What is your impression of the excavation of Christ’s tomb going on right now?


No one knows exactly where Jesus’ tomb was, although archaeologists and Bible scholars have a general idea where to look.  Besides, he was only there for three days and surely there would be no physical remains from his stay there except an empty tomb.  Therefore, this excavation will most likely not be of the actual tomb of Jesus and even if it were, there would be no physical remains from his death and no way to prove that it was the actual tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, where Jesus’ body was temporarily laid.  Therefore, for Christians, such an effort is of relatively little significance to our faith.

With that somewhat negative introduction, the archaeological study you are referencing is an interesting one.  The excavation is at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  This has been the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb since the fourth century and perhaps even earlier.  Therefore, although the site is of questionable significance to Christianity as the actual burial site of Jesus, it is of some importance in the history of Christianity.  The tradition that this is the site of the burial of Jesus goes back at least to the fourth century. The Christian historian Eusebius mentions it in his book Ecclesiastical History, published around AD 325.  Constantine had a church built on the site that now holds the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Eusebius visited Jerusalem and he was a reasonably careful historian, so we cannot rule out the possibility that the tomb which is pointed out to be Jesus’ actual burial place—the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea– is in fact the correct one.  The problem with this is that, even if the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is in the right area, there are at least six such artificial limestone caves under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Even if this is the correct site, how can we know which of the six is the one in which Jesus’ body was laid?

Besides, the Romans built a temple on the site during the reign of Emperor Hadrian.  It is thought that the Romans were trying to obliterate a site which was venerated by the Christians.  It is fairly likely that the actual tomb was confused during the time the Romans occupied the site.  Additionally, the church built by Constantine was demolished in 1009 AD by the Egyptian Fatimid Caliphate.  It is likely that the particular tomb which was supposed to be that of Jesus was confused at that time as well.

The excavation was done under the auspices of the National Geographic Society.  They point out that the site of the church is in an appropriate place to match the biblical description of where Jesus’ body was laid.  It was outside the city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, but was fairly soon afterward made part of the city when the Romans expanded the walls.  It is on the side of a hill not very far from the traditional site of Golgotha—the likely site of the execution of Jesus.  National Geographic appears to have been quite respectful of the religious considerations attached with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Before sealing up the tomb in order to preserve it, scientists took photographs and collected other kinds of data with the hope that perhaps graffiti from the very early church period can be discovered from inside the tomb.  Such graffiti and Christian art has been found as early as 250 AD at Dura Europos in Syria.  Here a normal domicile was converted into a meeting place for a house church. Frescoes from a third century church were preserved at this site.  It is not out of the question that faded versions of similar frescoes or carvings may be revealed from the data at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.   This may produce useful information about the early church and perhaps about rituals performed at the site.  All this is of great interest to students of Christian history.  However, the relevance to Christianity as it is lived and believed today seems to be small.  The fact is that Jesus left the tomb he was buried in on the third day and, for  the early church, what was significant was his life, not the location of where he was only temporarily laid.

John Oakes

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