Good question…is the tomb story flawed because the term 'rolled' is used?


Date: November 15, 2002


Someone came through the Tank and asked me to comment on a mini-argument made by Richard Carrier in (under the heading "New Evidence").


The relevant section of Richard's article appears as following:


"There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in "Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus' Tomb?" (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that "more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones" (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, "the Second Temple period...ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common" (p. 25).


"Why is this significant? Three of the four Gospels repeatedly and consistently use the word "roll" to describe the moving of the tomb's blocking stone ("rolled to" proskulisaV, Matthew 27:60; "rolled away" apekulisen, Matthew 28:2; "rolled to" prosekulisen, Mark 15:46; "roll away" apokulisei Mark 16:3; "rolled away" apokekulistai Mark 16:4; "rolled away" apokekulismenon Luke 24:2). The verb in every case here is a form of kuliein, which always means to roll: kuliein is the root of kulindros, i.e. cylinder (in antiquity a "rolling stone" or a even child's marble). For example, the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:20 "rolls around" on the ground (ekulieto, middle form meaning "roll oneself," hence "wallow"). These are the only uses of any form of this verb in the New Testament.


"Kloner argues that the verb could just mean "moved" and not rolled but he presents no examples of such a use for this verb, and I have not been able to find any myself, in or outside the Bible, and such a meaning is not presented in any lexicon. His argument is based solely on the fact that it "couldn't" have meant rolled because the stone couldn't have been round in the 30's C.E. But he misses the more persuasive point: if the verb can only mean round, then the Gospel authors were not thinking of a tomb in the 30's C.E. but of one in the later part of the century. If the tomb description is flawed, this would also put Mark as being written after 70 C.E., and would support the distinct possibility that the entire tomb story is a fiction. However, even with this, there could still be a core truth about a tomb burial, with the details being added out of the imaginations of the authors or their sources, as often happened when even reliable historians described scenes in such vivid detail (there was a kind of acceptable license when painting scenes this way, provided the historian did not contradict any known facts or propose the implausible). "



As I read this, Richard seems to argue that the use of the term 'roll' (kuliw et al.) requires a truly 'round' stone (i.e., a cylindrical disc-shaped slab, of the post-70 ad era), and that moving a rectangular-shaped slab (or even a boulder) would not be referred to by this term. 


Let me point out two other options here, before diving into the lexical data on kuli/w and kuli/ndo:


1. There is the obvious possibility that the Rich Joseph/Nicodemus couple could have been wealthy enough to use the circular, disc-shaped stone anyway (as per the qualification of Kloner). The value of the spices used would certainly argue for this possibility.


2. In the ANE, large, bulky objects (e.g., obelisks, stones for the pyramids, columns) too large or heavy for carts and other wheeled transport, were generally transported on 'rollers' to the construction site. Smooth logs were laid across the road for a little distance, and the heavy object rolled down the road (traversal) on top of the logs to its destination.  These blocks were 'rolled' to their destination, even though they did not 'rotate' around one of their own axes. For the heavy block stones used in temple construction and for tomb sealing, for example, this would have been the primary means of transport, on relatively level surfaces ([CBGR,p48]; [OT:DLAM, p271]; Machines, Buildings, Weaponry of Biblical Times, by Max Schwartz, Revell:1990,p.99). So, this usage of the word 'roll' could apply to any shape rock.


But we needn't invoke either of these above understandings--although they apply, of course--because, as we will see below, the word 'roll' did not contain any implication for the object's size or shape. In other words, in both LXX and Classical usage, the kuliw words could apply to stones (and objects) which were NOT disc- or cylindrical- shaped at all (e.g., regular boulders).


Here is some of the lexical data:



Kuliw-words in the LXX (English translation from the NRSV):




·         He said, "Throw her down." So they threw her down; some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, which trampled on her.  (2 Kngs 9.33; note: here the word simply means 'throw down'--nothing about 'rolling down the side of the wall'--chuckle)






From Classical Literature (using both kuliw and kulindo- words):












"Socrates: Clouds do, when they roll around.

"Strepsiades: You'll stop at nothing! But tell me, how?

"Socrates: Clouds fill up with lots of water, then they're forced to move about, sagging soddenly with rain, then getting heavier perforce, collide with one another, breaking up and making crashing sounds. (Aristophanes, Clouds,   line 375; note: the 'rolling' around is described as 'moving about, sagging'--it is just jerky movement, not geometrical 'rolling' per se)
















And a final, very clear case from Apollodorus:


Compare the description of the 'burdening of Ascalaphus', in which a heavy boulder was placed on top of him:


"…and because Ascalaphus, son of Acheron and Gorgyra, bore witness against her, Demeter laid a heavy rock on him in Hades." (Apollodorus, Library and Epitome,, 1.5.3


And this boulder was said to be 'rolled away' by Heracles:


"And he rolled away also the stone of Ascalaphus  (Apollodorus, Library and Epitome , book 2, chapter 5, section 12)   [The same word for 'rolled away' as in Mark 16.3 and Mt 28.2; this is a boulder being rough-handled off of someone!]





So, the lexical data indicates that 'roll' does not imply 'circularity of shape', but rather 'end-over-end' movement (e.g., the tumbling of boulders down a hillside or cliff). Accordingly, it is general enough a term to describe both the cases above, and cases of rotation of a cylinder along its circular circumference.


The lexical data thus supports Kloner's statement that these words can/do mean 'moved' (as long as end-over-end movement is denoted). A simple "picking up and carrying " type of motion would NOT be described as kuliw-type motion, but this would rarely ever be done with boulders/stones of a size large enough to block/safeguard a tomb.


[Note: John's description of this movement--as well as that of the stone in the raising of Lazarus--uses a more general 'move' word, one that could imply 'lift and move', but also is used for simple 're-moving (away)' [cf. John 1.29; 2:16; 10:18; 15:2; 16.21]. Morris points out that the word choice here is unexpected, but that a 'violence' of movement may be implied by John in this word choice. In fact, there is no data from the gospel texts that requires that the stone be in a groove--the usual position taken by commentators. It literally could have been a simple 'big bulky rock' that was 'rolled toward the opening' and used. In this case, BOTH 'rolling' and 'lifting up/away' could apply to its placement and removal. In any case, John's non-usage of a kuliw-type word does not present a problem for the synoptic passages.]


Richard was correct, though, that the lexical definition-entries do not give 'move' as a definition (e.g., LSJ), but had he looked through the actual word usage in the literature he would have no doubt recognized that 'roll' could also apply to non-circular objects. [In fact, the actual usage data shows that this word-group is more frequently used on non-round objects, than it is for  'actually round' objects.]


The lexicons probably do not give 'move' for a meaning, since 'move' is too general a term [Remember, 'lift and carry' motion is NOT in view with kuliw words.] But 'roll' -- since it can apply to ANY end-over-end tumbling/jerky-type motion, is a perfect word for both 'smooth rolling' and 'staccato rolling' (smile)…


Hence, there is no warrant to believe that the use of this word in the gospel tomb-narratives makes those narratives 'flawed'.


I hope this helps clear this up,






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