The New Testament and Christian tradition tell us that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans in the year 30 or 33, some 20 centuries ago. According to the Gospel of Luke, his body was put in a tomb that was guarded by a Roman soldier. Jesus was then resurrected and ascended to heaven. What has intrigued the Christians ever since is the question of exactly where Christ’s tomb is located.
We know that he was crucified and entombed in Jerusalem, and it has been believed for centuries that his tomb is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This crypt lies beneath a shrine called the Edicule, a term derived from a Latin word, aedicule, meaning little house. According to tradition the tomb was a limestone cave.
Within the crypt, it’s said that Jesus was laid on a shelf of rock carved from the side of the cave. This belief in the precise location of the tomb of Jesus actually dates back to the 2nd century. It was then that the Emperor Hadrian constructed a temple in honor of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, specifically to obscure the place where the troublesome Jesus had apparently been entombed.
Then another Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, intervened in either 325 or 326. He was the first emperor to follow the Christian faith and consequently commanded that the pagan temple be demolished. Constantine then had a Christian church built in its place – what we now call the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And as the new church was being constructed, it’s said that Constantine’s mother, Helena, found Christ’s tomb.
But the church that now stands in Jerusalem is not the same one that Constantine built. It’s on the same site, but the original church was destroyed in 614 when Khosrau II, Emperor of the Sassanids, captured Jerusalem and put the church to the torch.
In 630 yet another Roman emperor, Heraclius, recaptured Jerusalem and restored the church, only for it to be badly damaged once more by earthquakes in 746 and again at the start of the 9th century. A number of fires then further damaged the church in the ensuing decades.
These years of destruction came to a head in 1009 when the grandly named Muslim caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then in a welcome example of religious tolerance, Al-Hakim’s son, Caliph Ali az-Zahir, permitted the reconstruction of the church.
But in spite of the best efforts of the Byzantine Empire, the rebuilding of the church progressed slowly, and little had been achieved by the end of the 11th century. Christians who made the pilgrimage to Christ’s tomb found that parts of the holy site were little more than piles of rubble. Then came the Crusades.
The First Crusade reached Jerusalem 1099. It was followed by seven more Christian invasions stretching almost to the end of the 13th century. And during this period, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was extensively restored, becoming the seat of Jerusalem’s Christian Patriarch.
After these rebuilding efforts, however, there followed decades of neglect. These lasted until 1555, when Franciscan monks carried out further reconstruction work. But another fire badly damaged the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1808. As a result, the Edicule and the Rotunda that sits above it were rebuilt over the next two years, with the Rotunda again reconstructed in 1870.
In fact, the 1555 restoration was a key moment for what is thought to be the actual tomb of Jesus, set within the Edicule at the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Some researchers believe that the marble cladding located there may have been installed earlier but in any case, Christ’s tomb has not been seen by anyone since at least 1555.
Through the 20th century, there was continuing restoration work. And the question that was now being asked was: just how far back could any of this battered structure be dependably dated? In other words, what were the earliest surviving remnants of this most holy of Christian sites? Perhaps most crucially, how old was the purported tomb of Jesus?
Until recently, the oldest archaeological dating that had been confirmed within the church went back no more than 1,000 years. These sections originated during the 11th- and 12th-century rebuilding work done by the Crusaders, after the Caliph Al-Hakim had destroyed the previous church in 1009.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is today controlled by six different strands of the Christian faith. As a result, it can require a considerable amount of diplomacy to get any decisions made about the maintenance and archaeological exploration of the church. But in 2015 the groups agreed to allow researchers from the National Technical University of Athens to undertake a thorough study and renovation of the Edicule, along with the tomb within it.
The Edicule has been in a somewhat perilous state since it was damaged in a 1927 earthquake. In fact, the British authorities that still controlled Jerusalem in 1947 were so worried by the condition of the Edicule that they stabilized it with essential but distinctly unattractive scaffolding. The current restoration work has included the removal of this scaffolding.
A highly dramatic moment in the restoration project came on October 26, 2016. The researchers and technicians were now ready to remove the marble slab that had covered Christ’s tomb since – at the latest – the 1555 restoration work done by Franciscan monks. Some experts maintain that the cladding may have already been in place for hundreds of years before that.
“The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it,” archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert told National Geographic. “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.”
When the marble slab had been removed from the tomb, however, there was a surprise in store. The researchers had expected to find what is called the burial bed, where Christ’s body laid before he was resurrected. This would have been a shelf-like structure carved from the limestone rock. Instead, though, they uncovered another slab of marble.
This earlier slab was cracked and had a cross carved into it. So was this second slab from the 11th century, the time of the Byzantines and the Crusaders? Or could it possibly be from the original Roman shrine built by Constantine around 325? The scientists subsequently took samples of mortar in order that the tomb could be dated.
It was November 2017 before the results of the lab tests on the mortar came through. Sensationally, the analysis of the mortar showed that it had in all probability been laid down in the 4th century, pushing back the confirmed date of the crypt by 600 years. Archaeologist and expert on the tomb, Martine Biddle, told National Geographic, “Obviously that date is spot-on for whatever Constantine did. That’s very remarkable.”