National Geographic is covering the results of tests done at the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The tomb that many Christians think belonged to Jesus Christ. National Geographic will also be showing a documentary on the topic, “The Secrets of Christ’s Tomb”, on Sunday.
As I covered back in October of 2016, the tomb was opened for the first time in centuries so that restoration could be done on the shrine. Scientists took samples from the limestone cavern and a marble slab that covers it. It was announced this week that the samples date to around the year 345 CE, which is about 20 years after the tomb was supposedly discovered.
You may notice that the year 345 CE is more than 300 years after Jesus was supposedly crucified in the early 30’s CE, so what is going on?
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was totally destroyed all the way back in the year 1009, but the site was later rebuilt. With all the attacks, fires, and earthquakes over the millennia it seems the land of God’s chosen people has been anything but tranquil. Because of the destruction and the rebuilding, modern scholars were not sure of the actual dating of the tomb or the shrine.
The tests, as I mentioned before, do show that the tomb’s discovery could date to the reign of Constantine, which is in line with what was told in Christian legend.
As I covered before in last year’s post, and will go into more detail below, we have no good reason to believe that this is actually the tomb where Jesus Christ was laid, if he even existed at all (and we have good reasons to doubt that he did exist).
The tomb was supposedly discovered during the reign of Constantine. Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a devout Christian (Constantine himself straddled the line between Christian and Pagan, as it gave him political advantages to do so). Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea became a kind of travel guide in the Holy Land for Helena on the pilgrimage that she made.
It was on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and while accompanied by Eusebius, that Helena ordered the torture of several rabbis in order to get them to admit where the “True Cross” was hidden. Remember, this is 300 years after the supposed death of Jesus. Helena just rolled in and started ordering rabbis to be tortured for “hiding” the cross. The rabbis eventually said they did not know the location of the cross, but they said a man named Judas Cyprianus knew. On Helena’s orders, this Judas was imprisoned without food in order to force him to tell Helena where the cross lay. After several days he finally admitted (or more likely, made up) the location. The first written account of all of this was detailed by Socrates of Constantinople, who wrote about it in his Church History about 100 years later.
When Helena, Eusebius, and their entourage showed up at the location Judas gave them, they found a shrine to the Roman goddess, Venus (in some accounts it is a temple to Jupiter). Helena had the temple destroyed and then she ordered Judas to start digging. Judas, and whomever may have helped him since he had been starved and tortured for several days, dug down 20 feet or so and found three crosses. The crosses were placed in front of Helena.
Three crosses?! But how to figure out which one was the True Cross? They used the very scientific method of getting a sick woman to lay on all three crosses to see which one would cure her. As with all magical tales, the first two crosses did nothing, but the third cross was just right for our sickly, old Goldilocks. Another version of the tale has Helena actually discovering which cross was the true one by touching all three to a dead man. When she touched the corpse with the third cross he was miraculously restored to life.
So this site, where the crosses lay, is also the site of this same tomb that National Geographic is covering. After Helena’s discovery, the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the site.
And you know that Eusebius guy I mentioned? Well, he is really shady, too. Although he at least has less torture on his resumé. Eusebius tried to do a lot of work on piecing together Christianity’s early history, which at that point was more than a little fragmentary. Even just 300 years after Christianity's start there had been rampant forgery, legendary embellishment, persecution, famine, war, various Christian sects squabbling with one another over the "truth", and more. All these factors left what was essentially a jig-saw puzzle with half the pieces missing.
Based on what we have, it seems that Eusebius was more than willing to fabricate a lot of information to fill in the gaps, and to promote his version of the "truth". We have surviving accounts of Eusebius’s contemporaries complaining about his shoddy methods. And in one of Eusebius’s written works, his Praeparatio evengelica, book twelve, chapter 31 is called “That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.” So he is admitting that lying is perfectly OK as long as you lie in order to get people to convert to Christianity. The rest of that chapter goes on to hammer that point home.
Eusebius used the church’s growing available resources, and his power as a bishop, to influence the church's perception of its own history. As one example, some scholars suspect Eusebius may be the one that forged the Testimonium Flavianum, a short blurb about Jesus that appears in Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews.
Antiquities of the Jews was written at the end of the 1st century CE and for nearly 300 years no one found any passages in it discussing Christ. In fact, we actually have Origen’s counter-argument to Celsus in which Origen, while trying to defend Christianity against Celsus's critique, admits that the only writings about Jesus are the gospels. We know that Origen was using Josephus’s history as a source for other things he wrote in that same counter-argument, because he cites Josephus directly. But Origen has no knowledge of the Testimonium.
And do you know where Eusebius got his copy of Antiquities of the Jews? He inherited his copy from Origen’s successor, who inherited Origen’s copy. So it is extremely suspect that Eusebius suddenly discovered that passage when he was desperate for historical confirmation of Jesus. The fact that the Testimonium Flavianum seems to be inspired by the Gospel of Luke, which was almost certainly written after Antiquities of the Jews further demonstrates that it is a late forgery.
So we have Eusebius the Liar, and Helena the Torturer to thank for this tomb’s discovery. Oh, and all that torture and violence that Helena ordered? Well, she is recognized as a saint by many Christian denominations. She is the patron saint of new discoveries, to be specific. So remember kids, if you cut a bloody swath of violence through the Holy Land, then the Catholic Church might just reward you with sainthood!
To make matters more confounding, the tomb at the Holy Sepulchre is not the only contender for the tomb of Jesus Christ. One famous example of another supposed tomb is the Talpiot Tomb, discovered in 1980. It has been thoroughly debunked by multiple experts, but that does not stop some people from writing books about it or pushing claims that it is proof not only of Jesus, but proof that he also had a son named Judas with Mary Magdalene.
Some Christians just have a desperate need to find “evidence” of their wild, fantastical claims so that they can prove to the world, and, more likely, prove to themselves that the fairy tales in their Bible are true. The problem is that after 2,000 years of trying, they have yet to find any evidence that stands up to real scrutiny.