Modern-day Israel is home to some of the most revered holy sites in Christianity, but none are more important than the Church of Holy Sepulchre, said to house Jesus’ tomb. After centuries of decay from water and structural damage, scientists finally began a long overdue renovation of the tomb in October 2016. When they removed a slab of marble for the first time in hundreds and hundreds of years, lying beneath it was a never before-seen discovery.
The Most Important Tomb of Christendom
According to the New Testament’s chronicle of his death, Jesus’ tomb was built close to the place of his crucifixion. The structure was meant to enclose both his body and the cross that he died on. And while the exact site of the burial has not been proven archaeologically, historians do know one thing for certain about the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The first church on the site was built by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in about 326 CE, and was meant to house his own burial site. First, Constantine’s mother, Helena, was sent to find the exact location of Jesus’ tomb from three centuries before. With the help of a bishop named Eusebius, she believed she’d found it.
From the church site that the emperor Constantine’s mother established, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lasted through various iterations, boosted greatly by centuries of Crusaders. The church’s bell tower collapsed in 1545, so Franciscan friars completed their own renovation on the long-neglected church. This included one of the earliest cleanups of the edicule: the shrine housing Jesus’ tomb.
The Franciscan monks then sealed the burial in 1555. In order to preserve the site, and to prevent eager pilgrims from touching the actual bedrock where Jesus’ body once sat, the monks installed a slab of marble over the limestone burial. For centuries, it had remained unopened. Archaeologists had wanted to excavate further into the burial to see if there was any archaeological proof that Jesus’ body was once there.
A modern restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was about several centuries overdue. But implementing change at this most important of Christian holy sites is notoriously difficult. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that three major Christian denominations, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Greek Orthodox, share custodianship over the church — and they don’t always agree with one another.
For example, a debate has lingered for two and a half centuries over whether or not to remove a ladder of Lebanon cedar that sits above the entrance to the church. The object has been affectionately nicknamed ‘the immovable ladder’, and is still there today. Differences aside, the priests decided it was time for a cleanup. Little did they know what they would eventually bear witness to.
Planning The Renovation And Excavation
In 1947, during British colonial rule, iron scaffolding was placed around the Ottoman-style edicule to keep it from crumbling to the ground. Then came a 2016 project to help preserve this traditional site of Jesus’ tomb. Undertaken by a team of scientists from Athens University, this restoration would also include an archaeological excavation of Jesus’ tomb. Hopefully, they might reveal its innermost contents.
The growing field of Biblical archaeology aims to reveal the historical truth (or, conversely, to disprove it) of events and places described in the Bible. This was exactly the plan of the 2016 excavation. Modern technology would provide unprecedented access to information that has taunted Bible enthusiasts for their entire lives. The main question that scientists were looking to answer: was the current tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre really the final resting place of Jesus?
Lack Of Evidence
Centuries of wars and natural disasters made scientists highly suspicious that the edicule really housed Jesus’ tomb. A few decades after his death, Jerusalem was completely destroyed, razed to the ground in 70 CE during the First Jewish-Roman War. To further complicate matters, despite what’s written, there is only physical evidence of two crucifixions carried out by the Romans during the time of Jesus (one was found near Jerusalem in 1968, the other in Italy, 2018).
In addition, the church’s known history made it unlikely that the burial remained in the same location. After all, it had been destroyed or altered by centuries of successive conquerors. Now, the plan was to remove mold and water damage, to reinforce the exterior of the edicule that was starting to crumble, and finally to excavate Jesus’ tomb. More recent excavations around the site gave them hope that they could well find something huge.
A Previous Discovery
From excavations conducted at the church during the 1970s, researchers were able to determine that the Holy Sepulchre structure was built in a way intended to cover up the ruling religion that had come before Christianity. The site Helena and Eusebius had declared to be Jesus’ tomb had first been a temple to the Roman gods Jupiter or Venus, built by the emperor Hadrian centuries before Constantine’s reign.
The leader of the excavation in the ’70s, a Franciscan priest and archaeologist named Virgilio Canio Corbo, surmised that the church’s enclosure would have been roughly in the same place as it was during the time of Hadrian. That meant that the edicule’s location wouldn’t have changed since the 2nd century CE. Though Corbo’s hypothesis has been contested, luckily more evidence surfaced to further support the claim that this was indeed the place of Jesus’ tomb.
Beyond The City’s Walls?
Additional excavations undertaken during the twentieth century revealed groundbreaking discoveries at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This included several rock tombs, and an ancient limestone quarry thought to be the remains of Constantine’s first church from 326, a description that supports the one given in the Bible. These finds shed an important light on the current accepted location of Jesus’ tomb.
Another key question is whether or not the existing location would have been within the walls of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ death. The Bible tells us that he was buried outside of the city’s walls — but the current church and tomb sit inside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. But more discoveries proved that the church would have been outside the city during the time immediately after Jesus’ death, and the walls expanded after. So far, much was lining up.
Getting The Greenlight
These more recent discoveries that have been made in and around the church were considered when the Holy Sepulchre’s monks made the decision to allow the team from Athens to begin restoration work. With the team’s promise that the existing structure would not be altered, approval was given. Work was set to begin, and with it, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the inside of Jesus’ tomb.
It took the team ten months to complete restorations to the exterior of the edicule. With painstaking care, they removed the mold and water damage by hand, and also inserted modern screws to strengthen the walls and foundation. This ensured the structure would be sound for at least several more centuries. But the team of researchers saved the best part of the project for last.
Opening the Burial Chamber
Remember the slab of marble that the Franciscan monks laid over the burial chamber to keep it from being exposed to millions of pilgrims? The team were about to move it for the first time since it was put there in the mid-sixteenth century. It was a moment of discovery that the scientists — and the monks — had been looking forward to for their entire lives.
On October 25 and 26, 2016, the team worked in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for sixty hours straight to remove the marble slab, being extra careful not to damage any part of the surrounding burial chamber. When at last the marble was lifted, the team saw something that they had not been expecting.
Unseen For Centuries
Underneath the marble were several layers of dirt and debris that had piled up for literally thousands of years. It was the first time that humans had laid eyes on the deepest part of the burial chamber, and very possibly the last. After hours of digging, sifting through and removing the debris, they made a new shocking discovery.
The scientists had no idea that another slab of marble laid beneath the one put there by the Franciscan monks in 1555. It was a complete surprise. While the first layer of marble was a stark milky white, the second one was gray, a sign of its extraordinary age. On the surface of the gray marble, the team spotted something that they couldn’t believe. There was a beautifully inscribed cross etched into the center of the stone!
What Does It Mean?
This long-hidden second slab of marble was such a mystery that it put historians in a frenzy searching for answers. Some speculated that the cross was put there during the time of the Crusaders, a lasting mark from one of their conquests of the Holy City. Some thought that a crack in its surface could have been the result of an attack from Arab conquerors even before the Crusades, circa 1009.
Still, others suggested that it might be even older yet. Despite the myriad of theories, there was one thing that the team agreed on. The newly discovered marble had to be at least as old as the walls surrounding it, which would make it, at the bare minimum, five hundred years old. But was there any way to verify how old it was?
Against The Clock
The true date of the newly explored tomb could only be found after a lengthy scientific analysis. With only two days to work, the team gathered as many rock samples as they could from the depths of the burial chamber. The samples were then sent to a lab to be dated. They would take one year before yielding results.
One archaeologist, Martin Biddle, completed a groundbreaking study on the area in the church surrounding the edicule. He used thermal imaging and robotic mini-cameras to help build virtual models of shrines that could have been built over the tomb. From his research, he felt there was a possibility that the current location could have been unchanged since the time of Constantine. But this was yet to be proven.
Getting The Results From The Lab
The 2016 excavation team utilized a process called optical stimulated luminescence (OSL) to determine when the material that was collected was last exposed to light. This would provide the scientific evidence to prove the exact date of the chamber. After nearly one year, the results came in.
Despite previous evidence linking the chamber to the period of the Romans before they became Christian, the more recent tests proved that the burial slab and the hidden cover were last exposed during the fourth century. That was the same time period when the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built by Constantine!
There were more discoveries that could provide a cogent archaeological record throughout the depth of the chamber. Analysis of mortar taken from the southern wall of the tomb corroborated with the dating of the marble slab and cover. For the team from Athens and the monks who had the chance to oversee the work, it was positively electrifying news.
With the restoration completed, it is unlikely that the marble slabs and burial chamber will be opened again any time in near future. The results from the excavation revealed new facts that will forever change the way that people all over the world look at Christianity’s holiest site. The ripples were felt far and wide.
Converting Non-Believers To Believers
Even some of archaeology’s biggest critics of the authenticity of the site of Jesus’ tomb have had a change of heart regarding the recent discoveries. Famed Israeli archaeologist Dan Bahat, who questioned the veracity of Corbo’s claim that the Church was roughly in the same place that it was when it was built nearly two thousand years ago, said that there is now no reason to doubt the veracity of the site.
While there might not be hard evidence to prove that Jesus’ body was actually buried directly beneath the existing edicule, “we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site,” Bahat says. “Certainly, there are no other sites that can lay a claim nearly as weighty.” Though the Protestant world and many archaeologists believe the actual site was outside the Old City at a place called the Garden Tomb, the findings of the 2016 excavations convinced more than a few experts.
Why Does It Matter?
Undoubtedly, archaeologists and historical truth-seekers will continue to make groundbreaking discoveries that uncover new truths about the physical history behind the stories in the Bible. But for true believers, finds like the one made by the team from Athens are inconsequential. One trip to Jerusalem is proof enough.
Encountering the city for the first time, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the questions of history. Once inside the Old City, visitors will see countless pilgrims rejoicing, crying, blessing their children, and experiencing their own form of religious epiphanies. For them, the authenticity of the sites are unshakable, and the answers that they seek are simply in their faith.
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