The Tomb of Jesus

Question: The tomb where Jesus was buried... Where is it? What does it look like? Is there a picture of the tomb? Can you visit the burial site of Jesus?

Answer: It would be really nice if I could tell you that the photo below is of the tomb that Jesus once was laid in. Though this tomb, well outside of Jerusalem, serves as a great example of a first century burial place, that's all it is... a great example.

Note the track for the stone to roll in. Some of these tombs had even larger stones and a steeper incline... making it easy to close the tomb and very difficult to open. The steel band, of course, was not part of the original and now prevents the stone from being moved.

Matthew 27:59-60 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.

Many of these tombs were located at the site of former stone quarries, a natural place to locate rock hewn tombs. Inside the tombs were chambers for storing bones from multiple individuals, often complete families of multiple generations. Into each of these chambers a bone-box called an ossuary would be inserted. Since ossuary burial, in Israel, was only practiced slightly before the time of Jesus and the century that followed, it makes tombs from this time frame very identifiable.

For reference, the image below shows what ossuaries would look like, though all removed from their proper locations. (This photo is from tombs on the Mount of Olives)...

Even though the bones were to be placed in an ossuary for long term, the body was first laid to rest in a specific area hewn to size in a new tomb. Only after the flesh had decayed would the bones be gathered into the ossuary. The area below is the only one finished (out of two areas) in the Garden Tomb (also known as Gordon's Calvary)... something that would be a feature of a new tomb.

John 19:41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.

The Garden Tomb is one of two locations held to possibly be the site of Jesus' tomb. It, by far, looks the best as it still has the look and feel of how the garden tomb may have appeared. Appearance aside, it does not have the history of the other (more probable) site.

The other location which has been held for far longer in Christian tradition as being the site, is covered by a shrine [church] that has virtually obliterated its original look. The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (alt. Church of the Holy Sepulcher) holds the weight of history from shortly after the time of Christ. In fact, in 135 A.D., the (Pagan) Roman emperor Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem, and rebuilt the city as Aelia Capitolina. He specifically built his pagan shrines over this site because it was held to be the location of Calvary and the tomb.end note 2 In 326-335 A.D. the location was re-identified, the shrines removed, and a new Christian shrine was erected, of which the church located there today is the successor. This church is controlled, and divided in space and use, by multiple denominations (Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Copts, Ethiopians and Syrian Orthodox). [photo of church below]. See end note 1 for trivia regarding the usage of this church.

When the pagan shrines were cleared away in the early fourth century few expected to find any trace of the original tomb. To their surprise the tombs shown below where found and also the one identified as being used by Jesus. How was it known? It was the only one found there with a rolling stone! Fragments of the rolling stone are still in the possession of the church (fragments because pilgrims kept breaking of pieces for relics and souvenirs in ancient times).

Mark 16:2-4 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

Rolling stone tombs were in fact quite rare during that period. Out of all the period tombs excavated in Jerusalem and area only a handful had a rolling stone, the remainder having rectangular stones that were merely pushed into place. Interestingly all the tombs found with a rolling stone were those of rich or prominent individuals/families. Perhaps this was due to the fact it would have cost more to have a stone shaped to round. Jesus, of course, was buried in one such tomb...

Luke 23:50-53 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.

See end note 1 for trivia about the ladder under the upstairs window

In the image below, the left hand points to the position of the Garden Tomb and the right hand points to the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (see end note 3 for the church floor plan). Both locations could fit the Scriptural description of the location, as they were both outside the city walls in Jesus' day. Both are sites of former quarry's and obvious burial locations, each near to a rock face that could have been known as the Place of the Skull; Golgotha (See John 19:17). [The Antonia fortress, the place of Roman judgement, was a reasonable and easily accessible distance from both sites]. Again, it is more probable that the location at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the correct one, since it was near to an ancient city gate. Romans liked maximum visibility for their crucifixions. Though it is said that the Garden tomb, too, was near an old city gate, that gate was not constructed until quite some time after Jesus' death.

Under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there are other burial chambers that can still be seen. The blackened walls are due to numerous fires in the structure over the centuries. Syrian Christians meet in an area close to this.

Other areas show the marks of having been an old stone quarry and, later, a water cistern (below). This is also the traditional site where the cross of Jesus was found discarded, in the fourth century, by Constantine's mother Queen Helena (highly unlikely!).

The bedrock comes right up through the church and under the altar area (below). Note the split in the rock where it is said to have held the cross and then split at the time of the earthquake at Jesus' death. Other effects of this first century earthquake are still seen in Jerusalem. The split at the church is still moving requiring current efforts to shore up the church.

Matthew 27:51-52 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.

2009 image without some of the clutter on top

The following images are merely to show the elaborate altar area constructed around this location of Calvary. Greek Orthodox. (The two photos above are from the area on the right in the photo below).

Below is another example of the Christian shrines created over these sites. This structure is actual two. To the left, at the rear of the main structure, is a small Coptic one.

The small Coptic shrine shows some trimmed stone which was part of the original tomb where Jesus body was laid (see below). This is a little of what was left from the earlier destruction and subsequent reconstruction of this site. The stone is from the lower back edge of the bedrock which formed the original tomb.

On the opposite side of this shrine, to the front, there is a larger Greek Orthodox one...

Normal crowds around this area

As you enter this to see the burial location, you'll find it was covered in antiquity with marble slabs...

Seeing possible sites and especially examples that look as they would have in the first century are beneficial, but the bottom line is the fact that there is no body sitting in a tomb to keep a definite monument over...

Matthew 28:5-6 The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

Christianity rests in the fact that Jesus rose from the grave, showing that He had triumphed over sin and death.

1 Corinthians 15:14-17 And if Christ has not been raised , our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we [the apostles] are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised , then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

See our related article for more on the historicity of Jesus' death burial and resurrection.

Click here for a multi-part devotion on the crucifixion

Artwork in the church of the Holy Sepulcher showing removal from cross, preparation and burial


End Notes

1. This ladder (see photo above) was placed on a ledge over the entrance sometime in the 19th century and has remained there ever since because the different Christians sects can't agree on who has the authority to take it down. The Christians sects each profess to have authority over specific aspects of what takes place in the church, clear down to who owns what windows, etc. The unchristian-like and divisive actions of these groups led to an imposed status-quo by the Muslim authorities controlling the region in the 19th century. Everything continues to function by the rules of this imposed settlement, and the fear is that allowing anything done outside of it could establish a new long term claim by one of the groups. So, years later, the ladder still remains and new fights continue to break out. Consider this excerpt from an AP news report...

JERUSALEM – Israeli police rushed into one of Christianity's holiest churches Sunday and arrested two clergyman after an argument between monks erupted into a brawl next to the site of Jesus' tomb. The clash between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks broke out in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The brawling began during a procession of Armenian clergymen commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. The Greeks objected to the march without one of their monks present, fearing that otherwise, the procession would subvert their own claim to the Edicule — the ancient structure built on what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus — and give the Armenians a claim to the site. The Armenians refused, and when they tried to march the Greek Orthodox monks blocked their way, sparking the brawl.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were forced to intervene after fighting was reported. They arrested two monks, one from each side, he said. A bearded Armenian monk in a red-and-pink robe and a black-clad Greek Orthodox monk with a bloody gash on his forehead were both taken away in handcuffs after scuffling with dozens of riot police. Six Christian sects divide control of the ancient church. They regularly fight over turf and influence, and Israeli police are occasionally forced to intervene.

"We were keeping resistance so that the procession could not pass through ... and establish a right that they don't have," said a young Greek Orthodox monk with a cut next to his left eye. ... Father Pakrat of the Armenian Patriarchate said the Greek demand was "against the status quo arrangement and against the internal arrangement of the Holy Sepulcher." ...

The feud is only one of a bewildering array of rivalries among churchmen in the Holy Sepulcher. The Israeli government has long wanted to build a fire exit in the church, which regularly fills with thousands of pilgrims and has only one main door, but the sects cannot agree where the exit will be built. ... More recently, a spat between Ethiopian and Coptic Christians is delaying badly needed renovations to a rooftop monastery that engineers say could collapse. (Monks brawl at Christian holy site in Jerusalem, AP, November 9, 2008)

2. Jerome, who was personally aware of the Bible Lands, having lived there, wrote of the secondary use of key Biblical sites by the pagans. This excerpt from a letter, written circa 395 A.D., references both Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

From the time of Hadrian to the reign of Constantine-a period of about one hundred and eighty years -the spot which had witnessed the resurrection was occupied by a figure of Jupiter; while on the rock where the cross had stood, a marble statue of Venus was set up by the heathen and became an object of worship. The original persecutors, indeed, supposed that by polluting our holy places they would deprive us of our faith in the passion and in the resurrection. Even my own Bethlehem, as it now is, that most venerable spot in the whole world of which the psalmist sings: "the truth hath sprung out of the earth," was overshadowed by a grove of Tammuz, that is of Adonis; and in the very cave where the infant Christ had uttered His earliest cry lamentation was made for the paramour of Venus. (Jerome, Epistles 58 [Letter to Paulinus]:3)

3. Approximate floor plan of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as derived from various sources:


Written by Brent MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries. (c) 2003-2006, additions 2008, 2010.
Links to this article are encouraged as long as the source is cited.