Saturday, April 19, 2014

The crucifixion of Jesus and the Garden Tomb of Jerusalem

JERUSALEMApril 19, 2014 – One of the first things visitors to the Holy Land are told is that many religious sites cannot be specifically identified.

For some the idea of approximating the location of major biblical events is perplexing. For others, it matters only to be standing in the vicinity of where their faith evolved.

No other destination in the world can claim more layers of history and conflict than Jerusalem where three major religions converge. So complex and intertwined is the mixture of centuries of civilization, invasion and architecture that it would be impossible to reassemble the jigsaw puzzle of history into definitive sites and specific events.

Excavating present day Old Jerusalem would be a never-ending mingling of events that would boggle the mind. Little wonder the Holy Land is a place of generalities that, for most, is good enough.
Using that background as a premise, one of the most intriguing sites around the ancient city of Jerusalem is the Garden Tomb of Jesus. The traditional location of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection is situated at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but during the 19th century some doubts were raised about its authenticity.

The most popular alternative to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the Garden Tomb, which many believe was the garden and sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea. In a land with thousands of years of heritage, the Garden Tomb theory is embryonic by comparison, dating only to 1842.

In that year, Otto Therius, a German theologian, presented the idea that an outcropping of rock in the Garden Tomb might be the site of the crucifixion. Four decades would pass before Therius’ suggestion gained serious consideration. While on sabbatical in 1893, General Charles Gordon, an important member of British society, became curious about the name of the rock cliff in the garden known as “Skull Hill."

Whether a person calls the crucifixion site Golgotha (Aramaic, and the language of Jesus) or Calvary (Latin), both terms mean “the place of the skull” when translated. The appropriately named cliff resembles the face of a skull when viewed from several angles.

Slim evidence to be sure, but the story is bewitching enough to capture the imagination and arouse curiosity. Garden Tomb officials make no claims that their site is the indisputable place where Jesus was interred. What they will state however, is there are several features about the area that coincide with biblical accounts of the crucifixion. 

The Bible says Golgotha was located outside the city walls of Jerusalem. It was along a busy thoroughfare near a gate of the city at a place of execution with a garden nearby, and the site was shaped like a skull.

The tomb itself was located in a garden belonging to a rich man, and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. It was hewn out of rock, entered through a low doorway with a burial chamber located to the right of the entrance and sealed by a rolling stone.

All of these elements are found at the Garden Tomb
In the “Gospel According to John” in the King James Version of the Bible, John specifically states that Jesus’ tomb was located in a garden
John 19:41: "Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid."

Two important discoveries, an ancient wine press and a cistern, are cited as proof the area was once a garden. Both would have only been owned by someone of means and were typical items in a garden of the time.

As expected, many authorities have opposing archaeological concerns about the authenticity of the Garden Tomb as the true site of the crucifixion and resurrection.

Despite those beliefs, the Garden Tomb has become a popular pilgrimage site, especially for Protestants. Academicians and biblical scholars can, and most assuredly will, debate the validity of multitudes of historic sites throughout Israel and the Holy Land until Judgment Day.

For travelers however, whether the Garden Tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the actual spot where Jesus died and was resurrected is a matter of personal conviction.

Admission to the Garden Tomb is free, but a $5 donation is suggested. Garden hours are Monday through Saturday between 8:30 am and 12:00 and from 2:00 pm until 5:30 pm.

It would be impossible to measure the emotion of knowingly standing at the precise locations where such major events occurred. Even so, the personal experience of walking in places so familiar to people of faith from around the globe is spiritually powerful.

In that sense, the Garden Tomb offers serenity, solitude and meditation with a unique reverence for events that changed the world more than two thousand years ago. In a city where the layers of time have hidden so many answers to questions we will forever pose, the Garden Tomb is a venue that looks and feels the way we have always imagined it.

Therein lies the magic, for as one Catholic priest once put it, “If the Garden Tomb is not the right place, then it should be.”