ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCES FOR THE GARDEN TOMB, JERUSALEM

 By John A. Tvedtnes, instructor at the Brigham Young University-Salt Lake Center for Continuing Education, doctoral candidate in Egyptian and Semitic languages at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and trustee of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology.

 

 Paper read at the Thirtieth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures, held at Brigham Young University on September 26, 1981.

 

SINCE THE EARLY FOURTH CENTURY AD, Christianity has revered the site of the Holy Sepulcher Church as that of Jesus' crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Pilgrims are shown a small rocky knoll, said to be Calvary or Golgotha, while a nearby site is claimed to be the emplacement of the tomb of Christ, destroyed in the eleventh century by the Egyptian ruler al-Hakim.

 

DOUBTS RAISED

 

But there are problems with this identification. Firstly, the various stone slabs (e.g., where Christ's body is said to have been washed and anointed and where he was laid in the tomb) are actually of pink marble, which, not being native to Palestine, was undoubtedly imported from Europe. Secondly, the designation of the site can be placed in the time of Queen Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. She presumed that the tomb of Christ would be found beneath one of the pagan Roman temples on the assumption that the Romans would have covered up the Christian holy site, just as they had covered the site of Herod's destroyed temple with a temple of their own, dedicated to Jupiter. She therefore razed the temple of Venus and excavated the area, finding a large cemetery. One of the tombs was situated within a cave, and this she denominated the "Holy Sepulcher" of Christ.

 

In actual fact, there were no "Christian" holy sites as far as the Romans of the second century AD were concerned. Rome was fighting Jews, who would not have held the tomb of Jesus to be sacred. The desecration of the temple was therefore not comparable to that of the tomb of Jesus. Despite the more than 16 centuries in which the Holy Sepulcher Church has been held in veneration, it has no evidence to support its claims.

 

During the 18th century, some pilgrims to Jerusalem began to cast doubts on the authenticity of the site designated by St. Helena.1 Their reasons, however, were unwarranted. The objection to the church was that it lay within the walls of the city, while the Bible is clear that Christ was crucified and buried outside the wall (befitting Jewish religious law).

 

Such reasoning has been refuted by the discovery of the western wall of the city of Jesus' day, located beneath the Russian Orthodox Saint Alexander's Chapel, just cast of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.2 These "Russian Excavations" show remnants of the wall running north and south, then turning eastward and forming a corner gate through which, some Christians now believe, Christ exited en route to the site of the crucifixion. Since the Holy Sepulcher Church is located just west of this wall (with evidence in the excavations that Constantine used the wall itself to form the eastern end of the first church), it clearly was outside the city walls in Jesus' day.

 

A suitable alternative site was occasionally sought, but without much success. In 1881, British Col. Claude R. Conder thought to identify a recently excavated tomb (now situated on the west side of Nablus Road, beside the new bus station) with that of Christ. Indeed, a comparison with Herodian-period tombs excavated in Jericho in the last few years has provided evidence that the tomb does, indeed, date to the correct time period, though no one today believes it to be that of Christ.3

 

In 1867, another tomb had been excavated nearby, to the east, at the base of a low cliff. The Greek proprietor of the site had intended to use the rock-hewn tomb as a cistern for water storage. But, upon being told by friends that archaeologists would be interested in seeing it intact, he reburied it, then later exposed it to view again.4

 

PLACE OF THE SKULL

 

Meanwhile, the hill to the east of this tomb attracted the attention of a number of European scholars visiting or living in the Holy Land, such as Otto Thenius (1842 or 1849), Col. Churchill (c.1870) and Fisher Howe (1871). To them, it appeared that this could be a logical place for the Golgotha of the Bible.5

 

In 1883 British general Charles ("Chinese") Gordon was visiting in Jerusalem and staying at the American Colony, just inside the northern city wall and immediately east of Damascus Gate. Contemplating the scenery on the outside of the wall, he noted the prominent rocky outcropping just a few hundred feet away which, to his mind, could have been the biblical Golgotha.6 Though the Bible does not say that Christ was crucified on a hill (Golgotha is called "the place of a skull" in John 19:17), the idea was, nevertheless, firmly rooted in Christian tradition because of the small rocky knoll in the Holy Sepulcher Church.

 

Gordon noted that the face of the cliff opposite the city wall resembled a skull (the meaning of the name Golgotha), with depressions for the eyes, nose, and mouth, and that there was a tomb nearby in the cliff to the west. He became excited about the prospects of having the site preserved for pilgrims to visit. A campaign was mounted to collect funds in England and to organize the Garden Tomb Society, which ultimately purchased the plot of land to the west of the skull-faced cliff. In the years to follow, a fair amount of archaeological and traditionary evidence was discovered which supported the thesis that this was, indeed, where Christ had been laid to rest.

 

The account in John 19:41-42 provided the principal biblical information about the site: "Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus... ."

 

The tomb, of course, had belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. In the years to come, evidence was uncovered that the Garden Tomb was, indeed, a Jewish tomb of the first century which had never been completed, that it was located in the midst of a garden and near the place of execution, thus conforming to the biblical description. Yet, despite the vast amount of interest in the site and the number of books and pamphlets published over the years, no one source has given the totality of archaeological evidence. Nor, indeed, have all of them together considered everything that could be said. It is therefore my hope to present here a more comprehensive view of the evidences favoring the Garden Tomb as the site of Christ's burial and resurrection.

 

GARDEN TOMB

 

The first thing to note is that the small hill known as "Gordon's Calvary" is the northernmost part of the mount called Moriah in the Bible. It was to this mount that Abraham brought Isaac to sacrifice him (Gen. 22), symbolic of the sacrifice of Christ to come. The site was later purchased by David and used by Solomon to construct his temple. The temple itself was located about midpoint on the north-south line of the hill. Significantly, sacrificial animals, whose deaths symbolized that of Christ, were slain to the north of the temple altar (Lev. 1:11). If Jesus was crucified at "Gordon's Calvary," then he died on the northernmost part of the hill where that altar was situated.

 

 


Golgotha (as we shall henceforth call "Gordon's Calvary") is separated from the main body of Mount Moriah by a chasm created by an ancient rock quarry. Because the skull face is on the cliff which was cut away by the quarry, it is important to know when the quarry was in operation. If, for example, it postdated Christ, then the skull shape could not have been present in his time, and there would be no reason to believe that it lent the name Golgotha to the site. There are, however, some indications that the quarry predates Christ.

Fig3. THE GARDEN TOMB, JERUSALEM. Ruth R. Christensen ponders the site proposed as the place of burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Photograph by the editor.

 

The first bits of evidence are traditionary. The southern cliff of the quarry runs just underneath the northern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. Cut into this cliff is a large cave (partly natural) which was enlarged by quarrying operations. It has long been called "Solomon's Quarries," based on the tradition that this is where Solomon obtained stone for building his temple. It has also been termed "Zedekiah's Cave," from a tradition that King Zedekiah hid here from Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587 BC. If either of these stories is true, then the quarry and the resultant skull-shaped cliff predate Christ. French scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau discovered, in the first of the quarrying chambers inside the cave, a drawing of a winged sphinx in Assyrian style (now in the Louvre in Paris). This would date it to the Israelite period and would imply that the quarry dates back at least to 600 BC .7

 

The northeast portion of the quarry, along the cliff just east of the skull face, opens into a large rock-hewn cavern called "Jeremiah's Grotto." Tradition associates this with the place where Jeremiah was imprisoned by King Zedekiah and where he is said to have written the book of Lamentations (Jer. 38:6). Interestingly, Jer. 2:13 speaks of "broken cisterns, that can hold no water." There is just such a cistern on the same cliff, to the west of the skull face. The quarrying operation cut the cistern in two, leaving a large gaping hole in the cliff, which has another hole running to the top of the hill through bedrock, where ropes were once let down to draw out water. Cisterns of this type first came into use in the days of King David, lime slaking being the means of preventing leakage of water through cracks in the limestone. It is possible that it was destroyed a generation later by Solomon's work.8

 

The major piece of evidence that would place the cutting of the quarry prior to Jesus' time is the discovery of a number of rock-cut tombs of the Israelite period on the quarry cliff to the west of the skull face on the property of St. Stephen's Convent, very close to the Garden Tomb itself.9 This would indicate, once again, that the quarrying operations took place before that time, both on the basis of the placement of the tombs and on the fact that graveyards are generally considered to be sacred places, not to be disturbed by quarrying.10

 

If, as this evidence suggests, the quarry cliffs stood in the days of Herod the Great, then it is inconceivable that Herod would not have made use of their defensive posture to build his northern city wall atop them. Indeed, there are some Herodian stones between the cliff and the so-called "Herod's Gate" to the east, and parts of the cliff bedrock appear to have been sculpted to look like Herodian stones with their drafted edges.

 

 

 


Fig.4 GARDEN TOMB AND VACINITY. Insert, upper left, shows the area in relation to the northern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem.

 

Moreover, immediately to the west of the southern cliff, where Mt. Moriah drops off to form the Tyropoean Valley (now filled) of Josephus' account, we have Damascus Gate, where Dame Kathleen Kenyon excavated in the early 1960s. Herodian stonework is found here, along with remnants of a Herothan gateway and towers.11 This, of course, provides evidence that Golgotha was-as the Bible states-not far outside the city walls and near the gate (John 19:20; Matt. 27:39; 28:11; Hebrews 13:12). It was also situated beside the main northern road-an ideal place for a public execution because of the numerous passers-by (who, in the New Testament story, mocked Christ as he hung on the cross).

 

Major Conder noted a Jewish tradition told to him in 1874-75 that the hill was formerly a place of execution. 12 Christians in Jerusalem are also said to have had the tradition that this was where both Jeremiah and Stephen were stoned.13 The cliff fits well with the Jewish method of stoning from Christ's time, described in the Mishnah (Sanh. 6, 1-4), wherein the condemned prisoner was first thrown from a cliff (with a minimum height of 12 feet). If he survived the fall, then the witnesses were to pick up a large stone and hurl it upon his chest. If he still did not die, then the crowd would stone him.

 

It seems quite likely that in Christ's day there was but one place of execution in the Jerusalem area. Since an execution site would have been considered polluted, it would not have been in keeping with Jewish custom to stone or otherwise execute people just anywhere. In this connection, we must note the execution of Stephen in Acts 7. Beginning as early as the fifth century AD,14 and until at least Crusader times, Damascus Gate was called "St. Stephen's Gate."

 

St. Stephen's Church of the fifth century AD (today rebuilt with the same name and housing the French Ecole Biblique) is situated adjacent to Golgotha, on top of the cliff immediately to the north of the Garden Tomb itself. The church's discovery in 1882 15 provided further evidence in support of the early tradition placing Stephen's execution here. It is likely that Christ was executed in the same place.

 

Excavations in the area of the Garden Tomb have revealed evidence that it was, indeed, an ancient garden-not of flowers, but of fruits. A winepress, discovered in 1924, can be seen at the site today, along with three cisterns, one of which has a capacity of 200,000 gallons of water. Plaster around the exterior of the tomb and in the vicinity of the large cistern has been determined to be of the Roman period, though the plaster of the cistern itself was later repaired in Byzantine times and decorated with a cross-itself evidence of early Christian veneration.

 

DESCRIPTION OF TOMB

 

The Garden Tomb fits the qualifications for that of a rich Jew of the first century AD. Several noted archaeologists have examined it and declared it to be Jewish and of the Herodian period.16 Like other Jewish tombs of Jerusalem from the same period (e.g., in the Kidron and Hinnom valleys, at Sanhedria, etc.), it is oriented toward the Temple Mount. It also resembles them in form, in that there is an outer "weeping chamber" for visitors, plus an inner chamber with burial niches for the dead. The type of chiseling on the face of the cliff outside the tomb, and inside as well, is the same as that found in such Jerusalem burials as the "Sanhedrin Tombs," the tombs of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys, the so-called "Tomb of the Kings," and the "family tomb of Herod--all Jewish and all dating between the second century BC and the first century AD.

 

Cut into solid bedrock, the Garden Tomb conforms to the biblical description of "a sepulcher that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid" (Luke 23:53). It has a nephesh (lit. "soul") or windowlike cut in the upper right-hand face, through which, according to Jewish tradition, the spirit of the deceased departed after the third day in the tomb.

 

One enters the tomb via the weeping chamber on the left, whence it is possible to descend slightly into the burial chamber. Here are found three burial niches, only one of which was completed by the workmen, thus indicating that it would have been a "new" tomb when Jesus was buried there, as the Bible states. The only niche which can be seen from the door is the one in the northeast corner. It would therefore fit the requirements for the burial spot of Jesus, for both Mary Magdalene and John were able to see the spot from outside the tomb, looking through the door. The women coming to the tomb on Easter morning were able to look inside and see angels seated where Jesus' body had lain.

 

When one examines the burial niche closely, it becomes apparent that it was enlarged in the area of the head to the east, by further chiseling into the bedrock. This is probably because the person buried there was taller than the one for whom it was constructed. This evidence of a "borrowed tomb" fits the character of that of Joseph of Arimathea, in which Jesus was buried.

 

In front of the tomb, there is a trough which could have served to guide a rolling stone in front of the door. (See Mark 16:3-4; Matt. 28:2.) Such rolling stones for tomb entrances are known from other Jewish tombs of the time of Jesus in the Jerusalem area. One can see examples today at (1) the so-called "Herod's Family Tomb," adjacent to the King David Hotel, (2) the so-called "Tomb of the Kings" (actually built by Queen Helena of Adiabene in the late first century BC, after her conversion to Judaism), across from St. George's Cathedral, and (3) a tomb in the church at Bethphage, on the Mount of Olives en route to Bethany.

 

It has been argued that the chisel marks in the trough at the Garden Tomb appear to be Crusader in origin, indicating that it was perhaps used for feeding animals but not for guiding a rolling stone into place in front of the tomb entrance.17 Nevertheless, it is interesting that it has the same width as the rollingstone trough at the "Tomb of the Kings." Moreover, because the low wall forming the front part of the trough is some six to eight inches higher than the bedrock forming a court in front of the tomb, if the trough were an afterthought, then it would have had to be formed by lowering the entire rocky courtyard by chiseling, which is not the case. If the chiseling is of the Crusader period, then it is more likely to have resulted from efforts to deepen the channel, rather than create it.

 

 

 


Fig5. The tomb

 

Visitors to the Garden Tomb are often surprised at the height of the doorway leading into the tomb. Such an opening would require a very large rolling stone to block it-larger than any of those known from other tombs of the period.18 But an examination of the chiseling on the left-hand side of the doorway (the only side which is complete) reveals that its original height was considerably less-i.e. approximately one third of the present doorway. The top portion of the doorway has evidence of very rough chiseling, done when more stone was later removed to heighten it. The width is the same as the original, however, as is evidenced by the fact that its side is still partially marked on the lower right.

 

The height of the doorway is important for understanding the biblical story, in which both John and Mary Magdalene had to stoop down to look inside the tomb (John 20:5, 11). Each was able to see the spot where Jesus was buried from this position, which again points to the burial niche in the northeast corner. It was probably because of the light entering through the nephesh that they were able to discern the interior of what would otherwise have been a dark tomb.

 

The reason for the missing door and front wall of the Garden Tomb (the latter now filled in with masonry) can probably be traced to the construction of a Byzantine church on the site. Evidence for that church takes the form of mosaic decorations found at the site (remnants of flooring), as well as the arching and holes for ceiling-beams found above the tomb entrance.

 

Long grooves in the bedrock floor in front of the tomb may have supported a low screen, typical of Byzantine churches. The screen would have separated the congregational area from the area where the priest officiated, with the tomb proper (its front wall having been knocked out) serving as a shrine in the tripartite setup.

 

 


Fig 6

 

It has recently been suggested that the grooves were a single water channel used to drain a baptismal font in "heart" shape which stood in front of the tomb. This seems unlikely to me, for the grooves are not now connected in the middle. Also there is no evidence that the low depression in the bedrock to the right of the grooves was the base of a baptistery.

 

 

 


The rectangular depression in the bedrock floor to the left of the tomb entrance is possibly for a reliquary-a box containing bones or other relics of some early saint. These were common in Byzantine churches.

 

Fig7

 

Byzantine crosses adorn the interior of the tomb and two of the most elaborate of these, having been painted on the wall, have faded since the tomb's discovery. Others-both painted and carved-remain, as does a large embossed plaster cross in the larger cistern.

 

Another cross is carved on the outside wall of the tomb, to the left and just above the height of the doorway. Close examination shows that it was originally an anchor which was later extended and changed into a cross. The anchor, along with the fish, was a very early Christian symbol and may indicate a first-century veneration of the tomb site.

 

MOST SUITABLE CANDIDATE

 

On the plateau above the low cliff into which the tomb is carved sits St. Stephen's Church amidst ruins of earlier structures. A cemetery of the Byzantine period, located almost immediately above the Garden Tomb itself, is included among the archaeological finds of the site. Two of the inscriptions lend evidence to the authenticity of the tomb as being that of Christ. One reads "Buried near his Lord"-possibly referring to the proximity of Jesus' tomb. The other reads "Onesimus, Deacon of the Church of the Witnesses of the Resurrection." What better place for a church dedicated to the witnesses of the resurrection than the place where that marvelous event occurred? In this inscription, we possibly have the name of the Byzantine church which once stood before the tomb entrance.

 

As circumstantial as some of the evidence may be, one thing is certain about the Garden Tomb. It fits all the qualifications for the tomb in which Jesus was buried, from both the archaeological and the scriptural points of view. It is by far the most suitable candidate for the authentic tomb of Jesus Christ.

 

NOTES

 

1. William Steuart McBirnie, Search for the Authentic Tomb of Jesus (Montrose, California; Acclaimed Books, 1975), p. 110. There were early maps of Jerusalem which depicted the crucifixion taking place to the north of the city, outside the Damascus Gate, e.g., Christianus Adrichon (1584), Bruin and Hogenberg (1572), and Thomas Fuller (1650). See Jerusalem: The Garden Tomb, Golgotha and the Garden of the Resurrection (London: The Garden Tomb Association, 1955; hereinafter JGT), pp. 36-37.

 

2. See Barauth C. Schick in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (hereinafter PEFQS), April, 1893. The wall continues north from the area of the Russian Excavations and remnants can be found in various shops leading up to the Damascus Gate. The wall is in line with other Herodian construction seen both inside and outside the Damascus Gate Area.

 

3. Sir Charles Wilson mistakenly identified the tomb as Israelite or pre-Israelite (i.e., Canaanite). See JGT, p. 20.

 

4. Schick in PEFQS, April, 1892.

 

5. See PEFQS, April, 1890.

 

6. See Gordon's article in PEFQS, April, 1885.

 

7. See the brochure by Isaac Sachs, "Solomon's Quarries," published by the Jerusalem municipality (n.d.), p. 13.

 

8. If it were to become possible to examine the plaster inside the cistern, perhaps one could ascertain its date. Unfortunately, the property is part of a Muslim cemetery.

 

9. Schick, in PEFQS, July, 1886, p. 155, describes these tombs. A few years ago, an archaeologist associated with the Albright Institute in Jerusalem (and also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Garden Tomb Association) told me of an Iron Age tomb excavated about 1922 along the cliff face under the north wall of the Old City, which would conclusively prove that the quarry was cut prior to its time. However, I have as yet been unable to obtain any information on this excavation.

 

10. The prohibition against desecration of tombs has, of course, sometimes been ignored in the case of invaders. For example, the Babylonians desecrated Jewish tombs, as is known from both Jeremiah and from archaeological evidence.

 

11. There is still much debate about whether the Herodian work in the Damascus Gate area dates to the time of Herod the Great or to that of Herod Agrippa 11. Kenyon believes the gate to be late, while a large number of other scholars date it before Christ, pointing to the existence of Agrippa's wall farther north (the "Third Wall" mentioned by Josephus). Though the question is an important one, we do not have room to discuss it here.

 

12. Conder in PEFQS, April, 1890, pp. 69-70.

 

13. See Rev. J. C. Hanauer in PEFQS, July, 1892, p. 199. See also id. in ibid., October, 1902, p. 307.

 

14. Luciana, a Christian pilgrim, writing in AD 415, notes that the northern gate of Jerusalem was called the "Gate of St. Stephen."

 

15. JGT, p. 19. Note that the "St. Stephen's Gate" and "Church of St. Stephen" to the east of the Old City did not receive their names and identification with Stephen until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

 

16. This includes Dame Kathleen Kenyon, Sir Charles Marston, Sir Flinders Petrie, and others. See the London Daily Telegraph Magazine of March 27, 1970.

 

17. JGT, p. 18.

 

18. It is claimed by some-and perhaps rightly so-that there are sockets chiseled into the rock at the entrance which would have held the hinges for a wooden door. These, however, could easily have been added after the doorway was heightened. Moreover, since stone doors are known to us from Jewish tombs of the second through the fifth centuries AD, there is no reason to assume that the door was wooden. Today, the Garden Tomb Association has on display in Jerusalem examples of both stone doors and rolling stones found at other tombs in the city.

 

For further information, see the brochure, Jerusalem: The Garden Tomb, "Skull Hill" and the Garden of the Resurrection (copyright by Palphot, Jerusalem, and printed in the late 1970s for the Garden Tomb Association). For an excellent map showing archaeological remains in Jerusalem, contact the American Institute of Holy Land Studies on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.