Our tour concluded with visits to both the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb. Visitors to Jerusalem know that they represent two very different options for locating Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. Of course, neither site can be confirmed. The first cathedral was built by Constantine in the 4th century, apparently on the location of a former chapel which commemorated the supposed location of the crucifixion of Christ. It was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, but is still a magnificent structure. Archaeologists have shown that there are tombs in the area which date to the first century, but beyond that nothing is certain. It is difficult to locate anything in a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times.
By contrast, the Garden Tomb is a more recent discovery. British archaeologists in the 19th century noticed a rock structure that looked suspiciously like a skull. Since the Gospel accounts speak of the location of the crucifixion as the “place of the skull” (Golgotha) it was an intriguing find. The proximity to the road and the city gate fits the Biblical description and nearby excavation revealed an ancient vineyard. Further excavation uncovered an tomb that was cut into the rock and closed by a rolling stone. Unfortunately, the tomb has been determined to be from earlier than the first century. It is too old to be the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
To their credit, the guides at the Garden Tomb don’t over-sell their case. Our tour was led by an Arab Christian from the nearby Palestinian village of Bethlehem. He not only shared information about the location and about first century practice, but he read to us from the Scripture. “The important thing,” he said, “is not where the tomb was, exactly. The important thing is what it means. The tomb means that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever should believe in him would not perish but have eternal life.” I think that the words of Scripture spoken by the mouth of our Arab brother meant more to me than anything I saw at that location.
In a similar way, my thoughts on the tomb of Jesus were shaped by an offhand comment from our tour guide. Our guide for the week was a Messianic Jew that grew up in the Soviet Union before immigrating to Israel. He clearly loved Israel and was fiercely proud of his people. But he had come to know Messiah Jesus while in Russia and brought his faith with him to the Holy Land. His encyclopedic knowledge was paired with wit and love for the Lord. Sometimes his off-hand comments were more memorable than anything else. At one point he tried to describe what we would see when we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He was animated by the details, but he knew that this historic location touched on the heart of the Christian faith. I will end with his words.
“Inside the large dome of the church is a small dome. It is like Russians dolls – one inside the other. The people wait in a long line for hours to enter the smaller chapel. And inside the chapel what they think is the tomb. And the people wait for hours to go in and when they do, they look around and see that Jesus is not there.” And in a moment, his voice rose as he progressed from the technical description to proclaim his faith. “Jesus is not in the tomb… He is Risen!”
That alone was worth a trip to Israel.