Archaeologists and restorationists working at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem have uncovered not only the chamber traditionally referred to as the tomb of Jesus Christ, the Christian messiah, but also the burial slab upon which he is said to have been laid to rest following his crucifixion. It is the first time the actual tomb has been unsealed in over five centuries.
National Geographic reported this week that the restoration project, which is being overseen by the National Technical University of Athens, saw the removal of the marble covering of the tomb and found, much to the surprise of the restorers, quite a bit of “fill” material in the burial chamber. Inside the chamber rested the limestone burial slab where Jesus Christ was said to have been placed after being crucified. The burial slab itself, a venerated artifact of the Christian religion, has not been seen since at least the year 1555 CE (and perhaps several centuries earlier, according to theological historians).
The National Geographic Channel is filming the restoration to document the process. The National Geographic Society itself is a partner in the project.
“The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it,” said Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. “It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”
Hiebert told Live Science in a separate interview, “The Greek conservation group are the first, as far as we know, to actually open this. It’s pretty exceptional.”
According to Christian tradition, the body of Jesus Christ was brought to the burial tomb after he was crucified sometime around 30 CE (and perhaps as late as 33 CE). When followers visited the tomb three days later, according to tradition, the body was no longer there. Jesus then revealed himself to his followers in an incident known as the Resurrection, which signified his divinity in accordance with scriptural prophecy. It is the cornerstone of the Christian religion.
The enclosing structure was commissioned by the Roman emperor Constantine, a pagan leader who became a Christian shortly before his death and declared Christianity the state religion of the empire. Constantine had sent his mother, Helena, to Jerusalem as a Roman representative. Residents of the area had pointed out a particular burial cave among many in an area of first-century burials, claiming that the one was where Jesus Christ had been entombed. The tomb itself was then enshrined, becoming known as the Holy Edicule, in 326 CE. The original covering of the Holy Edicule was removed to allow pilgrims to look down into the burial chamber and see the burial slab upon which Jesus’ body rested.
The Holy Edicule, which sits within the venerated Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a holy monument visited by millions of Christian pilgrims each year, was damaged in a fire in the early 1800s, according to National Geographic, and had to be reconstructed. The current restoration project is the end result of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre’s trinity of religious overseers’ eventual agreement on how to proceed. The Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Armenian Orthodox Church together administer the religious site and have been negotiating the restoration since 1958.
But is the burial slab — and, by extension, the tomb — the actual resting place of the Christian messiah, Jesus Christ? That, it would seem, is up for debate.
As Hiebert told Live Science, whether the burial slab and tomb ever held the historical Jesus Christ is “a matter of faith.” Without any archaeological evidence, the matter cannot be definitively settled. And, of course, there being no remains to study also makes it difficult to make empirical assessments.
Archaeologist and author Robert Cargill, who was not involved in the restoration project, told Live Science, “We know that Romans crucified people and that people were buried there. It’s also known that there was an oral tradition about the site of Jesus’ burial 300 years later, when Helena came to visit Jerusalem. We still don’t have any [archaeological] evidence that Jesus was crucified, nor do we have evidence that he was crucified there beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”
There is a debate about whether or not Jesus Christ even existed at all. As Cargill noted, a few historians think Jesus was a literary construct pieced together from oral traditions. (One such historian, Michael Paulkovich, pointed out, according to the Daily Mail, that Jesus was a created “mythological character,” mentioned only once in 126 contemporaneous historical works — and that single work, he says, was a later edited addition.) Others think that Jesus was an actual person but that relatively little is known about him — and what is known is found in the Christian bible.
Still, for theological historians and archaeologists, the restoration of the structure inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a rare glimpse into important religious and sociological artifacts and structures of the past. And for the Christian faithful, it is the equally important preservation of the burial slab — and the shrine that protects it — and the history of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
[Featured Image by Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com]