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Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher

Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher

Jesus' permanent burial tomb cannot be in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We must search somewhere else.

See Also:
Jewish Burials
Talpiot Dethroned
The Talpiot Tomb: What are the Odds?
Inside the Numbers of the Talpiot Tomb

By Eldad Keynan
Bar Ilan
November 2010

Jesus' burial has, and still does, occupy much scholarly attention. For the vast majority of scholars and Christians, Jesus' tomb is in the traditional location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Traditional tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

In my recent article on Bible and Interpretation (, I attempted to demonstrate that the tomb beneath the Holy Sepulcher rotunda was the tomb in which Jesus' body would have been placed immediately after his execution. I further indicated the differences between public trench graves, privately owned tombs, and the Sanhedrin tomb. Yet, there are still questions that need to be addressed.

Amos Kloner argues, "Jerusalem tombs in this period were typically family tombs carved into the limestone caves found throughout the region. The entrances to the most common type of burial caves were generally rectangular (nearly square in shape) and low."1 Kloner maintains that "Two kinds of recesses were carved into the cave walls for individual corpses: deep cavities, about 6 feet deep and 1.5 feet wide and high, called loculi (kochim in Hebrew); and shallow shelf-like niches, about 6 feet long. These shallower niches are called arcosolia if the top of the niche is arched and quadrosolia if the niche is rectangular with a straight top. About a year after the primary burial in one of these recesses, after the body had decomposed, the bones were reburied in a bone storage chamber, or during the first century C.E., in a stone ossuary, or bone box."2

Where were these bone storage spots, or the space for the ossuaries? Kloner strongly implies that both were part of the tomb. That seems reasonable enough and verified by Jewish law as written in tractate Semakhot, 13:7

"moving the corpse, or the bones, from a despised place to an honorable place is forbidden, not to mention from an honorable place to a despised place; but in his own, even from an honorable place to a despised place – this is permitted, since it is his honor."

Here we face a slight problem. Kloner writes: "I would go one step further and suggest that Jesus’ tomb was what the sages refer to as a borrowed (or temporary) tomb."3 During the Second Temple period and later, Jews often (my underline) practiced temporary burial. This is reflected, for example, in two quotations from rabbinic sources involving burial customs and mourning: "Whosoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave" (Semahot 13.5). Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said: “Rabban Gamliel had a temporary tomb in Yabneh into which they bring the corpse and lock the door upon it …” (Semahot 10.8).

Kloner insists that "A borrowed or temporary cave was used for a limited time, and the occupation of the cave by the corpse conferred no rights of ownership upon the family. Jesus’ interment was probably of this nature." Here, Kloner is correct. Jesus' burial was indeed of a temporary nature. But the last paragraph cited implies that there were generally two kinds of burial caves: one of a temporary nature, the other for permanent, eternal burial. If we follow this, we are supposed to accept that Jews were buried for limited time periods in temporary tombs of which they did not have rights of ownership. If so, then the bones must have been transferred most likely to their own private tombs; however, we are not told who owned these temporary cave tombs. It appears that this suggestion violates the Jewish law so clearly stated in Semakhot 13:7 (above) and that it also contrasts even human nature and emotions. Privately owned tombs were meant to cover familial and public emotions – they were designed to prevent the presence of unwanted strangers and any "leak" of the corpse's defilement out of the tomb. Kloner’s suggestion somewhat diminishes both effects.

Still, we are told that "This suggests that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea was temporary, and – in the words of the Sages – a 'borrowed tomb'." Kloner argues, "It can be clearly seen that the burial of Jesus as described in the New Testament is an excellent example of the practice of temporary burial among Jews of – and following – the Second Temple period."4 At this point, he cites the same rabbinic sources he cited previously. The sources actually do not mention the word "temporary." But they state:

שמחות פי"ג ה"ה:

"המוצא מת בקבר, לא יזיזנו ממקומו, אלא אם כן יודע שהיה מקומו שאול לו".

Semakhot, 13:5:" He who finds a corpse in a grave will not move it from its place unless he knows that the spot (place) has been borrowed to him (the deceased)." The Hebrew word שאול (shaul) means borrowed, not temporary.

The second source states:

שמחות פ"י ה"ח

"רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר קבר שאול היה לו לרבן גמליאל ביבנה. . . "

Semakhot, 10:8: "R. Shimon son of Ela'zar says: Rabban Gamliel had a borrowed grave in Yabneh."

Again – no mention of the word "temporary." Why? The first source deals with a rule and its exception. Jewish law prohibits moving bodies from one spot to another in a tomb unless this tomb is a borrowed tomb. Actually, it concerns who lends a tomb and who borrows a tomb. Tombs were of strictly familial nature. Jews did whatever they could to keep strangers away from their own family tombs. Indeed, Jews could sell niches in tombs according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Ba. Bav. 3;1, 13d.) But this source elaborates the risk of losing the entire tomb to the buyer. Selling means a permanent trade, while borrowed means temporary and free of charge. If so – does "borrowed tomb" mean that the owner allows a dead stranger to "use" his tomb for a period of a year? And what if one of the owner's family members would die during that year? Who would wish to own a tomb if the use is temporary?

The answer is – the Sanhedrin. This formal judicial body was the only entity that would need such a tomb in the first place. Since the Sanhedrin owned its tombs, it could "lend" a burial place "on demand" when the Sanhedrin executed a Jewish felon. We've already seen that by law, felons' bodies had to "dwell" in the Sanhedrin tomb for a year. Rabban Gamliel of Yabneh was the head of the supreme Jewish court and this explains the meaning of "his" borrowed tomb. It was not his family's tomb, nor was it any other familial tomb. Familial tombs, even if they differ in size, were built to serve both stages of the Jewish burials of the time, preliminary and secondary. As Kloner states, the body was laid on a burial shelf or in a shallow niche for a year (preliminary) during which the flesh decayed, and at the end of that year the relatives would collect the bones for reburial (secondary and eternal). If Kloner is correct, then we have to ask: did the relatives collect the bones for reburial in another tomb? If so, why do so many tombs have burial shelves and niches for ossuaries or for bone storage? Why allocate such precious space, land, and so much money for the purposes of having two tombs for one family when one tomb is enough? Tractate Semakhot, 13:7, clarifies the entire issue:

חות פי"ג ז': ש

אין מפנין לא את המת, ולא את העצמות, ממקום בזוי למקום מכובד, ואין צריך לומר ממקום מכובד למקום בזוי; ובתוך שלו, אפילו ממקום מכובד למקום בזוי הרי זה מותר, שכן הוא כבודו.

"Moving the corpse, or the bones, from a despised place to an honorable place is forbidden, not to mention from an honorable place to a despised place; but in his own [tomb], even from an honorable place to a despised place – this is permitted, since it is his honor."

This source resolves the burial issue: no relatives could move a corpse or bones out of one tomb to another, but they could move their relative's corpse or bones from one spot to another inside their tomb with no limitations. Thus, no Jew who had a tomb needed any borrowed tomb when he died, since his preliminary burial took place in the same tomb as his secondary burial. Moving his body or bones out of his tomb was strictly forbidden. This particular source uses the Hebrew word שלו – his, thus leaving no doubts regarding ownership.

The only tombs that were not under these regulations were Sanhedrin tombs simply because they were temporary by definition, as the Mishna in Sanhedrin 6:5-6 firmly dictates. This is the reason that they were small, compared to regular familial tombs.

As to the size of Jesus' burial, Kloner argues, "Most likely Jesus’ tomb was a standard small burial with a standing pit and burial benches along three sides. It may or may not have had loculi. Scholars who have studied burial caves from Second Temple times have concluded that primary burials were often performed in small, hastily dug burial caves—and only later were loculi, arcosolia and bone storage chambers, or additional rooms added".5 Apparently, here we return to double-purposed tombs, that is, regular family tombs.

However, we encounter another problem that seems to be a contradiction. Kloner explicitly writes, "In any case, among the hundreds of Second Temple tombs in Jerusalem, none has been found which consists only of a small room containing a passage having one or two burial shelves along its sides and also situated right next to the outer entrance, through which one could look inside.6 Kloner continues, "Now let us try to picture the interior of the tomb in which Jesus was buried. That the tomb was small is suggested by the fact that the corpse could easily be seen from the entrance: Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary could apparently see the body from outside" (Mark 15:47; see also John 20:1).7

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus Tomb

According to Kloner, Jesus' tomb was smaller compared to standard tombs in Jerusalem, and, at the same time, the tomb was also standard or normal. We do know and agree that Jesus' tomb was indeed smaller than a normal, standard family tomb. Furthermore, according to Don Bahat, "In the course of restoration work in the Holy Sepulchre Church a hitherto unknown passage to this [Jesus'] tomb was found beneath the rotunda" (Bahat, 16, 18). This tomb, Bahat says, is the so-called Nikodemos' (or Joseph of Arimathea's) tomb, about 25 feet west of the Edicule, the structure that preserves the traditional location of Christ's tomb under the rotunda.8 A passage has been discovered that connected both tombs, yet according to the Mishna, familial tombs are not supposed to be linked or connected. 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. What does this "link" mean? The best and probably the only answer is that they were both Sanhedrin tombs. Moreover, they were linked when built to 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". If we are correct in our interpretation and both tombs were the Sanhedrin tombs, then the tombs were meant to be borrowed and temporary by their purpose and structure. Neither tomb can be the permanent burial place of Jesus. Jesus' permanent burial tomb cannot be in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We must search somewhere else.

Byron R. McCane, "Where no one had yet been laid, the Shame of Jesus' Burial,” B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998):431-452.


1 Kloner, stone, p. 9.

2 Ibid., p. 9.

3 Ibid., p. 12.

4 Kloner, rotunda, p. 274.

5 Kloner, stone, pp. 11-12; see also: Kloner, rotunda, p. 275.

6 Kloner, rotunda, p. 275.

7 Kloner, stone, p. 11; see also: Kloner, rotunda, p. 274.

8 Bahat, church, pp. 16, 18.