What more do we know about the Tomb of Jesus since it was opened?

A Franciscan archaeologist was invited to the opening of the Tomb of Jesus. Although the restoration was not strictly an archaeological project, this expert on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre could draw some conclusions from what he saw.

Franciscan Father Eugenio Alliata, of the Custody of the Holy Land, is an archaeologist, professor at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem and an expert on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He was present on the evening of October 26, 2016, when the marble slab, over what is believed to be the burial place of Jesus, was removed. It was only the second time since 1555 and the first time since 1809, that this most sacred of spaces for Christians, was visible. Father Alliata was able to observe and describe what he saw.

As on the two previous occasions, the exposure of the burial place was part of restoration work being done on the Edicule, the shrine which surrounds the original limestone of the Tomb. The project, begun in May 2016, was restricted to restoration, stabilization and preservation of the present-day Edicule. It did not involve an archaeological study on the Tomb itself.

What can be learned?

The restoration team precisely documented its work, which will be available for detailed study in the future. And while specialized archaeological observation of the rock on the north side of the burial chamber, of the so-called “funeral shelf,” would have been instructive, Father Alliata had to be satisfied with simple visual observations.

“The opening of the Tomb allowed us to understand the state of the Tomb, whereas the monk Maximos Simaios, the last one to have seen it in 1809 [when the present Edicule was under construction], only gave a cursory description of it,” Father Alliata said. “Really direct observation has confirmed and enriched this description. The measuring instruments, by themselves, did not allow us to have a perfect idea of it. Everything has to be verified by personal observation!”

What an archaeologist learned

The area directly over the spot revered as the place of Jesus’ burial is on the right-hand (north) side of the inner chamber of the Edicule. The actual burial place has been covered since 1809 by a marble slab, venerated by pilgrims over the centuries; Eucharist is regularly celebrated on this slab.

Cleared of all of its ornamentation, the wall of sculpted marble appears just as it was in 1809. Behind the image of the Resurrected Christ remains a portion of the north wall of what is believed to be inner chamber of the original Tomb. For proper study, archaeologists would have removed the marble down in order to inspect this side of the original stone.

Workers carefully lifted off the slab and removed the backfill beneath it, revealing a second marble slab, known to eyewitnesses in past centuries. When he entered the area Father Alliata could see and describe it: “Broken in two across its length, a cross carved into it and of a different marble. This slab probably goes back to the time of the Crusades. As to the cross, even though it is not all there, it looks like a cross from Lorraine.”

Earlier witnesses

Father Alliata recalled that Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Crusader ruler of Jerusalem, was from Lorraine, in France. He added, “According to the previous descriptions, its presence there was clear and obvious.”

The 19th-century Report on the Restoration of the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre by Maximos Simaios, states, “the architect had confidence and, at my request, opened a part of the Holy Sepulchre […] and at the level of the stone of the tomb, […] having for a covering two slabs of marble, one on top of the other, on the northern side […] but the whole southern side of the most holy cave consisted of natural rock.”

Already in 1555, Boniface of Ragusa reported on a moment when “it was necessary to lift up one of the marble slabs which was covering the Sepulchre,” and when “the Sepulchre of the Lord came clearly into view, cut into the rock” (Liber de perenni cultu T.S., pp. 279-80, 26 August 1555).

Arculf, a Frankish bishop, who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the seventh century, also talks about this, 1,000 years earlier. The Irish bishop Adomnan of Iona sets down his own words in his De locis sanctis (1:2) in 670 describing a “small chamber cut into the rock where the covering is lower than the Sepulchre itself.”

Observing the original stone of the burial place

Just below this second slab, which was not removed, is a third level: the original stone. “According to the measuring instruments, the distance between the marble and the stone could reach a little over three feet [almost one meter] ,” said Father Alliata.

According to the archaeologist, Father Alliata, if one could expect to find the place of burial on the basis of ancient testimonies, the surprise in 2016 was “to find it so high up… There are about 35 centimeters [almost 14 inches] between the roof of the original rock and the modern pavement. It would be interesting to see how far down the soil is. This would allow us to better understand the structure of the chamber itself.”

Father Alliata regrets that at the time of the opening, archaeologists were not consulted about the methodology. “No archaeologist was there, neither Greek, nor Franciscan, nor Israeli – none.” Despite his disappointment, he continues to speculate, based on what he was able to observe when allowed into the space.

What type of Jewish tomb?

Jewish burial customs utilized different types of funeral chambers cut into the rock. But, as Father Alliata explained, “we are not certain about the kind that is in question here. Today, we can exclude the possibility of a kokhim tomb – literally ‘oven,’ in Hebrew – that is to say, a cavity dug into the rock the size of a body,” like a modern day loculus [a small shrine cavity].

His limited observations confirmed that the burial place was a “type of shelf-tomb on which the body was placed.” The structure would then be closer to an arcosolium, a niche surmounted by an arch cut into the rock. In this niche, on the shelf which is created as a result, one placed the body.

But Father Alliata also speculated the burial place could be a third type, different still. But he cautioned, “We would have to know many more details on what remains of the original rock to come to any viable conclusion.”

Despite his confidence that the “shelf” exposed beneath the marble slab was not a kokhim, his expert’s eye found the grotto is “too narrow” compared to a tomb with an arcosolium. Perhaps this structure is not “strictly one type or another.”

Another hypothesis is that of an unfinished tomb, suggested by the description in the Gospels that it was being used for the first time. Luke writes that “[Joseph] placed him in a sepulchre cut into the rock where no one had yet been” (Lk 23:53); and Matthew that “he put him in a new tomb which he had had cut into the rock” (Mt 27:60). This would explain why there might have been only one shelf on the side of a very narrow space, since it had not yet been fully dug out.

In Jerusalem, in the necropolis known as the Tomb of the Prophets on the Mount of Olives, there is a similarly narrow tomb (see photo below). Another example, also in Jerusalem, sheds light on this hypothesis: The necropolis of the Halceldama in the Valley of Gehenna contain “tombs with an arcosolium… with very narrow corridors,” explained Father Alliata.

More speculation

In addition to the type of tomb and its inner structure, experts also speculate if there were one or two spaces. Father Alliata noted, “The most ancient idea (and the one most widely shared) is the hypothesis that there would have been two spaces: the one where one wept and prepared the body and another where one placed the body. But the Gospel says the opposite: One could look into the tomb from the outside. This is the idea of Father Bagatti and of [Martin] Biddle: ‘This chamber was not closed off.’”

Another question for speculation: Do only the north and south walls remain? Who cut the funeral chamber in two? Some believe this destruction was done the Persians but Father Alliata refers to the pilgrim text: “Arculf in 670 spoke about the ceiling of this chamber. How would Arculf have seen it if the Persians had destroyed it in 614, 56 years earlier?”

A second phase of restoration—new opportunity?

The historic opening of the tomb answered some questions. Father Alliata will wait patiently for the documentation which the project director, Professor Antonia Moropoulou, will place at the disposition of researchers.

Is there a chance that one day, archaeologists might be able to bring their methodology to bear on the area around the Tomb? By March 22, the major work on the Edicule itself was concluded. However, Professor Moropoulou has already indicated to the leaders of the three major communities in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that a second phase of work is necessary to stabilize the pavement around the Edicule.

The accumulation of moisture below the floor further threatens the Edicule. The pavement around the shrine must be removed for the space beneath to be stabilized. What opportunities such a second phase of the project might offer archaeologists remains unknown.

What is hopeful is the fruitful interchange between them and the restorers. Future collaboration would unite the efforts of these experts at the service of science toward a better understanding of this most famous Tomb.


Arianna Poletti/The Holy Land Review


Photo: Father Eugenio Alliata, OFM, Franciscan archaeologist, shows journalists a portion of the south wall of the original Tomb, between the metallic beam above and the newly-reconstructed wall of the Edicule. © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu/CTS