People still search for the tomb of Jesus. Millions do every year. This year I, too, go to Jerusalem in search of that tomb. What I find, or didn’t find, is the stuff that will either bolster, or ridicule, faith.
My two-day tomb search began at the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. With thousands of other pilgrims, I hike down the valley, through the Lion’s Gate, up narrow streets filled with shops, past various Stations of the Cross, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This sepulcher or tomb is not a singular burial site; rather, it contains many chapels with competing sects and their priests: Roman Catholic, Syrian and Greek and Russian Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian, among others. Each, in turn, celebrates worship at the tomb variously: some with candles; some with prayers, some with incense, and some kissing the rock where Jesus’ dead body lay before his burial—all in rotation, hour by hour. Eight traditions provide light from one of eight equidistant, equal-sized lamps over THE spot where Jesus lay.
Oddly and with Solomonic wisdom, peace between the factions has been kept by one Muslim family since the 1500s. This family, now a clan, has been entrusted with the one key to the giant building! The door is unlocked early every day, then locked late in the day—the key resting in Muslim hands at all times. Such a stealthy key, in German, is called a “dietrich!”
This huge church-of-many-chapels was first built in the 300s AD—that is, soon after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Soon he declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. His plan to roll out this new religion included an appropriately placed church for pilgrims. He brought his mother Helena to Jerusalem to search for the exact location of Jesus’ death and burial. The locals in the area known as Golgotha, or “place of the skull,” had kept alive the tradition regarding this spot. Eureka, Constantine and Helena found it!
Because of its symbolic importance, this church at Golgotha was destroyed by Persian invaders (700s) and rebuilt by the Crusaders (1100s-1300s). And so this traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, even with the bickering of its present-day custodians, had satisfied the curious and serious alike—for centuries. Until…
A famous British general, Gordon of Khartoum, looks north from the walls of Old Jerusalem, one day in 1883 and sees a “skull-shaped crown” of a nearby rock formation. Remembering that Jesus was buried at “place of the skull,” he shouts “Eureka, I found the real tomb!” Modern archeology generally supports the case for this alternative burial site that dates to the first century.
- Excavation revealed a tomb surrounded by a garden—as was the tomb of Jesus (John 19:41).
- That garden tomb lies outside the city—very important, as no one could be buried within city limits.
- A wide ancient road ran nearby—perfect for public spectacle, as executions were meant to be seen in order to further humiliate the criminal and deter further crime.
- Jesus was buried in a “new unused tomb” belonging to a rich man (Matt 27:57; John 19:38). This garden tomb fits that marker, too. Its small door and singular chamber are carved out of stone. Only the rich could afford such hand-made, private burial places.
- The door to this tomb has a rolling stone track, consistent with the biblical evidence (Matthew 28:2).
- Inside the chamber was found a long, raised slab, long enough for someone to sit at its head and another at its foot (John 20:12). A rare find.
- Recently, skeletal remains with a nail still embedded in the foot was found in a tomb there, indicating executions were done there, disproving the theory that all bodies were tossed aside with no burial.
Despite this supportive evidence for an alternate site, scholars are reluctant to dismiss the long-standing tradition behind the Holy Sepulchre. So scholarly debate continues to this day. The crazy thing is, some seekers come to Jerusalem and expect to find an actual body, at least the remains of one. Disappointed at finding two sites and unable to sort out conflicting claims, some seekers have asked onsite tour guides this decisive question: “but where is the body—in which tomb?”
Hearing that there is none to be found—not here, not there—some might conclude apathetically: “No body, no murder.” But I say, “No big deal which site is true.” Either way, as the angels say, “He is not here. He is risen!” For the rest of the story, come to church on Easter.
Rev. Dietrich Gruen, from Madison, is Bridge Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus.