Joseph of Arimathea

by Brian Edward Rise

In the New Testament, Joseph is a rich man who lays Jesus' body in the tomb after procuring it from Pilate. There is an account of his imprisonment and deliverance by the risen Christ in an apocryphal work, the Acts of Pilate. Joseph by Robert de Boron and the Estoire del Saint Graal elaborate this tale. Joseph, it is said, came into possession of the Holy Grail and subsequently learned its mysteries from Christ. The vessel also sustained the old man during his long imprisonment. Upon his release by Vespasian, he sets off with a party of companions (some say Lazarus and Mary Magdalene) on a set of divinely guided treks that eventually bring the Grail to Britain. There is a dispute among romancers as to whether Joseph actually made it to Britain and they prominently feature a son named Josephe or Josephus, who actually does set foot on British soil. Joseph himself is the prototypical Grail Keeper and figurative ancestor of all after him down to Pelles and Galahad.

The Monastery of Glastonbury was reputedly founded by Joseph. Toward 1130, William of Malmesbury writes of a belief that the Old Church was built by disciples of Jesus. While he does not name them, an edition of his work with interpolations and dating from around 1247, does claim that these disciples were led by Joseph. Arriving around 63, they built the church and lived out their days there.

These two roles, of Grail Keeper and church founder, are never truly matched in medieval literature. Not one notable writer until Tennyson seems to make the simple statement that Joseph brought the Grail to Glastonbury. Also, while de Boron and the author of Perlesvaus are seemingly aware of the Glastonbury legends, it is not until his establishment as a hero of Grail romance that Joseph makes an appearance in any abbey document. This has often led to the assumption that Joseph was first brought to Britain by European romancers and gradually adopted by the Glastonbury monks and put into their histories. This interpretation has difficulties, however, as some earlier tradition may have filtered into England and France. This material might have Celtic or Welsh origins along with the other Celtic material assimilated by Arthurian legend, possibly giving rise to Joseph's dual role in Arthurian literature. Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe (writing with Norris J. Lacy) says, "The basic question, which neither the Grail cycle nor the Glastonbury story convincingly answers, is why anyone's imagination should have brought Joseph — a most unlikely person — to Britain at all."