At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the most revered holy site in the Christian world, a team of archaeologists excavate a tomb that is believed to be the — temporary — resting place of Jesus Christ. Cutting through encasements of stone, they expose a cavity filled with dust and debris. They clear it away. And then they make a groundbreaking discovery…
Among the first to examine the inside of the tomb were leaders and representatives from three major Christian denominations: Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox. The discovery had a visible effect on them. According to National Geographic archaeologist Fredrick Hiebert, who contributed to the excavation work, they all left with wide smiles.
In fact, no one had opened the tomb for several centuries. The excavation took place in October 2016 and was part of an interdisciplinary effort to restore the site’s Edicule – the chapel-like structure that encloses the tomb. The project was designed and executed by a team of scientists from the National Technical University in Athens.
Of course, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a history spanning centuries. It has been damaged, destroyed and reconstructed several times over the the years. All of which has led scholars to doubt that the site may not be authentic. Now, however, the team has discovered firm evidence that resolves those debates.
The excavation falls under the realm of “biblical archaeology” – a subfield of archaeology that aims to discern the historical truth about Biblical events. It is necessary to submit the Bible to scientific analysis because the oldest known copies of the gospel were written approximately 100 years after the death of Christ. As such, they cannot be considered historically reliable.
For example, there is presently no archaeological evidence to support the claim that Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans, although most Christians accept it without question. Indeed, the Roman use of crucifixion as a capital punishment is well-documented in literature, but hard evidence of the practice consists of just two human skeletons. One was discovered in 1968; the other in 2018.
Even so, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands close to the site where Christ is said to have been crucified. One of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the world, it lies within the Old City of Jerusalem, a district revered for its religious monuments, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall. In fact, Old Jerusalem is a vital spiritual center for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
As Biblical accounts tell us, the site of Christ’s execution was Golgotha – “the place of skulls”. After his death, he was laid to rest inside a nearby tomb. And three days later, according to scripture, he rose from the dead, visited his apostles and bestowed upon them a sacred mission. They were to deliver the gospel around the world – the so-called “good news” of spiritual redemption.
According to the Bible, responsibility for Christ’s dead body fell to a wealthy and apparently elderly Jewish disciple called Joseph of Arimathea. Little is known about him, but some scholars have suggested he was a great uncle of Christ. Other sources suggest that his Christian devotion so enraged the authorities that they eventually arrested him and threw him in prison.
After removing Christ from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea apparently carried his body to his family tomb. Carved out of a cave, the tomb consisted of a long burial chamber with niches for holding bodies. According to the scriptures, Joseph wrapped the body in linen, laid it on a burial shelf and then sealed the tomb by rolling a rock over its entrance.
Centuries later, in approximately 325 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine I sent envoys to locate the tomb. The citizens of Jerusalem directed them to a temple commissioned by one of Constantine’s predecessors, Emperor Hadrian. Historical sources suggest that Hadrian ordered the temple’s construction as a symbolic act, to both desecrate the Christian shrine and demonstrate the superior might of Roman religion.
However, Constantine was not a pagan. In fact, he was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. Naturally, he tore down the Roman temple and excavated the ground beneath it. And after locating the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, he had the roof of the cave removed and a Christian church built around it.
According to the Roman biographer Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a lavish construction, fit for the King of Kings. Visitors entered via a staircase from the Cardo, Old Jerusalem’s principal thoroughfare, and passed through a complex of ornately decorated chambers and a “holy garden.” The tomb itself was open to the sky.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before the temple was destroyed. In 638, the Arabs invaded Jerusalem. They were initially accepting of the Christian faith, but anti-Christian unrest led to the destruction of the church’s dome in 966. Then, in 1009, the “Mad Caliph” Fatmid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah – a notorious fanatic – obliterated the church completely.
In the mid-11th century, after the Byzantine Empire and the Fatimids agreed a truce, Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and Patriarch Nicephorus ordered the construction of a new Church of the Holy Sepulchre. However, in 1077, the Seljuk Turks assumed control of Jerusalem and began to abuse the Christian pilgrims. In response, European crusaders set off to the Holy Land with the aim of “liberating” the church.
In the 12th century, crusaders restored and renovated the church to give it the form it has today. However, it was destroyed by a fire in 1808, reconstructed and then badly shaken by an earthquake in 1927. Meanwhile, in the mid-19th century, the city’s Ottoman administrators implemented a novel power-sharing scheme to resolve conflicts between the church’s leaders. It was known as the “status quo.”
That scheme continues today with Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations managing the church together. However, conflicts do occasionally flare up. In 2008, for example, a dispute between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks escalated into a physical fight. What’s more, the church’s collective decision-making process tends to be incredibly slow.
For example, there is a ladder near the church entrance that has been the subject of discussion for years. It is known as “the immovable ladder” because it has not been moved from its position for more than two centuries. Meanwhile, debates about the most recent repairs and renovations apparently began in 1959.
Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2016, a Franciscan monk called Athanasius Macora complained that the renovation was quite restrained. He said, “I personally would have liked to maybe contemplate some alternative to simply restoring the current structure. But because the status quo is so conservative in its nature, we had to more or less accept the fact that there would be no change whatsoever to the current structure.”
Nonetheless, there have been successful archaeological excavations of the church in the recent past. In the 20th century, for example, researchers made scores of groundbreaking discoveries at the site, including several rock tombs, an ancient limestone quarry pit and what were thought to be walls from Constantine’s first church, as what seems to be remains of Hadrian’s temple.
However, the 2016 excavation was the first time that the tomb had been opened for several centuries. To prevent visitors stealing pieces of the original rock burial bed, church authorities covered it over with marble in 1555. And when archaeologists removed the cladding, they discovered something quite unexpected.
The discovery came on the evening of October 26. After removing the 16th century marble casing, the archaeologists found a layer of filling materials and debris. They continued digging. And after some 60 hours of non-stop effort, they encountered a second marble slab with a cross etched into it.
Speaking to The Independent, Hiebert said that the discovery was a personal highlight. He said, “The most amazing thing for me was when we removed the first layer of dust and found a second piece of marble. This one was gray, not creamy white like the exterior, and right in the middle of it was a beautifully inscribed cross. We had no idea that was there.”
Indeed, the slab was something of a mystery. Some historians speculated that the crusaders may have installed it during one of their forays. Others suggested it might be considerably older, and that the crack in its surface could have resulted from the Mad Caliph’s attack in 1009. One thing was certain, the slab could not be any newer than the outer cladding. And as such, it was at least five centuries old.
Two days after the discovery, the team finally exposed the original burial slab upon which Jesus Christ was supposedly lain. With just a few hours to go before the tomb was scheduled to be closed, they speedily gathered samples for analysis in the lab. Of course, there were no guarantees that Christ was ever in the tomb, let alone laid to rest there.
After all, Constantine’s envoys arrived in Jerusalem some 300 years after Christ walked the earth. As such, it is quite possible they identified the wrong grave. According to archaeologist Martin Biddle, who completed a pioneering study of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1999, the only way to know is to diligently analyze all the data.
Nonetheless, he himself does not doubt that the site is authentic. Speaking to National Geographic in 2016, he said, “There are at least half a dozen other rock-cut tombs below various parts of the church. So why did Bishop Eusebius identify this tomb as the tomb of Christ? He doesn’t say, and we don’t know. I don’t myself think Eusebius got it wrong — he was a very good scholar — so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for.”
That is exactly what the researchers did. After gathering samples, they resealed the burial bed in its original marble cladding. Speaking to National Geographic in 2016, Professor Antonia Moropoulou, the team’s leader explained that the tomb won’t be reopened for a very long time, possibly thousands of years. She said, “The architectural conservation which we are implementing is intended to last forever.”
Meanwhile, Hiebart hailed the unearthing of the burial bed as “amazing.” Speaking to The Independent in 2016, he said, “The shrine has been destroyed many times by fire, earthquakes, and invasions over the centuries. We didn’t really know if they had built it in exactly the same place every time. But this seems to be visible proof that the spot the pilgrims worship today really is the same tomb the Roman Emperor Constantine found in the 4th century.”
However, it was not until November 2017, when the team obtained results from their lab analyses, that they were able to accurately assign a date to the tomb. Using samples of mortar from both the burial bed and the hidden slab, their tests involved using optical stimulated luminescence (OSL) to ascertain when sediments of quartz crystals last saw light.
Despite the documentary evidence linking the shrine to the Roman period, previous attempts to date the site had indicated that it was only 1,000 years old. However, the tests recently released by Moropoulou show that both the burial slab and its hidden cover were last exposed to light in the 4th century.
Their results conclusively prove that the burial bed was sealed during the reign of Emperor Constantine. As such, they resolve the long-running dispute about the veracity of the site. Speaking to National Geographic, Biddle said, “Obviously that date is spot-on for whatever Constantine did. That’s very remarkable.”
Furthermore, the scientists were able to identify evidence of earlier restoration works. For example, analysis of mortar from the southern wall yielded dates from the 4th and 16th centuries. Speaking to National Geographic, Moropoulou explained that these findings corroborated historical narratives. She said, “It is interesting how [these] mortars not only provide evidence for the earliest shrine… but also confirm the historical construction sequence of the Edicule.”
Intriguingly, the team also claims to have identified parts of the original cave. Moropoulou explained to National Geographic that one of its limestone walls is now visible through a new window in the Edicule. She said, “This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen.”
The findings do not prove that Christ was ever buried in the tomb, but archaeologists such as Dan Bahat think the evidence is compelling. Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2016, he said, “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”
In fact, the case highlights a long-running schism in Biblical archaeology. On one side, there are scholars who take the Bible at face value — they strongly believe that Christ was a real historical figure. On the other, there are scholars who think the historical reality of Christ – if there really is such a thing – has been somewhat distorted by Biblical fictions and Christian mythologies. Both use archaeological research to bolster their claims.
Writing for National Geographic in 2016, “archaeologist turned journalist” Kristin Romey traveled to the Holy Land to uncover the truth. Using the Bible as a kind of travel guidebook, she visited sites described in the New Testament. She also spoke to numerous scholars and witnessed the opening of Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, she experienced an epiphany.
Romey wrote, “I recall being alone inside the tomb after its marble cladding was briefly removed, overwhelmed that I was looking at one of the world’s most important monuments—a simple limestone shelf that people have revered for millennia, a sight that hadn’t been seen for possibly a thousand years. I was overwhelmed by all the questions of history.”
However, it was not until Romey returned to the tomb during Easter that she realized those questions may have little import beyond the realms of science and scholarship. Shuffling into the tomb with a crowd of pilgrims, she observed worshippers planting kisses and prayer cards on its marble cladding.
“At this moment I realize that to sincere believers, the scholars’ quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence,” Romey wrote. “That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions, irreconcilable facts. But for true believers, their faith in the life, death, and Resurrection of the Son of God will be evidence enough.”