42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.
Everybody loves enigmatic characters, those characters that have an air of mystery about them. In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea—the man who asked for the body of Jesus and who buried Jesus—is one of those enigmatic character. And, as usually happens with enigmatic characters, people’s curiosity gets the better of them and increasingly strange stories grow up around them. This seems to be especially true of Joseph of Arimathea. There are countless legends that have grown up around Joseph, many of them quite old. Undoubtedly this is because we do not know all that we would like to know about Joseph. So people allow their imaginations to fill in the blanks! The BBC has provided a fascinating list of some of these legends.
- He was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain, having been sent with other disciples by St Philip.
- He built Britain’s first church (some say this was actually the first church in the world).
- He was Mary’s uncle, and thus Jesus’ great-uncle.
- He was a merchant who visited England to buy Cornish tin.
- He took Jesus with him to England when Jesus was a teenager (local legends say that among the places they visited were St Just in Roseland and St Michael’s Mount).
- He brought to England two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus (or two vials containing the sweat of Jesus).
- He brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in a well at Glastonbury, now called the Chalice Well.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of Joseph of Arimathea:
Acc. to the apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus” he played an important part in the foundation of the first Christian community at Lyddia. In the “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesie,” written by William of Malmesbury between 1129 and 1139, occurs the earliest mention of the story that St. Joseph came to England with the Holy Grail and built the first church in the country at Glastonbury, but the passage relating this incident was added to the book at least a century later.
It is also said of Joseph of Arimathea that he planted his staff in the ground of Glastonbury and it blossomed into a thorn tree. It is said that this where Glastonbury Thorn comes from. All of these legends are fascinating and a bit amusing, but they do point, again, to the mystery surrounding Joseph of Arimathea.
Even so, what is truly intriguing about Joseph of Arimathea is not the legends but rather what we do know, what scripture does tell us about Joseph. All four gospels mention Joseph, a fact that is very important. When all four gospels mention a figure or an episode, attention must be paid.
So who was Joseph and why does that question matter to us? Who was Joseph of Arimathea and, specifically, who was Jesus to Joseph?