The Primitive Church

A legend of great antiquity connects the foundation of the Church of England to Joseph of Arimathea. What little we know for certain about this figure comes from the canonical Gospels. Matthew described him as “a rich man” who was a disciple of Jesus Christ.1 Mark elaborated that he was an “honourable” member of the church council who “waited for the kingdom of God.”2 When Jesus was crucified it was Joseph who approached the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate requesting “that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave.”3 Joseph “bought fine linen,” prepared the holy body for burial, “and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”4 According to Matthew it was the tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself.5 This is all that can be said with the authority of Scripture, but we can assume that he was among the disciples to whom Jesus appeared, when Jesus emerged from the tomb resurrected to life.

In the generation or two that followed the events of the New Testament, a wealth of biographical material and legend concerning Joseph was recorded. Extracanonical details appear in the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and other Christian historians of the second and third centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages a folk memory persisted in England of Joseph having established a missionary church in Somerset or Cornwall on the southwest coast.

The Anglican clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould relates a very old Cornish story that, “Joseph of Arimathea came in a boat to Cornwall, and brought the child Jesus with him, and the latter taught him how to extract the tin and purge it of its wolfram.”6 The visionary poet William Blake made reference to this legend when he wrote, “And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon Englands mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God, / On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”7

Valuable metals have been mined in Cornwall for thousands of years. High demand for tin used in the manufacture of bronze led to the establishment of trade routes between Cornwall and Greece, Rome, and the Middle East in antiquity. Sources from the fifth and sixth centuries attribute Joseph’s wealth to the tin trade, identifying him either as a merchant or a “noble decurion” in charge of mining operations.8

But why would Jesus have been traveling with him? It is suggested by Lionel Smithett Lewis, who was vicar at Glastonbury in the early twentieth century, that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the holy family. He cites “the Eastern tradition” that Joseph was the uncle of Mary and so the great-uncle of Jesus.This is pure speculation but it might explain why the body of Christ was given over to Joseph, and why Joseph performed the ritual preparations for burial, which were the duties of a family member.

In the Middle Ages it was considered a matter of historical record that Joseph of Arimathea returned to Britain as an apostle after the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. William of Malmesbury, in his history De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, written around 1135, claimed that the apostle Philip “sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of life. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in 63 AD”.10 As the title suggests, they established a church at Glastonbury in Somerset. It is believed by modern historians that the name of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated by scribes who copied the manuscript several decades after it was written. But the description and date of the apostolic mission is original to William’s careful account. Moreover, the identification of Joseph is given context by the much earlier testimony of Maelgwyn of Llandaff, who wrote around 450 AD, that “Joseph of Arimathea, the noble decurion, entered his perpetual sleep with his XI companions in the Isle of Avalon.”11 Avalon is generally identified as Glastonbury Tor, which was formerly an island.

The English were sufficiently confident in the antiquity of their church that they asserted its seniority at multiple church councils in the fifteenth century. At Pisa in 1409, Constance in 1417, Siena in 1424, and Basel in 1434, the English delegations contended that, “the Churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ.”12

Is it true? Did Joseph of Arimathea convert the Britons? We do not know. It is a matter of legend, neither provable nor disprovable. But someoneconverted Britons to Christianity during the apostolic period. Before Patrick preached to the Celts in the fifth century, and long before the Church of Rome sent Augustine of Canterbury to Kent, at the turn of the seventh century, the Church of England was an autonomous ecclesiastical polity. Tertullian, who lived between 155 and 240 AD wrote, “the extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.”13 Eusebius, who lived between 260 and 340 AD, testified that, “The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.”14 John Chrysostom, the great liturgist and Patriarch of Constantinople in the late fourth century, wrote that, “even the British Isles, which lie outside the boundaries of our world and our sea, in the midst of the ocean itself, have experienced the power of the Word, for even there churches and altars have been set up.”15

During the Reformation, English Protestants revived the history and legends of Primitive Christianity in Britain. As the Church of England purged itself of Medieval corruptions and innovations, the model of a pure and primitive church served as a symbol of the Anglican project.

Footnotes:

1. The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version,Cameo Reference Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Matthew 27:57. 
2. KJV, Mark 15:43.
4. KJV, Mark 15:46.
5. KJV, Matthew 27:60.
6. Sabine Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being An Introduction To Devon and Cornwall; A Book of Cornwall.London: Methuen Publishing, 1906; 57.
7. William Blake; David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1988; 95.
8. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. (Pamphlet.) London: Covenant Publishing Company, 1927; 32.
9. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. London: James Clark & Co, 1955; 52.
10. William of Malmesbury; John Scott (ed.), The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. Rochester: Boydell Press, 1981.
11. Lewis, 1955; 18.
12. Lewis, 1927; 32.
13. Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, ch. 7, v. 4, quoted in R.W. Morgan, St. Paul in Britain: Or, The Origin of British as Opposed to Papal Christianity. Oxford and London: James Parker and Co, 1880; 195.
14. Eusebius, De Demonstratione Evangelii, lib. iii, quoted in Morgan, 1880; 189.
15. William Richard Wood Stephens, Saint Chrysostom: His Life and Times: a Sketch of the Church and the Empire in the Fourth Century. London: John Murray, 1872; 129.