Jesus’ ‘Tomb’ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Some Background

Folks have no doubt seen much of the coverage of the restoration work being done on the site traditionally-identified as the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We first heard of work being about to take place there last summer, as there were growing concerns for the structural integrity of the site (see, e.g., Risk of Collapse at Jesus’ Tomb Unites Rival Christians (New York Times)  ). As might be expected, there was much hype for this effort and much of the coverage spun off a piece from National Geographic, which is working on some sort of associated documentary. Last weekend’s coverage made much of the claim of “astonishing things” being found, which probably weren’t “astonishing” for the majority of the public, namely, that the original walls and ‘bench’ of the tomb were still intact. Here’s an overview of some of the coverage:

The coverage of the past two days has confirmed most of what was anticipated last week, and there is some mention that there was hope of finding some early Christian graffiti on the walls, the importance of which Martin Biddle reiterated in the most recent National Geographic piece:

Archaeologist Martin Biddle, who published a seminal study on the history of the tomb in 1999, believes that the only way to really know, or understand why people believe, that the tomb is indeed the one in which the Gospels say Jesus’ body was laid, is to carefully review the data collected when the burial bed and cave walls were exposed.

“The surfaces of the rock must be looked at with the greatest care, I mean minutely, for traces of graffiti,” Biddle says, citing other tombs in the area that must have been of considerable importance because they are covered with crosses and inscriptions painted and scratched onto the rock surfaces.

“The issue of the graffiti is absolutely crucial,” Biddle says. “We know that there are at least half a dozen other rock-cut tombs below various parts of the church. So why did Bishop Eusebius identify this tomb as the tomb of Christ? He doesn’t say, and we don’t know. I don’t myself think Eusebius got it wrong—he was a very good scholar—so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for.”

I’m not sure if they actually had time to do an RTI examination (or something similar) but it does remain a curious thing how the site was actually identified as the tomb of Jesus in antiquity. Most of the press coverage does give an overview of the ‘discovery’ of the tomb by Helena at a site that once  hosted a Temple of Aphrodite, and then go on to give the subsequent development of structures. But the tradition is a bit more complicated, as Lorenzo Smerillo of Montclair State University pointed out on Classics-l the other day. Dr Smerillo’s return to the sources is posted with permission (and thanks):

The actual source of the tale that Helena, an aged lady, dowager Augusta,in her eighties, was led, by sources unknown, to discover the tomb of
Jeshu’a ben Iosef some three hundred years after his burial, and further
after the destruction of Jerusalem and environs by Titus in A.D 70, as well
as the destruction wrought by Hadrian in 133-136 (Jewish-Christians were
under the same ban from the land as Jews) is from Gelasius of Caesarea
(Frg. 20, F. Winkelmann, “Charakter und Bedeuntung der Kirchengeschichte
des Gelasios von Kaisereia”, _Byzantinische Forchungen 1. 1966: 346-385, at
351 and his _Untersuchungen zur Kirchengeschichte des Gelasios von
Kaisareia, Sitzungsberichte der deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu
Berlin_, Klasse für Sprachen, Literatur und Kunst, 1965, Nr. 3. Berlin,

The tale seems to have been composed by Cyril of Jerusalem in his effort to
raise Jerusalem to a primacy in Palestine over the see of Caesarea. It is
dated to have been ‘fabricated’ between 351 -390 by J.W. Drijvers, _Cyril
of Jerusalem, Bishop and City_ (Supp. to VC), 2004: 168-175, with
discussion of the secondary literature.
It may have been fabricated by Gelasius or his uncle Cyril of Jerusalem.

The tale is later taken up by Rufinus in HE 10.7-8 (his Latin continuation
of Eusebius’ HE0, Socrates HE 1.17, Sozomen HE 2.1, and is known to
Ambrose c. 395 (_De Obitu Theodosii 43 ff., CSEL 73. 393 f.). It is not
mentioned in the _Itinerarium Egeriae_ (36 ff.).

However the passage in _It. Eger._ 25.9 that Constantine built the church
on Golgotha ‘sub praesentia matris suae’ seems to me to be a muddle very
close to Eusebius’ VC 3.41 that Constantine founded the Churches at
Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives but ‘artistically honoured, perpetuating
the memory of his own mother’. Both would point, I posit, to a dedicatory
inscription ‘in memoriam matris suae Helenae Augustae’ (which of course is
speculation as such an inscription does not survive).

Helena died in 327 in Nicomedia, her body was placed in Constantine’s own
porphyry sarcophagus (adored with victorious scenes of battle) and
transported to Rome. The sarcophagus is now in the Vatican.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Constantine and Helena were in Judea
together at the same time (hence she could not have uncovered the Cross and
showed it to him). All the work on the churches is documented as on the
orders of Constantine with various officials being given instructions from
the Emperor from afar.

Eusebius of Caesarea records (Vita Constantini 3.43) that Helena founded
two churches in Jerusalem, one at Bethlehem, the Nativity, and another on
the Mount of Olives, the Ascension, during her pilgrimage there in 326.
That is all.

Nor does Eusebius mention Helena in his oration at the dedication of the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher ( Oratio de Laudibus Constantini 11-18, ed.
I.A. Henkel, Eusebius Werke 1 (GCS 7, 1902), 223-259) in September 335–
also celebrating Constantine’s 30th anniversary as Imperator.

So whatever the archaeologists in the Church on the Cardo Maximus discover
may only be Constantinian in origin. I doubt there is any connection with
pre-70 burials.

… and so we wait to see if the archaeology can provide some additional clues on the identification.

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