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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Sepulchre

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Three Greek words are employed in the NT to express the idea of tomb or burial place: (1) μνῆμα, Acts 2:29; Acts 7:16, Revelation 11:9; cf. Luke 8:27; Luke 23:53; Luke 24:1, Mark 5:3; Mark 5:5; (2) μνημεῖον, Acts 13:29; cf. Matthew 23:29; Matthew 27:52; Matthew 27:60; (3) τάφος, Revelation 3:13; cf. Matthew 23:27; Matthew 23:29; Matthew 27:61; Matthew 27:64; Matthew 27:66; Matthew 28:1; the Hebrew equivalent of all three being קָבָר. The word ‘grave,’ though found eight times in the Authorized Version , is not regarded by the Revisers as an adequate English equivalent.

1. Ancient burial customs.-The Hebrews universally disposed of their dead by burial; otherwise they felt the soul of the deceased in Sheol would not find rest. The aboriginal cave-dwellers in Canaan, however, seem to have disposed of their dead by cremation (cf. R. A. S. Macalister, Bible Side-Lights from the Mound of Gezer, 1906, p. 48 ff.). Burning was resorted to by the Hebrews only in the case of those who had committed crime (Genesis 38:24, Leviticus 20:14). They used spices in preparing the body for burial, but they did not embalm. There was not the same incentive for it as prevailed in Egypt, where other-worldliness was so emphatically illustrated by temple and pyramid. Still, to the later Jews as well as to the Egyptians the tomb was ‘the house of the living.’ Swift burial was necessary because of the climate, and as a rule took place on the same day as the person died. Stones were placed over a grave, not only to mark the site, but to prevent jackals and other beasts from disturbing the body (cf. 2 Samuel 18:17). In the case of a criminal the heap of stones over his grave kept on growing, as every passer-by felt compelled to express his contempt for him by adding new stones to the heap. Ancient tombs are still very numerous in Petra, which is indeed ‘the city of tombs.’ Of the 750 (more or less) sepulchres extant there, some date back as far as the 6th cent. b.c., or even earlier, probably belonging to the ancient Edomites who once inhabited those parts. Others, perhaps the great majority, are those of the Nabataeans, or early Arabs, who flourished in Petra from 350 b.c. till a.d. 100. These tombs, which are of varied styles and types, are all cut in the sides of the massive sandstone mountains. One is filled with columbaria for receiving the ashes of the dead. As a necropolis Petra is worthy of special study.

2. Ancient types of sepulchre.-Like their neighbours, the Hebrews through their sepulchres gave expression to their belief in immortality. The limestone rocks of Canaan yielded to their desire for a permanent place of abode. And yet, though they must have been perfectly familiar with the Babylonian and Egyptian custom of building costly mausolea, the Hebrews insisted on simplicity. No elaborate or extravagant sepulchres were ever erected by them. They regarded such monuments as tending towards ancestor-worship, and they studiously avoided all kinds of idolatry. In preparing sepulchres for the dead they aimed at safety and endurance rather than elaborateness and ornamentation. Men of position sometimes prepared their sepulchres while yet alive; but, though the Phcenicians were their models, they seldom used a sarcophagus. The practice of raising monuments over their tombs was first inaugurated by Simon the Maccabee (1 Maccabees 13:27 ff.). Through the influence of the Greeks, the Hebrews began to build separate tomb-chambers. These varied in style as follows:

(1) The simplest type of Jewish sepulchre was a sunken receptacle for a single body, hewn in the rock. Oftentimes caves were appropriated and used by them to save labour and expense. Abraham, for example, buried Sarah in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 23:9; Genesis 23:17). A slab of stone was prepared to cover tightly the rectangular depression. This was whitewashed annually, to guard against ceremonial defilement (Matthew 23:27; cf. Luke 11:44). Ancient tombs of this kind are very common in Palestine still. Some have been found with shafts, as at Tell el-Judeideh (cf. Bliss and Macalister, PEF [Note: EF Palestine Exploration Fund.] Excavations, 1898-1900, p. 199 ff.).

(2) Chambers with rectangular recesses called kokim, or loculi, for receiving the body. These were usually secured by means of slabs which were plastered and ceiled. Some were cut in the face of the rock lengthwise. They are known as shelf-tombs; others were cut at right angles to the surface of the wall, to a depth of 5 or 6 ft., the body being laid in with the feet towards the opening. The recesses were usually low, almost on a level with the floor of the chamber. It was probably in a shelf-tomb that our Lord was buried (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53, John 20:12). Over the shelf, ledge, or trough, as the case might be, arches were usually cut. This kokim kind of sepulchre was the family type. Sometimes double chambers were made, with a rock-cut passage-way leading from one into the other. The so-called ‘Tombs of the Kings’ and ‘Tombs of the Prophets’ at Jerusalem are of this type. The Greeks built such sepulchres from 200 b.c. onwards. A heavy stone door swinging in a socket, or a large rolling stone-disk, protected the entrance against robbers and other wilful violators (Matthew 27:60, John 11:38). Curses were often invoked on those who would disturb the dead (cf. the inscription on Shakespeare’s tomb at Stratford-on-Avon, ‘And curs’d be he who moves my bones’). No outsider was allowed to bury in a private family sepulchre, because such tombs were holy ground. If unused and empty, they might be, indeed often were, occupied by outcasts and homeless ones who took refuge in them (Mark 5:2). Chamber-tombs frequently had porches, vestibules, or antechambers. Even the single tomb might have its antechamber as well as its chamber proper. C. M. Doughty describes sepulchres of this type as existing in Arabia (Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888, i. 108).

(3) Tombs built of stones. Masonry tombs are all of later date. Some of them, however, carry us as far back as the Greek Age. Certain very interesting antique examples still exist at Kadesh-Naphtali, Tell Hum, Malal, Teiasir, and ‘Ain el-B’anieh. The one probably best known to the student of the Bible is the so-called Tomb of Rachel at the fork of the road leading to Bethlehem. At Palmyra the most remarkable masonry tombs are to be seen. They are known as ‘sepulchral towers.’ One stands 59 ft. high and contains a tomb-chamber 27 by 20 ft. in size. Other tombs built of masonry are to be found at Rabbath Ammon, and formerly at Modin, the home of the Maccabees. In certain cases limestone sarcophagi, ornamented and highly polished, received the dead. Not infrequently such tombs are revered by the Arabs as sacred, being regarded as the sepulchres of saints and heroes. The Arabs make pilgrimages to them, call them makâms, and carefully guard them against all possible profanation. Religious services are frequently held at them, and votive offerings are repeatedly brought and placed on the walls under the saint’s protection. Clothing, implements of agriculture, and other such peasant belongings are considered perfectly safe when deposited by a saint’s tomb; for, if they are injured or stolen, the act incurs the saint’s wrath. Even the Jews perpetuate the memory of certain celebrated Rabbis by honouring their tombs through the building of synagogues over them, which in turn have become centres of pilgrimage; that of the celebrated Talmudist Rabbi Meir, near Tiberias, is an illustrious example.

3. NT passages.-There are but live passages in apostolic history which speak of tombs or sepulchres: (1) Acts 2:29, in which Peter says, ‘Brethren, I may say unto you freely of the patriarch David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb (τὸ μνῆμα αὐτοῦ) is with us unto this day.’ The Apostle’s argument is that, in spite of the fact that David was a patriarch and the founder of a royal family or clan, and wrote Psalms 16:10 (‘For thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol,’ etc.), he nevertheless himself came to the grave and was buried; therefore, he must have had in mind One greater than himself. According to 1 Kings 2:10, David was buried ‘in the city of David.’ Nehemiah (3:16) mentions ‘the sepulchres of David.’ To buy off Antiochus Epiphanes, Hyrcanus opened one of the chambers of David’s sepulchre and took out 3000 talents; Herod the Great rifled another in the time of Hadrian (cf. Josephus, Ant. VII. xv. 3, XIII. viii. 4). David’s tomb is said to have fallen into ruins. Its site was probably within the city walls. F. de Sauley erroneously identifies it with the ‘Tombs of the Kings,’ which are of Roman origin (Journey round the Dead Sea, new ed., 1854, ii. 111 ff.). Jerome, writing in the 4th cent. a.d. to Marcella, expresses a hope that they might pray together in the mausoleum of David (Ep. xlvi).

(2) Acts 7:16, ‘And they [the fathers] were carried over unto Shechem, and laid in the tomb (ἐν τῷ μνήματι) that Abraham bought for a price in silver of the sons of Hamor in Shechem.’ Stephen here seems to have confused OT statements with ancient Jewish tradition. According to Genesis 50:13, Jacob was buried in Hebron; and, according to Joshua 24:32, Joseph was buried in Shechem. Jewish tradition adds much to these facts: e.g. Josephus (Ant. II. viii. 2) regards all the patriarchs as buried in Hebron. The Book of Jubilees (ch. 46) speculates about the bones of Joseph’s brethren, declaring that they were buried in Shechem. This is possible. There is nothing to prevent our supposing that the bodies of all twelve of the sons of Jacob were removed to the Promised Land. Shechem was more central than Hebron. It was there that Abram first settled when he came into Canaan; there he built an altar to Jahweh (Genesis 12:6-7); and it is only reasonable to suppose that he also purchased the ground on which it stood; otherwise it would have been exposed to desecration and destruction. ‘The purchase of the ground on which an altar stood would therefore seem to follow as a kind of corollary from the erection of an altar on that ground’ (cf. R. J. Knowling, Expositor’s Greek Testament , ‘Acts,’ 1900, in loc.). This does not preclude the possibility of Jacob’s purchase of the field of Shechem from the sons of Hamor (Genesis 33:19, Joshua 24:32). Stephen, accordingly, only enlarges upon the statements of the OT in keeping with both tradition and possibility. To-day the tomb of Joseph is shown a few hundred yards to the N. of Jacob’s well, and the same distance almost due E. from Shechem. Tradition fixed upon this location, as early as the 4th cent. a.d., as the place where Joseph was buried. The present tomb, which was restored in 1868, has the usual appearance of a Muslim wêli. On the other hand, the Ḥarâm, or sacred area, which encloses the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron marks the place where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were buried. Few Europeans can boast of having been permitted to enter it; the prevent writer had this privilege in April 1914.

(3) Acts 13:29, ‘And when they had fulfilled all things that were written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb’ (εἰς μνημεῖον). St. Paul here treats of Christ’s burial with a freedom analogous to that of St. Peter when speaking of David’s (Acts 2:29). The motive of both was the same, namely, to prove the reality of the death, and, therefore, of the resurrection from the dead. Unlike Enoch and Elijah, Christ had died and been actually buried; hence His death was a reality, and because He had risen from the tomb His resurrection was an indisputable fact. But did the Jews bury Jesus? The Gospel of Peter, says that they did (21-24). And surely Joseph Arimathaea and Nicodemus were both Jews and members of the Sanhedrin. Where is His tomb to be located? Certain authorities are unwilling to commit themselves; but the present writer is free to acknowledge that the traditional place, marked as it is by the Cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre, despite all that is repulsive and idolatrous about it, best satisfies him as the approximate site. Eusebius (Onom., ed. P. de Lagarde, 1870, pp. 229, 248) favours this opinion (cf. H. Guthe, article ‘Holy Sepulcher,’ in Schaff-Herzog [Note: chaff-Herzog The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia (Eng. tr. of PRE).] , v. [1909] 328-331).

(4) Romans 3:13, ‘Their throat is an open sepulchre’ (τάφος). These words are quoted from the Septuagint version of Psalms 5:10. The Psalmist is describing enemies whose false and treacherous language threatened ruin to Israel. Just as a grave stands yawning to receive the corpse, and gives forth foul and pestilent vapours, so the throat of the wicked is open to besmirch by slander and malice some one’s fair name. The modern custom of secreting tomb cavities and re-opening them to make fresh interments affords a partial illustration of what the Apostle means.

(5) Revelation 11:9, ‘And from among the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations do men look upon their dead bodies three days and a half, and suffer not their dead bodies to be laid in a tomb’ (εἰς μνῆμα). The picture drawn here by John is that of a degenerate Church refusing to allow the bodies of its true witnesses the rite of burial. To the apostles, such a spirit was paralleled only by pagan malice. For the enemies of the Church to be willing not only to see the bodies of the faithful lie exposed in the open way, but to invite the world to the spectacle, and to celebrate the event with holiday joy and the exchange of gifts (v. 10), was the climax of insolence and contumely.

Literature.-Compare the articles ‘Burial,’ ‘Tomb,’ ‘Grave,’ ‘Sepulchre,’ in the various Dictionaries of the Bible and Religious Encyclopaedias; also R. A. S. Macalister, PEFSt [Note: EFSt Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement.] xxxiv. [1902], xli. [1909]; F. J. Bliss and R. A. S. Macalister, Excavations in Palestine during the years 1898-1900 (PEF [Note: EF Palestine Exploration Fund.] , 1902); J. P. Peters and H. Thiersch, Painted Tombs in the Necropolis of Marissa (PEF [Note: EF Palestine Exploration Fund.] , 1905); R. E. Brünnow and A. v. Domaszewski, Die Provincia Arabia, i. and ii. [1904-05]; G. Dalman, Petra und seine Felsheiligtümer, 1908; E. Robinson, Biblical Researches2, 1856; K. Mommert, Golgotha und das heilige Grab zu Jerusalem, 1900; Baedeker-Benzinger, Palestine and Syria, 1912; Zeitschrift des deutschen Palaestina-Vereins, 1878 ff.; Mittheilungen und Nachrichten des deutschen Palaestina-Vereins, 1895 ff.; Revue Biblique , 1882 ff.

George L. Robinson.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sepulchre'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/sepulchre.html. 1906-1918.

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