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JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (ANS) -- As I write this on Easter Sunday afternoon, I thought that it would be appropriate to conclude the series of stories about my tour of Israel with a visit to the two places considered most likely to have been the place of crucifixion and Christ's tomb and resurrection.
Our first visit was to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The ground on
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a slab which is said to be where Christ's body was laid and wrapped for burial. Tourists are seen praying at the slab and kissing it. Also inside the church is a place identified as the place of the crucifixion as well as the remains of what may have been the tomb of Christ
The early Christian community of Jerusalem appears to have held liturgical celebrations at this location from the time of the resurrection until the city was taken by the Romans in 66 AD.
Eusebius describes how the site of the Holy Sepulchre, originally a site of veneration for the Christian community in Jerusalem, had been covered with earth, upon which a temple of Venus had been built in 135 AD.
Constantine had a church built at the location in 326 AD beside the excavated hill of the Crucifixion which was actually three connected churches built over the three different holy sites; The Rock of Calvary, the remains of a cave identified as the burial site of Jesus and the True Cross (said to have been the actual cross upon which Christ was crucified.) In the course of the excavations, Constantine's mother St. Helena is believed to have discovered the True Cross near the tomb. She actually discovered three - those of the two thieves and that of Christ. To discern the one belonging to Christ, a sick man was brought to touch to each one, and he was miraculous healed by one of them. This is a relatively early legend, but one that Eusebius, the historian and contemporary of Constantine, did not know.
The church was damaged by fire in 614. The early Muslim rulers protected the Christian sites, but the doors and roof were burnt during a riot in 966. However, in 1009, the church was completely destroyed. The church's foundations were hacked down to bedrock. The north and south walls of the cut-rock tomb were likely protected by rubble from further damage.
In 1027 an agreement was reached whereby the new Caliph allowed the Emperor to finance the rebuilding and redecoration of the Church.
Control of Jerusalem, and thereby the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, continued to change hands several times until the arrival of the Crusaders in 1099. The three primary custodians of the church, first appointed when Crusaders held Jerusalem, are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches.
In 1959 did the three major communities (Latins, Greeks, Armenians) agree on a major renovation plan. The guiding principle was that only elements incapable of fulfilling their structural function would be replaced. Local masons were trained to trim stone in the style of the 11th century for the rotunda, and in the 12th-century style for the church.
The church's chaotic history is evident in what visitors see today. Byzantine, medieval, Crusader, and modern elements mix in an odd mish-mash of styles, and each governing Christian community has decorated its shrines in its own distinctive way. In many ways, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not what one would imagine for the holiest site in all Christendom, and it can easily disappoint. But at the same time, its noble history and immense religious importance is such that a visit can also be very meaningful.
In the nineteenth century a number of scholars disputed the identification of the Church with the actual site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial on the basis that the Church was inside the city walls, while early accounts described these events as outside the walls. On the morning after his arrival in Jerusalem, General Gordon selected a rock-cut tomb in a cultivated area outside the walls as a more likely site for the burial of Jesus. This site is usually referred to as the Garden Tomb to distinguish it from the Holy Sepulchre, and it is still a popular pilgrimage site for those (usually Protestants) who doubt the authenticity of the Anastasis and/or do not have permission to hold services in the Church itself.
However, it has since been determined that the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was indeed outside the city walls at the time of the crucifixion. The Jerusalem city walls were expanded by Herod Agrippa in 41-44, and only then enclosed the site of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Garden Tomb itself was discovered in 1867, and was soon identified as the burial place of Jesus, mainly because of its location in the area that had been identified as Calvary.
The Anglican Church committed itself to the site as the place of Jesus' burial and "Gordon's Tomb" became the "Garden Tomb." The Church has since withdrawn its formal support, but the Garden Tomb continues to be identified by popular Protestant piety.
It is easy to see why the Garden Tomb is a popular site for Protestant piety - it is clearly located outside the walls, it is next to a place that looks like a skull, it conforms to what one imagines when reading the Gospel accounts, and it is far easier to pray and contemplate here than in the crowded Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
However, scholars are generally agreed that the Garden Tomb is not the actual site of Jesus' burial. One problem with the Garden Tomb is that, based on its configuration, it dates from the late Old Testament era (9th-7th century BC). Thus it was not a new tomb at the time of the crucifixion.
In addition, the burial benches were cut down in the Byzantine period (4th-6th century AD) to create rock sarcophagi, radically disfiguring the tomb. This clearly indicates that early Christians did not believe this was the burial place of Christ. The wardens of the property (the UK-based Garden Tomb Association) stress that it is the resurrection of Jesus, not the issue of finding the exact spot of his burial, that is important. Regardless of its authenticity, the Garden Tomb is a fine place for contemplating the death burial of Christ and certainly more readily identifiable with the Gospel accounts than the dark and urban scene of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Garden Tomb is one of two places identified as possible/probable sites of Christ's crucifixion and burial. The area in front of the tomb has been identified as a grape orchard; possibly from the time of Christ. It is presently landscaped and offers a wonderful opportunity to sit, reflect and pray
The garden tomb itself is located about 100 yards west of the "skull." The tomb is marked by multilingual signs and a wooden door bearing the English words, "He is not here - for he is risen."
The door and windows in the tomb facade probably date from Byzantine or Crusader times. The deep channel along the ground, sometimes identified as the groove for the rolling stone used to seal the tomb, is of unknown date and purpose.
Inside the tomb there are two chambers side by side. From the vestibule, one turns right to enter the burial chamber. This configuration is typical of 9th-7th century (Iron Age) tombs in the area. Tombs from the time of Jesus have the burial chamber behind the vestibule in a straight line, and each body bench (arcosolium) set within an arch. In the Garden Tomb, the body benches simply extend from the wall. Inside the tomb is an Anchorite cross which was carved and then painted. You can plainly see the symbols of Alpha and Omega under the bar of the cross on the left and right sides, respectively.
Then, exactly where was Christ crucified, buried and arose? Perhaps it is fitting to our faith that we do not have an "exact and identifiable" location. I don't think it matters. After-all, Christianity is based on "faith."
I hope that the stories of my tour have helped the Bible come more alive for you. I will never be the same and I will never read the Bible the same. Almost every time I open it, I point and remember, "I was there."
For further information about Israel and tour information., I suggest that you visit www.goisrael.com This is the official website of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. They offer several "virtual tours" online and you can get complete information and find links to help you make your plans. You can actually spend days just navigating the website in preparation for your "trip of a lifetime."
|Stan Wilson is a lifetime journalist after graduating from college in 1970 with
a B.A. in journalism. He worked in various positions in newspapers in Texas,
Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas prior to starting Southwest Kansas Faith and
Family in 2001. Faith and Family is a monthly Christian newspaper serving Dodge
City, Garden City and 18 other surrounding communities. He can be contacted by
email at firstname.lastname@example.org