In these days of doubt and challenge to traditional beliefs, it's hard to know what to accept. Was Jesus Christ a myth as some say? Or did He truly exist? Can He be found in history? Is there any way to know?
Many evidences based on recorded historical fact show that Jesus of Nazareth did live, that He died, was buried and resurrected. Now even archaeology may be called as a witness in connection with the place of His burial.
The Golgotha Controversy According to the New Testament, Jesus was scourged and condemned to die by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, at a place called "the Pavement" (John 19:13). He was then taken through the streets of Jerusalem to a place called Golgotha, or "place of a skull" (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17). That location was outside the city walls, yet still near the city (Heb. 13:11-13; John 19:20).
In the recent past, many visitors to the Holy Land have viewed the strange formation of eroded strata on the southern face of a small, rounded, rocky summit just north of the present city wall of Old Jerusalem, and felt sure they were looking at the "place of a skull." Two eye sockets, a hint of nasal bones and a vacant mouth can easily be imagined among the recesses, semicaves, and overhangs of the rocky cliff — just below which a bus station and a busy street carry the business of modern Jerusalem.
Supporting the speculation that this rock formation is the biblical "place of a skull" was the discovery of a tomb in the cliff's lowest level by nineteenth-century explorers. (At that time the Holy Land was still part of the Turkish empire.) The tomb is hewn into the rock with a recessed track at the opening for a huge rolling stone which would serve for a door, fitting the biblical description (Matt. 27:60; 28:2; Mark 15:46; 16:3-4; Luke 23:53; 24:2).
Even after many centuries, the description in John 19:41 seems to hold true: "In the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre." The place has therefore become known as the "Garden Tomb."
Since its discovery, this location has achieved an increasing degree of acceptance as the actual site, especially among Protestants. Others, however, have pointed out difficulties: the lack of historical continuity; the fact that the New Testament requires a low entrance which one had to stoop to look through (Luke 24:12; John 20:5), which is by no means fulfilled in the much larger entrance to the so-called Garden Tomb; the separation of the modern garden location from the supposed cliff-top crucifixion site (unlike the statement of John 19:41); and perhaps most damaging of all, the judgment of experts that the excavation and door-framing masonry are of a much later date.
This and much more has recently come to us as new evidence. And in particular, archaeology has shed an ever brighter light on the claims for a different site, the traditional site now covered by the massive Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Archaeology to the Rescue To be sure, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is today within the walls of "Old Jerusalem." But these walls were built in A.D. 1538-41 at the command of Suleiman the Magnificent, a Moslem and emperor of the Ottoman Turks. Was the place inside or outside the Jerusalem of the early first century?
Multiple painstaking archaeological digs have demonstrated that there were indeed, as the first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote, three different walls on the north and west of Jerusalem (Wars, v. 4. 1-2). Each wall marked a phase of the city's growth and expansion between the days of Ezra and its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70. The third and outer wall was commenced, says Josephus — and archaeology has confirmed it — by Herod Agrippa in about A.D. 41. He did not finish it for fear of offending his Roman-emperor overlord, Claudius Caesar (see also Antiquities, xix. 7. 2 and Wars, ii. 11.6). Apparently only when the great war with the Romans of A.D. 66-70 was imminent was the full height of the wall "hurriedly erected by the Jews." Suleiman ultimately built his wall on the ruins of those foundations.
But no wall existed there until A.D. 41. Therefore none existed when Jesus was crucified. So the place of His death "outside the city" may well have been where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands.
Before A.D. 40 It would be tedious here to consider the details of how archaeology has found remains of the "second wall" of Jerusalem just to the east of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Readers who are interested may find a carefully researched discussion in The Archaeology of the New Testament by Jack Finegan (see especially pages 135-168). Dr. Finegan tentatively identifies the very gate by which Jesus left the walled city, after traversing it from east to west by the "Via Dolorosa" or "Street of Sorrow."
"If, then, Jesus came from condemnation by Pilate at the Antonia [the Roman headquarters just north of the Temple enclosure, archaeologically identified as the site of "the Pavement" — John 19:13] to Golgotha, and if the latter were where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now is, he might indeed have gone 'outside the gate' (Heb. 13:12) at this very place still marked by ancient stonework in the Russian .Alexander Hospice [a lodging for travelers run by a religious order]" (Archaeology of the New Testament, p. 137).
But what proof is there that Golgotha was there? "That the region outside, i.e., to the west of a north-south wall in this location, was in fact at an earlier time a region outside of the inhabited city is shown by the discovery in 1885 of ancient rock-hewn tombs under the Coptic Convent to the northwest of the Russian Hospice" (ibid.).
Here was, and is, the traditional site of both Golgotha and the tomb. On this site through the centuries has stood a succession of church buildings in commemoration.
"The remembrance of the place of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus on the part of the early Christians in Jerusalem is highly probable," says Finegan. "Even when the Jewish Christians fled to Pella on the eve of the Jewish War (Eusebius, Ch. Hist. III. 5. 3) they were only fifty miles away, and when Jews were forbidden entry into Jerusalem by Hadrian there were Gentile Christians in Jerusalem under a series of bishops, of whom Marcus was the first (Eusebius, IV.6) to continue the tradition" (ibid., p. 164).
Archaeology also, testing the tradition, provides much evidence that this is indeed the actual location.
Ancient Quarry and Cemetery "A deep pit was dug here [due-south of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher] which reached bedrock at a depth of fifteen meters. At the bottom of the pit there was a rock quarry, with pottery of the seventh century B.C. Above this was a large fill containing pottery most of which was of the first century of the Christian era, with a little which was probably... of the beginning of the second century.... [Since] such a quarry would naturally not be inside a city, this site must have been outside the seventh century B.C. town. Since there are 'no buildings or occupation layers between the pottery and the large fill, the area must have remained vacant until the construction of Aelia Capitolina [the name given to the rebuilt Jerusalem by the Emperor Hadrian, early second century]" (ibid., p. 138).
So the area is an ancient rock quarry from which no doubt came much of the stone for the buildings of the earliest Jerusalem — an area which remained vacant until Hadrian's time, approximately a century after the crucifixion of Jesus, and an obvious place for a garden (John 19:41). But was it also in the first century a cemetery?
"That the Anastasis [the original church building built by Constantine the Great, which stood where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands] stood in an area associated with burials is shown by the existence of a rock-hewn tomb with three kokim [burial niches] on each of three sides of the tomb chamber, found under the foundations of the Rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the west side, as well as by the rock tombs found under the Coptic Convent just to the northeast of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher" (Archaeology of the New Testament, p. 168).
Matthew 27:51-52 perhaps refers to this presence of other graves surrounding the place of Jesus' death: "... The earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves [tombs] were opened."
For a place of burials it is easy to account for a name like Golgotha, "place of a skull." What is a cemetery but a place of skulls? It is possible that there was a natural rock outcropping shaped like the top of a human skull, much of which has since been cut away. Indeed, visitors today are shown what is claimed to be the remains of such a rock, through an opening in later masonry.
Eusebius, fourth-century church historian, tells us (Life of Constantine, III. 26) that Hadrian buried the traditional sepulcher of Christ and covered the whole area with a large quantity of earth, then laid a stone pavement over everything "which we think was the forum of Aelia Capitolina, and built a shrine of Venus there. So it is evident that Hadrian carried out a systematic profanation of the shrines of the Jews and the Christians (perhaps not even distinguishing the Christians from the Jews), and he must have selected the place of Calvary for such treatment on the basis of a traditional identification which long antedated his own time [early second century] and thus reached back into the earliest periods of the Christian movement" (Archaeology of the New Testament, pp. 137-138).
Site Unseen From then to now, though Constantine and others built and rebuilt churches on the spot, the tomb itself has remained out of sight. The modern visitor may enter a small crypt in a lower level of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where candles burn and an attendant stands with an ever ready plate for offerings. But the actual tomb must have been somewhat lower than this level.
Apart from helping to demonstrate the fact that Jesus of Nazareth did die and was buried — and now lives — knowing the site of Christ's burial is perhaps of little real importance. But a valid, attested tomb is legitimate evidence that He truly existed. That He was a real figure in history. That He was not a myth. Likewise, the New Testament picture of early first-century landscape and locations, a description proven most accurate by twentieth-century archaeology, further shows the reliability of the biblical account.
So while the exact spot where Jesus, a dead man, spent a mere three days and three nights a long time ago is in itself immaterial, what really matters is that you know you can and must take its witness seriously in today's world: Jesus rose again; He lives today; He stands chosen to rule the world and live forever.