TOMB (Gr. taphos). The word “tomb” is used rather loosely. It may mean a chamber, vault, or crypt, either underground or above. It may refer to a pretentious burying place on a special site. It may be a beehive structure where many bodies can be placed. In general, any burying place is a tomb. The Hebrews were not impressed by the tombs of Egypt, hence their burials remained simple, most burying sites being unmarked. Some kings were interred in a vault in Jerusalem (1Kgs.2.10; 1Kgs.11.43); just where this burial place was located has not been determined. Some mention their “father’s tomb” (2Sam.2.32; Neh.2.3).

Tombs of NT times were either caves or they were holes dug into stone cliffs. Since only grave clothes are mentioned in connection with tombs, it seems certain that the Jews used neither caskets nor sarcophagi. Tombs carried no inscriptions, no paintings. Embalming, learned in Egypt (Gen.50.2), was soon a lost art (John.11.39). A general opening gave access to vaults that opened on ledges to provide support for the stone doors. The door to such a grave weighed from one to three tons (.9 to 2.7 metric tons), hence the miracle of the stone being rolled away from Jesus’ tomb (Luke.24.2; John.20.1).

One of the Royal Tombs at Petra.
In the Tomb of the Kings in Jerusalem.
Tombs in Jerusalem from the First Temple period.

TOMB. A place of burial, which in the ancient Near E ranged from simple interment in the ground to burial in natural or hewed-out caves, man-made mausoleums, and pyramid tombs. Because objects of daily use were frequently buried with the dead, tombs have been a rich source of information about cultural levels and religious beliefs of ancient peoples.


The following are the most commonly used words for “tomb” but are also tr. by other words because Eng. usage varies.

Shafts or niches cut into the rock into which a body or a sarcophagus could be placed are called technically by archeologists a kôk (pl., kôkîm). The kôkîm were characteristic tombs of the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.


The practice of burying the dead is ancient. The earliest burial places must have been extremely simple, consisting of no more than shallow graves in the ground that have long since been obliterated by erosion or by cultivation. Bodies were carefully placed, sometimes in a tightly or loosely flexed position, and sometimes on their backs in an extended position. Graves of this type dating from the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods have been found in caves at Wadi el-Mugharah. A Natufian culture of the Mesolithic period (c. 8000 b.c.) practiced communal burial; more than sixty persons were buried at the Mugharet el-Wad on Mount Carmel. Excavations at Jericho reveal that in the Pottery Neolithic period (c. 5000 b.c.), there may have been no formal burial at all—just exposure of the body.

During the Neolithic period, tombs were made by lining and covering a pit with stones; the boxlike structure formed is known as a cist (from Lat., meaning “box”); it could be considered a forerunner of the coffin. Tombs of this kind have been found at Teleilat el-Ghassul from the Chalcolithic period. A megalithic tomb of Neolithic times called a dolmen has been found in various parts of palestine; it was similar to a cist but much larger. The dolmen was constructed by placing large stone slabs on end to form the sides and a large stone on top as a covering; the structure suggested the form of a primitive house. A large field of dolmens is at el-’Adeimeh, E of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho. During the Early Bronze Age (Proto-Urban period), for the first time in Pal. natural caves were used for tombs or else the tombs were hewed out of rock. The limestone hills of Pal. are honeycombed with caves that provided natural sepulchres. Bodies were placed in them in various kinds of containers and safeguarded by large stones placed in front of them. Several hundred bodies were interred in them over a long period of time; at a later period, multiple burials became less common. One of the best known is the cave of Machpelah that Abraham bought from the Hittites when Sarah died (Gen 23:4-16). Approach to the artificial caves hewn out of rock was made by way of a shaft, usually rectangular, sunk vertically to the bottom varying in diameter from three to ten ft., and in depth from three to fifteen ft. The shaft was filled with debris to make sure that the tomb would not be disturbed. Sometimes several chambers connected by adjoining shafts were hollowed out in a family’s burial place; this kind of burial was popular down to the Gr. period. The bodies were originally placed in the tomb complete, but when the available space was all taken, many of the bones of earlier burials were thrown out or sometimes collected in a common pile in a corner of the tomb. It appears that frequently only the skull was considered worthy of continuing care, for the rest of the body, even before the flesh had completely decayed, was often no longer treated with any reverence.

In the same period, burial was sometimes made in huge pottery urns in which the body was placed in a prenatal position, with the knees drawn up to the face. At Byblos (ancient Gebel) urns were large enough to contain the flexed body of an adult. The skeleton of an infant was found curled up in a bowl at Tepe Gawra (prob. from the fourth millennium b.c.). A later development of the rockhewn tomb are those with columned or carved façades such as are preserved at Petra. The earliest Mesopotamian tombs were located underground and often were vaulted or domed. The tomb of Queen Shub-ad and her husband at Ur contained a large retinue of servants buried wth the royal couple as well as numerous personal possessions, in the Egyp. manner.

The most elaborate burial customs developed in Egypt; no ancient people gave more attention to burial than the Egyptians. The mastaba evolved from the simple trench into which the body had been placed and covered with a mound of earth that served as the grave of those who were not of the royal families. Several mastabas placed on top of each other in receding fashion served as the origin of the stepped pyramid which later evolved into the square-based pyramidal form usually associated with the three great pyramids at Gizeh. Mummification required an elaborate preparation of the body for burial; it involved essentially desiccation of the body, removal of the viscera for placement in Canopic jars of alabaster or marble, followed by careful wrapping of the body in linen sheets sometimes twenty-four yards long. Elaborate provisions were made for food, water, entertainment, and whatever might make the future life more comfortable. Astonishing quantities of wealth were buried with the pharaohs. At a later period, the pyramid tomb was replaced by the rock-cut tomb found in the Valley of the Kings in an isolated section of the Libyan Desert. The Israelites were surely familiar with the Egyp. process of mummification, but they never practiced it generally; nor did they ever practice cremation, as did the Babylonians and Romans. Rather, they washed the dead, then dressed them or wrapped them in grave clothes. The clothing or wrappings were sprinkled with sweet-smelling crystals of balm. The body was then laid on a bier or stretcher and carried by friends or relatives to the place of burial (John 19:39, 40). Mourners walked beside the deceased, weeping and wailing loudly.

Bodies were sometimes placed in cisterns. Fifteen bodies have been found in a cistern at Gezer with a number of spear heads. In the Mycenaean period (c. 1580-1100 b.c.) burial vaults, called tholos, or beehive tombs, were constructed; they were roofed in corbelled masonry and obviously imitated in shape a primitive house form. They were usually dug in the side of a hill, although in a few cases they were built above ground. They were approached by a horizontal passage open to the sky and normally at right angles to the hill slope. The burial chambers were oval. round, or rectangular. They were family graves and were opened each time a new body was placed in them. Afterward the door was again blocked and the passage way (or dromos) was filled with earth to discourage grave robbers. About fifty of these have been excavated in Greece to date.

Sarcophagi, or coffins with lids, were never used generally in Pal. as were ossuaries for the subsequent gathering of the bones. Wooden and stone sarcophagi were used in Egypt from the most ancient times. The rulers of the city of Byblos (Gebel) in Lebanon, which early had close relations with Egypt, were buried in stone sarcophagi toward the end of the second and beginning of the first millennium, b.c. They were carved from natural rock and were sculptured on the sides and ends with depictions of the ruler and his attendants and contained a Phoen. inscr. on the lid. The best known of these is the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos, dating probably from the 10th cent. b.c. In Pal., a clay sarcophagus first appeared in the 12th cent. at Beth-shan and then in other places. These cylinders of baked clay are anthropoid in shape, just large enough for a body, with a removable lid at the head. They reflect foreign burial customs, perhaps Egyp.

During the Iron Age, a further development took place in the rock-hewn tomb. The floor in the middle of the burial chamber was made lower so that at the sides benches were left on which the dead were placed in an outstretched position. This type of tomb became known as the bench tomb (called by some “divan tomb”) and was characteristic of the OT period. There were usually three of these benches in the more or less rectangular shaped tomb so that three corpses could be placed in them at one time. When later burials took place, one bench at a time was cleared by placing its bones in a common pit, which was usually located in a corner of the grave chamber. The fact that they were used for successive burials explains why there were no grave inscrs. (giving such information as name of person buried there). These tombs belonged to individual families and were usually used for many generations; they were regarded as important possessions of the family. Hence, in a very real sense, the people were “gathered” to their fathers in the family tomb (cf. Gen 49:33). During the Hel.-Rom. period, variations of the bench tomb evolved. The bench tomb developed to the point that an arch vaulted over the individual bench. A further development was the carving of a trough-shaped depression in the bench into which the corpse was placed.

The next significant development was tombs with drawer-like crypts (Heb., kôkîm). In this type, long, low crypts were recessed into the rock, each designated for a single burial. They were usually arranged in several rows, one on top of the other at right angles with the wall of the burial chamber. Some of these were often extensive plans with a number of chambers adjoining each other, each with drawer-like crypts and a broad open vestibule as entrance, which was sometimes embellished with placements of columns, squared pilasters, etc. Individual burial began with the drawer-like galleries, which were closed with a stone slab after burial, and no future burials were made in them; therefore grave inscrs. began to appear in the graves. They are found, for example, on the burial structure at Marissa (now Tell Sandahanneh) and date from the 3rd cent. b.c. The walls of this tomb were elaborately ornamented with painted designs and scenes; the colors were still brilliant when the tomb was first opened but have since faded. The paintings include representations of animals, vases, and musical instruments. The passageway from the vestibule to the first burial chamber was quite small to make it easy to close the burial place. This passageway was often sealed off by means of a rolling stone that could be rolled aside. A large groove was hewn in the rock into which the stone was fitted. These stones were too heavy to be easily moved. It was in this type of tomb that the body of Jesus was placed. The women found the stone rolled away when they went to the tomb on the third day (Matt 28:2; Mark 16:3, 4; Luke 24:2; John 20:1).

During the Hel. period, tower-like burial monuments were constructed above the ground next to or over the subterranean burial place, which made its location visible from a distance. Examples of this kind of monument are found on the Phoen. coast at ’Amrit. Also the burial monuments in the Kidron Valley at Jerusalem, called “The Tomb of Absalom” and the “Tomb of Zacharias” are of this type; they date from the Herodian period.

As emphasis on separate burial continued, a new practice developed of preserving the bones of the deceased. Instead of placing the bones in a common pit after removing them from the burial bench or burial trough to make room for a new body as had been formerly done, they were placed in a special chest, called an ossuary. A number of small limestone chests dating from the 1st cent. b.c. and the first two centuries a.d. have been found. There were prob. also wooden ossuaries which time has obliterated. They were often decorated with carved rosette and geometric designs, and the name of the deceased engraved on them. They were placed in the burial chambers. Their inscrs. have proved to be a valuable source for the supply of personal names of the NT period. One inscr. contained the words “Do not open.” Ossuaries of the 1st and 2nd centuries a.d. have been found in a necropolis near the “Dominus Flevit,” on the western side of the Mount of Olives with the name Jesus written in Hebrew-Aramaic as well as the symbol of the cross.

During the Pers. period, rulers in Phoenicia were buried in anthropoid or chest-shaped stone sarcophagi, esp. in Sidon. Marble and stone sarcophagi were also found in Sidon from the Hel. period with beautiful examples of Gr. relief art, such as the well-known “Alexander sarcophagus,” which depicts events from the life of Alexander the Great. This type of sarcophagus did not appear in Pal. until the Rom. period. Large numbers of lead and stone sarcophagi of this type have been found in the Jewish cemetery of Beth-shearim. Tombs of eight of the nine great Pers. kings have been identified. That of Cyrus the great (c. 530 b.c.) is a small structure of simple massive stone, still standing on a lonely stretch of desert near Parsagadae NE of Persepolis. When Alexander the Great campaigned in Persia, he found the tomb of Cyrus, but with its treasures already stolen and the body of the king lying on the floor. The tombs of the Achaemenid kings Darius I, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II, were cut in solid rock side by side near Persepolis, and are reminiscent of the rock-hewn buildings of Petra.

Every type of tomb is found in the Rom. world. They early built elaborate tombs, sometimes of the tholos type, sometimes representing the interior of a Rom. house, richly carved and painted. There are pyramid tombs (Gaius Cestius, Rome, before 12 b.c.), circular or tumulus types such as that erected by Augustus for himself in Rome (28 b.c.), and larger and more monumental tombs like that of Hadrian. The Romans, however, preferred cremation, after which the ashes of the deceased were placed in columbaria, which resembled the filing-case arrangement of modern American crematories. The Appian Way, leading into Rome, is lined with hundreds of tombs of the well-to-do. Paul must have seen many of these tombs as he made his way from the port of Puteoli to Rome (Acts 28:13-16).

Tombs hewn in solid rock and grouped together were used by the Etruscans as family burial places. This type of burial place, called catacombs, was used during early Christian times in Rome by both Christians and Jews. The catacombs of Rome form a vast labyrinth of narrow passages usually from three to four ft. wide with small chambers at intervals, which were excavated at successive levels. The dead were buried in the galleries in long horizontal recesses, or compartments, in the walls, stretched out to full length. Sarcophagi were not used. Some compartments held four or more corpses, although most held only one. They were carefully sealed by slabs of marble or huge tiles cemented together. Epitaphs were painted or engraved on these tiles, giving the names of the occupants and often a Christian emblem, such as the sacred monogram, the fish, or the shepherd. The family would hold a funeral feast in its vault both on the day of burial and on the anniversary. Some of the underground passages contained larger halls and connected suites of chapels that were prob. constructed for congregational worship during the era of persecution. Baptistries have also been found in the catacombs. The catacombs were used as places of refuge for which they were well suited because of the intricacy of their design and because of their access through secret passages to escape routes. The major part of the catacombs belong to the 3rd and early part of the 4th cent. a.d. When Jerome visited them in a.d. 354, interment in them had become rare. Other catacombs have been found at Syracuse, Malta, Sicily, Alexandria, and Sheikh Abreiq in Pal. (identified as Beth-shearim).


Cemeteries were generally located in Biblical times outside inhabited settlements, usually near the city or village, even as in modern times. Every city had its own burial place. The dead were generally buried in the ground, away from dwellings, and rarely within the occupied settlement itself. The tombs were usually prominently marked, sometimes painted with whitewash, so that no one would be accidentally defiled by contact with the dead (Lev 21:1; Num 6:6; 19:13).

Tombs were located in gardens attached to dwellings (2 Kings 21:18, 26), within city walls (1 Kings 2:10), on elevated places (2 Kings 23:16; Isa 22:16); on hillsides (2 Chron 32:33), in natural and artificial caves. The most common burial place was a necropolis located near the city or village, often on a rocky terrain that was not suitable for agriculture.


Ancient tombs from all periods of the ancient Near E show that it was common practice to bury articles of varying value with the deceased. No one gave more attention to providing for the dead than the Egyptians because of their belief that any future life was simply an extension and glorification of the one they had lived on earth. Every kind of convenience and article of daily life was buried with them including clothing, jewelry, perfumes, tables, chairs, various implements, boats, even embalmed pets, weapons, lamps, all to be used in the afterlife. The known treasures in them were so great that grave robbing was a common practice. Ancient rulers had a great dread of having their tombs plundered and took every precaution to make the site secure, but rarely were successful. It was a sign of great evil to be removed from a tomb (Isa 14:18, 19), but an even greater calamity was to be deprived of burial (2 Kings 9:36, 37; Jer 8:1-3). As a mark of respect, watch was kept over the tomb (Job 21:32). Offerings of food and drink suggest a belief in life after death, and the cult of the dead was widespread in ancient civilizations; even graves of Neanderthal men have been discovered containing offerings of food. Canaanite tombs have been found at Ras Shamra with the remains of food and jars with what had once been milk; tombs were provided with openings so that food and drink could be brought for the dead. The rich findings in the tombs of Tutankhamun and Queen Shub-ad provide breathtaking evidence of the elaborate burial provisions for royalty in ancient Egypt and Sumeria.

Tombs of the kings.

The term “City of David” is not to be identified with the entire city of Jerusalem but is a synonym for the citadel or stronghold of Zion. Evidence points to the triangular hill wedged between the valleys of the Tyropoeon and the Kidron, and overlooking the gardens and pools of Siloam as being the location of the City of David. In this region of the old city of David, long horizontal tunnels have been found in the rock, which may have been the burial place of the Davidic family. There is no definite evidence by which the garden of Uzza may be identified. Some later traditions have located the tomb of David in Bethlehem, in the area of Gethsemane, or on the SW hill of Jerusalem. There is a socalled Tomb of the Kings of Judah located in the N part of Jerusalem that is actually the tomb of Helen, Queen of Adiabene, a district in Upper Mesopotamia. It is mentioned by Josephus (Jos. Antiq. XX. ii. 1, 3) and antedates the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 by ten or twenty years.


J. Garstang, Burial Customs of Ancient Egypt (1907); G. A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible, 7th ed. rev. (1937), 222-226; J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (1946), 353-398 for catacombs of Rome; S. Krauss, “The Sepulchres of the Davidic Dynasty,” PEQ (July-Oct. 1947), 102-112; S. Yeivin, “The Sepulchers of the Kings of the House of David,” JNES, VII, No. 1 (1948), 30-45; N. Avigad, Ancient Monuments in the Kidron Valley (1954), 144-146; R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, III (1955), 190-196, for process of mummification; M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1955), 396-403; L. Woolley, Excavations at Ur (1955), 52-90, for tomb of Queen Shub-ad; G. E. Wright, “Philistine Coffins and Mercenaries,” BA, XXII, No. 3 (1959), 54-66; W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, rev. (1960), 157-159; K. Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land (1960); M. Noth, The Old Testament World (1966), 168-173.

See also

  • Burial