph, his father. If Joseph had been Jesus’ guardian and also an official in the Roman-British tin trade, it is certainly possible he would have taken his nephew with him when he traveled on business.

Chalice Well. According to one of the Glastonbury traditions, Joseph of Arimathea hid the Holy Grail in this well.

Joseph’s burial

At the foot of Chalice Hill in Glastonbury, there is a well that for centuries has been called “Chalice Well” and “Holy Well.” Fed by an underground river, its water is reported to have miraculous healing powers. One of the Glastonbury traditions says that Joseph of Arimathea hid the Grail in this well.

Maelgwyn of Avalon seems to connect the Grail with two cruets, or slender glass bottles, one containing the sweat and the other the blood of Jesus, washed from his wounded body after the crucifixion. These, he said, were buried with Joseph at Glastonbury.

Maelgwyn even gave the location of Joseph’s burial.

The Isle of Avalon greedy of burials ... received thousands of sleepers, among whom Joseph de Marmore from Aramathea by name, entered his perpetual sleep. And he lies in a bifurcated line next the southern angle of the oratory made of circular wattles by 13 inhabitants of the place over the powerful adorable Virgin.[50]

A reputed sarcophagus of Joseph does exist today in Glastonbury. A fourteenth-century monk, Roget of Boston, recorded an epitaph attached to it found after it was exhumed in 1345. It read in Latin, “To the Britons I came after I buried the Christ. I taught, I have entered my rest.”[51]

See also


Lost years of Jesus

For more information

E. Raymond Capt, The Traditions of Glastonbury (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Artisan Sales, 1983).

Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1955).

C. C. Dobson, Did Our Lord Visit Britain As They Say in Cornwall and Somerset? (Durham, U.K.: Covenant Publishing Co., 2009.)

George F. Jowett, The Drama of the Lost Disciples (Durham, U.K.: Covenant Publishing Co., 2011).


Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Mysteries of the Holy Grail (1985), sections on “Following the Grail” and “Legends of the Boy Jesus in Britain.”

  1. See Matt. 27:57–60; Mark 15:43–46; Luke 23:50–53; John 19:38–40.
  2. Arthur Edward Waite, The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (1909), pp. 246.
  3. Ibid., pp. 246–47.
  4. Ibid., p. 290.
  5. Geoffrey Ashe, King Arthur’s Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury (London: Fontana, 1957).
  6. Sebastian Evans, trans., The High History of the Holy Grail (London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1903), p. 379.
  7. Also known as the Acts of Pilate.
  8. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1955), p. 97.
  9. Emma Jung and Marie-Luise von Franz, The Grail Legend (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 29.
  10. Ibid., p. 30.
  11. E. Raymond Capt, The Traditions of Glastonbury (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Artisan Sales, 1983), p. 60.
  12. Ibid., pp. 39, 41.
  13. Domesday Book, folio p. 249b, quoted in George F. Jowett, The Drama of the Lost Disciples (Durham, U.K.: Covenant Publishing, 2011), p. 144.
  14. Capt, Traditions of Glastonbury, p. 42–43.
  15. Ibid., p. 51.
  16. Lewis, Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, pp. 158–59.
  17. Ibid., p. 93.
  18. Acts 8:1, 4.
  19. John W. Taylor, The Coming of the Saints: Imaginations and Studies in Early Church History and Tradition (New York: Dutton, 1907), p. 133.
  20. Ibid., p. 126.
  21. Rabanus Maurus, The Life of Saint Mary Magdalene and of Her Sister Saint Martha, ch. 37, quoted in John Pinkston, Our Lost National Identity: Tracing the Lineage of Israel’s Lost Ten Tribes (Mustang, Okl.: Tate Publishing, 2007), p. 329.
  22. Sir Edward Creasy, A History of England from the Earliest to the Present Time (London: James Walton, 1869), vol. 1, p. 18.
  23. Capt, Traditions of Glastonbury, p. 34.
  24. Ibid.
  25. G. Booth, trans., The Historical Library of Diodorus the Sicilian, vol. 1 (London: J. Davis, 1814), pp. 310–11.
  26. Ibid., p. 311.
  27. De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, a religious polemic by Gildas, is the only existing written source for the early Christian history of Britain written close to that time. The complete text is available at Project Gutenberg.
  28. Capt, Traditions of Glastonbury, p. 22.
  29. Ibid., p. 14.
  30. Ibid., pp. 13, 15, 16, 18.
  31. Ibid., p. 18.
  32. Ibid., p. 46.
  33. Ibid., p. 45.
  34. Ibid., p. 46.
  35. Ibid., p. 47.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section 8, quoted in Capt, Traditions of Glastonbury, p. 47.
  38. Capt, Traditions of Glastonbury, p. 21.
  39. Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, section 9.
  40. Hugh Paulinus de Cressy, The Church History of Brittanny or England, from the beginning of Christianity to the Norman Conquest (1668), quoted in Capt, Traditions of Glastonbury, p. 22.
  41. Lewis, Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, p. 15.
  42. John Scott, ed., The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1981).
  43. Ashe, Quest for Arthur’s Britain.
  44. Scott, The Early History of Glastonbury.
  45. William Blake, “And did those feet in ancient time.”
  46. S. Baring-Gould, Book of Cornwall (London: Methuen & Co., 1899, 1906), p. 57.
  47. Dobson, Did Our Lord Visit Britain As They Say in Cornwall and Somerset? p. 26.
  48. Ibid., pp. 5, 26.
  49. Ibid., p. 9.
  50. Capt, Traditions of Glastonbury, p. 51.
  51. Ibid., p. 94.