Conservationists working at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem claim to have found the original limestone bed on which Jesus was laid to rest.
The dramatic discovery was reported by National Geographic, which has been partnering with a team of experts working at the church, the holiest place in Christendom as the traditional site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial.
Restoration work at the church has been ongoing since the spring, but from last Wednesday to Saturday, researchers from the National Technical University of Athens, leading a team of dozens of workers, were allowed by the various church authorities to do 60 hours of work in what is traditionally believed to be Jesus’s tomb.
They removed the marble slab that has sat atop the tomb for centuries, and worked feverishly to expose what lay beneath.
“When the marble cladding was first removed on the night of October 26, an initial inspection… showed only a layer of fill material underneath,” National Geographic reported. “However, as researchers continued their non-stop work over the course of 60 hours, another marble slab with a cross carved into its surface was exposed. By Friday night, just hours before the tomb was to be re-sealed, the original limestone burial bed was revealed intact.”
Martin Biddle, an expert on the history of the tomb, said scholars would now have to carefully examine the data that was collected when the burial bed and cave walls were exposed to definitively establish a connection to Jesus. “The surfaces of the rock must be looked at with the greatest care, I mean minutely, for traces of graffiti,” Biddle told National Geographic. “Why did [the 4th century historian] Bishop Eusebius identify this tomb as the tomb of Christ? He doesn’t say, and we don’t know,” said Biddle. “I don’t myself think Eusebius got it wrong — he was a very good scholar — so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for.”
The Greek team, which has now resealed the chamber, has said it collected considerable documentation at the site, and does indeed intend to conduct extensive tests on what it found there.
The Greek team entered the revered spot last week as part of the project to renovate and preserve the 18th century Edicule, or small building, which contains the ancient tomb.
Historians long believed the original remnants of the tomb had been destroyed over the centuries. The original church that sat atop the traditional site of Jesus’s burial was demolished in 1009, nearly a century before the commencement of the First Crusade in 1099.
The Fatimid caliph of Egypt ordered the governor of Ramle to destroy the church, and a Christian chronicler from Antioch wrote that the Arabs “attempted to remove the Holy Sepulchre and to cause all trace of it to disappear… [and] broke and demolished the greater part of it.”
But to what the archaeologists said was their surprise, they established that remnants of the cave survived.
Moving aside the top marble slab above the tomb on Wednesday for the first time since the Edicule was built, they found a second slab, gray and featuring a small etching of a cross, said to date to the 12th century, the Associated Press’s Daniel Estrin reported on Thursday.
After removing the gray marble slab, they exposed part of the cave wall.
“This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen,” Antonia Moropoulou, head of the conservation and restoration project, told the magazine.
“I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this,” added Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic’s archaeologist-in-residence. “We can’t say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades.”
The magazine noted that while it was impossible to establish with certainty whether the rock-hewn tomb was the burial site of Jesus, the discovery of at least six other rock-cut tombs around the church point to the area being a Jewish cemetery during the late Second Temple period — the time when Jesus the Jew from Nazareth lived.
Dan Bahat, former city archaeologist of Jerusalem, told National Geographic: “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”
The restoration team has installed a window to showcase part of the area exposed by the researchers so that visitors can see into the limestone cave.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.