What did Tombs Look like at the Time of Jesus?


At the time of Jesus, there were two popular modes of burial.

The method more popular with the poorer classes, which of course in those days meant most people (and some groups such as the Qumran community) was burial on the ground. It involved burying the body of the deceased (sometimes placed in a wooden coffin) in a trench grave, not unlike modern day grave cuts. After the pit was filled in, the grave was marked either by erecting a headstone or a pile of rocks at one or both ends, or simply pouring a mixture of lime/chalk and water over the backfill, so that people would recognize the presence of a grave and avoid accidentally passing through it and becoming ritually impure as a result.

Archaeologists have not found many examples of this type of burial given the inconspicuous and highly flimsy nature of this type of grave; in other words, it’s easy to miss and more susceptible to destruction and decomposition. Other similar field burials are cist graves (where you dig a pit and line it with things like wood planks or stone as walling) and shaft graves (five-to seven-meter trenches - more deeper than a cist grave - with a niche at the bottom for the body or the coffin to be placed in).

The cemetery at Qumran. As you might see, not really much of a sight - just piles of rocks serving as grave markers. At the time of Jesus, many people (those who could not afford to commission or buy a ‘cave’-type tomb) would have been buried like this. One of the things that makes the Qumran burials so striking (the graves here show a number of differences from graves in other areas) is that skeletal analysis indicates the people buried in there to be from relatively high social classes: did these men deliberately choose to be buried like the common poor – ‘six feet under’ on the ground? (There were many natural caves around Qumran, but none are used for burial. Note that these graves were actually carefully arranged - these weren’t just rudimentary, crude pits used for hasty burials.)

Since Jesus wasn’t really from a wealthy family, had He lived a normal sort of life there’s a chance that He would have been buried in this sort of earthen grave - if His family did not already own a sort of family tomb. In fact, had Joseph of Arimathea not stepped in, it would have been likely that He would have still been buried ‘six feet under’ after His crucifixion. But since Jesus died in the late afternoon, the lack of time before Sabbath began (the Jewish day began at sundown) meant that there was not enough time to even dig a pit grave for Him. (It is true that in some cases crucifixion victims were denied burial, but we know from sources like Josephus that in Palestine those who died by crucifixion are allowed to be buried, if because of the stipulation on Deuteronomy 21 that condemned men who were stoned to death and whose bodies are hung on a tree must be taken down and buried on the same day - by the time of Jesus this passage was interpreted to include crucifixion victims, those who were hung on a ‘tree’ to die.)


The land looks very arid. I imagine dead bodies wouldn’t rot in that environment, more likely they would just dry out or mummify. That’s probably why the graves were so shallow.


The other available option was a burial cave, either natural or man-made (completely man-made burial complexes were more rare and costly than natural caverns*), which were family affairs, unlike the individual trench graves: the bones of generations upon generations could all be interred in a single cave. We are more familiar with burial caves because the two tombs described in the gospels - that of Lazarus and that of Joseph of Arimathea/Jesus - were apparently of this type.

  • It can take at least fifty days to hew out a burial cave: more time, more money needed. But the simplest trench grave can take just a short while to dig, and you don’t need a lot of people to dig it. All in all, it’s less costly (and a proper funeral was one of the more expensive family events), that’s why most people buried their dead that way.

The basic design of these rock-cut tombs consists of a square or rectangular room - just barely tall enough for a person to be able to stand upright - with benches on three sides of the chamber, leaving a pit in the middle, and a low, narrow doorway which could be closed with a blocking stone (either disc-shaped or square, plug-shaped; more on this later) or simply walled over with mud brick and stones. Three of the four walls of the burial cave (the entrance wall excepted) would have one to three narrow shafts or niches called loculus (pl. loculi) or kokh (pl. kokhim) running perpendicularly back from the chamber wall on it. These niches in turn could also be walled up or sealed by blocking stones. Slightly later, in some Jerusalem tombs you see another type of shelf: the arcosolia, which has a bench-like aperture (known as an arcosolium) with an arched ceiling hewn into the length of the wall. Some tombs could be more elaborate: for instance, the more elaborate ones might have multiple chambers rather than just one, be decorated with reliefs or have frescoes inside, or even have a sort of outer courtyard (a ‘mourning place’).

Single-chamber, ‘niche-less’ tomb from Herodian period, located at Gilo, East Jerusalem, shown with (square) blocking stone, which was ‘plugged’ into the entrance

Kokhim atop the benches. Each of these niches would have originally been sealed by stone slabs.

An arcosolium


So the dead were just wrapped in burial cloths and left to mummify in the niches? I assume people could come and visit their dead?


Originally, during the 1st century BC, the custom was for the dead to be laid in a coffin (either of wood or lead) first before it was put inside the kokh. By the time of Jesus, however, the coffin was ditched: instead, the body was simply laid coffinless on a bench or on a kokh or an arcosolium inside the tomb and the family waited for the flesh to rot (usually within a single year). After the flesh had decomposed, relatives reentered the tomb and the bones were gathered together and either placed on a stone ossuary (bone box) or neatly arranged on a pile, a custom known as secondary burial.

Drawing of a coffin found in Ein Gedi (after Rachel Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period, p. 491).

Ossuaries. Some ossuaries are decorated with carvings while others are really just plain boxes. Ossuaries often have the names of the people whose bones were laid inside the box inscribed on them.

Security measures, both practical and symbolic were usually undertaken to prevent grave robbers looting coffins (and later, ossuaries) and the tomb as a whole: they were tied with ropes or strings (some ossuaries even had holes for the rope or string to pass through) or held with iron rivets or had locks (either real ones or symbolic ones drawn onto the coffin or box), and anti-robbery warnings / curses were sometimes written on the coffins/boxes or on the walls of the tomb. Some examples:

“Everything that a man will find to his profit in this ossuary is an offering (korban)”
“Of Rufus; whoever / moves it / breaks his vow”
“Marieame (wife) of Mathias; whoever moves these bones away, may blindness strike him”
“Anyone who shall open this burial whoever shall die of an evil end”
“Anyone who changes this lady’s place, He who promised to resurrect the dead will Himself judge (him)”


No, they were not supposed to be mummified. The corpses were supposed to rot and leave only the bones behind. (Jerusalem is a humid area; there at least the dead body will decompose soon enough. In other areas like Jericho - where conditions are a bit more dry - it might take longer.) That’s why the Jews didn’t really embalm the dead. Spices were really only used on a funeral to mask the smell. In fact, it would seem that in some cases, spices were used to speed up decomposition (unlike the Egyptians who used spices to preserve the dead).

Technically, AFAIK the relatives would only go inside the tomb when someone is to be buried there (obviously), on the third day after the burial (to anoint the body with spices or ointments) and then around a year after the burial, when they would perform the ritual of secondary burial (aka ossilegium ‘bone-gathering’). And, of course, that was only done by people who owned burial caves - usually the wealthy. Secondary burial was kind of out of the question for everyone else (who would have buried their dead on the ground, as mentioned earlier).


Interesting. so the third day was the traditional day to annoint the body, not just in the case of Jesus? I thought the third day was more symbolic

I assume whole families would be buried in some of those tombs, since they had so many openings. After the bones were buried for the second burial, were they still kept in the same tombs?


The soil may have acted to dry out the human body, but bodies in above-ground tombs would have decomposed, as such could not be made airtight.

That was why ossuaries (cases the size of large shoeboxes, but made of stone) were used. Seven years after the death, the body now reduced to bones would be placed in one of those. They can be seen to this day all over Israel. In time, an entire family would occupy the tomb.



Sorry, I think I misstated that a bit. The Mishnah (Semachot 8.1) mentions that there was a custom to watch the tomb until the third day after death just in case someone was buried prematurely. Of course, the Mishnah is a late source (2nd-3rd century), so one has to take its descriptions with a grain of salt, but assuming that a similar practice was already performed during the time of Jesus the women would have probably done something like this.

I assume whole families would be buried in some of those tombs, since they had so many openings. After the bones were buried for the second burial, were they still kept in the same tombs?

Yes, they are. These caves were really family tombs. The Jews valued family burials - where every generation of the family would be buried and gathered together - since the Old Testament period. However, around this time, individual burials were gaining hold (one theory is that it is related to the rise in the belief of the resurrection of the dead); that’s the reason for the whole kokh / coffin / ossuary business. Cave tombs have an advantage in that they both allow for individual and family burials. (For folks who were buried on the ground (who obviously couldn’t enjoy the ‘all the family buried together’ thing literally), being buried by one’s own family - it was apparently customary and required that relatives be the ones who carry out the funeral - was apparently enough.)

That’s why Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was not just for himself personally - that was supposed to be for his family’s.


Sorry, I think I misstated that a bit. The Mishnah (Semachot 8.1) mentions that there was a custom to watch the tomb until the third day after death just in case someone was buried prematurely. Of course, the Mishnah is a late source (2nd-3rd century), so one has to take its descriptions with a grain of salt, but assuming that a similar practice was already performed during the time of Jesus the women would have probably done something like this.

I assume whole families would be buried in some of those tombs, since they had so many openings. After the bones were buried for the second burial, were they still kept in the same tombs?

Yes, they are. These caves were really family tombs. The Jews valued family burials - where every generation of the family would be buried and gathered together - since the Old Testament period. However, around this time, individual burials were gaining hold (one theory is that it is related to the rise in the belief of the resurrection of the dead); that’s the reason for the whole kokh / coffin / ossuary business. Cave tombs have an advantage in that they both allow for individual and family burials. (For folks who were buried on the ground who obviously couldn’t enjoy the ‘all the family buried together’ thing literally, being buried by one’s own family - it was pretty much a requirement and customary that relatives be the ones who carry out the funeral - was apparently enough.)

That’s why Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was not just for himself personally; that was supposed to be for his family’s. And note: Jesus was not buried by a family member - Joseph was a total stranger. So Jesus didn’t even pass the minimum requirement that a relative had to bury you or at least organize your funeral. (In fact, given the lack of enough time, Jesus didn’t even really have a proper funeral. His was a hasty burial.)


Last one for now: about the blocking stone.

In the gospels the stone that blocked Jesus’ tomb is said to be rolled. True enough, we have a few tombs in Jerusalem that feature disc-shaped blocking stones, which are literally rolled over the entrance. But these are actually in the minority (so far, we have only found four Second Temple period tombs in Jerusalem that have this type of blocking stone, all of them belonging to the wealthiest - even royal - families*). Most other cave-type tombs in the Holy Land actually have these squarish, cork-shaped stones that were ‘plugged’ over the entrance. Going by the numbers, cork-shaped plugging stones were more common than the disc-shaped ones. (After all, they’re apparently easier to manufacture: the disc-shaped ones were very big, around 4 feet in diameter. By contrast, these plug-type stones are smaller - the entrances for these tombs were, for security reasons, usually only just big for a single person to crawl inside through.) By the 2nd century onwards, however, disc-shaped blocking stones - slightly smaller than the 1st century ones - became more and more commonplace.

  • The so-called Garden Tomb, while considered by some Christians (mainly Protestants) to be the tomb of Jesus, is not one of these four. Many archaeologists actually think that the Garden Tomb is too early - 8th-7th century BC - to be Jesus’ burial place.

The Tomb of Herod’s Family, one of only four tombs in Jerusalem from the Second Temple period that have a disc-shaped blocking stone

1st century tomb in Emmaus-Nicopolis with a square plug-type blocking stone

Some scholars therefore think: what if the blocking stone Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was actually of the more common ‘cork’ type rather than the rarer disc type we so commonly imagine today? It’s certainly a possibility. It still wouldn’t contradict the gospels’ mention of the stone being rolled since you could still ‘roll’ a square stone out, after a fashion. (In fact, it was argued that John’s gospel doesn’t so much speak of the stone being rolled away, but “removed” or “taken out.”)

A Rolling Stone That Was Hard to Roll

How Was Jesus’ Tomb Sealed?


Thanks for posting all of this information, and for explaining it and sharing it with us here, Patrick. It is really fascinating! I really enjoyed looking at the photos, too. :slight_smile:


This is what we can infer from the gospels about Jesus’ tomb:

  • It was new (so Matthew and John; Luke and John add “where no one had ever lain” / “where no one had yet been laid”)
  • It was on a garden in the area where Jesus was crucified (John)
  • It was hewn out of the rock (synoptics)
  • It has a blocking stone that is said to be ‘rolled’ (so synoptics) or ‘taken out’ (so John). (Mark mentions that the stone was “very great;” does it mean ‘great’ in size - i.e. large - or ‘great’ in weight - i.e. heavy - or both?)
  • It has a small, low entrance (Luke 23:12 and John 20:5,11 speak of those who looked inside stooping to do so; cf. Gospel of Peter 13.55)

These details would generally fit with the burial caves we’ve found so far in the Holy Land. In addition, the mention in Mark of the young man in white sitting “at the right” and of the two angels in John sitting “one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been lying” would imply that Jesus’ body was not placed inside a kokh / loculus but either laid on the bench or on an arcosolium. We can infer from examples we have that the the first stage in the construction of a burial cave is to hew out a single chamber with the benches arranged along the three sides, leaving a pit in the middle. Only after this was done were the niches (kokhim) or other chambers added into the structure.

Bench with round blocking stone

Bench with square blocking stone



Speaking of ossuaries:

In the past, archaeologists found these ossuaries on places such as the Mount of Olives that had these crosses drawn or etched on them. Some got very excited at this find: could it be that the persons interred in these boxes were Christians? (Sure enough, many of these boxes had familiar names like ‘Eleazar’ (= Lazarus), ‘Mary’, ‘Sim(e)on’ or even Yeshua inscribed on them.*) But, it eventually turned out that that wasn’t necessarily the case. These ‘crosses’ were in reality not really Christian symbols but just mundane markers.

I mentioned earlier that some ossuaries were fitted with security devices such as ropes or strings, which were passed through holes drilled on the box. Very often, the boxes were marked with a cross or an x so that people would know where to pass the rope through. So, yeah, not really a Christian symbol but more like ‘insert here’-type of signs.

Some ossuaries from Jerusalem and Jericho have direction marks, namely lines incised or drawn with charcoal, on the rim and lid to indicate the position of holes. These pairs of holes drilled through the rim and lid of an ossuary chest with strings, rivets, or ropes, and prevented its opening. These direction marks in the shape of crosses, which appeared on Jerusalem ossuaries, were once erroneously thought to be an early record of Christianity …] . An ossuary lid with two notches on the handle probably suggests that the lid had originally been fastened by ropes …] . Three ossuaries from Jerusalem have iron or lead rivets to attach the chest to the lid: one ossuary from a double-chambered arcosolium tomb on the south slope of Talbiyeh …] has iron rivets through the outer edge of lid and the corresponding narrow side of chest. This ossuary also has the Aramaic inscription “Dostas, our father, and not to be opened” …], which emphasized the determination not to have the ossuary opened. Another ossuary …] has incised marks and unfinished and unused holes in its upper, outer corners; an iron rivet is secured through rim of the chest and narrow outer edge of the lid. Fragments of lead rivets, which fastened the lid to the rim of the chest, appear in an ossuary from Arnona …].
Three ossuaries (nos. II, XV, XXII) from Jericho tomb H (the ‘Goliath’ family tomb) had drilled holes with incised lines or crosses as direction marks on the rim and lid, apparently to indicate the place for the holes …]. Ossuary II …] has six holes in the lid corresponding to six holes in the ossuary chest (two in each long side, one in each short side); ossuary XV …] has double drilled holes on the front, sides, and back and double holes on all four sides of the lid. Small ossuary XXII …] has four holes in each side of the lid and one hole in each side of the ossuary …] . The sealing of these ossuaries was done with rope, iron, or lead rivets that have since disintegrated. The Jericho examples support the contention that the marks served to indicate the position of the lids on the ossuaries, since on or next to the marks were the holes, which served for fastening the lid to the ossuary with ropes or metal pieces.

  • Rachel Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period, pp. 491-492 (Citations omitted)
  • In fact, one ossuary found in the Mount of Olives in 1953 had what seemed to be the name ‘Simon bar-Yonah’ in it. Some people of course took it to mean that the name referred to St. Peter, a suggestion somewhat encouraged by the original excavator Fr. Bellarmino Bagatti, who was somewhat over-enthusiastic to find evidence of early Christianity in the Holy Land: he was one of the people who interpreted the ‘crosses’ on the Mount of Olives ossuaries to be symbols of Christianity. (In fact, this ossuary is nowadays often cited by anti-Catholics as ‘proof’ that Peter never came to Rome: they claim that the name mean that the ossuary was his. Some of you may have heard of this claim.)

But, it eventually turned out that the inscription may not really read ‘bar-Yonah’ after all. When the inscription was finally published in 1958, the scholar who published it, J.T. Milik, arrived at a more modest conclusion: ‘bar-Yonah’ is still possible, he argued, but the last letters of the actual inscription is too obscure for there to be any real certainty. (One of the difficulties with the inscription is that it was simply drawn on the box with a piece of charcoal rather than engraved.) In fact, one more recent suggestion is that the name is actually “Simon bar-Zillai.” In addition, it seems that the ossuary itself dates from the early 1st century, which would make it even more unlikely that it was St. Peter’s.

Simon bar-what?

A few more links:

“Clarifying” the Dominus Flevit Tomb: What’s wrong with this picture?
“Clarifying” the Dominus Flevit tomb part 2: Is this the final resting place of Simon Peter?
“Clarifying” the Dominus Flevit tomb part 3: The setting of the inscription.
The Remembered Peter: In Ancient Reception and Modern Debate (pp. 145-148)


Burial customs.

As mentioned, it was the family’s responsibility to bury their dead, or at least, to hold and finance the funeral. (Funerals, as mentioned, tended to be one of the more expensive events a family could ever hold.) There was a long tradition among Jews in Palestine of promptly burying the dead. (AFAIK Jews today still work under this principle.) Most funerals took place as soon as possible after death, almost always on the same day, in fact. The funeral was conducted without delay that very often, the body had been interred by sunset on the day of death. (This is the reason why premature burial can sometimes be a problem. ;))

As soon as death occurred, preparations began: the eyes were closed, the corpse was washed and perfumed, then bound in strips of cloth (around the jaw to keep it closed, and the hands and the feet) and/or wrapped with shrouds. This was usually done at home (since inside the tomb it would be dark and almost impossible to work), though in some occasions, the preparations seem to have been performed on the tomb’s courtyard (if there was one). All the while, the family would rend their clothes as a sign of mourning and lamps or candles were placed on the body’s head and feet out of respect for the dead. All the while, keeners (professional mourners) and pipers would wail loudly and play music. (Funerals in that part of the world were really kind of loud, noisy events.)

The now-prepared corpse was then placed on a bier or mattress and carried out of town in a procession to the grave where it would be buried: the family would be there, along with the keeners and the music players, and others in the community. The Mishnah stipulates that tombs are to be at least fifty cubits (approx. 75 feet) outside of a town or city. This is one of the things where archaeology shows that at least in this regard, the Mishnah does seem to accurately reflect earlier practice: 1st-century tombs found in the Holy Land were all beyond this fifty-cubit limit, or were originally.

It’s likely that the body was only placed on a coffin (if it was placed on a coffin) when it had arrived at the grave site, though it’s also likely that it was already placed on the coffin while being carried to the tomb. (In some tombs, archaeologists have found remains of mattresses buried with the person inside the coffin. It’s likely that that was the bier used for their funeral, but then again, that could be their actual mattresses from life, which was buried with the dead because they had died on them and therefore, ritually contaminated it.) Eulogies might be spoken while the dead was being buried.

It was common for the dead to be interred with grave goods (placed inside the coffin or the tomb): everyday objects and personal possessions like jewelry, cooking pots, bowls, or perfume jars. (In most period tombs found in Jericho, the dead were buried with a single bead - a sort of stand-in for bead necklaces?) In other cultures, the dead was buried with grave goods because it is thought that the soul would need them in the afterlife, but we don’t know whether the Jews had a similar idea. For all we know, maybe for the Jews utensils was interred with the body not so much for the benefit of the dead, but for the benefit of the onlookers: the scene aroused their grief.

In fact, in some tombs, smashed or broken objects were interred with the dead: were these objects broken on purpose because they were ritually contaminated or as a sign of grief? Or were these objects chosen simply for say, economic reasons (why waste a perfectly good and usable piece of pottery when you could just bury a broken one with the dead instead) or as a sort of anti-theft precaution (to render them unusable for potential robbers)?

After the body was buried, expressions of condolence were continued as the procession made its way back to the family home. The next of kin purified the house and everything in it. Then (as per the Mishnah) the family watched the tomb for the next three days just in case the person buried was still alive. Further commemorative rites were performed later.


First of all, it is clear that he was buried in a cave. The Gospel speaks of a stone being rolled away from the mouth of the tomb. This refers to a large, circular rolling stone that blocked the mouth of burial caves.

To clear up this matter further, we need simply to look to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem. Constantine’s original basilica was noted for chiseling away the rock from around the tomb, essentially isolating it so that a basilica could be built around it. The actual cave itself was chiseled down to bedrock by the Persians when they destroyed the church. So that clears up the cave matter. As for the precise style of the tomb, another tomb survives within the church, immediately behind Christ’s. Tradition associates this as being that of Joseph of Aramethia. The tomb is a first-century era one built in the “kokhim” complex. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Jesus’s tomb wasn’t identical, especially if they were built by the same person.


No contest here; I’ll refer you to post #12.

It’s true that there is a kokhim (niche) type tomb found near the burial cave claimed to be that of Jesus (the one now enshrined within the Aedicula or the chapel inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) from roughly the same time period, but I think the tradition linking it with Joseph of A. is really conjectural*. It doesn’t necessarily have to be his (either made by him or where he was buried) just because it was located in proximity to his tomb.


(I already mentioned it in post #12, but we can be certain Jesus body wasn’t laid inside a kokh/loculus because Mark’s gospel speaks of the young man in white sitting “at the right (side)” and John mentions two angels sitting “one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been lying,” which obviously precludes a shelf. Rather the corpse was placed either on the stone bench that lined the three sides of the burial chamber or on an arcosolium.)

  • During Herod Agrippa’s reign (AD 41-44), Golgotha and the garden where Jesus’ tomb and the kokhim tomb were located became part of the city when he built a third wall to protect Jerusalem’s northern side. (This explains why the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is within the city walls today.) As mentioned earlier, burials can only take place outside a city or a town (the Mishnah specifies a minimum of fifty cubits’ - seventy-five feet - distance from settlements for tombs), because contact with dead bodies and tombs will make you ritually impure. So when Agrippa built the wall, any tomb in areas that became part of the city proper would have been emptied, and tombs already cut would no longer have been used. The fact that the two tombs exist in the site of the modern Church of the Holy Sepulchre shows that this area was once outside the city walls.


In the aedicule, the bench where his body lay is slightly elevated, just about tall enough to kneel before. This makes it likely that it was an arcosolium.

It should be noted that tombs with both kokhim and arcosolia are quite common.

As for the Holy Sepulcher, despite the Anglican and Protestant traditions, it’s remarkably obvious who the winner is. Golgotha would, back then, have been a rocky outcropping on a hill rising immediately over the main road to Jaffa. This would have made it a prime spot for crucifixions to take place, as all who entered Jerusalem or departed it would have to pass by it. It is not likely that Jesus and the two thieves were the first men crucified on Golgotha, nor is it likely that they were the last.

As for other evidence, extensive quarrying has been found at the site. It is from an earlier period, and it would have made sense to turn a quarry into a graveyard as most of the chiseling would already have been done for you. The biggest testament we have though is simply tradition. The church has been identified as such from the earliest days of Christianity.


There’s a rather nice article on the traditional site by archaeologist Joan Taylor. biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/11/Golgotha-A-Reconsideration-of-the-Evidence-for-the-Sites-of-Jesuse28099-Crucifixion-and-Burial.aspx

She was originally skeptical of the traditional site (her original skepticism is expressed in the book Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins), but by the time she wrote this article she had changed her mind and argued that yes, the traditional site - or the tomb of Jesus at least - does have a high claim of authenticity. She and a few other scholars however dispute that the rocky outcrop (the ‘Rock of Calvary’) would have been the exact spot where the crosses stood. The main reason is because this column of rock in its present shape is too narrow to permit three crosses, and too steep for three men to climb up and be crucified on top of it. (This is of course assuming that it was already in this state during the time of Jesus. We can’t exclude the possibility that this outcrop was cut into shape later.)

Instead, they look to some other spot within the same general area, but they don’t agree on the specific location. Taylor in the article proposes that Jesus and the two men were crucified somewhere further down south, closer to the city walls (and thus beyond the confines of the church), while another archaeologist, Shimon Gibson, instead proposes that the actual spot where Jesus’ cross stood was actually enshrined on the apse of the western end of the basilica or the Martyrium. Both agree that later generations of Christians (4th century and afterwards) had only forgotten this exact spot (for one, because it was either buried beneath the basilica or on the streets) and confused the next prominent landmark in the area - the finger of rock just outside the basilica - to be the site of the crucifixion itself.*

In Shimon Gibson’s proposal, the spot where Jesus was crucified would have actually been inside the church, where the apse of the basilica was rather than on the Rock of Calvary itself.

Joan Taylor thinks meanwhile that the actual spot was further down south, beyond the basilica’s confines. (Somewhere inside that area circled in red.)

  • Taylor already mentions this in the article, but the earliest Christian traditions actually don’t speak of a ‘Mount Calvary’ or even imply that Golgotha was a sort of hill or an outcrop of rock. Rather, the impression you get is that ‘Golgotha’ was used to refer to the general area which contains the spot where Jesus was crucified: the gospels for instance simply describe Golgotha as a topos, a ‘place’ or ‘region’. St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), himself a native of Palestine, even explicitly said: “There is nothing to be seen on the place resembling this name; for it is not situated upon a height that it should be called (the place) of a skull, answering to the place of the head in the human body.”

It was only from the 6th century that we first begin to find a reference to ‘Mount Calvary’ and only from the 9th century afterwards that such references become more common; before that, the rocky finger was not considered to be “Golgotha” itself but simply “the rock of the cross” (Egeria, Itinerarium 24.7; 25.9, 11; 27.3, 6; 30.1, 2; 31.4; 35.2; 36.4.5; 37.1.4, 5, 8; 39.2; St. Jerome, Letter 58 To Paulinus, 3) - which might as well refer simply to the cross placed on top of it by Constantine. In fact, the Martyrium - the basilica proper - was understood to be built “on Golgotha.” The idea of a ‘Mount Calvary’ caught on because it makes for nicer symbolism: y’know, Isaac climbing Mount Moriah to be sacrificed by Abraham and all that.



I had always understood that it was not called Calvary because it was a height corresponding to a human head (although J’lem is a place of heights, and the shame-conscious Romans would certainly have used such a place for execution); but rather, because it was a place of death and therefore skulls, or because of the tradition of Adam’s tomb (and therefore “skull”) being there. (To this day, an underground space in the HS Basilica is said to have been once believed as the tomb of Adam.)


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