Round or Square: The Controversy Over Jesus' Tomb

    The size and shape of the stone sealing Jesus' tomb has been studied and the results may differ from the images we are familiar with. Perhaps that isn't a big deal, but it could be if you take the arguments for a square tomb as fact. Let's take a look at the scholars' claims, and I'll give you five reasons the Bible disagrees with them.


    Several scholars have written about the shape of stones sealing tombs in Israel. There is the circular stone most artists have depicted, and then there is the square shape archaeology has shown us was the common stone used to seal tombs. This square stone was flat on the exterior surface, but its opposite interior side protruded into the tomb and plugged the doorway. This is the stone they think sealed Jesus' tomb.


    These square cut tombs are called kokhim. 

    From Gallery of Sites and Finds Israel Antiquity Authority  Cave 1 Chamber 1 The Akeldama complex.


    A few disk shaped stones sealing burial sites have been discovered in Israel. They are similar to the Abu Gosh tomb pictured below.


    Abu Gosh tomb circular stone with pocket. Public Domain.


    Large circular stones fit over the entrance and can be rolled into a channel like a pocket door. These rolling stone sites belong to royals like Herod's family and the wealthy. The round stones became more popular in the centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection.


    The square stone scholars believe the wording the Gospels use to describe the stone being rolled away has probably been misunderstood which has added credibility to the round stone image of Jesus' tomb. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all use the term rolled away, apokuliō when the women arrived at the tomb.


    Describing Jesus' burial Matthew said, "And when Joseph [of Arimathaea] had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled [proskuliō] a great [megas] stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed" (Mat 27:59-60). 


    Mark 15:46 states, "And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled [proskuliō] a stone unto the door of the sepulchre."


    Luke 24:2 says "And they found the stone rolled [apokuliō] away from the sepulchre."


    I have to admit all this rolling does not make me think of a square stone. But one square stone scholar, Amos Kloner in his article “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” says the word kulio which is consistently used in its various forms to describe the scene can also mean dislodged and moved. But I've looked the word up in various lexicons and dictionaries online, and I only see this definition: to roll about, wallow, through the idea of circularity. Kloner's critics have never found evidence for his definition either.


    If you know of a source giving Kloner's definition reliably and not as opinion or hearsay, please put the source in the comment section.


    The square cork-like stones dating to Jesus' time period are about four feet in diameter. Images of the sites portray the stones as being tipped over. Perhaps you can flop a smallish square stone over and over and consider that rolling. But the stone is described in Matthew 27:60 and Mark 16:4, as megas, great. This seems an important detail the gospel writers are pointing out.


    So the square stones scholars' claims fail on 1) a reliable interpretation of kulio as dislodged and 2) the size of the stone.


    I think, however, the real issue may be Joseph's wealth. Square stone scholars think Joseph may have been rich, but he couldn't have been rich enough to have a cut polished tomb with a round stone.


    Except that's what the Bible says.


    Matthew, Mark, and Luke say the tomb was hewn, cut. By describing it this way, they are explaining it wasn't a common grave. It wasn't a cave. It took money to cut a tomb out of rock.


    Luke 23:53 uses laxeutōi which is translated hewn. It is the only time the word is used in the New Testament. Xeu means polished. New Testament Greek scholar A.T. Robertson in his book Word Pictures in the New Testament says Luke is explaining this tomb was a polished tomb.


    All the Gospels say Joseph went to Pontius Pilate, was granted entry to see him and Pilate agreed to his special request. Mark's version says he went boldly. This doesn't reflect the attitude or the reception of a common man. Mark 15:43 tells us Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. It was similar to a Supreme Court. Joseph was a judge of the highest kind.


    Jodi Magness, archaeologist and distinguished professor does not find it surprising that Joseph had a rock cut tomb.1 He would have been able to afford one. Further, in November of 2021, an underground complex of cut rock tombs was discovered dating to the first century AD. Archaeologists are cautious, but think the tombs may belong to members of the Sanhedrin. They do not look like the common person's tomb either. 


    So square stone or round, 3) the tomb wasn't cheap and 4) Joseph wasn't a common Jew.



    But then there is John's description in 20:1 telling us the stone was lifted and carried away. "The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away [airō] from the sepulchre."  Round or square this made a big impression on Rome's elite soldiers, the priests who later came to see what the soldiers described and Jesus' followers. Matthew's account tells us there was an earthquake, yes, but an angel rolled it back, apokuliō. And here we are back to kulio, rolling.


    John's description is important in its detail, however. Airō is describing a stone raised off the ground, carried away. It is the same word used in Matthew 9:6. "Take up (airō) thy bed." But John's account is the verse square stone scholars say is the most accurate because it means taken away. They argue if a round stone was rolled away it would have been in its channel. This would make it impossible for an angel to sit on it as it says in Matthew 28:2.


    But the Bible says the stone was lifted and carried which brings us to

    number 5: the Bible says it wasn't in a channel; an angel picked the stone up and possibly tossed it aside, and it was megas.


     At this point, there are too many biblical aspects that have to be ignored to insist the square stone scholars' arguments are solid.


    Mikhail Nesterov is one artist who depicted a square stone in his painting The Empty Tomb. The angel certainly has enough room to sit on it. But there are still a couple things about the painting that stand out against the Bible account. One, the angel is female. The Bible states the angels at the tomb were men. Two, the stone is definitely big but does its position make you think the angel lifted it and carried it? It looks like it has been tipped over.


    I know, I know. You're thinking I'm too picky. It's a nice painting. But the word matters!


    Jesus' death and resurrection was a phenomenal event. He caused an earthquake went He went to hell and when He left it. He did it all because He loves us and never wants us to go there. Thank You, Jesus!

    Have a blessed Easter.


    Magness, Jodi. “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James.” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 1 (2005): 121–54. https://doi.org/10.2307/30040993.


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