Jesus' Tomb Uncovered

by Robert A. Mullins, Ph.D.

Recent news headlines announced the uncovering of Jesus’ burial place for the first time in centuries. Restoration work in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (originally called the Church of the Resurrection by early Christians) has exposed this most sacred place. Pilgrims who visit the church today are often surprised to learn that they are not looking at an actual tomb, but a marble edicule (Latin for “small house”) on the spot where the tomb stood. So where is the original tomb? And what is this so-called edicule undergoing restoration?

We know from the Gospels that the tomb of Jesus was a rolling stone tomb, and archaeological evidence indicates that His tomb had been cut into the natural hillside. When Constantine’s mother, Helena, came to Jerusalem in 326 AD to build a church commemorating the place of Jesus’ burial and resurrection, her workmen first had to remove a pagan Roman temple, which had been placed there in 135 AD by Emperor Hadrian to desecrate the location. They then cut away the hillside so that a block of rock containing the tomb was left standing and built a rotunda to enclose it.

This rotunda and the basilica adjoining it stood majestically for more than 600 years until a fanatical Muslim by the name of Caliph Hakim razed the basilica to the ground and hacked away the tomb of Jesus to its foundations. A replica tomb was built over the foundations to mark the spot. Later, after the Crusaders took control of Jerusalem in 1099 AD, they rebuilt the church and enclosed the edicule inside. All was fine until tragedy struck again in 1808. A fire gutted the church and destroyed the edicule. It was replaced two years later, but then severely damaged by an earthquake in 1927. Since that time, steel girders have kept it from collapsing. While there has been talk of renovating the edicule over the years, squabbling among competing Christian groups inside the church made this an impossibility – until now.

Should you walk inside the edicule today you would find two rooms – one in line behind the other. The outer room is called the Chapel of the Angel (Luke 16:4) and the inner room the burial chamber. We know from surviving examples of rolling stone tombs that they were typically built in this same fashion. The deceased’s body laid in the inner room on a burial bench surmounted by an arch called an arcosolium. After the body decayed and only the bones were left (usually one year), the bones were gathered and put into a bone box (called an ossuary) and slid into storage channels in the outer room. In this way, the burial bench was made available for new burials, and generations of a family could be buried in the same sepulcher. All of what survives of the foundations of the original tomb, including the burial bench, is covered by marble slabs. Recent news reports centered on the removal of the marble slab over the original burial bench in the inner room.

While the world awaits a fuller report of what they find, it is worth mentioning that archaeological investigations several years ago in the burial room did reveal remnants of the arcosolium, which is a trademark of rolling stone tombs. While this alone cannot prove that the tomb destroyed by Caliph Hakim in 1000 AD was the actual tomb of Jesus, it does present strong circumstantial evidence. Moreover, since the time of James, the brother of Jesus and first bishop of Jerusalem, there has always been a Christian presence in Jerusalem, so one can imagine that when Helena came looking for the burial place of Jesus, they would know the location of the tomb of their Lord and Savior.

Related Links:

Mullins Life on Film

Article in National Geographic on Jesus' tomb

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Robert A. Mullins, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies. He serves as lead archaeologist at APU’s Abel Beth Maacah excavation site in Israel, one of the last remaining sites of biblical significance to be excavated.