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Joseph of Arimathea: Man of Integrity
By Christopher Gaul


A Secret Disciple
Man of Legends

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 economic position.

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 disciple.)

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 country’s evangelist.

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 protected it.

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.

Next: Bathsheba

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.


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