Houston Graduate School of Theology

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Jesus's Burial Place

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By Dr. Doug Kennard, Professor Christian Scripture, Houston Graduate School of Theology The Church of the Holy Sepulcher replaced the Venus temple, occupying the quarry of Jesus’s death and burial.[1] Jesus’s burial tomb was freshly carved out of the rock of a quarry near where he died, less than 250 yards outside the second wall, and surrounded by an orchard.[2] As a second-temple tomb, Jesus’s tomb was prepared for Joseph of Arimathea’s family.

An early Jewish tomb had a small, central chamber with likely half a dozen side niches, each with the depth of 3-5 feet, able to handle two or three ossuaries or bone boxes.[3] After a body would decompose, perhaps after a year, when the next family member would die, then the shelf would be emptied of the remains of the body by putting the bones into an ossuary.[4]

A follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, requested Jesus’s body from Pilate, and, when it was determined that Jesus had died, the body was granted to him as was the normal Roman custom.[5] Nicodemus lowered Jesus’s body from the nearby cross with a sheet and aided Joseph in placing Jesus’s body in Joseph’s rock tomb by rolling the stone door away from the tomb opening (Mark 15:42-46). The nails were pulled from Jesus’s wrists and feet.[6] Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’s body for burial by washing it, then wrapping it with about 100 pounds of spices.[7] This was a standard burial practice for a wealthy person, as these priests clearly were. Jesus was buried before sundown on the day of His death.[8] The burial would have taken about one hour to finish before Passover and Sabbath would begin, after which time they would not have been able to move the body.[9] Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus rolled the stone door across the tomb opening.[10] Mary Magdalene and Mary Zebedee watched the burial process so that they might return after Sabbath.[11] The chief priests arranged for a wax seal and set a guard to prevent disciples from opening the tomb.[12] Female followers of Jesus came after the Sabbath bringing more spices and wondering how they would be able to roll the stone away from the tomb.[13] Jesus’s body was gone within three days, so there was no need for an ossuary for His bones.

Within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, there is a second-temple tomb in the north wall of the Jacobite chapel, just north of the Jesus tomb. I take my tours into that tomb so the pilgrims can envision what a second-temple tomb is like. There is also a second-temple tomb in the basement chapel of St. Helena where there is an early fourth-century pilgrim drawing of a Roman ship and an inscription, “Let us go to the Lord.” As the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built under Emperor Constantine’s patronage and consecrated in 335 AD, the quarry was cut away leaving the traditional Jesus tomb as a large stone box, about fifteen feet square, containing the cut tomb within which Jesus’s body had been placed.[14] This tomb and church was a pilgrim site until 18 October 1009 when Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the complete destruction of the church, including the stone surround of Jesus’s tomb, as part of a campaign against Christian places of worship. During and after the Crusades, as Christians rebuilt the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, small chapels were built concentrically over the place where Jesus’s tomb had been so that now there are three levels of concentric chapels over the site within the Anastasia Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Garden-tomb tourist site is a first-temple tomb, so that is six centuries too early to be a freshly prepared tomb for Jesus. Additionally, none of the second-temple tomb ossuaries with the common name of “Jesus” on them would be Jesus Christ’s tomb, since His body was gone before there was a need for a bone box. Praise to the Risen Lord!

[1] Eusebius, Vita Const. 3.36, 39 and Onomasticon; Jerome, Ep. 58.3.

[2] Matt 27:33, 60; Mark 15:22, 42-46; Luke 23:33, 53; John 19:17, 41; Josephus, J.W. 5.146; Gos. Peter  24; The Acts of Pilate 7-8; 15.6; m. B. Bat. 2.9; Egeria  Itin. 24.7; 25.9, 11; 27.3, 6; 30.1-2; 31.4; 35.2; 36.4.5; 37.1-8; 39.2; Jerome, Ep. 58.3.

[3] m. ’Ohal. 18.4.

[4] y. Mo‘ed Qaṭ 1.5.

[5] Matt 27:57-58; Mark 15:42-45; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38; Justinian, Digest 48.24.3; crucified Yoḥanan bones with a nail in his heal found in an ossuary from a family tomb.

[6] Gos. Peter 21.

[7] Matt 27:57-60; John 19:39-40; Gos. Peter 24.

[8] Deut 21:22.

[9] Šabb. 23.5.

[10] Matt 27:60; Gos. Peter 23-24.

[11] Matt 27:61; Mark 15:47.

[12] Matt 27:62-66; Gos. Peter 30-33.

[13] Luke 23:55.

[14] Cyril, Cat. 14.9; Pilgrim reports in Itinerarium Burdigalense, 594.