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,
1965).

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.

Evidence for the Siege of Jerusalem

Another one from the IAA, somewhat excerpted:

[…] Recently a small cistern belonging to a building was exposed in an archaeological excavation the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting near the Western Wall, in the vicinity of Robinson’s Arch in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Inside the cistern were three intact cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp that date to the time of the Great Revolt.

The vessels were discovered inside the drainage channel that was exposed in its entirety from the Shiloah Pool in the City of David to the beginning of Robinson’s Arch.

According to Eli Shukron, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first time we are able to connect archaeological finds with the famine that occurred during the siege of Jerusalem at the time of the Great Revolt. The complete cooking pots and ceramic oil lamp indicate that the people went down into the cistern where they secretly ate the food that was contained in the pots, without anyone seeing them, and this is consistent with the account provided by Josephus”.

In his book The Jewish War Josephus describes the Roman siege of Jerusalem and in its wake the dire hunger that prevailed in the blockaded city.

In his dramatic description of the famine in Jerusalem he tells about the Jewish rebels who sought food in the homes of their fellow Jews in the city. These, Josephus said, concealed the food they possessed for fear it would be stolen by the rebels and they ate it in hidden places in their homes.

“As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the partisans increased with it….For as nowhere was there corn to be seen, men broke into the houses and ransacked them. If they found some they maltreated the occupants for saying there was none; if they did not, they suspected them of having hidden it more carefully and tortured them.”
“Many secretly exchanged their possessions for one measure of corn-wheat if they happened to be rich, barley if they were poor. They shut themselves up in the darkest corners of the their houses, where some through extreme hunger ate their grain as it was, others made bread, necessity and fear being their only guides. Nowhere was a table laid…” (Josephus The Jewish War. Translated by G.A. Williamson 1959. P. 290). […]

via: Two Thousand Year Old Evidence of the Siege in Jerusalem (IAA)

Again, Discovery has a video

Roman Road in Jerusalem

From the IAA press release (which seems to be rewritten to a greater or lesser degree in all of the other press coverage):

An ancient road leading from Yafo to Jerusalem, which dates to the Roman period (second–fourth centuries CE), was exposed this past fortnight in the Beit Hanina neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. The road remains were revealed in an archaeological excavation the IAA conducted in Beit Hanina prior to the installation of a drainage pipe by the Moriah Company.

The wide road (c. 8 m) was bounded on both sides by curbstones. The road itself was built of large flat stones fitted to each other so as to create a comfortable surface for walking. Some of the pavers were very badly worn, indicating the extensive use that was made of the road, and over the years the road also underwent a series of repairs.

According to David Yeger, excavation director on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Several segments of the road were previously excavated by research expeditions of the IAA, but such a finely preserved section of the road has not been discovered in the city of Jerusalem until now”.
“The Romans attached great importance to the roads in the empire. They invested large sums of money and utilized the most advanced technological aids of the period in order to crisscross the empire with roads. These served the government, military, economy and public by providing an efficient and safe means of passage. Way stations and roadside inns were built along the roads, as well fortresses in order to protect the travelers. The construction and maintenance of the roads was assigned to military units, but civilians also participated in the work as part of the compulsory labor imposed on them by the authorities.”

The road section discovered in the IAA excavations in Beit Hanina is part of the imperial network of roads that led to Jerusalem from the coastal plain. We know about these roads from both historical sources and archaeological excavations. Two main arteries led from Yafo to Jerusalem during the Roman period. One is the road that passes through Bet Horon and the other runs via Shaar HaGai. This particular segment belongs to the Bet Horon road. The road began in Yafo and passed through Lod where it split it two different directions: one to Shaar HaGai and the other by way of Modiin along the route of what is today Highway 443 to Bet Horon. From there the road continued eastward as far as Bir Nabala and turned south to Kefar Shmuel where it merged with the highlands road that led to the Old City of Jerusalem.

In some places we can see that the modern Bir Nabala road was paved just a few centimeters above the route of the ancient road, which indicates that until a few decades ago the ancient road in this region was visible and was used.

The Huffington Post coverage includes some decent photos … Discovery has a video report

Remains of Roman Massacre of Jews in Jerusalem Find Redux

Israel Hayom has a very lengthy piece which provides further details of the claims being made by Benny Liss which we mentioned the other day … Here’s a lengthy excerpt from that lengthy piece:

[…] On Sunday, the main points of Liss’ theory were printed on the news pages of Israel Hayom. Since then, the foreign and local media have had Liss’ phone ringing off the hook. I went back to him as well, and together we watched the film again.

Laid out in an orderly fashion

First, here is a clear, succinct description of the footage. Night. Darkness. Liss holds a flashlight. The cameraman holds a lamp. The lighting is not optimal, but they make do. Liss goes down the stairs into the cave, the photographer following him. The floor of the cave is covered with skeletons, bones and fragments of bones. There is also a bit of carbonized material there. Some of the skeletons are not intact. One is missing a leg. Two of them look like they were laid there in a more orderly manner instead of merely thrown inside.

The images are reminiscent of a large mass grave. Thousands upon thousands of bones, if not more. Liss recalls: “It was very disturbing.”

“I wanted to see how deep the bones went. I lay on top of them and put my arm in as far as it would go, until my shoulder was also inside. I didn’t reach the bottom,” he says. The last images in the film are of Liss and his cameraman leaving the cave, breathing heavily and reciting the blessing: “Blessed is He who raises the dead.” Cut.

Liss offers a theory, “not a scientific statement,” he says. Unlike the adjacent burial caves, there are no Christian symbols, such as crosses, or accessories or sandals in this cave. The cave, which is near the Golden Gate, was the ideal place for the Romans, who stayed on the Temple Mount for a month after destroying the temple, to bury the thousands of corpses. The corpses could not be removed west of the area of the Western Wall because that was the way to the upper city, which the Romans had not yet occupied. They could not go north because that was the way they had come to conquer the city. Nor could they go south to the built-up area of the Hulda Gate, which was the entrance to the Temple — that was not proper. For the Romans, the caves to the east, near the Golden Gate, which were much lower down at the time, were a natural solution.

Liss relies on Josephus’ shocking description of the events and also on the research done by historian Nathan Shor, who documented the literature of travelers to the Land of Israel. Shor’s research cites evidence that Jews were among those buried on the slope that Liss and his associates visited that night. Shor quotes the account of an unnamed Jew, a student of Nahmanides, who wrote about the discovery of Jewish graves on the slope facing the Mount of Olives, at the foot of the city wall. He also quotes a similar account by an Italian monk, Niccolo da Poggibonsi, but relies mostly on the description of the region given by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Meir Latif, who was born in Italy in the second half of the 15th century. Latif reports that the Muslims took the Jewish cemetery beside the Golden Gate from the Jewish community and pushed the Jews to the lower slope that was closest to the Mount of Olives.

Retracing past excavations

Dr. Dotan Goren of Bar-Ilan University, who documented the Jewish efforts to buy land in the holy sites in Jerusalem and its environs during the Ottoman era, gathered quite a few accounts of ancient Jewish burial sites there. Liss believes that the cemetery that was taken from the Jews was the continuation of the Jewish settlement that existed there and of the disorderly burial that the Romans gave the Jews who had been killed during the destruction.

The big problem for Liss, and also for the archaeologists with whom we spoke this week, is that the burial cave was never sampled. The bones and any other findings that may be there were never dated. The cave was sealed by officials of the Antiquities Authority as quickly as it had been opened because the people in charge of the Ophel promenade project had promised that the caves would not be disturbed during the construction of the promenade and the improvement of the road nearby.

The attempt to retrace earlier archaeological excavations did not help to solve the mystery either. In 1869, Charles Warren, the well-known archaeologist, excavated, by means of shafts and tunnels, the lower portion of the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. Robert Hamilton, the British archaeologist, dug there in 1935 and discovered graves from the Byzantine era. In 1995, Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron excavated as part of the development of the Ophel road. Their dig uncovered findings that hint at dwellings, evidently Jewish ones, that existed in the area in Second Temple times. It also documented about 25 Byzantine burial caves along the length of the eastern slope.

Even the many renowned Israeli archaeologists whom we contacted kept their statements vague. They all spoke of the need to take samples from the cave before drawing any conclusions, and said that the footage was not enough. Professor Dan Bahat raised the possibility that the skeletons could be the remains of Christians massacred by the Persians in 614 C.E. Dr. Gabriel Barkai mentioned Muslim group burials in the area. Hillel Geva, the director of the Israel Exploration Society and the archaeologist of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, mentioned the possibility that the remains might belong to victims of an earthquake or an epidemic. He also mentioned the massacre of the Christians by the Persians. Everybody said that all options were open, including the option that Liss mentioned.

But Liss found himself in an impossible situation this week. Everyone wanted to know what had brought him to the cave, and he told a different story to each person who asked him. He wanted to protect his sources.

That is, until I reached Boaz Zissu, then an employee of the Antiquities Authority and now Professor Boaz Zissu of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. He also co-wrote, together with Professor Amos Kloner, a book titled “The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.” Zissu was able to shed some light on the mystery for me.

“I was there that night,” he said. “Even though I didn’t go inside the cave that Liss and his crew documented, I went into one that was nearby. With us in there were people from the Antiquities Authority, including the late director-general, Amir Drori, the district archaeologist, Gideon Avni, and others. After studying still photographs from Liss’ film and comparing them to other photographs from that night, Zissu said that Liss’ film showed that the cave was a Byzantine burial site.

“What shows this clearly is the double trough where the skeletons and bones are placed,” Zissu said. “Also, the entrance shafts to the caves that I remember from that area were covered by stone slabs, which is characteristic of Byzantine burials.”

Which cave are we talking about?

Zissu also relies on Gideon Avni’s doctoral thesis, which was published in 1997, about a year after that night. In his thesis, Avni writes that at the junction of the Ophel highway (on the basis of conversations with Reich and Shukron), there was “a series of hewn burial caves, extremely crowded together. These included caves built of a single hewn room with curved walls and flat areas, and more complex caves that had several rooms and flat areas. Large accumulations of bones were found in each of the flat areas. Many glass vessels from the Byzantine era were also found in some of the caves.”

But the last word in this mystery-filled debate has not yet been uttered. Liss insists that the cave that he documented was higher up, near the wall. Zissu is talking about a few meters above the road, much lower down. Liss insists that in the cave he filmed there were no Christian symbols. Also, it was not a hewn cave but rather a natural one, unlike the nearby caves that he documented, which were lower down.

He also mentions the carbon remnants, which he says may hint that the skeletons do in fact belong to the victims of the massacre on the Temple Mount, and bones with cuts or other kinds of damage that could be evidence of wounds sustained in battle.

Officials of the Antiquities Authority say that they know nothing of this issue and would be happy to receive information from Liss about it.

One of Avni’s successors at the Antiquities Authority says that he heard about a large burial cave in the region that has never been investigated.

One way or another, the chances that the cave that Liss documented, with its thousands of skeletons, will be opened anytime soon, are slim. The cave is below the Muslim cemetery, which spreads out over a large area below the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. Only recently, the Temple Mount Rescue Committee won its battle to prevent the cemetery’s expansion southward, into uninhabited areas.

The Muslims will firmly oppose anyone who dares to approach their territory to try to solve the mystery, so Schmidl and his colleagues in Atra Kadisha can relax.

The story also shows us how little we know about Jerusalem in ancient times. It also shows the major archaeological role that the Temple Mount itself, which has never been excavated due to Muslim opposition, could play in drawing up a more precise map of Jerusalem’s past.

… there seem to be some big names in Israel archaeology commenting on this. From my poking around, all I can say is that Josephus doesn’t say anything about the disposal of the bodies. I’m not sure we really know what the Romans did in the wake of a successful seige with all the dead … did they just bury them? Or did they cremate them? Whatever the case, in this particular situation it’s obvious we won’t learn anything more until this is properly investigated and it doesn’t sound like that’s on anyone’s agenda …

Herodian Aqueduct

Another interesting find in Jerusalem:

A well-built aqueduct from time of King Herod was unearthed last week near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem during work on infrastructure in the area.

The site of the discovery is not far from the place where a Byzantine street was recently unearthed.

Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists say they found about 40 meters of the ancient waterway, which was part of the sophisticated aqueduct that brought water to Jerusalem from springs in the Hebron hills to the south to the Mamilla pool, which still exists today, and from there through the aqueduct to Hezekiah’s Pool within the walled city.

Archaeologists say the aqueduct was first built in the first century BCE, and was in use in the second century. Within it were discovered roof tiles from the Roman Tenth Legion, which controlled the city at that time.

The aqueduct, which is 1.5 meters high and 60 centimeters wide, was built of large, flat stones. Every 15 meters a shaft connected the aqueduct to the road above it. According to the dig director, Dr. Ofer Sion, the shafts were used in maintenance work on the water system.

The 40-meter stretch ends just before the aqueduct reaches the Old City, where it is blocked, apparently by a collapsed shaft.

Scholars have known of the existence of an aqueduct here for about a century, thanks to a map by the German architect and archaeologist Conrad Schick, who unearthed a few meters of it. It was never excavated because this area is one of the city’s busiest intersections.

The recently discovered Byzantine street has already been covered as infrastructure work continues. The fate of the aqueduct has not yet been decided. Israel Antiquities Authority personnel say they believe an entrance to the aqueduct could remain, so that perhaps one day it could be opened to the public.

We’ll deal with the Byzantine street elsewhere …

via Herodian-era aqueduct unearthed near Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate – Haaretz – Israel News.

Other coverage (I’m sure there will be more):