Why the Garden Tomb is [Probably] Not Jesus’ Tomb

HOLYLAND 2005 111Several years ago I was blessed to be able to visit the Holy Land with a former teacher and friend. Seeing the places where biblical events transpired was a truly life-changing experience. I do, however, remember being perplexed by the presentation of the two different popular locations for the burial place of Jesus. One site is contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Having grown up in a city with an abundance of Catholic churches and being familiar with the iconography and liturgy that accompanies them I was not impressed by the site. It was dark, dank, and devoid of joy, crowded with weeping pilgrims asking forgiveness, perhaps unsure if Christ would grant their petitions.

There was a great contrast between that first site and the Garden Tomb that we later visited. The Garden Tomb was situated in the midst of beautiful greenery in a quiet and quaint area inviting the meditation and reflection of visitors. There was even a sign on the recently added tomb door that read “He is not here. He has risen.” I will never forget my instructor standing beside me near the Garden Tomb with a smile on his face, saying facetiously, “This place just feels so good, this is where it had to have happened. Jesus had to have risen from the dead here, right?”

He was referring to the fact that in spite of how the two different sites may feel, the Garden Tomb is almost certainly not the place where Jesus was buried. Looks can be deceiving, and the look and feel of these two sites today convince many to trust their emotions rather than the evidence. In the following brief sections I want to outline three reasons why the Garden Tomb is likely not the place where Jesus was buried and rose again.

Reason 1: First Century Tomb Toponomy

To cut right to the chase, the Garden Tomb looks like an 8th or 7th century BC tomb, not a 1st century AD tomb. Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay points out several problems with identifying the Garden Tomb with the time of Christ:

“The outstanding characteristics of these Second Temple burial caves are burial niches… cut vertically into the cave wall. Kokhim [burial niches] are very different structures from the burial benches extending along the walls of the chamber, which characterized the First Temple burial caves. In Second Temple burial caves we also typically find arcosolia. An arcosolium is an arch hewn into the wall of the cave forming the ceiling of a resting place or a shelf for stone coffins and ossuaries. Finally the low burial benches in the niches of Second Temple tombs are caved around sunken floors. The Garden Tomb cave contains none of these elements of Second Temple burial caves.”[1]

Barkay also points to the inconsistencies with the layout of the Garden Tomb compared to known Second Temple tombs and with the markings left by the chisels used during tomb construction as signs that the Garden Tomb lines up much better with Iron Age tomb typology than with tombs of the first century AD. He concludes: “Dating this cave [the Garden Tomb] to the Hasmonean or Herodian period (first century B.C.-first century A.D.) seems completely out of the question.”[2]

Reason 2: Proximity to Other Iron Age Tombs

Another difficulty with the Garden Tomb is its location in conjunction with other known Iron Age tombs. The Garden Tomb is surrounded by the St. Étienne monastery tomb complex on the north and by two Iron Age tombs on the south discovered in the 1930s and later published by Amihai Mazar in 1976.[3] The northern St. Étienne tomb area houses two tomb complexes which show similarities to the Garden tomb in bench size and alignment. In fact, only two meters separates the Garden tomb from Cave Complex 1 at the monastery. The southern two tombs found near the Damascus Gate were likewise shown to be of Iron Age style in that they contained U-shaped benches typical to that time period and demonstrated small Iron Age remains such as lamps and vessels.

Additionally, there is a lack of evidence of first-century burials in this area of Jerusalem, while First Temple period tombs are abundant. It seems unlikely that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea would have been in a location far removed from other contemporaneous Jewish burial places.

Reason 3: Early Church Testimony

The final problem with the Garden Tomb is the lack of any strong supportive tradition. In fact, there is no evidence for the site being regarded by anyone prior to the late 1800s. In contrast, there is an abundance of support for the traditional site at the Holy Sepulchre tomb. Melito of Sardis, in his work Peri Pascha (circa 160 AD), speaks about the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina built up over the destroyed city of Jerusalem.[4] He points to a Roman forum and a Temple of Venus built on the northwestern side of Jerusalem in the vicinity of the Holy Sepulchre Church, and the site of Jesus’ crucifixion located in the middle of a Roman road.

Eusebius likewise in his Onomasticon (written late 3rd/early 4th century) referred to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion as being visible within the city of Aelia in the northern parts of Mount Zion. Joan E. Taylor identifies this location as being in the general vicinity of the traditional site for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial based on the description of Mount Zion given by the Bordeaux Pilgrim (333 AD) and other supportive early documents.[5]

Conclusions

Looks can be deceiving, and when it comes to the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem many a traveler is seduced by the isolation and beauty of the location into thinking “surely this must be where Christ died and was buried.” The archaeological and textual evidence, however, points in the opposite direction, down toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Ultimately the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial cannot now be known with 100% certainty. There are good reasons to lean toward the Holy Sepulchre site and away from the Garden Tomb.

Perhaps in His wisdom the Spirit of God desired that we would not know for certainty the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection, knowing human propensity to concentrate on and worship the wrong things rather than the right. Though it is important to consider the location of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, this should not distract from the reality that human beings are saved not based on our knowledge of physical locations but on our faith in the Savior who bled and died in our place on Calvary, was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, and rose again out of that tomb to life everlasting.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Barkay, Gabriel. “The Garden Tomb: Was Jesus Buried Here?” BAR 12:2 (1986): 53.

[2] Barkay, 53.

[3] Barkay, 50.

[4] Taylor, Joan E. “Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial.” New Testament Studies 44 (1998): 188-189. Jerusalem had been leveled by the Romans in 70 AD.

[5] Taylor, 191-192. Taylor examines accounts in both the early Church Fathers and apocryphal literature from the early first centuries AD (particularly the Epistula Apostolorum, Gospel of Peter, and the Acts of Pilate). She concludes: “Christians in Jerusalem remembered the site [of Jesus’ burial], and may have visited it from time to time to show visitors. Hadrian indeed covered up the tomb on purpose and placed a statue of Jupiter on the exact spot, as the focus of one of the shrines within a larger Temple of Venus, and this was remembered by the Jerusalem church and communicated in due course to Constantine, who saw fit to remove the Temple entirely and build his new Christian edifice instead. In this case, the authenticity of the tomb was self-evident because of its placement right under a statue of Jupiter,” (200-201).

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