The location of Jesus’ tomb (Matthew 27)

According to the New Testament, Jesus was buried in a new tomb hewn out of rock (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53) in a garden near the crucifixion site (John 19:41), just outside the city (John 19:20, Hebrews 13:12). In addition, the entrance was low and sealed with a stone (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, John 20:11), and on the right side it was possible to sit where the body of Jesus had lain (Mark 16:5, John 20:12). Based upon the Biblical description and upon other known first-century tombs, the tomb of Jesus can be reconstructed as having had a small forecourt, a low entry passage and a burial chamber with benches, or “couches”, on three sides for the placement of the deceased.

There are two main contenders for the location of Jesus’ tomb in the Old City of Jerusalem: the Garden Tomb, 251 m north of the Damascus Gate, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. The Garden Tomb, however, has no authentic ancient tradition associated with it. It was suggested as the site of Jesus’ burial after the renowned Britisk military hero Charles Gordon, while visiting Jerusalem in 1883, suggested that Calvary would have been located on a nearby hill. His identification was based on a fanciful interpretation of ancient Jerusalem as being in the shape of a skeleton, with the skull (i.e. Golgatha) positioned at a hill north of the Damascus Gate. This led to the identification of a tomb on the western side of the hill as Jesus’ burial place, once referred to as Gordon’s Tomb. Modern investigations of the Garden Tomb and others in the vicinity, however, indicate that they were part of a cemetery dating to the divided monarchy period rather than the first century A.D.

The chuch of the Holy Sepulchre location, on the other hand, has a tradition going back to the early Christian times. When the Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem in A.D. 130/131, he constructed a temple to Jupiter and Venus  over the site of the present Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In A.D. 325 Constantine ordered the removal of Hadrian’s temple. Local Christian tradition had claimed this to be site of Jesus’ tomb, and, remarkably, a tomb area was indeed discovered beneath it. Constantine had a church constructed on the site and built a small structure, or edicule, within the building to enclose the tomb itself. The present Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the continuation of Constantine’s church.

In favour of the authenticity of this location is the fact that there was a continuous Christian presence in Jerusalem from Jesus’ death until Constantine uncovered the tomb. This Christian community doubtless would have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial, preserving the memory of the location of His tomb. Also, the site of the church was an old quarry during the time of Jesus, although at least part of it had been made into a garden (John 19:41). The fact that the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been a quarry implies that it was outside the walls of the city (it is today inside the Old City). This agrees wit the fact that Jesus was crucified  outside the walls. Within this area at least four tombs cut into the western rock face have been discovered, only one of which corresponds to the type in which Jesus was buried.

The church was destroyed in 614 and rebuilt in 626. The deicule was destroyed in 1009 by the Egyptian caliph al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah. Contemporary accounts suggest that the southern wall, the burial couch and part of the northern wall survived this destruction. The rebuilt edicule has suffered damage and neglect over the centuries since that time, so that today it is a hodgepodge of reconstructions and repairs. Although absolute certainty is impossible, the evidence points to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as being the actual site of Jesus’ tomb.

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