After it was confirmed that Jesus was dead, the Bible tells us that his body was taken to a garden and laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s newly hewn tomb (Matt. 27:60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41). Why is that important information for archaeologists?
The fact that the tomb was a new one is hugely significant for the way in which archaeologists would try to understand the tomb layout. Tombs of the New Testament period usually consisted of several rock-cut chambers, which had burial and arched niches cut into the side walls. The first chamber was an entrance porch, while the other chambers had burial niches cut into the side walls for the burying of the dead. But multiple chambers would contradict the description of the tomb of Jesus in the gospels, for the women involved with the burial could apparently see the body from outside the tomb (cf. Matt. 22:61 and Luke 23:55). And John, while being outside the tomb and stooping to look inside, saw the linen grave clothes lying (John 20:5).
The truth of this description can now be confirmed by archaeology. Over 1,000 tombs have been studied around Jerusalem, and we know now that the first stage in tomb construction is the cutting out of a single chamber with benches arranged along the three sides, leaving a pit in the middle, so that the workmen could stand upright while working. A tomb could be left like this for a while, until the other chambers were added.
Such a newly hewn tomb could be used for the first phase of burial, the so-called “primary burial,” where the body was laid out on a bench. A year or so later, when only bones were left, these were placed in “ossuaries” or bone boxes. This was called “secondary burial.”
Other reconstructions of Jesus’ tomb show burial niches carved into the wall. Why are these lacking in the ESV Study Bible illustration?
The second phase in the development of a family tomb was the cutting out of a proper burial chamber. Such chambers had loculi (burial niches) where the body was put in. These niches were narrow and about 6 feet deep, so that a complete body could be put inside and the opening sealed off by a large stone. Higher up the wall, arched niches (arcosolia) were carved for the placing of the ossuaries. Once the tomb had reached this stage of construction, it could no longer be called a “newly hewn tomb.” It would be wrong therefore to portray burial niches in the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The drawing of Jesus' tomb in the ESV Study Bible accurately shows what a newly hewn tomb would have looked like.
Within the tomb where did they probably place Jesus' body?
The gospel record tells us that the body of Jesus could be seen as soon as someone looked inside the tomb (cf. John 20:5). Newly hewn tombs usually had a bench running along three sides of the chamber. Looking inside a tomb, the first thing one would notice is the bench opposite the entrance. It is reasonable therefore to suggest that the body of Jesus was laid on the bench opposite the entrance. In the drawing, the grave clothes and head cloth (cf. John 20:5–7) can be seen on that bench, as an indication as to where Jesus’ body was laid. This arrangement makes it also possible for the two angels to sit on either side of the place where the body of Jesus had been (cf. John 20:12). The Bible says that there was a massive rolling rock that sealed the tomb.
How big would such a rock have been?
Only a few of these rolling stones have been found. They usually have a diameter of 4.5 feet (1.4 m) and were about a foot (0.3 m) or so thick. Based on these measurements, the stone would have weighed a good few hundred kilos. Were rolling stones typical of tombs in the first century? Surprisingly, only very few tombs dating to the Second Temple period (c. 516 B.C.–A.D. 70) had rolling stones to close off the entrance. Actually, only four have been found in the Jerusalem area. The most well-known examples are the so-called Tomb of the Kings (more likely the Tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene) and the Tomb of Herod’s Family. These were very elaborate tombs, built by wealthy people, as it is more expensive to build this kind of closing mechanism than just putting a blocking stone in front of the entrance. It confirms the fact that Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man (cf. Matt. 27:57).
How big would have been the entrance to the tomb?
Tomb entrances, even those with rolling stones, were rather small, about 2.5–3 feet high and 2–2.5 feet wide. There was no need to make the entrance larger as it was only used during burials. Smaller entrances are also easier to close off. The fact that the disciples had to stoop to look in (Luke 24:12; John 20:5; John 20:11) is in perfect harmony with the archaeological record of tomb architecture of that time.
Thanks, Dr. Ritmeyer, for taking the time to do this interview, and for the countless hours you invested in this project. Any final thoughts?
It has been a pleasure and privilege to serve as the archaeological and architectural reconstruction editor for the ESV Study Bible. Ever since I started to work as archaeological architect in 1973, it has been my aim to show what ancient buildings looked like. It is vital for Bible students to have a correct knowledge of the background of the Bible, and I am sure that the Study Bible will be of tremendous help for those who love to study the Word of God. With its many exquisitely rendered reconstruction drawings and accurate maps, a new standard has been set for biblical illustration, raising the bar for many years to come.