The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Architecture, Bible, Famous landmarks, Religion on Monday, 4 February 2013

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This edited article about Easter originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 115 published on 28 March 1964.

Jupiter's temple at Golgotha, picture, image, illustration

The Temple to Jupiter built by Hadrian on the site of Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre itself by J James Tissot

Jerusalem was completely destroyed in A.D. 70, when the Romans crushed a Jewish rebellion there, and after a long siege, razed the city to the ground. All the places connected with the trial and crucifixion of Jesus were buried under the ruins.

Despite this, there are many places on view in the city which are claimed to be the very ones where the Easter story took place. Some at least are possibly authentic, since little groups of early Christians may have remembered these “Holy Places,” and have handed down the tradition.

In about A.D. 120 the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter on a hill outside Jerusalem which was probably the place of the Crucifixion. Two centuries later the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and had the temple pulled down.

A tomb was discovered beneath the floor which was generally believed to be the one in which Jesus had been laid. A church was built over the site, and it has since been rebuilt several times. This site is still revered as the actual place where Jesus was buried.

According to tradition, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Helena, herself visited Jerusalem, and beneath the ruins of Hadrian’s temple found the very crosses on which Jesus and the two thieves were crucified. Fragments of these were taken to churches in many lands, and were regarded as precious relics.

One of the reasons for which the Crusades were fought was that the traditional Holy Places might be under the rule of Christian monarchs, not Turkish Muslims, who ruled Palestine almost continually for over a thousand years.

It is a curious fact that when the Christians regained full possession of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, after 1918, Muslim guards still had to be put in charge of it, in order to keep the various Christian sects from quarrelling about their respective rights there.

Scientific investigation into the archaeology of Palestine only developed in the nineteenth century, and very little has been done in Jerusalem itself.

Many of the traditional Holy Places are in the custody of landlords who are either not interested in such studies or so suspicious that they are unwilling to allow excavations.

Some of the most important Biblical sites are beneath later Muslim shrines which cannot be disturbed, and as we have already seen, Jerusalem has suffered so much destruction that many of its secrets are deeply buried.

Some people had doubted whether the Holy Sepulchre Church is built over the Hill of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified, because for centuries it has been inside the city walls, whereas one of the few known facts about the Crucifixion is that it took place outside the city.

This led the famous British soldier General Gordon to believe that the true site of Calvary was on a rocky eminence which from a distance bears a strong resemblance to a human skull, and which lies outside the city walls.

The Hebrew name for Calvary was “Golgotha” (meaning “the place of a skull”) and this seemed to fit in with Gordon’s theory. The discovery of a tomb hewn in the rock at the foot of the hill, and the ruins of a very early Christian church nearby, seemed to add further weight to the idea. Certainly the site as it is today, with the “Garden Tomb” as it is generally called, gives a much clearer idea of what the original scene of the Easter Story was like than does the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But the very latest excavations seem to show that the city wall in the time of Christ did in fact take an unexpected direction, which would leave the traditional site covered by the church outside the city after all.

We may never know with absolute certainty where Jesus was crucified and buried, but the city on its hills and the surrounding countryside have not changed greatly since His day.

There are still olive trees on the Mount of Olives, and over it the road by which He often walked to Bethany still winds, passing on its way the Garden of Gethsemane where His last hours were spent in prayer, before the momentous events of the first Easter began.

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