by Dr. Ron J. Bigalke
At the beginning of the Passion Week, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey proclaiming Himself as King of Israel. Crowds of Jews laid down palm branches, but it was the religious leaders of Jesus’ day that tried to silence these newfound disciples. In response, Jesus said, “I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40). The witness of archaeology demonstrates a fulfillment of Jesus’ own prophecy that the stones would cry out. The most crucial events surrounding the last week of Jesus’ life are His burial and resurrection.
Archaeology has uncovered many first-century Judean tombs that correspond in type to the Gospel narratives. Christian tourists generally favor the "Garden Tomb,” discovered by the British officer Charles Gordon in 1883, as the site of Christ’s burial. The “Garden Tomb” is a quite weathered tomb that is situated outside the present-day walls of Jerusalem. It is next to a highly eroded limestone hill termed “Skull Hill” by Gordon.
In contrast to the archaeological find of Gordon, further research by archaeologists Gabriel Barkay and Amos Kloner have demonstrated that the “Garden Tomb” is part of a system of Iron Age II type tombs in the area (the most notable of these tombs are on the property of the Ecole Biblique). These tombs are dated from the eighth to seventh centuries BC. However, the New Testament record states that Christ was buried in “a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid” (John 19:41). Obviously, the “Garden Tomb” would have already been some 800 years old at the time of Jesus, thus it is unable to meet the explicit details of the Gospel records.
The traditional site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has quite significant archaeological support as the true burial site of Jesus. Although it is located within the present-day walls of the Old City and Scripture explicitly specifies that Jesus was crucified “nigh to the city” (19:20), the modern-day walls do not follow the ancient sequence. British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon proved this in the late 1960s when she discovered that the wall now enclosing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a “second wall” that was constructed after the time of Jesus, which would have been around 41 AD. Therefore, when Jesus was crucified, the traditional site would have been outside the earlier “first wall.”
Additionally, other archaeologists have discovered that a “garden gate” was on the wall. This fact would correspond well with the New Testament of a garden in this area. Further examinations of the tombs in the vicinity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre confirm that these tombs are from the late second temple period (first century AD), which was the very period in which Jesus lived.
The second temple tombs also correspond to the precise tomb in which Jesus was laid. In the first century, there were two types of tombs that were used. One was the more common kokim tomb, which employed long narrow niches cut into the chamber of the burial cave walls at right angles. The other type of tomb was known as the thearcosolia tomb, which had shallow benches cut parallel to the wall of the chamber and an arch-shaped top over the recess. It is this type of tomb that was reserved for people of high esteem. This would seem plausible to be the type of tomb in which Jesus was laid since His tomb was recorded to be that of a wealthy man (Matt 27:57; cf. Isa 53:9). The disciples could see the body of Christ as it was outstretched (John 20:5, 11), which would have been something possible only with a benchcut tomb and the angels were seen seated at His head and feet (John 20:12).
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre also encloses a portion of a hill thought to be the true site of Calvary. There have been excavations to expose more of this rock and have revealed that it was a rejected portion of a pre-exilic white stone quarry that is evidenced by Iron Age II pottery at the site. Thus, it has been suggested that if this is the actual site of Christ’s burial then Peter’s citation of Psalm 118:22 (“the stone which was set at nought of you builders”) may have a double reference in the Text (Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:7).
By the time of the first century BC, this rejected quarry had made the transition from a refuse dump to a burial site. There is also evidence that it was located near a public road in Jesus’ time that would give another similarity to the authentic site since the Gospels record that those passing by the place where Jesus’ cross was situated were able to mock Him (Matt 27:39).
It is the old quarry site that corresponds best with the Jewish and Roman requirements for an execution site, and its association with a place of death could explain quite plausibly why it was called the “place of the skull” in Jesus’ time. This rock can be seen today through a section preserved for viewing and bears evidence of earthquake activity, a fact that well accords with the Gospel narratives (Matt 27:51).