“The Garden Tomb,” Ensign, Apr. 1983, 8
The Garden Tomb
This article is from a paper previously published in Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, April 1982, pp. 4–11.
Since the early fourth century A.D., many Christians have revered the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church as that of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. There visitors are shown a small rocky knoll, said to be Calvary or Golgotha, and a nearby site, a cave, is claimed to be the location of the tomb of Christ.
But there are problems with this proposal. First, the stone slabs in the cave on which the Lord’s body is said to have been washed and anointed and where he was laid in the tomb are pink marble. Those stones are not native to Palestine and were undoubtedly imported from Europe much later than Christ’s death. Second, this site was designated in A.D. 326, during the time of Queen Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. She presumed that the remains of the tomb of Christ would be found beneath one of the Roman temples, since the Romans were thought to have covered Christian holy sites with temples of their own. She therefore razed the temple of Venus and excavated the area, finding a large cemetery. Since one of the tombs was situated within a cave, she labeled it the Holy Sepulchre of Christ.
The problem is that the Romans of the second century were not concerned with Christian holy sites; Rome was fighting Jews, who would not have held the tomb of Jesus to be sacred. Although they destroyed Herod’s Jewish temple, the Romans wouldn’t necessarily have bothered the site of Jesus’ tomb. Even though the Holy Sepulchre Church has been visited by many Christians for over sixteen centuries, there really is no evidence to support its claims.
Consequently, suitable alternative sites were occasionally sought, but without much success. Then, in 1867, a tomb was excavated at the base of a low cliff. The Greek proprietor of the site had intended to use the rock-hewn tomb as a cistern for water storage. But upon being told by friends that archaeologists would be interested in seeing it intact, he reburied it, then later exposed it to view again.1
Meanwhile, the hill to the east of this tomb attracted the attention of a number of European scholars visiting or living in the Holy Land. To them, it appeared that this could be a logical place for the Golgotha of the Bible.2
In 1883 British General Charles (“Chinese”) Gordon was visiting in Jerusalem. Contemplating the scenery outside the northern wall and near the Damascus Gate of the city, he, too, noted that this prominent rocky outcropping just a few hundred feet away could have been the biblical Golgotha.3 Though the Bible does not say that Christ was crucified on a hill (Golgotha is called “the place of a skull” in John 19:17), the idea of a hill was firmly rooted in Christian tradition because of the small rocky knoll in the Holy Sepulchre Church.
Gordon noted that the face of the cliff resembled a skull (the meaning of the name Golgotha), with depressions for the eyes, nose, and mouth, and that there was a tomb nearby in the cliff to the west—the one originally excavated in 1867 for a cistern. He became excited about the prospects of having the site preserved for pilgrims to visit. A campaign was begun to collect funds in England and to organize the Garden Tomb Society, which ultimately purchased the plot of land and its excavated tomb. In the years to follow, a fair amount of archaeological and traditionary evidence was discovered which supported the thesis that this was an extraordinary candidate for the site where Christ had been laid to rest.
The account in John 19:41–42 provided the principle biblical information about the site: “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. …”
The biblical tomb had belonged to Joseph of Arimathaea. In the years to come, evidence was uncovered that the Garden Tomb was, indeed, a Jewish tomb of the first century which had never been completed. It also conformed to the biblical description because it was located in the midst of a garden and near the proposed place of execution.
Yet, despite the vast amount of interest in the site and the number of books and pamphlets published over the years, no single source has given the totality of archaeological evidence. Nor have all of them together considered everything that could be said. It is my hope to present here a more comprehensive view of the evidences favoring the Garden Tomb as the site of Christ’s burial and resurrection.
The first thing to note is that the small hill known as “Gordon’s Calvary” is the northernmost part of the mount called Moriah in the Bible. It was to this mount that Abraham brought Isaac as a sacrifice (see Gen. 22), symbolic of the sacrifice of Christ to come. The site was later purchased by David and used by Solomon to construct his temple. The temple itself was located about midpoint on the north-south line of the hill. Significantly, sacrificial animals, whose deaths symbolized that of Christ, were slain to the north of the temple altar (see Lev. 1:11). If Jesus was crucified at “Gordon’s Calvary,” he died on the northernmost part of the hill where that altar was situated.
Golgotha (as we shall henceforth call “Gordon’s Calvary”) is separated from the main body of Mount Moriah by a chasm created by an ancient rock quarry. Because the skull face is on the cliff which was cut away by the quarry, it is important to know when the quarry was in operation. If it was used after the days of Christ, the skull shape could not have been present in his time, and there would be no reason to believe that it lent the name Golgotha to the site. There are, however, some indications that the quarry predates Christ.
The first bits of evidence are traditionary. The southern cliff of the quarry runs just underneath the northern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. Cut into this cliff is a large cave (partly natural) which was enlarged by quarrying operations. It has long been called “Solomon’s Quarries,” based on the tradition that this is where Solomon obtained stone for building his temple. It has also been termed “Zedekiah’s Cave,” from a tradition that King Zedekiah hid here from Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587 B.C. If either of these stories is true, the quarry and the resultant skull-shaped cliff predate Christ, and the appearance of the skull shape could have been visible during his day. French scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau discovered, in the first of the quarrying chambers inside the cave, a drawing of a winged sphinx in Assyrian style (now in the Louvre in Paris). This would date it to the Israelite period and would imply that the quarry dates back at least to 600 B.C.4
The northeast portion of the quarry, along the cliff just east of the skull face, opens into a large rock-hewn cavern called “Jeremiah’s Grotto.” Tradition associates this with the place where Jeremiah was imprisoned by King Zedekiah and where he is said to have written the book of Lamentations (see Jer. 38:6). Interestingly, Jeremiah 2:13 speaks of “broken cisterns, that can hold no water [Jer. 2:13].” There is just such a cistern on the same cliff, to the west of the skull face. The quarrying operation cut the cistern in two, leaving a large gaping hole in the cliff. There is also another hole running to the top of the hill through bedrock, where ropes were once let down to draw out water. Cisterns of this type first came into use in the days of King David. It is possible that this cistern was destroyed a generation later by Solomon’s work.5
The major piece of evidence that would place the cutting of the quarry prior to Jesus’ time is the discovery of a number of rock-cut tombs of the Israelite period. These tombs are situated on the quarry cliff to the west of the skull face, very close to the Garden Tomb itself.6 Since these tombs are on the quarry cliff, and since graveyards are generally considered to be sacred places, not to be disturbed by quarrying,7 it is safe to say that the quarrying operations took place before the Israelite period.
If, as this evidence suggests, the quarry cliffs stood in the days of Herod the Great, then it is inconceivable that Herod would not have made use of their defensive posture and built his northern city wall atop them. Indeed, there are some Herodian stones between the cliff and the so-called “Herod’s Gate” to the east, and parts of the cliff bedrock appear to have been sculpted to look like Herodian stones with their drafted edges.
Moreover, immediately to the west of the southern cliff, where Mount Moriah drops off to form the Tyropoeon Valley (now filled) of Josephus’ account, stands Damascus Gate, where Dame Kathleen Kenyon excavated in the early 1960s. Herodian stonework is found here, along with remnants of a Herodian gateway and towers.8 This provides evidence that Golgotha was—as the Bible states—not far outside the city walls near the gate. (See John 19:20.) It was also situated beside the main northern road—an ideal place for a public execution because of the numerous passersby, who, in the New Testament story, mocked Christ as he hung on the cross. (See Matt. 27:39.)
British Major Claude R. Conder noted a Jewish tradition told to him in 1874–75 that the hill was formerly a place of execution.9 Christians in Jerusalem are also said to have had the tradition that this was where both Jeremiah and Stephen were stoned.10 It seems quite likely that in Christ’s day there was but one place of execution in the Jerusalem area. Since an execution site would have been considered polluted, it would be in keeping with Jewish custom to stone or otherwise execute people in the same place each time. It is important that we have evidence from the fifth century A.D.11 and until at least Crusader times, that Damascus Gate was called “St. Stephen’s Gate.”
St. Stephen’s Church of the fifth century A.D. (today rebuilt with the same name) is situated adjacent to Golgotha, on top of the cliff immediately to the north of the Garden Tomb itself. The discovery of this site in 188212 provided further evidence in support of the early tradition placing Stephen’s execution here. It is likely that Jesus was executed in the same place.
Excavations in the area of the Garden Tomb have revealed evidence that it was, indeed, an ancient garden—not of flowers, but of fruits. A winepress discovered in 1924 can be seen at the site today, along with three cisterns, one of which has a capacity of 200,000 gallons of water. Plaster around the exterior of the tomb and in the vicinity of the large cistern has been determined to be of the Roman period, though the plaster of the cistern itself was later repaired in Byzantine times and decorated with a cross—itself evidence of early Christian veneration.
Description of the Tomb
The Garden Tomb fits the qualifications for that of a rich Jew of the first century A.D. Several noted archaeologists have examined it and declared it to be Jewish and of the Herodian period.13 Like other Jewish tombs of Jerusalem from the same period, it is oriented toward the Temple Mount. It also resembles them in form, in that there is an outer “weeping chamber” for visitors, plus an inner chamber with burial niches for the dead. The type of chiseling inside the tomb and on the face of the cliff outside the tomb is the same as that found in other Jerusalem burials dating between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D.
Cut into solid bedrock, the Garden Tomb conforms to the biblical description of “a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.” (Luke 23:53.) It has a nephesh (“soul”) or window-like cut in the upper right-hand face, through which, according to Jewish tradition, the spirit of the deceased departed after the third day in the tomb.
One enters the tomb via the weeping chamber on the left, from where it is possible to descend slightly into the burial chamber. Here are found three burial niches, only one of which was completed by the workmen, thus indicating that it would have been a “new” tomb when Jesus was buried there, as the Bible states. The only niche which can be seen from the door is the one in the northeast corner. It would therefore fit the requirements for the burial spot of Jesus, for both John and Mary Magdalene were able to see the spot from outside the tomb, looking through the door. Mary Magdalene, coming to the tomb on Easter morning, was able to look inside and see angels seated where Jesus’ body had lain. (See John 20:5, 11–12.)
When one examines the burial niche closely, it becomes apparent that it was enlarged in the area of the head to the east, by further chiseling into the bedrock. This is probably because the person buried there was taller than the one for whom it was constructed. This evidence of a “borrowed tomb” fits the character of that of Joseph of Arimathaea, in which Jesus was buried.
In front of the tomb, there is a trough which could have served to guide a rolling stone in front of the door. (See Mark 16:3–4; Matt. 28:2.) Such rolling stones for tomb entrances are known from other Jewish tombs of the time of Jesus in the Jerusalem area.
It has been argued that the chisel marks in the trough at the Garden Tomb appear to be Crusader in origin, indicating that it was perhaps used for feeding animals but not for guiding a rolling stone into place in front of the tomb entrance.14 Nevertheless, the trough has the same width as the rolling-stone trough at the so-called “Tomb of the Kings,” another Jewish tomb from Jesus’ day. Moreover, the low wall forming the front part of the trough is some six to eight inches higher than the bedrock forming a court in front of the tomb. If the trough were an afterthought, it would have had to be formed by lowering the entire rocky courtyard by chiseling, which is not the case. If the chiseling is of the Crusader period, it is more likely to have resulted from efforts to deepen the channel, rather than create it.
Visitors to the Garden Tomb are often surprised at the height of the doorway leading into the tomb. Such an opening would require a very large stone to block it—larger than any of those known from other tombs of the period. But an examination of the chiseling on the left-hand side of the doorway (the only side which is complete) reveals that its original height was considerably less—approximately one-third of the present doorway. The top portion of the doorway has evidence of very rough chiseling, done when more stone was later removed to heighten it. The width is the same as the original, however, as is evidenced by the fact that its side is still partially marked on the lower right.15
The height of the doorway is important for understanding the biblical story, in which both John and Mary Magdalene had to stoop down to look inside the tomb. (See John 20:5, 11.) From this position, each was able to see the spot where Jesus was buried, which again points to the burial niche in the northeast corner. It was probably because of the light entering through the nephesh that they were able to discern the interior of what would otherwise have been a dark tomb.
The reason for the missing door and front wall of the Garden Tomb (the latter now filled in with masonry) can probably be traced to the construction of a Byzantine church on the site in the fourth century. Evidence for that church takes the form of mosaic decorations found at the site (remnants of flooring), as well as the arching and holes for ceiling-beams found above the tomb entrance.
Long grooves in the bedrock floor in front of the tomb may have supported a low screen, typical of Byzantine churches. The screen would have separated the congregational area from the area where the priests officiated, with the tomb proper (its front wall having been knocked out) serving as a shrine in the tripartite setup.
It has recently been suggested that the grooves were a single water channel used to drain a baptismal font in “heart” shape which stood in front of the tomb. This seems unlikely to me, for the grooves are not now connected in the middle. Also there is no evidence that the low depression in the bedrock to the right of the grooves was the base of a baptistry.
The rectangular depression in the bedrock floor to the left of the tomb entrance was possibly for a reliquary—a box containing bones or other relics of some early saint. These were common in Byzantine churches.
Byzantine crosses adorn the interior of the tomb, and two of the most elaborate of these, having been painted on the wall, have faded since the tomb’s discovery. Others—both painted and carved—remain, as does a large embossed plaster cross in the larger cistern.
Another cross is carved on the outside wall of the tomb, to the left and just above the height of the doorway. Close examination shows that it was originally an anchor which was later extended and changed into a cross. The anchor, along with the fish, was a very early Christian symbol and may indicate a first-century veneration of the tomb site.
Most Suitable Candidate
On the plateau above the low cliff into which the tomb is carved sits St. Stephen’s Church amidst ruins of earlier structures. A cemetery of the Byzantine period, located almost immediately above the Garden Tomb itself, is included among the archaeological finds of the site. Two of the inscriptions lend evidence to the authenticity of the tomb as being that of Christ. One reads “Buried near his Lord”—possibly referring to the proximity of Jesus’ tomb. The other reads “Onesimus, Deacon of the Church of the Witnesses of the Resurrection.” What better place for a church dedicated to the witnesses of the resurrection than the place where that marvelous event occurred? In this inscription, we possibly have the name of the Byzantine church which once stood before the tomb entrance.
As circumstantial as some of the evidence may be, one thing is certain about the Garden Tomb: It fits all the qualifications for the tomb in which Jesus was buried, from both the archaeological and the scriptural points of view.
Latter-day Saints have an additional insight into the sacredness of the Garden Tomb. President Harold B. Lee was the first prophet of God holding the keys and powers of the presidency of the holy priesthood to visit Jerusalem since Peter walked the city’s streets nearly nineteen centuries earlier. Detailing the feelings and impressions he had during his visit to the Holy Land, President Lee gave special emphasis to the significance of the site. “Something seemed to impress us as we stood there,” he said, “that this was the holiest place of all, and we fancied we could have witnessed the dramatic scene that took place there.” (Ensign, Apr. 1972, p. 6.)
Indeed, the Garden Tomb is by far the most suitable candidate for the authentic tomb of Jesus Christ.
For further information, see the brochure, Jerusalem: The Garden Tomb, “Skull Hill” and the Garden of the Resurrection (copyright by Palphot, Jerusalem, and printed in the late 1970s for the Garden Tomb Association). For an excellent map showing archaeological remains in Jerusalem, contact the American Institute of Holy Land Studies on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.