- Jerusalem Then and Now Chapter Four
- The Many Tombs of Jesus Chapter Five
- Further down the Garden PathChapter Three - Jerusalem Then and Now
Jerusalem is at once the most wonderful and most terrible city on the face of the planet. The site of the greatest miracle of all has been, down the years, bathed in violence and bitter struggle both religious and secular. As I write, Israel is in the midst of what some call the ‘Second Intifada’, a bloody conflict between Israeli and Palestinian factions, which has seen over six-thousand people lose their lives in the last eight years.
As a consequence, exploring in the Holy Land is as dangerous now as it has ever been. The first part of my quest to find the tomb of Jesus had to take place without my wife Emma, who was understandably nervous about the situation. She wasn’t the only one. Upon my arrival at Stanstead airport I was apparently mistaken for a terrorist. This happens tiresomely frequently to me, due to my obvious Middle Eastern heritage. After simply making an enquiry at the check-in queue, I was followed around the terminal by suspicious security guards. Eventually they took me aside for questioning, and during my half-hour interrogation, I wondered what might have happened if I hadn’t been a UK citizen.
Eventually they seemed to get bored and let me continue through the terminal. My humiliation was not yet complete, however, as the baggage check involved my possessions being strewn across the counter as if I had just been arrested for burglary and they were checking for evidence. Then two Israeli gentlemen searched, scanned and scowled at me while examining my passport in minute detail, before I was finally allowed to board the aircraft. The whole experience was so impersonal and devoid of human interaction that I felt rather like a piece of baggage myself by the time it was over.
Groping for a silver lining as I finally took my seat, I reflected that if even half the people on the flight had gotten the same treatment as me, it was unlikely that there was a bomb on board.
Fortunately this lack of courtesy did not extent to Jerusalem itself, where I was received warmly at my hotel, which had an outstanding view of the old city that really put me back in the mood to explore a bit. But first, a little history:
The city of Jerusalem has probably the most intriguing and often violent history of any other in the world, and yet for all of her stories, there are many blanks in the history of this place where Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected. In order to help us construct a better idea of the events that took place around that glorious event, it will be helpful to examine the history of Jerusalem with particular reference to the geography of the area and some of the legends that surround her most famous historical landmarks such as Mount Moriah and the Temple of Solomon.
At the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was ruled by a highly controversial man named Herod the Great. Herod was half Jewish and little trusted by many of his subjects, but he ruled the city with an iron fist largely thanks to his skill at winning favour among the rich and powerful. Herod did deals with the Roman leaders Mark Antony and Caesar Augustus, and kept the ruling classes of Jerusalem, including the influential priests, satisfied with their material lot in life. Some scholars have suggested that there were no poor people in first century Jerusalem, but there is plenty of evidence that in fact the society was very much two-tiered, with a large wealthy class and equally large impoverished population. This latter interpretation is backed up somewhat by the notes of material injustice present in many of Jesus’ sermons. Herod build vast monuments to himself and other wealthy notables whom he wished to flatter, of which the most famous is the great Temple built on the site of Solomon’s temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians almost six centuries previously. Since the law forbade the temple to be built larger than the original, Herod had an an enormous platform constructed for the temple to sit up, some 35 acres in total with thirty feet high walls. This platform came to be known as Temple Mount, and Jesus famously predicted its downfall when he visited the city for the last time. The temple was razed to the ground by the Romans just a few decades later.
Herod’s temple signified what the Jerusalem of the time was all about. Religion was the city’s primary economic driver, and the animal sacrifices around which many rituals were based kept farmers all around in pocket. Visitors from far away would generally sell their own animals locally before they set off on their journey, and then buy fresh animals from within or nearby the city. The reason for this was that religious law required the animals to be unblemished, and people didn’t want to take that risk on such a long journey. Coins bearing the images of men (such as Roman coins did) were forbidden for such purposes, and so people would change their Roman money for faceless shekels at a money changer. It is these money changers against whom Jesus railed on the temple platform just a few days before his crucifixion. At the time of a great festival such as Passover, as many as 250,000 visitors might descend upon Jerusalem, all passing along the main road, a freshly built Roman one, in order to visit the temple. The hills around Jerusalem would have been filled with great camps of people celebrating life and eating well.
The Roman garrison where Pontius Pilate was stationed stood on high ground to the north west of the great temple. It was named Antonia, one of Herod’s clever tributes to his Roman masters. The garrison was a source of conflict within the community. People were already confused by the transformation of their faith into something so brazenly wealthy, and the submissiveness of their leaders to Rome made many purists angry. In one particular flashpoint, a group of Jewish students attempted to remove a Roman eagle from the temple’s decoration, and as a result of the riots that followed 2000 men were crucified. The environment harboured a swelling undercurrent of resentment, which helps to explain the attitude of the priests towards Jesus when he showed up during passover and challenged their authority so vocally on the platform of the temple itself. They were worried that he would ignite the spark that sent the whole city into uproar. The priests were happy with the status quo, which amongst other things had made them all very wealthy.
Crucifixions took place, by tradition, outside the city walls. In the same way that Spartacus’ soldiers were hung along the Appian Way in Rome, the condemned men of Jerusalem would have been executed along the main roads outside the city, so as to be seen by as many passers-by as possible. Maps of first century Jerusalem differ, though they indicate that the Via Delorosa, the path marked today as the one which Jesus’ would have walked on the way to his place of crucifixion, is almost certainly inaccurate and based more on 14th century geography rather than the main roads of the period. This also casts substantial doubt on the final destination of the Via Delorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally considered to stand on ‘Golgotha’ (the place of the skull), and thought by many to be the site of the tomb in which Jesus was buried. Some maps of the time would have put this spot outside the city walls, and archeological studies of the area indicate that this may be right, which would make it an unlikely candidate to be the spot for any execution.
Today’s Jerusalem is quite different to the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago. Many of the famous landmarks, including the Temple of Herod, have been destroyed (and many rebuilt) as a result of centuries of turmoil and war. The narrow, winding streets of some districts, like the market streets in the lower city, can evoke a similar atmosphere to that which they would have back then. But the area around the temple itself, and particularly at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, has changed so much that it virtually impossible to imagine the events that are supposed to have taking place there. Tourism has replaced religion as the primary business of the city, though that has suffered in recent years with the continuing violent, and you will be hard-pushed to take a walk around without someone trying to sell you a souvenir statue of the Virgin Mary or some such.
When I came to Jerusalem at the start of our search for the tomb of Jesus, I got talking to a man in a cafe about where we might begin. He offered to take me to the tomb, but instead led me into a series of local ‘gift shops’ and other such places. Fifteen minutes in, I began to fear that I was in the hands of footpads and brigands, a suspicion that was undiminished as we arrived in a tourist ‘emporium’, the owner of which was very friendly with, if not related to my ‘guide’. With my cash reserves depleted (partly because I still hoped that these men could actually help me, and partly out of a desire not to stir up trouble - Jerusalem is a very dangerous place these days), I was eventually able to persuade our guide to show us to an actual site of historical interest. Which turned out to be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Pilgrimage to the holy land has been a very popular activity over the years, but never so blatantly commercial as it is now, not even in the days of Herod’s extravagance.
Outside of the main tourist areas though, it is still possible to get a feel for the landscape as it would have been in Jesus’ time. I cannot describe the feeling of being in this ancient Holy city. It was as if God himself was walking at my shoulder. The variety of dress and religions in this one small corner of the world gave me food for much thought. It was strange to see so many young Israeli soldiers of both sexes walking the city, heavily armed with automatic weapons. A reminder of the significance this land holds some two-thousand years later, that these young people are prepared to fight and die for it. One wonders what Jesus would think of it all. Perhaps someday we will find out.
To the north of the city, and outside the old city walls, stands the highest peak on the mountain rage known as Mount Moriah. Some 777 meters high, and just as imposing as it would have been millennia ago, some scholars believe this, rather than Temple Mount, to be the actual location where God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Topographical maps of the area show that the area of Mount Moriah known as Temple Mount forms a clear image of the Hebrew letter ‘Yod’, the first letter of God’s name, which tallies with the Old Testament’s account of God telling his people to make sacrifices “where I shall place my name.” And we believe that the highest point of Mount Moriah may have been the site of the most famous sacrifice of all, as the curious observer will note, etched in the sheer rock, distinct and imposing, the image of a skull.Chapter Four - The Many Tombs of Jesus
Up to this point, I had barely scratched the surface of Jerusalem. But I had seen enough that I decided to return home and convince my wife Emma, and some professional friends to come back with me. Our party ended up being eight-strong, including Einar Arnasson, our cameraman.
Emma was still somewhat skeptical because she had not seen the things that I had seen in person, so the first thing we did upon landing was take a stroll down memory lane and visit the city of Gomorrah (for more about this, watch our Real Discoveries documentary, ‘Our Search for Sodom and Gomorrah’). We hired a minibus and drove alongside the beautiful, ethereal Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, to one of the Bible’s most notorious locations.
Walking among the shapes and shadows which are all that remains of the ruined city, I recounted to the team the story of finding incredible chunks of brimstone the last time we were here, the discovery that really fired my imagination and reinforced my desire to prove that these Biblical stories really happened. That time, I had found the stuff everywhere, as though it had only just fallen from the sky before I arrived. But today, we could find nothing no matter how hard we searched. Emma, ever an inspiration to me when I’m feeling down or despondent, said that she couldn’t believe God would bring her all this way for nothing, and suggested that we pray. Which we did. And soon we were finding great chunks of brimstone everywhere we turned.
These are the things I cannot explain, for I know that words are not enough to convince of such things, but I swear that this is exactly the way it happened. I can still see Emma’s face the first time she held a chunk of brimstone in her hand, there amid the broken remains of Gomorrah. From then on, her mind changed, and she was a believer.
As we have discovered, there is little substantive evidence, on the surface of things, as to the physical location of the tomb of Jesus. Or for that matter, the place where he was crucified. The accounts of the gospel writers are rather vague, and although tradition seems to have established ‘accepted’ locations for these events, even their strongest advocates would have to admit that these are based on best guesses and the mere fact that they have not yet been sufficiently ‘disproved’.
Because of this uncertainty, many myths and stories have sprung up. Some are more fanciful than others, but we will examine the most popular in an attempt to weigh up the merits of each and hopefully separate some fact from fiction.
If you have been following the saga of the tomb of Jesus in recent years, you will almost certainly have heard about the Talpoit Tomb, discovered in the East Talpiot region of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1980 by construction workers who were laying the foundations for a residential apartment building. The workers uncovered the entrance to a tomb of some description, and reported their findings to the Israel Department of Antiquities who sent someone along to investigate immediately. The man they sent, Amos Kloner, drew a series of rough sketches of the site and was suitably intrigued by what he saw that he requested a salvage dig to uncover the whole area. His request was granted, but for some reason, perhaps because of financial pressures caused by the holding up of building work, the team were only given a few days to see what they could find.
The construction of the apartment buildings at Talpiot was completed two years later, but the tomb itself was left untouched and one day the children of a local resident, Tova Bracha, found their way inside and found some old, discarded religious writings. The authorities were notified but again, no further investigations were carried out.
Fast forward to 2005, and an investigative journalist by the name of Simcha Jacobivici opened up the tomb on a hunch in order to conduct a more thorough investigation. He took with him a film crew under the supervision of the famous Hollywood director James Cameron. Jacobivici and Cameron, however, had not sought the permission of the authorities before beginning their investigations, which is an odd approach to take for two respected professionals who would certainly have known that such steps were expected. We can only assume that they thought permission would have been denied for whatever reason, but what that reason may have been is open to speculation.
Inside of the Talpiot tomb, the film crew found ten ossuaries made of limestone, six of which bore epigraphs of some description. These were removed and shipped off to the Rockerfeller Museum in the hopes of obtaining some expert analysis. However, one of the ossuaries mysteriously disappeared while supposedly being kept in storage at the museum. This fueled rumors of some sort of high-level cover-up, though such speculation should be treated with a high degree of suspicion, since after all the director Cameron had a film to sell. What we do know for sure about the limestone ossuaries however is that they all contained human remains which were described as being in an advanced state of deterioration. The cursory observations of those who saw them suggested that the bodies may have been buried as many as seven generations apart, perhaps indicating a family tomb. Other bones and a handful of skulls were also found below the tomb, the origins of which are unexplained. All of the human remains were handed over to the religious authorities for proper burial, though no records were kept about them at all, another very strange choice to make.
Some of the Talpiot Tomb walls have crude carvings on them, including one over the entrance of a triangle with a circle inside of it. This symbol, sometimes called a ‘purity eye’, is said to represent ascension, which has been taken by some commentators to indicate a possible link with Jesus, though this is rather tenuous. Other than this evidence, and its location in the general region of Jerusalem where Jesus may have been crucified, there is not much linking the Talpiot Tomb with him or indeed any of the details from the gospel accounts of the resurrection. In fact, there is a substantial list of respected scholars and scientists who have written to express their objection to the way in which Cameron and Jacobovici portrayed the tomb as a possible tomb of Christ, and mis-led the media and the public into believing that they (the film makers) had any substantial scientific backing. I think we can safely say that the Talpiot Tomb is not a real contender for being the legitimate tomb of Jesus, but it is a pretty good story nonetheless, and it will be interesting to see if the questions about the lack of record keeping and the mysterious disappearance of one of the ossuaries in New York are ever properly accounted for.
In Kashmir, India, in the Khanya district of Srinagar, is a shrine that the locals call Roza Bal, considered a site of religious significance by local Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus alike and, according to some, the place where Jesus fled after his resurrection. Some respected historians have postulated that the subcontinent may have been Jesus’ final resting place, and of course we have little record of what happened to the man other than that he was seen ascending to heaven bathed in light. It is reasonable to suggest that in fact, Jesus may have traveled far away from Jerusalem and lived out his life in relative obscurity. In those days, remember, news would have propagated much more slowly than it does today, and there’s no particular reason why people hundreds of miles away would have recognized Jesus at all. Though I must stress that apart from these local myths, there is little recorded evidence that this is the case.
Roza Bal is a modest building raised up on a platform with low ceilings and archway-shaped entrances. There is a carving on stone inside the shrine which shows a pair of feet with what are clearly crucifixion wounds and supporters of the idea that Roza Bal was Jesus’ final resting place say that they match the location of the wounds shown on the famous Shroud of Turin. Though this has never been proven or really investigated.
A similar story to that of Roza Bal can be heard in the Japanese village of Shingō, in the northern city of Aomori. The legend of Shingō states that contrary to all other accounts, Jesus was not in fact crucified at all, but rather that he had a brother who took his place on the cross while Jesus fled across Alaska, finally settling down in Japan. The story goes on today that he became a rice farmer, married a nice girl and raised a family before dying at a ripe old age. The only evidence proffered in support of this rather bizarre claim is a handful of ancient Hebrew documents that were claimed to have been discovered nearby, and that told the story of Jesus escape from Jerusalem and journey to Japan. Apparently these documents were seized by the Japanese authorities some time before the second world war and have not been seen since. This story, while amusing perhaps, is almost certainly just an elaborate hoax cooked up by the Shingō locals in order to drum up some extra tourism. If this was the intention, it has certainly been successful.
Now we come to the really serious contenders, in my opinion, of which there are two. The first is the famous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, sometimes known as the Church of the Resurrection, which is built on the spot where legend has it the skull of Adam, the first human, is buried. Supporters of the sepulcher claim that this must be the Golgotha (place of the skull) mentioned in the Bible, and therefore the site of Jesus crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Records of pilgrimages being carried out to this location seem to begin around the fourth century with Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, both of whom were staunch Christians. The story goes that the original sepulcher was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and the site covered with earth and forgotten about until Helena visited the location on the orders of her son and uncovered it, in the process unearthing fragments of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Constantine ordered the church re-built in splendor, and since then it has been virtually unchallenged as the official site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It has also been destroyed and re-built several times as a result of the often violent struggle for control of the city. Currently there exists an uneasy truce around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, with various religious factions controlling different parts of the building, which has led to bizarre situations such as a small riot breaking out over a guard moving his chair ten feet to the right in order to sit in the shade, or a ladder which has remained on a window ledge over the entrance since before 1852 simply because nobody can decide who has the authority to move it from that location. This rather petty squabbling has also, unfortunately, led to the deterioration of the building since nobody can decide what needs repairing and who will be responsible for it.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands the ‘Stone of Anointing’, reportedly the stone upon which Joseph of Arimathea would have prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Archaeological analysis of this stone, which is pink marble, indicate that it is not native to the area and in all likelihood was imported from Europe, maybe by Constantine himself. To the west of that is the Edicule itself, which has two rooms. In the first room is a fragment of stone known as the ‘Angel’s Stone’, which is said to be the rolling stone described in the gospels which sealed Jesus’ tomb after his burial. In the second room, the tomb itself, all of the different religious factions are allowed to hold ceremonies such as Mass, and they do so on a daily basis. To the rear of the building is a ragged chapel thought to belong to the tomb’s original owner Joseph of Arimethea. If there is any significant evidence to support this assumption, I was unable to find it.
A stairway winds up from the church to what most accept to be the place referred to in the gospels as Golgotha, and the altar here has a glass case containing a rock called the Rock of Calvary. Apparently underneath the rock is the hole in which Jesus’ cross was raised. Nearby is the Chapel of Adam, built to commemorate the supposed burial of Adam’s skull on this site.
‘Golgotha’ means ‘place of the skull’, and it is virtually unanimously accepted that wherever the true Golgotha is, there also was the place where Jesus Christ was crucified. One commonly-held explanation is that it was called the place of the skull because there lay many skeletons from previous crucifixions. But this raises a clear red flag for anyone familiar with Jewish custom, in which the disposal of bodies was conducted most carefully. Others point to the alleged burial of the skull of Adam on this site, but this story only seems to have sprung up some time after Constantine identified the sepulchre itself and began building his own memorial.
In fact there are various other commemorate spots in and around the sepulcher with similar grand sounding titles, but the only real evidence as to the validity of these titles is in the writings of two historians Socrates Scholasticus and Eusebius, and even then all the really said was that underneath Hadrian’s Temple was a site of visible and reputed wonder.
There is also a split amongst archaeologists as to whether the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and therefore also the ‘Golgotha’ above it would have actually been outside the city walls in Jesus’ day, since if they were not it is highly unlikely any crucifixion would have taken place there. By law, Jesus would have to have been crucified at least one-hundred paces from the city wall, and there seems to be as much archaeological evidence that the city wall in the time of Herod encapsulated the site that is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, rather than making two sharp turns in order to exclude it. It would seem that the case for this site actually being the Golgotha of scripture is weak at best, and disingenuous at worst.
There is also the question of Jesus’ tomb having been in a garden. The gospel of John says, “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus...” John also makes clear that Mary Magdalene thinks she is speaking to a gardener when she returns to the tomb on Easter morning - “Tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”
The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has never, by any reasonable estimation, been a garden. Tests of the soil on this site have shown that it has never contained arable soil of the quality needed to cultivate a garden of any meaning. Advocates of the church’s authenticity cover this glaring incompatibility by claiming that the stone quarry which almost certainly marked the site at the time would have been covered with weeds, and it is this to which the word ‘garden’ refers. Does this seem likely to you?
A prominent Jewish archaeologist and scholar, Dan Bahat, suggests that the Holy Sepulcher may indeed be the location of Jesus’ tomb, but cautions that this is largely due to the absence of any substantial evidence against it, rather than any significant evidence in its favour.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher certainly has the feel of an important religious site, and one cannot fail to be moved by the sight of people kneeling in prayer before the Anointing Stone within. But that is exactly part of the problem. The Church is such a draw for tourists, and the area around it, as well as the building itself, have changed so much over the years that it is just impossible to get a feeling what what the place would have been like in Jesus’ time. Visiting the church is a moving experience, but the feeling you’re left with afterwards is that the present day sepulcher is so dramatically different from how it would have been at the time of Jesus’ burial that it hardly matters whether this is the right place or not. There’s no real feeling of connection, it’s as if the keepers of the place are trying too hard without letting it speak for itself.
In contrast, our final contender for the legitimate tomb of Jesus is one of the most serene places you’re ever likely to visit. The Garden Tomb, popularly proposed by the British Major-General Charles George Gordon in 1883 as being a possible site of Jesus’ tomb, is located north of the Holy Sepulcher, outside the city walls, near the Damascus Gate. Gordon identified the site partly because he believed that the sepulcher would have been inside the city walls two thousand years ago and therefore an unlikely location for a crucifixion. But mainly his attention was drawn by the shape etched in the rock of the towering cliff nearby, the tallest cliff in the city. The shape of a skull. Golgotha.Chapter Five - Further down the Garden Path
“Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.”- John 19:41
Near the Damascus Gate of northern Jerusalem, a popular site for crucifixions in the time of Jesus, and in the shadow if the tallest peak of Mount Moriah with its skull face sunk into the rock, there is a garden. Visitors to the garden today will find it to be both beautiful and serene, amazingly so considering the noise and bustle that engulfs the rest of the city. We know that this spot would also have been a garden in Jesus’ time thanks to the excavation of both a superb wine-press and a huge water cistern, one of the biggest in Jerusalem even now holding a quarter of a million gallons of rain water. This indicates two things; firstly that the garden two thousand years ago was almost certainly a vineyard as well as a beautiful garden, an secondly that it would have belonged to a very wealthy man. We know from the gospel’s description of Joseph of Arimathea that he was indeed a wealthy man, and that it was his own tomb in his own garden which he gave for Jesus to be buried in. A new tomb, never before used.
The Garden Tomb is often thought to have been ‘discovered’ as it were by the British General Charles Gordon, also known affectionately as Chinese Gordon by the British public thanks to his heroic fighting in China. He also played a substantial role in smashing up the North African slave trade. This was a man, by all accounts, with a good heart and a finely-tuned sense of morality. Gordon stood before the great cliff with the skull sunken into it and immediately declared that nearby must be the location of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. His certainty about this, we understand, was bolstered partly by his military knowledge, which told him that this would have been far and away the most visible place to crucify a man and send a signal to everyone for miles around, and partly by his belief that the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, would have been outside the city walls in Jesus’ time and therefore unlikely to have staged any executions. This assertion splits archaeologists even today, but some very old maps show that Gordon may well have been right about this. We will return to the maps later, but for now sufficed to say that General Gordon returned to England and raised money to purchase the site so that it might be preserved for future generations. For this, we owe him a deal of gratitude. The Garden Tomb today is still owned by the Garden Tomb Association, a British charitable trust. This British connection is actually very interesting, and again we shall return to it in time.
I mention that Gordon popularized (to some extent) the legitimacy of this Golgotha and therefore by extension also the Garden Tomb, but there had actually been pilgrims before him to whom the sight of this great skull in the rock indicated clearly that this must be Calvary. In 1842, some forty years before Gordon, a German scholar by the name of Otto Thenius observed as such. His certainty was matched by a British Major, Claude Condor, and the scholar Fisher Howe in 1871. Mostly these claims appear to have fallen on deaf ears, and it is still the case today that the Garden Tomb seems to resist acceptance by the establishment and those who have not experienced the place for themselves. It’s almost as if acceptance of the Garden Tomb is meant to demand a measure of faith.
Skeptics have claimed that the skull features of the cliff are caused by quarrying activity. While it is true that there are stone quarries at the foot of the cliff, it is highly unlikely that these extend vertically, and as you can see in the photographs, this would be, if it were true, probably the world’s riskiest quarry ever. There is no evidence that the skull feature of the cliff that I believe to be Golgotha are man-made, and indeed photographs dating back to the late 1800s show that the skull was even more pronounced back then, indicating that it has gradually weathered away over time. It is very likely that the features were much bolder and more striking in the time of Jesus, and that if there were a place in Jerusalem known back then as ‘the place of the skull’, this must almost surely be it.
Interestingly, the naming of such a geographical feature in such a way fits entirely with Jewish practice of the time. Other examples include Gamia, a Jewish city on the Golan which is built upon a hill like a camel’s hump. ‘Gamia’ means ‘the camel’. Also ‘Susita’, Aramaic for ‘the horse’.
The cliff face with the skull etched into it, according to topographical maps of the area, is the highest point of Mount Moriah, standing an impressive 777 meters high. Biblical scholars have described 777 as “God’s number”, as opposed to 666, the number of the Devil. This is partly due to the fact that God created the earth in seven days, and partly due to the book of Revelations, which describes seven churches having seven stars, which are seven angels. The number 777 is said to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
One of the most exciting memories of our pilgrimage is of Einar, Peter and myself attempting to gain access to the cemetery atop this highest point, Gordon’s Calvary as it is sometimes known, as we believed it to be the place where Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac. The graveyard is very ancient, and it is a minor miracle in itself how it has managed to survive thousands of years’ worth of wars right here in the middle of Jerusalem. Personally, I see God’s hand directly shielding it from harm, to ensure that the memory of Abraham’s sacrifice, and later of his own son Jesus Christ, would never be lost.
Standing atop the place of the skull, it is clear as day that if there was one spot that could have been seen from anywhere in the city during Jesus’ time, this was it. Around the back of the hill, we found the entrance to the cemetery and made to enter it, when a young man sitting on the steps leading up to the entrance asked us where we were going. We explained that we meant no harm, and only wanted to look around, but the man replied simply, “It is forbidden.” This was somewhat strange, because while we stood there, others were allowed to pass and enter the place, and it became apparent that we were unwelcome because of our cameras. I cannot express the sheer disappointment of not being allowed to stand atop Golgotha myself and record the site for all of you to see for yourselves how breathtaking that place was. I admit to being completely crushed, with moist eyes, and I remembered Genesis 22:14 - “And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah Jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.” I was desperate to see some mark or stone where Abraham sacrificed the lamb, I was sure in my heart that it was there. But words could not move the guardian of the graveyard, and so we were forced to re-trace our steps.
After a short distance however, something gave me pause. I really felt that this place was much too important to our quest to simply walk away, and so quietly, I suggested to two of the team the possibility of bribing the gatekeeper.
We returned to the gate and found the man somewhat less surly when the subject of money was hinted at. However he was too worried about losing his employment to let us through. Evidently there were forces in control of this area who were very strict indeed about exploration, and precious in guarding their secrets. My feet did not want to move and eventually I heard my own voice saying, ‘I’ll give you 100 shekels to let us in’. To this he finally agreed after swearing us to secrecy. I called to Einar and Peter and we followed the keeper through the gate.
We walked slowly through the old graveyard until we stood at the edge of the cliff. We were now on top of the Skull, the place where we believe Jesus was crucified, and had unobstructed views across the old city. As we started to film the area, I felt that the money I had given the keeper of the gate was well spent. Alas, very shortly he was back and insisting that we leave. I badly wanted to examine the ancient stones for any mention of Abraham, but even those I could see were so weathered as to be illegible. We headed back toward the entrance with much reluctance, and were met by another man who was apparently our keeper’s boss. Oh dear.
A conversation ensued in a tongue none of us understood, whilst I stood on this incredible historic site feeling nothing but frustration. In the end I offered the boss 100 shekels also and he asked me what I wanted to see. This is probably the kind of extortion that Jesus would have frowned upon. I asked him if he knew of any stones or tombs bearing the name Abraham. Neither man understood my English and I was reduced to sign language, miming cutting a throat with my hand as it was all that I could think of. After further discussion between the two, he took our money and guided us toward the farthest point of the cemetery.
We arrived at the cliff edge, slightly lower than the Place of the Skull, where there were no grave stones, just large rocks protruding from the earth. A fence lined the edge of the cliff and I stood wondering why they had brought us to this particular spot. Climbing onto the fence, I looked downward over the edge and what I saw amazed me. Below was the area of the Garden Tomb, and half way up was a large square shaped hole. I knew at once what this excavation was. The possible site of the Arc of the Covenant.
Ron Wyatt was an American archaeologist whose work I had admired for years. In 1978, with his two sons, he travelled to the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba for a spot of scuba diving. Wyatt believed that Moses crossed the Red Sea in this area and they were searching for horse skeletons, chariot parts and any other evidence on the sea bottom. Later he visited this area around the Damascus gate and in the company of an authority on Roman Antiquities, walked over the ancient stone crossing known as the Calvary Escarpment. On his arrival at this spot he claims to have had a supernatural experience, where his hand just pointed to the area of this hole that we could now see plain as day. Quite involuntarily he told his companion that Jeremiah’s Grotto and the Arc of the Covenant lay beneath.
The Antiquities man appeared quite unfazed, and assured him there would be no problem with permits etc if he would excavate the site. Wyatt himself did not understand the experience he had just undergone and wondered if God himself was speaking to him. He had been most successful with his quests to date, having found what many believe to be Noah’s Ark in Turkey and chariot parts together with what could be the bones of the Pharaoh’s army on the bed of the Red Sea. However, he had never had such an experience as this before. It had struck him like a thunderbolt and he was now certain that this ground contained the Ark, which was hidden by Jeremiah at the siege of Nebuchadnezzar when he sacked Jerusalem.
In 1979, together with his sons, Ron began a dig here which was to last for three and a half years. He claims to have found not only the Ark, but also evidence that this was the exact site of the crucifixion. This was to include dried blood that had trickled down a 20 ft deep crack in the rock, coming to rest on top of the Ark of the Covenant! On examination, the blood was found to contain 24 Y chromosomes and only a single X chromosome instead of the usual 24: he believed it to be the blood of Christ. He also claimed to have discovered 3 cross holes and the rolling stone which covered the garden Tomb entrance. He then fitted a trap door at the site and covered the whole lot with rocks and earth.
As I stood wondering why the two keepers led us right to this very spot, I had the overwhelming feeling that this view, and not the graveyard itself is what they were protecting. Standing here, knowing what I knew and now seeing with my own eyes, the experience recounted by Ron Wyatt became very real to me. It may very well be that The Ark is still buried under that place, protected by authorities who keep such secrets from their own people. Doubtless in time we will know the truth.
We returned to the cemetery office with the two men and chatted a while. They told us that in the past, some Americans were researching the same area, until they were asked to leave by the local police. Powerful authorities indeed were at work in concealing the secrets of the skull rock. But I knew than where our next destination was to be, and we had seen it from atop Golgotha, a stone’s throw from this most likely site of the crucifixion, an ancient garden containing a two-thousand year old ‘new tomb’.
The tomb in the garden has been dated by archaeologists as being from around the first century, which obviously puts it smack in the right period to have been Jesus’ burial place. The outside has a small entrance, and a rolling channel where a large rolling stone would have been used to cover the entrance. As an interesting aside, locals report that this stone rolling channel has been more recently used as a manger to feed animals. This similarity between the place of Jesus’ birth, and that of his burial, is quite striking.
We also know from the book of Matthew that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body in a clean linen cloth, possibly the famous Shroud of Turin, and rolled a heavy stone across the entrance of the tomb in order to seal it. Matthew also tells us that Pilate ordered his man to make the tomb as secure as possible, because the Romans were afraid that Jesus’ followers would steal his body and claim that he had risen from the dead, and they knew what trouble this would stir up in the city. We have no specific details of how they secured the tomb, but one would imagine that an iron chain would have been used to cover the rolling stone and prevent it from being moved. To the left of the entrance to the Garden Tomb, in the rock, is a hole such as might have been made by an iron peg being driven into the wall. Skeptics once claimed that the hole was simply caused by gunfire during the 20th century, but forensic tests on the metallic residue inside the hole indicate that it does actually date back to around the first century. Unfortunately the wall on the other side of the tomb entrance, where a second hole might have confirmed this theory, has collapsed over time and had to be restored, so will will never know for sure.
Additionally, archaeologists have found signs of what they believe may have been a crude church built onto the front of the tomb some time probably not long after the time of Jesus’. There is an anchor symbol carved into the rock, which scholars believe is a reference to Hebrews 6:19-20, “Jesus is the anchor to our soul.” If these observations are correct, it would mean evidence of worship at this site long before we have evidence of worship at the site of the Holy Sepulcher, which is not recorded as being recognized as Jesus burial place until around the third century. There is also a large crack in the stone outside the tomb, which would be typical of damage caused by an earthquake, such as the one the gospels record as having taken place at the moment of Jesus’ death.
Inside the tomb the first thing you notice is its size. This was obviously the tomb of a rich man, with its large weeping chamber and rather smoothly hewn-out features. There is a loculus (the place where the body would have laid) diagonally opposite the tomb’s entrance which seems to have been extended in a hurry, at least the chiseling of this section of the tomb is much rougher than the rest. An adjacent loculus remains unfinished. If this was the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea, one could reasonably assume that the first loculus would have been for him, and the unfinished second for his wife. The length of the first loculus without the roughly extended section would have accommodated a man of around 5’7-8 in height, yet the extension makes it a comfortable for for a man approaching 5’11 or so. For now, I would just like you to keep that figure of 5’11 in your mind, it will be important. There is old graffiti inside the tomb where someone has painted red crosses , as well as greek symbols representing alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, a phrase used by Christ to describe himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”
The gospels state that when Mary came to anoint the body of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels. The layout of the Garden Tomb fits this description, as the place where Jesus would have laid is visible right across from the entrance, and there is plenty of room for two angels to have sat on the raised stone areas near where his head and feet would have been. There is also a small window in the tomb which would have let light fall right upon the spot where Jesus’ body would have lain. These kinds of holes were sometimes incorporated into tombs to allow the soul to escape, which Jews believed happens on the third day following a person’s death. This, incidentally, is probably the reason why Jesus raised Lazarus after four days, because if he had done so sooner people might have said that Lazarus wasn’t truly dead, as his soul had not yet left his body.
And on the subject of bodies, New Testament scholar Chris Hutson recalls further evidence in favour of the Garden Tomb in his, “Great Preaching on the Resurrection”:
"I read this week about the excavation that took place nearly two hundred years ago in Jerusalem, when General Gordon uncovered the tomb of Christ. When General Gordon uncovered the tomb now called Gordon's Tomb, scientists scraped up dirt from the tomb and submitted it to chemical analysis. After a thorough chemical analysis of the dirt, they concluded, "no human body ever decayed in that tomb."”
Intrigued by these findings, I went in search of maps of ancient Jerusalem which may indicate the location of Jesus’ tomb. One particular map, annotated in French and therefore also presumably drawn in France, identifies a place near the site of the crucifixion as “Jeremiah’s Grotto”. Jeremiah’s Grotto is thought to be the place where the Prophet Jeremiah retired to write the Book of Lamentations, a book of the Old Testament which chronicles the destruction of Jerusalem in 589BC. The Real Discoveries team went looking for Jeremiah’s Grotto in the area described by this map, and found a cavern fitting its description right near the site of the Garden Tomb, which is currently being used as a banana warehouse. The owner was happy to talk to us, and confirmed that the locals indeed believed this to be Jeremiah’s Grotto.
Furthermore, the book of Jeremiah (2:13) mentions, “broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Near to the warehouse, along the foot of Gordon’s Calvary, is a broken cistern that has been cleaved clean in two. Cisterns of this kind certainly pre-date Jeremiah, though it is impossible to tell at what point this particular one was broken. I therefore mention it merely as a curiousity.
According to our map then, this being Jeremiah’s Grotto as the locals believe, would place the Garden Tomb at exactly the right spot to be the legitimate tomb of Jesus.
The question is, can we trust this map? I showed the map to some experts, who confidently concluded that it must have been drawn in France around the 16th century. On the surface, it would appear unlikely that a map of this origin and date would be more accurate then one drawn in Jerusalem itself, but remember when we traced the story of Joseph of Arimethea? Various historical accounts suggest that Joseph of Arimethea, along with several other followers of Jesus including Lazarus and Mary Magdelene, left Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension and headed across Europe to France and then England, whether they established Glastonbury Abbey. It would make perfect sense that the very people who knew exactly where Jesus had been buried would tell the story to everyone they met along the way. It is also entirely possible, even probable that some of them had descendants who grew up in France and England. I don’t believe it is a coincidence this map, whose accuracy we verified ourselves by visiting Jeremiah’s Grotto, originated from the place where we know Jesus’ followers journeyed to after his death. It may also be no coincidence that the movement to secure the Garden Tomb as the legitimate site of Jesus’ burial originated in England with General Gordon. Knowledge of such events is passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, as well as in written accounts, and I strongly believe this to be the case here.
If further corroboration of this map were necessary, we were able to line up our French map of Jerusalem exactly with another map from a different time period, which placed the site of the crucifixion exactly where the Garden Tomb is today. The same map also placed Jesus’ tomb near that of Saint Stephen, an early Christian Martyr who preached the teachings of Jesus and handed out aid to the poor, and who was put on trial and executed for it. We did not have to search long for the tomb of Saint Stephen, as there is a church dedicated to him exactly on the spot marked by our ancient maps - in exactly the same position relative to the crucifixion site on the maps as the Garden Tomb today is to the Church of Saint Stephen. Another very early map of Jerusalem shows what appears to be a chapel near the Damascus Gate, again in the same spot as the Garden Tomb. This would confirm the archaeological findings around the tomb itself, which indicated that a chapel-like structure may have been built on to the front of the tomb. If this is true, it is further evidence of Christian worship at the site of the Garden tomb centuries before similar references to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Damascus Gate itself is interesting, because there is evidence that at least from the fifth century A.D. onwards it was also referred to as ‘St. Stephen’s Gate”. This would indicate that nearby (the top of the skull hill) was the site where St. Stephen was stoned to death. Jewish custom was that once ground had been made unclean by acts such as execution, then the same ground would be used for further such acts, so as not to desecrate other, clean land. It is likely then that if our Golgotha near the Damascus Gate was the place where St. Stephen was executed, it would also have been the place where Jesus was crucified.
The sheer volume of evidence pointing to the Garden Tomb as being the authentic site of the resurrection of Jesus Christ left us reeling, but at the same time, in our hearts, we were not surprised. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an experience to be sure, but we didn’t get any strong feeling from it, it was quite impossible to imagine the place as it might have been in Jesus’ time. Walking in the gardens of the Garden tomb, however, we were unanimous in feeling like our footsteps fell on Holy ground. The tranquility of the place, especially in the context of a busy city like Jerusalem is simply amazing. Before we even undertook our investigations into the historical and scientific evidence for the Garden Tomb being the real tomb of Jesus, I think we knew for ourselves that it was. We had faith. And the mountain of evidence that we found simply confirmed that faith. Will this settle the debate as to where the real site of the resurrection lies? Probably not. I expect that there is far too much at stake for those factions involved with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But for us, we feel that we have sought, and found. Just as Jesus said.