The Garden Tomb

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The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.

The Garden Tomb is a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem which was unearthed in 1867 and has subsequently been considered by some Christians to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The Garden Tomb is adjacent to a rocky escarpment which since the mid-nineteenth century has been proposed by some scholars to be Golgotha (it is also known as Skull Hill,[1] Gordon's Calvary,[2] and Conder's Calvary[3]). In contradistinction to this modern identification the traditional site where the death and resurrection of Christ are believed to have occurred has been the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at least since the fourth century. Since 1894 the Garden Tomb and its surrounding gardens have been maintained as a place of Christian worship and reflection by a Christian non-denominational charitable trust based in the United Kingdom named The Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association.[4][5]

Motivation and discovery

Motivation for proposing an alternate site

A map of Jerusalem in the late second temple period from 1911 illustrating the question of the Holy Sepulchre. The tomb just to the left of Jeremiah's Grotto is the Garden Tomb. Contemporary scholars would no longer accept this reconstruction of the city walls.

According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified near by the city of Jerusalem, outside its walls.[6] Therefore, during the medieval era Christian apologists felt they had to address those who were uncomfortable with finding that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was located deep within the walled city of their time. For example, as early as 754 AD Saint Willibald made the following claim: “but Helena, when she found the Cross, arranged that place so as to be within the city.”[7][8] Later writers, such as Saewulf (ca. 1108 AD), maintained that it was Hadrian who enclosed the traditional Golgotha and Tomb of Christ within the city limits when he rebuilt the city during the second century AD, though they were previously outside the city.[9][10]

During the post-Reformation era there was an increase in doubts regarding the traditional holy places. In 1639 Quaresmius explicitly addresses the existence of “western heretics” who argue that the traditional site could not possibly be the true tomb of Christ.[11] The first extant publication which argues a case against the traditional location was written by the German pilgrim Jonas Korte in 1743, a few years after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His book contained a chapter titled “On Mount Calvary, which now lies in the middle of the town and cannot therefore be the true Calvary”.[10][12] In 1812, also Edward D. Clarke rejected the traditional location as a "mere delusion, a monkish juggle"[13] and suggested instead that the crucifixion took place just outside Zion Gate.[10] During the 19th century travel from Europe to the Ottoman Empire became easier and therefore more common, especially in the late 1830s due to the reforms of the Egyptian pasha, Muhammad Ali.[14][15] The subsequent influx of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem included more Protestants who doubted the authenticity of the traditional holy sites - doubts which were exacerbated by the fact that Protestants had no territorial claims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and by the feeling of Protestant pilgrims that it was an unnatural setting for contemplation and prayer.[14]

In 1841 a very influential publication argued against the authenticity of the traditional location - Dr. Edward Robinson’s “Biblical Researches in Palestine”, which at the time was considered to be the standard work on the topography and archaeology of the Holy Land. After a careful consideration of the issue with the material available at the time Robinson concluded that: “Golgotha and the Tomb shown in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are not upon the real places of the Crucifixion and Resurrection” because he concluded that the traditional location would have been within the city walls also during the Herodian era, primarily due to topographical considerations. Robinson was careful not to propose an alternative site and had concluded that it would be impossible to locate the true location of the holy places. However, he did suggest that the crucifixion would have taken place somewhere on the road to Jaffa or the road to Damascus.[10] (Skull Hill is located in close proximity to the Damascus road, about 200 m. from Damascus gate).

(It is important to note that contemporary scholars, such as Professor Dan Bahat, one of Israel's leading archaeologists, have concluded that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in an area which would have been outside the city walls in the days of Jesus and therefore can no longer be ruled out as a possible location for the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.[16])

Identification of Skull Hill

A sketch of Skull Hill created in 1889 by B. H. Harris. The caption below it reads: THE GREEN HILL, FROM THE CITY WALL; JEREMIAH'S GROTTO.
Skull Hill as seen in 1901 from the northern walls of Jerusalem's Old City.
A view of Jeremiah's Grotto and Skull Hill from the south ca. 1900

Motivated by these concerns, some Protestants in the nineteenth century looked elsewhere in the attempt to locate the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. In 1842, heavily relying on Robinson’s research, a German theologian and biblical scholar from Dresden named Otto Thenius was the first to publish a proposal that the rocky knoll north of Damascus Gate, which, as Thenius noticed, resembled a skull, was the biblical Golgotha. The site he suggested, today known as Skull Hill or Gordon’s Calvary, contains a few natural cavities as well as a man-made cave, which Christians call Jeremiah’s Grotto and Muslims initially called Al-Adhamiyah, a name later corrupted to El-Heidhemiyeh. Thenius went so far as to suggest that Jeremiah’s Grotto was in fact the tomb of Christ.[10][17] Though his proposal for the tomb of Christ did not have a lasting influence, his proposal for Golgotha was endorsed by several other Protestant scholars and pilgrims. Since Golgotha is the Aramaic word for skull, and may perhaps refer to the shape of the place, Thenius concluded that the rocky escarpment was likely to have been Golgotha.[18]

A few years later the same identification was endorsed by the American industrialist Fisher Howe,[19] who was also one of the founding members of the board of directors of Union Theological Seminary in New York.[20] In 1850, Howe visited the Holy Land, and endorsed the view that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre could not be the true site of Christ's death and resurrection.[21] Instead, he pointed to the hill containing Jeremiah's Grotto as the true Calvary, though he had only argued this view in length in an essay published in 1871, just after his death. In that essay Howe described the hill in these terms: "[The] hill is left steeply rounded on its west, north, and east sides forming the back and sides of the kranion, or skull. The skull-like front, or face, on the south side is formed by the deep perpendicular cutting and removal of the ledge. To the observer, at a distance, the eyeless socket of the skull would be suggested at once by the yawning cavern, hewn within its face, beneath the hill."[22] Howe claimed that he developed his theory completely independently of Otto Thenius, and that he stumbled upon Thenius' claims only in the course of researching for his essay. Yet another early proponent of the theory that Skull Hill is Golgotha was the English scholar and clergyman Canon Henry Tristram, who suggested that identification in 1858 during his first visit to the Holy Land, chiefly because of its proximity to the northern gate, and hence also to the Antonia Fortress, the traditional site of Christ's trial. (Canon Tristram was also one of the advocates of purchasing the nearby Garden Tomb in 1893.)[23]

Another prominent proponent of the "new Calvary" was Claude R. Conder, a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, who was appointed in 1872 by the Palestine Exploration Fund (along with Lord Kitchener) to conduct a mapping survey of Western Palestine (contemporary Israel and the Palestinian Territories).[24] Conder was particularly appalled by the religious condition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

There are those who would willingly look upon it as the real place of the Saviour's Tomb, but I confess that, for myself, having twice witnessed the annual orgy which disgraces its walls, the annual imposture which is countenanced by its priests, and the fierce emotions of sectarian hate and blind fanaticism which are called forth by the supposed miracle, and remembering the tale of blood connected with the history of the Church, I should be loth to think that the Sacred Tomb had been a witness for so many years of so much human ignorance, folly, and crime.

Conder argued, based on topographical and textual considerations, that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was established in a location which would have been inside the city walls at the time of Christ's crucifixion. He instead proposed that the true Calvary is the "rounded knoll" above Jeremiah's Grotto (i.e. Skull Hill). He based this identification on several arguments. First of all, since the Gospel according to John places Golgotha in the near vicinity of a garden and a tomb (John 19:41-42) Conder argued that Golgotha must be close to the necropolis found just north of Jerusalem, near the main road to Nablus, "among the olive-gardens and vineyards of Wady el-Joz". Secondly, Conder proposed that Calvary was the public place of execution and especially noted that Sephardic Jews had regarded the site next to Jeremiah's grotto as traditionally being a place of stoning, which he saw as corroborative evidence that it was indeed Golgotha. He also pointed to a Christian tradition which associated that general area with the martyrdom of St. Stephen as additional evidence that it was a public place of execution during the New Testament era. Conder actually downplayed the supposed resemblance to a skull which he viewed as immaterial, remarking: "I should not like to base an argument on so slight a resemblance". In his writings Conder refers to Skull Hill by the Arabic name El-Heidhemiyeh which he interpreted as "the rent", and which he proposed was a corruption of El-Heiremiyeh - "the place of Jeremiah".[25][26][27][28] However, later research has shown that the name is actually a corruption of El-Adhamiyeh, named after a zawiya which according to Muslim tradition was founded by the celebrated Sufi saint Ibrahim ibn Adham.[29][30] Additionally, in the 1870s the site of Skull Hill was being strongly promoted by several notable figures in Jerusalem, including the American consul to Jerusalem, Selah Merril, who was also a Congregationalist minister and a member of the American Palestine Exploration Society,[14] the Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem Samuel Gobat,[31] who presided over the joint bishopric for Anglicans, Lutherans and Calvinists in the Holy Land, as well as Conrad Schick,[31] a prominent Jerusalem-based architect, city planner, and proto-archaeologist of Swiss origins who penned hundreds of articles for the Palestine Exploration Fund. In 1879 the French scholar Ernest Renan, author of the influential and controversial Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus) also endorsed this view at least as a possibility in one of the later editions of his book.[10] However, the most famous proponent of the view that Skull Hill is the biblical Golgotha was Major-General Charles Gordon who visited Jerusalem in 1883. The name of this legendary military commander had become so entwined with Skull Hill, that many contemporary news articles and guide books have erroneously stated that Gordon is the first to discover the site, and that this discovery was a sudden mystical epiphany.[32][33][34][35] In reality Gordon was very much influenced by the scholarship of Conder and by his conversations and correspondence with Schick.[36]

General Gordon's theories

Gordon accepted the arguments put forward by Howe and Conder regarding Skull Hill and went beyond them to passionately propose additional arguments which he himself confessed were "more fanciful" and imaginative. Gordon proposed a typological reading of Leviticus 1:11: "[The sheep for a burnt-offering] shall be slaughtered on the north side of the altar before the LORD". Gordon interpreted this verse to mean that Christ, the prototype, must also have been slain north of the "alter" (Skull Hill being north of Jerusalem and of the Temple Mount).[37] This typological interpretation, though obviously theological and not scientific in nature, has been given some credence even by prominent detractors of "Gordon's Calvary" - such as Major-General Charles Wilson.[38]

Gordon also commented on the appropriateness of the location in a letter he sent to his sister on January 17th 1883, his second day in Jerusalem:

I feel, for myself, convinced that the Hill near the Damascus Gate is Golgotha. ... From it, you can see the Temple, the Mount of Olives and the bulk of Jerusalem. His stretched out arms would, as it were, embrace it: "all day long have I stretched out my arms" [cf. Isaiah 65:2. Close to it is the slaughter-house of Jerusalem; quite pools of blood are lying there. It is covered with tombs of Muslim; There are many rock-hewn caves; and gardens surround it. Now, the place of execution in our Lord's time must have been, and continued to be, an unclean place ... so, to me, this hill is left bare ever since it was first used as a place of execution. ... It is very nice to see it so plain and simple, instead of having a huge church built on it.

The discovery of the Garden Tomb

A sketch of the Garden Tomb created by B. H. Harris in 1889

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has its tomb just a few yards away from its Golgotha, corresponding with the account of John the Evangelist: "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." KJV (John 19:41). In the latter half of the 19th century a number of tombs had also been found near Gordon's Golgotha, and Gordon concluded that one of them must have been the tomb of Jesus. John also specifies that Jesus' tomb was located in a garden;[39] consequently, an ancient wine press and cistern have been cited as evidence that the area had once been a garden, and the somewhat isolated tomb adjacent to the cistern has become identified as the Garden Tomb of Jesus. This particular tomb also has a stone groove running along the ground outside it, which Gordon argued to be a slot that once housed a stone, corresponding to the biblical account of a stone being rolled over the tomb entrance to close it.

Archaeological investigations and critical analysis


During the twentieth century some doubts were raised concerning the authenticity of the traditional site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

  • Prior to Constantine's time, the site was a temple to Aphrodite, built by Hadrian.[40]
    • Archaeology suggests that the exact location claimed for the tomb would have been within Hadrian's Temple, or likely to have been destroyed under the temple's heavy retaining wall.[41][42]
    • The temple's location complies with the typical layout of Roman cities (i.e. adjacent to the Forum, at the intersection of the main north-south road with the main east-west road), rather than necessarily being a deliberate act of contempt for Christianity.
  • A spur would be required for the rockface to have included both the alleged site of the tomb and the tombs beyond the western end of the church.
  • The site is currently within the Old City walls, and due to the heights of the terrain, it would be dangerous and unlikely, from a town-defense point of view, for the walls to have previously been east of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.[43]
  • The tombs west of the site are believed to date from the first century, indicating that the site was outside the city at that time, although they could date from centuries prior to that.[44]

Besides the skull-like appearance, there are a few other details put forward in favor of the identification of Skull Hill as Golgotha. The location of the site would have made executions carried out there a highly visible sight to people using the main road leading north from the city; the presence of the skull-feature in the background would have added to the deterrent effect. Additionally, Eusebius comments that Golgotha was in his day (the fourth century AD) pointed out "north of Mount Zion."[45] Although the Garden Tomb's Golgotha is, like the Holy Sepulchre Church, north of the hill currently referred to as Mount Zion, the hill has only had that name since the Middle Ages; previously Mount Zion referred to the Temple Mount itself, which is due East of the traditional site, but south south east of the Garden Tomb.

Another point of debate surrounds the name of the hill itself. Christian and pre-Christian Temple Judaism traditionally maintained the name of Golgotha (lit. "the skull")[46] as the final burial site of Adam's skull and bones.[47] The connection to Christ's crucifixion on Adam's grave held powerful resonance for first-century Jewish-Christians. Modern identification of the historic Golgotha as the Garden Tomb, seeks to derive the name of Golgotha with skull-like features in the rock face, which played no historic part in Jewish or Christian tradition regarding Golgotha's location.

The tomb

The earliest detailed investigation of the tomb itself was a brief report prepared in 1874 by Conrad Schick, a German architect, archaeologist and Protestant missionary, but the fullest archaeological study of the area has been the seminal investigation by Gabriel Barkay, professor of Biblical archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Bar-Ilan University, during the late twentieth century.

The tomb has two chambers, the second to the right of the first, with stone benches along the sides of each wall in the second chamber, except the wall joining it to the first, and along the back wall of the first chamber; the benches have been heavily damaged but are still discernible.[30] The edge of the groove outside the tomb has a diagonal edge, which would be unable to hold a stone slab in place (the slab would just fall out);[30] additionally, known tombs of the rolling-stone type use vertical walls on either side of the entrance to hold the stone, not a groove on the ground.[30]

Barkay concluded that:

  • The waterproofing on the cistern is of the type used by the Crusaders, and the cistern must date to that era[30]
  • The groove was a water trough, built by the 11th-century Crusaders for donkeys/mules[30]
  • The cistern was built as part of the same stable complex as the groove[30]
  • The design of the interior of the tomb is typical of the 8th-7th centuries BC, and fell out of use later.


Due to the archaeological issues the Garden Tomb site raises, several scholars[who?] have rejected its claim to be Jesus' tomb.[48] However, despite the archaeological discoveries, the Garden Tomb has become a popular place of pilgrimage among Protestants.[citation needed] The Garden Tomb has been the most favored candidate site among church leaders.[49][50] Though acceptance of the validity of the traditional site, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is not a tenet of faith for any major Christian denomination, many Catholic and Orthodox Christians ignore the potential of the Garden Tomb, and hold fast to the traditional location.

See also


  1. The Garden Tomb/brief history
  2. Losch, Richard (2005). The Uttermost Part of the Earth: A Guide to Places in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans. p. 64. ISBN 978-0-8028-2805-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Letter to the Times," in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (London 1893), p. 84
  4. The Garden Tomb
  5. Walker, Peter (1999). The Weekend that Changed the World: The Mystery of Jerusalem's Empty Tomb. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 128–130. ISBN 0-664-22230-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Mark 15:20; John 19:20; Hebrews 13:12
  7. Thomas Wright ed., Early Travels in Palestine (London 1848), p. 18
  8. C. H. Talbot, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Leoba and Lebuin together with the Hodoepericon of St. Willibald and a selection from the correspondence of St. Boniface, (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954) p. 165
  9. Thomas Wright ed., Early Travels in Palestine (London 1848), p. 37
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Charles W. Wilson, Golgotha and The Holy Sepulchre (1906, The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund), pp. 103-120
  11. Franciscus Quaresmius, Elucidatio Terrae Sanctae (Antwerp 1639), lib. 5, cap. 14
  12. Jonas Korte, Reise nach dem weiland gelobten, nun aber seit siebenzehn hundert Jahren unter dem Fluche liegenden Lande : wie auch nach Egypten, dem Berg Libanon, Syrien und Mesopotamien
  13. Edward Daniel Clarke, Travels in various countries of Europe, Asia and Africa: Part II - Greece, Egypt, and the Holy Land, section I (vol. IV), 4th edition (London 1817), p. 335
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Sarah Kochav, "The Search for a Protestant Holy Sepulchre: The Garden Tomb in Nineteenth-Century Jerusalem" in Journal of Ecclesiastical history, Vol. 46, No. 2, April 1995 (Cambridge University Press) pp. 278-301
  15. Ruth Kark and Seth J. Frantzman, "The Protestant Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, Englishwomen, and a Land Transaction in Late Ottoman Palestine" in Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 142, 3 (London 2010), pp. 199-216
  16. Dan Bahat: “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” (Biblical Archaeology Review, May–June 1986)
  17. Otto Thenius, "Golgatha et Sanctum Sepulchrum" in Zeitschrift fir die historische Theologie (1842)
  18. Bill White, A Special Place: The Story of the Garden Tomb (1989).
  19. William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Authentic Tomb of Jesus (1975).
  20. George Lewis Prentiss, "The Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York: historical and biographical sketches of its first fifty years" (1889 New York)
  21. Fisher Howe, Turkey, Greece, and Palestine, (Glasgow 1853); also published as Fisher Howe, Oriental and sacred scenes, from notes of travel in Greece, Turkey, and Palestine (New York 1856)
  22. Fisher Howe, The True Site of Calvary, and Suggestions relating to the Crucifixion (New York 1871)
  23. "The Site of the Holy Sepulchre" in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (London 1893), pp. 80-91
  24. Claude R. Conder, The City of Jerusalem (1909), (republished 2004).
  25. Claude R. Conder, Tent Work in Palestine: A Record of Discovery and Adventure, Vol. I (London, 1878), pp. 361-376
  26. Charles Warren and Claude Reignier Conder, The Survey of Western Palestine: Jerusalem (London: The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund 1884), pp. 380-393
  27. Golgotha and The Holy Sepulchre (1906, The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund), pp. 103-120
  28. Walker, Peter (1999). The Weekend that Changed the World: The Mystery of Jerusalem's Empty Tomb. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 113–114. ISBN 0-664-22230-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. J. E. Hanauer, "Notes on Skull Hill" in Palestine Exploration Fund - Quarterly Statement for 1894
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 30.4 30.5 30.6 Gabriel Barkay, The Garden Tomb, published in Biblical Archaeology Review March/April 1986.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Philip Schaff, Through Bible Lands: Notes of Travel in Egypt, the Desert, and Palestine (New York: American Tract Society 1878), pp. 268-269
  32. Abraham E. Millgram, Jerusalem Curiosities (1990), pp. 152-156
  36. Seth J. Frantzman and Ruth Kark, "General Gordon, The Palestine Exploration Fund and the Origins of 'Gordon's Calvary' in the Holy Land" in Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 140, 2 (2008), pp. 1-18
  37. Charles George Gordon, "Eden and Golgotha" in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (London 1885), pp. 79-81
  38. Charles William Wilson, Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre (London: The Palestine Exploration Fund 1906), p. 120
  39. John 19:41
  40. Eusebius Pamphilius, Life of Constantine
  41. Virgilio Corbo, The Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (1981)
  42. Dan Bahat, Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?, in Biblical Archaeology Review May/June 1986
  43. Colonel Claude R. Conder, The City of Jerusalem (1909), (republished 2004); for details about Conder himself, see Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener#Survey of Western Palestine
  44. Rachel Hachlili, (2005) Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period
  45. Eusebius, Onomasticon, 365.
  46. Jewish Encyclopedia (1906):
  47. See: Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) "Adam in the Future World"
  48. Bargil Pixner, Wege des Messias und Stätten der Urkirche, Giessen/Basel 1991, p. 275. English edition (2010): Paths of the Messaiah. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, p.
  49. John A. Tvedtnes, "The Garden Tomb", Ensign, Apr. 1983.
  50. "Bible Photos: Garden Tomb", The caption states, "This is a traditional site of the Savior’s burial. Several modern prophets have felt that the Savior’s body was laid in this garden tomb."

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