Monday, April 13, 2009

The Rolling Stone

Question: How do we know the stone [on Jesus’ tomb] was too heavy for anyone to roll away? How did they get it there in the first place? (posted by Anonymous, 4-13-09)

Many tombs in first-century Israel were blocked by a stone, either square or round. Rolling stone tombs have a large disk-shaped rock door that rolls in a stone slot, usually sloped downward. Rolling stones recovered by archeologists are 4-6 feet across and a foot thick, and weighed a ton or more (my calculation, but seems to match the estimates given by others). They were thus very hard to open, but easy to close. Presumably several men would roll the stone up the slot and wedge it in place when the tomb was needed, and then it could be easily closed by removing the wedge. Such tombs were designed to hold entire families, so they needed to be reopened occasionally. In between openings, they were often sealed with clay, although Jesus’ tomb probably had not yet been sealed in this fashion. Rolling stone tombs were mainly used by wealthy families, matching the gospels’ account that Jesus was placed in tomb space donated by Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea.

Matthew and Mark record that the stone was too big for the three women to move (see Mark 16:1-5) and that it was "very large." One later Christian document says that twenty men were needed to roll away the stone, but this is probably exaggeration.

Why does the weight of the stone matter? In the past few centuries, skeptics have claimed that Jesus was not really dead (also an unlikely claim), and that he awoke in the tomb and rolled away the stone. Others have claimed that the women stole the body. The size of the stone makes both claims historically unlikely.

If you watch these video clips of resurrection expert William Lane Craig, you can hear why such conspiracy theories are not accepted by reputable historians. Even more important, Craig correctly points out that almost all Jesus scholars, whether they are Christians or not, agree that Jesus really died, that his tomb was found empty, and that the disciples had some experience that convinced them that Jesus was alive.

Nerd note on the weight of the stone: Archeological records list rolling stone size as radius 0.7-0.8 m and width 0.3-0.4 m. That produces a volume of about 0.5 cubic meters (pi*r^2 *w). Workable stone such as granite weighs about 2500 kg (5500 lbs) per cubic meter, giving a weight of at least 2750 lbs.

The picture: Another rolling stone tomb outside Jerusalem. Jesus' tomb was covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre centuries ago, and the opening was destroyed.

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