Sabbatical Notes, Week 8: The Kokh Tomb

The events of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land are still too near for me to write about with any kind of perspective, so today I thought I’d offer you a short example of the recontextualization of Jesus’ story that I have learned from walking the land where Jesus walked.

Here’s a bit of Luke’s Gospel that never made sense to me.

Now there was a man named Joseph who was a member of the council. He was a good and righteous man. He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He was from the Jewish city of Arimathea and eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. This man went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Taking it down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried. (Luke 23:50-53)

Luke tells us that Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body in a tomb in which no one had ever been buried. Well, duh, Luke, says my American point of view. Why would he put Jesus in a tomb with someone else’s body in it? The last line always seemed extraneous to me until now.

Now I’ve seen a tomb like the one Joseph used for Jesus’ body, and these verses make perfect sense. People of Jesus’ time employed “Kokh” tombs, which were hewn into rock and consisted of a preparation room and two or more body-length chambers. (See the picture above.) The body was laid out in the preparation room for anointing and other ritual purposes. Once those were completed, the body was moved to one of the narrow chambers, where it was sealed in with a rock and mud. In the dry environment, the body took two to three years to decay inside the tomb. Once the decaying process was complete, the chamber was unsealed. The bones were removed and placed in an ossuary (a box for bones). Then the chamber was reused for another body. Each chamber was sealed once it held a body, and the whole tomb was sealed with a rolling stone.

So when Luke tells us the tomb had never been used before, he’s saying that this cycle had yet to take place in this particular tomb. The verse makes sense in this context of the ancient practice, but does not make sense when we bring our modern American context to the verse. For the entire history of the United States, there was so much land that burying people forever just seemed natural. (By the way, in many places in Europe, where land is scarcer, the practice is much closer to what I described above.)

It is so easy to bring our modern perspective to the Bible, and I’m not saying it is wrong to do that. But sometimes modern perspective misinterprets or misunderstands the text because ancient practice is foreign to modern experience. Unlike other ancient texts, the Bible transcends time and speaks into each new era of humanity. Indeed, prayerful study of the Bible is a conversation between ancient and modern context held within the transporting creativity of the Holy Spirit.

The kokh tomb in the picture above was unearthed in Nazareth. It dates to the time of Jesus. Similar tombs exist adjacent to Golgotha beyond the walls of ancient Jerusalem. Now that I have seen what these tombs look like, I can see in my mind’s eye the women walking toward the tomb before dawn, spices in hand, ready to anoint Jesus’ body. They are wondering who will roll the stone away for them. Now that I’ve seen a stone resting at the entrance of an ancient tomb, I would wonder too.

2 thoughts on “Sabbatical Notes, Week 8: The Kokh Tomb

  1. My husband and I have just returned from a trip that included a visit to a New Orleans graveyard, where most tombs are above ground. Some might be considered “temporary”: a body is placed in one of several spaces in a building that looks a little like an overgrown set of post office boxes, is left for a couple of years until decomposition is through, then the remains are swept out the back to make room for the next “occupant”.
    Thank you for this look at an ancient practice that has continued to recent times on the other side of the world.

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