The only definitive information we have concerning Joseph of Arimathea comes to us from the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Other stories exist that detail what happened to him after these events took place and, although they make interesting reading, are very likely not true.

What we do know is that Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin and a follower of Jesus, although a secret one “for fear of the Jews” (Jn 19:38). Described as a “good and just man” in the Gospel of Luke (23:50), he was one of the Jewish leaders who did not take part in the condemnation of Jesus on the night we call Holy Thursday. Instead, after Jesus’ death, Joseph boldly asked Pontius Pilate for His body so that it could receive a proper burial before the Sabbath, which began at sundown. This was a more courageous act on Joseph’s part than we might imagine, as Jesus had died a condemned criminal, publicly executed for sedition.

Remarkably, Pilate agreed, and Joseph, along with another of Jesus’ secret followers, Nicodemus, arranged to have the body prepared for burial according to Jewish custom; Jesus was then laid in Joseph’s own tomb, which was as yet unused and newly hewn out of rock.  Finally, a large stone was rolled in front of the tomb’s entrance, the same stone that would later be found rolled away on Easter Sunday morning.

At this point, the biblical story of Joseph comes to a close, and the legendary stories begin.  During the Middle Ages, Joseph’s narrative somehow became connected with the lore surrounding King Arthur; he is featured in a 12th-century tale by Robert de Boron as the Keeper of the Holy Grail, which was the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. An earlier version of the story has Joseph receiving the cup from an apparition of Jesus, which later finds its way to Great Britain by way of some of Joseph’s followers. A revised version has Joseph himself coming to the British Isles with the Grail, which he subsequently buried in a secret place. It was this Holy Grail which was at the center of so many Arthurian quests.

Glastonbury Abbey also lays claim to part of Joseph’s legend. It is said that when Joseph arrived in Great Britain with the Grail around the year 63 AD, he landed on the island of Avalon and climbed the hill there. Weary from his journey, he thrust his staff into the ground and rested; by morning, the staff had taken root and produced a thorn tree, which reportedly bloomed every Christmas. It was also upon this land that Joseph and 12 of his followers are said to have built Glastonbury Abbey, although it was actually constructed around the seventh century. Today it is maintained as an important archeological site.

Legends aside, it is Joseph’s service to Jesus that Christians remember today. The patron of funeral directors, his feast is March 17.

Sources for this article include:

Gigot, Francis. “Joseph of Arimathea.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910

 “Saint Joseph of Arimathea.” CatholicSaints.Info., June 18, 2020