HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
April 9, 2007, Herald Journal
Pastor's Column

The tomb of Jesus

Fr. Joseph Gallatin, St. Mary of Czestochowa Catholic Church, Delano

Every year, just before Christmas and just before Easter, we can count on magazines or television to carry some story sure to annoy or upset religious people.

There has been a great stir this year during Lent about the discovery of several containers near Jerusalem that bear inscriptions that would lead “experts” to declare that they are the bones of Jesus and others close to him, including his “wife” and “son.” This find, if authentic, would make the whole of the Christian faith fall apart utterly, since Jesus’ bones could not be here on earth if he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Lest you become agitated by this archaeological find (the bones were actually found in 1980), it would be advisable to consider the facts I am about to lay out.

The bones, of course, belong to somebody. Jewish custom at the time of Christ was to allow the bodies of the dead to decompose in a tomb until only bones remained. These were then gathered and placed in an ossuary – a box for bones that was often made of chalk. The chalk that surrounded the bones meant that someone coming into contact with the box would not be rendered ritually impure by contact with a dead body; the material could be thought of as a kind of sacred insulation.

At any rate, some long-dead people’s bones are in those boxes. Christ’s are not.

From the time of the resurrection until the year AD 66, the Christian community in Jerusalem worshiped at the site of the empty tomb of Jesus. (My source is “The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide from the Earliest Times to 1700” by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P.) The tomb was in an abandoned quarry, its good stone had been taken, leaving only seams of poor stone that could be used for tombs even if it couldn’t be used for construction.

The people knew perfectly well where the tomb was, and so were deeply embittered when the Emperor Hadrian filled in the quarry in AD 135 to build the Capitoline temple and a shrine to the goddess Aphrodite. Almost 200 years passed before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal and ordered the construction of a church at the place of the Resurrection.

All anyone had to do to indicate the location of the buried tomb of Christ was to point to the gigantic pagan temple that covered the site. So those monumental public buildings were torn down, despite the fact that an open area was very near to the site. The exact place of the tomb of Jesus, and none other, had to be used for the church.

Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived from 275 to 339, witnessed the demolition of the temple and excavation of the ground: “At once the work was carried out, and as layer after layer of the subsoil came into view, the venerable and most holy memorial of the Savior’s resurrection, beyond all our hopes, came into view.”

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed from 326 until its dedication in 335. A good question to ask yourself at this point would be, “Why did the Christians of the first 300 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection care so much about this site if first, it was not the correct tomb, and second, it was the incorrect tomb of a fraud?”

The building dedicated in 335 would not stand forever. The Persians set it on fire in 614. It was repaired, but in 1009, it was completely destroyed by the Muslim caliph Hakim.

It was not until 1048 that the church was reconstructed, but there was not enough money to restore the church to its original size. It was made much smaller, and it was to this small Church of the Holy Sepulchre that the Crusaders came in 1099. These European Catholic Christians finished their improvements to the church in 1149, and in 1170, added the bell tower that can be seen today.

The poor church has since then suffered fire and earthquake, but it still stands, and under its roof is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and, a few yards away, the site of his resurrection. This is the place that Christian people have sought out to worship God since the lifetimes of those who stood at the foot of the cross and those who were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Lord Jesus.

So, there is no need to be disconcerted about the much-publicized archaeological discovery. They have the wrong place. They have the wrong guy. Jesus is risen from the dead, not in a box that has been in storage since 1980.

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