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I recently read The Burial of Jesus, a collection of essays published by the Biblical Archaeology Society (the organization that publishes Biblical Archaeology Review).  It provided very valuable archaeological data regarding ancient Jewish tombs, and assessed whether or not the Garden Tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre could possibly be the tomb of Jesus. What follows is a summary of the articles, as well as my own personal contribution.

The Gospels tell us that after Jesus’ death, He was hastily buried in a cave tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man who was also a member of the Sanhedrin (Mt 27:57-60; Mk 15:42-46; Lk 23:50-53; Jn 19:38-42).  Only upper-middle and upper class Jews could afford a rock-hewn tomb.[1]  The poor in the 1st century buried their dead in trench tombs.  Trench tombs were about 5-7’ deep, and had a niche in the bottom for the bodies.[2]  Bodies would be wrapped in a shroud (and sometimes placed in wood coffin) and lowered into the niche.[3]  Had Joseph not buried Jesus, Jesus may have been buried in a trench tomb, or thrown into a field as the Romans were oft to do with crucified victims.

What did Jesus’ tomb look like? 

Archaeological data can help us answer this question.  We have discovered hundreds of cave tombs in Israel, some dating as far back as the 8th century BC up to the early 6th century BC.[4]  Tombs made in this era are referred to as First Temple Period (FTP) tombs.  No tombs have been discovered that date between 586 BC and the mid 2nd century BC, which corresponds to a period of time in which the Jews were either in Babylonian captivity, or under foreign rule.  It was not until the mid-second century that tomb-building resumed under Hasmonean rule.[5]  Tombs made between the mid-2nd century BC and AD 70 are referred to as Second Temple Period (STP) tombs.  FTP and STP tombs have distinct features related to their construction and layout which allows us to distinguish tombs from the two periods.

  • FTP tombs usually had a pit under the burial bench to house the bones after the flesh had decayed, or a large pit (charnel pit) to throw the bones into.[6]  Rather than depositing bones into a charnel pit, bones from STP tombs were deposited into a special room called a charnel room.  Beginning around 20 BC, charnel rooms were replaced with ossuaries, small limestone boxes in which the bones for several individuals could be deposited.[7]
  • STP tombs have visible, parallel lines on the walls of the tomb, left by the comb-chisel that was used to hew out the rock.  FTP tombs did not use comb-chisels, so the walls of FTP tombs are very smooth.
  • Dual-room FTP tombs often dug their chambers side-by-side, whereas dual-room tombs from the STP dug the second chamber behind the first.
  • STP generally had rectangular, low entrances.[8]  The floors of the tomb were carved out of the limestone rock to lower the floor, allowing mourners to stand erect.[9]  By contrast, FTP tombs did not carve out the floor.
  • STP tombs were lined on all but the entrance side by low-lying benches (they were what remained after the floor had been carved out).[10]  They typically had loculi carved into the walls: long niches cut vertically into the walls for individual burials, measuring approximately 6’ deep and 1.5’ wide.[11]  Many have shelf-like burial niches in the walls measuring 6’ long and 2’ high (called arcosolia if the top of the niche is arched and quadrosolia if it is straight).[12]  By contrast, FTP tombs only contained benches on which to lay the deceased.

The following chart summarizes the differences:

 

FTP tombs

STP tombs

Bones kept in… Charnel pits Charnel room or ossuaries
Construction Smooth walls, floors not carved out Comb marks on the walls, floors carved out
Layout Rooms side-by-side One room behind the other
Burial spots Benches Low-lying benches, loculi, arcosolia/quadrosolia

So what did Jesus’ tomb look like?  From the Biblical data we know it must have had a relatively small entrance room because Mary could see where Jesus’ body had been laid from outside the tomb (Mk 15:47; Jn 20:1).  This does not necessarily imply that it was a single-room tomb, however, as some suggest.  What it does imply is that Jesus was buried on a bench rather than in a loculus or an arcosolia/quadrosolia.  If he had been buried in a loculus, it would have been very difficult to see the location from outside the tomb as these were further removed from the tomb opening.  It is also unlikely that he was laid in an arcosolia/quadrosolia because the Bible depicts angels sitting at the head and feet of where Jesus had been laid (Jn 20:12).  Arcosolia and quadrosolia were only about 2’ high, making it virtually impossible for the angels to sit within the space.[13]  Archaeological data also rules this out as a viable option.  Arcosolia and quadrosolia never appear in one-room tombs, and we have hundreds of examples of one-room tombs and tombs with arcosolia/quadrosolia.  They only appear in multiple-room tombs, and rarely appear in the entrance corridor itself (only two tombs have arcosolia in the entrance corridor).[14]  Jesus was probably laid on a burial bench, which would be easily visible from outside the tomb.

The Stone that Sealed the Tomb

The English translations of the Synoptic Gospels speak of the stone being “rolled” against and from the tomb entrance (Mt 27:60; 28:2; Mk 15:46; 16:3-4; Lk 24:2).[15]  This would lead us to believe that the stone was a round, rolling stone.  Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that it probably was not a rolling stone.  Out of the more than 900 tombs from the STP, only four used rolling stones to cover the entrance:

  • The Herod Family Tomb (4.5’ tall)
  • Tombs of the Kings (aka Tomb of Queen Helen of Adiabene)
  • A funery monument adjacent to the Herod Family Tomb
  • A tomb in the KidronValley[16]

All other tombs (99%) from the STP used square blocking stones that are designed to fit snugly into the opening like a cork in a bottle (smaller on the inside and larger on the outside).[17]  Given the fact that only the most exotic tombs used rolling stones, and given the fact that so few tombs used rolling stones in the STP, it stands to reason that Jesus’ tomb probably sealed with a square stone, not a rolling stone.  So what about the Gospel accounts which speak of the stone being “rolled” away?  The Greek word kulio may also refer to dislodging or moving, so there need not be any contradiction.[18]

Do We Know the Location of Jesus’ tomb? 

The traditional site of the tomb is under the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.  An alternative site proposed in the late 19th century is the Garden Tomb, also in Jerusalem.  Which of these, if either, has a better claim to be the burial spot of Jesus?  Let us look first at the Garden Tomb.

The Garden Tomb was discovered in 1867.  It appears to have been dug in the 8th or 7th century BC.[19]  It was re-used in the 5th through 7th centuries AD.[20]  We know it was hewn in the FTP for the following reasons:

  • All other tombs in the area are from the FTP.  During the STP Jews hewed their tombs farther north.
  • STP tombs have visible, parallel lines on the walls of the tomb, left by the comb-chisel that was used to hew out the rock.  FTP tombs did not use comb-chisels, so the walls of FTP tombs are very smooth.  The Garden Tomb lacks any comb marks, and thus it stands to reason it was built during the FTP.
  • The two chambers of the Garden Tomb are side-by-side, a distinctive of FTP tombs.  STP tombs dug the second chamber behind the first.
  • FTP tombs only contained benches on which to lay the deceased, whereas STP tombs contained low-lying benches, loculi, and arcosolia/quadrosolia.  The original layout of the Garden Tomb lacks loculi and arcosolia/quadrosolia.  It only contained burial benches lining the three walls opposite the entrance of the first chamber.[21]

According to the Gospels Jesus was buried in a new tomb (Mt 27:60; Lk 23:53; Jn 19:41).  If the Garden Tomb was hewn in the FTP, it cannot be said to be “new” by any stretch of the imagination, and thus the Garden Tomb is highly unlikely to be the tomb Jesus was buried in.

What about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?  This tomb possessed both loculi (two of them) and arcosolia, although centuries of pilgrims chipping away at the tomb for relics left it defaced.[22]  The entire tomb is now covered by later masonry.[23]  It is one of four tombs found in the area, indicative of the fact that this was once a much larger burial site.

The site was originally a quarry.  In the first century BC it was turned into a garden, and tombs were dug in the rock.[24]  In AD 132 Hadrian destroyed what remained of Jerusalem after a rebellion led by Rabbi Akivah and Bar Kokhba.  Hadrian built a retaining wall that encompassed the hill traditionally identified as Golgotha, as well as the tombs, and filled it in with dirt to create a level, raised platform on which to build a temple to Aphrodite.[25]  Constantinte razed Hadrian’s temple to the ground.  The Christians removed the fill to expose the land and tombs below.[26]  Constantine built a rotunda around the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, and a bascilica near that (the rotunda and bascilica were separated by the hill of Golgotha).[27]  This church was destroyed by El Khakim, the Caliph of Cairo, in AD 1009.[28]  The rotunda was rebuilt by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus between AD 1042-1048.[29]  In place of a church, he built three groups of chapels.  Crusaders rebuilt the church in the 12th century, enclosing the hill of Golgotha in the church for the first time (in a chapel within the church).[30]

Could this have marked the spot of Jesus’ tomb?  The fact that there was always a Christian community living in Jerusalem, and the fact that there was an unbroken succession of Christian bishops living in Rome means the Christian community’s memory of the site of Jesus’ burial may be legitimate.[31]  Indeed, the fact that Hadrian built a temple over the site made it easier to remember.

Another point in its favor is its location.  While in the 4th century the spot was enclosed within the city walls, archaeological excavations reveal that during the 1st century AD it was just outside the city walls.[32]  In fact, we learn from Josephus that this site was not enclosed within the walls until Herod Agrippa did so between AD 41-44, less than ten years after Jesus was crucified.[33]  This is important because Jesus was crucified just outside the city walls, and the tomb he was buried in was nearby (Jn 19:20).  Neither Constantine nor the Christians living in Jerusalem in the 4th century could not have known that the site they identified as Jesus’ tomb was outside the city walls in the first century AD, nor that the site was once a garden (Jn 19:41).  Only an accurate preservation of the memory of Jesus’ burial site could account for this.[34]  While it cannot be known for certain whether this was the precise tomb Jesus was buried in, the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is more likely than the Garden Tomb to be the tomb of Jesus.


[1]Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[2]Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[3]Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[4]Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[5]Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[6]Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[7]Jodi Magness, “What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[8]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[9]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[10]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[11]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[12]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[13]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[14]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[15]John simply speaks of the stone having been “removed” from the entrance.
[16]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[17]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[18]Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[19]Gabriel Barkay, “The Garden Tomb: Was Jesus Buried Here?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[20]Gabriel Barkay, “The Garden Tomb: Was Jesus Buried Here?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[21]Gabriel Barkay, “The Garden Tomb: Was Jesus Buried Here?” in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[22]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[23]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[24]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[25]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[26]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[27]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[28]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[29]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[30]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[31]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[32]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[33]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.
[34]Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? in The Burial of Jesus, Biblical Archaeology Society, Kathleen E. Miller et al, ed., 2007.

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