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[Feastday in Western Calendars is 17 and 27 March]

1st century. 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 legend has it that he caught Jesus's blood as he hung upon the cross. What is said to be the Sacro Catino 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 to add 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, 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 mid-winter at Christmas and again in May. 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 allegedly 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.

It was not until about the middle of the 13th century that the legend appears saying Joseph accompanied Saint Philip to Gaul to preach and was sent by him to England as the leader of 12 missionaries. 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. 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.

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 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 (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopaedia, Robinson, White).

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) (White). 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 (Roeder). He is venerated at Glastonbury and patron of grave-diggers and undertakers (Roeder).

To see William Blake's Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion, click click

Icons of St. Joseph of Arimathea

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.

Joseph of Arimathea:
Biblical & Legendary Accounts

by Robert Jones

This excellent essay may be read on line at

Table of Contents

Canonical Sources

Characteristics of Joseph of Arimathea

Involvement in the burial of Christ

Joseph of Arimathea - coward or saint?

Non-Canonical Sources

The Gospel of Nicodemus

The Narrative of Joseph

The Passing of Mary

Legendary Accounts

Founder of the first Christian Church in England

Joseph and the Holy Grail

And did those feet in ancient times...



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