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The Rolling Stone Tomb?

Most people, when imagining the tomb of Jesus, envision a large wheel-shaped stone, but archeology and even the Gospels seem to point to a different image.
The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides articles to AG News that offer deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Jeremy Stein, the CHLS Content Development coordinator, shares insights concerning the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb.

Oftentimes when we read the Bible, we gain a mental picture in our minds of exactly how aspects of the narrative should look or be played out. This then, usually, develops and gets played out in wider scale as we begin reproducing this in media images, in our teachings, or even our own church celebrations.

Although, for the most part, many of these reproductions are harmless and meaningless to our understanding of the narrative, it nevertheless becomes exciting to learn some of the true reality of how things might have been in biblical accounts. These realities allow us greater understanding and amend our mental pictures as we read God’s Word.

One of my favorite images that has changed over the years is the Easter texts of Jesus’ resurrection and the tomb in which He was placed. When looking at portrayals of Jesus burial, whether it be the simple small church Easter production or a massive Hollywood blockbuster such as The Passion of the Christ, one image appears to remain universally constant — the image of the large round stone which covered the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid.

What if I told you that this was almost definitely incorrect? It may be mind-jarring to think of a scene so pivotal to our faith — the place where Jesus proved to the world that death had no hold and sin had been defeated — could be incorrect.

Although we have the text, at times the visual depiction of the story relies on our own interpretation and this is where the test of roughly 2,000-years’ time has done us a disservice.

A common aspect of first-century tombs was the large stone which covered the mouth of tombs, known as “golel” in Hebrew. The primary purpose of the golel was to prevent ritual impurities and mask the scent of the decay in a tomb. [1] It would have also kept out animals or robbers who sought to steal the funeral gifts often left in a tomb. [2] With that being said, the golel would have been a very common aspect of the world of Jesus, leaving a significant amount behind for archeologist to continue to discover today.

From what has been uncovered, it becomes apparent that the golel stones came in a few different shapes — round or disk-shaped, and square being the most notable. [3] But when considering them in the light of archaeological evidence, the reality of the situation becomes significantly clearer.

To date, over 900 different intact first-century tombs have been found in Jerusalem, yet only four of them have circular stones covering the entrance, three of which have been identified with royalty. [4]

Round stones were significantly easier to move and, much like today, created a cleaner “picturesque” tomb. However in crafting them, a mason would need to contribute a significantly higher amount of man hours (compared to a “square,” which is often seen as large, modified field stone), increasing the cost of an already costly tomb, [5] and almost definitely the reason why we see this attached so closely to royal elites of Jesus’ day.

Although Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man, he was still a “relatively ordinary man.” His wealth clearly was not that of the level of royalty, and therefore it is more probable that his tomb was not one of the “top four” tombs in Jerusalem, making it much more likely that what covered the tomb was the more common square stone. [6]

The archaeological evidence pointing to the square golel in front of the tomb of Jesus, however, leads to big questions for students of the Gospels: “How was the stone ‘rolled’ away? Don’t you need a round to stone in order for it to be rolled?”

The answer to this is found both in the wording as well as the reality of the technique used in the burial practices of the day. In the texts of the Synoptic Greek, the word verb “kulio,” which commonly means “rolled,” can also mean “dislodged” or “moved back” as well. Although a square is not simple to roll, it still can be rolled. [7]

There appears to have been two ways used to roll traditional square stones (mostly without the cork-style protrusion) in the Second Temple period. [8] The first appears to be with two ropes tied together, which would be wrapped around the square stone with one rope coming out of each of the four vertical sides. Individuals could then use their strength and their gravitation force from their weight to counter act the stone and “roll” it this way. [9] This method would seemingly be used for the larger of stones (as the average “rolling stone” would be roughly 4 feet in diameter), which could serve as a possibility for the stone spoken of in the Gospels as both Matthew 27:60 and Mark 16:3-4 state that the stone for Jesus’ tomb was seemingly larger than the average stone as both includes the Greek descriptor “megan,” meaning “great” or “big.” [10]

The second way someone could “roll” the stone would be by sheer force. About 15 years ago, a friend and colleague of mine, archaeologist Shimon Gibson, happened across one of the hundreds of Second Temple period square stones in front of a tomb during an excavation in Jerusalem and rolled it with members of his team. Although the stone was able to be “rolled,” he stated it was backbreaking work. [11]

Regardless of the method of how the stone was rolled, the word kulio could easily be applied to either a square stone or the much-easier-to-move circular stone. The biblical text seems to allude to the difficulty connected to the square stone as the three women who come to the grave in Mark’s account ask the question, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb?” (16:3), showing the assumption that the three women working together did not expect to be able to move the stone.

John’s gospel sheds possibly even some more light on the situation. John 20:1 uses a different word for the golel’s removal in the Greek, using hairo, “taken away,” instead of kulio (rolled), conveying even more so the reality of the situation.

John gives more information than any of the Gospels’ writers in regards to the burial and resurrection of Jesus, paying great attention to the details, such as the fact that it was “still dark” (20:1) or the differences to how the cloths and linen were used in the burial practice (20:6). If the stone was to be simply rolled with ease, as would be expected from a circular stone, why would his language reflect different verbiage?

Other slight details given in the Gospels’ accounts may be giving us other information of note. Matthew 28:2 states that the angel was sitting upon the stone, a difficult position if the stone itself was circular. From the archeological evidence of the four rolling stones tombs that we have from this period, the stones roll back between two walls, hiding them, for the most part, from view, making the act of sitting upon the stone that much more difficult if not impossible. [13]

With all this being said, we often find ourselves asking the question: “If this common depiction that we have of the tomb of Jesus is incorrect, how did we come up with it? How did we get from point A to point B?” The answer to this is most likely triparted — textual, historical, and pictorial.

Obviously, as we have already just discussed, the confusion assuming our understanding of “rolled” and equating it to the Greek understanding of kulio has led to some assumptions from the text that may prove to be something different than what we thought we read. Secondly, historically, round golel tomb stones do appear and become more common in Jerusalem in later centuries, which undoubtedly affected later traditions in the Church.

Following the end of the Bar Kochav Revolt in Israel in AD 136, Jewish burial in Jerusalem nearly completely disappears, only reemerging during the Byzantine period when round stones became significantly more popular, with dozens of examples to be found today (although these circular stones are smaller and seemingly significantly less ornate with the lack of a carved track to roll upon as seen in the four Second Temple period examples).

During the Byzantine period there is also an increase in pilgrimage in the land as well as iconography in the Church (using pictures to tell the stories of the Bible). It is very likely that all three of these aspects intertwined together to begin creating an image in the minds of the Church, both in the East and the West, to create a tradition that was more grounded in their own day rather than the centuries earlier. [14]

Thirdly, in the modern, we become drawn to a picturesque tomb resulting in continuing to champion the tradition of the circular stone tomb. This may very well be based off the beauty found in one of the two proposed places in Jerusalem today for the tomb of Jesus, the “Garden Tomb.” This gorgeously peaceful site has been championed by mainly Protestant groups since the 19th century as a “possible location,” complete with a garden and a tomb out of a cave with a groove for a disk-shaped stone.

Unfortunately, this tomb has been proven archaeologically to bear no connection with Jesus as it has been dated by the leading expert on Jewish burial in the Israel, Gabriel Barkay, to the seventh/eighth century BC and therefore cannot be the “new tomb” (John 19:41) in which Jesus’ body was placed.

The alternative to the Garden Tomb is the more archaeologically accurate Holy Sepulchre, a church originally constructed in AD 335 and shared between six different denominations in the Old City of Jerusalem. Sadly, with the long history of fighting between the six denominations, even on the highest of holy days such as Good Friday and Easter, many are drawn away from the truth that this site most likely possesses, choosing to embrace the Garden Tomb instead. [15]

Regardless of which tomb an individual chooses to create the mental picture for, the reality remains that the grave/tomb could not keep Christ; on the morning of the third day He arose, proving to the world that death, sin, and the grave were defeated for all.

[1] Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review, 25:5, September/October 1999.
[2] Bivin, David. “A Sadducee Who Believed in the Afterlife” Jerusalem Perspective, 4:4-5, July/October, 1991.
[3] Square stones often (though not always) had a protrusion from the rear side to plug the caves entrance hole
[4] Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?”.
[5] Jodi Magnus, “What did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like?” Biblical Archaeology Review, 32:1, January/February, 2006.
[6] Additionally, it should be noted that in four of the Gospel accounts of the New Testament is the stone ever described as being circular or disk shaped.
[7] Urban C. Von Wahlde “A Rolling Stone that was Hard to Roll.” Biblical Archaeology Review, 41:2, March/April, 2015.
[8] The following examples serve to show that a square stone could “be rolled” and the verb used in the Greek is applicable to this type of stones in multiple ways, with the biblical text stating that the stone was “rolled” by an Angel of the Lord in Matthew 28:2, however, Matthew 27:60 also speaks of the stone being “rolled” to initially seal the tomb.
[9] Amos Kloner, “Reconstruction of the Tomb of the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher According to Archaeological Finds and Jewish Burial Customs of the First Century CE” in The Beginnings of Christianity: A Collection of Articles (ed. Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor, Jerusalem, Israel: Yad Ben Zvi, 2005).
[10] The reality of the size of the stone is even attested to in tradition through the apocryphal accounts from second century “Gospel of Peter” which states that when Pilate was asked for guards for the tomb by the chief priests, he sent Petronius the Centurion with soldiers and they rolled “a great stone” and laid it against the entrance to the tomb. (8:31–33).
[11] Shimon, Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009), 157.
[12] One again I note that even in the apocryphal work of the Gospel of Peter, it is the soldiers who “rolled” the stone after placing Jesus body in the tomb, where as in the gospels the acts is given to Joseph of Arimathea, however it should not be assumed that he worked alone as Matthew specifically noted that others are present the entire time (Matthew 27:60)
[13] Raymond Brown. The Death of the Messiah (New York, NY: Doubleday Publishing, 1999), 1248.
[14] This type of tradition surrounding an alteration to the biblical details is not as uncommon as one might think as can be seen through various aspect of the King James Version Bible, which assumed certain aspects of the Ancient world, for example Joseph, the father of Jesus’ profession as a carpenter rather than the more likely stone worker, based off of 16th century English culture (with, for our example, houses being built of wood, rather than stone as we see of the first-century Galilee) than that of biblical culture.
[15] Hershal Shanks, Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography (New York, NY: Random House Press, 1995), 196-202.

Jeremy Stein

Jeremy Stein is the Content Development coordinator for the Center for Holy Lands Studies.