Uncle Joseph

Joseph, you took me from the cross. and you know well that I took the Last Supper at the house of Simon the Leper, where I said that I was to be betrayed. As I sat at that table, several tables will be established in my service, to make the sacrament in my name, which will be a reminder of the cross; and the vessel of the sacrament will be a reminder of the stone tomb in which you laid me, and the paten which will be placed on top will be a reminder of the lid with which you covered me, and the cloth called the corporal will be a reminder of the winding-sheet in which you wrapped me. And so your work will be remembered until he world’s end.
Robert de Boron, The History of the Grail

Two versions of the pre-Roman foundation of British Christianity have come down to us. The first is in that most reputable of history books, Bede’s History of the English Church and People. At the synod of Whitby, Bede tells us, bishop Colman defended the errant customs and practices of his race on the grounds that they originated with St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved and who was considered worthy to lean on his breast. Five centuries later, when the Celtic nations were again under pressure from the Roman Church and her military allies, a different story emerged. Far less reputable, and closely bound up with the Arthurian legend, this story made Joseph of Arimathea the original author of British Christianity.

Assuming, as scholars do, that this story is a fabrication, it is easy to see why a British storyteller would have preferred to substitute Joseph of Arimathea for the Beloved Disciple. The latter was hopelessly confused with both John of Ephesus and John son of Zebedee, and this composite individual, being one of the Twelve, was clearly under the authority of St. Peter. Hence Bishop Colman lost the argument at Whitby. Joseph of Arimathea, on the other hand, plays a prominent role in Christ’s passion, but the gospels make it clear he does not act under St. Peter’s authority. Indeed, he only arrives on the scene after St. Peter has denied his Lord three times, and all the Twelve have fled.

All four canonical gospels have the same story. Joseph of Arimathea, unknown and unmentioned before the crucifixion, was the man who took the body of Jesus down from the cross and laid it in an unused tomb. It was his own tomb, according to Matthew, who also tells us he was a wealthy man. Mark and Luke say he was a member of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, before which Jesus had recently stood trial - Luke specifies that Joseph had not consented to their action. In John’s account Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus, mentioned earlier in John’s narrative. John 3.1-10 tells us Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin who came to Jesus by night, convinced by his miracles yet unwilling to publicly acknowledge him as the Messiah. Their conversation concerned the need to be born again, Nicodemus incredulous at the possibility, Jesus apparently surprised that this famous teacher did not already know that only those born of the spirit could see the kingdom of God. In John 7.50 Nicodemus spoke out for Jesus in council, saying it was against the law to condemn any man without giving him a hearing or establishing the facts, at which his opponents retorted: “Are you a Galilean too?”. So Nicodemus was already a suspected sympathiser when he came to the aid of Joseph bringing half a hundredweight of myrrh and aloes to dress the body of Jesus. But it was Joseph alone who went before Pilate.

The appearance of Joseph of Arimathea in the canonical gospels is just as mysterious as that of Mary Magdalene. Both play a prominent role in the Passion narrative, so prominent, and clearly so well remembered, that all four gospels include them and tell essentially the same story about them. Yet all four leave us in the dark as to who they really were, and why they were so closely involved with Jesus. Joseph receives no mention whatever prior to the crucifixion, and none after the burial, there is nothing about him in Acts, nor in Eusebius’ history. His story is left to apocrypha, and to legend.

The apocryphal work which continues Joseph’s story is variously titled The Gospel of Nicodemus and The Acts of Pilate, and variously dated from the second to the sixth century. In this tale the Jewish authorities, angry at Joseph for the respect he showed the body of Jesus, arrest and imprison him, intending to execute him. But they find his prison empty, though the seals remain intact and only Caiaphas has the keys. The miracle convinces them that they have wronged Joseph, and so they send letters to him asking for his forgiveness. He returns to Jerusalem riding on an ass, and recounts, before Ananias and Caiaphas and all the rulers of the synagogue, his meeting with the risen Jesus who had removed him from his prison. But there is no attempt, in this story, to answer that key question: who was Joseph?

It is left to medieval legend to inform us that Joseph was the uncle of Jesus, or more correctly, his great-uncle, since Joseph the Carpenter can hardly have had a brother called Joseph, and Mary his mother was also miraculous conception, according to the apocrypha, born to elderly parents who had long given up hope of having children, and so had no siblings. So Joseph of Arimathea, in medieval legend, was Mary’s uncle. There is no direct confirmation of this relationship in any reputable source, but actually the gospels do lend it some credence. The very fact that Joseph takes responsibility for the body of Jesus, that Pilate allows him to take the body, implies they were in some way related.

So one member of Jesus Christ’s kin was wealthy and well connected - so well connected that he was able to get an audience with the Roman governor during a period of political disturbance and to secure from him the body of a condemned criminal (albeit doubtless with a bribe, Pilate was notoriously corrupt, Josephus tells us). But how could there be just one wealthy, powerful man in the family of Christ? It is obvious the humble carpenter version of Jesus’ background has been overstated by the Pauline Christians for political convenience. Both Mary and her husband Joseph were descendants of King David, if we are to believe Matthew and Luke, and all four canonical gospels claim that Christ's Davidic descent was publicly acknowledged.[2] But other evidence does indicate this displaced royal line was now far from the corridors of power in Jerusalem, and far from being wealthy. As said [3], two great-nephews of Jesus were released by Emperor Domitian precisely on the grounds of their poverty - their work-roughened hands proving they were obliged to work in their own fields. And Jesus himself stated that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. [4]

That all changed, however, just days before the crucifixion, when Jesus married into the Bethany family, who were conspicuously wealthy, and also members of the Jewish elite. Mary his mother is not likely to have had a wealthy uncle who was a member of the Sanhedrin, but what of Mary his wife, whose brother was known to the high priest?

The facts fit. Why does Joseph suddenly emerge out of nowhere? A secret disciple for fear of the Jews, he now makes his allegiance known at the most dangerous point in the drama, and goes in person, into the lion’s den, to request the body of a condemned man from his judge and executioner. But what if Joseph were the acting head of the Bethany household, the household of Simon the Leper, a man precluded by his disability from public activity? Joseph could easily be the brother of Simon. His sudden appearance on the scene would then make sense. It would be his duty to see to it that the body of Jesus, his niece’s husband, was not dishonoured further.

But the uncle of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, would be also the uncle of the Beloved Disciple. In which case there is an unlooked for connection between the two Celtic versions of the origin of the British Church.

Of course this isn’t evidence that Joseph of Arimathea ever set foot in Britain. But it is further evidence that the choice of Joseph of Arimathea for the role of founder of the British Church was not arbitrary. It suggests a lost tradition in the Celtic Church which genuinely did date back to the earliest Christian period, before the triumph of the Pauline faction, with its pro-Roman, a-political version of Christ’s mission, erased from the record all mention of the Messiah’s connections to the Jewish elite.

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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1. Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, p 41

2. see Appendix 2

3. Ibid.

4. Matthew 8.20, Luke 9.58