The Tombs of Christ in the Holy Land
The more we learn about the Bible, the more we are certain that Jew going by the name Jesus Christ really existed. Historically, Christ is a well-established figure. His existence was documented by countless eyewitness and ancient historians even made mentions about the man, like Josephus. Other made non flattering remarks on Christ’s followers, as what Tacitus did. Tacitus uttered quite a negative tone on Christians in his Annals, which made the account genuine and not a Christian forgery. Then, there are people around him who was written in historical records, like Pontius Pilate.
Overall, dismissing Christ as the product of myth is now considered in par with conspiracy theories, like ancient aliens and stuffs. Serious scholars, regardless of belief and disbelief will agree that a historical Jesus was never an invention. His death by crucifixion further cemented his existence in the human history. He died, and Jesus changed the world as Christianity spreads. His burial is part of earliest Gospel tradition, as what’s noted by N.T. Wright. The entombment of Christ is one of the best attested facts about Christ.
But sometimes we wonder where he was buried.
Without any human remains to trace, we only got tradition to guide us. There are places where Christ were supposedly buried. One claim even tried to debunk Jesus’ divinity. And a well-known place was situated under the historic church could be the closest thing we could get.
The Places Alleged to be Christ’s Tomb
Again, we have several sites proposed to be Christ’s “temporary” resting place. It ranges from the traditional, to somewhat radical. In Jerusalem, the traditionally accepted location of Christ’s burial place is the empty tomb sealed inside the Church of The Holy Sepulchre. There is also the Garden Tomb discovered in the 19th century somewhere outside Jerusalem. Then, there is the Talpiot Tomb, a cut tomb discovered in a neighborhood.
Firstly, we will start with the most controversial (and the less relevant), the Talpiot Tomb. Controversial, in a sense that its discovery was said to challenge what we knew about the Bible. And that its mere existence could debunk the very notion of the Resurrection.
The Talpiot Tomb was discovered in the East Talpiot neighborhood (March 28, 1980), south of the Old City of Jerusalem. It’s a rock cut tomb containing ten ossuaries, with human remains inside. One of which is the epigraph “Yeshua bar Yehosef” (Jesus, son of Joseph). Though it was already known and catalogued by the State of Israel, and the find was documented by the Israel Antiquities Authority, it was reopened without permission by investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici for the filming of his documentary with James Cameron.
And speaking of documentary, the one that Cameron and Jacobovici filmed made a case that the said tomb contained the remains of Jesus Christ. With a tangible remains, they reckon that the Resurrection never happened. The film was titled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”, covering the discovery of the Tomb, and its potential impact to the Christian faith.
The notion was universally rejected by Biblical scholars, archeologists and linguist. Some even called it nonsense and hyped up. For one thing, Jesus and Joseph were common names in ancient Jerusalem. There are a lot of people with those names, and the Jesus and Joseph mentioned in the Tomb could be someone else. Such simple fact meant that the tomb was never given much attention by local (and real) archeologists, until James Cameron and Jacobovici hyped things up with their film.
I will make a separate article for the Talpiot Tomb. But for now, we will move to more relevant places.
The Garden Tomb
Unearthed in 1867, it’s another proposed location of Christ’s burial site. Gabriel Barkay dated the Garden Tomb at around 8th to 7th centuries BC, and the organization maintaining the tomb pointed its many similarities with the Biblical tomb.
As early as the Middle Ages, people doubted the authenticity of the traditionally claimed tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as it was within the city walls. The doubts increased after the Reformation, and in 1812, Edward D. Clarke rejected the traditional location and blasted it as “delusion”. With these concerns, people began looking for alternate locations, and a bible scholar and theologian Otto Thenius proposed that a rocky hill north of Damascus Gate is the Biblical Golgotha. With the name “Golgotha” meaning skull, the hill has natural cavities that made it resemble a human skull. Thenius even proposed that the hill could be the tomb of Christ, though it doesn’t have lasting support. It was however endorsed by protestants as the possible Biblical Golgotha.
There are a lot of proponents of the skull shaped hill as the true Golgotha, like American industrialist Fisher Howe (one of the founding members of Union of Theological Seminary), English clergyman H.N. Tristram and Royal Engineer lieutenant Claude R. Conder. The most famous proponent is Major-General Charles Gordon. And based from a Biblical passage of John the Evangelist (John 19:41), the tomb would just be around the hill of Golgotha. It was also specified by John that the tomb was in a garden.
Now, a number on tombs were found near the skull shaped hill, and Gordon concluded that one of these must be Christ’s tomb. And one tomb is adjacent to a cistern, a probable evidence that it was a garden.
Hence this tomb became identified as the Garden Tomb of Christ.
This tomb also has a stone groove, could be a slot for stone being rolled to cover the entrance.
The problem is aside from the skull shape, there are few details that connect the hill to the Biblical Golgotha. With that said, the authenticity of the tomb near it could be put in doubt. Gabriel Barkay studied the tomb, and concluded that the tomb is too old, while the groove and cistern was made by the Crusaders instead. In fact, several scholars rejected the tomb as the true site of Christ’s burial. It is popular among Protestants, but the organization maintaining the tomb who pointed out its similarities with the one mentioned in the Bible refrained from claiming that the site is authentic.
The Church of Holy Sepulchre
Traditionally, the site in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most accepted. It dates to the fourth century and it also houses the place of the crucifixion.
The church is sacred among many Christian denominations, from Greek Orthodox to Catholicism. After the sack of Jerusalem, Hadrian built a Roman colony on the its ruins (Aelia Capitolina). In 135 AD, he filled a rock cut tomb to serve as a foundation for a temple of Jupiter or Venus. After the Christianization of Rome by Constantine, his mother Helena journeyed to Jerusalem to look for Christ’s tomb. Crosses where found near a tomb. Now in 326, Constantine brought down Hadrian’s temple of Jupiter (or Venus) to be replaced by a church. And underneath they found the tomb, the one Helena described where the crosses was found. A shrine was then built over the site where the crosses and tomb were found, which eventually became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was consecrated in September 13, 335 and was repeatedly damaged by fire and war.
Now, as what’s mentioned before, people often doubt the authenticity of the tomb due to its location (within the city walls). The New Testament describe the tomb as outside the walls. But as archeologists noted, the original Jerusalem is smaller, and originally the site of the church was outside the wall. The tomb was sealed, but it was reopened after centuries for some restoration works. What’s interesting here is that the National Geographic did a piece on a research made by the conservation team from National Technical University of Athens. They discovered that the original limestone burial bed was still intact, unmoved and survived the centuries of wars and fires. The location of the tomb has not shifted overtime, as what was noted by Fredrick Hiebert (National Geographic archeologist-in-residence. Researchers also confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the 19th century Edicule.
Unlike the Garden Tomb, the one kept in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre could be authentic. It matches the description in the Bible and located outside the city wall. Other tombs around it indicate that the site was an ancient Jewish cemetery.
Between the tomb rock and the slabs covering it is a mortar, dated 350 A.D. The time of Emperor Constantine. This means that the tomb is even older than estimated.