There are two locations in Israel that have been associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, located deep in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The other is outside the northern walls of the same Old City of Jerusalem, a location called the Garden Tomb or also Gordon’s Calvary. It was named after the British General, Chinese Gordon, who spent a great deal of time in Jerusalem in the mid 19th century.
Gordon was impressed by the naturally eroded image of a skull that he observed on a rough hill side that caught his attention one day as he walked along the Northern wall of the Old City. Added to his growing conviction that this was where Jesus had died and was raised from the dead, was the further discovery of the nearby tomb (now called the Garden Tomb) that had the highly unusual feature of a place for a rolling stone. It was the tomb of a rich man. It appeared to never have been occupied.
Each of these competing traditions for the place of the death and resurrection of Jesus has its proponents and arguments in its favor.
When you go on our holy land tours with the Holy land guru we will usually visit both of these sites. And when we do this it is always interesting to note the reaction of our friends. They are universally drawn to the Garden Tomb and usually repelled by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
To be fair it must be acknowledged that most professional archeologists and mainline religious denominations including the Roman Catholic Church , favor the former of these choices.
All of the arguments seem to circle around the attempt to locate remnants of the ancient walls of Jerusalem from the time of Jesus.
One would assume that this ought to be a simple matter to determine. But that is not so. This quest opens up a virtual Pandoras box as those walls were long ago destroyed, particularly at the time of the Roman siege of Jerusalem by the 10th Legion in 70 AD when the city and the temple of Herod were torn down stone by stone.
The search for the old walls is further hindered by the fact that the current crowded city sits upon what may be left of them.
Hints as to the location of the destroyed walls can be detected here and there under houses and stores in the Old City. What ads to the complexity of this exercise to locate the walls of Jesus’ day is the fact that there was more than one set of walls from different periods. And usually all that can be found is bits of the foundations of such and then the archeologists have to make certain leaps and draw conclusions based upon what they think they have found. Not a very precise matter.
Interestingly, all of the research begins with the premise that the New Testament description of the location of the place of execution of Jesus is to be trusted and that Jesus was indeed executed outside the city walls in a place of execution that could maximize the example the Romans wanted to make of criminals that defied Rome . Accepting that basic premise, the archeologists must then try to make the evidence fit into that scenario.
The jury is still out in this regard as far as I am concerned.
On the other hand, the arguments for the alternate site, the Garden Tomb, as the place of the death and resurrection of Jesus, can be summed up thus: It is outside the present walls of the Old City (to be sure not a very compelling case) . It presents the skull like naturally eroded hill that would seem to explain the name of the place as Golgotha or place of the skull. It has a nearby tomb with a place for a rolling stone, an unusual feature to be sure. There is also evidence that this site was the location of an ancient garden as proven by the discovery of the old olive press found there.
Another more spiritually motivated argument in its favor is interesting to consider. The history of blood sacrifice that runs throughout the entire Old Testament all the way back to the time of Abraham and his almost sacrifice of his son Isaac, 2000 years earlier, concentrates these bloody events on an elevation called Mount Moriah.
An argument can be made that Gordon’s Calvary is actually located on the Northern terminus of Mount Moriah and thus provides a purposeful conclusion to the practice of blood sacrifice not only with the destruction of the temple some 30 years later, but also with the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, the final sacrifice for the sins of the world, as the Christian message declares.
Finally the more emotional and least compelling argument is that the Garden tomb area lends itself to a feeling of worship and peace. A subjective argument to be sure. It just feels like it should for whatever that means.
By contrast the competing Church of the Holy Sepulcher dates back to the time of Queen Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. It was built by her to memorialize what the locals reported to her, that this was where the events in Jesus’ life had occurred 300 years earlier. Local tradition is important but not infallible. The building has been destroyed and rebuilt since that original construction some 1800 years ago.
Rather than a place of peace the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a place of great conflict and tension with warring Christian sects, jealously guarding their little piece of real estate, vying for attention and for prominence and control.
The competing Christian sects are so at war with each other there that the keys to the church are entrusted to a Muslim family. Imagine that. These so called Christians cannot be trusted with the key to the place supposedly built over the tomb of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Something is wrong about that picture don’t you think?
We always leave the final decision concerning this matter up to our traveling friends to try to sort it out for themselves as to what they conclude about these competing sites.
One thing we also always do is offer a communion service at the Garden Tomb and we use olive wood cups from Bethlehem and spend a very deeply spiritual period of time considering the sacrifice of Jesus and then we go quietly into the actual tomb itself. That experience forever transforms communion for all. Participation in this service of course is voluntary and no pressure is made to participate. In my more than 46 years of going there I cannot recall a single person not participating.
So what is the bottom line? The jury is till out on that.
Is the Garden Tomb the place?
I don’t know. What I do know is that it certainly feels like it is, and a strong argument can be made in its favor, and it provides the opportunity to think on a deeper level about the events that took place there or close nearby and that is enough for me.
I came across the following video from the Garden Tomb and it wonderfully captures the experience that you will have if you choose to come with us to the Holy Land on a journey conducted for you personally by the Holy Land Guru.