For the first time in two centuries people have entered what most Christians believe is the tomb of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the traditional location of the tomb in which the body of Jesus laid for three days between his death and resurrection – is getting a make over. And National Geographic has reported that the marble cladding that covers the tomb has been pulled back for the first time since 1555, if not before.
For believers this rock surface, or “burial bed,” is the final resting place of Jesus’ body, before his resurrection three days later.
The restoration project came to fruition after years of squabbling among religious groups and seventy years squeaking by on a temporary fix.. In order to repair the collapsing foundations of the Church, archaeologists had to enter the tomb itself in order to stabilize the site with mortar and titanium bolts. The holy rock, as it is known, needed fortification. And because of that process archeologists cracked open the tomb of Jesus for the first time in two hundred years.
According to the Bible, after Jesus was crucified his body was taken and placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Jew who was present at the trial of Jesus. This was unusual; the bodies of most executed criminals were left to rot where they hung or thrown unceremoniously into nearby pits where they were often eaten. It’s unclear why Joseph offered Jesus a place in his tomb—some scholars have hypothesized that he was a Jesus sympathizer others that he wanted to avoid scandal associated with leaving a Jew unburied during Passover—but with the resurrection the tomb became the touchstone for Christian pilgrims and a symbol of Christianity’s most important doctrine.
Over the past 2000 years the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located has housed four successive churches. The earliest Christian structure was constructed at the orders of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century only to destroyed and rebuilt in the eleventh century, and replaced by a Crusader era Chapel in the medieval period. The latter was destroyed by a fire in 1808 and was rebuilt at the behest of Greek Orthodox Christians shortly thereafter. While reports about the nineteenth century renovations exist, they were performed before the advent of rigorous archeological study. The reports are incomplete and it is difficult to know how much evidence was swept away
The current Church is, like other Churches in the Holy Land, jointly administered by Roman Catholics, Copts, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Catholics. All of these have a vested interest in the archeological dig and are strongly territorial about preserving their access to the Church. This territorialism has long delayed the restoration project.
It was only an agreement between the Pope and Greek Orthodox leaders that have brought us to this point. King Abdullah II of Jordan, a Muslim protector of holy sites in Jerusalem, is financing the excavations, making him the third Muslim ruler (after Omar and Saladin) to protect the Church from destruction.
Even before this auspicious moment, scientists have already made discoveries. Ground penetrating radars, drones, and laser, have revealed the existence of a previously unknown crack in the rock of the tomb. The crack is likely the product of stress placed on the foundations by the columns supporting the cupola of the Church, but what other truths could be unearthed? And could anything found here fracture or cement the foundations of Christian faith?
One problem with the site is that it has only been the traditional place of worship since the fourth century, some three hundred and fifty years after the death of Jesus. There is a miraculous story associated with the discovery of the site in the fourth century, but we cannot truly be sure that Constantine and his mother, Helena, picked the correct location. Prior to the construction of the Constantinian Chapel the site housed a Temple dedicated to Aphrodite that was build during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138). Those who believe that this is the burial site of Jesus think that Hadrian placed the temple there in order to dissuade Christians from meeting there. It’s much more likely to have been a coincidence, but, regardless, there are many who hope that the conservators will find evidence that can push the association further back, perhaps even into the first century.
When archeologist Martin Biddle studied the site in the 1990s, for example, he hypothesized that Christians might have left graffiti at the site. The graffiti itself would have been reverential; perhaps liturgical slogans like “He is risen!” or biblically inspired slogans like “he is not here.” And, of course, the earlier the graffiti can be dated the better the evidence that this was the burial site of Jesus.
Historically, however, excavations of prime religious sites have rarely been impartial. The examinations of the crypt under St. Peter’s Basilica in mid-twentieth century Rome were carefully controlled. Historians have been unable to verify independently the claims of the lead archeologist that the graffiti found there reads “Peter is here” or many of the other key pieces of evidence relating to the remains of Peter.
The excavations at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher promise to be much better, especially as the site will continue to be open to visitors and pilgrims throughout the renovation process. At the same time there are fears that those involved are just too invested. Patriarch Theophilus III, of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem told The Washington Post that it is impossible to remain indifferent at the site “This is not an archaeological monument. Those stones are not mere stones.”
Protestants may feel differently, however. For many of them the traditional resting place of Jesus is the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. Unearthed in 1867, this rock-cut tomb is located next to a site that nineteenth century scholars argued was Golgotha, or Calvary (the place where Jesus was crucified). The identification of the site has been disputed by almost all scholars. Nevertheless, the Garden Tomb is maintained by a non-denominational charitable trust and continues to be a pilgrimage site for evangelicals, in particular.
Those who are hoping for proof that Jesus was buried here are may well be disappointed. But what the new excavations will tell us about is the earliest religious worship at the site. The exposure of the burial bed will enable scholars to study original surface of the holiest site in Christian traditions. Analysis of the rock might make possible to understand the development of the tomb as well as its history as a focal point of Christian worship. For those hoping this is the tomb of Jesus, a leap of faith is still required, but that leap can now depart from rock solid marble.
This article was updated on October 28 at 1:38 p.m. ET.