Did Jesus Have an Ossuary?

Jewish burials in the first century AD in the area of Jerusalem followed a regular pattern. The tomb itself was dug as a cave in the rock. The typical tomb included a small room that had one or more benches located around it, each about 5 or 6 feet long, as well as smaller cavities or niches that were dug into the walls.

Typical Jewish tomb of the 1st century AD

When a person was buried, they were brought into the tomb and laid on one of the benches (blue in the diagram above). The tomb was then sealed for about a year, after which a family member would return and collect the bones of the deceased. The bones were placed in an ossuary (bone box), which was then pushed back into one of the cavities (yellow in the diagram above). So, did Jesus have an ossuary?

Jewish ossuaries were often decorated with geometric designs, although many were plain. It was not uncommon for ossuaries to be inscribed with the names of the deceased whose bones they contained. Such inscriptions were sometimes made in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or even Latin. One such ossuary was discovered recently when a first century tomb was cleared in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Ossuary from the Talpiot Tomb

The inscription on this ossuary caused something of a stir. Both of the names are common first century Jewish names, but the combination on this ossuary was a bit surprising. The inscription is in Aramaic and reads “Jesus, son of Joseph” (Yeshuah bar Yehoseph, ישׁוע בר יהוסף; be sure to read from right to left!).

Aramaic inscription – “Jesus, son of Joseph”

So was this the ossuary of Jesus of the New Testament? Clearly not. Ossuaries of this sort are carved out of a solid block of limestone, and thus take significant time to make. The family and disciples of Jesus clearly did not see his death coming, despite his many statements that it was imminent, so they would not have acquired an ossuary in anticipation of his death. Nor could they have gotten one while he was in the grave, since it was the Sabbath. Finally, there would have been no use for an ossuary for another year after his death anyway, since the bones could not have been collected until after the body had completely decayed.

Jesus’ body never decayed. As the Psalmist predicted, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, neither will you allow your Holy One to undergo decay!” (Psalm 16:10). Jesus’ opponents knew of his promise to rise again after three days, and they tried to prevent this by sealing his tomb (Matt 27:63-66). However, their efforts were in vain, and he did rise again “the third day, according to the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:4). Had Jesus’ burial followed the normal course of events he almost certainly would have gotten an ossuary eventually, but he didn’t remain in the grave, and thus never had any use for an ossuary.


    1. Good breakdown, Kris. Since he was presumably buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb (which may have been a family tomb) do you think there still could have been ossuaries present, for other members of Joseph’s family?

      • Good question, Jake. The answer probably depends on what you think “new” means (Matt 27:60, John 19:41). I’m probably making a theological assumption here, but I think theres a connection between the newness of the tomb and Jesus–he wasn’t placed in a tomb that was already a place of death and decay, but in a freshly cut tomb that hadn’t yet been “broken in.” If that surmise is correct, then there probably weren’t any ossuaries in it yet [although a fresh, unused ossuary might have been present in anticipation of eventual death]. I wouldn’t doubt that some folks commissioned or bought their ossuaries ahead of time. On the other hand, it was customary to let a year pass after the initial burial before a family member returned to place the bones in an ossuary, so there was no urgency to have an ossuary at the time of death. And we know that a single ossuary was often used to hold the bones of multiple people. Great question, thats my best shot at it!

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