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Reconstructing the tomb of Christ

High-tech tools and  fresh archaeological insights have sharpened scientists' view of the place where Jesus is said to have been laid to rest.
Greek Orthodox worshippers pass the "holy fire" to fellow worshippers around the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.Elizabeth Dalziel / AP file / 2002

For Christians, it’s the epicenter of the ultimate mystery: the place where Jesus was laid to rest after the crucifixion. High-tech tools and fresh archaeological insights have sharpened scientists’ view of the prime religious real estate at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, favored by centuries of tradition. But Oxford Professor Martin Biddle is hoping for more — the first-century equivalent of graffiti saying “Jesus was here.”

The quest to study the traditional tomb — which Christians believe is the site of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday — may sometimes sound like a real-life version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There are centuries of lore, religious rivalries, under-the-table surprises, archaeologists wielding thermal imaging devices and even more than one suspected site for the true tomb.

The mystery is the focus of “The Tomb of Jesus,” a TV documentary premiering Sunday on the National Geographic Channel. The Easter presentation comes on the heels of a British-American documentary titled “Secrets of the Dead: The Tomb of Christ.”

Biddle, who conducted the most exhaustive modern study of the Holy Sepulcher site during the 1990s, plays a prominent role in both shows. With the aid of thermal imaging and snake-around mini-cameras, he reconstructed virtual models of the successive shrines that were built at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher over the site of the purported tomb.

Biddle found that each version of the Edicule, or “little house,” was built around the previous version, like a series of nested dolls. Moreover, the analysis showed that the heart of a rock-cut tomb — a chiseled couch where the body would be laid — could have survived Constantine’s fourth-century excavations, the church’s destruction in the year 1009 and the rebuildings over the centuries.

When Constantine ordered the removal of a Roman-era temple in the year 325, revealing the Holy Sepulcher tomb buried beneath, the historian Eusebius remarked that the site provided “clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene.” That led Biddle to speculate that some sign might still exist, perhaps inscribed in the living stone beneath layers of marble and mortar. In the early days of the church in Jerusalem, it was common practice for pilgrims to scratch comments about the places they venerated — and such may have been the case with the tomb chronicled by Eusebius.

“I would have thought that he would probably have some solid evidence on which to base so firm a claim,” Biddle told “My suggestion has simply been the kind of evidence that would satisfy him.”

Biddle acknowledged, however, that even if such graffiti once existed, the centuries could have chipped it away. “One can’t possibly tell whether one would be lucky enough to find any surviving inscriptions at all, so it may be a will o’ the wisp,” he said.

Biddle answers another archaeological riddle: how a site in the middle of Jerusalem could be connected to a biblical account that places the tomb outside the city. He points out that the Holy Sepulcher actually did lie outside the city walls until Jerusalem’s expansion in A.D. 41 — a few years after the traditional time frame for the crucifixion.

But he also stresses that his prime focus is the “Tomb of Christ” — the history of the site as identified by Constantine and maintained over the centuries — rather than the “Tomb of Jesus,” the story of the death and resurrection of a historical Jesus.

“It is almost inconceivable that archaeology could throw any direct light on the life and death of a specific individual who would have seemed of relative insignificance in first-century Palestine,” he wrote in his book on the subject, “The Tomb of Christ.”

Divided real estate
If the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were just any archaeological site, scientists would have been over it with a fine-toothed comb by now. But the church is a divided piece of real estate in the midst of a divided region.

Three major Christian communities — Greek Orthodox, Latin and the Armenian and Coptic rites — control their own pieces of turf and manage the church by consensus. Worries about intra-Christian rivalries run so deep that a Palestinian Muslim family traditionally holds the keys to the church.

Biddle was given unusual access to the present-day Edicule to document the site in advance of an expected effort to repair damage done by a 1927 earthquake. So far, however, the communities in charge of the church haven’t agreed on a restoration plan.

“I have heard of nothing being planned at all,” Biddle said. And although he stands ready to lend archaeological aid at a moment’s notice, other observers believe it will be a long time before anyone starts stripping away the centuries at the Edicule.

“There’s a lot of politics in that arena, and I don’t think they’ve cut through all that and decided when to do it, or if to do it,” said John Scheinfeld, the writer, producer and director of National Geographic’s “Tomb of Jesus.”

Beyond science
While Biddle’s work focuses on the scientific and scholarly underpinnings of the Holy Sepulcher site, Scheinfeld’s documentary takes a broader look at the phenomenon of the pilgrims. With unlooked-for help from an Armenian priest, the video crew was taken down a flight of rock stairs from the church itself to the underground Chapel of St. Helena — a quarry containing cavern tombs that could have fit the biblical descriptions. On one wall, early Christian pilgrims sketched out a picture of a ship and a Latin legend meaning “Lord, we have come.”

In Scheinfeld’s view, such sentiments are the source of the site’s mystique.

“As Christianity started to grow in the 300s A.D., this need for relics, and this need to find something physical to go along with what they read in the Bible, became quite strong,” he told “And I think that continues to this day, really.”

In fact, historian John Dominic Crossan speculated in the documentary that the origins of the Holy Sepulcher were driven less by 21st-century standards of evidence, and more by fourth-century political and religious necessities.

“When the emperor or the emperor’s mother comes and says, ‘I would like to build a magnificent basilica over the site of the tomb,’ you don’t say, ‘Well, your imperial highness, we don’t know where it was,’” he said. “Of course you’re going to pick somewhere.”

Other believers have picked a different place — a spot known as the Garden Tomb, just outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. The site boasts a rock-cut tomb that might even predate the Christian era, complete with a rolling stone that evokes the Gospels’ account.

The Garden Tomb’s connection to the story of Jesus dates back only to the 1880s, and most archaeologists don’t put it on the top of their list. But Scheinfeld believes the site gives more of a sense of biblical times.

“It’s very pastoral, very soothing, very conducive to meditation,” he said. “It’s that kind of a place, an oasis, quite a contrast to the church.”

Scheinfeld said he was struck by the realization “that the political, social and cultural dynamics in Jerusalem now are not all that different from what they were in the time of Jesus.” In the tensions over the church’s religious turf, in the dramatically sharper Israeli-Palestinian tensions playing out over the wider region, in the enduring monuments and the enduring faith of the pilgrims, he can visualize how believers might have seen the city in biblical times.

“Yes, you see all of this,” he said. “You see the military presence, and yet .. if you squinted your eyes it would almost look the same as if it were 2,000 years ago. It seems quite peaceful from the hills.”