Monday, March 7, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Garden Tomb

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

We mentioned in a previous post that we had visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Though tradition says that was the place which Jesus was crucified and buried, the site does not fit the biblical record, nor does archeology offer much support to the site being the place where these important events happened. A growing number of people, particularly those from an evangelical persuasion, see the Garden Tomb, located just outside the Old City, as being the more likely location of the actual death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

According to the Garden Tomb Association website, “As early as 1842 a German Theologian named Otto Thenius proposed the idea that the outcropping of rock known today as "Skull Hill" could possibly be significant in the identification of the site of the crucifixion. That idea lay seemingly dormant for quite some time until General Charles Gordon on sabbatical in the area (1882-1883) began to publish similar ideas. Because of his importance in British society at that time the idea took hold and people began to look seriously at the claims that this could possibly be the site listed in the New Testament as Golgotha (Aramaic) or Calvary (Latin) - the place of the skull. It was the efforts of two ladies in particular, Charlotte Hussey and Louisa Hope, who followed these ideas and began to take them seriously and thought that the place ought to be preserved. The Garden Tomb Association was formally established in 1893 . . .”

I have stood on the edge of the Garden and looked across at the rocky hill that is indeed in the shape of a skull. The eye sockets and nose are still clearly visible even after two millennia. This hillside was not carved out by human hands, but is a natural occurrence. Many historians and archeologists have studied this site and have come to believe this is the actual Golgotha found in the Gospel narratives.

Directly in front of Golgotha is a flat area that contained the remains of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who had been executed by crucifixion and stoning. Those remains have been dated back to the First Century, indicating it was a site for Roman executions such as what Jesus was subjected to. If this is the actual place of Jesus’ crucifixion, He would have been crucified somewhere on that flat area in front of Golgotha, along with the two thieves. Sadly, that flat area has now been paved over and serves as a bus stop for the city of Jerusalem. But one of the Garden Tomb guides pointed out to our group that it is not the place that matters, but the Person. Regardless of whether it is a bus stop or a Gothic cathedral built over the site of Christ’s death, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12 HCSV).

The Bible says that after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body off the cross and buried Him in his own tomb. We know little about this Joseph other than he was wealthy and had a new tomb that he was having built for himself but had not yet been used. He prepared Jesus for burial and then placed the Lord into that tomb. When the Garden Tomb site was being excavated, they discovered that a wealthy individual had a prosperous vineyard near the site. Could this have been the vineyard of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea?

As excavation continued, they discovered a hillside filled with tombs. Most were small and unremarkable. Those small tombs contained the remains of humans in them, many of which were dated to the First Century. But in the midst of these small unremarkable tombs was one much larger tomb, clearly prepared for a wealthier person. Interestingly enough, it had been built to hold two bodies, presumably a husband and wife. But the second alcove had never been finished, almost as if construction stopped part way through the project.

What is even more surprising is the tomb contained NO BONES, NO BODY, NO EVIDENCE OF HUMAN REMAINS at all. Could this have been the tomb that Jesus was placed in prior to His resurrection?

When the tomb was fully excavated they found a Byzantine cross carved beside it and indications that there was once a covering in front of the tomb like what early Christians might have worshipped under. Does this indicate that early Christians knew this was Jesus’ tomb and worshipped there until being forced out first by the Romans and later by the Muslims?

When we entered the tomb itself, I could not help but weep. Though it is possible that this is not the actual tomb of Jesus, all the evidence points to the fact that it is. If it is, then I have knelt in the place that He was placed. I have slipped my hand through the iron bars that hold back the crowd and touched the stone where His feet would have lain. I have seen the EMPTY TOMB, more importantly; I have experienced the RISEN SAVIOR. My life will never be the same!


  1. Terry, what a blessing! Amen and amen! even if I never venture beyond the borders of our own country, your story will resonate with me. "Though you have not seen Him, you love Him; and even though you do not see Him now you are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" (1Pet 1:8). Thank you for sharing this joyful... tearful account.

  2. Very Good Terry you shared some things I did not put into my history of Gen. Gordon. I like the way you weave your personal reflection into everything.
    Dan Nelson