The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

The tomb cutter, part 2

Posted by Ron George on April 28, 2011

Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense, 14th station of the cross, mosaic, Mission Santa Barbara

Chill air and darkness greeted the tomb cutter as he rose the morning of Yom Ree-Shom, the day after Sabbath. Snoring and deep breathing rose from his wife, sons and daughters, their spouses and children. He walked carefully through the house then picked up his tomb-opening tools – a large iron hook threaded with long leather straps and a stout wooden staff he’d put near the door. He splashed cold water on his face from a cistern then donned and cinched his stonecutter’s leather tunic, a protective outer shell worn over his garments.

Jerusalem’s streets lay empty. He decided not to carry a lamp but made his way in the dark through the city’s narrow but familiar streets. He passed through the Fish Gate no more than a half hour after leaving his house in the lower city. He picked his way carefully along a rocky path through an orchard then down a steep bank to the tomb he had made for the Arimathean. Golgatha’s stench rode the morning breeze. He marveled at the silence – no moans from the crosses, no screams. They must have died sooner than usual, he thought, which made the burial of the crucified man two days ago all the more strange.

He worked quickly to remove the globe-shaped stone from the mouth of the tomb. He dropped the carefully-fashioned iron hook behind the stone through a notch he’d made at the top of the stone, then skillfully let the hook slide down the back of the stone until it caught on a deep notch he’d made to fit the hook. He tied the strap ends together to form a loop, then used the staff put through the loop to pull the heavy stone from where it lay secure against the tomb entrance. It came to rest with some precision a few feet away from tomb’s mouth. The tomb cutter would align the stone carefully before replacing it after the body inside had been treated. He walked some distance away to wait for the women who would come to clean the body and drape it with linen. He would keep his distance and replace the stone when they left. He had no desire to see that corpse again. He found an olive tree, sat to lean against it and promptly dozed.

Jesus’ Empty Tomb, 2008, by Joseph Cross

He was awakened by women’s voices as dawn light began to make its way over the Mount of Olives. The tomb cutter smiled as they marveled that the stone had been removed from the mouth of the tomb. He hoped they would be quick about their grisly business so he could replace the stone and return home. The first woman crouched to enter the tomb but quickly emerged, shouting at the others and tearing at her hair. She screamed, They’ve stolen his body! The other women looked into the tomb. All began keening their grief and fear. Surely this was the work of the Temple guard. The final degradation – a second death!

The tomb cutter slowly approached the grieving women, but before he could reach them, they rose and hurried back the way they’d come, almost running along a path to the Sheep Gate road that would take them across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives and then Bethany two miles away. He turned back to the tomb and stooped to enter. Sunlight scarcely shone into the cave, but there was enough light to see that the corpse put on the ledge last Sabbath sundown was not there. The spice blocks and linen remained. Pungent spices only amplified the sickening odor of dried blood and human waste on the ledge. The tomb cutter left the tomb quickly but not quick enough to avoid vomiting.

No one could have stolen that man’s body, he thought; no one could have rolled away that stone. The Arimathean would be furious that someone had stolen the body. He had paid a premium for the tomb cutter’s reputed guarantee that tombs he made could not be robbed. He’d have to return his pay for this tomb. That setback, though, was nothing compared with damage to his reputation. Then came an even more frightening thought: He would be accused of stealing the body, because he was the only one who could open the tomb. He began to sweat as fear churned his innards. Morning had broken, and it would not be long before nearby roads would be swarming with traveling Passover pilgrims leaving the city. Rumors would spread quickly once the women told others what they had found. All eyes would be looking for the tomb cutter.

Ancient Face, 2010, by Aram Farber

He staggered then collapsed in despair.

Don’t be afraid, said someone nearby. The tomb cutter leaped to his feet but saw no one. I’m here, said the man, behind the olive tree. Please don’t look upon my nakedness. The tomb cutter ignored the man’s plea and began walking toward the tree where he had sat waiting for the women. He took off his leather tunic, and without saying a word held it out for the man to take. The naked man slipped into the tunic then stepped from behind the tree.

Dried blood caked and matted his hair. Bruises covered his swollen face and blackened eyes. Torn flesh hung from his knees, which still oozed as he stood. Worst of all, the man’s hands and feet had been pierced and still bled. The stunned tomb cutter could but gawk at the man who wore his tunic.

I was one of them, the man said through labored breath as he sat down on a large stone. I was crucified two days ago, but then I awoke in the tomb. I was frightened, he said. I didn’t know where I was. It was so dark, I thought I was in Sheol. I couldn’t get out of the tomb. I prayed I would die. Then I heard the sound of metal against the stone, and the tomb was opened. I saw no one at first when I finally crawled out. I looked for a hiding place because I was naked.     

The tomb cutter found his voice: Who are you?

Yeshua, the man said. I am a teacher from Galilee.

The tomb cutter backed away. He had seen a dead man laid in the tomb, a man flogged and crucified; and now, that man was speaking to him. His body hadn’t been stolen – or had it? What was he seeing now? A ghost? A demon? Something from Sheol come to haunt him? Moments before, the tomb cutter had feared for his reputation; now, he feared for his life. Perhaps this shade had come to kill him and take him to Sheol. The strangeness made his head swim as he backed away, reached for his tools and then turned to flee the way he’d come.

As he stumbled along a path through the olive trees, he heard voices behind him. Turning, he saw men and women coming to the tomb, but he didn’t see the Galilean. His family, thought the stone-cutter. They will accuse me. He plunged on through the trees to the Fish Gate road.

+ + + + + + +

Holy Women at the Sepulchre, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1318)

The Arimathean never came to accuse him. It was well known who had made the tomb, and rumors of a crucified man risen from the dead percolated through the city. The tomb cutter kept silent. He knew nothing of the man, he would say when asked. He had opened the Arimathean’s tomb and then went home. Ask a Galilean, he would say as he spat with disgust.

Temple guards once came to ask about the Arimathean’s tomb. Yes, he said, I opened it. There was no body in it. No, I didn’t steal the body. It was unclean, and I am a religious man. How then, they asked, did the dead Galilean get out of the tomb? I don’t know, said the tomb cutter; maybe his disciples stole his body, though I don’t know how. That tomb could not be opened without my tools. Then you must have stolen the body, they said. No, he said, it was unclean. And so it went, round and round. The guards threatened to torture him but didn’t. The tomb cutter was known to be an honest man from a good family, generations of stonecutters who had helped build the Temple. The tomb cutter told no one, ever, that he had seen the man and fled. In any case, it wasn’t long before the story of the crucified teacher from Galilee who vanished from the Arimathean’s tomb was all but forgotten.

Almost, but not quite.

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One Response to “The tomb cutter, part 2”

  1. Ralph Willis said

    Yes! I’ll be watching for the paperback.

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