A burial place in which the remains of a deceased person were placed with the hope that he would be remembered, especially by God.
Concerning the Greek words used to refer to a burial place or tomb, A. T. Robertson in Word Pictures in the New Testament (1932, Vol. V, p. 87) states: “Taphos (grave) presents the notion of burial (thapto, to bury) as in Matt. 23:27, mnemeion (from mnaomai, mimnesko, to remind) is a memorial (sepulchre as a monument).” Related to mne·meiʹon is the word mneʹma, which appears to have a corresponding meaning, referring also to “a memorial or record of a thing or a dead person, then a sepulchral monument, and hence a tomb.”
Such a tomb might be an excavated grave in the ground or, as was often the case among the Hebrews, might be a natural cave or a rock-cut vault. (Compare Ac 7:16 and Ge 23:19, 20.) As has been seen above, whereas the word taʹphos (grave) gives emphasis to the idea of burial, the words mneʹma (tomb) and mne·meiʹon (memorial tomb) lay stress on the thought of preserving the memory of the deceased person. These latter words, therefore, appear to carry a greater idea of permanence than taʹphos; they are related to the Latin word monumentum.
It seems evident that Jewish burial tombs were customarily built outside the cities, a major exception being those of the kings. The references to such tombs in the Christian Greek Scriptures would all appear to place them outside the cities, except the reference to David’s tomb at Acts 2:29. Being thus withdrawn and also being avoided by the Jews, because of the ceremonial uncleanness connected with them, the areas in which such tombs were located were at times the haunt of crazed or demonized persons.
Not Ornate. While serving as a remembrance of the deceased person, the Jewish memorial tombs in general do not appear to have been ornate or ostentatious. Some were so unpretentious and inconspicuous that men might walk upon them without being aware of it. (Lu 11:44) Although it was the custom of the pagan peoples around them to make their tombs as lavish as their circumstances allowed, the early Jewish tombs that have been found are notable for their simplicity. This was because the Jews’ worship allowed no veneration of the dead and did not foster any ideas of a conscious existence after death in a spirit world, ideas such as those held by the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Babylonians. Thus, while many critics make the claim that the worship of the nation of Israel was, from early times, syncretistic, that is, resulting from the union of conflicting beliefs and having developed by the addition of tenets and practices from earlier religions, the fundamental resistance to such religious corruption is evidenced once again in the plainness of their tombs. Deviations, however, did occur. Jesus shows that in his day it was the practice of the scribes and Pharisees to decorate the memorial tombs of the prophets and others. (Mt 23:29, 30) Under Greek and Roman influence, the tendency among the wealthy at that time was toward more pretentious tombs.
Aside from the tomb of John the Baptizer (Mr 6:29), the principal tombs considered in the Christian Greek Scriptures are those of Lazarus and of Jesus. Lazarus’ tomb was typically Jewish, being a cave with a stone lying against the opening, which opening may have been relatively small, if we conclude that similar tombs found in Palestine are comparable. The context would indicate it was outside the village.
Jesus’ Tomb. The tomb used for Jesus’ burial was a new one belonging to Joseph of Arimathea; it was not a cave but had been quarried in a rock-mass situated in a garden not far from the place of Jesus’ impalement. The tomb had an entrance requiring a big stone to close it, and this stone apparently was of the circular type sometimes used. (Mt 27:57-60; Mr 16:3, 4; Joh 19:41, 42) It may have had, within it, benchlike shelves cut into the walls or burial niches cut vertically into the wall on which bodies could be placed.
Claims are made for two principal sites as being the original location of Jesus’ tomb. One is the traditional site over which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been erected. The other site is that known as the Garden Tomb, which is cut out of a huge stone protruding from the side of a hill and is outside even the present city walls. No definite proof exists, however, that either of these places authentically represents the memorial tomb in which Jesus was laid.
‘Tombs Opened’ at Jesus’ Death. The text at Matthew 27:52, 53 concerning “the memorial tombs [that] were opened” as the result of an earthquake occurring at the time of Jesus’ death has caused considerable discussion, some holding that a resurrection occurred. However, a comparison with the texts concerning the resurrection makes clear that these verses do not describe a resurrection but merely a throwing of bodies out of their tombs, similar to incidents that have taken place in more recent times, as in Ecuador in 1949 and again in Sonsón, Colombia, in 1962, when 200 corpses in the cemetery were thrown out of their tombs by a violent earth tremor.
Remembrance by God. In view of the underlying thought of remembrance associated with mne·meiʹon, the use of this word (rather than taʹphos) at John 5:28 with regard to the resurrection of “all those in the memorial tombs” seems particularly appropriate and contrasts sharply with the thought of complete repudiation and effacement from all memory as represented by Gehenna. (Mt 10:28; 23:33; Mr 9:43) The importance attached to burial by the Hebrews (see BURIAL, BURIAL PLACES) is indicative of their concern that they be remembered, primarily by Jehovah God in whom they had faith as “the rewarder of those earnestly seeking him.” (Heb 11:1, 2, 6) Inscriptions of the tombs of Israelite origin are very rare and, when found, often consist of only the name. The outstanding kings of Judah left no magnificent monuments with their praises and exploits engraved thereon, as did the kings of other nations. Thus it seems evident that the concern of faithful men of ancient times was that their name be in the “book of remembrance” described at Malachi 3:16.
The basic idea of remembrance involved in the original Greek words for “tomb” or “memorial tomb” also gives added meaning to the plea of the evildoer impaled alongside Jesus to “remember me when you get into your kingdom.”