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According to the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was the man who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion. A native of Arimathea, he was apparently a man of wealth, and a member of the Sanhedrin, which is the way bouleutes, literally "senator", is interpreted in Matthew 27:57 and Luke 23:50). Joseph was an "honourable counsellor, who waited (or "was searching" which is not the same thing) for the kingdom of God" (Mark, xv, 43). As soon as he heard the news of Christ's death, he "went in boldly" (lit. "having summoned courage, he went") "unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus."
Pilate, who was reassured by a centurion that the death had really taken place, allowed Joseph's request. Joseph immediately purchased fine linen (Mark 15:46) and proceeded to Golgotha to take the body down from the cross. There, assisted by Nicodemus, he took the body and wrapped it in the fine linen, sprinkling it with the myrrh and aloes which Nicodemus had brought (John 19:39). The body was then conveyed to a new tomb hewn by Joseph himself out of a rock in his garden near by. There they laid it, in the presence of Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women, and rolled a great stone to the entrance, and departed (Luke 23:53, 55).
This was done speedily, "for the Sabbath was drawing on." Thus was fulfilled Isaiah's prediction that the grave of the Messiah would be with a rich man (Isaiah 53:9). The skeptical tradition, which reads the various fulfillments of prophecies in the life of Jesus as inventions designed for that purpose, reads Joseph of Arimathea as a meme created to fulfill this prophecy in Isaiah. With this is mind, it is worth quoting the passage from Isaiah, chapter 53, the "man of sorrows" passage, because so much of the meaningfulness of Joseph of Arimathea hinges upon these prophetic words:
- He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
- And they gave wicked ones his grave and [a scribbled word probably accusative sign "eth"] rich ones in his death although he worked no violence neither deceit in his mouth.
Arimathea itself is not otherwise documented, though it was "a city of Judea" according to Luke (xxiii, 51). Arimathea is usually identified with Ramatha, where David came to Samuel (1Samuel chapter 19), although some scholars prefer to identify it with the town of Ramleh. The fortunate appearance of this man coming from Arimathea, a place that was all but lost in the myth of history, would have been deeply impressive to the first-century hearers of the story of the Crucifixion. To find a parallel resonance in the English-speaking tradition, it would be somewhat as if a helper in need turned up who was from Camelot.
The Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that "the additional details which are found concerning him in the apocryphal Acta Pilati, are unworthy of credence." (For details on this source of the Joseph of Arimathea legend, see Acts of Pilate.)
"Likewise fabulous is the legend" continues the Catholic Encyclopedia that Joseph of Arimathea was the uncle of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a merchant involved in the tin trade with Britain who took Jesus to England at some time in his life. After the Crucifixion, around the year AD 63, he was said to have returned to England as one of the first Christian missionaries to visit the country. He carried the Holy Grail with him, concealing it somewhere in the vicinity of Glastonbury Tor for safekeeping when he established the first church in the British Isles, which developed into Glastonbury Abbey. When Joseph set his walking staff on the ground to sleep, it miraculously took root, leafed out, and blossomed as the "Glastonbury thorn. There is little historical substance for any of this legend, but its retelling did encourage the pilgrimage trade at Glastonbury until the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, at the English Reformation.
The Eastern Orthodox rite celebrates the feast of Joseph of Arimathea on July 31, and the Roman Catholic rite on March 17. .