According to the Bible, Joseph of Arimathea was a man of some importance who was contemporary to Jesus. By his actions, it would appear that Joseph was either a follower of Jesus or at least sympathetic to His ministry. It was Joseph who gave his own rock-hewn tomb, an honor available only to the wealthy at the time, into which Jesus’ body was placed after the crucifixion. It can be presumed that Joseph also donated any grave goods necessary for the preparation of Jesus’ body before it was placed in the tomb. These goods likely would have included a burial cloth in which to wrap the body -- perhaps more than one to be used for multiple purposes. His donation may have also included certain high quality vessels and oils used during the interment rituals, although the credit is usually given to Mary Magdalene for providing the anointing oils.
Although his exact profession or status in society is not clear, it would seem that he was not the average 1st century Jewish citizen. Below are four very similar accounts of Joseph claiming Jesus’ body after His death. Each would suggest a person who not only felt comfortable approaching Pilate with such a request, but who had the social and political clout to back it up.
- Matthew 27 — 57 When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus' disciple: 58 He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.
- Mark 15 — 42 And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus. 44 And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead. 45 And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.
- Luke 23 — 50 And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just: 51 (The same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) he was of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went unto Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus.
- John 19 — 38 And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.
From these accounts we see that Joseph, allegedly a member of the Jewish ruling body called the “Sanhedrin”, had the authority to “boldly” approach the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate and request Jesus’ body. Some have claimed further that Joseph was exercising his right as a family member. There is another legend known as the “Lost years of Jesus” which asserts that Joseph was Mary’s uncle which would make him the only living male member of Jesus’ family after the death of His father.
It is this story that gives rise to another legend, known as the “Traditions of Glastonbury”, that links Jesus and Joseph to the foundation of a church in southwest England in Somerset. This legend claims that after Mary’s husband Joseph died, her uncle Joseph took the young Jesus to England while traveling there to oversee metal production in the Mindip Hills area. There is a tradition in the area that Joseph was a metal merchant, specifically in the tin trade for which the areas surrounding Glastonbury is famous. The tradition further states that years later, after the crucifixion, this is why Joseph returns to the area of Glastonbury to found his church of wattles there, where the current ruins of Glastonbury Abbey stand today.
According to legend, Joseph took with him two vials of blood and sweat collected from the body of Jesus either as He hung from the cross or while preparing His body in the tomb. Later known as the Holy Grail, by then described as a cup from the Last Supper, the memory of these relics became the center point for a monastic community that thrived there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England -- the abbey being dissolved, ransacked and ruined in 1539.
Whatever became of the relics Joseph allegedly brought to England is unknown. What is known is that the Joseph tradition featured prominently in several histories, accounts, and other documents once housed in the vast library at Glastonbury Abbey. Treated more fully in another section of this site, these accounts form the only link, albeit circumstantial and ultimately unverifiable, between Glastonbury’s legendary origins and what is known of Glastonbury’s history.