People of wealth and influence today might look to
Joseph of Arimathea as a saintly role model. This
disciple of Jesus was a rich man and a member of the
powerful Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jews (Mark
15:43; Luke 23:50).
Joseph provided his own expensive tomb for the burial of
the crucified Christ. This was a huge risk to his social and
Most of Jesus’ disciples had fled or avoided the crucifixion
site. (Exceptions were Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene
and other women followers, and young John—the beloved
In a remarkably noble and courageous
act, Joseph of Arimathea went
directly to Pontius Pilate to ask his
permission to take Jesus’ dead body
in order to prepare it for burial
(Matthew 27:57-58). He was aware
that such a request might have
angered Pilate. In addition, there
were influential Jews who had seen
Jesus as a major threat to their religious
authority. They were not in
any mood to treat his death with
the respect due the Messiah, for
whom they had only contempt.
According to various historical
sources, Joseph’s actions provoked
the Jewish elders and Roman officials.
One tradition insists that he
eventually spent time in prison for his support of Jesus.
A Secret Disciple
Although he is mentioned in all four Gospels, Joseph remains
somewhat of an enigma. We know that he was born at Arimathea
in Judea and that he was an Israelite, “a virtuous and
righteous man” (Luke 23:50). And we know that he “was
himself awaiting the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43).
Joseph did not declare himself a disciple of Jesus “for
fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).
There are many other examples of men and women of
great integrity who have been reluctant to act because of how
it might damage their professional or personal lives. Usually,
propelled by their faith, they tend to come through.
So it was with Joseph of Arimathea, in a very big way without
any apparent human persuasion. No wonder, then, that
he is venerated as a saint, not only by the Catholic Church
but by Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and some Anglican
Churches, too. The Catholic Church celebrates his feast
day on August 31.
Like so many other heroes of faith, wondrous apocryphal stories
sprang up around Joseph, particularly during the Middle
Ages. He supposedly acquired his wealth in the metals
trade, which likely would have acquainted him with Britain:
Cornwall was well-known in the Roman Empire for its tin,
and Somerset was renowned for its high-quality lead.
One story says that Joseph accompanied the Apostle
Philip, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and others on a preaching
mission to Gaul. At the English Channel, Philip sent Joseph,
with 12 disciples, to establish Christianity in Britain.
Another legend says that Joseph’s
boat ran ashore in the Glastonbury
Marshes in Britain. Having brought
with him a staff grown from Christ’s
crown of thorns, Joseph thrust it
into the ground and the thorn staff
immediately took root.
It has also been said that Joseph
met with the local ruler, Arviragus,
and secured some land at Glastonbury
to build the first monastery in
Britain. From there he became the
Some accounts state that Joseph
was the uncle of the Blessed Virgin
Mary and, therefore, of Jesus. Thus,
Joseph may have brought the young
Jesus along on one of his business
trips to Britain. The words of
William Blake’s famous and moving hymn “Jerusalem”
reflect this tradition:
“And did those feet, in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?”
In the Holy Grail legend, Joseph of Arimathea is associated
with the cup said to have received Christ’s blood at the
crucifixion. Joseph took it to Britain, where his descendants
We don’t know if any of these or other legends are true.
But why shouldn’t one of the first Christian heroes of faith
have wonderful stories woven around him? It seems an
appropriate reward for integrity, fidelity and courage.
Christopher Gaul is a semi-retired journalist whose past experience includes being
managing editor of The Catholic Review (Baltimore), White House correspondent
for National Public Television and reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Born in
England, he now lives in Baltimore County with his wife, Pam, and their four show
champion Weimaraner dogs.