All that is certainly known about him is in the Gospels: that he was a Jewish councillor, a disciple of Jesus in secret, who had taken no part in his condemnation and who, after the death of Jesus, asked Pilate for his body and buried it in a tomb newly hewn out of the rock.
The accretions of legend soon began. The apocryphal ‘Gospel of Nicodemus’ gave him an important share in founding the first Christian community at Lydda. But a French legend connecting him with the Holy Grail (the cup believed to have received the blood of Christ at Calvary) was given great prominence, with local variations, by Glastonbury Abbey. William of Malmesbury's treatise on the Antiquity of Glastonbury (c.1125) was interpolated a century after his death with a fictitious chapter which described Philip the Apostle preaching the Gospel in Gaul together with Joseph of Arimathea, whom he sent to England with twelve disciples. The king who received them would not become a Christian but gave them the island of Yniswitrin, later called Glastonbury, where they built a wattle church in honour of St Mary, which, it was claimed, had been dedicated by the Lord himself.
Part of the Glastonbury Legend of its foundation by Joseph arose through a competition in antiquity with Westminster, and a rival claim to Canterbury to possess Dunstan's relics. Some further incentive was given by the difficulties which the abbey experienced in the late 12th century after the destruction by fire of the old church, a prolonged struggle with King Richard I about their exemption, and the attempt by Savary, bishop of Bath, to take the double title of bishop of Bath and Glastonbury by annexation. The dispute was not settled until 1219. The Joseph of Arimathea and the Arthur legends at Glastonbury (Arthur's body was ‘discovered’ in 1191) both arose during a period of crisis. They were (and are) passionately believed in by some, but all the early sources, including William of Malmesbury, are silent about them. The Legend, as presented by John of Glastonbury c.1400, does not mention the Grail: later artists depict instead two silver cruets, supposedly containing the blood and sweat of Christ from the Cross and brought by Joseph to England. Examples are on the painted rood-screen at Plymtree (Devon) and in the stained glass at Langport (Devon); the arms of Richard Bere (abbot of Glastonbury 1494–1524) with blood-drops and two cruets are in the early 16th-century glass of St John's, Glastonbury.
This legend had other effects: first, it helped to foster growing devotion to the physical details of Christ's Passion which characterized the later Middle Ages: secondly, the claim to antiquity resulted in Glastonbury demanding seniority among the English Black Benedictine abbeys and the English clergy at the Councils of Constance (1414–18) claiming that England had received Christianity before any other western country. At Glastonbury itself the pilgrims' attention was drawn to the Joseph of Arimathea legend both by a column to the north of the Lady Chapel, on which an inscription recorded the main points of the Glastonbury case and claimed to mark the original eastern limit of the old church, and by the Magna Tabula. This was a large wooden frame covered with extracts from John of Glastonbury's History, which told all who read it of Joseph, King Arthur, St Patrick and his charter, the alleged translation of St Dunstan, and so forth. Only in 1502 was a poem called The Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathia written, based on John of Glastonbury but also containing a series of miraculous cures said to have been accomplished by Joseph on sick people from Wells, Ilchester, Yeovil, and other West Country towns. It also contains the first mention of the Holy Thorn, which flowers at Christmas and was reputed to have sprung from Joseph's staff. The grave of Joseph was believed to be at Glastonbury but, despite a royal authorization to look for it and an East Anglian claim that it had been found in 1367, the silence of Glastonbury itself is strong evidence that it was never found. The abbey of Moyenmoutier in the Vosges, however, also claimed to possess his relics. Feast: 31 August.