This post concludes a series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.
This 100,000 year history of human burial converges on a single point and a single day: a Friday in Jerusalem around the year 30 AD. Jesus of Nazareth dies on the cross, and his body is taken down at the request of a wealthy man from Arimathea named Joseph. The sun is setting and the sabbath is about to begin, when no burial will be allowed. Joseph must get the body of Jesus in a tomb or it will not be properly buried within 24 hours after death, as required by Jewish law.
Since there was no time to prepare a grave, Joseph had the body laid in a rock-cut tomb which he had commissioned for his own family, but had not used. We know this is the case because Matthew tells us it was a “new” tomb. It’s rather extraordinary that a man would lay a non-family member in a new tomb made for his family, and explains the reverence we still have for Joseph. (Tradition holds that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on the location of the tomb, but the church was leveled by Muslims in the 11th century, so very little of the original site remains.)
The specification of a “new” tomb would have said something different to the reader of Jesus’s time than it may to us. We consider “new” to be wonderful thing. But, as we’ve seen throughout these posts, being “gathered to your ancestors” was very important for the Jews. People were laid amidst their loved ones and relatives. There was a sense of connection to that which came before.
This was denied to Jesus. The tomb he was in was the tomb of a relative stranger. It had never been used, and thus there were no other remains to be “gathered to.” There were no grave goods with him: just a single winding sheet. He was unwashed, unannointed. This would have struck Jews of the time as a remarkably sad way to be laid to rest. He was alone in a strange place disconnected from his people: it’s a very forlorn image of despair even in death.
If Jesus had not been raised, perhaps he would have been moved to simple trench-cut tomb after the women finished cleaning and anointing his body. Or perhaps he would have laid on a bench in that rock cut tomb until a new member of Joseph’s family died. At the point, the stone would have been rolled away and another body interred. At some later date, after the flesh had decayed, his bones would have probably been gathered into an ossuary to make room for another body.
But something else happened. The women were unable to perform their ablutions on the man they called Lord. Of all the burials and customs we’ve seen and discussed, from es-Skhul to the ossuary of Caiaphas, this one ended like no other.
Humans had lost, and grieved, and buried their dead with honor and respect for almost 100,000 years, with no hope of a life beyond the grave. The man Joseph laid in that new tomb would be the first born among all the dead.
Death itself was, finally, conquered.
Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land )Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
Negev, Avraham, Ed. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd Edition (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).