According to the Gospels, Jesus died and was removed from the cross on a Friday afternoon, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath. A wealthy follower named Joseph of Arimathea requested Pontius Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body from the cross and bury him before sundown, in accordance with Jewish law. Because there was no time to prepare a grave before the Sabbath,Joseph placed Jesus’ body in his own family’s tomb.
The reliability of the Gospel accounts—which were written a generation or two after Jesus’ death—is debated by scholars. Most discussions have focused on literary and historical considerations, such as the composition dates of the Gospels and internal contradictions and differences between them. Here, I will consider the account of Jesus’ burial in light of the archaeological evidence. I believe that the Gospel accounts accurately reflect the manner in which the Jews of ancient Jerusalem buried their dead in the first century.
Wealthy Jews in ancient Jerusalem buried their dead in tombs cut into the bedrock slopes around the city. These rock-cut tombs were used by Jerusalem’s Jewish elite only in times when they enjoyed an autonomous or semi-autonomous status. With few exceptions, the tombs were located outside the walls of the city. Each tomb was used by a family over the course of several generations, as reflected in the Biblical expression “He slept and was gathered to his fathers” (Judges 2:10; 2 Chronicles 34:28, etc.)