The Shape of the Stone

In the popular imagination, Jesus is seen exiting the tomb on his resurrection (which really did happen, by the way) after the large round stone that had sealed the tomb had been rolled away. The scene is reinforced in the imagination by paintings such as the one at right where Jesus is seen standing resurrected by the cylindrical stone. But was the stone really round or cylindrical?

According to an article by the Associated Press entitled The latest look at Jesus' tomb, Professor Amos Kloner, an archaeologist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and one of the people who early-on exposed the nonsense of Cameron's Jesus Family Tomb, the stone that was placed in front of Jesus' tomb was probably not round or cylindrical.

[Kloner] says the New Testament depiction fits what we know from other ancient sources. Tomb entrances were indeed covered by massive blocking stones to avoid ritual impurity and to keep out scavenging animals.

But contrary to what most people imagine, Kloner is convinced that the stone was square, not round. Thus it would have been pulled away, not rolled away, when the women found Jesus' tomb empty on Easter morning.

The confusion is certainly engendered by the fact that most English language Bibles translate the word used in Matthew 28:2, Mark 16:3-4, Luke 24:2 that describes the moving of the stone as saying that the stone was "rolled" away. Obviously, if it was rolled, it had to be round, right? Not so fast, says Kloner.

Is the Bible wrong? No, says Kloner, but our English translations might be. The original Greek verb "kulio" can mean "roll," "dislodge" or "move." So which is it? He says archaeology can tell us.

During what's known as the Second Temple period (100 B.C. to A.D. 70), tombs had either round or square stones. More than 900 burial caves or tombs have been found from that period in the Jerusalem area. Only four of these had round (disk-shaped) blocking stones.

The rare round stones were found only in large, distinguished tombs for the wealthy that had at least two rooms or, in one instance, a spacious hall. Such family tombs held several bodies, and the round stone, placed between two parallel walls on a sort of track, could be easily rolled away for additional burials.

One well-known example is the so-called Tomb of Herod's Family, located behind the modern-day King David Hotel. Another is the tomb of Queen Helena, north of the Old City near the American Colony Hotel.

Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea, who loaned the tomb for Jesus, was wealthy enough to have such a family burial place. But Kloner insists the Gospels contain clues that argue against a large tomb.

Judging from Mark 15:47 and John 20:1, the tomb was so small that people could peer in from outside and see where Jesus' body was placed.

John 20:11 is especially important: "Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain ...."

That clearly indicates a tomb of modest size, the sort that took square rather than round blocking stones. Kloner adds that Mary's need to stoop is precisely right, since such caves and tombs had small, low entrances.

Another clue comes in Matthew 28:2, where an angel sat on the stone. Kloner says the between-the-walls track used for round stones in Second Temple times would have made it impossible to sit on a stone that had been rolled away. (And a square stone would have been more comfortable.)

Dating is important because round stones became much more common starting in the second century. There are dozens of examples from the late Roman and Byzantine periods. These round stones of later centuries were much smaller than those of the first century, and did not move on a track but were simply leaned against the entrance.

Kloner concludes that the ambiguity of the Greek word, combined with biblical details and modern archaeological evidence, makes it most likely that the stone was square.

While I certainly don't think that those people who teach that the tombstone was round are committing some type of unpardonable sin, I think that it is best to keep in mind that sound archaeology shows that the tomb stone was not quite consistent with popular imagination. I don't recall any attacks against the credibility of the Bible being based on the idea that the stone couldn't have been round, but knowing the never-ending creativity of skeptics to attack all things Christian, I wouldn't be surprised if one were just around the corner. Thus, it is best to keep in mind that the actual stone may have been different that we have supposed based on a reading of most English language Bibles.


Jason Pratt said…
Whoops! I've got "rolled" in my translation down there! {lol!}

Will go fix, presently. Good job! {bow!}

Anonymous said…
I have had some questions in my mind of if a round stone was used to seal tombs. However, it would be simple enough to obtain and use an unfinished millstone to seal/block the opening in the tomb.

Water powered millstones might not be very common in desert regions, but human or animal powered versions might be so. Maybe the painting isn't quite so far fetched after all.

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