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prev: Holy See Holy See Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre next: Canonesses Regular of the Holy Sepulchre

Holy Sepulchre

The tomb in which the Body of Jesus Christ was laid after His death

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Holy Sepulchre, the tomb in which the Body of Jesus Christ was laid after His death upon the Cross. The Evangelists tell us that it was Joseph of Arimathea's own new monument, which he had hewn out of a rock, and that it was closed by a great stone rolled to the door (Matt., xxvii, 60; Mark, xv, 46; Luke, xxiii, 53). It was in a garden in the place of the Crucifixion, and was nigh to the Cross (John, xix, 41, 42) which was erected outside the walls of Jerusalem, in the place called Calvary (Matt., xxvii, 32; Mark, xv, 20; John, xix, 17; cf. Heb., xiii, 12), but close to the city (John, xix, 20) and by a street (Matt., xxvii, 39; Mark, xv, 29). That it was outside the city is confirmed by the well-known fact that the Jews did not permit burial inside the city except in the case of their kings. No further mention of the place of the Holy Sepulchre is found until the beginning of the fourth century. But nearly all scholars maintain that the knowledge of the place was handed down by oral tradition, and that the correctness of this knowledge was proved by the investigations caused to be made in 326 by the Emperor Constantine, who then marked the site for future ages by erecting over the Tomb of Christ a basilica, in the place of which, according to an unbroken written tradition, now stands the church of the Holy Sepulchre.

These scholars contend that the original members of the nascent Christian Church in Jerusalem visited the Holy Sepulchre soon, if not immediately, after the Resurrection of the Savior. Following the custom of their people, those who were converts from Judaism venerated, and taught their children to venerate, the Tomb in which had lain the Foundation of their new faith, from which had risen the Source of their eternal hope; and which was therefore more sacred and of greater significance to them than had been the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, which they had hitherto venerated, as their forefathers had for centuries. Nor would Gentile converts have failed to unite with them in this practice, which was by no means foreign to their own former customs. The Christians who were in Jerusalem when Titus laid siege to the city in the year 70 fled, it is true, across the Jordan to Pella; but, as the city was not totally destroyed, and as there was no law prohibiting their return, it was possible for them to take up their abode there again in the year 73, about which time, according to Dr. Sanday (Sacred Sites of the Gospels, Oxford, 1903), they really did reestablish themselves. But, granting that the return was not fully made until 122, one of the latest dates proposed, there can be no doubt that in the restored community there were many who knew the location of the Tomb, and who led to it their children, who would point it out during the next fifty years. The Roman prohibition which kept Jews from Jerusalem for about two hundred years, after Hadrian had suppressed the revolt of the Jews under Barcochebas (132-35), may have included Jewish converts to Christianity; but it is possible that it did not. It certainly did not include Gentile converts. The list of Bishops of Jerusalem given by Eusebius in the fourth century shows that there was a continuity of episcopal succession, and that in 135 a Jewish line was followed by a Gentile. The tradition of the local community was undoubtedly strengthened from the beginning by strangers who, having heard from the Apostles and their followers, or read in the Gospels, the story of Christ's Burial and Resurrection, visited Jerusalem and asked about the Tomb that He had rendered glorious. It is recorded that Melito of Sardis visited the place where "these things [of the Old Testament] were formerly announced and carried out". As he died in 180, his visit was made at a time when he could receive the tradition from the children of those who had returned from Pella. After this it is related that Alexander of Jerusalem (d. 251) went to Jerusalem "for the sake of prayer and the investigation of the places", and that Origen (d. 253) "visited the places for the investigation of the footsteps of Jesus and of His disciples". By the beginning of the fourth century the custom of visiting Jerusalem for the sake of information and devotion had become so frequent that Eusebius wrote, that Christians "flocked together from all parts of the earth".

It is at this period that history begins to present written records of the location of the Holy Sepulchre. The earliest authorities are the Greek Fathers, Eusebius (c. 260-340), Socrates (b. 379), Sozomen (375-450), the monk Alexander (sixth century), and the Latin Fathers, Rufinus (375-410), St. Jerome (346-420), Paulinus of Nola (353-431), and Sulpitius Severus (363-420). Of these the most explicit and of the greatest importance is Eusebius, who writes of the Tomb as an eyewitness, or as one having received his information from eyewitnesses. The testimonies of all having been compared and analysed may be presented briefly as follows: Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, conceived the design of securing the Cross of Christ, the sign of which had led her son to victory. Constantine himself, having long had at heart a desire to honor "the place of the Lord's Resurrection", "to erect a church at Jerusalem near the place that is called Calvary", encouraged her design, and giving her imperial authority, sent her with letters and money to Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem. Helena and Macarius, having made fruitless inquiries as to the existence of the Cross, turned their attention to the place of the Passion and Resurrection, which was known to be occupied by a temple of Venus erected by the Romans in the time of Hadrian, or later. The temple was torn down, the ruins were removed to a distance, the earth beneath, as having been contaminated, was dug up and borne far away. Then, "beyond the hopes of all, the most holy monument of Our Lord's Resurrection shone forth" (Eusebius, "Life of Constantine", III, xxviii). Near it were found three crosses, a few nails, and an inscription such as Pilate ordered to be placed on the Cross of Christ.

The accounts of the finding of the Holy Sepulchre thus summarized have been rejected by some on the ground that they have an air of improbability, especially in the attribution of the discovery to "an inspiration of the Savior", to "Divine admonitions and counsels", and in the assertions that, although the Tomb had been covered by a temple of Venus for upwards of two centuries, its place was yet known. To the first objection, it is replied that whilst the historians piously attributed the discovery to God, they also showed the human secondary agents to have acted with careful prudence. Paulinus is quoted as saying that "Helena was guided by Divine counsel, as the result of her investigations show". As to the second objection, it is claimed that a pagan temple erected over the Holy Sepulchre with the evident purpose of destroying the worship paid there to the Founder of Christianity, or of diverting the worship to pagan gods and goddesses, would tend to preserve the knowledge of the place rather than to destroy it. What appears to be a more serious difficulty is offered by writers who describe the location of the basilica erected by Constantine, and consequently the place of the Sepulchre over which it was built. The so-called Pilgrim of Bordeaux who visited Jerusalem in 333, while the basilica was building, writes that it was on the left hand of the way to the Neapolitan—now Damascus—gate (Geyer, "Itinera Hier.", pp. 22, 23). Eucherius, writing 427-40, says that it was outside of Sion, on the north (op. cit., 126); Theodosius, about 530, "that it was in the city, two hundred paces from Holy Sion" (op. cit., 141); an anonymous author, that it was "in the midst of the city towards the north, not far from the gate of David", by which is meant the Jaffa Gate (op. cit., 107). These descriptions are borne out by the mosaic chart belonging to the fifth century that was discovered at Medeba in 1897 (see "Revue Biblique", 1897, pp. 165 sqq. and 341). The writers must have known that the New Testament places the Crucifixion and the Tomb outside the city, yet they tell us that the Constantinian basilica enclosing both was inside. They neither show surprise at this contradiction, nor make any attempt to explain it. Nor does anyone at all, at this period, raise a doubt as to the authenticity of the Sepulchre. Was it not possible to trace an old city wall belonging to the time of Christ outside of which was the Sepulchre, although it was inside of the existing wall that had been built later? As the difficulty was seriously urged in the last century, it will be fully considered and answered at the close of this article.

The edifice built over the Holy Sepulchre by Constantine was dedicated in 336. The Holy Sepulchre, separated by excavation from the mass of rock, and surmounted by a gilded dome, was in the center of a rotunda 65 feet in diameter. The basilica, extending eastward from this to a distance of 250 feet, embraced Calvary in its south aisle. An atrium and a propylaeum gave a total length of 475 feet. The magnificent monument was destroyed by fire in 614, during the Persian invasion under Chosroes II. Two hundred years later new buildings were begun by the Abbot Modestus and finished, in 626, with the aid of the Patriarch of Alexandria, who had sent money and one thousand workmen to Jerusalem. These buildings were destroyed by the Mohammedans in 1010. Smaller churches were erected in 1048, and stood intact until the crusaders partly removed them and partly incorporated them in a magnificent basilica that was completed in 1168. As in the basilica of Constantine, so also in that of the crusaders, a rotunda at the western end rose over the Holy Sepulchre. This basilica was partially destroyed by fire in 1808, when the rotunda fell in upon the Sepulchre. A new church designed by the Greek architect, Commenes, and built at the expense of Greeks and Armenians, was dedicated in 1810. The dome of its rotunda was rebuilt in 1868, France, Russia, and Turkey defraying the expenses. In the middle of this rotunda is the Tomb of Christ, enclosed by the monument built in 1810 to replace the one destroyed then.

This monument, an inartistic Greek edifice, cased with Palestine breccia—a red and yellow stone somewhat resembling marble—is 26 feet long by 18 feet wide. It is ornamented with small columns and pilasters, and surmounted at the west end by a small dome, the remainder of the upper part being a flat terrace. Against the west end, which is pentagonal in form, there is a small chapel used by the Copts. In each of the side walls at the east end is an oval opening used on Holy Saturday by the Greeks for the distribution of the "Holy Fire". The upper part of the facade is ornamented with three pictures, the one in the center belonging to the Latins, the one on the right to the Greeks, and the one on the left to the Armenians. On great solemnities, these communities adorn the entire front with gold and silver lamps, and flowers. The only entrance is at the east end, where there is a low doorway conducting to a small chamber called the Chapel of the Angel. In the middle of the marble pavement there is a small pedestal, which is said to mark the place where the angel sat after rolling the stone away from the door of Christ's Tomb. Immediately beneath the pavement is solid rock, which Pierotti was able to see and touch while repairs were being made ("Jerusalem Explored", tr. from the French, London, 1864). Through the staircases, of which there is one at each side of the entrance, he was also able to see that slabs of breccia concealed walls of masonry. Opposite to the entrance is a smaller door, through which, by stooping low, one may enter into a quadrangular chamber, about 6 feet wide, 7 feet long and 7¬Ω feet high, brilliantly lighted by forty-three lamps of gold and silver that are kept burning by the Latins, Greeks, Armenians, and Copts. This is the Holy Sepulchre. On the north side, about two feet from the floor, and extending the full length, is a marble slab covering the sepulchral couch. Floor, walls, and ceiling have also been covered with marble slabs in order to adorn the interior area and to protect the rock from pilgrims who would break and carry it away. Pierotti declares that when he made his studies of the Sepulchre he succeeded in seeing the native rock in two places. Breydenbach tells us that in the fifteenth century it was still exposed ("Itinerarium Hier.", ed. 1486, p. 40). And Arculph, who saw it in the seventh century, describes it as red and veined with white, still bearing the marks of tools. Over the sepulchral couch there had been an arch such as is seen in so many of the ancient Hebrew tombs about Jerusalem. The walls that supported the arch still remain. The door closely corresponds with that of the Tomb of the Kings, where a great elliptical stone beside the entrance suggests the manner in which the Holy Sepulchre was closed by a stone rolled before it.

It was not until the eighteenth century that the authenticity of this tomb was seriously doubted. The tradition in its favor was first formally rejected by Korte in his "Reise nach dem gelobten Lande" (Altona, 1741). In the nineteenth century he had many followers, some of whom were content with simply denying that it is the Holy Sepulchre, because it lies within the city walls, while others went further and proposed sites outside the walls. No one, however, has pointed out any other tomb that has a shred of tradition in its favor. The most popularly accepted tomb among those proposed is one near Gordon's Calvary (see Mount Calvary. Modern Calvaries). But this has been found to be one of a series of tombs extending for some distance, and did not, therefore, stand in a garden, as did Christ's Tomb. Moreover, the approach to this tomb is over made ground, the removal of which would leave the entrance very high, whereas the door of the Holy Sepulchre was very low. It has been suggested above, that when Constantine built his basilica, and for long afterwards, there may have been evident traces of an old city wall that had excluded the Holy Sepulchre from the city when Christ was buried. From Josephus, we know of three walls that at different times enclosed Jerusalem on the north. The third of these is the present wall, which was built about ten years after the death of Christ, and is far beyond the traditional Holy Sepulchre. Josephus describes the second wall as extending from the gate Gennath, which was in the first wall, to the tower Antonia. A wall running in a direct line between these two points would have included the Sepulchre. But it could have followed an irregular line and thus have left the Sepulchre outside. No researches have ever yielded any indication of a wall following a straight line from the Gennath gate to the Antonia. That, on the contrary, the wall took an irregular course, excluding the Sepulchre, seems to have been sufficiently proved by the discoveries, in recent years, of masses of masonry to the east and southeast of the church. So convincing is the evidence afforded by these discoveries that such competent authorities as Drs. Schick and Gauthe at once admitted the authenticity of the traditional Tomb. Since then, this view has been generally adopted by close students of the question. (see Jerusalem).

A. L. MCMAHON


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