August 2, 2018
Are the Glastonbury tales true? Did Joseph of Arimathea migrate to England or Southern France with Mary Magdalene after the resurrection of Jesus?
Every year on August 1 the church has set aside time to remember Joseph of Arimathea, the man who claimed Jesus' body from the Roman Governor, Pilate, after his execution on Golgotha and who provided the tomb where Jesus' body was laid. His story is recorded in all four canonical Gospels, Matthew (27.60), Mark (15.46), Luke (23.50), and John (19.42).
Each Gospel provides insight into Joseph, though none of the descriptions are extensive. Luke tells us that he is a good and just man (23.50), and John tells us that he was a secret disciple of Jesus, fearing action by Jewish leaders. In any case, the short biblical tale alone is enough for him to be held in high regard. He exposed himself to official Roman and Judean judgement for claiming the body of an insurrectionist. That is all we know about him, historically or scripturally.
The Glastonbury Tales began circulating in the 12th century. At that time, there was a prominent Benedictine Monastery in that location. Glastonbury housed monastic communities from the sixth century, founded first by monks of the Celtic variety. It remained a prominent religious site under the West Saxons, Roman Christians, but the monastery was destroyed by Danes, pagans, in the early Ninth Century. It was reestablished and served by a small group of monks until King Edmund, son of Alfred the Great, made Dunstan its Abbot. Dunstan brought in the rule of St. Benedict and raised the monastery to new prominence as a religious and educational site. Dunstan was eventually beatified for his piety and commitment to learning. Glastonbury's prominence continued after the Normans conquered England in 1066.
During the Medieval period, the ruling classes in England often improved their status by covering their families with the aura of holiness through the beatification of historical figures and appropriating legends into the Church's stories. The adoption of Holy Grail stories around King Arthur, who is supposed to be buried at Glastonbury, and the accretion of the stories of the holy-man, Joseph, to this area, is a part of that process. There is no Biblical warrant for this attribution, the Bible is silent on what happened to Joseph and it is the only contemporary source for stories about him.
William of Malmesbury, the most reliable English historian since the Venerable Bede of the 7th Century, wrote On the History of the Glastonbury Church between 1129 and 1139. His history contains the first written account of Joseph of Arimathea coming to the Glastonbury area. The Joseph portion of the history is included in manuscripts that can be dated to about one hundred years after the original history by William.
The Glastonbury Tales are wonderfully colorful lore. They add quite a flavor to Southwestern England. But their veracity is highly questionable. Dan Brown made good use of the tales for his novel, The Di Vinci Code, but for the church, the commemoration of a man who honored Jesus is quite sufficient.