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A Tomb Cut in the Rock

According to the staging arrangement selected by Seneca the tomb was at the left of the stage, whereas the place of the crucifixion was assumed to be further to the left, offstage. The left of the stage had been used in the Prologue as the place where Jesus was arrested. This is the reason why John states (19:41): For indeed there was in the place where he was crucified a grove. The evangelist refers to the grove by the same word which he used in describing the place where Jesus went for his agony and arrest: where there was a grove. The Gospel of Peter states that Jesus was buried in the same grove where he had been arrested. This so-called gospel appears to be a summary of a passion play which adapted the tragedy of Seneca in order to make it agree as much as possible with the canonical gospels. From the account of John one gathers that the same stage props, trees and stones, that indicated that the left of the stage was a grove in the Prologue, were still there when the left of the stage was used for Act Four. However, in Act Four something was added to indicate a tomb. This is the reason why John states that in the grove there was a new tomb in which nobody had ever been buried (19:41). In the Prologue no tomb was to be seen there. Hence Mark implies that Joseph removed a stone in front of the tomb cut in the rock (15:46).

            It is probable that the stage props were not changed from the first to the last act of Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus. When the play opened Jesus was at the left of the stage in the grove that the synoptic gospels call Gethsemane.[1] Probably the grove was indicated not only by trees but also by a rocky wall of some sort. In Act Four Joseph rolled out a stone and revealed a tomb cut in this rocky wall.

            In Euripides’ The Trojan Women Pyrrhos, despite the lateness of the hour, has given in to the tearful begging of his prisoner Andromache and granted that the crushed body of her son Astyanax be buried, and has charged the herald Talthybius with carrying out this duty. Talthybius, having asked Hecuba to wrap the corpse, announces that he would take upon himself the task of cleansing the wounds, washing the body, opening a tomb for it, sealing the tomb, and putting a marker on it. He concludes: And now I am going to break open for it a cut tomb (line 1153), meaning a tomb already cut. By using a tomb already cut, he achieves the needed result of saving time, as he explains in the following two concluding lines. Seneca must have followed the phrasing of Euripides about the cut tomb; this would account for the expressions used by the gospels.

Mark (15:46):         Deposited him in a monument that was already cut in the rock.

Matthew (27:60):         Placed it in a new tomb of his that he had cut in the rock.

Luke (23:53):         Placed him in a newly-hewn tomb in which nobody had ever been buried.

            The parallel with Euripides makes clear that the important point was that Joseph used a tomb that had been already cut, that is, that was already there. All this happened because speed was of the essence; in the case of The Trojan Women because the Greek fleet was leaving the shore of Troy and in the case of Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus because the evening and the Sabbath was approaching. Matthew, in order to explain this sudden appearance of a tomb on the stage states that Joseph deposited the corpse in a new tomb of his that he had cut in the rock (27:60). This strange statement, which implies that the tomb belonged to Joseph and that he just cut it in the rock, reflects the circumstance that up to the moment when Joseph removed the stone the audience did not know that there was a tomb there. Mark had reported this detail correctly, but Matthew, by editorializing the text of Mark according to his own visualization, added the confusing details that the tomb belonged to Joseph and that he had cut it himself. Luke (23:53) reports more simply that Joseph placed him in a newly-hewn tomb in which nobody had ever been buried. This statement reflects the surprise of the evangelist at the fact that there was nothing to indicate that the left of the stage was a funerary area. A Jew and a Roman would have expected a burial place to be located in an area crowded with funereal monuments. Luke reported the words of Seneca correctly, but missed the implication that the tomb had not been cut for Jesus. The statements of the evangelists reflect the puzzlement that arose in the mind of a Christian audience not familiar with the conventions of the Graeco-Roman stage.

            Every ancient tragedy contains somewhere towards the end a celebration of a tabu tomb.[2] This observation by Gilbert Murray, whose pioneering and as yet unsurpassed studies of the cultic origins of Greek drama we have already cited, explains why Seneca’s tragedy laid so much stress on the burial of Jesus and the subsequent mourning by the chorus of women at the tomb.

            It would seem that the earliest Christians were influenced by Seneca’s stage setting in locating the places of the Passion. Because of the stage conventions followed by Seneca, to this day the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is understood to cover both the place of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus.[3] But it is most unlikely that in a true historical situation Jerusalem’s place of public executions and the burial area would have been so close to each other. [4]  But because of the stage conventions followed by Seneca, early Christians had to assume that Jesus was buried near the very place where he was crucified.

            The burial of Jesus was acted out on the left side of the stage, which was also the side where the scene of his arrest had taken place. This was part of a dramatic necessity according to the conventions of ancient theater. Since the left side of the stage represented the area outside the city, it had to be the grove where Jesus fled at the beginning and it had to be the place where he was buried.

            The reason for assuming that Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus began and ended with action in the same grove is that the play of Seneca drew heavily on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. We have noted that the Prologue of Seneca’s tragedy of Jesus is closely modeled after Sophocles’ play. Further, the main theme of Oedipus at Colonus are the unspeakable sufferings of an innocent man. In the opening scene of Sophocles’ play Oedipus arrives to take refuge in the grove of the Eumenides at Colonus. There he sits on a stone and announces:

from the place where I am sitting I will not ever move out

meaning that he will die there. The stone is important and is referred to several times in the play. When, later, a terrifying storm accompanied by the noise of thunder and earthquake announces that the moment for Oedipus’ death has come, he goes offstage, and a messenger explains that after he approached the rocky tomb he disappeared mysteriously. The play ends with the two daughters of Oedipus mourning for their father in a manner similar to the mourning of the Marias in the Gospels. It could be that Seneca was inspired by Sophocles when he conceived of Jesus as being buried in a tomb cut in the rock and closed by a stone.

                        Joseph rolled a stone against the door of the tomb (Mk 15:46). He was just in time. This information is provided by Luke (23:54): And it was Friday and the Sabbath was manifesting itself. In the play the time datum was provided in the recitation of the women. The gospels indicate that the women had come close to Joseph and were facing left, observing what he was doing. Particularly revealing is Luke 23:55-56:

The women, having followed... observed the tomb and how his body was being placed; then, turning around, they prepared aromatic spices and perfumed ointments.

Practically all interpreters understand that turning around means going home; but the Revised Standard Version translates more correctly by a vague and non­committal returning. In truth, the verb hypostrepho is a technical term that indicates a movement of the chorus, an about face; the Greek word strophe, referred to the gyrations of the chorus on the stage. Turning around signifies that the chorus made an about-face and crossed the stage, from left to right.

            Matthew (26:60) relates that Joseph, after rolling the stone to close the tomb, went away. This probably indicates that he crossed the stage, exiting on the right (direction of the city). Hence the statement of Luke that the women were following Joseph may still apply at this moment. Mary and the chorus crossed the stage in a mournful procession and exited on the right. For a while the stage was empty. Mary and the chorus left the stage because there had to be a period of time in which the stone would roll away from the door of the tomb, being seen by the audience but not by the women who will later express surprise at the occurrence.

            Normally in an ancient tragedy the chorus never left the stage before the end. The part of the play called exodos, which entailed the marching of the chorus offstage, was the final part. But there is a tragedy in which the chorus marches off, leaving the stage empty, and returns later: it is a play in which the main topic is resurrection, that is, Euripides’ Alcestis.

            This play has several elements in common with the passion of Jesus and it influenced Seneca. The stage setting is the royal palace which faces the audience; the burial place is understood to be offstage to the left. When the corpse of Alcestis, bedecked in splendid robes and jewels, is carried out of the palace on a bier through the central door, the chorus with­draws to the right of the stage in order to make place for numerous mute charac­tersmen and women attendant slaves of the royal householdwho enter the stage either from the central door or from the two side doors. An impressive funeral procession forms on the stage, begins to move toward the left and exits, carrying the body of Alcestis to its burial place. The chorus intones a song of lamentation as it crosses the stage from right to left, forming the tail end of the funeral procession and exits. The stage is left empty in order to empha­size that for all normal intentions and purposes Alcestis is dead and buried, and the play is over.

            After this, unexpectedly, there appears on the empty stage Heracleslike Jesus, Heracles liberates humanity from death. Heracles concludes his recitation by announcing that it is his intention to bring Alcestis back to life, and exits in the direction of the tomb. The stage again is empty.

            When the funeral procession reenters the stage, returning from the burial of Alcestis, the chorus follows it. With slow rhythms the women of the chorus dance across the stage while continuing their lamentations. The chorus does not yet know of Heracles’ decision. The singing of the chorus continues until from the left there appears Heracles leading a young woman; this figure is the resurrected Alcestis.

            In Seneca’s play Mary and the chorus followed Joseph and moved across the stage in a mournful procession, intoning a song of lamentation that marked the conclusion of Act Four of Seneca’s play. They exited on the right and the stage was left empty. Not only did the women exit at this point, but the curtain, which had been raised at the beginning of Act One, came down once again to hide the scaena. The emptiness one the stage and the coming down of the curtain indicated the finality of death, which had to be understood in order to make the resurrection significant.



[1]           The three synoptic gospels distinguish Golgotha from Gethsemane. According to John the passion of Jesus began and ended in a grove (kepos). It can be inferred that John followed Seneca, for whom it was a matter of the same grove in both cases, whereas the synoptic gospels corrected Seneca by explaining that one place was called Gethsemane and the other Golgotha.

[2]           Gilbert Murray, Excursus on the Ritual forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy, in Jane Harrison, Themis (Second ed., Cambridge, 1927), p. 342.

[3]           The present Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built by the Crusaders in order to replace the Church destroyed by the Calif al-Hakim. But this in turn was a replacement of the Church built by Emperor Constantine the Great and destroyed by the Persian followers of Zoroaster in A.D. 614. The plan of the church built by Constantine has been reconstructed through excavations and through ancient accounts. The main body of the church was a rotunda at the center of which was the assumed tomb of Jesus. In front of the rotunda there was an area enclosed by a colonnade, on the left side of which (for a person facing the rotunda and the tomb) there was the assumed place of the crucifixion. The distance between the place of crucifixion and the entrance to the tomb was about one hundred feet. This arrangement was so fundamental that it was repeated in the more modest church built after the Persian destruction.

[4]           The Bordeaux pilgrim, who visited Jerusalem in A.D. 333 when the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was in its early stages, reports that the place of burial was about a stone’s throw from the place of crucifixion. P. Geyer, Itineraria Hierosolymitana, Library of Palestine Pilgrims’ Texts Society, vol. I, p. 23. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, CLXXV, pp. 16-17.


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