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Historic Jesus

From earliest times, it was customary for Jewish people to place a corpse for burial in a cave, rather than mummify it according to Egyptian practice or bury it in the ground. Palestine is very hilly; hillside caves are numerous. Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob were all buried in the same "cave of Machpelah" near Hebron.

Often a cave would be hollowed out and inside a ledge was fashioned for the body to rest on. In the case of a wealthy family, the cave might be a large one that included many small chambers with ledges for the various members of the families. After a body decayed, and only the bones were left, they were gathered up and put into an earthen jar called an " ossuary" or "bone jar," on which an inscription told who the person was. These ossuaries were stored in the caves, and the ledges from which the bones were gathered were available for continued use.

Once the body was placed in the tomb, the opening was sealed with a large stone to prevent wild animals from desecrating the dead. Sometimes these specially cut stones were in the shape of large millstones, which had been rolled into a precut groove and locked into place. This seems to have been the kind of stone used in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea because the women wondered who would be available to roll the stone back for them.

Burial places were usually outside the walls of a city. It was not uncommon for wealthy men to prepare their tomb before it was needed. Generally, Jews did not transport bodies in coffins, unless the family had been thoroughly Hellenized. Instead, the body was carried to the tomb on a simple bier.

Sometimes, in accordance with Pharisaic tradition, tombs were whitewashed to signal their presence so that people could avoid ceremonial defilement by accidentally touching a tomb (Matt. 23.27).

The exact location of the tomb in which Jesus was placed is uncertain. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located on the traditional site of the tomb. During the first century, this area was outside the city walls, though city walls built in later times encompassed it. The nearby "Garden Tomb," or "Gordon's Tomb," if not the actual site, is a first-century tomb that provides a vivid example of what Jesus' tomb must have been like.