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, mi·mnesko, 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.”—An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. II, by W. E. Vine, pp. 172, 173.
Such 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 Acts 7:16 and Genesis 23:19, 20.) As has been seen above, whereas the word taʹphos or “grave” gives emphasis to the idea of burial, the words mneʹma and mne·meiʹon 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 monimentum.
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 Being thus withdrawn and also being avoided by the Jews, due to the ceremonial uncleanness connected with them, the areas in which such tombs were located were at times the haunt of crazed or demonized persons.—Matt. 8:28; Mark 5:5.
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. (Luke 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 due mainly to their worship being based on the Hebrew Scriptures and which allowed no veneration of the dead nor fostered any ideas of a conscious existence after death in a spirit world, ideas such as those held by the Egyptians, Canaanites, Babylonians and others. 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 these tombs. Apostasy, of course, did occur among the Israelites and would account for any deviations from the usual attitude toward the dead. Likewise, 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. (Matt. 23:29, 30) Under Greek and Roman influence, the tendency among the wealthy at this time was toward more pretentious tombs.
Aside from the tomb of John the Baptist (Mark 6:29), the principal tombs considered in the 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, as has been true of similar tombs found in Palestine. The context would indicate it was outside the village.—John 11:30-34, 38-44.
The tomb used for Jesus’ burial was a new one belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, and was not a cave but had been carved in a rock of a garden not far from the site of Jesus’ impalement. The tomb had a door requiring a big stone to close it and this stone apparently was of the circular type sometimes used. (Matt. 27:57-60; Mark 16:3, 4; John 19:41, 42) Like other tombs found, it seems to have had within a benchlike shelf or shelves cut into the walls on which bodies could be placed.—Compare Mark 16:5.
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. Inside it gives evidence of being a “new” tomb, since, of the several places for bodies, only one seems to have been completed. 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 recent times, as in Ecuador in 1949, and again in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1962, when two hundred corpses in the cemetery were thrown out of their tombs by a violent earth tremor.—El Tiempo, Bogotá, Colombia, July 31, 1962.
The translation by Johannes Greber (1937) of these verses reads as follows: “Tombs were laid open, and many bodies of those buried were tossed upright. In this posture they projected from the graves and were seen by many who passed by the place on their way back to the city.”
REMEMBRANCE BY GOD
In view of the thought of remembrance underlying the word mne·meiʹon, Jesus’ 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 represented by Gehenna. (Matt. 10:28; 23:33; Mark 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, usually 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 and not be as the “name of the wicked ones [which] will rot.”—Prov. 10:7; compare Ecclesiastes 7:1; see NAME.
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 thief impaled alongside Jesus to “remember me when you get into your kingdom.”—Luke 23:42.