Vault of the Ages
The most famous death in history was the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Two millennia ago, in Jerusalem, Jesus was scourged and executed by Roman soldiers. The Gospels tell us that his body was taken down from the cross, shrouded in cloth, and placed in a family tomb belonging to one of his followers, Joseph of Arimathea.
On the third day, Mary Magdalene, Jesus's trusted disciple, found the tomb empty—a moment that marks the origin of the Christian belief in the Resurrection.
Out of all the millions of words and thoughts devoted to this event, how many people have ever asked why Jesus's body was placed in a tomb carved out of stone in the first place, and not simply buried in the ground?
According to ancient Jewish laws still in effect today, bodies had to be interred in the ground before sundown on the day of death. Family tombs, cut into rock, qualified as "in the ground." In most places, the bedrock of Jerusalem lay barely more than a few inches below the ground surface. For this reason, the dead were placed in preexisting tunnels, dug into local hillsides. During much of the first century C.E., most of Jerusalem's tombs were man-made caves, hewn from solid rock and located just outside the city walls. Usually a tomb consisted of two chambers. In the outer chamber, the body was anointed with perfumes, spices, and oils, then shrouded in cloth. Archaeological evidence from hundreds of first-century tombs excavated in the Jerusalem hills is perfectly consistent with descriptions of Jesus's burial as described in the four Gospels. According to both archaeology and the Gospels, the tomb would have been sealed by rolling a large stone in front of its entrance. Behind the seal stone, lying in state in its white shroud, the body was ordinarily given a full year to decompose. After the flesh had vanished, the shrouded bones were collected from the outer, temporary burial chamber and placed in a small limestone box called an ossuary. Occasionally an occupant's name would be inscribed on one side of the ossuary, which was then placed for permanent burial in a small niche deep within the tomb. Eventually ossuaries representing three or more generations from the same family might be sealed, one after another, in a tomb's innermost niches.
No one knows why the practice of using ossuaries began just prior to the birth of Jesus. Some archaeologists and theologians suspect that the Jewish belief in a bodily Resurrection led to the gathering of bones, to be preserved for the Day of Judgment.
Regardless of the reason, the Gospels attest to great concern among Jesus's followers about shrouding his body and placing it in a tomb. Because he died late on a Friday afternoon, they needed to bring him to a tomb quickly, before the arrival of sunset and the holy Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea's newly hewn family tomb was nearby, and it would serve Jesus's family until the body could be moved to a permanent resting place.
The Gospels also say that on Sunday, before he could be moved, Jesus conquered death, left the tomb empty, and later, on several separate occasions and in several forms, appeared before his disciples.
But the Gospels also hint at an alternative explanation for Jesus's empty tomb. Matthew says there was another story circulating in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although Matthew calls it a lie, according to the rumor, Jesus's disciples secretly came by night and stole away with their Master's body. As Matthew tells it, the story persisted among Jews for a very long time (Matthew 28:1115).
If the disciples took the body, there is only one thing they could have done with it. They would have reburied it.
If Jesus was reburied, his...