Joseph of Arimathea – the Man, the Legends

For many people mentioned in the Bible there is what the Bible tells us about them and then the legends that are built up around them. This is certainly the case with Joseph of Arimathea, the man who took charge of Jesus’ burial.

All four Gospel writers state that Joseph was the one who took charge of Jesus’ burial after securing permission from Pontius Pilate to do so.

Mark says Joseph took Jesus down from the cross. That must have been a little tricky. No doubt since he was a rich man Joseph had some servants to help him. Somehow they had to remove the nails that were holding Jesus body to the cross without letting his body fall to the ground.

John tells us that Nicodemus, the man who had visited Jesus at night, also helped with the burial. I’m sure that with all that Jesus’ body had been through – whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, stabbed in the side with a spear – those who helped bury Jesus got pretty dirty.

We are also told that the women who had followed and supported Jesus during his ministry watched the burial.

Matthew tells us that Joseph wrapped Jesus in a clean linen shroud and placed him in a new tomb that was cut out of rock. I suspect most of us imagine that when we die we will be buried and that our bodies will stay in our graves until Jesus returns for Judgment Day. But that is not the way things work in some parts of the world.
In places where land is scarce, people get buried and then, after a year or so, their remains are removed from the grave and a new body is placed in the grave. Joseph placed Jesus’ body in a grave that had not yet been used. And since Jesus did not need it anymore after he rose from the dead on Easter, his grave was probably re-used by others.

Scholars also see a reference to Joseph of Arimathea in Isaiah 53:9: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

So these are the Biblical facts about Joseph of Arimathea. Then there are the legends.

According to the legends he was actually related to Jesus, on his mother Mary’s side of the family, probably an uncle.

He made his money as a tin merchant who traveled to southern England in the area around Glastonbury, where, until recently, there were a number of tin mines. Tin is an important metal as it is used to make bronze.

Some speculate that Joseph even took Jesus with him on one of his trips to England. This is certainly possible since the Bible tells us very little about Jesus’ life up until he began his public ministry at the age of 30.

After Jesus ascended into heaven Joseph is said to have returned to England and preached the Gospel there. For many centuries Glastonbury was an important pilgrimage site for Christians, in part because of the legends about Joseph of Arimathea.

There are even some legends that connect Joseph with the Holy Grail.

We will never know what prompted Joseph of Arimathea to come forward and take charge of the burial of Jesus. Maybe, like Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to the crucifixion, Joseph was just in the right place at the right time.

There are many times still today believers end up in a random situations where they are called on to help in ways that they never would have expected. Every day God calls us to serve and follow him and we do so willingly because Jesus went to that cross to die for us and secure our salvation.

People may not end up making a pilgrimage site out of the places where we have lived or served but God never forgets the good deeds we do in response to his love for us in Christ.

Joseph of Arimathea

14th century Byzantine Icon of the Descent from the Cross from the Church of Saint Marina

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