the first church

In his 1601 Annales Ecclesiastici, the Vatican librarian, Cesare Baronius, recorded that Joseph of Arirnathea first came to Marseilles in AD 35, nine years before the Magdalene voyage. From there, he and his company crossed to Britain. This was confirmed long before by GiIdas Badonicus in his De Excidio Britanniae, with earlier references by Eusebius of Caesaria (AD 260-340) and Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-367). The years AD 35-37, very shortly after the Crucifixion, are thus among the earliest recorded dates for Nazarene evangelism.

Another important character in 1st-century Gaul was St Philip, who was described in the De Sancto Joseph ab Arimathea, and in the monastic records, as a colleague of Joseph and Mary Magdalene in the West. The chances are that the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Philip was written by Philip himself during this period. He could also perhaps have authored the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. As confirmed by Freculphus, the 9th-century Bishop of Lisieux, Archbishop Isidore of Seville (AD 600-636) wrote:

Philip of the city of Bethsaida, whence also came Peter, preached Christ to the Gauls, and brought barbarous nations and their neighbours ... into the light of knowledge... Afterwards he was stoned and crucified, and died in Hierapolis, a city of Phrygia.

Upon their arrival in the West of England Joseph and his twelve missionaries were apparently viewed with scepticism by the native Britons, but were greeted with some cordiality by King Arviragus of Siluria, brother of Caractacus the Pendragon. In consultation with other local chiefs, Arviragus granted Joseph twelve hides of Glastonbury land - about 1,440 acres (about 582 hectares). Here, in AD 63-64, they built a unique little church on a scale of the ancient Tabernacle of Moses. These grants to Joseph remained holdings of free land for many centuries thereafter, and were confirmed in the Domesday Book of 1086: The Church of Glastonbury has its own ville twelve hides of land, which have never paid tax.

In that 1st-century era of Peter and Paul’s executions, Christian chapels were hidden underground in the catacombs of Rome, but when Joseph's wattle chapel of St Mary was built at Glastonbury Britain could boast the first above-ground Christian church in the world. Later called the Vetusta Eccesia (the Old Church) it was cited in royal charters of King Ina in 704 and King Cnut in 1032.

A monastery was subsequently added to the .chapel, and the Saxons restructured the complex in the 8th century. Following a disastrous fire in 1184, Henry II of England granted the community a Charter of Renovation in which Glastonbury was referred to as: 'The mother and burying place of the saints, founded by the disciples of our Lord themselves.' A stone-built Lady Chapel was constructed at that time, and the complex grew to become a vast Benedictine abbey, second in size and importance only to Westminster Abbey in London. Prestigious figures associated with Glastonbury included St Patrick (the first Abbot in the 5th century) and St Dunstan (Abbot 940-946).

In addition to the accounts of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, others tell of his association with Gaul and the Mediterranean metal trade. Abbot John of Glastonbury (14th-century compiler of Cronicasive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesie) and John Capgrave (Principal of the Augustinian Friars in England 1393-1464) both quoted from a book found by Emperor Theodosius (AD 375-395) at the Praetorium in Jerusalem. Entitled, De Sancto Joseph ab Arimathea, it tells how Joseph was imprisoned by the Jewish elders after the Crucifixion. This event is also described in the Acts of Pilate section of the Gospel of Nicodemus. The historian, Gregory of Tours (AD 544-595), also mentioned the imprisonment of Joseph in his History of the Franks and it was recounted yet again in Joseph d'Arimathie by the Burgundian Grail chronicler, Sire Robert de Boron, in the 12th century. The Magna Glastoniensis Tabula: and other manuscripts add that Joseph subsequently escaped and was pardoned. Some years later, he was in Gaul with his nephew Josephes, who was baptized by Philip the apostle.

It is likely that Joseph of Arimathea's mining interest was the primary reason for the generous land grant by King Arviragus. He was, after all a well-known metal merchant and artificer in metals; a 'master craftsman' (ho-tekton), as was his father, in the tradition of the Old Testament characters Tubal-cain and Bezaleel.

The De Sancto Joseph states that Joseph of Arimathea's wattle church was dedicated ‘in the thirty-first year after our Lord’s Passion’ – that is AD 64. This conforms with AD 63 as its date of commencement as given by the medieval historian William of Malmesbury. But, since the dedication was to St Mary (generally presumed to be Jesus’s mother), it has long been a point of debate that a church should have consecrated her so many years after her death, yet long before there was any semblance of a Virgin Mother cult. As confirmed in the 12th – century Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris, however, AD 63 was the very year in which the other Mary – Mary Magdalene – died at La Sainte-Baume.

From the Magdalene Legacy by Laurence Gardner.

British Church Index