During Holy Week, Christians remember the familiar story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. But exactly where does that story take place? The Bible offers only a few clues.
“The Gospels weren’t really written to record a history,” the Rev. Mark Morozowich, acting dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. “They were written to provide a testimony of faith.”
According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified at a spot outside Jerusalem called Golgotha, which in Aramaic means “place of the skull.” The Latin word for skull is “calvaria,” and in English, many Christians refer to the site of the crucifixion as Calvary.
The Gospel of John says there was a garden at Golgotha, and a tomb which had never been used. Since the tomb was nearby, John says, that’s where Jesus’s body was placed. The Gospel writers say the tomb was owned by a prominent rich man, Joseph of Arimathea. They describe it as hewn from rock, with a large stone that could be rolled in front of the entrance.
“When he was crucified, (Jesus) was not really a significant feature in Israel,” said Morozowich. “Certainly there was jealousy, certainly he had his followers, but there was no church that was built immediately upon his death or to mark his resurrection.”
In the 4th Century, as Emperor Constantine was consolidating the Roman Empire under his newfound Christian faith, his mother, St. Helena, traveled to Jerusalem. According to tradition, she discovered relics of the cross upon which Jesus had been crucified.
The spot had been venerated by early Christians, and she concluded it was Golgotha. Constantine ordered the construction of a basilica on the spot, which became known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Over the centuries, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed, rebuilt and renovated several times. There have been numerous power struggles over who should control it, and even today, sometimes violent squabbles can break out among the several Christian denominations that share jurisdiction.
Still, it’s considered one of the holiest sites in Christianity, a massive place of pilgrimage and intense spiritual devotion. “What more of a moving place, to walk in Jerusalem, the place of the crucifixion, to meditate at Golgotha where Jesus Christ died, the place where he rose from the tomb,” Morozowich said.
But despite the history and devotion, some Christians ― including many Protestants ― believe Jesus could have been crucified and buried at a different place in Jerusalem known as the Garden Tomb.
“The (Garden) Tomb was discovered in 1867. For hundreds of years before that, it had lain buried under rock and rubble and earth,” said Steve Bridge, deputy director at the Garden Tomb, which is located just outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate.
He said this site was promoted in the late 19th century by British Gen. Charles Gordon. The site includes a rock formation, with two large indentations, which resemble the eye sockets of a human skull. Gordon, and others, believed this could have been the “place of the skull” mentioned in the Bible.
The ancient garden below the rock formation has ruins of cisterns and a wine press, which Bridge said could indicate that it was owned by a wealthy person, perhaps Joseph of Arimathea. In the garden is a tomb, cut from the rock.
“The tomb itself is at least 2,000 years old. Many date it as older than that. But it’s certainly not less than 2,000 years old,” Bridge said. “It’s a Jewish tomb. It’s definitely a rolling stone tomb. That means the entrance would be sealed by rolling a large stone across.”
According to Bridge, the Garden Tomb is not trying to set up a competition with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “There’s no doubt that historically, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, has the evidence on its side,” Bridge said. “What we say we have here is something that matches the Bible description.”
And for him, Bridge said it ultimately doesn’t matter where the actual place was, because he believes Jesus rose from the dead three days after the crucifixion. “On that score, us and the Holy Sepulchre would be exactly the same, telling the same story, but on a different site,” he said.
Morozowich agreed. He said his faith teaches that during the Easter season, Christians should focus more on what Jesus did, rather than on where he may have done it.
“We know that Jesus is more than this historical figure that walked the earth. And in his resurrection, he transcends all of that so he is as real and present in Mishawaka (Ind.) and in Washington, D.C. as he is in Jerusalem,” said Morozowich.
A version of this story was first broadcast on the PBS television program "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly."