Orthodox History of Joseph of Arimathea's Burial Place

by Tasha Brandstatter

According to legend and apocryphal texts, Joseph of Arimathea was buried in Glastonbury, England, a location steeped in the history, religion and myths of Great Britain. Joseph built the first Christian church at Glastonbury, and buried the Holy Grail at the base of its tor in the 1st century. Glastonbury remains a site of pilgrimage and religious importance even though the associated abbey dissolved during the 16th century,

Ancient History

Glastonbury Tor is said to be the site of a terraced maze dating back to the druids. If one followed it, the paths winding along the hillside would lead to either the underworld or the world of the fairies, according to ancient lore. The tor was rumored to be the site of a goddess cult as well as the mythical Avalon, as the sea once rose over the base of the hill, making it look like an island.

Christianity Arrives

In the Bible, Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy disciple of Jesus who claimed the body after the Crucifixion, offering up his own tomb for the internment. Nothing else is written about Joseph in canonical Scripture, but supplemental gospels -- the Apocrypha -- elaborate upon his history. According to these texts, Joseph was Mary's uncle, and a tin merchant who occasionally traveled to Britain for trade. On one such trip, he took a young Jesus along. After the Resurrection, Joseph returned to Britain with several Apostles, where they proselytized until arriving at Glastonbury. Granted land by a local chieftain, Arviragus, Joseph constructed a wattle-and-daub church on the site and performed many miracles, according to these gospels.

The Grail

Anyone familiar with "The Da Vinci Code" remembers the legend that Joseph of Arimathea carried the Holy Grail to Britain. Whether this was the blood and water that drained from Jesus after the spear of a Roman guard pierced his side, the cup passed at the Last Supper, or simply a metaphor, legends agree that Joseph buried the Grail at the base of Glastonbury Tor, from which sprang the Chalice Well -- a small spring of water said to grant eternal youth. The Holy Grail could also have referred to the mother of Jesus, Mary, who according to one story joined Joseph in Britain and was subsequently buried on the site of The Lady Chapel.

Historical Support

Regardless of whether you subscribe to the apocryphal stories of Joseph of Arimathea, archaeological and historical evidence supports Glastonbury's importance as an early Christian site. The remains of a wattle-and-daub structure dating to the 1st century have been found, and pilgrims traveled to the church since at least the 5th century, when St. Patrick visited. A stone church was constructed at Glastonbury in the 8th century by King Ines, and St. Dunstan served as abbot in the 10th century. According to some accounts, the graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were discovered in 1191 and re-interred under the eye of Edward I. By the 16th century, long after Joseph's time, Glastonbury was the second-wealthiest abbey in Britain, until it was burned and looted during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.

About the Author

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.

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