April 27, 2013

Tombs in the Holy Land and the Tomb of St. Lazarus

By Athanasios Moustakis

The Evangelist John makes extensive reference to the friend of Christ Lazarus and his resurrection. Referring to the relevant biblical narrative (John 11:38-47) we will see some evidence of the morphology of the tombs in the time of Christ.

Lazarus and his sisters lived in Bethany, a village about fifteen stages (three kilometers) east of the city of Jerusalem (John 11:18). It is known for the event of the resurrection of Lazarus, which is why we will focus our attention on what took place outside the village at the place where people were entombed.

The first evidence the Evangelist John gives us of the funerary monument of St. Lazarus was that "it was cave". It had the form of a cavernous monument. A cursory search on the internet discovers that in the time of Christ there were a wide variety of monuments in the Holy Land.

Let's look at some types:

In this we see that there are three gates surrounded by mason arches and a courtyard with a stone wall on the right and left to hold the soil. In the interior of this tomb are stone sarcophagi. Such a large and well-attended memorial was the burial place of many people.

At this point we should note that the Jews did not allow exhumation, as they saw it as a desecration of the dead, but collected the bones and placed them in stone or clay ossuaries. Consequently, land tombs of large families were spacious with many places to place the dead, as distinguished in the photo above.

Another type were dug into stones with columns in the front, such as the tomb of Zacharias, seen above.

The tombs already mentioned belonged to affluent families, who were able to construct and maintain monuments of such a magnitude. Most Jews did not have this ability to construct rich tombs.

The cavernous tomb seen in the next photo is from the early Bronze Age (3000 B.C.).

It is much simpler than the others. Essentially it is a cave with a simple entrance configuration. Similar monuments are found in Palestine in the first century A.D. Based on the description of the Evangelist John, that "it was a cave", it must have resembled this. The photos below of the traditional tomb of Lazarus reveal that this is the case.

The monument in its current form has a good amount of depth, and to reach the crypt one must descend several steps.

The tomb of Lazarus is deep within the monument and has the form of a burial room. The area of the cave is configured to accept the dead body.

An interesting point is the way the tombs were closed. In some cases there were stone doors.

Another type of door was a stone carved in contour of the door of the monument on one side and wider than the other. It was applied as a cork in a bottle.

In the case of Lazarus, we assume that his tomb was like this (if it was on the outside of the tomb), or it was a plate (if it was on the roof of the burial chamber). According to St. John, Christ said: "Take away the stone" (John 11:39). A good translation would be "raise the stone", but it could also mean "distance the stone" or "remove the stone". In the first case it would probably refer to the stone on the roof of the burial chamber, which would be horizontal, or in the other case at the entrance of the tomb the burial chamber was closed.

The third way in which funerary monuments were closed does not fit the case of Lazarus' tomb, but Christ's. The monument was carved in stone and shut with a cylindrical stone, which had to be rolled to reveal the opening of the monument. The Evangelist John, in the case of Christ's tomb, uses the verb "αἴρω" or "taken away" (John 20:1). The stone was "taken away from the tomb". The other Evangelists, however, refer to a cylindrical stone that had to be rolled.

Matthew 27:60 - "rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb"

Matthew 28:2 - "rolled back the stone from the door"

Mark 15:46 - "rolled a stone against the door of the tomb"

Mark 16:3 - "Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?"

Mark 16:4 - "they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large"

Luke 24:2 - "they found the stone rolled away"

From the passages above we can be certain that the entrance to the tomb of Christ was covered by a cylindrical stone.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos