Many Roads Lead from Arimathea – By Ian Boxall

Ian Boxall on William John Lyons’ Joseph of Arimathea

William Lyons, Joseph of Arimathea, Oxford University Press, 2014, 208pp., $29.95
William John Lyons, Joseph of Arimathea, Oxford University Press, 2014, 208pp., $29.95

Whatever happened to Joseph of Arimathea? Appearing fleetingly in the gospel narratives of Jesus’s burial, he then disappears from view prior to the resurrection. The truth is that nobody knows what happened to him — but then again, a myriad of things have happened throughout the two millennia of his literary afterlife. In this particularly fine example of biblical reception history William John Lyons sets out to discover how Joseph come to be embroiled in the story of Christ’s death, at least in the eyes of later readers, and what happened to him subsequently by exploring interpretive possibilities offered by the gaps in the canonical texts.

The reception history of biblical texts has become a growth area in biblical studies. Yet even its proponents are divided over its scope, purpose, and appropriate methodologies. Should one give priority to ecclesial traditions of interpretation, classic readings and authoritative interpreters (Hans Robert Jauss’s Gipfeldialog or “summit dialogue”)? Is reception history rather a way of ensuring that historical critics do their job better, by exposing them to unfamiliar readings which might bring them closer to the original meaning? Or does reception history challenge any such appeal to a foundational meaning? Is there more mileage in spreading the net as widely as possible, bringing non-mainstream, even maverick interpretations into the mix?

Reception historians differ too in how they deal with the resulting receptions. These require sifting. Judgments need to be made about what is significant and why. Those selected must then be woven into a narrative which makes the various threads comprehensible and shows where they interconnect. Finally, reception critics need awareness of the role their own context and prejudices have played in the selections made and in the resultant tapestry. When the focus is on a biblical character, the possibilities are seemingly endless. Even minor characters can become major players in their own right: the subject of legends, plays, novels, and paintings.

Lyons is fully aware of these issues and the challenges they pose. He has a preference for lesser-known readings over the magisterial treatments of Gregory the Great or John Calvin. He knows that exhaustiveness would be impossible (and not only because of publishers’ word-limits!). His approach therefore is to explore six clusters of receptions, some of which deal with specific time-periods (e.g. the patristic period or the twentieth century), others tracing the development of one particular tradition (e.g. the connection between Joseph and Glastonbury, a small town in southern England). His concern, then, is not with “historical veracity” but with “illustrative value and pragmatic effectiveness.”

As the reader discovers, this study of Joseph’s journey across the centuries is itself shaped by Lyons’s own journey in writing the book. An initial plan to begin with the reconstructed Joseph of historical critics as a “necessary counterpoint” to the rich crop of effects was abandoned, rightly in the event. After all, such a picture is less a foundation upon which other readings have been constructed, than one very late, and not especially interesting, strand in the unfolding reception. It belongs, where we find it in the published version, alongside other twentieth-century receptions. Instead, the opening chapter offers a close textual reading of the four canonical accounts in turn, though even this bears the marks of one trained in the precise discipline of historical criticism (presuming Markan priority and Johannine dependence upon Mark).

What happened to the shadowy Joseph in the intervening centuries when the gospel burial accounts were taken up and read? These accounts contain plenty of gaps, hinting at his earlier biography: his hometown, position in the Jewish community, socio-economic status, and previous relationship with Jesus and his followers. They remain stubbornly silent about the remainder of Joseph’s story, further compounded by his absence from the Acts of the Apostles. Was he, like Nicodemus, a follower of Jesus? Did he become one subsequently?

In some ways, the earliest receptions are rather unimaginative. Although Lyons explores Joseph’s journey in a variety of activities — preaching (John Chrysostom), Bible translation (Jerome’s Vulgate), harmonization (Augustine), and legend — there are few surprises. The most creative are the Gospel of Peter, which hints at an earlier role for Joseph as witness to Christ’s ministry, and the Gospel of Nicodemus, which begins to plot Joseph’s career post-burial, including his encountering the risen Jesus and his testimony before the Sanhedrin.

Lyons also discusses the non-literary visual tradition, represented by four Renaissance images, each presenting one of four key scenes in which the shadowy figure from Arimathea appears — sadly, only one image is printed: Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition, which graces the front cover. The gospel narratives, especially the Synoptics, provide Joseph with an active role: as the person who requests Jesus’s body from Pilate, and as a key player in the deposition and entombment. All three scenes are represented visually in Renaissance art, though with a common focus on Joseph’s wealth, age, influence, and piety, often presenting him as the alter ego of the commissioning patron. However, the emergence and increasing popularity of the non-biblical Pietà tended toward the image of the Arimathean as passive viewer, observing Christ’s mother and beloved disciple from the side-lines.

If there is disappointment in this otherwise fascinating chapter, it lies in its concentration on Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Whilst no discussion can attempt to be exhaustive, this does represent a leap of over a thousand years from the previous chapter. Do the intervening periods and geographical areas have little of visual interest to contribute to Joseph’s story? Lyons hints here and there at the possibility of a larger story to tell, especially when the Eastern evidence is taken into account; some sketch of this story’s broad outlines would have enhanced the discussion.

Detail of Pietro Perugino, “Lamentation of the Dead Christ” – Image via Wikimedia Commons

The fascinating account of how Joseph of Arimathea found his way to England also merits considerable attention. Here Joseph’s story really takes off. English readers will be familiar with legends connecting Joseph the tin trader with Glastonbury. Lyons’s treatment of how the narrative developed illustrates well the capacity of reception history to surprise and challenge received wisdom. The earliest connection between Joseph of Arimathea and Glastonbury Abbey is shown to be medieval, and significantly later than traditions bringing King Arthur and his queen to the Somerset Levels. Indeed, the Joseph connection may have been introduced via legends concerning the Holy Grail.

Surprise extends to the discussion of the “Jerusalem” Joseph. The reference here is to the poetic section of William Blake’s preface to Milton, which asks whether “the holy Lamb of God” was “in England’s pleasant pastures seen.” Generations of Britons have heard here a reference to the young Jesus visiting southwest England, in the company of his wealthy uncle Joseph. Lyons is persuaded by the metaphorical reading of Blake’s verses. (No, he was not seen here!) Whilst Blake certainly knew of the connection between Joseph and England (e.g., his engraving of “Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion”), clear evidence for the “Christ in Albion” tradition is considerably later.

The link between Blake’s “Jerusalem” and Christ/Joseph/Glastonbury thrives in the ongoing reception history of his verses, whether in the “Jam and Jerusalem” of the Women’s Institute or the association of the hymn with British sport, both evoking the Joseph legend in support of English uniqueness. Nor does the story end there. An additional chapter contains an eclectic array of twentieth-century Josephs, in film, novels, piety and spiritualism, as well as the duller Josephs of historical critics. Lyons waits until the end to helpfully reflect on what has been achieved, and on the options for categorizing the diverse receptions. He opts for a basic differentiation which he finds already in the canonical sources, between an active Synoptic Joseph and a passive Johannine figure. That these two represent poles on a spectrum rather than self-contained alternatives underscores the limitations of all such categorization.

One of the criticisms of reception history, not least from colleagues in the wider guild of biblical studies, is that it can become little more than a listing of disconnected readings, with scant attention to the interpreters’ contexts or exegetical strategies. The advantage of Lyons’s approach is that he traces in some detail the development of the Joseph legends, preferring depth to breadth. Depth comes at an inevitable cost, however. Some readers may wish for a fuller catalogue of receptions: What was happening outside England? Did non-Renaissance artists depict Joseph differently? What about the contents of Mar Shlimon’s Book of the Bee, a 13th-century compilation of eastern Christian traditions mentioned in passing? Lyons may have chosen the better part: his narrower focus has allowed him to bring considerable illumination to some significant threads of Joseph’s reception history. Nonetheless, the lingering frustration regarding the untold story underscores the dilemma faced by all reception historians.

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