The ESV Study Bible contains some helpful notes on what we know about Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus.
For many centuries, Christians have worshiped at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the belief that this was the place where Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead.
This view was challenged in 1883 by General Charles Gordon, who argued that the Garden Tomb, a site just north of the Old City of Jerusalem, was the true site of Calvary.
According to the biblical writers, the requirements of the site were that it was
1. outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time (Heb. 13:12),
2. in a garden (John 19:41),
3. near the city (John 19:20), and
4. called Golgotha, meaning “place of a skull” (Matt. 27:33).
In the 1960s, excavations were carried out below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, showing that it was built on an isolated mass of rock in the middle of an extensive quarry (which was in use from the eighth until the first century B.C.). This spur of rock was left unquarried in ancient times, because of the poor quality of the limestone. In the sides of the quarry and of this rock, a series of rock-cut tombs of the style of the first century A.D. were found.
This would indicate that the area was not then included within the city walls, as the dead were always buried outside the city.
In support of the second and third points, some fortified remains found in the northern part of the nearby Jewish Quarter excavations have been identified as the Gennath (Garden) Gate mentioned by Josephus in his description of the Second Wall (Jewish War 5.146). It is assumed that this gate derived its name from a garden which lay just to the north outside the gate. Indeed, a layer of arable soil was found above the quarry fill.
The claim that the site could have been known as “the place of the skull” is said to be based on an ancient Jewish tradition reported by early Christian writers, such as Origen and Epiphanius, that the skull of Adam is preserved in this hill.
General Gordon’s identification of the Garden Tomb with that of Christ was based on his discernment of the shape of a skull in the contours of the hill on the western escarpment of which the Garden Tomb is located. It has since been proven that this tomb was, in fact, a typical tomb of the First Temple period and could never have been called a “new tomb” in the time of Christ. Because of its tranquility, however, and its contrast to the bustle of the Holy Sepulchre, the site is today still regarded by many as the tomb of Christ.
On the original tomb, the archaeological notes read as follows:
The Gospel writers tell us that after his death, Jesus’ body was taken to a garden and laid in a newly hewn tomb (Matt. 27:60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41). This is important archaeological information. Tombs from this period usually consisted of several burial chambers, which had loculi (burial niches) cut in the side walls in which to place the body of the deceased, and also arcosolia (arched niches) where ossuaries (chests for bones) were placed.
The fact that some women saw where the body of Jesus was laid (Mark 15:47) and that also, after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciple John could see the grave clothes lying and the face cloth folded (John 20:5–6), indicates that the body of Jesus was laid on a bench opposite the tomb opening.
The truth of this information can be confirmed by archaeology, in particular by tomb architecture. Newly hewn tombs usually consisted of a simple chamber which had three benches around an excavated pit. This pit allowed the workmen to stand upright while working.
Additional chambers with loculi and arcosolia were added later after the initial benches were removed.
A newly hewn tomb could be used for the “primary burial,” which is the first part of the ritual of ossilegium. (This simply means that the body of the deceased, after having been wrapped in linen grave clothes, was placed on a shelf, a bench, or in a niche. About a year later, after the soft tissues had decomposed, the bones were placed in an ossuary. This is called the “secondary burial.”) It would appear, therefore, that the body of Jesus was indeed laid in a tomb that was newly hewn out of the rock.
The entrance to the tomb would have been low, causing the disciples to stoop down in order to look inside and enter it (cf. Luke 24:12; John 20:5).
Only very few of the almost 1,000 excavated tombs of this period in and around Jerusalem had rolling stones to close off the entrance to the tomb. This luxury was restricted to the wealthy. Usually, tomb entrances had square or rectangular closing stones. These stones fit like a cork in a bottle in the tomb opening. The narrow part fit exactly in the inner opening, while the wider part closed off the outer opening.
However, the biblical record does say that the stone was rolled away (Matt. 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 24:2), and therefore a massive rolling stone (4.5 feet/1.4 m in diameter) is shown in this reconstruction drawing. The rare rolling stone entrance would be consistent with the idea that Joseph of Arimathea was “a rich man” (cf. Matt. 27:57).