Further to “Amazing Historical Evidence”, P.T. 76, our enquiry now turns almost exclusively to Joseph of Arimathea. Who was he? Why was he such a rich man? And what was his previous connection with the British Isles?
In order to appreciate fully the material now extant, which can help us in our enquiry, we must first of all investigate why in ancient times Britain (or at least, that part of it now known as Cornwall) was sometimes called “The Tin Islands.” And please note, the word “island” in Semitic literature can refer to islands, peninsulas, and maritime regions, as a careful study of the Old Testament will prove. (See Bullinger’s comments on the word in his “Companion Bible.”)
Herodotus, aptly described as the “Father of History”, was a Greek historian who lived in the fifth century B.C. During his life he travelled over most of the then-known world, and within his writings (Book 3:115 circa 450 B.C.) we find him referring toBritain as “The Cassiterides”. The pronunciation places the emphasis on the second ‘ i ‘, and the final ‘es’ is long, in other words ‘ees’, in the same manner that we pronounce Archimedes. The entry in Liddell & Scott’s Greek Lexicon is as follows:-
KassiterideV, the Cassiterides or Tin-islands.
The full quotation from Herodotus is as follows –
“Of that part of Europe nearest to the west, I am not able to speak with decision. I by no means believe that the barbarians give the name of Eridanus to a river which empties itself into the Northern Sea; whence, it is said, our amber comes. Neither am I better acquainted with the islands called the Cassiterides, from which we are said to have our tin. The name Eridanus is certainly not barbarous; it is of Greek derivation, and, as I should conceive, introduced by one of our poets. I have endeavoured, but without success, to meet with someone who, from ocular observation, might describe to me the sea which lies in that part of Europe. It is nevertheless certain that both our tin and our amber are brought from those extreme regions.”
(Please note that the word “barbarian” does not carry the modern connotation. The bar-bar part of the Greek word indicated to them the sound of foreign speech, and therefore the word merely refers to ALL foreign-speaking people, those they could not understand.)
The reason for Herodotus’s assertion was simply that Cornwall had almost the world monopoly of tin production, and archaeological evidences show clearly that the Tin Islands were exporting the metal as early as 1500 BC. Biblical “ships of Tarshish” (a name given to ocean-going vessels, and used in the same way that Victorians spoke of “East-India-Men”) operating mainly from the Phoenician port of Tyre were the main agents in transporting this valuable metal to different parts of the world.
Using modern equipment, capable of determining very precisely the isotopic content of different metals, it has been shown that lead used in drainpipes in the area of Solomon’s Temple came from the Mendip Hills in Somerset. This type of analysis is made possible because lead samples from different locations contain varying amounts of the isotopes of lead, resulting from the decay of radioactive materials. Similarly with tin, the Temple was adorned with plenty of bronze, and this alloy was made by adding tin to copper in the smelting. The presence of tin causes copper to become much harder and less easily tarnished. It was British tin that was used by Solomon, and the date was about 1000 BC. Sir Edward Creasy, (1812 – 1878) the English barrister, professor, and historian, said in one of his books, as a result of his research,
“The British mines mainly supplied the glorious adornment of Solomon’s Temple.”
Concerning the port of Tyre, and the evident wealth of the Phoenicians as traders, we can refer to the prophet Ezekiel, writing in about 600 B.C.
“Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all kinds of riches; with silver, iron, tin, and lead, they traded in thy fairs.” (Ezekiel 27:12)
Herodotus was not the only writer of ancient times to refer to the mining of tin in Cornwall. It should be mentioned in passing that the Greek navigator and geographer Pytheas, who lived at Massilia (now the French port of Marseilles) in the late 5th century B.C., explored the coasts of Spain, France, and the British Isles, visiting the tin miners at Belerium (Cornwall) and Ictis. He was the first man to formulate a correct theory of the periodic fluctuation of the tides in relation to the movement of the Moon. In his writings the Cassiterides are mentioned by name.
Julius Caesar, writing in B.C. 40 about Britain, in his “Wars” (v.12) had this to say –
“The inland parts of Britain are inhabited by those, whose fame reports to be the natives of the soil. The sea-coast is peopled with the Belgians, drawn thither by the love of war and plunder. These last, passing over from different parts, and settling in the country, still retain the names of the several states whence they are descended. The island is well peopled, full of houses, built after the manner of the Gauls, and abounds in cattle. They use brass money, and iron rings of a certain weight. The provinces remote from the sea produce tin, and those upon the coast, iron, but the latter in no great quantity.”
(It must be remembered that Caesar collected his information whilst at Boulogne, Calais, andDover. His remarks about tin were therefore hearsay concerning a region where Rome was never to become ruler.)
So also does Timaeus, (circa 400 B.C.), Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, (384 – 322 B.C.); Polybius, (205 – 125 B.C.) author of “Histories”; Diodorus Siculus, Greek historian of the late 1st century B.C., Pliny, (23 – 79 A.D.) and Posidonius, the Greek Stoic philosopher, also of the 1st century B.C. All these, amongst others, deal at length with the British tin industry in the centuries before Christ, some extracts from these authors now following-
Timaeus, writing of the “Islands in the Ocean” says,
“Opposite to Celtiberia are a number of islands, by the Greeks called Cassiterides, in consequence of their abounding in tin, and facing the promontory of the Arrotrebae, are the six islands of the gods, which some persons have called the Fortunate Islands.”
Pliny, writing in his “Natural History” repeated this statement from Timaeus, and went on to speak about our islands in this way –
“The nature of lead comes next to be considered. There are two kinds of it, the white (i.e., tin, calledplumbum album) and the black (lead, called plumbum nigrum). The white is the most valuable; it was called by the Greeks cassiteros; and there is a fabulous story of their going in quest of it to the islands of the Atlantic, and of its being brought in barks made of osiers, and covered with hides. It is now known that it is the production of Lusitania and Gallaecia. It is a sand found on the surface of the earth, and of a black colour, and is only to be detected by its weight. It is mingled with small pebbles, particularly in the dried beds of rivers. The miners wash this sand, and calcine the deposit in the furnace. It is also found in the gold mines that are known as alutiae, the stream of water which is passed through them detaching certain black pebbles, mottled with small white spots, and of the same weight as gold. Hence it is that they remain with the gold in the baskets in which it is collected; and being separated in the furnace, are then melted, and become converted into white lead (tin.)” . . . . “White lead was held in esteem in the days even of the Trojan War – a fact attested by Homer, who called it ‘cassiteros’.”
(Nat. Hist. book xxxiv. Ch.47. It must be stated that Pliny was not always very accurate concerning his geographical information. For example, although tin is known in the region he calls Gallaecia, it is vanishingly small in comparison withCornwall, and never mined there in any quantity. But to balance the evidence, the following quote from elsewhere in Pliny’s writings does show that he knew about the abundance of tin in Cornwall.)
“It (tin) is extracted with great labour in Spain and throughout all the Gallic provinces, but in Britannia it is found in the upper stratum of the earth in such abundance, that a law has been spontaneously made prohibiting anyone from working more than a certain quantity of it.”
Elsewhere, Pliny mentions that a Greek named “Midacritus (the Greek name for Melkarth, about 600 B.C.) was the first who brought tin from the island called Cassiteris.”(Nat.Hist. 7.197)
Now hear what Diodorus Siculus had to say about the British tin mining industry-
“Then all the rest of your voyage is eastward, thus making an obtuse angle to your former course, until you reach the headlands of the Pyrenees that abut on the ocean. The westerly parts of Britain lie opposite these headlands towards the north, and in like manner the islands called Cassiterides, situated in the open sea approximately in the latitude of Britain , lie opposite to, and north of, the Artabians. (the modern La Coruna, [Corunna] the port in NW Spain from which the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588)” (D.Sic.Book II.v.15)
“Now we shall speak something concerning the tin that is dug and gotten there. They that inhabit the British promontory of Belerium, [possibly the ancient name of Polurrion, near the Lizard in Cornwall] by reason of their converse with the merchants, are more civilised and courteous to strangers than the rest. These are the people that make the tin, which with a great deal of care and labour, they dig out of the ground, and that being rocky, the metal is mixed with some veins of earth, out of which they melt the metal and then refine it. Then they beat it into four-square pieces the size of dice, and cart it to a British island, near at hand, called Ictis. For at low tide, all being dry between them and the island, they convey over in carts an abundance of tin in the mean time. But there is one thing peculiar to those islands, which lie between Britain and Europe; for at full sea they appear to be islands, but at low water for a long way they look like so many peninsulas. Hence the merchants transport the tin they buy of the inhabitants to France, and for thirty days’ journey they carry it in packs on horses’ backs throughFrance to the mouth of the river Rhone. Thus much concerning tin.” . . . . “And not only do they go into the ground a great distance, but they also push their diggings many stades in depth and run galleries off at every angle, turning this way and that, in this manner bringing up from the depths the ore which gives them the profit they are seeking.” (D.Sic.Book V:1-4, 35)
And later in the same account he had this to say –
“Above Lusitania (a Roman province roughly equivalent to modern Portugal) there is much of this tin metal, that is, in the islands lying in the ocean over against Iberia, (the peninsula dividing Spain from Portugal by the Pyrenees) which are therefore called Cassiterides; and much of it likewise is transported out of Britain into Gaul, the opposite continent, which the merchants carry on horseback through the heart of Celtica to Massilia (Marseilles) and the city called Narbo (Narbonne).” (D.Sic.Book V.2)
The island he called Ictis is none other than St. Michael’s Mount, just offshore from Marazion in Cornwall, and exactly fits Diodorus’s description. In 1969, in the little harbour of the island, skin divers found a stone bowl with a handle, which was subsequently identified by the British Museum as Phoenician, – and dating as far back as 1500 B.C. When visiting Trurorecently, we were able to see the massive H-shaped tin ingot that was dredged from the St Mawes harbour in 1812, weighing 158 pounds. The shape indicated that they were designed to be carried one on each side of a horse for transportation, as mentioned above.
Who were the people who worked the mines? Undoubtedly ancient British men. But records show that others were also involved. The eminent English antiquarian and historian, William Camden (1551 – 1623), wrote a book called “Britannia” which was published in Latin in 1586 and in English translation in 1610. It was a landmark in the topographical study ofBritain. In this work he said,-
“The merchants of Asher worked the tin mines of Cornwall, not as slaves, but as masters and exporters.”
Solinus (3rd Century A.D.) writing in his “Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium” states that the Tin Islands were “severed from the coast of Damnonii by a rough narrow sea.” The Damnonii were the inhabitants of Devon and Cornwall. Hence Solinus seems to be referring to the Scilly Isles. Again he refers to them as follows:- “Oft the Tartessians through the well-known seas would sail for Traffic to the Oestrymnides, and Carthaginians too . . .”
And so we gather snippets of information from the past. Now we must record what the Greek geographer Strabo (B.C.63 – A.D.24) (who obtained his information concerning the location of the Cassiterides from Poseidonius,) wrote concerning the traders –
“The Cassiterides are ten in number, (was he referring to the Scilly Isles?) and lie near each other in the ocean toward the north from the haven of the Artabri (Corunna, as mentioned above.). One of them is desert, but the others are inhabited by men in black cloaks, clad in tunics reaching to the feet, girt about the breast, and walking with staves, thus resembling the furies we see in tragic representations. They subsist by their cattle, leading for the most part a wandering life. Of the metals, they have tin and lead, which, with skins, they barter with the merchants for earthenware, salt, and brasen vessels. Anciently the Phoenicians alone, from Gades (Cadiz), engrossed this market, hiding the navigation from all others. When the Romans followed a certain shipmaster, that they might discover the market, the jealous shipmaster willfully stranded his vessel on a shoal, misleading those who were tracking him, to the same destruction. Escaping from the shipwreck by means of a fragment of the ship, he was indemnified for his losses out of the public treasury. The Romans, nevertheless, by frequent efforts discovered the passage; and as soon as Publius (Licinius) Crassus, passing over to them, (about B.C. 95) perceived that the metals were dug out at a little depth, and that the men were peaceably disposed, he declared it to those who already wished to traffic in this sea for profit, although the passage was longer than that to Britain. (i.e. the Cassiterides were further removed from the coast of Spain than the rest of the southern coasts of Britain.) Thus far concerning Iberia and the adjacent islands.” (Strabo. iii., v., 11)
This Phoenician ploy, we are told elsewhere, worked satisfactorily until B.C. 450, when the Carthaginian General Hamilcar sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and northwards, thereby discovering Cornwall. With such scanty evidence, it is perhaps best to speak of the Cassiterides being TWICE discovered, with a space of 350 years between. The account of Hamilcar may be found in the writings of Rufus Festus Avienus, entitled “Ora Maritima”, from which comes the following extract –
“Where the ocean flood presses in, and spreads wide the Mediterranean waters, lies the Atlantic Bay; here stands Gadira, of old Tartessus, here the Pillars of Hercules, Abyla . . . (here the record is missing). . Here rises the head of the promontory, in olden times named Oestrymnon, and below, the like-named bay and isles; wide they stretch, and are rich in metals, tin and lead. There a numerous race of men dwell, endowed with spirit, and no slight industry, busied in all the cares of trade alone. They navigate the sea on their barks, built not of pines or oak, but wondrous made of skins and leather. Two days’ long is the voyage thence to the Holy Island, once so called, the dwelling of the Hibernian race (Ireland); at hand lies the Isle of Albion (mainland Britain). Of yore the trading voyages from Tartessus (Possibly the Biblical Tarshish) reached to the Oestrymnides; but the Carthaginians and their colonies near the Pillars of Hercules (The Straits of Gibraltar) navigated in this sea, which Hamilcar (or Himilco) by his own account, was upon during four months.” (Extracted from A.H.L.Heeren’s African Nations, 1832, Vol.i.pp.503-504)
Who were these Phoenicians? They were a mixture of Canaanites and Semitic peoples, trading mainly from the port andisland of Tyre. Many of those who used the port were Israelites, who sailed to various destinations, and in fact set up distant colonies and settlements.
A final quote from ancient writings may not be out of place here. It comes from Dionysius of Alexandria, a Roman Catholic Bishop and theologian of the 3rd century. Only fragments of his writings remain.
“Against the sacred Cape* great Europe’s head,
Th’ Hesperides along the ocean spread;
Whose wealthy hills with mines of tin abound,
And stout Iberians till the fertile ground.”
(* this is Cape Ortegal, the northern-most tip of Spain, near to Corunna)
In many of the places where Israelites set up their colonies, we find inscriptions and tombstones, bearing witness to the fact. The south of Spain is not wanting in this respect, and neither is Cornwall . This is probably the reason why the Apostle Paul said that he intended to visit Spain. But our particular concern is Cornwall , and this is where the story of Joseph of Arimathea begins to unfold.
In times long gone by, Cornwall was literally riddled with mines. The remains of their shafts are still in evidence, and care must be taken in certain areas not to fall into these when hiking. For example, the ancient Ding Dong mine, which we visited recently, still has a deep shaft now covered over with an iron grating. Standing there, one can see St Michael’s Mount in the distance. But of all the mines, there remains but one that is still in operation, and that has recently been shut down, only to re-open due to public pressure. However, traditions still linger with considerable strength about Joseph’s involvement. The miners have always sung songs during their work underground, and the refrain has always been, “Joseph was a tin miner. Joseph was in the tin trade.”
Is this an empty boast? Hardly. Throughout the world there are very persistent traditions that just will not die, and when investigated, are found to contain memories of important historical events. They say that there is no smoke without fire. Likewise there is no tradition without historical fact, even though in the process of time some of the facts get covered over with the barnacles of human invention. And this is what I believe to be true here. Even in the Cornish language there are clear references to the ancient Jewish presence and trade in Cornwall. One still hears about “Jews Houses” (ancient smelting places for tin,) “Jews Pieces” (very ancient blocks of tin,) “Jews Works” (very ancient stream works, which were sometimes called Attal Sarazin, or “the leavings of the Saracens”,) and even “Jews Fish” (referring to the Halibut, their favourite in Cornish diet.) One remembers names like Marazion, (or Markesew) meaning “Market Jew”, the ancient trading town opposite St Michael’s Mount (Ictis), and Market Jew Street in the centre of Penzance.
Joseph of Arimathea was a Pharisee of great reputation in Jerusalem. He was a rich man, as the Scriptures inform us, and one who could go privately to Pontius Pilate and make bold requests. Pilate knew him and respected him, and granted him leave to remove our Lord’s body from the cross and bury it in his own newly-hewn sepulchral chamber. This was in accordance with the Roman Law then extant, (See “Digest”, xlviii.24, ‘De cadav. punit.) that a near relative could attend to the burial of a crucified man. And according to persistent tradition, Joseph was the great uncle of Jesus. However, that Friday was no ordinary day, and Pilate’s temper had been severely frayed. But nevertheless he entertained Joseph with all due respect and courtesy, and that from a Roman who admitted hatred of all the Jews.
It might be pointed out, with profit to our programme of research, that the Jewish Sanhedrin, consisting of seventy one members, was composed only of the aristocracy, there being three orders of election, (a) the chief priests, (b) the elders, being the principal men in the community, and (c) the scribes. It would have been from among the elders that Joseph had been elected to membership of the Sanhedrin.
The Greek text of Mark 15 speaks of Joseph as an “honourable counsellor” in other words he was a man of high esteem. The Vulgate Latin is “Nobilis Decurio “, a nobleman, a member of the aristocracy and the Sanhedrin, and in Roman society, suggesting the position of Town Counsellor, or Senator of a Municipium or Colonia. Matthew 27:57 says that he was“a rich man from Arimathea.” It could be that he was “head man” of that whole region, which according to the“Onomasticon”, an ancient record of place names (225.12) is identical to Ramathaim-Zophim, or just Rama, the home town of Elkanah and Samuel, in the hill country of Ephraim, but which was transferred to Judaea in B.C.145. It is rather tantalising, not having more specific facts to go on, but enough is given in the N.T. to show us that this man was no ordinary Pharisee, but a man of substance, position, and honour amongst his peers in Jerusalem, and also one who was in fairly constant touch with the Procurator, Pontius Pilate. One can imagine that he had qualities that made him a useful political “go-between” in times of national stress, a useful person to have around if you happened to be a Pilate or a Caiaphas!
Now we also know that Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus, secret “for fear of the Jews”. It could be that he considered his position important enough to keep quiet about his religious aspirations. But unlike other members of our Lord’s family, he was in earnest about his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. He was a “good and just man”, and one who was “himself looking for the Kingdom of God.” When our Lord was being tried by the Sanhedrin on that infamous Thursday night, Joseph was undoubtedly there. So also was Nicodemus. It is inconceivable that they would be elsewhere. What they said, if anything at all, no one knows. But Joseph “came out into the open” as soon as Jesus had died. No longer was he a secret disciple. And so it was that Saul of Tarsus, another Pharisee, and also a member of the Sanhedrin, hounded him in the great persecution that followed soon after the crucifixion and resurrection.
In the last paper I gave several written evidences to the effect that Joseph was cast adrift on a boat, from which oars and sails had been removed. I see this as an act of Saul, who rather than bring down ignominy on his own head for arraigning such an august company of disciples, decided secretly to commit them to the “mercy” of the waves. In this way he would not have been held responsible for their fate.
Let us draw together some of the threads. It is clear that Joseph was a rich man because he was involved in the tin trade. From what little we can muster, one might see him as the owner of several “ships of Tarshish”, plying their trade betweenTyre and Massilia, the latter being the “staging post” for the tin trade. Joseph would have been a frequent traveller on this route, using his own ships, and thereafter taking the overland route across Gaul from Massilia to Morlaix in Brittany(Armorica), from whence he would sail across to Cornwall , landing probably at St.Just in Roseland. On the other hand he might have taken a boat round Land’s End and sailed to Glastonbury via the rivers Brue and Parrot. But whatever the purpose of his visits, he must have had a good working knowledge of the terrain in Devon and Cornwall, and also in that area of Somerset, which was then known as the Summerlands, and included Glastonbury. In Roman times the whole peninsula was known as Dumnonia, but it was never conquered by them.
Joseph’s association with the tin trade would have been connected with the Israelites of the tribe of Asher, living in Cornwall. According to ancient records, the inhabitants of the region, being Israelites and Celts, conversed in Greek and Hebrew, and had a highly sophisticated way of life. They were by no means savages, but people who had built up a way of life over centuries, and had contact with most other places in the then known civilised world through their trade. Thus it was that Joseph became the patron saint of tin-miners, and his memory is still vivid in the minds of Cornishmen to this day. When travelling back to the mainland from St Michael’s Mount, we noticed that the boat was flying a black flag with a white cross. On asking, I was told that it was the flag of St. Piran, patron saint of Cornwall. The black ground represents the black grains of tin that were panned in the early days, and the white cross, the appearance of the tin when it is flashed at about 1200 degrees C. and run into the moulds.
When archaeologists find a few fragments of a broken pot , and try to assemble it, they are usually able to assess exactly what the missing parts looked like because of the pattern. In the same way historians are able to assess missing information by a similar process, though not with such great accuracy. In this paper we have tried to paint a picture of the Cassiterides and Joseph of Arimathea from available evidence. Some may consider it highly conjectural. So be it. But Joseph DID come to Britain, and the British church WAS founded at Glastonbury. Of that there is little doubt.
Biblography. Material for this essay was gleaned from various sources, but in particular the book by George Smith, entitled “The Cassiterides” (1863) has been most helpful. Other works are as follows – “The Place-names of Roman Britain” by A.L.F.Rivet & C.Smith; Webster’s “Biographical Dictionary”; “A New Cornish Dictionary” by R. Morton Nance; “Glossary of the Cornish Dialect” by F.W.P.Jago (1882); “A Glossary of Cornish Names” by J. Bannister (1871) “The Cornwall Gazetteer” by Gillian Thompson, (1996); “Tin in Antiquity” by R.D.Penhallurick (1986); “A History of Tin Mining and Smelting in Cornwall” by D.B.Barton (1967); “The Child Christ at Lammana”, by Rev. H.A.Lewis (1934); “Bible Research Handbook” Published by The National Message, 1946 (Sections 571.3, and 572.942); “The Story of Cornwall” by A.K.Hamilton Jenkin (1934); “The Origin and Early History of Christianity in Britain” by Dr Andrew Gray (1897); “The Coming of the Saints” by John W. Taylor (1906); “The Drama of the Lost Disciples” by George F. Jowett (1961); “The Dawn of Christianity in the West” by Walter de M. Seaman (1993); “Did our Lord visit Britain, as they say in Cornwall and Somerset?” by Rev. C.C.Dobson (1936) “The Fortunate Islands” by E.L.Bowley (1945).