November 13, 2016
Excavating the Tomb of Jesus
Hello Dr. Craig,
Today I stumbled upon a few online articles that reported that the stone the Jesus was laid upon after his burial was found. This stone was released from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. National Geographic reported that they can now uncover more information about Jesus' death and burial. Then I saw a linked article that said that they bible is "wrong" about Jesus' death and burial. How well established are the biblical facts of Jesus' death and burial?
Your summary has it almost right, Joanna. For a more accurate account of the excavation, see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre/. It’s not that the stone upon which Jesus was laid has been “found” or “released.” Rather the marble covering protecting the original limestone slab upon which Jesus was believed to have been laid by Joseph of Arimathea has been temporarily removed for restoration and cleaning, thereby exposing to view the original slab, which has not been seen since 1555. This is truly thrilling for those who think that the tomb enclosed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre really is the tomb in which Christ was buried after his crucifixion. To think that archaeologists after all these centuries have been able to gaze upon and even touch the very stone upon which Jesus’ body was laid!
You ask how well established “the biblical facts of Jesus’ death and burial” are. I’m not going to answer that question here, since I have so often discussed it in my published works and debates. No historian denies the fact of Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, principally for two reasons: (1) Jesus’ crucifixion is abundantly attested in multiple, early, independent sources; and (2) had Jesus not been crucified, it is incredible that the early Christian movement would have invented a story about his end so repelling to those they sought to win, both Jews and Gentiles alike. Similarly, only a small minority of scholars (mainly, I think, those who see where the historicity of Jesus’ burial is leading!) deny the fact of Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court that condemned Jesus. The historicity of Jesus’ burial in a tomb is supported by several lines of evidence: (1) The burial story is attested in multiple, early, independent sources; (2) a Christian fabrication of Joseph of Arimathea as the person responsible for Jesus’ interment (as opposed to his disciples or family) is highly improbable in view of the hostility in the early Christian movement toward the Sanhedrin for its condemnation of Jesus; (3) the burial account delivered by Mark lacks signs of legendary embellishment; (4) no competing burial story exists.
Rather the more interesting question, I think, is, how credible is the claim that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre does contain the very tomb in which Jesus was laid? The site was identified in the year 326, when the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in search of relics from the time of Christ. She asked the residents of Jerusalem where the site of Jesus’ tomb was, and they directed her to a spot where a pagan temple now stood. We might be justifiably sceptical that the people in Jerusalem at that time would have known where Jesus’ tomb once was and suspect that out of deference to the Emperor’s mother they pointed to some site. But, in fact, there are pretty good reasons to think that the historical memory of where Jesus’ tomb had stood still persisted in Jerusalem.
In the first place, the site they identified stood within the city walls of Jerusalem, whereas the Gospels state that Jesus was crucified and buried outside the city walls. In contradiction to the Gospels, the residents in Jerusalem pointed to a site within the walls. It was later discovered that the walls of Jerusalem had been expanded a couple hundred years earlier, and when the original walls were excavated, it was found that the identified site did, in fact, lie outside the original walls of Jerusalem!
Second, the pagan temple that stood on the site had been there since 110, when it was built by the Emperor Hadrian. So the memory that this was the site of Jesus’ tomb appears to go back to within 80 years after Jesus’ crucifixion in the year 30. Helena commanded the temple to be razed and the ground to be excavated. And digging down, lo and behold, what did they uncover but a tomb! The memory that the temple had been built on the site of Jesus’ tomb seemed to be historical.
Coincidence? Maybe; but a good number of scholars think that the tomb which lies enshrined within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, indeed, the tomb of Jesus. It is just one more manifestation of the fact that when it comes to the life of Jesus we are dealing not with fairy tales or legends but with history.
I’d encourage everyone to take a trip at least once to the Holy Land and as part of your pilgrimage to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.