In today’s gospel, we hear the familiar narrative of the encounter of Mary Magdalene and Jesus later in the morning after the Resurrection. She mistakes Jesus for a gardener. Why a gardener? John writes: “Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried.” (Jn 19:41) So, it was natural that the one person who might have been working on site in the early morning, was the gardener.
In the 4th Century, as Emperor Constantine was consolidating the Roman Empire under his newfound Christian faith, his mother, St. Helena, traveled to Jerusalem. According to tradition, she discovered relics of the cross upon which Jesus had been crucified. The spot had been venerated by early Christians, and she concluded it was Golgotha. Constantine ordered the construction of a basilica on the spot, which became known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – a spot that was outside the walls of first century Jerusalem.
Did you know that there is place outside the walls of the current Jerusalem that makes a claim to being the execution and burial site of Jesus? It is known as the Garden Tomb, discovered in 1867, which has for hundreds of years lain buried under rock and rubble and earth. It is located just outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate.
The site was promoted in the late 19th century by British Gen. Charles Gordon. The site includes a rock formation, with two large indentations, which resemble the eye sockets of a human skull. Gordon, and others, believed this could have been the “place of the skull” mentioned in the Bible. The ancient garden below the rock formation has ruins of cisterns and a wine press, which could indicate that it was owned by a wealthy person, perhaps Joseph of Arimathea. In the garden is a tomb, cut from the rock. Steve Bridge, deputy director of the site, notes that the tomb itself is at least 2,000 years old, perhaps older. It’s a Jewish tomb in its features, including a rolling stone entrance.
According to the Garden Tomb organization, it is not trying to set up a competition with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, noting there’s no doubt that historically, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, has the evidence on its side. The Garden Tomb Association maintains it as another holy place in Jerusalem and ensures the focus is not on the place, but on the Risen Lord.
Apart from the association, the tomb has been dated by Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay to the 8th–7th centuries BC. The re-use of old tombs was not an uncommon practice in ancient times, but this would contradict the biblical text that speaks of a new, not reused, tomb made for himself by Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–60, John 19:41). Also, the trough in front of the tomb and the nearby cistern, described by proponents of the Garden Tomb as part of the tomb’s sealing system and as the surrounding garden’s source of water, respectively, have both been archaeologically dated to the Crusader period (12th–13th centuries).
In the shadow of the Protestant Reformation, there was a general doubt on all things, especially that which might have the taint of “Romanism and fable.” The first known publication which argues a case against the traditional location was written by the German pilgrim Jonas Korte in 1741, a few years after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His book contained a chapter titled “On Mount Calvary, which now lies in the middle of the town and cannot therefore be the true Calvary.” He based his speculation on the then location of the city walls, not realizing these were not the first century city walls.
During the 19th century travel from Europe to the Ottoman Empire became easier and therefore more common, especially in the late 1830s due to the reforms of the Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali. The subsequent influx of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem included more Protestants who doubted the authenticity of the traditional holy sites – doubts which were exacerbated by the fact that Protestants had no territorial claims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and by the feeling of Protestant pilgrims that it was an unnatural setting for contemplation and prayer.
Who knew things could become so complicated? My dad used to say, “The main thing in making sure the main thing remains the main thing.” I think all would agree, the Resurrected Jesus is the main thing.