For years scholars have puzzled over a curious detail mentioned in the Gospel of John concerning Jewish burial practices in the first century. In describing the entombments of Jesus Christ (John 20:7 John 20:7And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.
American King James Version×) and His friend Lazarus (John 11:44 John 11:44And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said to them, Loose him, and let him go.
American King James Version×), John writes of both men having had their bodies wrapped with a linen cloth for burial, but with a separate, smaller cloth wrapped around their heads.
While archaeology has confirmed many details of the Gospels, ancient fabrics are very fragile and decay completely within a few decades unless preserved under extraordinary circumstances. However, in the spring of 2000, a set of extraordinary circumstances led to a once-in-a-lifetime discovery for several archaeologists.
That morning Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson and Professor James Tabor of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, with some of Dr. Tabor's archaeology students, happened on a first-century Jewish tomb in Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley that apparently had been plundered only the night before.
They immediately notified the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) of the crime and, since Gibson worked for the IAA, they received permission to enter and examine the pillaged tomb.
Most tombs in the Jerusalem area, of which more than a thousand are known, were plundered long ago. A few, however, have remained intact over the centuries. This had been one of the few. Now it had been broken into and pillaged for artifacts that could perhaps be sold on the antiquities market.
Inside the multilevel tomb the group found the remains of several ossuaries, small limestone boxes that had held the bones of Jewish men and women who had been entombed there. Regrettably, they had been shattered by the thieves, who then stole fragments that apparently bore the names of those whose bones had been contained in the ossuaries.
The most important find, however, remained undisturbed in one of the tomb's small chambers. "In the third level [of the tomb], which is the lowest level, we found . . . the skeleton of a person with a burial shroud still over his shoulders," reported Dr. Tabor. But even more remarkable, the man's body had been wrapped with two pieces of fabric—one around the body and a separate, smaller piece around the head, just as described in John's Gospel.
Small samples of the fabric were radiocarbon dated to the first century—the time during which Jesus lived. Clearly John had faithfully and accurately recorded this detail of Jewish burial practices from the first century.
Due to the find's importance, announcement of the discovery was postponed until scientific analysis could be completed and material prepared for publication.
How had the fabric been preserved all those centuries? Through a geological fluke, a crack in the limestone from which the tomb had been carved had drained ground moisture away from that one particular chamber, leaving it dry and protected—and leaving us evidence that the Gospels indeed are an accurate historical record of real first-century events. (Source: lecture by Professor James Tabor, International Symposium on Archaeology and the Bible, Jan. 14.)