The Tomb of Jesus

The presumed Tomb of Jesus in the Holy Sepulchre has recently been discussed again, this time on The Bible and Interpretation website. In this article, which is a follow-up of a previous one, PhD student Eldad Keynan of the Bar Ilan University suggests that the tomb in the Holy Sepulchre was a Sanhedrin tomb that was used for the temporary burial of Jewish felons and that the permanent tomb of Jesus was elsewhere.

The tomb beneath the rotunda was not a “normal” or a “standard” tomb. However, we believe it is indeed the temporary tomb of Jesus. It was significantly smaller than the standard\normal tombs; it was different in structure; it was connected to another tomb nearby.

In this reconstruction drawing, we see a newly hewn tomb that could have been used for the first phase of burial, the so-called “primary burial,” where the body was laid out on a bench.

A newly hewn, but unfinished tomb could have been used for primary burial, as we explained here:

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.”

If the tomb in the Holy Sepulchre was a Sanhedrin tomb, then it could hardly have been a “new sepulchre”, as described in John 19.41. It would also contradict the fact that Jesus was laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s “own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock” (Matthew 27.60; Luke 23.53).

Keynan appears to be a supporter of the Talpiot Tomb as the permanent tomb of Jesus. The fact, however, that Jesus came from Nazareth is often overlooked in the discussion. We believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, but if, for the sake of argument, Jesus was buried in a permanent tomb, that would have been his family tomb in Nazareth and not in Jerusalem. It is nevertheless interesting to read about Jewish burial practices, as Jesus was a Jew and must have been buried according to Jewish customs.

23 thoughts on “The Tomb of Jesus”

  1. Eldad Kenyan and Sean Freyne are wise in man’s knowledge but, being unbelievers, are unable to perceive complete truth. Being led by the Holy Spirit is an awsome privilege and I hope that someday they can experience it.

  2. What should be our focus; burial tombs or Jesus resurrection? Jesus’ resurrection should be of concern to all of us. Why? Because, if he was not resurrected, Christianity is based on a false foundation. On the other hand, if Jesus’ resurrection is really a fact of history, Christianity is based on truth. Under those circumstances, not only are Christ’s claims vindicated but so are his promises. Moreover, if there is a resurrection, death is not the great victor but an enemy that can be defeated.—1 Corinthians 15:55.

  3. To Arthur and all – thanks for placing me second to Prof. Freyne – It’s a great compliment; I’m not sure I deserve it. Whether or not I am a supporter of the Talpiot Tomb as the permanent tomb of Jesus – is not the point. I said nothing about it. But since it has been raised, I can tell you confidently: Talpiot Tomb or not, Jesus is alive as long as people believe he is, and follow his way. We must draw a clear line to separate objective study of any kind from belief. Read Galileo’s story again.

  4. Shalom Eldad,
    Your involvement with the Talpiot tomb is taken from the statement on your own Linkedin page: “yes, it possibly is Jesus’ tomb”.
    I agree with you that the study of archaeological sites must be kept separate from one’s beliefs and I have practised that during the many years I worked in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. I have been involved in making plans and reconstruction drawings of many tombs for archaeologists such as Amos Kloner, Gabi Barkay and others, and find the study of ancient tombs most interesting.
    Would you not agree that your suggestion that Jesus was buried in a Sanhedrin tomb that was used for the primary burials of felons would contradict the NT text saying that Jesus’ body was laid in a newly hewn tomb? Please read our explanation on the construction of a new tomb in the ESV Study Bible, p. 2069.
    Would you also not find it reasonable to suggest that, if Jesus was buried in his permanent family tomb, then that must have been located in Nazareth and not in Jerusalem? One very popular name on one ossuary in a Jerusalem tomb does not necessarily prove that Jesus was permanently buried there.

  5. Shalom, Leen. I have a serious question to begin with: why so many scholars and lay persons so eagerly reject the idea that Jesus’ initial burial took place in the Sanhedrin tomb? Does this idea contrast the NT reports? I think it doesn’t. On the contrary – it may complete the NT accounts. In fact, following the NT, we can agree that the Sanhedrin tomb was Jesus’ initial burial and the site of the resurrection.
    The Mishna, as a legal code, says nothing about Jesus’ burial, as it says nothing about any other particular-individual burial, simply because it is a leagl code: general and objective. The nature of the NT is completely different; it does have theological ends and drives, therefore, when it tells us about Jesus’ death, the burial seems to be in the shadow of the resurrection. Thus the Gospels accounts of the burial are inconsistent.
    In both my articles in B&I I did my best to demostrate the differences between private tombs, meant for both preliminary and secondary burial, and the only tomb meant to be temporary that mentioned in written sources, and actually exists until today, under the Holy Sepulcher rotonda (you know it’s Kloner’s opinion, and I accept it). While doing this, I never mentioned the Talpiot Tomb; I see it as a totally different discussion; this stand dictated the contents of both my articles.
    The NT accounts on Jesus Burial are not consistent; they are different from one another. One says it was Joseph Arimathea’s newly hewn tomb, the toher says it was just new, yet another says it was never been used before (thus – not necessarily new!). What are we to conclude of this discrepancy? What conclusions we may reach out of it? The Mishna offers a reasonable solution, even before any interpretation is made. That’s what I did. It’s description of the Sanhedrin tomb and what it meant for matches perfectly the size and shape of the tomb under the rotonda, and I’m sure you know it.
    Any suggeation that Jesus could have been buried in his own family tomb is ignoring a few basic ancient Jewish burial laws and custom, compiled in the Mishna. We have to assume that his family had the means to afford for a tomb – it’s debatable. Moving bodies from one place to another in the Land of Israel over night is prohibited – and Nazareth is more than one day journey from Jerusalem. One last point on this topic is that Jewish laws were applied to Jesus; here I take the liberty to quote you: “as Jesus was a Jew and must have been buried according to Jewish customs.” That’s true; thus, as a Jewish felon, executed according to Jewish law, he had to be buried in the Sanhedrin tomb. The fact the the Romans executed him made no difference; a death sentence issued against him by the Sanhedrin – this point is crucial.
    I read your explanation above; it’s correct and in line with all we know about private tombs. What does it have to do with Jesus’ initial burial? Would you be more specific, please? Kloner implied that tombs, other than the rotonda tomb, were built to be temporary. Do you agree? I think it’s highly unlikely, and in disagreement with all we have learned from Kloner and others, as with the sources, written and physical finds.
    The last point in your comment is: “One very popular name on one ossuary in a Jerusalem tomb does not necessarily prove that Jesus was permanently buried there.”
    As a historian, I know that nothing can prove anything; there is always a doubt. We discuss the probability of the reconstruction. Still, the “common names” argument is wrong. The name Yeshua=Jesus (ישוע) was not common; when we add the “son of Yehosef” its “commoness” is reduced considerably. Separating the “Yeshua” from the “son of Yehosef” might be convenient, but it is misleading. The physical find says clearly: Yeshua son of Yehosef; the only correct way to measure its commoness is exactly as it’s inscribed on the ossuary. In general, the entire method employed to conclude the commoness of the names in Talpiot Tomb was wrong and thus misleading. For instance, Yoseh was extremely rare, and so was Mariamne and so on. As you say: “Over 1,000 tombs have been studied around Jerusalem” – and I add: and this particular names cluster was found only in one tomb. I don’t think it’s that common.
    The commoness of the Talpiot Tomb names was a major argument against this tomb as Jesus permanent burial. I agree that this argument’s weakness still doesn’t prove that the Talpiot Tomb is Jesus’ permanent burial site. But if the commoness is such a crucial point – its weakness is at least indicative.

  6. Let’s be honest.

    Consider that the only reason we are even discussing a so-called “Tomb of Jesus” is because of narratives from the Bible [NT Gospels]. Not one journalist, archaeologist or scholar would have had any idea about a person named “Jesus”, or where he had lived, traveled and ministered unless the Bible first told us about him. If there was no Bible, no one would even care about an ossuary found in an old tomb in Talpiot with names like Yeshua, Miriam or Yoseph inscribed on them. The Israel Antiquities Authority has rows and rows of ossuaries stored in their facility near Jerusalem. No one [except scholars] care about any of those ossuaries, since their inscriptions are of “ordinary” folk and not the “Savior of Christianity”. See? So it is the Bible [and “belief” in its reliability] that influences our work and the audiences we sell “sensational” books and videos to. Just sayin.

    Also … responsible study of “Biblical” archaeological sites in the “Holy Land” can never be kept separated from one’s beliefs or opinions, though some may smugly deny this. Since the practitioners of archaeology are [usually] highly educated, their beliefs and opinions do “color” their interpretation of the evidence they find or fail to find.

    As for Leen’s remark of a possible family tomb for Jesus, Mary and Joseph being up in Nazareth?

    “… if Jesus was buried in his permanent family tomb, then that must have been located in Nazareth and not in Jerusalem?”

    Two points.

    [1] Let’s assume that Jesus needed a tomb for more than a few days … would Mary and his disciples really have hauled his wrapped-yet-decaying body across mountainous terrain, through Judea and Samaria just to get his corpse up to a family tomb in Nazareth? Was transport of corpses across miles and miles a common practice of Jews in the first century? Is there a precedent? This idea seems like it would have created huge “purity” issues. All the villages and peoples living between Jerusalem and Nazareth would quickly learn and might have a real problem with a ragtag group hauling a progressively decaying body overland. It would have drawn attention to them and hiding was a natural response to disciples of a rebel recently put to death by the Roman authorites. Even if they waited for the body to decay down to bones for placement in an ossuary [a year or so later?] … would they have come back and gone through the task of recovery to then haul it back up to Nazareth? I don’t think so. It doesn’t match history.

    [2] I will confess that I don’t subscribe to the notion that Jesus needed a tomb beyond the three days and nights preceding his [Biblically reported] resurrection. To assume that all of his followers, and the rest of the “believers” and “witnesses” who saw him executed [and allegedly raised to life again] … to assume that they would have been as bold as they progressively were, risking their very lives, over and over and over, with passion … that they would do ALL that for a pathetic lie about a dead man, who was really buried at Talpiot or Nazareth? Well? I just don’t have enough “belief” to accept that.

  7. Daniel, most of your comment is reasonable, as I see it. As for your points:
    1. This journey is not only difficult in terms of difilement and purity problems. It was simply against the Jewish contemporary law. Only one correction: it’s the same Jewish law that dictated that the body must be buried before the Shabbat begins. That is: the NT is telling us the true regarding Jesus quick burial and it’s reasons. Thus, Jesus had to have a tomb for at least two days.
    2. I don’t think we can define religious stories “lies”. They don’t need any evidence as they cannot be refuted.

  8. Shalom Eldad, Thanks for you comment.

    As for “religious stories” not “needing” evidence … well, at least in the Bible’s case, most of the stories [while not needing evidence] do have much data that supports and validates them. And there is more data to be sought and found. Last time I checked, the digging had not ceased in Israel. Remember, there was a time before 1948 when there were no Dead Sea Scrolls illuminating the scholarly imagination.

    I reject the convenient, yet pervasive “modern” view that all “scientific or archaeological data” exists over here, in one sphere … call it OBJECTIVE REALITY [which it is not] … and that over there, in another sphere are the “religious or Biblical stories” which are merely … SUBJECTIVE OPINION or SIMPLE FAITH. No. There is the distinct possibility that these two spheres are in fact one, but that our current methods of inquiry and our intellectual prejudice may be the only agent separating the two.

    Even from a scientific position, [read carefully here] it is limiting of my interpretation and a bias to isolate data, particularly as it relates to “Biblical Archaeology”, from the possibility that yes, there may in fact be a Supreme Being [which the Bible attests to] … a Being that is responsible for the very stories and archaeological sites under investigation. I cannot dismiss that possibility … and so I don’t. Could GOD be a fantasy? Of course! Could GOD merely be the tribal Deity of an ancient Semitic people group … just their invention? Yes, it is possible, but I think the full body of evidence demands a verdict that is the opposite.

  9. Daniel – I guess you are discribing the philosophy of science, to be particular: histriosophy. Nothing can be completely “proven”, in terms of historical study. History is, therefore, a scientific Rashoumon story.
    Theology is different, it is dealing with understanding the “unprovable” or the “unrefutable”. It’s not my field, so I leave it to its professionals.
    One question: what is “the full body of evidence”? I’m serious about that.

  10. To Eldad and Daniel,
    I do not see how the descriptions of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in the four Gospels contradict each other. The four descriptions each focus on different aspects, which I see as complementary and not contradictory.

    Putting all four accounts together, the record shows that the body of Jesus was laid in a tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, who was a rich man and a member of the Sanhedrin, and that it was his own private tomb, cut out of the rock. It was not finished, but the construction was sufficiently advanced to be legally used for primary burial.

    As the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was not venerated at that time, the tomb construction would have continued until it had at least one proper burial chamber with kokhim, etc. There is no contemporary record showing that the construction was halted and the tomb remained as it was at the time of the burial of Jesus.

    As it was Joseph’s own private tomb, I cannot see how it could be a Sanhedrin tomb as well. The NT text makes a reference to Isaiah 53.9, which speaks of a rich man’s tomb and not a Sanhedrin tomb.

    This subject of the Tomb of Jesus will no doubt continue to be debated, but it appears to me that a ‘solution’ ot ‘proof’ that will satisfy everybody will remain elusive.

  11. Leen, no doubt Joseph Arimathea was rich, influential, a Sanhedrin member and had a rock cut tomb. Do you think this info is enough? I don’t think so. This discription is correctly and generally defining owners of private tombs in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time (Kloner, Bahat, Magness). I’m sure more data and analisys are required to suggest who owned which tomb.
    In that case, I recommend we all wait untill the Talpiot Tomb symposium volumes will be published; or further excavation to be conducted in the Talpiot Tomb and the tomb nearby; or rather – both.

  12. Shalom Eldad,

    As a person of faith, I can agree with you that I am approaching the subject of biblical archaeology from the perspective of rational historiosophy. Thanks for compliment! :>) The reason I follow and contribute to this blog is because I am a long-time lay student of Leen’s work [and the work of many others in this discipline]. I am very interested in the history of Israel and Jerusalem, which includes studying many sources of information on this general topic.

    Answering your question above?

    By “full body of evidence”, I am simply referring to the vast body of work that I have been digesting for years. I am speaking of the massive volume of research and data captured across “Palestine” in the field of biblical archaeology over the past 2 centuries. For about 200 years, the stream of data collected from the region, the research and writing and all the digging, charts and map-making, etc. … all of it has served well to validate much of the Bible’s historicity. Many institutions have been started, many archaeologists, scholars, scientists, linguists … including yourself and Leen … have contributed [thanks to you both] to this vast effort over time. This work continues to support the revelation of the Bible as reliable … as trustworthy and true. This reliability says something [according to the text] about the Bible’s Author. And I am not necessarily even talking about “religion” here. I am simply saying that this biblical archaeology discipline has done far far more to validate the Bible than it has done to undermine it. And thankfully, the digging and debate continues. Hope this is clear.

  13. Daniel,

    Critical assessment of archaeological and historical evidence, joined with the careful reading of the Hebrew Bible and the NT, can only enrich our knowledge of the background of the Bible.
    I don’t need archaeology to prove that the Bible is true, because I believed that before I started working on excavations, but the study of archaeology and historical works like the Mishnah and Josephus (and many others) has enlightened my understanding of many Biblical events that otherwise would have remained obscure.

  14. Leen,

    Agreed, my friend. For me, faith came first and the subsequent reinforcement has been and remains a delight. Thanks again for your contribution to my [our] understanding.

  15. This is a dangerous discussion for an non-archaeologist/scholar to enter. Let me throw in one additional consideration into the mix.

    I have been convinced that the area where the CHS now sits was the most likely place for Jesus to be crucified and buried. It certainly fits all the data we have, both from the New Testament, early church history, and archaeology.

    But, I have never been convinced that in 325AD when the Jupiter temple was destroyed and excavated that Helen’s workmen found the exact tomb Jesus was laid in. There were obviously other tombs in the area. Legends aside, we probably don’t really know how this tomb was selected as “the” one.

    Given that the area was covered over just a few years after the crucifixion and it was +250 years until it was uncovered again (and that after massive changes), I think the chances that anyone in the Christian community would have been able to positively identify “the” tomb when the area was dug out would have been pretty low. We don’t know how many tombs may have been destroyed in the area, either in the excavation process or in the many changes that occurred over those +250 years. Nor are we sure what may still be underground.

    When I have taken groups to the CHS, I usually tell them that I believe that this was the area that Jesus was crucified and buried in, but that the spot of the Calvary chapel is almost certainly wrong and that the tomb that has been enshrined may not be the exact tomb Jesus was buried in. I think that’s a fair assessment.

    So it could be that Mr. Keynan is right. Perhaps the enshrined tomb was a temporary tomb. But, that may say nothing about Jesus’ burial at all, as there is no specific evidence that this was the exact tomb Jesus was buried in.

    That is far more than any country preacher should dare to write in this debate. Thanks!

  16. To all, I’m pleased that Daniel explained what the “full body of evidence” is. As a historian, I trust arcaeologists and their works; I can’t “move” without them. They do create a large part of the “full body of evidence”. Former historians create another part, no less important. This statement is the first atep to answer Al’s comment. Bahat and Kloner are well known professionals in the field of archaeology. Bahat firmly stated that the area of the Golgotha and the Holy Sepulcher was honeycombed with ordinary trench graves. That is: a public burial ground. This is exactly why the sheer presence of tombs in it is so unique, even before we try to relate them to one owner or the other. Kloner states firmly (yes, again) that the tomb beneath the Holy Sepulcher rotonda was smaller than other famlilal tombs, and lacked important “component” comparing to familial tombs, and meant to be temporary. Since both Kloner and Bahat are important evidence creators, I trust them on this point.
    As to whether or not Jesus was buried in this tomb – we have another body of evidence – the Mishna; especially since it states that the burial laws in Mishna Sanhedrin 6:5-6 were valid before the desruction. That is: in Jesus’ times.

  17. Oy Vay!

    Eldad … now it is your turn to explain … what the “Mishna Sanhedrin 6:5-6” says about burial laws, before the destruction and how that affects how we moderns SEE the Holy Sepulcher crypts. What do you mean? What laws “apply”?

    As for Leen’s comment about Helena NOT getting it right? I concur. Just sayin.

  18. Daniel – I like the Oy Vay. Always liked it, I just don’t feel like Oy Vay now. There is another word in Yiddish: Gevald. To the point: I accept your definition of “the full body of evidence”. All sources, I believe, ought to be taken into account, with the proper degree of filtering, cross reading etc. The Mishna Sanhedrin is dealing, in general, with laws that were applicable before the time of it’s compliation; when it does, it states so clearly by using past terminology. This is in contrast to cases it presents a discussion in present terminology. The laws of executed Jewish felons’ burial were applied as long as the Sanhedrin existed, “attached” to the Temple. In fact, the Temple was it’s source of authority. Ever since the destruction, the Sanhedrin ceased to exist. So: when the Mishna describes this particular law, it describes the tomb under the Sanhedrin authority, in which Jesus must have been buried right after the crucifixion. I believe that the tomb beneath the Holy Sepulcher rotonda is the Sanhedrin tomb, and Jesus’ preliminary burial site.

  19. Mr. Kaynan; my father’s father was a Jew from the Ukraine area; his wife a Jew from Romania. I never knew the exact translation of “Oy Yevald” was when I was young, but I had a pretty good idea. There was a lot of Yiddish used I thought was Hebrew.

    I do know enough about archaeology to know that often what we “know” are often simply educated guesses. You may be right about the tomb’s original purpose. It is oddly shaped, but it’s also impossible to know what it looked like ‘in situ’ around 33AD. We don’t know if the tomb in the edicule was simply a part of a more elaborate tomb, or as others have suggested, a tomb so new that it had not been finished by the addition of loculi before an initial use.

    Certainly there are many variations of tombs in that time and place. Just look wander through the 1st century ‘Tomb of the Prophets’, certainly a tomb that bodies or bones had to be moved to after some initial burial and almost certainly not a single family tomb. It seems to defy some of the 1st century rules and practices you wrote about.

    As you note, the Sanhedrin could not actually pass a death sentence on anyone. Jesus’ execution was Roman and under their authority. If the Gospel accounts are correct, the body was given to an individual, Joseph of Arimathea, not to the Sanhedrin, to bury. This was not their execution.

    I would note that if we speculate that Jesus came under their authority because all felons executed by the Romans came under the care of the Sanhedrin to bury after they were dead and that they had two single tombs that a body needed to lie in for a year, then that single day they would have had need for three tombs. So, someone had to be buried in a non-Sanhedrin tomb. That hardly seems to work.

    Enjoying the discussion!

  20. Al – you say: “Just look wander through the 1st century ‘Tomb of the Prophets’, certainly a tomb that bodies or bones had to be moved to after some initial burial and almost certainly not a single family tomb”. I agree that it’s not a familial tomb. But archaeologists G. Avni and B. Zissu recently suggested that this tomb should be dated to the Byzantine era. In that case – it has nothing to do with our discussion. Besides: it’s way to large and has too many niches (Hebrew – Kokhim) to match the Sanhedrin tomb as described by Mishna.
    I think one clear point is still misunderstood: familial, private tombs were meant and built to allow both preliminary and secondary burials to take place IN THE SAME TOMB. Moving bodies and human remains from one place to another was forbidden by Jewish law, including from one tomb to another. The only legal exception is the Sanhedrin tomb (and, of course, moving bodies and remains from the Diaspora to Israel – which is NOT the case here).
    You also say: “We don’t know if the tomb in the edicule was simply a part of a more elaborate tomb, or as others have suggested, a tomb so new that it had not been finished by the addition of loculi before an initial use.”
    Both are suggestions, not supported by any evidence. The second one, the “unfinished” suggestion, is even odd; is there any other “unfinished” tomb in Israel? I would like to have the location, and I promise to travel there as soon as possible.
    My point is, again: we have two sources for the Sanhedrin tomb; A. the Mishna that describes it and its use. B. the tomb beneath the Holy Sepulcher rotonda. Both sources match each other. We might add the fact that no other tomb has been found, as much as I know, that correspond to the spesific structure and use of the tomb described in Mishna 6:5-6.
    As for Jesus’ crusifixion authority: the formal and actual authority to execute was Roman – by all means. Just ask your self: why would the Romans care for Jesus’ burial? The Jewish court representative (Joseph) aksed Pilate’s permission to bury the body – this is probably how Pilate understood Joseph’s request. It was Friday and Passover eve, and thousands of Jewish pilgrims flooded the city; he was responsible for civil order, and the last thing he needed was religious riots. Thus he granted the permission. As for the Jewish view, to be specific: the Sanhedrin view; Jewish law was to be applied to Jesus, alive and dead. It was also a great opportunity for the Sanhedrin to demonstrate its inner authority and its victory over what it considered a severe threat. They couldn’t miss it.

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