The Surprising Story of St. Joseph of Arimathea

What insights can we glean from the Sacred Scriptures and other sources about Joseph of Arimathea?

Vasily Perov (1833-1882), “Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimathea at the Foot of the Cross,” Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Vasily Perov (1833-1882), “Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Joseph of Arimathea at the Foot of the Cross,” Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (photo: Public Domain)

St. Joseph of Arimathea is familiar from the Gospels as “a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” after Our Lord’s Crucifixion (Mark 15:43).

Yet is there more to know about him? What might have happened to him after he did this? Did he join the apostles? What happened to him with the Pharisees? Did he leave Israel? Both the Bible, private revelation and a bit of history fill out the details of this saint who, along with St. Nicodemus, has a memorial on Aug. 31.

First, look at what we know for certain from the Bible. He was from Arimathea, a city of Judea that some scholars now identify as Ramatha where Samuel was born, and others with Ramleh. Matthew notes he was not poor: “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus” (27:57). Luke gives details that he “was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action” (23:50-51). So he was also a member of the Sanhedrin and “a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews” (John 19:38). But not so from the Crucifixion onward, beginning with Pilate because he went and asked “boldly” for the body of Jesus.

With Pilate, all went without difficulty. But reading between the lines, things were not going to go easily for him with the Sanhedrin. Danger was around the corner. First, though, he and Nicodemus would take Jesus down from the cross and bury him in his own new tomb, thus fulfilling a prophecy made by Isaiah (53:9).

Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich

Joseph of Arimathea appears several times in Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Early on, he was sent by the Sanhedrin to question John the Baptist. He ended up believing and getting baptized by John. Later, he was in the crowd watching when Jesus was baptized by John. He was drawn early to Jesus and found with other close followers as in this one case among many others as Emmerich saw “many of Jesus’ friends awaited him in Gilgal: Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, Obed …”

When the council wanted to condemn Jesus’ death, “Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and a few others opposed his enemies” demanding the case “should be postponed till after the festival in order not to give rise to a tumult among the people. They argued also that no just sentence could be rendered upon the charges as yet brought forward, since all the witnesses had contradicted one another.”

As Mary was alarmed by reports that she heard and went with friends to learn what was happening with Jesus, “they were met by Lazarus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and some relatives from Hebron, who sought to comfort Mary in her great anxiety.”

During the crucifixion, when soldiers were dividing Jesus’ garments, Emmerich wrote:

Just at this point of the proceedings a messenger, sent by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, came running toward them to say that a purchaser had been found for the clothes of Jesus. So they bundled them up, ran down the mount, and sold them. It was in this way that these sacred relics came into the possession of the Christians.

She also said Joseph of Arimathea bought the large sheet on which they “laid the Lord’s body … and wrapped it closely around it.”

Later, Emmerich describes how although Joseph of Arimathea was not directly mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles about the activities of the new Christian community (Acts 2:42-47), Emmerich wrote:

Magdalen and Martha gave up their houses at Bethania to the new converts, and Lazarus delivered over all that he owned to the Community. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea did the same. They assumed the charge of providing for the Community and distributing the alms. But when they were ordained priests, Peter appointed deacons in their place.

Emmerich elaborated: Before choosing the seven deacons, I saw the Apostles gathered around Peter in the Last Supper room.” There, Peter said, “among other things that it was not becoming for the Word of God to be neglected for the care of clothing and nourishment; consequently Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea could not with propriety longer oversee the temporal interests of the Community as they had hitherto done, for they now had become priests.”

Venerable Mary of Agreda

In her Mystical City of God, Venerable Mary of Agreda relates in detail her visions of these events. After the Crucifixion, she quotes Our Lady as saying:

In order to come to my assistance in this plight, the Lord showed his sweet love by moving the hearts of Joseph and Nicodemus and of the other faithful to assist me in burying him. By their opportune help, I was so much consoled in this tribulation, that on account of their behavior and my prayer the Most High filled them with wonderful influences of the Divinity, by which they were regaled during the time of taking Jesus from the Cross and his burial; and from that time on these faithful were enlightened and filled with the mysteries of the Redemption.

English Legend

Legends, some backed by a little evidence, tell the story of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Gaul in AD 63 and then traveling to Great Britain where he established the first Christian church.

As legends went, in the late 12th century, somehow Joseph was connected with the Arthurian legend about being the keeper of the Holy Grail. It was one of the two themes that medieval people focused on, the other being Joseph of Arimathea as the founder of Christianity in England.

Legends or not, on this Holy Saturday, looking back to St. Joseph of Arimathea proves him as another role model whose actions should prompt us, as he was, to be strong, dedicated disciples of Our Lord.