March 29, 2024

The Tomb of Jesus Explained

For hundreds of years, the tomb of Jesus has been depicted in paintings, sculptures, film, and other visual media. But how accurate are these depictions? What secrets might still be revealed to better represent how the Savior’s tomb would have appeared at the time of his death and resurrection? 

Over 900 tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem dating to the time of Jesus. [1] This research allows us to capture a picture of His tomb better than any previous depiction. By carefully examining statements from the four gospels and archeological remains, we will attempt to recreate, with the magic of 3D modeling, one of the most detailed and accurate renderings ever presented of the tomb of Jesus. 

What kinds of tombs existed at the time of Jesus?

First, we need to understand some of the key characteristics of the three primary types of tomb designs in Jerusalem during the first century AD: Shaft tombs, loculus tombs, and arcosolium tombs.

Three main types of First Century tombs: Arcosolium, Loculus, and Shaft tombs

Shaft Tombs

Shaft tombs were similar to what we observe in many modern in-ground burials. A shaft was excavated deep into the ground where the wrapped body would be lowered to the bottom. Stone slabs would then be placed over the top of the body and the shaft was filled with dirt or rocks. A simple gravestone often would mark its location.

This method only describes about 5% of the tombs in ancient Jerusalem. The Gospels indicate that the tomb of Jesus was cut into the rock (see Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46). This eliminates the idea of a shaft tomb and indicates one of the two remaining varieties where tombs were either carved directly into existing bedrock or fashioned from natural caves. 

Before we explain those two styles of tombs, let’s first dig into some of the common features among these carved rock tombs.


Commonly, ancient tombs were established in abandoned rock quarries where stonemasons once cut large blocks for the construction of buildings and walls. An abandoned quarry presented an opportunity for an ideal location for family tombs. Because of the hard work of the quarrymen, the shear vertical walls for digging individual chambers was already complete. [2]

In modern-day Jerusalem, beneath what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a massive quarry once existed. This quarry dates as far back as the 8th century BC, but was abandoned as a quarry by the time of Jesus. Most scholars agree that somewhere within this quarry was Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and nearby tomb. Over the centuries, heavy spring rains flushed down soil from higher elevations filling in sections of the abandoned quarry. At the time of Jesus, this fresh soil made the location an excellent place for terraced gardens. The nearby Tower’s Pool likely provided ample water for these gardens. The Gospel of John, in particular, connects the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and tomb with that of a garden (see John 19:41). Such unique details are important as we seek to more accurately recreate the tomb of Jesus.

Tomb Courtyards

Many tombs carved directly from the bedrock included outer areas called courtyards. These provided families with a proper place to mourn during the burial process. [3]

Because so many tombs were cut from old quarries, it is also common to find rock-cut benches around the courtyard where mourners could sit. Matthew comments that some of the women sat at the entrance of the tomb of Jesus, suggesting just such stone benches (see Matthew 27:61).

Often tombs featured a stone overhang in front of the entrance. Cyril of Jerusalem, who recorded a visit to Jesus’s actual tomb, describes a ‘rock shelter’ at the entryway. [4] Thus, the tomb of Jesus was likely established within an abandoned quarry that had a garden nearby. The tomb having a small courtyard with rock-cut benches, perhaps unused quarry stones, and an overhang or porch for the entrance of the tomb.

3D model of the tomb of Jesus with a courtyard and overhang over the entrance

Rolling Stones

Now let’s focus on the tomb’s actual entrance. A common feature used to recreate scenes depicting Jesus’s tomb is a large, round rolling stone, often called the blocking stone. However, could this image be completely wrong? What if the rolling stone was actually square?

Square vs. round "rolling stones" typical of First Century Jewish tombs

Blocking stones came in two primary shapes and sizes. Rectangular, perhaps with a slightly rounded bottom that would be ‘rolled’ into place by turning it from one edge to the next. This kind of blocking stone fits into the tomb’s opening like a plug, designed and sized specifically for the purpose of sealing the entrance. Entrances with rectangular stones were generally smaller and could be turned or “rolled” into place with only a few men. These openings were typically about two feet tall or just over half a meter in height. A visitor was then required to enter by crawling on hands and knees. Rectangular blocking stones are by far the most common among first-century Jerusalem tombs. [5]

Square "rolling" stone entrance requiring someone to enter on hands and knees

The second type of rolling stone had the round shape with which we are most familiar. However, only four examples of the round stone type have been identified among the 900 first-century tombs found in Jerusalem. Rounded stones were set into a track, allowing the stone to be rolled to open or close the tomb. This track usually slanted towards the entrance, allowing gravity to make it easier to close and more difficult to open. In addition, they often featured a parallel wall built outside the primary wall to prevent the rounded stone from toppling over. As a body was interred, a round blocking stone could be held in place by a stone or wooden wedge. To seal the tomb, this wedge was removed and the blocking stone naturally rolled into place. This design might explain why the women who arrived at the tomb on the morning of the resurrection expressed concern that they did not know who would help to roll away the stone (see Mark 16:3).

Rounded stones could be extremely heavy, weighing hundreds of kilograms. However, most modern depictions of this scene in paintings and films feature stones that are much larger than reality. In fact, peering inside such tombs would require someone to stoop down before entering.

So what type of stone was used to seal the tomb of Jesus? With only four known examples in Jerusalem, many scholars suggest it would have actually been square. We’ll return to this question later. For now let’s discuss the tomb’s interior, which may provide us with some answers. 

Loculus Tombs

The two remaining styles of tombs are the loculi and arcosolia. Both of these styles of tombs were found in rock-cut chambers, and often both styles were found within the same chamber. Jesus’ tomb would very likely be one of these two styles. But which one?

The Loculus tomb or sometimes called a Kokhim tomb was the most common style for Jerusalem tombs of the first century. loculi were long, narrow shafts cut into the wall of the main chamber, measuring about 2 meters deep, and about half a meter wide. They were generally designed for a single corpse. The body was wrapped in shrouds and laid on its back with the head at the back of the shaft. With the body in position a stone slab sealed the opening. Decay was accelerated by a combination of limestone, oxygen, high temperature, and humidity. 

loculi were the most common style of tombs, as they could be opened or closed conveniently by removing the stone slab. The placement of the slab helped contain the stench of decay. Because loculus shafts were closer together, more bodies could be entombed in a single room, making them more common and economical.

Since death was very prevalent in ancient times, families would have started with a small, one room chamber for their tomb. As their wealth increased, and more family members died, new shafts could be carved into the walls of the main room. Over time, family tombs could become quite elaborate and complex. It’s significant that several gospels mention that the tomb of Jesus was a “new tomb” where “no one had yet been laid” hinting that the tomb of Jesus would have only had space for one body at the time of his burial.

Arcosolium Tombs

The third type of tomb was the arcosolium. This style cut a flat bench parallel to one of the walls of the main chamber, usually with an archway carved at the top of the space. It was generally a little more than 2 meters in length. Arcosolium tombs required more space along the walls and were thus less common. Only about 15% of Jerusalem’s first-century tombs featured this characteristic. 

3D model of the tomb of Jesus showing a arcosolium

How does the Bible help us pinpoint the most likely option? 

Let’s return to the question of the tomb’s entrance and figure out what type of rolling stone was likely used. Although rectangular stones were far more common than rounded stones–with only 4 known round examples from archeology–the Gospels are very specific in their descriptions of it being an “extremely large stone” or “a great stone” (see Mark 16:4 and Matthew 27:60). Luke and John also describe the detail that those who entered the tomb had to bend down or stoop to enter (see Luke 24:12John 20:5; 11). As mentioned, square or rectangular blocking stone entrances were shorter requiring someone to enter on their hands and knees. Merely bending down to enter seems to imply a tomb with a round rolling stone, allowing for an entrance that was larger.

3D model of the tomb of Jesus showing the round rolling stone entrance

The next piece of evidence helps us to pinpoint whether Jesus was laid to rest in a loculi or arcosolia. John mentions that when Mary entered the tomb, she saw two angels “sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and the other at the feet” (John 20:12 BSB). Unless these angels were very short, the arcosolium is the most likely tomb style that fits the description. Mark adds that the angel sat on the right side of the inner chamber, indicating that the arcosolium “bench” where Jesus was laid was on the right side of the tomb (see Mark 16:5).

Luke mentions that when Peter looked into the tomb, he could clearly see the linen clothes on the bench where the body had laid, despite the early morning hour (see Luke 24:12). It is likely that the tomb faced east, because only an east-facing tomb would have illuminated the kind of details that the Gospel writers provided. If the entrance was too small from a square blocking stone, the angle would become more difficult for Peter and the second disciple to see the linen clothes on the bench. An arcosolium bench was generally cut into the upper half of the wall, whereas loculi were most often at ground level. The doorway had to be large enough to illuminate the main chamber and tall enough for them to clearly see the bench of the arcosolium. A smaller entrance, with a square stone, would not allow for this.

The Most Likely Appearance of Jesus’s Tomb

So what would the tomb of Jesus have looked like? First, we know it was located in a garden, likely within a quarry and surrounded by unfinished cut stones near the tomb’s entrance where Mary and the other women could sit in a courtyard and mourn Jesus’s death. The front of the tomb included an overhang or porch. The entrance had a short, but not TOO short, doorway that could be sealed by a round blocking stone. Entering or looking inside required a person to bend over. Witnesses would see an unfinished tomb with an arcosolium bench on the right side of the main chamber.

3D model of the tomb of Jesus with the morning rays of the sun entering from the east

By combining all these details we can finally visualize the place where the most significant event in human history took place. This is where the Savior arose from the tomb, overcoming both sin and death. While knowing what the tomb looked like is not critical to one’s faith, the beauty that accompanies better understanding and confirms the reliability of the ancient texts is deeply significant! After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jewish tombs changed significantly. If the Gospels had been invented by later writers, even a few decades later, their descriptions would not match the tombs of the period. Only a genuine eyewitness could have included these details. While only the Spirit of the Lord can confirm the truthfulness of Christ’s resurrection, the Gospel writers have stood the test of time. Their witness testifies of the truthfulness of these events, even after two thousand years.

Because Jesus Christ broke the bands of death, it means that we, too, will rise again. It is through His death and resurrection that as we repent we can be washed clean of our sins through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ.

[1] Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.

[2] The Necropolis of Jerusalem, pg. 15.

[3] The Necropolis of Jerusalem, pg. 41.

[4] Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus, pg. 153-154.

[5] The Necropolis of Jerusalem, pg. 52-53.

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