While there is overwhelming support for the claim that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, but there is hardly any consensus about the location of this tomb.
The exact location of the tomb of Jesus is one of the greatest mysteries. We only know from the Gospel of John (19:41) that his tomb is near the place of his crucifixion i.e. Golgotha. There is no mention of its location in any of the other three Gospels. (1)
There was a rabbinical ban that “carcasses, graves, and tanneries may not remain within a space of fifty cubits [i.e., approximately 25 meters] from the town” (m. Bava Bathra 2:9). (2)
The two principal contenders for the final resting place of Jesus have been the Garden Tomb which is just outside the Holy City and the other is the tomb located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built by Emperor Constantine at the behest of his mother Helena and is located inside the walls of the Holy City.
Was The Burial Of Jesus In The Church Of The Holy Sepulcher?
The site of the Holy Sepulcher Church was a limestone quarry during the beginning of the seventh or eighth century when the area was under the late Judean monarchy. The area was famed for its high quality limestone. To the south-east of this location lay the city, which at a later date expanded northward. (3)
We will never know for certain that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was indeed built over The tomb of Jesus. But this spot seems to be a likely candidate (See fig. 11). Certain factors seem to point to the authenticity of this claim. For one the site is a turn-of-the-century cemetery. For another in spite of being buried for almost 300 years by Hadrian’s “enclosure fill” the spot was remembered as the burial site of Jesus by the Christian community that continued to live there without being affected by dispersions elsewhere. Besides this the succession of Jerusalem bishops was never interrupted. (4)
Does The Holy Sepulcher Enclose Golgotha The Hillock Atop Which Jesus Was Crucified?
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is said to enclose Golgotha the hillock atop which Jesus is said to have been crucified. However there is one factor that must be considered about Golgotha:
The name Golgotha has not been recorded in antiquity either in Jewish or non-Jewish sources.
Besides this the name is also not found in any list of geographical names of places in and around Jerusalem. (5)
The best piece of evidence that the tomb of Jesus was in this area is the fact that other first-century tombs are still preserved inside the church. Called the “Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea,” these burial shafts (kokhim) are clearly from the time of Christ’s death and thus attest to some kind of burial ground in the area. Combined with the evidence from tradition, this church is probably the location of the Christ’s death and burial.
However in view of the many tombs of the kokh type found in the vicinity of the church it would appear that the place was a large burial ground. Besides, this site is just outside the city wall some 500 feet to the south and 350 feet to the east. This is in conformity with what the Gospels tell us: that is the burial tomb of Jesus was “near the city” (John 19:20). Evidence of the condition of the site during the first century shows that the place was a garden at that time confirming that the burial tomb was in a garden (John 19:41). (6)
Although it cannot be said with certainty that this is the burial spot of Jesus, it is a serious contender for that distinction.
Was The Tomb In The Holy Sepulcher A Temporary One?
Even if the tomb enclosed within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not the permanent tomb of Jesus there are claims that it could be the borrowed tomb used to bury Jesus. The following explains why:
Amos Kloner suggests that the tomb of Jesus was a temporary one. He bases his conclusion on burial practices during the “Second Temple period and later”. Semkahot 13.5 endorses the primary and secondary burials practiced during that period: “Whosoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave”. Kloner explains that a “borrowed or temporary cave” was used only temporarily and that the act of borrowing it does not give the borrower ownership rights. He believes that the tomb in which Jesus was interred was a temporary one. (7)
However Kloner’s suggestion regarding temporary tombs implies that there were temporary tombs and permanent tombs and that Jews buried their dead in temporary tombs and later moved the bones to a permanent one. There are two issues with this suggestion: one that we do not know who owned the temporary tombs and that two this suggestion is in contravention of “Jewish law so clearly stated in Semakhot 13:7”. While private tombs took care of “familial and public emotions” and prevented any “leak” of the “corpse’s defilement out of the tomb”, Kloner’s suggestion defeats both these requirements. (8)
Was The Burial Of Jesus A Typical Temporary Burial Practiced During That Period?
Another implication of Kloner’s argument is that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was a temporary one. Kloner continues to say that the burial of Jesus detailed in the New Testament is a typical example of temporary burials practiced during that period. He cites Semakhot 13:5 in support of his claim. The overall message it would appear is that Jesus was buried in a temporary tomb that belonged to the Sanhedrin. (9)
But then the question arises: why would someone want to bury their deceased in a temporary tomb and then after a year move the bones to a private tomb? This seems even more unlikely when one considers the fact that there were familial tombs that served both the preliminary and secondary burials. The fact that there are so many tombs with burial shelves and slots for ossuaries makes this claim even more unlikely. (10)
However Kloner explains that the only tombs that were exempt from the Semakhot regulations were the Sanhedrin tombs as they were temporary. And being temporary they were small in comparison to familial tombs. Authorities on tombs of the Second Temple period agree that the tomb of Jesus must have been small. Kloner supports this conclusion stating that the tomb of Jesus was so small that “Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary could apparently see the body from outside”(Mark 15:47; see also John 20:1). (11)
An even more important piece of evidence that the tomb of Jesus enclosed within the Holy Sepulcher Church was borrowed, small and belonged to the Sanhedrin, is the fact that it is connected to another tomb purportedly belonging to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. It must be remembered that the Mishna forbids familial tombs from being linked or connected with other tombs. The only exception could have probably been the Sanhedrin tombs that were likely connected to allow “allow people to take care of bodies and bones, and then move them from one tomb to the other without being exposed to sunlight and to the danger of a defilement “leak”. This being the case the tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher could at most only be the temporary burial place of Jesus. The permanent burial tomb, if there is one, is elsewhere. (12)
Although it is popularly believed that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the spot where Jesus was buried, not everyone agrees. The shrine inside the church supposed to mark the “traditional burial site” is not of the first century. In fact it is said to belong to the beginning of the early 19th century. The shrine itself is covered with a slab which is not of the local bedrock. Only the bench on the right side of the shrine is thought to be original. Besides, no relationship has been shown between “the rock, the foundations and the aedicule as they exist today and the original burial cave”. In fact a burial cave a few yards away is the only indication that the spot where the shrine now stands may have once been a burial site. (13)
However scholars who contend that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the site of the burial of Jesus state that the site qualifies on the counts that it was just outside the old city and that it was in a garden. Besides if tradition had not shown that this was the site in 325 AD how would anyone have known. Based on what has been said it must be accepted that this site is a serious contender for the distinction of being the burial site of Jesus. (14)
(1) Holzapfel, Richard Neitzel., Chadwick, Jeffrey R., Judd Jr., Frank F., & Wayment, Thomas A.. (2008). Jesus and the Ossuaries: First-Century Jewish Burial Practices and the Lost Tomb of Jesus. Retrieved 2011, from http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/%E2%80%9Cbehold-lamb-god%E2%80%9D-easter-celebration/12-jesus-and-ossuaries-first-century-jewish-burial-pra.
(2) Gibson, Shimon. (2009) The Final Days of Jesus, The Archaeological Evidence, HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York.
(3) Bahat, Dan. (n.d.). Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/easter-06.asp
(4) Bahat, Dan. (n.d.). Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus? Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/easter-06.asp
(5) Miller, Kathleen E., Murphy Sara., Feldman, Steven.& Ladre, Susan. (2007). The Burial of Jesus. Biblical Archaeology Society . Washington, DC. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/9670347/The-Burial-of-Jesus
(6) Miller, Kathleen E., Murphy Sara., Feldman, Steven.& Ladre, Susan. (2007). The Burial of Jesus. Biblical Archaeology Society . Washington, DC. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/9670347/The-Burial-of-Jesus
(7) Kenyan, Eldad & Illan, Bar. (2010). Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/tombs358017.shtml
(8) Kenyan, Eldad & Illan, Bar. (2010). Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/tombs358017.shtml
(9) Kenyan, Eldad.& Illan, Bar. (2010). Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/tombs358017.shtml
(10) Kenyan, Eldad.& Illan, Bar. (2010). Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/tombs358017.shtml
(11) Kenyan, Eldad.& Illan, Bar. (2010). Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/tombs358017.shtml
(12) Kenyan, Eldad.& Illan, Bar. (2010). Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/tombs358017.shtml
(13) Miller, Kathleen E., Murphy, Sara., Feldman, Steven & Laden, Susan. (2007). The Burial of Jesus. Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington, DC.
(14) Miller, Kathleen E., Murphy, Sara., Feldman, Steven & Laden, Susan. (2007). The Burial of Jesus. Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington, DC.
(Fig 1) First-Century Tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher