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Times Will Tell Podcast

What does archaeology say about the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre?

Ahead of Easter, we walk in the Jerusalem Old City church compound with top archaeologist Prof. Jodi Magness in this audio tour of the history and controversy of a unique holy spot

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Welcome to Times Will Tell, the weekly podcast from The Times of Israel.

This week, ahead of Easter, we tour the Jerusalem Old City’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre with top archaeologist Prof. Jodi Magness.

Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified and buried on the spot of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But does archaeology back that up?

Magness is the Keenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s a classical and biblical archaeologist specializing in the Holy Land from the time of Jesus up to the 10th century, and leads the ongoing excavations of the richly decorated Galilee synagogue in Huqoq.

Magness has just finished a forthcoming book on Jerusalem through the ages, from the time of the Jebusites through the reign of Charlemagne, and generously agreed to serve as our guide on Monday of Holy Week.

As we tour the church and its surroundings, we see parts of the ruins of earlier stages of the church, including an arguably Christian find that predates the Constantine construction in around 330 CE, as well as remains of earlier structures. By the end of the tour, we see what Magness feels is the best evidence that supports the Christian tradition, although nothing is unambiguous.

A woman wearing a face mask attends Easter Sunday Mass led by Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, on April 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“Many scholars think that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre likely is the authentic spot where Jesus was crucified and buried because the tradition is so ancient. But you still have that 300-year gap, which is a leap of faith that archeology cannot cross,” says Magness.

Before the tour, Magness gives some background on the impetus behind the initial construction of the Holy Sepulchre Church at this location, as opposed to on the Temple Mount, which had been the center of gravity for Jerusalem until then.

“What happens then is that with the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the first emperor who legalized Christianity, Constantine, the focal point religiously of the city moves from the Temple Mount to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This spot becomes the center of the world, not the Temple Mount. And in fact, when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, many of the traditions that were associated with the Temple Mount were moved to the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” she says.

“For example, we have early Christian sources that talked about Golgotha, the rocky outcrop on which Jesus is believed to have been crucified, that that was Mount Moriah, that this is the spot where Abraham offered his son for sacrifice, not the Temple Mount,” says Magness.

A nun praying in the Alexander Nevsky Church, adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on April 11, 2022. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

We begin our podcast tour at the Alexander Nevsky Church, also called the Russian Alexander Hospice, which is located to the east of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (For much of our time in this church, we are standing next to praying pilgrims, so to respect them, at times we’re almost whispering.)

The church land was purchased by the Russian Orthodox Church after the Crimean War in 1859. Prior to new construction, a well-known architect/archaeologist named Conrad Schick surveyed the ruins — including Herodian-style stones — and claimed that he had found a portion of the ancient city’s Second Wall, through which Jesus is described walking prior to his crucifixion in the New Testament. (Modern scholarship does not support this identification, but many Christians venerate the location.)

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, explains Magness, the city lay in ruin until Hadrian rebuilt it as Aelia Capitolina in 129/130 CE. The original site of the Constantine-era Holy Sepulchre was a repurposed pagan temple built by Hadrian. Inside the Alexander Nevsky Church, Magness points out some in situ columns from Hadrian’s Jerusalem, as well as repurposed Second Temple-era ruins.

Crusader-era facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 11, 2022. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

We enter the Crusader-era facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and among the sections we visit is the Armenian Chapel dedicated to St. Vartan, which is reached by descending a couple sets of stairs. The chapel, explains Magness, was originally a quarry, dating back thousands of years, as well as for the original 330 CE construction of the church.

According to well-known later tradition, this is where St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, is believed to have found the remains of the true cross, which is then why Constantine comes and builds the Church of the Holy Sepulchre here, explains Magness.

Magness describes a ship graffito and Latin-language inscription that was discovered in plaster inside a quarry chamber off of the chapel, which is potentially proof that one of the original builders was already a Christian.

“What we have here apparently, is evidence of very early Christian pilgrimage to this spot even before the Church of Constantine was built,” said Magness.

The ‘Chapel of Vartan (or Vardan) Mamikonian’ below the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The final stop on our tour is a small Syrian Orthodox chapel off of the main Rotunda room.

“It’s a very sad and neglected chapel,” said Magness. “But what’s so interesting is that opening off of this chapel, you can see that there’s an opening in the wall that leads to an area outside the walls of the church.”

As we crouch inside that opening, we see a pair of Second Temple Jewish locula, or tombs.

“Now, that means that this was a Jewish cemetery,” said Magness. “This apparently is part of the cemetery that Constantine cut back when he built the church. And these were left because they’re outside the walls of the Church.”

“The significance then is that this proves that this was a cemetery in the time of Jesus. And that means that this must have been outside the walls of the city at the time of Jesus. So that’s the closest that archeology comes to sort of establishing the authenticity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

Visitors tour the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, on March 10, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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