Monday, April 27, 2015

The Garden Tomb - An Alternate Site for the Tomb of Christ

I was almost dumbstruck when the tour we were with completely disregarded the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We followed the Via Dolorosa and got within about 50 yards of it, and were then disbanded for free-time. We were told it was near, but other than our smaller group of eight, I saw less than a handful of other members of our tour, which did include our tour director, go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As our local Jewish guide told us, in what I took as some incredulity that our tour was not going inside, 97% of the world believes that the Crucifixion of Jesus and his subsequent burial took place on the spot now occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is mostly Protestants and Mormons that look to the Garden Tomb as the alternate historical site. 
This photo, from, shows the location of the Garden Tomb (the left hand) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the right hand) on the miniature construction of Jerusalem at the time of Christ.
How can you go to Jerusalem and not visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? One of my very few criticisms of our tour was that it was so focused on the traditional Mormon view of Christianity, that we did not get to really taste much of the diversity of this area: the Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and other traditions that permeate this spot of the globe (we built some of that in to our own side tours). At another time, while in Nazareth, I asked our tour director how far it was to get back to Nazareth from Tiberius, where we were staying, as I wanted to visit the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a site we bypassed. His response was, "Are you Catholic?" 

The Garden Tomb is a rock-cut tomb unearthed in 1867 and considered by some Christians, particularly Protestants and Mormons, to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. 

We were not able to get any pictures of the Garden Tomb without lots of visitors around it. Chris and Stan are in line and about ready to get their turn inside. 
Judy in front of the tomb.

An inside view, marred by an iron fence.
Off to the side was a tomb stone representative of what the stone in front of the Garden Tomb might have looked like, although much too small for the Garden Tomb. 
It is adjacent to a rocky escarpment which has been proposed to be Golgotha (known as Skull Hill and Gordon’s Calvary). 
Gordon's Calvary. A Muslim cemetery is on top of the hill, now surrounded by a rock fence.
A picture I got off the internet and now can't find the source. It more clearly reveals the eyes and nose of the skull. The green vegetation when we visited detracted from the visual image of the skull.
The bus station at the base of Gordon's Calvary. This parking lot would have been the spot of the cross if this spot was the historic Calvary. Somehow, that seems fitting for the life of Jesus, the boy who was born in a manger. 
Mormon leaders have favored it as the possible site.  See: (a) “The Garden Tomb” by John Tvedtnes, Ensign, April 1983; and (b) “Revisiting Golgotha and the Garden Tomb” by Jeffrey R.Chadwick in Religious Studies Center, BYU Religious Education.  From Chadwick's article: (1) Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley, standing at the Garden Tomb, said, “Just outside the walls of Jerusalem, in this place or somewhere nearby was the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where the body of the Lord was interred.” (emphasis added) No LDS church president has ever specifically said it is “the place.” (2) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not the correct site of Jesus’ death and burial – (i) Soundings show it was a stone quarry in the 7th century B.C. and the topsoil was entirely removed; (ii) It could not have been a garden at the time of Jesus; (iii) At the time of Jesus’ death, no new tombs would have been permitted in that area according to Jewish law; (iv) no surviving feature on the “Hill of Calvary,” which is referenced in the hymn as a ‘green hill far away,’ can be identified as a skull. (3) Skull Hill, just north of the modern wall of Jerusalem’s Old City fits all the requirements of the New Testament for the crucifixion: (i) From the top of the Old City wall, or the parking lot of the bus station (which would have been the plaza in front of the skull feature), it has a skull-like appearance, from below the nose bridge to the top of the brow; (ii) Crucifixions could have been carried out at the site under Jewish law; (iii)  The open area below it was a natural plaza and junction of two major roads leading away from the Damascus Gate, the “Jericho Road” going east to the Mt. of Olives, now “Sultan Suleiman Street,” and the modern Nablus Road. (4) The Garden Tomb is not the correct site of the tomb: (i) It was not a “new tomb” [Matt. 27:60] or “wherein never man before was laid” [Luke 23:53] as it was hewn in the 8th or 7th century B.C. and was reused for burial purposes in the Byzantine period (5th to 7th centuries A.D.); (ii) The benches were carved into fixed sarcophagi for Byzantine Christians 400 to 600 years after Jesus; (iii) The track feature and large cistern were from a stable complex for donkeys constructed in the Crusader period, 11 centuries after Jesus, and are not evidence of a missing rolling stone (the track was a water channel). (5) The actual tomb was probably along modern Saladin Street, between the Israeli post office and the money changer Aladdin, but across the road on the west side. Behind the single line of commercial buildings is the Muslim cemetery on el-Edhemiah. The hill rises steeply and would have allowed ancient burial caves to be cut horizontally into bedrock. Jesus’ tomb was likely a single chamber, triple bench tomb, with the body laid on the back bench, directly opposite the entry, sealed with a square block stone with a plug.

One of my nieces, who spent time at the BYU Jerusalem Center, said one of her professors believed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre best fit the New Testament description for the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. 

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter where the historic spot was. As with the Via Dolorosa, even though it almost surely was not the path taken by Jesus on the way to his Crucifixion, it remains a powerful symbol of that event. And from that standpoint, for me, the Garden Tomb and Gordon's Calvary are more powerful representations of that event than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But I freely acknowledge that is due to my upbringing in Mormonism with its lack of ornamentation and symbolism in its churches (the same biases found in Protestant churches). For me, the sites in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are so covered up in distracting altars, statues, icons and walls that it becomes difficult to imagine what the site was like free of all that. At the Garden Tomb, you see a tomb mostly unadorned. It is easy to imagine what it would have been like for the body of Jesus to have actually been placed there. On Gordon's Calvary, you can see a hill and you can see a skull in that hill. The fact it is unadorned is a plus for my personal contemplation. 

But if I'd grown up a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, where those symbols are a staple of the religious diet, I'm sure I would have a completely different reaction to it. 

Which brings me back to something else our tour director told us as we stood at the Temple Mount, looking at the Dome of the Rock, while he talked about Islam. I am using the words of our tour director as paraphrased by Emily Freeman (who must have taken the same tour we did with the same tour director) in a post at titled "Building Good/Holy Envy,"   If you "take a mathematical compass and place the tip of one leg firmly into the center point", that represents "you...[and] your religious belief...Now, take the other tip and pull it out a bit and draw a circle. Now, pull it out again, and draw another circle. And another. And another. Now, look at the point of the first leg in the center. Has it moved? No, not one bit -- it stayed firmly planted. But your knowledge has increased." Then he suggested using that approach in terms of learning about other religions. He is Mormon, "but there is so much I admire in the Jewish faith, in the Muslim faith, in the faith of other like minded Christians, and in other religions across the world." 

Our tour director, the one who asked if I was Catholic, was one of the few others than us to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during our free time. Despite the question about me being a Catholic, he obviously does love and appreciate what other faith traditions add to our own. I have grown to love visiting Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and other sites because their perspectives are so different than those I've grown up with. To change metaphors, those differences add richness to a religious broth, they make the broth more savory, more delicious. Jerusalem is a store full of religious ingredients to be added to a religious broth and I wanted to add as many ingredients to my broth as I could. As in my culinary life, my mantra is, the more ingredients the better. 


  1. I find that when I know little about another culture or religious tradition, it seems odd and even bizarre. But as I learn more and begin to understand the underpinnings, I can not only better understand and appreciate those foreign things, but I can find ways that they enhance my own culture and beliefs. Israel was a great place for that.

  2. I must say, I was really touched by the number of individuals in sincere worship at the church of the Holy Sepulchre. At first I saw only the gaudiness, but on the return trip I focused more on the people and felt very humbled.

  3. Both sites seem equally interesting to me.

  4. In September 1972, my parents were asked to travel to Athens and Israel with President Harold B. Lee and Elder Gordon B. Hinckley. It was the first time a president of the LDS Church had visited Israel. During a historic meeting at The Garden Tomb, my dad whispered to President Lee that it might be a good time to create a branch in Jerusalem. During his talk, President Lee announced the the new branch and set apart David Galbraith as president of the first Jerusalem Branch. My mother comments in there book that, "President Lee said again that he felt impressed this was indeed the place where Christ was laid after his crucifixion and where he rose from the dead."

    In May of 1972, I joined with one of the BYU students and sang "The Lord is My Shepherd" during a sacrament meeting at The Garden Tomb". It was a beautiful setting for a very spiritual meeting. I was sad when the Dutch Reform Church withdrew permission for us to hold meetings in the garden shortly after President Lee's visit.

    1. Those meetings would have been fun to attend. What an amazing experience for you and your parents.

  5. Another more recent theory (which I favor) locates Golgotha and the Mount of Olives. This article summarizes the evidence:

  6. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said...

    He whom we mourned as dead,
    Living and glorious,
    From the dark grave bath fled,
    O'er death victorious;
    Almost creative bliss
    Waits on his growing powers;
    Ah! Him on earth we miss;
    Sorrow and grief are ours.
    Yearning he left his own,
    Mid sore annoy;
    Ah! we must needs bemoan.
    Master, thy joy!

  7. I would like your permission to use three of your photos; One the the Garden Tomb diagram, and the two, photos of the skull feature. I am creating a presentation of Christ and plan to put the presentation on u-tube and the internet, therefore I need permission.
    Thank You!
    Alan Reed Franklin, Tennessee