Two Sets of Sources – A Hypothesis Regarding the Empty Tomb

By Eldad Keynan
Bar Ilan
August 2013

In January 2008, during a symposium in Jerusalem focused on “The Talpiot Tomb in Context,” I offered my opinion on why the tomb of Jesus was found empty by Mary Magdalene. The volume of the proceedings will be published by Eerdmans Publishing House in late September 2013.

I had the honor to give two lectures during the symposium. One of them covered, among other topics, the events directly following Jesus' crucifixion and death to the event known today as the term: “the Empty Tomb.” In the following, I will address the Empty Tomb exclusively.

I am relying on the physical finds, the Mishna, the reports in the New Testament, and modern studies to suggest the following reconstruction. Right after Jesus' death, Joseph Arimathea asked Governor Pilate’s permission to remove the corpse from the cross and bury it. Joseph Arimathea was a Sanhedrin member and a man of influence who had authoritative connections in high places, both Jewish and Roman.

The governor granted Joseph permission; then Joseph removed the body from the cross and buried it in the tomb under the Sanhedrin’s authority. This tomb is in the site known today as the Holy Sepulcher. When Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary Magdalene came to visit the tomb (probably to take care of the body, according to contemporary Jewish custom), they found the tomb was empty.

My opinion, as I made clear at the symposium, was that late on Saturday evening, or during the night between Saturday and Sunday, Joseph returned to the tomb and took the body away, burying it elsewhere. (I have no intention to discuss the Talpiot Tomb in the present paper.) My New Testament sources were Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-7; Luk. 24:1-3, and John 20:1-12. Although there are differences between the descriptions, the sources describe the Empty Tomb. My sources were Mishna Sanhedrin 6:5-6, and modern studies, mainly by Amos Kloner.

Recently, Professor James Tabor published a similar conclusion in his blog: The Earliest Account of the Discovery of Jesus’ Empty Tomb: What It Says and What it Does not Say!.

Tabor's main point, as I see it, is based on his new interpretation to "John 20:1-10, RSV." According to Tabor: "What we don’t have here is every bit as instructive as what we are told. Notice, there is no earthquake or angel descending from heaven and moving the heavy stone from the tomb and declaring that Jesus has been raised as Matthew 28 has it, nor “two men in dazzling apparel” as in Luke 24. There is not even a “young man clothed in white linen” declaring “he has risen” as in Mark 16.

In John, Mary comes alone to the tomb when it is still dark, not after sunrise with the entourage of women whom Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) report. She encounters no one and hears nothing. Her whole assumption is a logical one–given that Joseph of Arimathea had taken charge of the burial and temporarily placed the corpse of Jesus in an unused tomb near the site of the crucifixion until after the Passover feast (see my post, “Eastern Morning: Sorting through the Traditions” here). And that is what she reports to Peter and the “other disciple whom Jesus loved,” namely that “they [the burial party] have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.” And that is precisely what one would expect, and I would argue, that is precisely what happened. Joseph and his entourage would have come at the end of the Sabbath Festival, after sundown Saturday evening in a hurry to carry out the permanent burial of Jesus’ corpse. The two disciples race to the tomb to verify her story that it is indeed empty. They make no assumptions about him being raised from the dead. And then, most significantly, "they went back to their homes.”

Tabor analyzed the portrayal in the Gospel of John regarding the Empty Tomb, and concluded that John's version is preferred. He offered basically the same speculation that I offered in 2008. I agree that John's report seems to be the most accurate compared to the other NT reports regarding the Empty Tomb. One might easily speculate that the others are more theological than historical. Thus Tabor is correct when he contends: "And that is precisely what one would expect, and I would argue, that is precisely what happened." Why? According to Jewish contemporary law, Jesus' body must have been laid in the tomb under the Sanhedrin authority (henceforth: the Sanhedrin's tomb), since he was a felon sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin (whether or not the conviction was lawful is another question). A year later his relatives would return to the Sanhedrin and its tomb to retrieve his remains for reburial in his family tomb (Mishna Sanhedrin 6:5-6). According to this source, the Sanhedrin had two tombs under its authority. Both have been located very close to the crucifixion site. I have contended, and I still contend, that the tomb known today as the Holy Sepulcher was one of the Sanhedrin's tombs, while the other was the tomb known today as Nikodemus' tomb, just a few steps away from the tomb in which Jesus' body had been laid by Joseph Arimathea. The Sanhedrin's tomb was not a regular familial tomb, as Prof. Amos Kloner convincingly describes it.1 Prof. Dan Bahat describes the passage that connects both tombs.2 This feature, a connecting passage, is another unique detail: familial tombs were not connected to each other since any connection between a tomb and another would, and did, break the familial nature that was so important to the families who owned tombs.3

To sum up this subject: the only tomb in which Jesus' body could and should have been laid, according to Jewish contemporary law, was the Sanhedrin's tomb. This tomb could not, and was not, of familial nature. Joseph Arimathea, a Sanhedrin member, had easy access to the Sanhedrin's tomb. This is exactly what he did after the crucifixion: he removed the body off the cross and laid it in the Sanhedrin's tomb. Then, probably on Saturday night, he returned to the tomb and took the body away. An Empty Tomb is what Mary Magdalene saw later, early on Sunday morning.


1 A. Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” in The Burial of Jesus, ed. K. E. Miller et al. Online: (2007): 9; 12; see also : A. Kloner, “Reconstruction of the Tomb in the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre According to Archaeological Finds and Jewish Burial Customs of the First Century CE,” in The Beginnings of Christianity: A Collection of Articles, ed. Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2005) pp. 277-78.

2 Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” in Burial of Jesus, ed. Miller et al. Online: (2007): 16-17.

3 For details on Jewish tombs\burial custom see: 1. Jewish Burials 2. Obscurities around the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher.

Comments (10)

A very interesting and thoughtful article Eldad. I still recall the excitement of your lecture being delivered on this topic regarding the Talpiot Tomb at the Jerusalem symposium about five years ago. They've certainly taken their time in publishing these papers in book form.


#1 - Nathaniel Merritt - 08/24/2013 - 18:27

John's account of the burial is accurate; but not his accounts of the resurrection!

#2 - Tim Solon - 08/24/2013 - 21:02

Tim, I guess both your sentences are in fact one. I would put it this way, with your permission: if John's account of the burial is accurate, then his accounts of the resurrection are not.

#3 - Eldad Keynan - 08/26/2013 - 10:40

A very concise summary of the excellent and profound theory you proposed five years ago, Eldad, and which I understand will finally be published this Fall. I'm confused as to why James Tabor did not reference it in his recent article of a similar theory, when he was well aware of what you had written?

#4 - John Koopmans - 08/27/2013 - 10:27

Thanks for this Eldad. This is really a good clear article that further advances your primary work on this question. You and I are of course quite close on these matters and I think we are getting to closer as a whole to "unscrambling" the complex of traditions now found in Mark, Matt, Luke, John, and the Gospel of Peter fragments. I remain open to the suggestion, as you and others (Carrier, McCane, et al) have argued, that Jesus' "first burial" was connected to Sanhedrin controlled tombs associated with the site of execution, though as our friend John points, out, I did not get into that aspect of the matter in my latest blog post that you quote. That piece was intended for a different purpose, mainly to isolate John 20:1-10.

However, I have two problems with this theory. First, I am not convinced, as you know, that the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has any connection whatsoever to either the crucifixion or initial burial of Jesus. I think it is late, legendary, and without good solid historical foundation. The place of crucifixion based on our two 1st century sources, Hebrews 13 and Josephus, was the western slope of the Mt of Olives, just "outside the camp" on the east of the city.

But perhaps even more important, taking John again, it seems to me he does reflect some of our earliest, and I think most reliable traditions, we are told that the choice of this particular tomb, a new one that was unfinished, seems to be pure fortuitous happenstance. As John puts things, "Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb...therefore on account of the preparation day they laid Jesus there..." This, to me at least, does not fit so well with the idea of an official burial site used by the Sanhedrin at an established execution spot. After all we are talking about ROMAN crucifixion, not Sanhedrin execution in terms of this execution. It is very unlikely that either Joseph or Nicodemus would just "happen" to have a tomb near the execution site. This tomb was used just to "stash" the body, protecting it from predators or the curious, until after the Sabbath/Seder, and in keeping with burial before sundown.

#5 - James Tabor - 08/30/2013 - 17:38

Thanks, James. It's good to know that others appreciate one's work properly.
As for your crusifixion location suggestion:Hebrews 13:12 does say that the crusifixion took place "out of the gate", but it doesn't tell us what gate it was. Moreover: no doubt, the Golgotha - the crusifixion site - was out of the ancient city walls. But Hebrew 13:12 doesn't say it was the western slopes of Mt. of Olives or anywhere else. Generally, therefore, "out of the gate" is correct. If I recall well, then Jodephus depicted the crosses Titus used to execute Jews during the siege. Under these circumstances, the western slopes of Mt. of Olives were the natural choice: every human in the city could see the large number of crosses, since the Mt. of Olives is higher, and its western slope is facing the city. It was not the case when the Romans crucified Jesus: the crucifixion site was next to the main gate for those who approached the city from west and north. Just the right spot to have a crucifixion site, if one want's to warn the population. Thus I still believe that the crucifixion site and the Sanhedrin tomb were exactly where they are today, under the complex of the Holy Sepulcher.

#6 - Eldad Keynan - 08/31/2013 - 07:52

James, back to John. You correctly do not agree with John's report that placed the initial burial in the Garden Tomb. You say: "It is very unlikely that either Joseph or Nicodemus would just "happen" to have a tomb near the execution site." I wholeheartedly agree. Following Jewish laws and customs, neither Joseph Arimathea, nor Nicodemos, would place Jesus' body in a privately owned tomb, whenever these tombs have been located. These people were rich and probably had private tomb, but not in or close to a public burial ground. Rich Jews had their own lands, in which they had their own familial tombs. On top of this: according to Jewish laws and customs, Jesus' body must have been put in the Sanhedrin tomb. This, just like any other Jewish tomb at the time, could not have been located within the boundaries of the ancient city walls, under the extreme severity of Jewish corpse defilement laws. Back then, the crucifixion site was well out of these boundaries, and so was the Sanhedrin tomb. I, again, suggest the site occupied today by the Holy Sepulcher.

#7 - Eldad Keynan - 08/31/2013 - 11:50

I wrote a rather lengthy response to both Eldad Keynan and James Tabor but decided silence is the best scholarship of the moment. Instead, I am opting out of the Talpiot tomb discussions. Good luck.


#8 - Nathaniel J. Merritt - 08/31/2013 - 21:24

"Joseph Arimathea, a Sanhedrin member, had easy access to the Sanhedrin's tomb. This is exactly what he did after the crucifixion: he removed the body off the cross and laid it in the Sanhedrin's tomb. Then, probably on Saturday night, he returned to the tomb and took the body away. An Empty Tomb is what Mary Magdalene saw later, early on Sunday morning."

A question; if Joseph of Arimathea removed the body from the tomb, why didn't he tell anyone?

#9 - John - 09/07/2013 - 18:52

I do remember at the Symposium in 2008, being rather attracted by your suggestion of a primary burial for Jesus in one of the Sanhedrin tombs. I also remember your previous contribution on this site on jewish burials and my comment #9 to it with questions to which you responded. As far as I am concerned Halakhah is a key to be taken into serious consideration for further understanding of the circumstances of Jesus' death and burial (s), and we still have a long way to go since we are dealing as historians with a-historic sources like the rabbinic texts and the early christian literature. However we are on the right track.....

#10 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 09/15/2013 - 10:51

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