Crucifixion crossroads and the garden tomb

By LOU MARANO  |  March 18, 2002 at 12:15 PM
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JERUSALEM, March 17 (UPI) -- Revisionist archaeology, faith, tradition and politics intersect in this City of David, which intoxicates with its measureless historical and cultural treasures.

Does the visitor want his preconceptions confirmed, his faith deepened? Guides will tell you what they think you want to hear. This is still the Middle East, after all.

Does he want provisional conclusions informed by the best scholarship? They are available, but will require greater effort. Like politicians, guides tend to answer questions for which they are prepared -- not the ones asked.

These two ways of seeing Jerusalem apply to matters pertaining to both the Old and New Testaments, and no less than to our perception of King David himself.

Tradition and scripture have it that in about 1000 B.C. David reunited the north (Israel) and the south (Judah) and was anointed king at Hebron. Then he captured this "fortress of Zion" from the Jebusites and made the citadel his capital. David's son Solomon consolidated the kingdom and built a fabulous temple from materials imported from far and wide.

Respectable sources and exhibits at such places as the marvelous Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem give this version of events. The trouble is, archaeology does not support it.

David Lazare summarizes the revisionist argument in the March issue of Harper's magazine. In "False Testament" he writes: "Archaeologists believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain ... and a small but vociferous band of 'biblical minimalists' who maintain that he never existed at all."

As for Solomon, the master builder and insatiable accumulator of exotic treasures, "not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed."

Ambiguity also surrounds the most important Christian sites -- those of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The controversy begins with Helena. She was the mother of Constantine, the Roman emperor who made Christianity the state religion. In 326 A.D. she traveled to Jerusalem and was shown the adjacent spots purported to be where Jesus was executed and entombed.

Today the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which some consider the most sacred house of Christian worship, stands above these sites in Jerusalem's Old City. By tradition, Roman and Orthodox Catholics hold the sites to be authentic.

But Helena was not an archaeologist, a historian or even (as far as we know) a particularly erudite reader of scripture. The place of execution was outside the walls. Although some scholars believe the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to have been just outside the Herodian city, others disagree. The "tomb" within the ornate church seems contrived. It just doesn't feel right.

Where was Golgotha, the place of the skull? Did it get its name from its topographic appearance or from the grisly remains one might find on an execution site? We still don't know for sure.

However, most Protestants favor an area north of the Damascus Gate in Arab east Jerusalem as the probable location of Jesus' crucifixion (now a bus station) and resurrection (a tranquil nearby garden tomb).

In 1867 a Greek man who owned the land dug into rubble hoping to find a water cistern. He discovered a hole full of human bones and skulls. In 1874 German archaeologist Conrad Schick reported the excavation of a tomb hewn from rock that fit the description of the one in which Joseph of Arimathia laid Jesus to rest (Matthew 27:57-60).

In 1883 an outcropping of rock nearby caught the attention of the celebrated British general and Bible student Charles "Chinese" Gordon as he looked from a friend's house on the city wall. When the sun hits natural indentations on the side of the cliff at certain angles, it resembles a skull

The area was part of an ancient quarry. According to tradition, the Jews used it as a place of execution by stoning and the Romans used it as a crucifixion site. Christian lore places Jesus' crucifixion on a hilltop, but Quintilian wrote in the 1st century that the Romans crucified criminals near busy thoroughfares as a warning to others. This spot, at the base of the skull cliff, would have been near roads that led to Jericho and Damascus. The Bible does not mention a hilltop.

After Gordon met his death in Khartoum, interested Christians in Britain raised 2,000 pounds sterling through a newspaper ad to buy the land adjacent to the quarry and maintain it. The ancient garden, believed to be the one mentioned in John (19:41) as the place of burial, has been excavated and restored. A huge water cistern and an ancient wine press were discovered.

Some picture the tomb of Jesus as a natural cave, but the Gospels specify a vault hollowed out of rock. This is the nature of the Garden Tomb, a place that evokes reverence if not piety.

Natural forces and human hands have enlarged the portal over two millennia, but one still must bend down to enter, as St. Peter and Mary Magdalene crouched to enter this or another similar tomb, which is divided into two chambers. On the left is the "weeping room," large enough for several mourners to stand in. On the right are two burial places - stone "beds" for bodies. The one closer to the entrance is unfinished.

(Some think the "foot" area of the finished "bed" shows signs of having been hastily enlarged, an indication that Jesus was taller than Joseph of Arimathia, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who was a secret disciple of Jesus and who gave up his own tomb for him.)

Skeptics say this tomb dates from some 700 years before Jesus' time, but if so why was the second burial platform left unfinished?

The groove in front of the entrance appears to have been cut as a track for a large round stone, since lost, that was rolled to open and close the vault.

The Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association of England maintains the lovely and peaceful setting by the voluntary contributions of visitors. No admission is charged. But the hours of operation and the number of tours have been scaled back because terrorist attacks have drastically curtailed tourism to Israel.

On the day of the present visit, one was able to look down from the serene garden to witness the clamorous demolition of the Arab bus station to make way for a new facility. Crucifixion crossroads, if such was the place, is still a busy spot.

(This is one in a series of stories written on a trip hosted by Israel's Ministry of Tourism.)

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