Early Church History: Part 6--Joseph of Arimathea and Company
Jul 31, 2007
Britain in the first century was ripe for the Gospel. Though the common people spoke their own local language, their intellectual circles and government officials spoke Greek. Thus, there was no serious language barrier for Greek-speaking apostles.
Likewise, Welsh was a dialect of Hebrew that had been brought by Israelite settlers a thousand years earlier. This is established by D. Simon Evans, M.A., B.D., a lecturer in the Department of Welsh at the University College of Swansea in his article, Similarities Between the Welsh and Hebrew Languages. This is published in the Bible Research Handbook, Vol. 2.
When the Apostle Paul arrived in Britain about 62 or 63 A.D. to preach the Word, he was met by certain educated Druids (priests) who informed him of their descent from the House of Israel. These Druids had already been converted earlier under the ministry of Joseph of Arimathea and his companions as early as 37 or 38 A.D., though William of Malmesbury, the historian of Glastonbury wrote around 1126 A.D. that Joseph came in 63 A.D. (Hence, that is the date that the Catholic Encyclopedia references in its disdain for the story of Joseph.) But Joseph was already elderly at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, and it is unlikely that he would have arrived in Britain at so late a date--or that the Jews would have allowed him to remain among them for so long.
In the Life of Rabanus, composed in the sixth century (as dated by Faillon), we find the story of how Joseph was exiled from Judea. J. W. Taylor tells us this,
"There is no doubt that this tradition, much as it is given in the Life of Rabanus, was accepted by the whole Latin Church for over a thousand years. For proof of this, we have only to turn to the Breviary at St. Martha's Day, July 29th. There we find a lection for the second nocturne which tells how Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, with their servant Marcella, and Maximin, one of the seventy-two disciples, were seized by the Jews, placed in a boat without sails or oars, and carried safely to the port of Marseilles. Moved by this remarkable fact, the people of the neighbouring lands were speedily converted to Christianity; Lazarus became bishop of Marseilles, Maximin of Aix, Mary lived and died an anchoress on a high mountain of those parts, while Martha founded a convent of women, died on the fourth day before the kalends of August, and was buried with great honour at Tarascon." (The Coming of the Saints, pp. 106, 107).
This story is also confirmed by Cardinal Baronius (1538-1607) in his Ecclesiastical Annals, in which he quoted from a Vatican manuscript:
"The manuscript records that in this year Lazarus, Maria Magdalene, Martha, her handmaiden Marcella, Maximin a disciple, Joseph the Decurion of Arimathea, against all of whom the Jewish people had special reasons of enmity, were exposed to the sea in a vessel without sails or oars. This vessel drifted finally to Marseilles, and they were saved. From Marseilles Joseph and his company passed into Britain, and after preaching the Gospel there, died." (Morgan, St. Paul in Britain, pp. 70, 71).
We know, of course, that the Romans withheld the right of execution from their subjects. Although they had broken this law in the stoning of Stephen, they could not simply ignore this with such a rich and powerful man as Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and the Minister of Mining (Noblis Decurio) for the Roman government. He owned the tin mines in Cornwall, England. Thus, for the Jews to set him adrift in the Sea would legalistically keep the law, while at the same time giving him little chance for survival.
But he did survive, and he went to live among those he knew well from his years of doing business in Britain. The road from Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel was a well-traveled trade route. It is unfortunate that the Roman Catholic Church disavows the scholarship of its own Cardinal (Baronius), though he was the confessor to Pope Clement VIII, the Superior of the Congregation of the Oratory, and the librarian of the Vatican. He was not an obscure and unlearned priest.
The fact that Rome imported tin from Britain is well documented. Diodorus Siculus, a Roman who lived in the time of Augustus Caesar, writes, "This tin metal is transported out of Britain into Gaul, the merchants carrying it on horseback through the heart of Celtica to Marseilles and the city called Narbo (i.e., Narbonne)." (Vol. 1, p. 311, Booth's transl.)
Herodotus, the "Father of History" wrote in 400 B.C. of the Cassiterides, or "Tin Islands." These are universally recognized to be the British Isles.
The Druidic religion of Britain (and much of Europe) was maligned by the Romans, as is normal when a nation wants to propagandize its troops to motivate them into fighting their enemies. The Druids were not much different from the ancient Hebrews, particularly in their sacrifices of sheep and goats. The Romans accused them of human sacrifice, but produced no evidence to support that claim. Certainly, the British never claimed to sacrifice humans.
The Druids believed in a Trinity, symbolized by three rays of light: Beli, Taran, and Yesu. Rev. Morgan tells us, "When Christianity preached Jesus [Yesu] as God, it preached the most familiar name of its own deity to Druidism; and in their ancient British tongue 'Jesus' has never assumed its Greek, Latin, or Hebrew form, but remains the pure Druidic 'Yesu'." (pp. 14, 15)
And so, when the early Christians came from Jerusalem to preach the Gospel in Britain, they found little resistance, for they preached in the name of Yesu--a name already familiar to them, in whom they already had faith!
Joseph was given "twelve hides of land" and ministered there for the rest of his life. The royal family of Siluria was converted to Christ almost immediately, and when the Roman Emperor Claudius declared war on Britain in 42 A.D., this British family was placed on the path to greatness in the history of the early Church.
After ten years of incessant warfare, in which both sides enjoyed their share of victory and defeat, the Romans finally won a decisive victory in 52 A.D. The royal family was taken captive, and though the military commander, Caradoc, escaped, he was betrayed and captured as well. Thus, the entire family was brought to Rome as war captives, where they were greeted by Paul in his letter to the Romans--for they formed the first non-Jewish Church in Rome.
The British war had cost the Romans dearly. It had worn down four of their best generals: Aulus Plautius, Vespasian, Geta, and Titus. Some will recognize Vespasian and his son, Titus, as the later conquerors of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Plautius, meanwhile during a truce known as the Claudian Treaty, had married Gladys, who was Caradoc's sister. When the war broke out again, leading to the final Roman victory, General Plautius was found fighting against his own brother-in-law! He requested to be recalled and replaced.
When the royal family was taken captive, they were brought to Rome under the care of Aulus Rufus Pudens Pudentinus, a young Roman senator, who had been the aide-de-camp for General Plautius. On the way to Rome, the young senator fell in love with Caradoc's 16-year-old daughter, Gladys (not Caradoc's sister, Gladys). Later, as we will see, Gladys so impressed the Emperor that he adopted her and gave her his family name Claudia. Rufus, whom Paul greets in Rom. 16:13, soon married Claudia, and Paul later sent greetings to Timothy from Pudens, Claudia, and Linus (her brother, the first bishop of Rome). See 2 Timothy 4:21.
This is the sixth part of a series titled "Early Church History." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones