03 April 2020

Skipping the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

I had most of this piece published in the September 2014 issue of Oremus Press. So to my Catholic sisters and brothers who followed the link here: Hi there! God bless.

Another essay I’ve been asked to repost is my bit on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And no, I’m not gonna spell it Sepulchre, like the British and Canadians do. I’m an American. Our spelling makes more sense. Well, slightly more.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher: The massive church building which contains both Golgatha and Jesus’s tomb. Wikimedia

What prompted my original post in 2010 was my brother and sister-in-law going to Israel. It was with some folks in their church, and was the basic pilgrim’s package: You get Jerusalem of course, and a few of the more popular sites from the bible. Provided there’s no open warfare in those areas; the last thing either Israelis or Palestinians want are shot-up tourists. Both sides profit from tourism.

When I went to Israel in 1998, I wanted to see Hebron, ’cause Abraham is buried there. But nothing doing: It was off-limits to tourists at the time. So I had to settle for Beersheba, one of the many places where Abraham camped. Or Tel Dan, where the ancient city of Laish, which Abraham once visited, was being excavated. Or the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham tried sacrificing one son or the other (the Torah says Isaac, the Quran says Ishmael, and the Book of Mormon probably says he did it in North America. Nah, kidding.) Probably these sites were more interesting than Hebron. I suppose I’ll never know.

So before going, the pilgrims at my brother’s church met regularly to discuss the sites they’d see. This way they could look them up in advance. Or, which is more likely, not. And once they finally got to Israel, they wouldn’t need to listen to any spiel from the tour guide. They could just stand there and bask in the awesomeness of where they were… assuming they knew where they were. I know the bible fairly well, but every once in a while, during my own trip to Israel, I’d go, “Where?” Y’see, some of the places today have unfamiliar Arabic names, and other locations are so minor (’cause most of the action takes place in Jerusalem, Samaria, Capernaum, and sometimes Bethlehem) so you can be excused for not knowing every little place where Jesus stopped for a bathroom break and a falafel. But now that you were there, you could stand there and think, “Wow, Jesus stood here.” Then take photos and video. And later that evening, upload it to Facebook.

Me, I’d rather pick the tour guide’s brain. The Israeli guides tend to know way more about the sites than many of the books out there. The Israeli Antiquities Authority educates them well. Yeah, some of it is telling the tourists just what they wanna hear: If they’re dealing with Catholic tourists, they’re instructed to never ever point out the Virgin Mary’s tomb. ’Cause everybody knows Mary ascended to heaven. Except non-Catholics, who don’t care whether she did or not; we figure she’ll be in heaven either way.

But when I saw one of their first itineraries, I noticed they were lacking a trip to the Naos tis Anastaseos—that’d be Greek for the Sanctum Sepulchrum, which is Latin for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It wasn’t there. They were going to the Garden Tomb, though.

“Well, what’s the big deal?” most Protestants are likely thinking. “They were going to the Garden Tomb. Why’d they need to go to that Catholic site anyway?”

Because “that Catholic site” is where Jesus was resurrected. He was never laid to rest in the Garden Tomb.

The Garden Tomb.

In the early days of archaeology, archaeologists didn’t know what the hell they were doing. You’ve seen the Indiana Jones movies.

The first archaeologists were people who were knocking around ancient lands. French soldiers in Egypt, or British soldiers in Palestine. Some of ’em realized, “Hey, this ancient stuff might actually tell us something about history. And when you dig around a bit, you find more of it.”

Most folks knew when you dig around the earth enough—at least in places where humans have settled for longer than 500 years, i.e. not most of America—you’ll find remnants of those previous settlers. Usually junk. A building would fall apart, and someone would finally knock it down, level out the ground (more or less), and build on top of the rubble. After 10 centuries of this sort of behavior you actually wind up with a hill, and archaeologists call such manmade hills a tel. The tel consists of layer after layer of previous civilizations’ junk. In the hands of a knowledgeable anthropologist, you can learn all sorts of things about civilizations by their junk.

But in the 19th century, they weren’t interested in learning all sorts of things. Just the main things. The cool things. Like whether they accidentally threw out any gold. Or whether you might find a slab or papyrus which mentioned someone famous, like that Rosetta Stone which mentioned one of the Ptolemies and one of the Cleopatras. Who knows?—in Israel you might find something ancient which mentions David or Abraham or somebody from the bible. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the nads?

Once they realized this, they started digging around willy-nilly. Not bothering to think there oughta be some method to the process. Like paying attention to all the “junk” one finds which isn’t a major discovery. Like destroying evidence which could indicate the timeframe one’s artifact came from. Of course carbon-dating wasn’t invented yet.

So a lot of the early archaeologists worked pretty much the same way Indiana Jones did: Find treasures and stick them in a museum; destroy everything else along the way. Remember Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? There’s a bit where Jones discovered a medieval knight’s grave in Italy. And desecrated it like crazy. Just so he could get to the Holy Grail all the faster. Archaeologists didn’t bother dusting sites with paintbrushes and toothbrushes. They’d use a backhoe and dynamite if it got ’em results quickly enough. Fr’instance Jericho: They made a royal mess of it. The site today is considered unreliable for serious research because of how badly those early archaeologists dug through it like a kid digging through a box of Lucky Charms for the marshmallows.

This being the case, when the archaeologists wanted to take a crack at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, d’you think the churches who run the place wanted these barbarians anywhere near it? It was bad enough the pilgrims would take a pickax to these places for souvenir rock samples. No I’m not kidding. Mark Twain wrote about the practice in The Innocents Abroad and I thought he was only exaggerating—but on my own pilgrimage, some of my fellow pilgrims actually tried knocking bits off a Roman aqueduct. I personally saw ’em do it. Archaeologists used to be way worse. So I totally understand the bishops saying no thank you; go away; find another spot to ruin.

Most of the reasons why Protestants say the Church of the Holy Sepulcher isn’t where Jesus was laid to rest have to do with anti-Catholicism and sour grapes. Deny ’em access, and suddenly they “discovered” all sorts of reasons why it can’t be the real site:

  • It wasn’t outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem, and of course Jesus was crucified and buried outside the walls. (It actually was, but 19th-century archaeologists didn’t know how to accurately date any of the existing walls or their ruins. They just assumed the city hadn’t expanded any during the Crusades or the Ottoman occupation.)
  • It fit a little too well into Roman city planning for it to be a totally natural location. (Again, it’s not that the 19th-century archaeologists understood how the city adapted, over the previous centuries, to suit the church’s location.)
  • It wasn’t on the east side of Jerusalem, where Jews typically buried their dead. (As if the Romans cared where they crucified anyone.)
  • It used to have a temple of Aphrodite on it. The Roman Christians likely claimed it was Jesus’s tomb because they were trying to replace Aphrodite-worship with Jesus-worship. (They didn’t buy “the Catholics’ ” story about antichrists trying to replace Jesus-worship with Aphrodite-worship by sticking their own temple atop a known Christian worship site. More plausible to them was the idea it’d been totally lost… despite unbroken generations of local Christians.)
  • It’s too Catholic. And it doesn’t look like a hill anymore. Nor a skull.

From Gordon’s Calvary, taken round 1934. That look like a skull to you? Me either. Library of Congress

So the 19th century archaeologists went looking for an alternate site, and found one. It’s called “Gordon’s Calvary” after British war hero Charles George Gordon, although he didn’t personally discover it. He just promoted it in his 1883 book Reflections in Palestine. The archaeologists guessed Calvary/Golgotha, where Jesus was killed, was so called because it physically looked like a skull. They found a rock face which looked remotely skull-like. True, it was north of ancient Jerusalem instead of east… but location is only an argument used against the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

View of Gordon’s Calvary, which you can observe from a little platform at the Garden Tomb site. (’Cause the city buses block the view.) Wikimedia

First time I saw Gordon’s Calvary was a photo in my Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. It didn’t look at all like a skull to me. You have to look at it at just the right angle. Even then it’s iffy.

When you go there, the Garden Tomb docents have kindly put up a photo, taken in 1880, which shows you just the right angle of the rock face. It’s the very same photo as in my bible. It might resemble a really elongated skull, like the Neanderthal skulls they show in science textbooks. But I’m pretty sure 19th-century Christians weren’t subtly trying to promote evolution with their alternate crucifixion site. (Gordon himself believed in reincarnation, but that’s another issue.)

Two reasons they have to include the photo. The Garden Tomb folks bought the land with the tomb on it, but not the land with “Calvary” on it. There’s a bus station there now. The lower part of the “skull” now has a bit of asphalt in the way. So when you go to the Garden Tomb, you don’t get to see “Calvary” up close; you have to go to this platform which allows you to see over the buses. Not very inspiring, but like I said, it doesn’t look as much like a skull as you’d want it to.

The other reason is erosion. For the most part Jerusalem’s rocks are limestone, a sedimentary rock—really, superdensely packed sand—and over time, and not a lot of it, it turns back into sand. Yeah, there’s granite here and there, but even granite erodes, as any of the folks who work on preserving Mt. Rushmore will tell you. When you look at the 1880 photo you can see just how much “Calvary” eroded over the past 136 years. Now, add another 1,847 years of erosion, and tell me how much this hill looked like a skull in Jesus’s day.

Well, it’s possible it did. Then again, if you look at any other rocky hill in the area from just the right angle, it might look just as skull-like. But if you remember your bible, the Hebrews were in the habit of naming places after what happened there. Not after what they looked like. You didn’t name a hill Golgotha because it looked like a skull. You named it that because, regardless of what it looked like, skulls were involved. The skulls of a thousand crucified Judeans perhaps; in one of the many previous Roman over-reactions to a Judean revolt.

Anyway. After the archaeologists found this new “Calvary,” they found a bunch of “tombs” partly concealed by a garbage dump. Included in the garbage was an ancient winepress and cistern. From this, archaeologists concluded there used to be a garden here. And hey, Jesus’s tomb was in a garden! How fortuitous.

The Garden Tomb. With lots of plants around so it looks more gardeny. Wikimedia

One of the “tombs” has a groove in front of it—big enough for, say, a large round stone to be rolled in front of it. Thus the archaeologists concluded this must be Jesus’s tomb, ’cause his tomb had a stone in front of it which needed rolling.

Problem is, this “tomb” didn’t look so much like a tomb as a big gaping space in the side of a hill. With sort of a shelf to sit upon, and a trough in front of it for (they assumed) rolling a stone. So they built a wall to close up the gap. It’s why part of the Garden Tomb looks like a wall: It is a wall. Otherwise it wouldn’t look like a tomb. It’d look like a bench, for people who are waiting for a bus.

More recent archaeologists have looked the Garden Tomb over and found it lacking. Yes, it was a tomb once. But a tomb from Isaiah’s day, back when they put bodies in it and left them there. Not Jesus’s, when they’d put bodies in a tomb, let ’em rot, and collect the remains later to be put in ossuaries. Since Jesus’s tomb is described as newly carved, this can’t be it. Apparently the Crusaders had discovered it during the middle ages, and turned it into a stable. The cistern, which dated from that time, was only 600 years old.

The groove in front of the Garden Tomb. Impractical for rolling stones, but great for watering donkeys. Holyland Christian Souvenirs

The groove in front of the tomb was shaped inappropriately to roll a stone in front of the door—if it ever had a door. Notice the diagonal slant on its lip, in the photo. It wouldn’t hold up any stone; the stone would just fall over. More likely it was a water trough for donkeys.

The Garden Tomb trustees know all this. And they’ll freely admit it. When I visited, they were very quick to point out that no, this isn’t actually the place where Jesus was laid.

“It’s not?” said one of the surprised pilgrims in our group.

“No,” they said. “But it looks like a tomb that Jesus would’ve been laid in. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher doesn’t. So that’s why we have it: It’s so you can see what a first-century tomb would look like.”

More or less. It’s what 21st-century Christians think a first-century tomb would look like. That is, after you doctor up a 8th-century-BC tomb which had been altered a bit by 11th-century Christians. But if you don’t know any better, and most Protestants don’t, it looks “real.” Which is good enough for them.

Our pilgrim was a little bothered about visiting a fraudulent tomb. She wanted the real tomb. Which we got, later, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The docents will point you there, as will every other local. They know better.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built in the year 326 by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The emperor had this idea in mind to build himself a nice impressive church in the Roman Empire’s new capital of New Rome (today’s Istanbul, Turkey). He wanted to inter all 12 apostles in it, plus some actual biblical artifacts on display, so he sent his mom to the Holy Land for souvenirs. Helena quite reasonably left it to her local Jerusalem guides to point out where everything was, and they did. Despite Roman persecution, the Christians had never left—during the destruction of Jerusalem, they did as Jesus instructed and ran for the hills—and after the Romans were finished crucifying everybody, they came back down.

The Christians pointed out how Aphrodite’s temple was built atop Jesus’s tomb. It was deliberately put there by Emperor Hadrian around 135 to piss off the Christians. But it definitely marked the spot. And it was still the direction Christians faced when they prayed. Every Christian church in the area has the front of its building pointing toward the Holy Sepulcher.

So Helena excavated it. While she was at it, she had her building crew hack down the entire hill which surrounded the tomb, and then they built a little sanctuary on top of it. So it doesn’t look at all natural.

The Kuvuklion. Photo taken with a wide-open aperture, ’cause it’s a bit darker in real life. Note the covered Copt section on the left of the building. That’s where Jesus’s head rested. Wikimedia

Today, Greeks call this mini-sanctuary the Kuvuklion, and Catholics the Edicule: It’s a church building, and they built a rotunda of the bigger church building over it. You go into the smaller building, and there’s the slab of limestone where they laid Jesus. Or at least we’re told the slab’s there: It’s underneath another slab, of marble, put there in the 12th century to cover up the massive erosion of hundreds of thousands of Christians kissing it. So you don’t get to actually see the slab itself.

Now, if you wanna see the part of the slab where Jesus’s head rested, you have to go round back of the Kuvuklion to a chapel run by the Copts. I glanced back there, but no one was on duty and it was all locked up. No way to see it. If the Copts are wise, they don’t let anyone touch it either.

That’s the biggest problem with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It doesn’t look like Jesus’s tomb. Or any tomb, really. The hillside of Jesus’s burial cave? Gone. The hill of Golgotha? Gilded. The ancient Romans weren’t interested in preserving the environment. Preservation—keeping things as they are without coating everything in gold and gaudy decoration—is a 20th century idea. But in the fourth, and for 15 centuries thereafter, the natural environment wasn’t considered esthetically worthy enough for God. So it was lovingly, beautifully paved over.

It’s been completely covered and decorated, then fought over by six different churches. To this day they’ll start throwing punches at one another if anyone messes with anything. Seriously, anything. Somebody left a ladder outside in the 1750s, before the then-current don’t-mess-with-anything treaty went into effect. It’s still freaking there. (Although some Protestant jerk took off with it for a few weeks in 1997 as a prank.)

The decorations are starting to crumble around them. The Kuvuklion needs repairs, and everyone agrees it does, and wants to repair it. But they don’t want anyone else to repair it. So it doesn’t get repaired. If anyone dared, it’d trigger a war. I’m not kidding. Heads would get caved in. If spiritual climate says anything about which site is the real site, it’s sad to say, but the possessiveness of the Christians who run the Church of the Holy Sepulcher make it obviously the correct site.

But we needn’t look at their bad example as evidence. Historically and archaeologically, and according to the testimony of the locals, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the correct resting place of Jesus.

The stuff we wanna believe.

But tell that to Protestants and they won’t believe you.

“That’s amazing!” a former boss told me, after I told him I’d gone to Israel. He hadn’t been there himself. “So didja go to the Garden Tomb? Didja see where Jesus was buried?”

“Yes and yes,” I said. “You know they’re not the same place.”

He didn’t. I tried to explain.

He objected. ’Cause he’d seen some video.

There are always videos. And books, and magazine articles, and newsletters, and blogs slapped together by cranks like me, who can claim any dumb thing with no evidence to back it up. Just so happened he had one of those videos which stated, quite clearly, that Gordon’s Calvary is the real Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb the real tomb.

He lent it to me. It was produced by these two crackpots who were clearly treasure hunters. They weren’t connected with any university or government, and they had actually attempted to dig a tunnel without the permission of the Israeli government. In Israel, of all places, where any excavation—even for landscaping—has to check in with the government, lest you uncover something of archaeological significance. ’Cause people have been living in the land for the past 50 centuries. There’s so much history there, you can take ancient pottery shards home for free. (Well, maybe not legally, but I know a few folks who took advantage of all those shards just lying around in Beersheba.)

Anyway, Israel had caught ’em burrowing away, and rightly kicked them out of the country. But not, they claimed, before they captured some really blurry snapshots of what they claim is the Ark of the Covenant… buried directly under Gordon’s Calvary. Apparently the Israelis nabbed ’em before they could turn on the autofocus.

So their dubious claim is Jesus, when crucified on Gordon’s Calvary, his blood seeped through a crack in the ground, and dripped all the way down into a secret chamber beneath the earth, and dripped directly onto the atonement seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

Now, before you get chills down your spine like every other gullible person who bought this video: If they’re correct, so did the blood of a thousand other Jews whom the Romans crucified on this particular hill. Jesus wasn’t their only victim, remember? The Ark would’ve been caked in blood. Eww. (Unless it was doing that Raiders of the Lost Ark thing where it burned stuff off. And hummed. And when you opened it up it melted you. And if you took photos of it melting people, and included it in your cheesy video, it’d melt your viewers.)

Obviously I have my doubts. There are too many looneys in Christendom, and you can usually tell ’em by the fact they go digging illegal tunnels through a place where the entire city is an archaeological treasure trove. God knows how many sites they’ve wrecked on their way to raid the Lost Ark.

But again, your average Christian doesn’t know the difference between historicity, science, or proper archaeological provenance. Doesn’t care, either. Back in 2002 there was a major flap about the so-called James Ossuary, the box which used to contain the remains of Jesus’s brother James. (Some fool dumped or swiped the remains long ago.) Or so it appears, ’cause the box was labeled Yaakov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua/“James bar Joseph, brother of Jesus,” and might date to the first century. People were so jazzed about its existence—hey, evidence which supports the New Testament!—they didn’t care it’d been stolen by a treasure hunter, hidden by a relic collector, and no specialist had even examined it yet. They didn’t bother to withhold judgment till scholars could take a serious look. They figured if it supports the bible, it must be true.

This is how Christians have been scammed throughout the centuries into buying slivers of Jesus’s cross, relics from Jesus’s followers, pottery fragments and rocks and sand and other “archaeological” items from Israel, and so forth. The lack of spiritual discernment we see among Christians becomes ridiculously obvious when it comes to history. There, we’ll believe anything we’re told. Unless it came from the “wrong” church.

Imagination over reality.

My brother and sister-in-law’s tour wasn’t the first I’ve seen which gave the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a miss. My mom used to work for a Protestant prayer ministry in Jerusalem, and they’d offer weeklong tour packages to their guests—which only went to the Garden Tomb. ’Cause they know their audience. Protestants would say, “The Church of the Holy Sepulcher? No no. I wanna see the Garden Tomb. That’s on the itinerary, innit?” They’d pitch a fit if it wasn’t. Like so many in the church, we prefer what looks real. Actual reality is disappointing and messy.

Well, my brother had been to Israel before, and knows better. The pilgrims on his trip actually did make it to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Would’ve been a shame otherwise. I mean, if you go all the way to Israel to see Jesus stuff, and don’t go to the actual place Jesus died and was raised, you’ve wasted your money.

Yeah, go to the Garden Tomb and see the facsimile. It looks neat. For that matter, you can go to the Holy Land Experience in Florida, see their facsimile, and an actor playing Jesus will even pop out of the tomb once a day, see his shadow, and we’ll have 10 more weeks with no Second Coming. (What, you didn’t know that was why?…)

Or you can wait till Easter, when we build papier-mâché facsimiles for our church productions. The only differences between the mockups and the Garden Tomb: The Garden Tomb is older, more popular, and made of stone.


Oh, and they sell belts outside the entrance to the Garden Tomb.

Any tourist trap has official souvenir booths, where they sell pretty much the same stuff: Same postcards, same videos, same books, same everything. Priced in sheqels, which at the time were worth an American quarter, so it was easy to calculate the exchange rate. But so many Americans visit Israel, some shops price things in U.S. dollars. It was disappointing: You’d think you found a huge bargain, and it turns out they wanted four times as much. In any event, everybody took American money, and most cash registers converted everything to dollars. I know there were pilgrims from other countries—I ran into a group from Mexico at Gethsemane—but I never saw anyone accept pesos.

The pilgrims’ joke was everything was “two dollars.” It seemed to be the price most often quoted. Photo postcards were $2. Bottled water was $2. Maps of Israel were $2. Other things, like film (it was the 1990s), cost more. But the two dollars would hook you in.

Then there are the unofficial souvenir booths, which are less-conveniently placed, and the vendors have to make noise if they want to make sales. They’d be out at the parking lot. All the tour guides were connected with both the Israeli government and the official souvenir booths, so they wouldn’t give you a lot of time to find the unofficial booths and buy stuff from them. But I found, while they’d have some things the official booths didn’t, the prices were the same. Well, on their face: You could haggle the prices down, if you had the time. We didn’t. Our tour guide was a pro.

On our way out of the Garden Tomb, we walked past an unofficial booth. This shopkeeper’s specialty was belts. Big gaudy leather belts. Almost wrestler-size. As far as I could see, they was leather. They were on display; they were worked over with a relief image of Jerusalem, with “Jerusalem” in English along the sides. I could picture some of my Texan friends wearing such a thing. Not me.

“Belts!” the shopkeeper shouted, ’cause he knew you wouldn’t find them anywhere else. Not that you’d look. “Belts! Twenty dollars!”

“Belts, two dollars,” joked one of the Americans. Probably one of our pilgrims; I wouldn’t be surprised. The shopkeeper ignored this. He’d likely heard it before.

Since I had briefly described these belts to you, you probably guessed I looked at them. If you know anything about middle eastern social conventions, you’ll immediately recognize this as a faux pas: You never casually look at a shopkeeper’s wares. Only look when you intend to buy. They don’t abide people who walk in, browse around, then leave. That’s teasing them.

It’s been said, “Since they encounter Americans so often, you’d think they’d be used to how we behave.” Yeah, maybe. But Israeli and Palestinian shopkeepers are far more used to how their fellow citizens are. They deal with far more locals than they do tourists. And why should they change for us? We’re in their country, after all. We didn’t change for them; we still insist on shoving our American nickels into their vending machines, and beating the machine silly because it won’t accept money which is supposed to be good everywhere.

Tangent over: I’d looked at his booth, so he singled me out, ’cause he figured I telegraphed to him I wanted a belt. I most certainly did not. If I was gonna buy any leather in that country, it would’ve been tefillin [prayer straps], although good luck finding tefillin for less than $200. (And half the shopkeepers would’ve wondered what on earth a gentile wanted with teffilin. Though they would have sold it to me anyway, ’cause money is money.)

“Twenty dollars!” he said, as I kept walking by. “For you, 18 dollars! … Sixteen!”

“No thank you,” I said.

“Fifteen!” he kept going.

So did I.

“You want me to give it to you for free?” he said, giving up.

For a second—but not more—I thought of turning round and telling him, “Sold!” But again, I couldn’t imagine wearing any of those belts. Even if they were free. And of course he’d withdraw the offer, and we’d wind up haggling until we hit a price closer to $12. And afterward, I’d find out the quality of leather would make ’em worth more like $5 or less. It’d be like gift/award bible leather: The thinnest layer of leather, pasted on top of nylon.

Here’s the twisted thing. If, instead of working images of Jerusalem into belts, the leather manufacturer instead chose to make authentic Roman-style whips, just like the ones they beat Jesus with, you know plenty of demented Christians would totally buy them. “For sermon illustrations,” might be their excuse, but the real urge would come from wanting to own a weapon. Still, they’d sell far better than belts. And he’d get way more than $20 for them.