This week, National Geographic reports on a find that, if correct, would shed some much-needed light on a century-old mystery: the true tomb of Jesus Christ.
Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre was identified centuries ago as Christ’s tomb, but questions about that conclusion were raised in the 20th century in light of the site’s history of being subjected to violence, particularly its destruction in 1909 and reconstruction afterward.
But now, mortar samples provided to National Geographic have been dated to roughly A.D. 345 — increasing the likelihood that the church is indeed the real deal.
Until now, the earliest architectural evidence found in and around the tomb complex dated to the Crusader period, making it no older than 1,000 years.
While it is archaeologically impossible to say that the tomb is the burial site of an individual Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth, who according to New Testament accounts was crucified in Jerusalem in 30 or 33, new dating results put the original construction of today’s tomb complex securely in the time of Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor.
The tomb was opened for the first time in centuries in October 2016, when the shrine that encloses the tomb, known as the Edicule, underwent a significant restoration by an interdisciplinary team from the National Technical University of Athens.
Several samples of mortar from different locations within the Edicule were taken at that time for dating, and the results were recently provided to National Geographic by Chief Scientific Supervisor Antonia Moropoulou, who directed the Edicule restoration project.
When Constantine’s representatives arrived in Jerusalem around 325 to locate the tomb, they were allegedly pointed to a Roman temple built some 200 years earlier. The Roman temple was razed and excavations beneath it revealed a tomb hewn from a limestone cave. The top of the cave was sheared off to expose the interior of the tomb, and the Edicule was built around it.
A feature of the tomb is a long shelf, or “burial bed,” which according to tradition was where the body of Jesus Christ was laid out following crucifixion. Such shelves and niches, hewn from limestone caves, are a common feature in tombs of wealthy 1st-century Jerusalem Jews.
The burial bed is a significant element in tying the site to Biblical history. it was covered in marble believed to have been installed a thousand years after Christ’s death, but a year ago researchers found an older slab of marble bearing a cross beneath the newer slab. This latest round of testing indicates the lower slab dates all the way back to the mid-fourth century Roman empire under Constantine.
“Obviously that date is spot-on for whatever Constantine did,” archaeologist Martin Biddle said. “That’s very remarkable.”
Moropoulou added, “It is interesting how [these] mortars not only provide evidence for the earliest shrine on the site, but also confirm the historical construction sequence of the Edicule.”
All of this is absolutely fascinating, on both historical and religious levels. What do you think about these developments? Share your thoughts and feedback in the comments below.