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The original appearance of the Tomb of Jesus


The original tomb of Jesus, as we are told by all who visited it during the first millennium, was carved into a rock and consisted of a single chamber (without there being any antechamber). “Before the entrance of the tomb,” writes Cyril of Jerusalem, “there was a small covering that was carved into the same rock, something that was common for the exterior of tombs in these parts.”1 Cyril says that this covering had been cut off for reasons of ornamentation, when the first aedicule was built in the fourth century. Constantine the Great’s architects cut very large amounts of rock around the tomb, in order to create a circular plateau with a thirty-five meter diameter. On top of this plateau they erected the rotunda, known as Anastasis, at the center of which they left the cut out rock of Jesus’ tomb. They followed the exact same procedure for the Rock of Golgotha.2

The historical development of the tomb of Jesus (drawing H. Skarlakidis).
A: Ground plan of the original tomb on the western side of the ancient quarry.
B: Ground plan of the rock of the tomb after being cut out.
C: The rock of the tomb incorporated into the first aedicule in the fourth century.  
D: The present-day aedicule of the tomb.

As the architect Dr. Theo Mitropoulos says, “during the process of incorporating Golgotha into the church complex of Constantine the Great, a large portion of original rock was removed by the emperor’s architects.”Constantine’s architects left only the part of the rock where the Crucifixion took place, which they incorporated into the sacred garden.

The aedicule of the Holy Sepulchre inside the Rotunda of the Resurrection in the fourth century (reconstruction B. Balogh). Within the Aedicule was the original hewn rock of Jesus’ tomb.

Perspective cross-section of the complex of the fourth-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre (reconstruction by B. Balogh found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem).

As is mentioned in the Gospel, the tomb in which Jesus’ body was laid belonged to the Judean counselor Joseph, who was from Arimathea and was a secret disciple of the God-Man. Jesus did not have his own tomb. Therefore, he had to be buried in the tomb of another. And he had to be buried quickly, for Jewish law forbade anyone to be buried after the setting of the sun, especially on the eve of Passover, as it also required someone to be buried within twenty-four hours after their death.

Matthew the Evangelist says that when Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, the sun had just gone down (see Matt. 27:57). That aspect of Jewish law had already been violated. As a consequence, the burial had to happen as quickly as possible in a very nearby tomb. The best option—and perhaps the only one—was Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, which was about forty-five meters from the site of the Crucifixion.

"Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand." (John 19:41–42)

The Gospel of John tells us that when Mary Magdalene saw the risen Christ in the dark, she did not recognize him, but thought that he was the gardener. The garden, therefore, outside the tomb had some permanent gardener. In the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (6:24), it says that this garden, which was cultivated,  belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. The Swiss chronicler Felix Fabri correctly comments that Joseph “had bought this garden for himself” and that “all the gardens around Jerusalem were full of large rocks.”4

The above information corresponds to burial practices in Jerusalem rather well, since at that time it was quite common for there to be family tombs carved out of large rocks within private gardens or orchards that were located in abandoned quarries. Joseph’s garden, in which Jesus was buried, was located about 120 meters away from the city walls and about 230 meters from the Genath Gate,5 which is mentioned by Josephus. It was through this gate, as almost all the archeologists and researchers today maintain, that Jesus passed through on his way to Golgotha from the Praetorium.

The word genath means garden. Jewish law forbade the presence of cemeteries and gardens for cultivation within the city. All gardens were located outside the walls. The entire area outside the Genath Gate was made up of privately owned cultivated gardens, which were surrounded by rock walls, on which there would be various garden plants and fruit-bearing trees—the most common of which was the olive tree. These private gardens took up the greater part of the ancient quarry, in which were Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb. In the writer’s opinion, the transformation of the abandoned quarry into a place of gardens and orchards was part of the larger plan to beautify the city attributed to King Herod at the end of the first century BC.

The archeologist Shimon Gibson describes this transformation of the quarry as follows: “The lower quarried areas were abandoned and filled in with soil and quarry debris, with some abandoned quarry areas being converted into garden patches and orchards. Hence, we should reconstruct this area at the time of Jesus as a large rocky knoll with an expanse of rock-hewn cavities and subterranean indentations at many different levels…. The depressions in the ground, especially where the quarrying activities had ceased, were partly used for horticulture or arboriculture… This combination of burial caves, stone quarrying and agricultural activities was a common phenomenon in the first century AD as we can learn from archaeological finds in the city’s surroundings.”6 So the tomb of Jesus was in the family garden of Joseph of Arimathea, in the northwestern section of the former quarry.

The present writer, using the topographical map by archeologists Gibson and Taylor (see p. 167), as well as an array of other archeological and historical data, has made a series of reconstructions of the site of the Crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus, as it looked in AD 33. In all the reconstructions, the locations of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus (the distance between them, their sizes, their elevation and positioning) are determined by actual values and by the greatest topographical accuracy.

Golgotha was not a normal dirt mound, but a rocky hill: a vertical, cut rock that was shaped by the quarrying. The greatest depth reached by the excavation in the eastern side of the rock was eleven meters. According to Israeli archeologist Shlomo Margalit, “the eastern side of Golgotha had been turned into a place of worship by the Judean Christians immediately after the resurrection of Jesus.”7 This opinion was first confirmed by Italian Professor Emmanuele Testa8— a stance that was eventually confirmed by the Spanish archeologist Díez, based on the findings in the double cave on the eastern side of the rock.

The eastern side of the Rock of Golgotha (height 11.20 m) within the garden-orchards of the ancient quarry (reconstruction H. Skarlakidis). At point A, there is the double cave, which was discovered during excavations in 1977. According to the archeologist F. Díez, the cave was turned into a place for the worship of Christ in the first century. The location of the Crucifixion was surrounded by a rock wall, which we speculatively gave the dimensions of 16×8 meters. The residents of the city would have seen the Crucified One from a distance as they stood around the perimeter of the quarry. Those who knew Jesus, as Luke the Evangelist writes, “stood afar off” (Luke 23:49).

The Rock of Golgotha at the time of Jesus within the gardens of the ancient quarry (facing east). The split in the rock from the earthquake can be seen. In the distance can be seen the walls of Jeru­sa­lem and the Temple. In the lower portion of the image there is a cross-section of the western side of the quarry, where the tomb of Jesus is marked, in its actual location.

The city of Jerusalem in the first century—1:50 scale model, measuring 2,000 square meters, at the Israel Museum. We see the city as it appeared from the top of the Mount of Olives, looking towards the west. The western side of the city walls have been altered by the author to make them correspond to the walls in the time of Jesus—the model at the museum depicts the third wall, which was built during the reign of Agrippa I (AD 41–44). The Rock of Golgotha (point B) and the tomb of Jesus (point A) can be seen outside the city walls, on the western side of the quarry. Genath Gate (at a distance of about 230 meters from the tomb) and Herod’s palace (residence of Pontius Pilate), which included the Praetorium, are also visible. On the day of his crucifixion, Jesus walked from the Praetorium to Golgotha, passing through Genath Gate. The reconstruction of the area with the quarry in the sketch was added by the author.

The Rock of Golgotha as it appeared from within the tomb of Jesus (facing east).  In the distance, a small part of Jerusalem’s walls can be seen. The Crucified One was facing west, towards his tomb and towards the city road that led to the Genath Gate.

The entrance of Jesus’ tomb in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea (reconstructions H. Skarlakidis). 

Now that we have become familiar with the exterior of Jesus’ tomb and the surrounding area, let us take a look at the interior of the sepulchre. We are now in a position to understand to a large degree the appearance of the burial chamber due to the descriptions given by people who visited it during the first millennium. This carved out chamber essentially did not undergo any significant change or alteration from the time Jesus was entombed, in AD 33, until the year 1009, when the men of Caliph al-Hakim destroyed a large section of it.

Those who visited and described the actual tomb before the great destruction of 1009 all mention that inside the chamber there was only the carved out rock—without protective pieces of marble or decorative elements.9 There was only the bare rock. They also mention that the entrance to the tomb was facing east, while the section of the burial cavity in which Jesus’ body was placed was in the northern section, that which is still the case today.

Eusebius, the first one to visit the tomb immediately after its discovery in AD 326, says that in the inner space of the burial chamber there was only a carved out burial cavity, that is, room for only one body.10 The original tomb was small, slightly smaller than it is today,11 and its dimensions were about 2.10 meters in length, 1.30 in width and 1.90 in height.

The three most important descriptions given of the tomb during the first millennium come from: a French bishop, Arculf (c. 670); an English bishop, Willibald (c. 754); and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius the Great (c. 885). If we add the model of the Holy Sepulchre from the fifth century that was found in Narbonne, France to these accounts, then we can assert that there is actually very little we do not know about the inner appearance of the tomb.

The French bishop Arculf who visited Jerusalem around AD 670, gave a detailed description of the inner chamber to the Irish abbot Adomnán, who recorded it in about the year 680 in his work De locis sanctis (Concerning sacred places). According to Arculf, the length of the chamber was septum pedum (seven feet, about 2.10 meters) and the passageway into chamber could hold nine people standing—about what it fits even today. This means that the dimensions of the original tomb were about the same as the present ones. The size and appearance of the tomb remained almost unaltered throughout the passing centuries.

Furthermore, Arculf used the word camara to describe the ceiling of the chamber, a word meaning that it was slightly arched or curved. As for the more important part of the burial chamber, where Jesus’ body was placed, he described it as a recess or a niche carved out of the rock, in the northern part of the chamber.

Adomnán, abbot of Iona, who perpetuated Arculf’s description, says that the burial recess “could fit one person lying on their back” and that “it resembles a cavity whose opening faces the south end of the chamber and which has a low ceiling.”12 According to Arculf, the ceiling of the burial recess was lower than the ceiling of the rest of the chamber, while the surface of the recess on which the body of the God-Man was laid was about three palms (about 23 cm) higher than the floor of the chamber. The English bishop Willibald, who is honored as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, also says that the body of Jesus was placed “in a burial cavity of rock,” that is, in a niche carved into the northern side of the chamber. Willibald also mentions that the stone used to seal the entrance was square,13 as it was a copy of the original square stone. Today, it is commonly accepted by archeologists that the stone sealing the entranceway was indeed square.14

Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who wrote around the year AD 885, describes in detail the burial chamber and says that the carved-out cavity which received the body of Jesus was rectangular in shape.15

As John the Evangelist says, the tomb of Joseph, which received Jesus’ body, was new and had not been used. And like the vast majority of carved out tombs in first-century Jerusalem, so this one too was not a tomb for one individual but a family tomb. Family tombs of that period, consisted of only one chamber, had a set and standard shape: they were composed of a small passageway, three burial benches, and usually in the walls of the chamber there were cavities called kokhim in Hebrew or loculi in Latin. These were oblong recesses in which the bodies of the dead were placed. However, the tomb that belonged to the counselor Joseph of Arimathea, even though it belonged to the same category, had neither three benches nor kokhim. It had a small passageway and only one bench.

A typical tomb with three benches (sketch by A. Kloner).

A marble model of the Holy Sepulchre which was found in Narbonne, France. The model is 1.24 meters high, dates back to the fifth century and was made in France based on the detailed plans of some pilgrim or based on other such models. The accuracy of the model is considered exceptional, since it matches up with the historical descriptions as well as other representations of the tomb, such as the Monza ampullae (i.e. small flasks). 

Left: A plan of the model is shown (after J. Lauffray, 1962). The burial bench within the model (point A) is situated at the same angle (red line) as the actual tomb has today, which is depicted in the right plan. This very important detail shows that the most significant part of the tomb, the burial recess, remained unaltered throughout the centuries.

The Israeli archeologist Amos Kloner, a specialist in tombs of that period, observes that among the hundreds of single-roomed tombs that have been excavated, never has there been any tomb found with a passageway and only one bench. So why was Joseph’s tomb, which received the God-Man’s body, such a unique exception? And why was the tomb of a wealthy counselor, which should have been bigger and would have been more likely to have two rooms, instead so small and with only one room? The English archeologist Shimon Gibson notes the reason for this exception: “We could argue that because of his wealth Joseph of Arimathea’s masons intended from the outset to cut a multi-chambered tomb, but that their plan was thwarted owing to the urgency to use it for the burial of Jesus, after they had managed to cut out only one chamber.”16

Gibson’s point is quite accurate. The tombs of Joseph’s ancestors were in the town he was from, Arimathea. He needed another tomb for himself and his family in Jerusalem, and in AD 33 this tomb was still under construction. The stone-workers had only finished carving out one chamber—and that not completely. Their plan fell through due to the urgent need to lay Jesus’ body in the chamber.
Bishop Arculf gives us a very important piece of information that confirms the above opinion; he says that on all the surfaces of the tomb’s inner chamber one could see the markings made by the iron carving tools. “Throughout the entire tomb” (totam cavatarum), Arculf writes, “the traces of the tools were apparent” (ferramentorum ostendit vestigia).17

A tomb which has been completed has relatively smooth surfaces, without the markings from the tools being evident—how much more so for a tomb that belonged to a rich counselor. However, in the tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, on all the surfaces within the inner chamber, the grooves from the workers’ iron carving tools were still visible.
The information above leads us to conclude that the body of the God-Man was placed in a half-finished tomb that was still under construction. The stone-workers had carved out the passageway, also known as standing pit (so that they could work standing up), and then managed to carve out the first burial recess on the right side of the aisle. They did not, however, carve out the rest of the chamber, since Jesus came along beforehand. In any case, there was no reason to carve out more burial niches, since this tomb in particular was bound to receive only one person. Just as the place where He was born was humble, a small stable-cave, so too was the place where He was buried, a small, unfinished rock-carved tomb.
Now that we have examined the original appearance of Jesus’ tomb—the inner chamber as well as the surrounding area—and have become familiar with a part of its historical evolution, let us continue with the last historical accounts which pertain to the “radiant visitor” that appears in this tomb every Holy Saturday.


Cross section of Jesus’ tomb (facing north) according to the descriptions of Arculf, Willibald and Photius. The length of the chamber is 2.10 m and the height is 1.90 m. 

The empty tomb of Jesus with the rising of the sun on Sunday, 5 April AD 33 (reconstructions H. Skarlakidis). The square stone has been portrayed with dimensions 80×80 cm and the opening of the entrance 60×60 cm. In this burial chamber, on the night of Saturday, 4 April AD 33, death was defeated. And ever since then, every Holy Saturday, the Light of Christ’s Resurrection appears at the same place, as a reminder and as proof of this victory. 


1. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses, 14.9.
2. The Italian orientalist Franciscus Quaresmius, around the year 1640, says that one section of the Rock of Golgotha was taken by St Helena to other places—likely for the consecration of other churches—while another section of the rock was removed in order to facilitate the construction of the basilica: “tum quia terra sacri montis ab Helena Roman asportata fuit, tum quia alia adhibita pro templi structura”; see Quaresmius, Elucidatio Terrae Sanctae, vol. 2, Antwerp 1639, p. 444.
3. T. Mitropoulos, The Holy Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, Thessaloniki 2009, p. 260.
4. See The Book of the Wandering of Felix Fabri, vol. 1, part 2, trans. A. Stewart, London 1892.
5. For the finding of the Genath Gate, see N. Avigad, Discovering Jerusalem, Oxford 1984, p. 69.
6. S. Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, New York 2009, p. 121. 
7. S. Margalit, “The Binated Churches and the Hybrid Binated Church Complexes in Palestine,” Liber Annuus 45 (1995), 364.  
8.  See E. Testa, ‘Grotte dei Misteri’ giudeo-cristiane, Liber Annuus 14 (1964), 65–144.  
9.  This means that there was a constant danger that pilgrims entering into the tomb would break off a small piece of the rock as a keepsake. In order to avoid this, as the anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza said in AD 570, the guards of the tomb placed dirt on top of the burial niche, which they would give as a blessing to those who entered.
10. Eusebius, Die Theophania, 3.239, Leipzig 1904: τὸ δὲ μνῆμα σπήλαιον ἦν νεοπαγές, σπήλαιον ἄρτι κατὰ πέτρας λελαξευμένον... καὶ μόνον ἓν ἄντρον εἴσω ἐν αὑτῇ περιέχουσα; i.e., “The tomb is a recently made cave, a cave that is hewn from the rock… and contained only one burial cavity.”
11. The present-day inner chamber is 2 meters in length and 1.80 meters wide, and the passageway, as well as the burial slab, is 0.80 meters wide. 
12. Adomnán, The Holy Places, in J. Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades, p. 96. The original Latin is as follows: “...simplex a vertice usque ad plantas, lectum unius hominis capacem super dorsum jacentis praebens in modum speluncae, introitum a latere habens ad australem partem monumenti e regione respicientem, culmenque humile desuper eminens fabrefactum.” See Sancti Adamnani Abbatis Hiiensis de Locis Sanctis, PL 88.782C. 
13. The Hodoeporicon of St Willibald, trans. Rev. C. Brownlow, London 1891, PPTS 3, pp. 19–20: “And there in front of the door of the sepulchre lies that great stone, squared after the likeness of the former stone which the angel rolled back.”
14. See A. Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb”, BAR 25:05, Sep/Oct 1999. As Kloner mentions, of the 900 tombs found in Jerusalem between the 5th c. BC and the 1st c. AD, only four of them had round entrance stones, at the tombs of very renowned people. The statement in the Gospel that the angel rolled away the entrance stone does not imply that it was round. Even if it was square, it would still need to be rolled away.
15.  Photius, Αμφιλόχια [Amphilochia], Athens 1858, pp. 181–82: Γλύφεται δὲ ὁ λίθος ἐξ ἀνατολῆς πρὸς δύσιν τὰς γλυφάς διαυλωνίζων, καὶ ἡλικίαν μὲν ἀνδρός εἰς ὕψος δέχεται τὸ γεγλυμμένον, πρὸς εὗρος δὲ πάλιν ἑνί ἀνδρί μόνῳ δίοδον ὐπέχει, τὸ δὲ μῆκος τριῶν ἐστιν ἤ τεσσάρων ὑποδοχή. Ἔσωθεν δὲ τοῦ γεγλυμμένου λίθου ἄλλη τις ὥσπερ ἀνέσπασται ταις γλυφαῖς πέτρα, παραλληλεπιπέδω σχήματι τυπουμένη, καὶ ἀνδρός ἡλικίαν ἐπιτιθεμένην δέξασθαι δυναμένη, ἐν ἧ τὸ ἄχραντον ἐκεῖνο καὶ δεσποτικόν σῶμα ὁ πιστός ἐκεῖνος Ἰωσήφ λέγεται τεθεικέναι... Ἅ μὲν οὖν ἐν τῷ τέως παρά τῶν ἀκριβῶς τὸν μακάριον ἐκεῖνον τόπον μελέτην βίου ποιησαμένων ἀνεμάθομεν, ταῦτά ἐστιν; i.e., “The rock had been carved out from east to west, creating a narrow passage. The height of the hewn out chamber fits one upright man, the width also fitting one man, while the length can fit three or four men. Inside the hewn out chamber another section of the rock has also been carved out, an opening with a parallelepiped shape, where it is said that Joseph placed the immaculate body of the Lord… What we are describing now we learned from those who spend their life in this blessed land.”
16. S. Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, New York 2009, p. 157.
17. See Sancti Adamnani Abbatis Hiiensis de Locis Sanctis, PL 88.784B. 



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