The Holy Sepulcher PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Holy Sepulcher
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Is the Holy Sepulcher authentic?

When Constantine's mother, Helena, chose a site in 326 AD to build a great church, she and her advisors knew that Jesus had been buried "near the city" (John 19:20 ) -- that is, outside it. Since they were not sophisticated archaeologists, we would expect them to have chosen a place outside the city of their time. But no, they picked a site within their walls, although it was indeed outside the walls at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. We know it was outside then because the site includes first-century tombs - and the Jews of that time did not bury inside the city. (A photo of these tombs appears below). What is more, a few sections of Roman wall have been discovered in the area, enabling a hypothetical reconstruction.

The fact that the Byzantines located the grave inside their own city, although they knew that it must have been outside the city of 30 AD, leads many scholars to think that they had a strong tradition for the place. Much earlier, in fact (in 160 AD) Melito, Bishop of Sardis, visited the land, "and he told his flock back home that Golgotha was now in the middle of the city." (Armstrong , p. 170, citing Melito's "Paschal Sermon.")

Here is a view from the north, showing the position of the site in relation to the walls of 30 AD and the Byzantine walls:


And here is an alternative view from the northwest.


Helena did not choose an ordinary spot. The place contained a pagan temple, built by the Emperor Hadrian , which had been Jerusalem's holiest site for 200 years. Our sources on Hadrian's activities are so obscure, questionable and contradictory that we cannot be certain which god was adored here. Some say Venus, others Jupiter, still others a trio of gods. But it is a long-established pattern in this country, that a newly victorious religion usurps the holy place of its predecessor. If Helena had no strong tradition about the location of Jesus' grave, then perhaps in a gesture of Christian triumph, she decided to build on the pagans' holiest spot!

To clarify our thinking, we may start with two opposing versions of what may have happened.

1. Hadrian built his Temple where he did in a place that was sacred to Christians, either because holiness had accrued to the site or because he wanted to cover it over. When Helena arrived, the local Christians remembered where the grave had been. They dug through Hadrian's platform and found it. Thus wrote Eusebius of Caesarea in the 4th century.


2. Hadrian built his Temple in the place designated by the Roman augurs. Helena, in a gesture of triumph, decided to rip it down. Tombs were discovered, and one was singled out as that of Jesus.

Jerusalem has long been surrounded by tombs. It is not extraordinary that Helena's builders found some. Interesting, however, is the fact that the tombs were precisely of the first-century type. Some are still visible in a small, smoke-blackened chapel due west of the official grave. They are body-length shafts cut back into the rock. The practice was to keep the corpse in such a shaft, closing this off with a slab. A rolling stone would shut the entire cave. After a year, relatives came and removed the bones, placing them in an ossuary . Thus they re-used the shafts, while assembling the ossuaries in the cave.

The grave identified as that of Jesus is a slight distance away. The holy tomb that we see today is a replica, for the original was destroyed . From a description by Arculf , however, we know that the original was an arcosolium , a form also common at the time of Jesus' Passion.

The 1st-century tombs in the Holy Sepulcher give weight to the claim for the site's authenticity.

Moreover, why did Hadrian choose this spot? To say "the augurs" seems insufficient. When Hadrian conquered Jerusalem, there were two groups here, Jews and Christians (many of whom were converted Jews). He may have built another temple on the holy place of the Jews -- or he may have avoided it, playing its sanctity down. (Three 4th-century pilgrims mention statues, including Hadrian's, at the site of the former Jewish Temple, but no eye witness mentions a Roman sanctuary.) We do know, however (from archaeology, as well as Eusebius) that Hadrian did build a temple where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands today. Since this spot was nothing to the Jews, to whom would it have been something? To the other main group in Jerusalem. Not that Hadrian was anti-Christian: he wasn't. But a holy place is a holy place. This consideration may have influenced the augurs' advice about where the Emperor should build.

The same sort of thing happened elsewhere. In Bethlehem (on this point the historical sources are clear) the Romans established a "grove of Adonis" above the cave where Christians had earlier remembered Jesus' birth, and which they later included in the Church of the Nativity.

The evidence tilts toward the authenticity of the Holy Sepulcher. Here, quite likely, Jesus was buried.