Comments: Lewis, G.S. (2017). Joseph of Arimathea. Yardley: Westholme. 120 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59416-290-9.

“There is no country other than Britain that possesses a tradition of Joseph of Arimathea arriving on a mission to spread the Christian Gospel, remaining in the country until his death, and being buried there” (45), writes author Glyn Lewis, who succeeds in highlighting the centuries-long importance of this heroic legend to British Christianity. He provides literary, biblical, and geographic background to the story of the man who took Jesus down from the Cross and buried him in his own tomb. Longstanding legend has it that when doing so, he collected the Savior’s blood and sweat in two cups.
According to the author, there is good reason to assume Joseph of Arimathea’s close family ties to Jesus, as only a close relative would have been granted permission to take down a crucified body. Lewis’s understanding of first-century Palestine and of scripture allows him to smooth out potential inconsistencies. This early outline of ancient Hebrew burial culture and Joseph’s place in that helps us see his social standing and relationship to Jesus. He was a true believer. Mentioned briefly in all four Gospels, apocryphal (non-biblical) legends and later traditions added to the description by recounting how Joseph moved to Britain and built the first church there.
Readers end up with a cultural history of Britain centered around the uniqueness of British Christianity, especially in the first Christian centuries. Instead of a sensationalist narrative of messianic bloodlines, as some speculators have constructed, the author soberly examines both British and wider European legends on Joseph of Arimathea. His intimate knowledge of local Cornish history, place-names, and legends makes this a unique and fascinating contribution to stories of the saints. Though not a scholarly work supported with footnotes and endless primary writings, Lewis provides varied and interesting sources, including a few well-selected primary medieval chronicles, Arthurian and Christian literary texts, and local clergymen’s musings.
Lewis begins by showing the possible connections Palestine-based Joseph of Arimathea could have had with Cornwall. This connection is not as far-fetched as it seems. As a metals trader, he could have been familiar with the region, a well-known center of tin extraction at the time. Lewis traces the trade routes from the Near East port of Caesarea to Marseilles and up Gaul to Cornwall, describing this in enough detail to paint it as plausible for the reader.
While Lewis never reads the legends about Joseph of Arimathea uncritically, his love for this Christian lore is a delight to the reader. It represents only one of the countless rich legends that Europeans built up over the centuries regarding their faith. Detective-like, he cites a manuscript from Magdalen College Library, Oxford, Life of St. Mary Magdalene, by Maurus Rabanus (776-856): “Leaving the shores of Asia and favoured by an east wind, they went round about, down the Tyrrhenian Sea, between Europe and Africa… Then, happily turning their course to the right, they came to the city of Marseilles … There, having called upon God, the great King of all the world, they parted: each company going to the province where the Holy Spirit had directed them” (27). Later, when recounting Joseph of Arimathea and his group finally settled in Cornwall, Lewis likewise traces records, legends, and poems, including citing Cornish monks’ chronicles and referring to the history of Glastonbury Abbey.
While Joseph of Arimathea plays a role in some strands of the Arthurian corpus, Lewis never lets speculation on this overwhelm the discussion. Rather, these legends buttress the discussions on Joseph. After being used to collect Christ’s blood,  the cup or Grail took on spiritual properties that, as legend has it, filled both Judas and Pontius Pilate with despair when they approach it. Lewis continues: “when Joseph of Arimathea comes to beg the body of Jesus, the distracted Roman implores him to take the cup away. As Joseph holds the cup, he receives a vision of himself bearing it to far-off lands” (86). Such tales remind us of the more mystical Christianity that many of us have left behind for a much less enchanted spiritual life, whether Christian or not. Perhaps one weakness to this book is the author’s brevity in discussing the Grail legend. This is the most common knowledge people have of Joseph of Arimathea aside from careful readers of the Gospels. Readers would have found a longer, nuanced examination of Joseph, the Grail, and King Arthur to be quite fascinating.
More positively, the author never deviates from his wider concern, his own fascination with Joseph of Arimathea’s role in the development of Britain’s first church. This single purpose provides coherence and consistency to his entire argument, making the book fun and enlightening, as Lewis reconnects us to a mostly-forgotten legend from Christianity’s heroic age.

Brian Welter
Brian Welter writes on many things, including history, medieval studies, and philosophy of religion. He has degrees in History and Theology and teaches English in Taiwan.

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