Another essay I’ve been asked to repost is my bit on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And no, I’m not gonna spell it Sepulchre, like the British and Canadians do. I’m an American. Our spelling makes more sense. Well, slightly more.
What prompted the original post in 2010 was my brother and sister-in-law going to Israel. It was with some folks in their church, and was the basic pilgrim’s package: You get Jerusalem, of course, and a few of the more popular sites from the bible—provided there’s no open warfare in those areas. The last thing either Israelis or Palestinians want are shot-up tourists. Both sides profit from tourism. When I went to Israel in 1998, I wanted to see Hebron, ’cause Abraham is buried there, but nothing doing: It was off-limits to tourists at the time. So I had to settle for Beersheba, one of the many places where Abraham camped; or Tel Dan, where the ancient city of Laish, which Abraham once visited, was being excavated; or the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham tried sacrificing one son or the other—the Torah says Isaac, the Quran says Ishmael, and the Book of Mormon probably says he did it in North America. (Nah, kidding.) Probably these sites were more interesting than Hebron. I suppose I’ll never know.
Before going, the pilgrims at my brother’s church met regularly to discuss the sites they’d see. This way they could look them up in advance, or, which is more likely, not. And once they finally got to Israel, they wouldn’t need to listen to any spiel from the tour guide. They could just stand there and bask in the awesomeness of where they were—assuming they knew where they were. I know the bible fairly well, but every once in a while, during my own trip to Israel, I’d go, “Where?” You see, some of the places today have unfamiliar Arabic names, and other locations are so minor—most of the action, you know, takes place in Jerusalem, Samaria, Capernaum, and sometimes Bethlehem—that you can be excused for not knowing every little place where Jesus stopped for a bathroom break and a falafel. But now that you were there, you could stand there and think, “Wow, Jesus stood here.” Then take photos and video. And, later that evening, upload it to Facebook.
Me, I’d rather pick the tour guide’s brain. The Israeli guides tend to know way more about the sites than many of the books out there. The Israeli Antiquities Authority educates them well. Yeah, some of it is telling the tourists what they want to hear: If they’re dealing with Catholic tourists, they’re instructed to never ever point out the Virgin Mary’s tomb. ’Cause everybody knows Mary ascended to heaven. Except non-Catholics, who don’t care whether she did or not; we figure she’ll be there either way.
But when I saw one of their first itineraries, I noticed they were lacking a trip to the Naos tis Anastaseos—that’d be Greek for the Sanctum Sepulchrum, which is Latin for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It wasn’t there. They were going to the Garden Tomb, though.
“Well, what’s the big deal?” most Protestants are likely thinking. “They were going to the Garden Tomb. Why would they need to go to that Catholic site anyway?”
Because “that Catholic site” is where Jesus was resurrected. He was never laid to rest in the Garden Tomb.
In the early days of archaeology archaeologists didn’t know what the hell they were doing. It was, after all, the early days. The first archaeologists were people who were knocking around ancient lands—French soldiers in Egypt, or British soldiers in Palestine—who realized, “Hey, this ancient stuff might actually tell us something about history. And when you dig around a bit, you find more of it.”
Most folks knew when you dig around the earth enough—at least in places where humans have settled for longer than 500 years, i.e. not most of America—you’ll find remnants of those previous settlers. Usually junk. A building would fall apart, and someone would finally knock it down, level out the ground (more or less), and build on top of it. After 10 centuries of this sort of behavior you actually wind up with a hill—and the hill consists of layer after layer of the previous civilizations’ junk. But in the hands of a knowledgeable anthropologist, you can learn all sorts of things about those civilizations by their junk.
Of course, in the 19th century, they weren’t interested in learning all sorts of things about those civilizations. Just the main things. Like whether they accidentally threw out any gold. Or whether you might find a slab that mentioned somebody famous, like that Rosetta Stone that mentioned one of the Ptolemies and one of the Cleopatras. Who knows; in Israel you might find something ancient that mentions David or Abraham or somebody biblical. Wouldn’t that be a find?
Once they realized this, they just started digging around willy-nilly, not bothering to think there ought to be some method to the process. Like paying attention to all the “junk” you find that isn’t a major discovery. Like destroying evidence that could indicate what timeframe your artifact came from. Of course carbon-dating wasn’t around yet.
So a lot of the early archeologists worked pretty much the same way Indiana Jones did: They’d find treasures, and stick them in a museum, and wreck everything else along the way. If you’ve ever seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a bit where he discovers a medieval knight’s grave in Italy… and desecrates it like crazy, just so he can get at the Holy Grail all the faster. Archaeologists didn’t bother with dusting sites with paintbrushes and toothbrushes. They’d use a backhoe and dynamite if it got them results quickly enough. They made a royal mess of Jericho, fr’instance. The site today is considered unreliable for serious research because of how badly those early archaeologists dug through it like a kid digging through a box of cereal for the plastic toy.
This being the case, when the archeologists wanted to take a crack at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, do you think the churches that run the place wanted these barbarians anywhere near it? It was bad enough that the pilgrims would take a pickax to these places for souvenir rock samples. Archeologists were way worse. No thank you. Go away. Find another spot to ruin.
Most of the reasons why Protestants say the Church of the Holy Sepulcher isn’t where Jesus was laid to rest have to do with anti-Catholicism and sour grapes. Deny them access, and suddenly they discovered all sorts of reasons why it can’t be the real site:
- It wasn’t outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem, and of course Jesus was crucified and buried outside the walls. (It actually was, but 19th-century archaeologists didn’t know how to accurately date any of the walls they knew of. They just assumed the city hadn’t expanded any during the Crusades or the Ottoman occupation.)
- It fit a little too well into Roman city planning for it to be a totally natural location. (Again, it’s not that the 19th-century archeologists understood how the city adjusted, over the previous centuries, to suit the church’s location.)
- It wasn’t on the east side of Jerusalem, where Jews typically buried their dead. (As if the Romans cared where they crucified anyone.)
- It used to have a temple of Aphrodite on it. The Roman Christians likely claimed it was Jesus’s tomb because they were trying to replace Aphrodite-worship with Jesus-worship. (They didn’t buy the Catholics’ story about anti-Christians trying to replace Jesus-worship with Aphrodite-worship by sticking their own temple atop a known Christian worship site. More plausible to them was the idea that it’d been totally lost, despite unbrokens generations of local Christians.)
- It’s too Catholic. And it doesn’t look like a hill anymore. Or a skull.
So the 19th century archaeologists went looking for an alternate site, and found one. It’s often called “Gordon’s Calvary,” after British war hero Charles George Gordon, although he didn’t personally discover it. He just promoted it in his book Reflections on Palestine. The archeologists guessed Calvary/Golgotha, where Jesus was killed, was so called because it physically looked like a skull. They found a rock face that looked skull-like. True, it was north of ancient Jerusalem instead of east, but location is only an argument used against the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The first time I saw it was a photo in my Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. It didn’t look at all like a skull to me. You have to look at it at just the right angle—and even then it’s iffy. When you go there, the Garden Tomb docents have kindly put up a photo, taken in 1880, that shows you just the right angle of the rock face. It’s the same photo as in my bible. It might resemble a really elongated skull, like the Neanderthal skulls they show in science textbooks. But I’m pretty sure 19th-century Christians weren’t subtly trying to promote evolution with their alternate crucifixion site. (Gordon himself believed in reincarnation, but that’s another issue.)
Two reasons they have to include the photo. The Garden Tomb folks bought the land with the tomb on it, but not the land with “Calvary” on it, so now there’s a bus station there. The lower part of the “skull” now has a bit of asphalt in the way. So when you go to the Garden Tomb, you don’t get to see “Calvary” up close; you have to go to this platform that allows you to see over the buses. Not very inspiring, but like I said, it doesn’t look as much like a skull as you’d want it to.
The other reason is erosion. Jerusalem’s rocks are, for the most part, limestone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock—it’s densely packed sand, really—and over time, and not a lot of it, it turns back into sand. Yeah, there’s granite here and there, but even granite erodes, as any of the folks who work on preserving Mt. Rushmore will tell you. When you look at the 1880 photo you can see just how much “Calvary” eroded over the past 132 years. Now, add another 1,847 years of erosion, and tell me how much that hill looked like a skull in Jesus’s day.
Well, it’s possible. Then again, any other rocky hill in the area, if you looked at it from just the right angle, might look just as skull-like. But if you remember your bible, the Hebrews were in the habit of naming places, not after what they looked like, but after what happened there. You didn’t name a hill Golgotha because it looked like a skull. You named it that because, regardless of what it looked like, skulls were involved. The skulls of a thousand crucified Jews, perhaps, in one of the previous Roman over-reactions to a Jewish revolt.
Anyway. After the archaeologists found “Calvary,” they found a bunch of “tombs” partly concealed by a garbage dump. Included in the garbage was an ancient wine press and cistern. From that, archaeologists concluded there used to be a garden here—and hey, Jesus’s tomb was in a garden. How fortuitous.
One of the “tombs” had a groove in front of it, big enough for, say, a large round stone to be rolled in front of it. Thus the archaeologists concluded this must be Jesus’s tomb, ’cause his tomb had a stone in front of it that needed rolling.
Problem is, this “tomb” didn’t look so much like a tomb as a big gaping space in the side of a hill, with sort of a shelf to sit upon, and a trough in front of it for, they assumed, rolling a stone in front. So they built a wall to close up the gap. That’s why part of the Garden Tomb looks like a wall: It is a wall. Otherwise it wouldn’t look like a tomb. It’d look like a bench for people who are waiting for a bus.
More recent archaeologists have looked the Garden Tomb over and found it lacking. Yes, it was a tomb once, but a tomb from Isaiah’s day—back when they put bodies in it and left them there—not Jesus’s, when they put bodies in it, let them rot, and collected the bones later to be put in ossuaries. Since Jesus’s tomb is described as newly carved, this can’t be it. Apparently the Crusaders had discovered it, and turned it into a mini-stable. The cistern, which dated from that time, was only 600 years old.
The groove in front of the tomb was shaped inappropriately to roll a stone in front of the door—if it ever had a door. Notice, in the photo, that diagonal slant on its lip. That wouldn’t hold up any stone; it’d just fall over. More likely it was a water trough for donkeys.
The Garden Tomb trustees know all this. They’ll freely admit it. When I visited, they were very quick to point out that no, this wasn’t actually the place where Jesus was laid.
“It’s not?” said one of the surprised pilgrims in our group.
“No,” they said, “but it looks like a tomb that Jesus would have been laid in. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher doesn’t. So that’s why we have it: It’s so you can see what a first-century tomb would look like.”
More or less. It’s what 20th-century Christians think a first-century tomb would look like when you doctor up a 8th-century-BC tomb that had been altered a bit by 11th-century Christians. But if you don’t know any better, and most Protestants don’t, it looks “real.” Which is good enough for them.
Our pilgrim was a little bothered about visiting a fraudulent tomb. She wanted the real tomb. Which we got, later, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The docents will point you there, as will every other local. They know better.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in 326 by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The emperor had this idea in mind to build himself a nice impressive church in New Rome (later Constantinople) and wanted some real biblical artifacts to stick in it, so he sent his mom to the Holy Land for souvenirs. Helena quite reasonably left it to her local Jerusalem guides to point out where everything was, and they did. The Christians, despite Roman persecution, had never left—during the destruction of Jerusalem, they did as Jesus instructed and ran for the hills, and when the Romans were finished crucifying everybody, they came back down.
The Christians pointed out how Aphrodite’s temple was built on top of Jesus’s tomb. It was deliberately put there by Emperor Hadrian around 135 to annoy the Christians. But it definitely marked the spot. And that was still the direction Christians faced when they prayed. Every Christian church in the area has the front of its building pointing toward the Holy Sepulcher.
So Helena excavated it. While she was at it, she had her building crew hack down the entire hill that surrounded the tomb, and then they built a little sanctuary on top of it. So it doesn’t look at all natural. Today, Greeks call this mini-sanctuary the Kuvuklion, and Catholics the Edicule: It’s a church building inside the rotunda of the bigger church building. You go in, and there’s the slab where they laid Jesus. But it’s covered in marble—which was put there in the 12th century, probably to cover up the massive erosion of thousands of Christians kissing it. So you can’t actually see the slab itself.
If you want to see the part of the slab where Jesus’s head rested, you have to go round back of the Kuvuklion to a chapel run by the Copts. I glanced back there, but it was all locked up with no one on duty, so there was no way to see it. If the Copts are wise, they won’t let anyone touch it either.
That’s the biggest problem with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It doesn’t look like Jesus’s tomb, or any tomb really. The hillside of Jesus’s burial cave? Gone. The hill of Golgotha? Gilded. The Romans weren’t interested in preserving the environment. Preservation—without coating things in gold and fancy decorations—is a 20th century idea. But in the fourth, and for 15 centuries thereafter, the natural environment wasn’t considered esthetically worthy enough for worshiping God. So it was paved over.
It’s been completely covered and decorated. And then fought over by six denominations, which to this day will start throwing punches at one another if anyone messes with anything. Seriously, anything—somebody left a ladder outside in the 1750s before the then-current don’t-mess-with-anything treaty went into effect. That ladder is still there, although somebody took off with it for a few weeks in 1997 as a prank.
The decorations are starting to crumble around them. The Kuvuklion needs repairs, and everyone agrees it does, and wants to repair it. But they don’t want anyone else to repair it. So it doesn’t get repaired. If anyone dared, it’d be a war. I’m not kidding. Heads would get caved in. If spiritual climate says anything about which site is the real site, it’s sad to say, but the possessiveness of the Christians who run the Church of the Holy Sepulcher make it obviously the correct site.
But you needn’t look at their bad example as evidence. Historically and archeologically, and according to the testimony of the locals, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the correct resting place of Jesus.
But tell that to Protestants and they won’t believe you.
“That’s amazing!” a former boss told me, after I had told him I had gone to Israel. He hadn’t been there himself. “So did you go to the Garden Tomb? Did you see where Jesus was buried?”
“Yes and yes,” I said. “You know they’re not the same place.”
He didn’t. I tried to explain.
He objected. He had seen some video that stated, quite clearly, that Gordon’s Calvary was the real Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb was the real tomb. He lent it to me. It was by these two crackpots who were clearly treasure hunters—members of the Indiana Jones school of archaeology, if not the Tomb Raider school. They weren’t connected with any university or government, and they had actually attempted to dig a tunnel without the permission of the Israeli government. In Israel, of all places, where any excavation—even for landscaping—has to check in with the government, lest you uncover something of archaeological significance. ’Cause people have been living in that land for the past 40 centuries. There’s so much history there, you can take ancient pottery shards home for free. (Well, maybe not legally, but I know a few folks who took advantage of all those shards just lying around in Beersheba.)
Anyway, these nuts had some really blurry photos of what they claim is the Ark of the Covenant. They claim it’s buried directly under Gordon’s Calvary. They would have got better photos, but apparently the Israelis caught them before they could turn on the autofocus.
So their story is that Jesus, when he was crucified on Gordon’s Calvary, when he bled, his blood seeped through a crack in the ground, and dripped all the way down into a secret chamber beneath the earth, and dripped directly onto the mercy seat of the Ark…
And if true, so did the blood of a thousand other Jews whom the Romans crucified on that hill. The Ark would have been caked in blood. Eww. (Unless it was doing that Raiders of the Lost Ark thing where it burned stuff off. And hummed. And when you opened it up it melted you. And if you took photos of it and showed it on your cheesy video, it melted your viewers.)
Obviously I’m skeptical. There are a lot of looneys in Christendom, and you can usually tell them by the fact that they go digging illegal tunnels through a place where the entire city is an archaeological treasure trove. God knows how many sites they’ve ruined on their way to raid the Lost Ark.
But again, your average Christian doesn’t know the difference between historicity, science, or proper archeological provenance. Doesn’t care, either. You may recall the flap about the James Ossuary in 2002. People were so jazzed about the idea—here’s some evidence that supported the New Testament!—that they didn’t care it had been stolen by a treasure hunter, hidden by a relic collector, and wasn’t yet examined by specialists. They didn’t refuse to hold off judgment until scholars could take a serious look at it. They figured if it supported the bible, it must be true.
This is how Christians have been scammed throughout the centuries into buying slivers of Jesus’s cross, relics from Jesus’s followers, pottery fragments and rocks and sand and other “archeological” items from Israel, and so forth. The lack of spiritual discernment we see among Christians becomes ridiculously obvious when it comes to history. There, we’ll believe anything we’re told. Unless it came from the wrong denomination.
This wasn’t the first tour I’ve seen that gave the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a miss. There was a Jerusalem ministry my mom used to work for, and they offer weeklong tour packages—which only go to the Garden Tomb. ’Cause they know their audience. Protestants will say, “Well, this Church of the Holy Sepulcher is interesting and everything, but what I really want to see is the Garden Tomb. That’s on the itinerary, isn’t it?” They’ll make a fuss if it’s not. Just the very problem we in the church always suffer: We prefer what looks real. Actual reality is too messy.
Well, my brother had been to Israel before, and knows better. The pilgrims on his trip did actually make it to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It would have been a shame otherwise. I mean, if you go all the way to Israel and don’t go to the actual place where Jesus died and was raised, you’ve wasted your money. Yeah, go to the Garden Tomb and see the facsimile; it looks neat. For that matter, you can go to the Holy Land theme park in Florida and see their facsimile, and an actor playing Jesus will even pop out of it once a day, and see his shadow, and we’ll have ten more weeks with no Second Coming. What, you didn’t know that was why?…
Or you can wait till Easter, when we build a papier-mâché facsimiles for our church productions. The only differences between the mockups and the Garden Tomb is that the Garden Tomb is older, more popular, and made of stone.
Oh, and they sell belts outside the entrance. I didn’t tell this story when I originally posted this, but will now.
Any tourist trap has official souvenir booths, where they sell pretty much the same stuff—the same postcards, the same videos, the same books, the same everything. Priced in sheqels, which were at the time worth an American quarter, so it was an easy calculation to figure out how much everything was. But, considering how many Americans there were, some shops priced things in U.S. dollars. That was disappointing: You’d think you found a huge bargain, and it turns out they wanted four times as much. In any event, everybody took American money, and most cash registers converted everything to dollars. I know there were pilgrims from other countries—I ran into a group from Mexico at Gethsemane, but I never saw anyone accept pesos.
The pilgrims’ joke was that everything was “two dollars.” That seemed to be the price most often quoted to us. Photo postcards were $2. Bottled water was $2. Maps of Israel were $2. Other things, like film, cost more, but the two dollars would hook you in.
Then there are the unofficial souvenir booths, which are less-conveniently placed, and the vendors have to make noise if they want to make sales. They’d be out at the parking lot. All the tour guides were connected with both the Israeli government and the official souvenir booths, so they wouldn’t give you a lot of time to find the unofficial booths and buy stuff from them. But I found that, while they’d have some things the official booths didn’t, the prices were the same. Well, on their face: You could haggle the prices down, if you had the time. We didn’t. Our tour guide was a pro.
On our way out of the Garden Tomb, we passed by an unofficial booth. This shopkeeper’s speciality was belts. Big gaudy leather belts. Almost wrestler-size. As far as I could see, they was leather. They were on display, and they were worked over with a relief image of Jerusalem, with “Jerusalem” in English along the sides. I could picture some of my Texan friends wearing such a thing, but not me.
“Belts!” the shopkeeper shouted, ’cause he knew you wouldn’t find them anywhere else. Not that you’d look for them. “Belts! Twenty dollars!”
“Belts, two dollars,” joked one of the Americans. Probably one of our pilgrims. I wouldn’t be surprised. The shopkeeper ignored this. He’d likely heard it before.
Since I had briefly described these belts to you, you probably guessed I had looked at them. If you know anything about Middle Eastern social conventions, you’ll immediately recognize this as a faux pas: You never look at a shopkeeper’s wares casually. You only look when you intend to buy. They don’t abide people who walk in, browse around, then leave. That’s teasing them.
It’s been said, “Since they encounter Americans so often, you’d think they’d be used to how we are.” Yeah, maybe. But Israeli and Palestinian shopkeepers are far more used to how they are. In daily life, they deal with far more locals than they do tourists. And why should they change for us? We’re in their country, after all. We didn’t change for them; we still insist on shoving our American nickels into their vending machines, and beating the machine silly because it won’t accept money which is supposed to be good everywhere.
Tangent over: I had looked at his booth. So he singled me out, ’cause I had telegraphed to him that I wanted a belt. I most certainly did not. If I was gonna buy any leather in that country, it would have been tefillin, although good luck finding tefillin for less than $200—and half the shopkeepers would have wondered what on earth a goy wanted with teffilin, though they would have sold it to me anyway, ’cause money is money.
“Twenty dollars!” he said, as I kept walking by. “For you, eighteen dollars! … Sixteen!”
“No thank you,” I said.
“Fifteen!” he kept going.
So did I.
“You want me to give it to you for free?̦” he said, giving up.
For a second—but not more—I thought of turning round and telling him, “Sold!” But again, I couldn’t imagine wearing any of those belts. Even if they were free—and of course he’d withdraw the offer, and we’d wind up haggling until we hit a price closer to $12. And I might find out afterward that the quality of leather—or for that matter, a thin layer of leather pasted on top of fabric—would make them actually worth $5. Or less.
Twisted thing is, if instead of working images of Jerusalem into belts, the leather manufacturer chose instead to make authentic Roman-style whips, just like the ones the Romans beat Jesus with, you know there are a lot of demented Christians out there who’d totally buy them. “For sermon illustrations,” might be the excuse, but the real urge—to own a weapon—would be a lot more warped. Still, they’d sell far better than belts, and he’d get more than $20 for them.