Can you imagine peering into the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid? Well, last month, archaeologists did just that.
For a sixty-hour period beginning on October 26th, researchers had unprecedented access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site long-venerated as the place where Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body on Good Friday.
Then on October 28th, the tomb was resealed and may not be re-opened until, as the Nicene Creed says, He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
As National Geographic told readers, “While it is archaeologically impossible to say that the tomb recently uncovered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the burial site of … Jesus of Nazareth, there is indirect evidence to suggest that the identification of the site by representatives of the Roman emperor Constantine some 300 years later may be a reasonable one.”
First some history: According to the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, the Roman emperor Hadrian, about 100 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, had a temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite built over the site of Jesus’ tomb. This was not by accident.
Two centuries later, the emperor Constantine had the pagan temple demolished and in the process, discovered what was believed to be the tomb of Jesus. Constantine ordered a church to be built around the tomb.
The church we see at the site today is not the original. That one was damaged by earthquakes and fires. It was repaired but later demolished by a Fatimid caliph in the early eleventh century and then rebuilt again and damaged again, so forth and so on.
Yet the pilgrims kept coming, so much so that in the 16th century the burial bed in the tomb was covered in marble to keep people from taking home souvenirs.
This is a great story, but is there reason to believe that it’s the site of God’s mightiest work, the raising of Jesus from the dead?
What researchers found was “perfectly consistent with what we know about how wealthy Jews disposed of their dead in the time of Jesus.”
Wealthy Jews like Joseph of Arimathea.
The presence of other tombs nearby shows that “this area was a Jewish cemetery outside the walls of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus,” which is consistent with the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ burial as well as with Hebrews 13:12, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate.”
Dan Bahat, the former city archaeologist of Jerusalem, put it this way: “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulcher Church is the site of Jesus' burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”
Like I said, it’s a great story. But it’s also a reminder that Christianity is a faith rooted in real time. The events that began on Good Friday and culminated on Easter Sunday took place, not in some mythological time, but in human history.
Think of Luke’s gospel and its companion volume, the Book of Acts. Luke names specific Roman emperors and governors, not Zeus and Hermes. As I recently related on BreakPoint, his description of the riot at Ephesus in Acts 19 included details that only someone intimately acquainted with the city could have known.
It could hardly be otherwise. We are saved by a historical act: the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
And one day, that history will culminate in his return in glory. We know this because the tomb that was opened last month was empty.
Eric Metaxas is the host of the “Eric Metaxas Show,” a co-host of “BreakPoint” radio and a New York Times #1 best-selling author whose works have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.