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Jesus Christ's resurrection: Garden Tomb or Church of Holy Sepulchre?

By WESLEY G. PIPPERT

JERUSALEM -- Scholars and the faithful still disagree on the sites of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, the most important events in the Christian religion. The two locations are worlds apart.

The Garden Tomb, just north of the Old City's Damascus Gate, is a sylvan plot of aleppo pine, cyprus, fig, orange, lemon and almond trees. A limestone hill in the likeness of a skull looms nearby.

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Emblazoned across the modern wooden door at the entrance to the rock-hewn tomb are the words: 'He is not here, He is risen.'

A half mile south, among the narrow alleys and Arab shops inside the Old City, is the labyrinthine Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is dark and smells of incense and musty air. People in every cut of religious attire scurry about.

Both places will be jammed with pilgrims during Holy Week -- some 45,000, the Israeli Tourism Ministry estimates.

The observance of the crucifixion and resurrection varies with religion. Evangelical Protestants favor the Garden Tomb. Latin Catholics celebrate Easter Sunday April 7 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Syrian and Coptic Christians celebrate in the church, but on April 14 because of the difference in the Gregorian and Julian calendars.

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Jewish and Christian scholars point to evidence that as early as 200 A.D., Christians believed their savior was resurrected on the site of the ancient Christian church.

'I'm very much convinced that Jesus was buried here,' says Dan Bahat, Israel's chief Jerusalem district archaeologist.

According to the Bible, Jesus was taken outside the city to Golgotha, meaning 'the place of a skull,' near a highway and, after he died, buried in a new tomb hewn from rock in a nearby garden.

Evangelical protestants believe the Garden Tomb, which is outside the walled Old City and is close to the roads to Nablus, Damascus, Jericho and Jaffa (now Tel Aviv), fits that description.

The so-called 'Skull Hill,' or Golgotha, overlooks the teeming central Arab bus station.

The Rev. Bill White, an Anglican rector from Dorset, England, and general secretary of the small interdenominational English society that owns the Garden Tomb, is one of those who believe Jesus was crucified on a spot where the depot is located. He says the body was carried to the Garden Tomb.

White is more concerned about the spiritual message than the archaeological argument surrounding the Garden Tomb.

'Its simplicity and naturalness provide the finest visual aid of the Easter story,' White says. 'Never under any circumstances will a church building be erected here -- thank God.'

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That comes as a relief to many persons turned off by themultiplicity of churches, synagogues and mosques built on every conceivable biblical site in the Holy Land.

There is an archaeological rule-of-thumb that a tradition dating back close to the time of the event is more likely to be authentic than a newly identified site.

A 250-million-gallon cistern and a winepress in the Garden Tomb clearly date to the time of Christ, but it was not mentioned as the possible site of his death until 1883.

On the other hand, the origins of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre date back to 327 A.D. Constantine had converted to the Christian faith and his mother, Helena, went to the Holy Land and identified the sites of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Scholars and religious officials point out the church was built on the remains of first century Jewish tombs. About 1972, 30 feet below the Constantine church's Armenian section, archaeologists rediscovered a charcoal graffiti-type drawing of a boat dating to about 200 A.D.

It bore the Latin inscription, 'O Lord, we came.'

Bahat says he believes western Christian pilgrims sketched the boat, an object figuring prominently in Christ's life, in a canyon behind Golgotha where Christians met secretly to worship. He believes they worshipped there because it was the site of Christ's resurrection.

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'It means to me the true burial took place here,' Bahat said. He is convinced the Edicule in the middle of the basilica's rotunda and the altar at the top of the stairs are the locations of Calvary hill and the tomb.

But ultimately, the controversy is not a major issue, religious officials say.

'The tomb is not important,' says White. 'The Lord is risen. This is the emphasis we try to make. Do you keep a chrysalis when the butterfly is gone?'

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