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The Holy Sepulcher vs. the Garden Tomb

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A good historian must also be a good scientist. And like a good scientist, he must go wherever the science goes. Documents, archeology, and forensics - it’s all part of the scientific method.

Historians will note that over the years there has been virtually no scholarly dialogue between those who accept the authenticity of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (on the west side of the ancient city of Jerusalem), and those who ascribe the same authenticity to the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary (on the north side). We have come to learn that the main reason for this is because arguments favoring the Garden Tomb are in want of applied scholarship. As a result, we find that the scholastic community virtually never debates the subject, presumably for the lack of any compelling reason to do so.

The subject is addressed here because modern tour guides are frequently asked the same question every time they take a group to the Holy Land – “Which site do you feel is the authentic one?” In order not to bore travelers with a meteor shower of unsolicited details, a definitive answer is given here for those most curious.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we are immediately told that this is the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. In contrast, at the Garden Tomb, we are told that this might be the place, but, they add, it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t, because the most important thing is that Jesus was, in fact, resurrected. While that last statement is true, this very soft apology in defense of the Garden Tomb lacks the kind of resolve that one would expect if the archeological and historic evidence were compelling enough to form a convincing argument.

Aesthetic Differences.

The Edicule.

The Holy Sepulcher church is a massive, Crusader-era renovation of the original church dedicated in 335 AD. The original rocky tomb of Jesus is not there, because it was destroyed by the Muslim caliph, Al Hakim, in 1009 AD. The Holy Sepulcher is filled with dark hallways, and hordes of pilgrims usually creating long lines to enter both the tomb and the place of the cross.

The Garden Tomb.

In contrast, the Garden Tomb is outdoors, with far less visitors, and a real garden has been recently built around it to create a sense of authenticity and serenity, thus making it a desirable location for spiritual reflection. In other words, the area around the Garden Tomb has been transformed to fit our western image of what Jesus’ burial site might have looked like 2000 years ago.

It is generally agreed that the ambiance of the Holy Sepulcher makes it difficult to imagine the miraculous events that occurred there, and, quite honestly, it’s easier to visualize them at the Garden Tomb. While reflection, meditation, spiritual attachment, and the sweet sensation that one receives at the Garden Tomb is important from the aspect of personal devotion, from an archeological and historic point of view, this internal sentimentality is irrelevant in our discussion.

Denominational Bias.

The Holy Sepulcher Church is filled with altars and chapels that are individually controlled by 6 different denominations, all of them Orthodox or Catholic. This is because the various chapels were parceled out long before the Protestant Reformation, so the Protestants have no representation in this church. It is covered with icons darkened from age and accented in silver. Monks from various factions wander its hallways. Once again, in contrast, the Garden Tomb is a serene collection of tastefully labeled plants and small outdoor chapels where tour groups are offered space to take communion and to sing worship songs. Also, the Garden Tomb is not controlled by any denomination, so Protestants are not excluded from representation. In fact, the Garden Tomb was brought to its current level of appreciation by the protestant General Charles Gordon, so it has the reputation of being the Protestant site of Jesus’ burial, while the Holy Sepulcher has the reputation of being the Orthodox and Catholic site.

The fact that the Protestants have no representation in the Holy Sepulcher, but are equally represented at the Garden Tomb, is also, for the most part, irrelevant. Our decision about which site is the correct one should be based on research, with no consideration for denominational loyalties.

The Stage 2000 Years Ago.

Let’s forget the modern way that these two sites are staged and try to imagine how things were 2000 years ago. The fact that the shrines in the Holy Sepulcher are indoors, and the Garden Tomb is outdoors, should not be a factor in our decision over which site is authentic. We must remember that we are talking about events that occurred a very long time ago. Literally everything that is inside the Holy Sepulcher was outdoors 2000 years ago. There was a hill there. There were tombs there, and there was a garden for growing produce. (Evidence of this garden is found in the crypt of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer close by.)  Everyone on both sides of this issue knows that. In fact, in every way that the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary fit the physical Biblical description of the site where Jesus died and was buried, so did the Holy Sepulcher 2000 years ago. The Garden tomb does not present any features that make it a more desirable candidate for our conclusions.

Comparison to the Nazareth Village.

The presentation of the Garden Tomb appears similar to the Nazareth Village in Nazareth. The Nazareth Village is a tourist attraction that is not the actual site of the original town of Nazareth. However, a visitor might think so simply because it has been constructed to look authentic. The only thing that the Garden Tomb adds to its attraction, that the Nazareth Village does not, is an ancient feature – an actual tomb.

Scientific Conclusions.

Virtually all academically-certified archeologists, both Christians and non-Christian, regard the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as the actual site of Jesus’ burial, and that both the Garden Tomb, which was and is on the north side of the old city, and its nearby cliff, now called “Gordon’s Calvary”, is lacking scientific merit. (By the way, the name Gordon’s Calvary is a new label for this cliff, since up until the 19th century this site was referred to as Jeremiah’s Grotto.)

Let us go one step further. All ancient writers since the time of Christ place the location of Jesus’ death and burial on the west side of the city. There is not one of them who gives us any reason to believe that these events took place on the north side of the city. Once again, everyone on both sides of the issue is aware of this fact.

The Gospels.

The Gospels record that Jesus was crucified at a place called Golgotha, which, in the first century, was outside the city walls of Jerusalem, and that He was buried in a tomb nearby. The fact is that the Jews would never allow tombs to be inside their cities, because of a passage in the Old Testament book of Numbers (19:16-18) which pronounced anyone who touched a grave to be unclean for seven days. Therefore, all graves in ancient Jerusalem were outside the city limits.

Hadrian’s pagan temple of Venus (Aphrodite), built in 135 AD over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

Take note that at the time of Jesus’ death, both the site of the Holy Sepulcher and the site of the Garden Tomb were outside the city walls. On this basis, both have equal merit.

The Third Wall.

In 41-44 AD, which is about 10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Herod the Great’s grandson, Herod Agrippa 1, built a new and longer wall around Jerusalem. This wall, which is called the third wall, since there was a first and second, was so large in its circumference that it engulfed the site of the current Church of the Holy Sepulcher. However, in 70 AD, the Roman General Titus overthrew Jerusalem, and tore down this third wall. Over the ages, the third wall was entirely forgotten until the 1930’s, when a group of archeologists discovered it near a modern gas station, using the writings of Flavius Josephus as a field guide. Because of Josephus, we know that this third wall put the area of the Holy Sepulcher inside the city of Jerusalem by around the year 44 AD.

However, it should be pointed out that the site of both The Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary were never, at any time, inside the old city of Jerusalem. They were always outside the ancient city. This should be remembered, as it will be important later in this article.     

Hadrian’s Pagan Temple.

This part of the story comes to us from six non-Biblical historians. After both the Temple and the Third Wall were destroyed, there came the Roman emperor Hadrian in 117 AD who visited Jerusalem in 129 AD. Subsequently, there was another Jewish revolt in 132 AD led by Simon Bar Kochba (pronounced Bar Ko’-bah). This aroused the ire of Hadrian, and in response he grew determined to crush any competing religions in Palestine other than those endorsed by Rome. He expelled all of the Jews from Jerusalem, and, according to several ancient witnesses, he deliberately tried to erase the memory of Christianity by covering the tomb and crucifixion site of Jesus under a deep pile of earth and timber, capped off by a pagan temple to the Goddess Venus (including a shrine to the Roman God Jupiter).

It is important to note that of these six ancient historians who write about the location of the crucifixion site between 160 and 450 AD, literally all of them place this event either under or in the vicinity of Hadrian’s temple to Venus. (See the chart on page 8.) 

That this act was deliberate is clearly charged by Saint Jerome, who writes, “The original persecutors, indeed, supposed that by polluting our holy places they would deprive us of our faith in the passion and in the resurrection.” (Jerome, Letter 58 to Paulinus). Here Jerome strongly implies that the builders of the pagan temple knew exactly where the tomb of Jesus was – something that the primitive Christian community must have also known.

Similarly, Eusebius says

This sacred cave, then, certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove entirely from the eyes of men, supposing in their folly that thus they should be able effectually to obscure the truth…Then, as though their purpose had been effectually accomplished, they prepare on this foundation a truly dreadful sepulcher of souls, by building a gloomy shrine of lifeless idols to the impure spirit whom they call Venus, and offering detestable oblations therein on profane and accursed altars. For they supposed that their object could not otherwise be fully attained, than by thus burying the sacred cave beneath these foul pollutions.” (Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, 3.26)

Also, Socrates Scholasticus writes

…those who hated Christianity, having covered the spot with a mound of earth, erected on it a temple to Venus, and set up her image there, not caring for the memory of the place. (Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, 1.17)

Hadrian did several other things. He renamed Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina. Aelia was the middle part of his own name, and Capitolina referred to the three Capitoline gods — Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. He also reconstructed the city, creating, among other things, two main roads, one running through the middle, north and south, called the Cardo Maximus, and one running through the middle, east and west, called the Decumanus. Archeologists today have excavated parts of these two main roads. The Cardo Maximus ran just to the east of the area of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Decumanus ran just to the south of the church.

Visitors to the Holy Sepulcher’s Chapel of Saint Vartan can still see the foundation of Hadrian’s pagan temple under the current structure. This temple to Venus remained in place for almost two centuries until it was torn down. Ironically, in trying to erase Christianity, the presence of this pagan temple, in fact, marked the site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While Hadrian’s Temple existed, the historic record proves that local Christians were aware that the death and burial of Jesus occurred somewhere underneath this Temple.

It should be noted that there is no archeological nor historic evidence that any such pagan temple was ever erected over the site of the Garden Tomb or Gordon’s Calvary. In contrast, ruins of this pagan temple can be clearly seen in the Chapel of Saint Vartan in the Holy Sepulcher.

Ancient Memory of These Sites.

One could make a strong case that the location of Jesus’ tomb was common knowledge in Jerusalem at that time, and that Christians in Jerusalem worshiped at these sites before Hadrian built his pagan temple. If this is true, then Hadrian’s decision to build his pagan temple in this chosen spot strongly suggests that the local residents in Jerusalem had previously known where Jesus died.

Socrates Scholasticus (prior to 439 AD), writes

Those who embraced the Christian faith, after the period of his passion, greatly venerated this tomb; but those who hated Christianity, having covered the spot with a mound of earth, erected on it a temple to Venus, and set up her image there, not caring for the memory of the place. (Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, 1.17)

Likewise, Sozeman (prior to 450 AD) suggests that prior to the construction of the pagan temple, Christians worshiped at the exact spot that was later marked by the statue of Venus (herein called Aphrodite).

They also erected a temple to Aphrodite, and set up a little image, so that those who repaired there to worship Christ would appear to bow the knee to Aphrodite, and that thus the true cause of offering worship in that place would, in course of time, be forgotten; and that as Christians would not dare fearlessly to frequent the place or to point it out to others, the Temple and statue would come to be regarded as exclusively appertaining to the Pagans. (Sozeman, Ecclesiastical History, 2.1)

The most compelling, and certainly the earliest witness to the local memory of the site of Jesus’ death and burial, come through the testimony of Melito of Sardis in 160 AD. Melito was a very important man in the history of the church, because he is the first one who compiled the Christian Canon of the Old Testament. In fact, he is the one who coined the term “Old Testament”. He went to Palestine, and a local resident of Jerusalem took him to the very site of Hadrian’s Temple, which was still there at the time.

Melito of Sardis (circa 160 AD).

In one instance Melito says that the crucifixion took place in the middle of Jerusalem. Twice he says that Jesus was murdered in the very center of Jerusalem. And in one of those statements he gets more specific, adding that Jesus was crucified in the middle of the main street of Jerusalem (presumably the Cardo Maximus. He writes, “This one was murdered. And where was he murdered? In the very center of Jerusalem!” (On the Passover, 72)

And again


Pay attention, all families of the nations, and observe! An extraordinary murder has taken place in the center of Jerusalem, in the city devoted to God's law, in the city of the Hebrews, in the city of the prophets, in the city thought of as just. And who has been murdered? And who is the murderer? I am ashamed to give the answer, but give it I must. For if this murder had taken place at night, or if he had been slain in a desert place, it would be well to keep silent; but it was in the middle of the main street, even in the center of the city, while all were looking on, that the unjust murder of this just person took place. (On the Passover, 94)

It just so happens that in 160 AD, the area of the Holy Sepulcher was close to the intersection of the two main perpendicular roads that met in the middle of the city. From Melito’s statements, there should be no doubt as to where the Jerusalem community believed that the crucifixion of Jesus took place.

In contrast, the area known as “Jeremiah’s Grotto”, now called “Gordon’s Calvary”, has never been inside the walls of the city, let alone in the middle of the city. In my opinion, this testimony of Melito of Sardis, by itself, completely excludes any possibility that another site could complete for the reputation of Jesus’ sufferings.

Eusebius and The Onomasticon.

Eusebius was a Christian scholar from the coastal town of Caesarea in Palestine, the country in which Jesus lived. Eusebius traveled the land and wrote the Onomasticon, in which he cataloged and geographically located many of the places that are named in the Bible. In this book he specifically says that the place called Golgotha was north of Mount Zion, and in the city of Jerusalem. Now Mount Zion in the Bible generally refers to the whole of Mount Moriah, on which the city of Jerusalem sat. However, during the Byzantine era, the Christian settlers who repopulated Jerusalem lived in a secluded neighborhood outside the city of Aelia Capitolina on what was then and still is today called Mount Zion. He writes, “Golgotha. Place of the skull where the Christ was crucified. It is pointed out in Jerusalem north of Mount Zion.” (Onomasticon, Section C The Gospels.). Once again, it bears repeating that the Garden Tomb has never, at any time, been inside the city of Jerusalem.

Eusebius of Caesarea

Our understanding of where Mount Zion was in the early Byzantine era is provided by both the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333 AD) and Eucherius of Lyons (circa 400 AD). Both describe Zion as being the entire Southwestern portion of Mount Moriah, but not the entire mountain.

Regardless of what geographic definition you think that Eusebius was imagining regarding Mount Zion, one should carefully note that in the Onomasticon he wrote that Golgotha was in Jerusalem.

It should also be noted that both the Onomasticon by Eusebius, and Melito’s book On the Passover, essentially agree as to the site of Golgotha. After all, both men personally visited Jerusalem, and Eusebius himself was a long-time resident of Palestine, so he would be in an adequate position to be an eyewitness to these details. Once again, we have sound, historic, and literal evidence that the site of the Holy Sepulcher is the place where Jesus died and was buried, and not at the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary.

Empress Helena and Bishop Macarius.

Eusebius was such an important scholar in the history of the Church, that he caught the attention of the Roman Emperor, Constantine. Constantine was the first emperor of the Roman Empire to embrace Christianity, and he assumed his role as Emperor in 306 AD. In 326 AD. Constantine sent his mother, Empress Helena, to the land of Palestine with Jerusalem’s local bishop, Macarius, and to build churches, especially near the sites that were relevant to the life of Jesus.

We are told that Macarius directed Helena to the site of the pagan temple of Venus. According to Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History), Macarius was able to pinpoint very accurately where the tomb of Jesus was, because there was a local Hebrew man (Later known as Judas Kyriacus) who had documents that were handed down to him by his ancestors, pinpointing the location of Jesus’ tomb underneath the Temple. He writes 

…some say that the facts were first disclosed by a Hebrew who dwelt in the East, and who derived his information from some documents which had come to him by paternal inheritance; but it seems more accordant with truth to suppose that God revealed the fact by means of signs and dreams; for I do not think that human information is requisite when God thinks it best to make manifest the same. (Sozeman, Ecclesiastical History, 2.1)

(It should be noted that Sozeman did not doubt the authenticity of the written documents, but rather the necessity of them.)

Shortly after the building of the Holy Sepulcher, Eusebius began writing The Life of Constantine, which was still unfinished by the time of Eusebius’ death in 339 AD. In this book he describes in great detail the process of locating the tomb of Jesus, and the construction of the original Holy Sepulcher church.

Regarding the discovery of the tomb, he writes

But as soon as the original surface of the ground, beneath the covering of earth, appeared, immediately, and contrary to all expectation, the venerable and hollowed monument of our Savior's resurrection was discovered. Then indeed did this most holy cave present a faithful similitude of his return to life, in that, after lying buried in darkness, it again emerged to light, and afforded to all who came to witness the sight, a clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene, a testimony to the resurrection of the Savior clearer than any voice could give. (Source:  Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, 3.28).

While some have suggested that this “clear and visible proof” was the graffiti that ancient Christians were so often apt to inscribe onto sacred sites (and this may be possible), there is another, and more likely theory. Exactly what was Eusebius envisioning when he said, “similitude”, “clear and visible proof of the wonders which that spot had once been the scene”, and “testimony to the resurrection”? By using the word “similitude”, Eusebius was probably revealing that the tomb was similar to the description of it in the Gospels. After all, what could be more convincing to those first viewing the unearthed tomb than the testimony provided by Scripture? 

By saying, “a clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene…” Eusebius was probably observing all of the effects of the tomb that matched the Gospel narrative.

This “testimony to the resurrection” could have included a nearby, hewn rolling stone lying on the ground. Additionally, the tomb was a bench-type tomb, very much like one that the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea would have constructed; one that a person would have had to stoop to look into (see John 20:5 in the Textus Receptus/King James Version), and one that was close in proximity to Mount Golgotha. All of these visible elements were consistent with the description of the tomb in the Gospels. This was probably Eusebius’ “clear and visible proof”.

The Statues of Jupiter and Venus.

There are two ancient scholars which give us an exact fix on the location of both the tomb and the site of the cross. The first is the brilliant Christian scholar Saint Jerome, who wrote a letter to his friend Paulinus (the Bishop of Nola, Italy) in 393 AD, saying 

From the time of Hadrian to the reign of Constantine, a period of about one hundred and eighty years, the spot which had witnessed the resurrection was occupied by a figure of Jupiter; while on the rock where the cross had stood, a marble statue of Venus was set up by the heathen, and became an object of worship. (Jerome, Letter 58 to Paulinus)

A statue of Jupiter.

This observation was further confirmed by a statement from Sozeman, that Christians used to worship at the site later marked by a statue of Venus, apparently believing that the site of the crucifixion was directly underneath (Sozemen, Ecclesiastical History, 2.1, prior to 450 AD)

Socrates Scholasticus.

In 439 AD Socrates Scholasticus (also called Socrates of Constantinople, Ecclesiastical History) described in great detail the process of finding the site of the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. Socrates agreed with all of his literary predecessors, even confirming what Jerome said, about the concealment of both the tomb, and Mount Calvary, under the Temple that was erected by Hadrian.

Socrates further elaborates on this story, describing, as well, the process by which Helena and Macarius discovered not only the true cross of Jesus, but also the crosses of the two thieves, the nails that suspended Jesus, and the plaque that was hung over his head that still showed the words dictated by Pontius Pilate. While certain elements in this account may seem to be sensational embellishments that attached themselves to the main story over time (after all, Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History was written 114 years after the events that he describes), these inclusions to the historical narrative might have thrown his entire testimony into doubt, if it weren’t for the fact that everything Socrates describes, apart from what many might assume are fanciful elaborations, entirely agrees with his studious predecessors – that Jesus was crucified and buried at the site of the Holy Sepulcher.

Theodoret (Prior to 427 AD).

Theodoret was an influential Byzantine theologian of the School of Antioch. Of Empress Helena he wrote  

When she arrived at the place where the Savior suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous Temple, which had been erected there, to be destroyed, and the very materials to be removed. (Theodoret, A History of the Church ,1.18)

With the inclusion of Theodoret, we have six ancient authors that place the tomb of Christ at the site of the Holy Sepulcher.

Failed Memory? 

People who believe that the Garden Tomb is the authentic site of the burial of Jesus often seem unaware of all of these historic witnesses. Moreover, they must, by necessity, assume that the primitive church in Jerusalem quickly forgot where Jesus was buried, and that Helena and Bishop Macarius had either made a mistake in their judgments, or that they had ulterior motives for choosing their site. However, there is no historic record that supports either of these assumptions, and much evidence that refutes them.

The following chart will give the reader an overall view of the various claims made by seven ancient texts regarding the geography of the death and burial of Jesus.

The resurrection was a famous event.

As both Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen report, immediately after Jesus left this earth early believers were keenly interested in the exact location of this miraculous event. In fact, it would be very strange if they weren’t interested. And since the book of Acts records that the church grew very quickly in Jerusalem, logic would suggest that their interest in the location of the site of Jesus’ resurrection would be very high.

The Jerusalem church, most likely, did not forget where the tomb was, and it would be illogical to think so. Macarius and Helena were merely availed by local traditions. Let’s not forget that Macarius was both an elder in the church of Jerusalem, and a lifetime resident of that city. He probably lived no more than ten minutes from the tomb itself, suggesting that he would probably have been aware of its location all his life.

As stated earlier, anyone who still believes that Helena and Macarius had falsely located the site of the tomb cannot support this assumption from any textual record. If Jesus had been buried at the Garden Tomb (or on the Mount of Olives, as some remotely suggest), why did the ancient church have absolutely no recollection of this, and sufficient recollection of the contrary? We are not merely assuming that the Jerusalem church believed that the traditional site was the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. The testimony of six ancient writers more than confirms this notion.

What about the Garden Tomb? 

In regard to the place now called The Garden Tomb, first of all, that there is no ancient evidence whatsoever that would draw anyone to conclude that either the Garden Tomb or Gordon’s Calvary are authentic. In fact, until the late 19th century, no one ever doubted the location of Jesus' tomb.

The Beginnings of the Garden Tomb Theory. 

The notion of an alternative site for Jesus' death and burial was first proposed in 1842 by the German theologian and philosopher, Otto Thenius. He (and a handful of other contemporary clergymen and businessmen) suggested that the skull-faced cliff was the hill of Golgotha, and that an adjacent cave, called Jeremiah’s Grotto, was the tomb of Jesus. (The so-called “Garden Tomb” was actually discovered twenty-five years later, in 1867.)

Otto Thenius.

Then in 1882 there was a popular military general in the British army by the name of Charles Gordon. He was a very kind and generous man. He worked a lot with the poor, and he was an evangelical Christian who never married. But take note – he was not an archeologist, nor was he an historian. He was a career military man and an experienced cartographer, which means he was an expert at drawing and reading maps.

General Charles Gordon.

During his entire lifetime General Gordon only spent two months in the city of Jerusalem, and in his book, Reflections in Palestine, he dedicated only two pages to his research regarding Golgotha. It is reported that his conclusions relied heavily on the assumptions of his non-scientific predecessors who viewed the so-called “Skull Hill” site as possibly authentic.   

Being a Protestant evangelical Christian, he may have been vexed by the lack of Protestant representation at the Holy Sepulcher. However, the main reason that Gordon’s theories were popularized was because he was martyred three years later in the country of Sudan, so instantly his fame as a Christian hero was catapulted, and his theories were understandably immortalized. Dozens of books were written about him, and this is how his ideas caught fire – theories that were, in the mind of many, a blend of theology and mysticism.


General Gordon was, indeed, mystical in his approach to the topography of the land. Being a cartographer, he looked at a topographical map of Mount Moriah (which is the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem was built), and he concluded that the mountain was formed in the shape of a woman. This cognitive process would be like that of someone who sees the shape of a face in a cloud formation, or the ancient astrologers who saw the shape of animals (called constellations) in the alignment of the stars. In this way, the shape of a woman jumped off the page as Charles Gordon studied a map of Mount Moriah. In developing this idea, he concluded that every woman has a skeleton, and that every skeleton has a skull. He even sketched a female skeleton in his notebook, describing this theory. It just so happened that the skull in General Gordon’s female-shaped mountain was conveniently positioned over the place called Jeremiah’s Grotto. Upon visiting the site, his imagination, still fully engaged, interpreted that the crags in the side of this cliff, as did his predecessors, as forming the face of a skull, and he determined that this was the skull of his imagined female-shaped mountain. It was also very convenient that there was a tomb nearby, one next to a garden. Since he was a Protestant, and because his martyrdom propelled him to post-mortem fame, his theories understandably took flight among other Protestants.

Unfortunately, this method of study is not to be received as serious scientific analysis, and it shows that his conclusions about the location of Calvary were clearly based, in part, on a mystical interpretation of the topography of Jerusalem. We should also note that General Gordon similarly identified the original site of the Garden of Eden, causing scholars to describe his efforts as pseudo-science – a strange mix of Bible study, map cartography and mysticism.

It is this mystical approach to the Holy Land that prompted authors Seth Frantzman and Ruth Kark to describe General Gordon as a man with many eccentricities, with a determined opposition to the power of the Catholic Church, and that his proposal for a new site for Calvary was fueled mostly by his loathing of either Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or both. Secondly, the Holy Sepulcher probably did not conform to his idea of religious devotion, with all of its icons, the turf battles among the monks, and the dark caverns.

General Gordon’s Ignorance About Archeology.

Aside from everything else, Charles Gordon made one fatal mistake, stemming from the fact that he lived in the 19th century. He knew, as well as anyone, that ancient tombs were not allowed within the city limits of any ancient Jewish community. During his two-month residency in Jerusalem, and after viewing the current walls around the city, which were built in the 16th century, he noticed that the Holy Sepulcher was inside these walls, but that Jeremiah’s Grotto was not. For this reason, he was convinced that the Holy Sepulcher could not be the site of Golgotha, because it was within the walls of the city. What he did not know, and what was only learned by archeologists in the 1930’s, was that the area of the Holy Sepulcher during the time of Jesus was outside the city walls. It would be improper to blame either Charles Gordon or his theological sources for their mistake, but we need to categorize his conclusions as what they really are – assumptions based on the lack of information. Discoveries, like what happened in the 1930’s, generally have a way of dealing the deathblow to theories like those of Charles Gordon. And with these new discoveries, we would have assumed that interest in the Garden Tomb would have instantly tanked… except for one thing. Religion is a very powerful motivator. Many Protestants are prejudiced against either Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and the Garden Tomb is so spiritually and aesthetically stimulating. As a result, there are still people who visit the Garden Tomb, even though these numbers are relatively few, compared to the Holy Sepulcher.

General Gordon apparently didn’t have much room in his reasoning for evidence from history, especially the ancient authors which have been previously quoted. Consequently, we must conclude that General Gordon may not have had convenient access to ancient texts outside the Bible, much like he didn’t have access to any information about the third wall that was built about 10 years after Jesus’ death. Because he was not a scientist, historian or an archeologist, only spending a little bit of time studying the subject, and apparently unaware of so many things, his theory of the location of Calvary was, and is, fundamentally flawed.

Gordon’s Calvary.

We should also point out that the hill now called Gordon’s Calvary looks nothing like a skull, compared to the 19th century photographs that were taken of it.

Gordon’s Calvary.

Moreover, prior to anyone living in the late 19th century, no one in history had ever concluded that this rock face looked like a skull. In fact, the face of this mountain is probably more the result of quarrying rather than natural conditions. We know by comparing 19th-century photographs to those of today that the appearance of the soft limestone hill is constantly crumbling, and it probably didn’t look like a skull back in the first century. A recent illustrative example is that the part of the “face” that resembled a “nose bridge” between the “eyes” broke off in 2015, and it no longer resembles the face of a skull.

The “Joseph of Arimathea Tombs”.

Not only did General Gordon ignore history and archeology, he also ignored the fact that there are, and were during his time, first century tombs inside the Holy Sepulcher, which are so-called the “Joseph of Arimathea” kokh-tombs. (Kokh tombs are narrow niches carved deeply into vertical walls.)  In fact, the best tangible evidence that the tomb of Jesus was in this general area is the fact that these first-century tombs are still preserved inside the church in the Syrian Orthodox chapel. These burial shafts were clearly built during the time of Christ, or at least a century or two earlier, and thus attest to some kind of burial ground in this area.

First-century tombs inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Did Charles Gordon ignore these tombs because of his contempt for the building that housed them? Did his loathing for the Holy Sepulcher cause him to even disregard tangible evidence that was located within its own walls? As unfortunate as this reality appears, it seems possible.

Another Tomb Below the Rotunda.

Photographs have recently surfaced revealing a burial bench tomb similar to Jesus’ under the floor of the church’s rotunda. However, accesses to this tomb is not accessible to the public.

A bench-type tomb discovered under the rotunda at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Our attempt here is not to besmirch the name or reputation of General Gordon, because he was truly a fine man whose heart was inclined toward God, while exuding an attitude toward Christ. These are admirable and enviable qualities. We are only dealing with his theories.

What of the Garden Tomb Itself?

The fullest archaeological study of the area of the Garden Tomb has been the seminal investigation by Gabriel Barklay, professor of Biblical archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the late twentieth century. Here are Barklay’s conclusions: 

Dating. Regarding the dating, it is doubtful that the Garden Tomb is a first century tomb. The design of the interior of the tomb is typical of tombs in the 8th-7th centuries BC, and that it fell out of use later. If this is true, then in the first century it could not have been a new tomb, as John 19:41 dictates. The fact that it is a tomb near Gordon’s Calvary is not impressive, since there are tombs all around Jerusalem.

The cistern. The fact that there is a cistern at the location of the Garden Tomb indicates that there was, in fact, a garden there. But this, in itself, is not compelling, since there were gardens all around Jerusalem. Besides, according to Barklay, the waterproofing on the cistern is of the type used by the Crusaders at the beginning of the second millennium, and so the cistern was probably constructed at that time.

The groove. Finally, the edge of the groove on the floor outside the tomb, which is popularly thought to be a guide for a rolling stone, has a diagonal edge, which would be unable to hold a stone slab in place. The stone would just fall out.

The groove outside of the Garden Tomb.

Additionally, known tombs of the rolling-stone type used vertical walls on either side of the entrance to hold the stone, not a groove on the ground. Also, the groove is unnecessarily long for a rolling stone, extending far beyond the doorway on both sides, which would be unnecessary. There is also evidence that the crusaders used this tomb as a stable, and that the groove was probably a water trough built in the 11th century for their donkeys or mules.

The Rolling Stone.

At a monastery on top of Mount Nebo in the country of Jordan, there is a large rolling stone, ten feet in diameter, called the Abu Badd Stone, that Garden Tomb enthusiasts claim is the rolling stone of the Garden Tomb itself. Documentation at the monastery asserts that this stone was used by an earlier Byzantine monastery located about 80 miles away in the Arabian village of Faisaliyah. Similarities in color and chisel marks between the stone and the Garden Tomb are inconsequential, since limestone has the same color throughout the Middle East, as did ancient masonry techniques. And even if the stone was from the Garden Tomb, which no one can discern, it doesn’t prove that Jesus Himself was buried in the tomb.

The Rolling Stone at the Church of Saint Saviour on Mount Zion.

Additionally, the traditional rolling stone that covered the tomb of Jesus is in the possession of the Armenians, and kept safe in the Church of Saint Savior on Mount Zion. This stone is virtually rectangular, and is about one-and-a-half feet thick, and could not in any way fit inside the groove on the ground of the Garden Tomb.


What have we established here? First, it is virtually certain that primitive Christians venerated the site of the Holy Sepulcher as the place where Jesus was buried, and that the sheer volume of historical and archeological evidence has invoked overwhelming support by the scholastic community up to the present day. This vast amount of evidence stands in stark contrast to the lack of evidence provided by those proponents that the Garden Tomb is the authentic site of Christ’s burial. Moreover, the methodology of Charles Gordon cannot, in any way, be considered serious and professional scientific inquiry, and must be understood as the musings of a sincere but amateur speculator.

Finally, according to Jerome Murphey-O’Connor, in his Oxford Archaeological Guide to the Holy Land, “It is much easier to pray here than in the Holy Sepulcher. Unfortunately, there is no possibility that it is, in fact, the place where Christ was buried.”

Back to the Heart of the Gospel.

It is clearly observed that guides at the Garden Tomb focus on the fact that the reality of the resurrection of Jesus should be everyone’s foremost consideration. After all, most Christians around the world will never visit either site, nor will they know or care what the opposing arguments are.

Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. To some, the place where this occurred is extremely important. To others, it matters little where it happened. Those who take tour groups to the Garden Tomb will admit that the Holy Sepulcher has far more historic support, but that the appearance of the Garden Tomb creates an atmosphere that makes the heart more receptive to the message of the resurrection. It is far more essential to prove the reality of Jesus’ resurrection than to be mired in a discussion of where it happened. There are too many people who either don’t know or don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, so any further disputing where these events took place is, at best, a poor use of time and resources. We should all be not so much concerned about the minute details of first century realities (ie. the latitude and longitude of Jesus’ resurrection), but rather about how the story of Jesus relates to our personal lives.

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