The burial practices common in Judea during the Roman period followed the basic commands of the Mosaic Law, combined with the use of the local stone and secondary burial, and even adopting a few Hellenistic and Roman customs. After death, a corpse would be prepared for burial by washing and anointing with oils, then wrapped in a linen shroud before being placed in the tomb as soon as possible (Rahmani, “Ancient Jerusalem’s Funerary Customs and Tombs”; Matthew 26:12, 27:59; Luke 23:53-56; Mark 15:46; John 11:44, 19:39-40; Acts 5:6, 9:37). In some cases, the corpse may have also been placed in a coffin, as wooden coffins seem to have been used just before the time of Herod in the Hasmonean period, although the prevalence of this practice is unknown (Hachlili, “A Second Temple Period Jewish Necropolis in Jericho”; Magness, “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James”; Luke 7:14).
Because easily cut limestone was available throughout the region, the people utilized tombs carved into a rocky hillside or a shaft into the ground, cut with chisels. Most of these tombs had an entryway which could be closed and opened by moving the rolling stone or blocking stone, a central chamber, multiple extension chambers or burial benches, ossuaries, and various types of pottery (Berlin, “Jewish Life Before the Revolt”; Matthew 27:60; Mark 15:46, 16:5; Luke 23:53-24:2; John 11:38-39, 19:41-20:1). The ritual of placing grave goods does not seem to be attested in all tombs, and in many cases probably only had sentimental significance rather than a reflection about views of the afterlife. The outside of a tomb usually had no markers or decorations, and burials were traditionally supposed to be simple, except in the case of either the wealthy or those emulating Hellenistic and Roman practices, which usually included priestly families (Josephus, Antiquities and Wars). The main chamber of a tomb was normally flanked on three sides with raised benches carved out of the stone, while extensions for additional burials would be carved out from this main chamber (Baruch et al., “The Tomb and Ossuary of Alexa Son of Shalom”). Tombs with burial niches extending out from the main chamber are often referred to as loculi tombs, and these were the most common during the period. A family could continue to add more burial niches as more members of the family were buried in the tomb. The outsides of tombs were occasionally decorated, while the insides may have contained pottery, and rarely inscriptions on the walls (Zissu and Klein, “A Rock-Cut Burial Cave from the Roman Period at Beit Nattif”). In a few instances, coins have been found in association with skulls, reflecting the adoption of the Hellenistic practice of placing a coin in the mouth to pay the boatman Charon for passage across the river Styx into the underworld (Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, 443). The less elaborate and less expensive burials consisted of a simple shaft or trench dug into the ground in which only one person would be interred. Many of these have been found from the Roman period in Judea, but only a small percentage of them are cut deep into the rock, which of course required much more work (Zissu, “’Qumran Type’ Graves in Jerusalem”; Magness, “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James”).
After the flesh had decayed in the tomb, leaving only the bones, the skeletal remains were often placed in ossuaries for secondary burial. An ossuary is a box, usually carved out of stone, which was used to hold the bones of the deceased. Ossuaries in Judea were usually around 2.5 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot, designed to hold only a collection of bones. The emergence of ossuaries in Judea appears to have been part of the adoption of Roman and Hellenistic practices, and in particular the use of cinerary urns and stone boxes to hold the remains of the deceased (Magness, “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James”; Meyers and Chancey, From Alexander to Constantine, 25, 80). Even though the use of a container box was probably adopted, the Roman practice of cremation was not. Hundreds of inscriptions on ossuaries are known, although a much higher percentage of ossuaries are actually uninscribed. Usually, the inscription mentions the name of the deceased and perhaps his or her father, although in rare instances geographical locations, curses, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, and even brothers appear. Ossuary inscriptions vary from rudimentary to highly artistic, including blue or red pigment in the lettering. Decorations are most often geometric, but rosettes and palm trees were also quite common. In Judea, ossuaries were mainly used from around 20 BC until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, while in the wider region their use persisted into the 3rd century AD. According to a few studies, even early Christians in the Jerusalem area used ossuaries in the 1st century (Sukenik, “The Earliest Records of Christianity”; Claremont-Ganneau, Archaeological Researches in Palestine). The controversial James Ossuary may also attest to this practice.
Skeletal analysis has demonstrated that the tombs were primarily used for family groups, that the interred could be of any age group or gender, and that over time ossuaries or burial niches came to be used in secondary burial for several individuals, probably due to space constraints (Nagar and Torgee, “Biological Characteristics of Jewish Burial in the Hellenistic and Early Roman Periods”). The tradition of ancestral tombs goes all the way back to at least the time of the Patriarchs and is embodied in the phrases “gathered to his people” or “gathered to his father” (Genesis 25:8, 49:29; Judges 2:10; 2 Kings 22:20; 2 Chronicles 34:28). The tomb of Jesus, however, was a new tomb which no one had been interred in and which no one used afterward.