When Archaeologists Wiped Away The Dust Inside Jesus’ Tomb, They Made A Mind-Blowing Discovery

When Archaeologists Wiped Away The Dust Inside Jesus’ Tomb, They Made A Mind-Blowing Discovery

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the most revered holy site in the Christian world – a team of archaeologists excavate a tomb that is believed to be the resting place of Jesus Christ. Cutting through encasements of stone, the experts expose a cavity filled with dust and debris. And after they clear away centuries of grime, the group prise open the crypt. Then the crowd lay eyes on a groundbreaking discovery – and break out into wide smiles.

First To Lay Eyes

Among the first people to examine the inside of Christ’s tomb were leaders and representatives from three major Christian denominations: Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox. And, as we’ve seen, the discovery had a visible effect on these dignitaries. According to National Geographic archaeologist Fredrick Hiebert – who contributed to the excavation work – the members of the groups left the site with big grins.

YouTube / National Geographic

What’s At Stake

Such a reaction perhaps wasn’t surprising given that no one had opened Jesus’ tomb for several centuries – but what was at stake here? Well, the project was designed and executed by a team of scientists from the National Technical University of Athens. The excavation took place in October 2016 and was part of an interdisciplinary effort to restore the site’s Edicule – the chapel-like structure that encloses the tomb.


Built And Rebuilt

Of course, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a history spanning hundreds of years. It has been damaged, destroyed and reconstructed several times over the centuries, too. And all of this activity has led scholars to doubt the authenticity of the site. Now, though, this team has discovered firm evidence that resolves the debate once and for all.


Separating Fact From Fiction

The excavation falls under the realm of “biblical archaeology” – a subfield of the discipline that aims to discern the historical truth of events written about in the Bible. Practitioners feel that it is necessary to submit the Bible to scientific analysis because the oldest known copies of the gospel were written approximately 100 years after the death of Christ. That means the accounts cannot be considered historically reliable.

YouTube / National Geographic

Lack Of Evidence

For example, there is presently no archaeological evidence to support the claim that Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans – although most Christians accept this as fact. While the Roman use of crucifixion as capital punishment is well-documented in literature, hard evidence of the practice consists of just two human skeletons. One was discovered in 1968; the other in 2018. And neither represented the remains of Jesus Christ.


A Holy Site

That being said, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre does stand nearby the site where Christ is said to have been crucified. One of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the world, the structure lies within the Old City of Jerusalem. This is a district revered for its religious monuments, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall.


Three Days Later

According to biblical accounts, the site of Christ’s execution was Golgotha – “the place of skulls.” After his death, the story goes, Jesus was laid to rest inside a nearby tomb. And three days later, he supposedly rose from the dead, visited his apostles and bestowed upon them a sacred mission. They were to deliver the gospel around the world – the so-called “good news” of spiritual redemption.


Differing Accounts

According to the Bible, responsibility for Christ’s dead body fell to a wealthy and elderly Jewish disciple called Joseph of Arimathea. Little is known about Joseph, but some scholars have suggested that he was a great uncle of Christ. Other sources suggest that his Christian devotion so enraged the authorities that they eventually arrested him and threw him in prison.


Careful Burial

After removing Christ from the cross, though, Joseph of Arimathea apparently carried his body to his family tomb. Carved out of a cave, the tomb consisted of a long burial chamber with niches for holding bodies. According to the scriptures, Joseph then swathed the body in linen, laid it on a burial shelf and sealed the tomb by rolling a rock over its entrance.


Symbolic Gesture

Centuries later, in approximately 325 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine I sent envoys to find the tomb. The citizens of Jerusalem directed them to a temple commissioned by one of Constantine’s predecessors, Emperor Hadrian. And historical sources suggest that Hadrian ordered the temple’s construction as a symbolic act – to both desecrate the Christian shrine and demonstrate the superior might of Roman religion.


Shifting Religions

But Constantine was not a pagan; he was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. So he tore down the Roman temple and excavated the ground beneath it. And after locating the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, he had the roof of the cave removed and a Christian church built around it.


Holy Garden

According to the Roman biographer Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a lavish construction, fit for the King of Kings. Visitors entered via a staircase from the Cardo, Old Jerusalem’s principal thoroughfare, and passed through a complex of ornately decorated chambers and a “holy garden.” The tomb itself was open to the sky.


Another Destruction

Naturally, perhaps, it was only a matter of time before the temple was destroyed. This came after the Arabs invaded Jerusalem in 638. These people were initially accepting of the Christian faith – but anti-Christian unrest eventually led to the destruction of the church’s dome in 966. Then, in 1009, the “Mad Caliph” Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah – a notorious fanatic – simply obliterated the church. Fortunately, though, the tomb must have remained intact.


The First Crusades

And in the mid-11th century, the Byzantine Empire and the Fatimids agreed on a truce. So, Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and Patriarch Nicephorus ordered the construction of a new Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1077, though, the Seljuk Empire assumed control of Jerusalem and began to abuse the Christian pilgrims. And, in response, European crusaders set off to the Holy Land with the aim of “liberating” the church where Jesus was buried.


Sharing The Power

After this, in the 12th century, crusaders restored and renovated the church to give it the form it has today. The mid-18th century also saw the city’s Ottoman administrators implement a novel power-sharing scheme to resolve conflicts between the church’s leaders. This was known as the “status quo.” Yet the structure was destroyed by a fire in 1808. It was then reconstructed before being badly shaken by an earthquake in 1927. Throughout it all, stories of the tomb of Jesus Christ remained the one constant.


Upholding The Status Quo

But the status quo scheme continues today with Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations managing the church together. Conflicts do occasionally flare up, however. In 2008, for example, a dispute between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks escalated into a physical fight. The church’s collective decision-making process tends to be incredibly slow, too. So it’s no wonder Christ’s tomb remained closed for so long.


The Immovable Ladder

For instance, there is a ladder near the church entrance that has been the subject of discussion for years. It is known as “the immovable ladder” because it has not been moved from its position for more than two centuries. Debates around this and about the most recent repairs and renovations began in 1959.


Change To The Current Structure

Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2016, a Franciscan monk called Athanasius Macora complained that the renovation was quite restrained. He said, “I personally would have liked to maybe contemplate some alternative to simply restoring the current structure. But because the status quo is so conservative in its nature, we had to more or less accept the fact that there would be no change whatsoever to the current structure.”


Still Unchanged

But there have been successful archaeological excavations of the church in the recent past. In the 20th century, for instance, researchers made scores of groundbreaking discoveries at the site – including several rock tombs, an ancient limestone quarry pit and what were thought to be walls from Constantine’s first church. But Christ’s tomb remained untouched… until our team of archaeologists got to work.


Sealed With Marble

The 2016 excavation was the first time that the tomb had been opened for several centuries. That’s partly because church authorities covered it over with marble in 1555 to prevent visitors from stealing pieces of the original rock burial bed. So when our 21st-century archaeologists removed the marble cladding, they discovered something quite unexpected.


A Second Slab

The discovery came on the evening of October 26. After removing the 16th-century marble casing, the archaeologists found a layer of filling materials and debris. The team then continued digging. And after some 60 hours of non-stop effort, they encountered a second marble slab with a cross etched into it.


The First Surprise

Speaking to The Independent, Hiebert said this discovery was a personal highlight. He said, “The most amazing thing for me was when we removed the first layer of dust and found a second piece of marble. This one was gray, not creamy white like the exterior, and right in the middle of it was a beautifully inscribed cross. We had no idea that was there.”


500 Years Old

Yes, the slab was something of a mystery. Some historians speculated that the crusaders may have installed it during one of their forays. Others suggested it might be considerably older – and that the crack in its surface could have resulted from the Mad Caliph’s attack in 1009. One thing was certain, though: the slab could not be any newer than the outer cladding. So it was at least five centuries old.


No Guarantees

Two days after this discovery, the team finally exposed the original burial slab upon which Jesus Christ sat. And with just a few hours to go before the tomb was scheduled to be closed, the experts speedily gathered samples for analysis in the lab. Of course, there were no guarantees that Christ was ever in the tomb, let alone laid to rest there.


Compiling The Data

After all, Constantine’s envoys arrived in Jerusalem some 300 years after Christ walked the earth. So they could have identified the wrong grave. According to archaeologist Martin Biddle, who completed a pioneering study of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1999, the only way to know is to diligently analyze all the data.


Looking For Evidence

Yet he does not doubt that the site is authentic. Speaking to National Geographic in 2016, he said, “There are at least half a dozen other rock-cut tombs below various parts of the church. So why did Bishop Eusebius identify this tomb as the tomb of Christ? He doesn’t say, and we don’t know. I don’t myself think Eusebius got it wrong — he was a very good scholar — so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for.”


Resealing The Tomb

That is exactly what the 2016 researchers did. After gathering samples, the team resealed the burial bed in its original marble cladding. Speaking to National Geographic in 2016, Professor Antonia Moropoulou, the team’s leader, explained that the tomb won’t be reopened for a very long time – possibly thousands of years. She said, “The architectural conservation which we are implementing is intended to last forever.”


The Same Tomb

Hiebart later hailed the unearthing of the burial bed as “amazing.” Speaking to The Independent in 2016, he said, “The shrine has been destroyed many times by fire, earthquakes and invasions over the centuries. We didn’t really know if they had built it in exactly the same place every time. But this seems to be visible proof that the spot the pilgrims worship today really is the same tomb the Roman Emperor Constantine found in the 4th century.”


Assigning A Date

But it was not until November 2017, when the team obtained results from their lab, that they were able to accurately assign a date to the tomb. Their tests involved using samples of mortar from both the burial bed and the hidden slab. A process called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) then ascertained when sediments of quartz crystals last saw light.


Back To The 4th Century

Previous attempts to date the site had indicated that it was only 1,000 years old – despite the documentary evidence linking the shrine to the Roman period. However, the tests released by Moropoulou show that both the burial slab and its hidden cover were last exposed to light in the 4th century.


Conclusive Proof

So the results conclusively prove that the burial bed was sealed during the reign of Emperor Constantine. They therefore resolve the long-running dispute about the veracity of the site. Speaking to National Geographic, Biddle said, “Obviously, that date is spot-on for whatever Constantine did. That’s very remarkable.”


Previous Restoration

The scientists were able to identify evidence of earlier restoration works, too. For example, the analysis of mortar from the southern wall yielded dates from the 4th and 16th centuries. Speaking to National Geographic, Moropoulou explained that these findings corroborated historical narratives. She said, “It is interesting how [these] mortars not only provide evidence for the earliest shrine… but also confirm the historical construction sequence of the Edicule.”


The Holy Rock

The team also claims to have identified parts of the original cave. Moropoulou explained to National Geographic that one of its limestone walls is now visible through a new window in the Edicule. She said, “This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen.”


Nothing Says It’s Not Real

Yet the findings do not prove that Christ was ever buried in the tomb. Still, archaeologists such as Dan Bahat think the evidence is compelling. Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2016, Bahat said, “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”


Utilizing Evidence

The case actually highlights a long-running schism in biblical archaeology. On one side, some scholars take the Bible at face value — and strongly believe that Christ was a real historical figure. On the other, many experts think the historical reality of Christ – if there is such a thing – has been somewhat distorted by biblical fiction and Christian mythologies. Yet both use archaeological research to bolster their claims.


An Epiphany

Writing for National Geographic in 2016, Kristin Romey traveled to the Holy Land to uncover the truth. Using the Bible as a kind of travel guidebook, she visited sites described in the New Testament. Romey also spoke to numerous scholars and witnessed the opening of Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, she experienced an epiphany.


Overwhelmed By History

Romey wrote, “I recall being alone inside the tomb after its marble cladding was briefly removed, overwhelmed that I was looking at one of the world’s most important monuments — a simple limestone shelf that people have revered for millennia, a sight that hadn’t been seen for possibly a thousand years. I was overwhelmed by all the questions of history.”


Kisses And Prayers

But it wasn’t until Romey returned to the tomb during Easter that she realized those questions may have little import beyond the realms of science and scholarship. Shuffling into the tomb with a crowd of pilgrims, she observed worshippers planting kisses and prayer cards on its marble cladding.


Evidence Enough

“At this moment, I realize that to sincere believers, the scholars’ quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence,” Romey wrote. “That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions, irreconcilable facts. But for true believers, their faith in the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God will be evidence enough.”