In the Syrian Chapel, also called the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a low, narrow passageway is cut into the side of the wall that leads to two complete 1st Century tombs that tradition holds are the tombs of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
The entrance to the two tombs is a hole in the Syrian Chapel that visitors must bend over to make their way through. Down the short corridor cut into the rock is a room that has two complete tombs protruding off the antechamber. Each tomb is hewn into the massive rock in the shape of an arch. Each tomb is deep enough to lay a body and they are side by side. The handiwork necessary to complete the tombs is amazing and the time and craftsmanship needed to finish with these usable burial places are impressive.
The fact that two first century Jewish tombs sit right outside the Syrian Chapel is significant for two reasons. First, tradition holds that Joseph of Arimathea was buried in one of the tombs and Nicodemus was buried in the other tomb. Part of this tradition comes from the fact that according to Scripture, Joseph of Arimathea used his own tomb to place the body of Jesus. Though Jesus only used the tomb a short while, tradition says that Joseph refused to be buried in the same place that Jesus had been buried. Thus, he needed a different tomb when he did. This, according to tradition, is that tomb.
Another important fact about this being a first-century Jewish tomb, regardless of if it is Joseph’s actual tomb or not, is that it shows that this area was used for burying Jewish people. The significance about that is the Jews would only bury people outside of the walls of the city. Because contact with a deceased body made someone unclean, the community only buried their dead outside of the city walls. The difficulty comes in the fact that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher actually sits inside of the walls of Jerusalem. But, how can this be if the Jews would only bury someone outside of the walls? Can this actually be the burial site of Jesus if it is inside the walls?
These two Jewish tombs confirm what archeologists have discovered. Where the church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands was outside of the city walls in the first century. Sometime during the AD 40’s, Herod Agrippa extended the walls of the city to the north which placed the current position of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inside the walls whereas it had been outside of the walls before the expansion. Since this is where Jesus’ tomb is located, this fact supports that Jesus was crucified and buried outside of the city walls, though the current location is inside the walls of Jerusalem.
The Jewish tombs just off from the Syrian Chapel give further confirmation that the Jews used this site as a burial ground and that the Gospel accounts are true.