Church of the Holy Sepulchre: is 300+ Years a Problem?

While taking a rest (and a beer) in the garden of the Austrian Hospice in the Old City of Jerusalem, I overheard a conversation between an older gentleman from Haifa who was guiding a small group of Chinese pilgrims. One of the pilgrims asked a question about the veracity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the actual place where Jesus was crucified and buried.

His response, while not exactly a “no”, began by referring to St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, and her “discovery” of the place in the 4th Century AD. I resisted the temptation to interrupt, but thought the better of it. Nonetheless, St. Helena is not the beginning of this story.

I will not delve deeply into St. Helena’s story here, except to say that she preceded her son in becoming Christian, and once Constantine embraced the faith, he sent her to the holy land to bring back its relics to Rome. In Jerusalem, around 327 AD, she found the True Cross by a miracle, near the complex which Emperor Hadrian had erected a pagan temple (around 135 AD), and now sits as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which among its marvels, houses the rock (Golgotha) where Jesus was crucified and the tomb of Joseph of Aramithea, where He was buried and resurrected.

By the logic of some, including the tour guide from Haifa, the fact that the place of Jesus’ Crucifixion and burial was not found and no cult venerating the site existed before St. Helena provides the skeptic some reasonable doubt when it comes to whether the site is legitimate or not.

It, like so many other matters of miracle surrounding Jesus can be reduced to inspiration — it doesn’t really matter that it was here, exactly, so long as we have seen something that grounds us to Jesus, not unlike the way a storybook presents a tableau for the young child.

But the problem with this thinking is that when we hold that it may be the place, we can and must allow that it may not, which really undermines a lot of what we see and hear, and provides the critic with the basis to cry superstition is at work. We Christians are reduced to lemmings caught in a web of confusion, unthinking, relying upon surmise.

As with so much incredulity directed at the One True Faith, all of this omits a critical piece of evidence, which was discovered in 1971. Beneath the St. Helena Chapel (the level of which is already well below the main floor of the church), excavations uncovered a chamber which has since been dedicated as a chapel to St. Vartan, with stone foundation walls that can be dated to Hadrian’s pagan temple from around 135 AD.

Upon one of those foundational walls of the pagan temple, one finds a Roman ship with a broken mast in the style and shape of the second century AD, with an inscription beneath which reads “DOMINE IVIMVS” or “Lord, we have come / will go”. This inscription alludes to Psalm 121, which is a song of ascent and protection for the anxious pilgrim.

Thus, the connection of Christians to this place of Crucifixion and burial of Our Lord can be traced to the early second century, approximately 100 years from Jesus’ death, rather than 300 years.

And in such a case, St. Helena was doing nothing more than expanding upon an existing tradition that had already run the course of centuries, rather than inventing a new, albeit miraculous one, not unlike the way that pilgrims to Rome venerated Vatican Hill as the resting place of St. Peter, which was a matter of superstitious tradition for millennia, until, in the midst of World War II, archaeologists found bones and graffiti directly beneath the main altar of the basilica attributable to the fisherman from Galilee, and definitive confirmation of faithful religious devotion.

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