1st century; feast in the Orthodox East is July 31 and March 27. We
read about Joseph of Arimathea, the "noble counsellor," in all four
Gospels (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-56; and John
19:38-42). As with many of the Biblical figures, numerous legends
accrued around his name in later years.
Saint Joseph was a wealthy member of the temple council and a secret
follower of Jesus because he was afraid of persecution from Jewish
officials. He attended the Crucifixion, and French legend has it that
he caught Jesus's blood as he hung upon the cross. (The presumed "Sacro
Catino" or Holy Grail in which Joseph caught the blood of Christ at the
Crucifixion is at San Lorenzo, Genoa, Italy.) Joseph persuaded Pontius
Pilate to let him have Jesus's body, wrapped it in linen and herbs, and
laid it in a tomb carved in a rock in the side of a hill, a tomb that he
had prepared for himself.
Later tradition has embellished this account. The apocryphal "Gospel of
Nicodemus" relates that Joseph played an important role in the founding
of the Christian community at Lydda.
Another version tells that Joseph was a distant relative of Jesus, who
derived his wealth from tin mines in Cornwall, which he visited from
time to time. One version tells the story of the teenaged Jesus
accompanying Joseph on one such visit. This is the background of the
poem "Jerusalem," by William Blake (1757-1827):
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 those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear!
O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
This version continues to say that, after the Crucifixion, Saint Joseph
returned to Cornwall, bringing with him the chalice of the
Last Supper, also known as the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail was hidden
and played an important part in the folk history of England in the great
national epic about King Arthur and his knights who unsuccessfully seek
to find it.
Upon reaching Glastonbury, he planted his staff, which took root and
blossomed into a thorn tree. This is the Holy Thorn, which flowers at
Christmas. King Charles I baited his wife's Roman Catholic chaplain by
observing that, although Pope Gregory had proclaimed a reform of the
calendar, the Glastonbury Thorn ignored the Pope's decree and continued
to blossom on Christmas Day according to the Old Calendar. One of
Cromwell's soldiers cut down the Thorn because it was a relic of
superstition. We are told that he was blinded by one of the thorns as
it fell. A tree grown from a cutting of the original Thorn survives
today in Glastonbury (and trees propagated from it stand on the grounds
of the Cathedral in Washington, DC, and presumably elsewhere) and leaves
from it are sold in all the tourist shops in Glastonbury.
William of Malmesbury's treatise on the "Antiquity of Glastonbury" (in
competition with Westminster) was the source of the 13th-century legend
alleging that Joseph accompanied
Saint Philip (f.d. May 3)
to Gaul to
preach. Philip then sent Joseph at the head of 12 missionaries to
England. It is said that the company, inspired by Gabriel the archangel,
built a church made of wattles in honour of the Virgin Mary on an island
called Yniswitrin, given to them by the king of England. (Some versions
even claim that Jesus Himself consecrated the church.) The church
eventually evolved into Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. Supposedly
Joseph died there, was buried on the island, and miraculous cures worked
at his grave. This burial site is unlikely though.
Is there any merit to the legends of Saint Joseph? Perhaps. Tin, an
essential ingredient of bronze, was highly valued in ancient times, and
Phoenician ships imported tin from Cornwall. It is not unreasonable to
believe that some first-century, Jewish Christians might have been
investors in the Cornwall tin trade. Christianity gained a foothold in
Britain very early, perhaps, in part, because of the commerce in tin.
If so, then the early British Christians would have a tradition that
they had been evangelized by a wealthy Jewish Christian. Having
forgotten his name, they might have consulted the Scriptures and found
that Joseph and
Saint Barnabas (f.d. June 11)
fit the description.
Because much of the life of Barnabas was already described by the "Acts
of the Apostles" making him an unlikely candidate, only Joseph was left.
Thus, Christians seeking an immediate connection with their Lord,
grasped on to Joseph as their evangelizer. The Glastonbury legend had
of fostering devotion to the details of the Incarnate Jesus and His
It also played a role in Church politics. At the Council of Constance
(1414-1418), Glastonbury claimed seniority by claiming
that England had received Christianity before any other Western country
In art, Saint Joseph is portrayed as a very old man, carrying a pot of
ointment or a flowering staff or a pair of altar cruets
(containing the blood and sweat of Jesus)
He may be
shown taking the crown of thorns from the dead Christ. At other times
he is shown with the shroud and crown of thorns, a thorn tree by him, or
a box of spices
He is venerated at Glastonbury and patron of
grave-diggers and undertakers
Troparion tone 2
Noble Joseph took Thine immaculate Body down from the tree,
wrapped it in a clean shroud and spices,
and having embalmed It, laid It in a new sepulchre.
But on the third day Thou didst rise, O Lord, granting the
world great mercy.
Kontakion tone 2
Joseph of Arimathea took Thee the Life of all, down from the Tree as one
and wrapped Thee in clean linen and spices.
He yearned to embrace and kiss Thy pure Body with heart and lips
yet he restrained himself with fear.
He cried to Thee rejoicing:
Glory to Thy condescension, O Lover of mankind.
Icons of Saint Joseph of Arimathea:
Read an article about Jospeh of Arimathea on the Web at