Tomb Raiders Ride Again: National Geographic’s Breaking News

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. …. He is not here.’  Mark 16.6f.

Whether or not National Geographic has found where they “really” laid the body of Jesus is a hot and controversial topic right now.  But right or wrong, it is certain that he keeps popping up.

First the good news for believers:  Diggers (let’s not call them archaeologists) working within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem have discovered what they claim is the tomb of Jesus.  Again.  It seems like only yesterday (2008) everyone was talking about a bone box (or ossuary) reported to be the limestone burial case of Jesus, from Talpiot outside Jerusalem.  After about a year of discussion, the discovery was forgotten as yet another ploy by  publicity hungry director, James Cameron, and an accomplice, Simcha Jacobovici to mislead the media–in this case, CNN, which produced a lavish docu-mystery culminating in an unveiling of the box–and resulting in a letter of repudiation by  50 leading biblical archaeologists, including the estimable Oxford historian Geza Vermes: who said that the arguments for the Talpiot tomb discovery are “not just unconvincing but insignificant.”

Since then, the “discovery” has been derided at a symposium at Duke University as a hoax unleashed on a credulous public by an unscrupulous alliance of hucksters and scholar accomplices.

After a respectable period of mourning for the death of this piece of nonsense, which I eulogized in these very pages at the time, we find ourselves once again at the door of the tomb.  But not a tomb two-odd miles away from the old tomb—back at the door, or rather the top, of the old tomb.

For the first time in centuries, scientists have exposed (uncovered) the original surface of what is traditionally considered the tomb of Jesus Christ.  Located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, the tomb was often raided, compromised and even destroyed in 1009 by Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who ordered the church levelled.  The damage left few original parts remaining.

The tomb has been covered by marble cladding since at least 1555 CE.  Frederik Hievert, National Geographic’s resident archaeologist and promotionalist in Israel writes, “The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it. It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”

Cautious readers will note that Dr Hiebert folds a number of assumptions into his headline, the most outrageous of which is that he’s digging in the right place for the right guy using the right information. That does not prevent him from showing more than average enthusiasm for what he thinks he’s found: “I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this…We can’t say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades.”

While Dr Hiebert regains control of his knees, it might be worth pointing out that the place where he stands is probably no more than a cemetery annexe where scores of tombs were loaded with the bones of dead Jews during the occupation of Jerusalem that began with the end of Hasmonean rule and the beginning of Roman direct-control of the province between 63BCE and 35BCE.  Crucifixion was a Roman, or more precisely, Hellenistic,  practice, which was used extensively in the region even before the Romans took control. One especially grisly description from about 75BCE, when the Maccabeans were in charge, gives us this concerning king Alexander Jannaeus:  “As he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred [rebels] to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes.” (Josephus, Antiquities 13.14.2)  Crucifixion as a form of judicial terrorism, and the mass burial of the victims, is not in doubt.

What is in doubt is where.  The site of Golgotha is only known by legend.  The church associated with the crucifixion and  “deposit” of Jesus’ body, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the digging is happening) was created at a time when legend-making was at its absolute peak in early imperial Christianity, and Jerusalem was a warehouse for memorabilia.  To make matters worse, the site of “Calvary” (the hill atop which Jesus was supposedly crucified, aka Golgotha or place of the skull) is not attested in Latin sources from the period.  And both the sites of the crucifixion and of the burial are enclosed within the precinct of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, based on a pious geographical sense that one must have been close to the other. The first mention of Golgotha outside the gospels comes from an early third century work by Tertullian against the heretic Marcion (Against Marcion, 2).

The information that provides the NatGeo team with their treasure map comes from the Gospels, all four of which tell basically the same short story with minor but important variations.  No geographical detail whatever is provided.  The overlaps do not signal concurrence or agreement from independent witnesses but the fact that they were all copied from a single source; two of four got their story from the writer of the gospel of Mark who was, as far as most scholars can reckon, the first one to tell the tale of Jesus’ burial.  It goes like this:

Mark 15.46:  [Pilate] gave the body to Joseph [of Arimathea]. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.

Matthew 27.59f.: 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.

Luke 52ff: Going to Pilate, [Joseph] asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

A fourth writer, named John by tradition, has a little more to say and adds a character named Nicodemus to the scenario:

John 19.39ff:   Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Unfortunately what John reports is in direct conflict with Mark’s later comments, that the body had not been anointed and that this omission is what  brought women to the tomb on the morning of the third day, when they found the tomb empty (the Holy Sepulchre Church contains chapels for each of these details, including one called the Anastasis, where Jesus is thought to have stood when he was raised from the dead, and a slab called the “stone of anointing” where the anointing of the body was supposed to have taken place). Some of the details are accurate enough: aromatic spices were used to lessen the stench of deciduous flesh but also had a religious and ritual significance by Jesus’ day.  But the horror of anointing  bodies days after death would have prevented any effort to correct a ritual omission.   Mark’s story is based on the idea that during the Sabbath, anointing would have been forbidden, asur; John’s on the horror of suggesting that a body not being anointed according to custom made it impure, tamei.  The two tales are irreconcilable and originate in a contest of taboos. Both cannot be right, inviting the conclusion that no one knew anything about what process had been followed, much less had any idea about where the events happened.

As for the location of the tomb.  National Geographic in its press release gushes that “the accounts consistently describe how Christ [sic] was buried in a rock-cut tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Jewish follower of Jesus….Jewish tradition forbade burial within the walls of a city, and the Gospels specify that Jesus was buried outside of Jerusalem, near the site of his crucifixion on Golgotha (“the place of skulls”).”  But that is a bit like saying that it is certain that some apple orchards in the Midwest were planted by Johnny Appleseed and others by other farmers. Since no one knows where Golgotha was (and it cannot be deduced from the location of the Church), it seems moot to discuss whether the tomb itself was inside or outside the revamped walls of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.  Some early Christian writers and Josephus seem to imply a shift in the city walls.  But they do not say that the shift had anything to do with accommodating cemeteries or execution sites, and the idea that they did seems absurd.

The best guess is that by the fourth century the excavations for the tomb on a site previously dedicated to Venus, were conducted inside the existing walls.   But logic dictates the real reasons for the use of the site is that it was an attempt by newly empowered  Christians, following on Constantine’s edict of toleration in 313CE, to commandeer a popular pagan site—a pattern of expropriation which would endure in the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages when Christian churches were converted into mosques.

NatGeo says that the body of Jesus Christ was “laid on a shelf or burial bed hewn from the side of a limestone cave following his crucifixion by the Romans in A.D. 30 or possibly 33. Christian belief says Christ was resurrected [sic] after death, and women who came to anoint his body three days after the burial reported that no remains were present.”  Actually, the gospels say nothing about a shelf and as we have seen the anointing story is not just problematical but contradicts the chronology of the fourth gospel.  It doesn’t really give us much to go on.

It all comes down to one question:  What is the evidence for this being the right place, the tomb where Jesus was laid to rest? 

The evidence is, to say the least, flimsy and uncompelling.  Fourth century stories and legends recounted by the eminently credulous Christian bishop and writer Eusebius of Caesarea, tell us that Constantine’s mother, Helena, was directed to the precise tomb by tour guides eager to please the emperor’s emissaries, and especially his mum, who had become a relic collector of the first magnitude after her conversion.

The story in Christian tradition is that the emperor Hadrian (117-138) had a Roman temple erected over the site of the tomb during his reign in order to assert Roman power over Jerusalem and to discourage Christians worshiping there.  But the evidence points in the opposite direction: Hadrian’s Jerusalem was a city in ruins and in need of rebuilding.  He was discouraged from restoring the Jewish temple which he regarded as a warren of sedition during the Bar Kochba rebellion of 135.  The place of worship that was the focal point for him was the Temple Mount, not a Christian site but a ruined Jewish one. The Sepulchre site is referenced in no Roman writer from his time but only two centuries later by Christians like Eusebius.  The writers of the fourth century were interested in stressing the Christian character of the “new” city of Jerusalem as a Roman city with Christian associations that could be exploited for religious and political gain.

Constantine, Eusebius’ exact contemporary, was the first Christian emperor; Christians in his reign could be regarded as good Roman citizens and not as aliens or derivative Jews, as in the old days.  Having a church like Holy Sepulchre even though an archaeological fiction (hagiography in stone), would replace in the Latin imagination the centrality of the Jewish temple—indeed, could become the focal point for the new religion, which is exactly the propagandistic value it came to have when the Muslims built their own shrine, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque, on the spot where Muhammad supposedly ascended into heaven on his “Night Journey” from Arabia.

The key to the mythical nature of Holy Sepulchre as a “real” location is in the sources, not in the rocks or limestone–a  bit like the key to Noah’s Ark is not in the work of schlock archeologists using the Bible as a treasure map, but in the Gilgamesh epic written 1000 years before it.

The legendary beginnings can be traced back to the person who started it all, a pious woman named Helen. Constantine’s mother was a peasant from Nicomedia (called a stabularia, which may mean inn-keeper or prostitute).  Later tradition, since debunked, tried to make her the daughter of a British prince, but the historical Helen was a superstitious woman who married Constantius Chloris and gave birth to their only child, the future emperor, in 274.

Chloris, rising in the ranks, divorced her and married Theodora, the daughter of the emperor Maximentius.   Constantine, according to some dicey sources, remained faithful to his birth mother, called her to court on the death of his father, and even had coins struck with her image.  But he seemed happiest when she was out of town, and gave her seemingly tons of money to build Christian churches all across the empire—in Rome, Trier, other parts of Europe, and all over Palestine.  The merest rumor that a saint had prayed in a local garden or a martyr’s blood had been spilt in a stadium would cause Helena to spring into action, the biggest prize of all being finding the place of the crucifixion and the burial site of Jesus. “She lavished on that land her bounties and good deeds, she explored it with remarkable discernment and visited it with the care and solicitude of the emperor himself.”  But with respect to Holy Sepulchre there are very many issues   Eusebius does not place Helena at the site of the excavation, nor does he mention the finding of any crosses. He simply says she was convinced that it was the right place. But later writers like Rufinus and Socrates Scholasticus find this inadequate.  In fact as time passes, more details are added to make the site the irrefragable place of the burial of Jesus.  By the end of the fourth century there are plenty of accounts of people venerating relics of the cross of Jesus –said to be found with two others near the place of the tomb, and references to a church being built on the site where they were found, which of course has nothing to do with their authenticity or the accuracy of Helena’s pious sleuthing. Before long, it was possible also to venerate the crown of thorns, the pillar at which Christ was scourged, and the lance that pierced his side. The entire operation is called into question by the narratives themselves, and especially by the deafening silence of the gospels in respect of details.

Socrates Scholasticus (born c. 380), in his Ecclesiastical History, gives a full description of the discovery. I think it is important to quote the whole extract from this writer since on it the entirety of the pious tradition associating the archaeological site, stirring the imagination, and weakening the knees of the National Geographic team depends on it:

{Helena the emperor’s mother} found three crosses in the Sepulchre: one of these was that blessed cross on which Christ had hung, the other two were those on which the two thieves that were crucified with him had died. With these was also found the tablet of Pilate, on which he had inscribed in various characters, that the Christ who was crucified was king of the Jews. Since, however, it was doubtful which was the cross they were in search of, the emperor’s mother was not a little distressed; but from this trouble the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, shortly relieved her. And he solved the doubt by faith, for he sought a sign from God and obtained it. The sign was this: a certain woman of the neighborhood, who had been long afflicted with disease, was now just at the point of death; the bishop therefore arranged it so that each of the crosses should be brought to the dying woman, believing that she would be healed on touching the precious cross. Nor was he disappointed in his expectation: for the two crosses having been applied which were not the Lord’s, the woman still continued in a dying state; but when the third, which was the true cross, touched her, she was immediately healed, and recovered her former strength. In this manner then was the genuine cross discovered. The emperor’s mother erected over the place of the sepulchre a magnificent church, and named it New Jerusalem, having built it facing that old and deserted city. There she left a portion of the cross, enclosed in a silver case, as a memorial to those who might wish to see it: the other part she sent to the emperor, who being persuaded that the city would be perfectly secure where that relic should be preserved, privately enclosed it in his own statue, which stands on a large column of porphyry in the forum called Constantine’s at Constantinople. I have written this from report indeed; but almost all the inhabitants of Constantinople affirm that it is true. Moreover the nails with which Christ’s hands were fastened to the cross (for his mother having found these also in the sepulchre had sent them) Constantine took and had made into bridle-bits and a helmet, which he used in his military expeditions. (NPNF 2,02.17)

In short, the entire tradition of Holy Sepulchre derives from this piece of typical fourth century hagiography, a miracle story that is (as archaeologist like to put it) an etiology of devotional practices that grew up around a local shrine, and in turn validated the significance of the shrine.  But of course devotion is not history.  The chances that a superstitious stable girl turned Christian, sent on mission by her wavering son to satisfy her religious appetites, stumbled three centuries on to the location of the execution and burial of Jesus—that possibility must approach statistical zero.

And there is a larger point.  Media concerns like National Geographic, a subsidiary of Fox News, and the History Channel and the Discovery Channel have learned long since that credulity and gullibility sells: that people like myths and monsters more than they like facts and probability.  And that is the great disservice these programs do to people who watch them.  In a time when critical thinking was never more talked about and less practiced, sensations like this make the careful separation of fact and fiction that much more difficult for those of us who prefer fact.   In fact, we do not know when Jesus died, where he died, or where he was buried.  Even if we knew one of these things, we do not know the other two, and pious veneration has made the knowing all but impossible. Indeed, if I were a Christian, I think I would say, What does it matter?  The whole point is, he wasn’t there very long, was he?

That being the case, you will not be surprised to learn that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over a site almost certainly legendary, was founded by Helena in 327 after she was assured by local pilgrims that she had—exactly the right spot.  Alas, however, modern research has shown that the cult of Adonis-Tammuz originated the shrine and that it was the Christians who took it over, substituting the worship of Jesus.

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