This time of year, thousands of Christians make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem, many having a powerful spiritual experience. Surprisingly, they have a choice of tombs, and the one they pick may depend on their beliefs.
The first was located by Helena, who was sent to the Holy Land by her son, Emperor Constantine, to find sites important to Christianity. She returned in A.D. 328 with news she had found the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was soon built around the tomb. For almost 1,700 years, Christians have made their way to the cavernous church.
After the Reformation, Protestants began looking for another tomb. Protestants were thrilled in 1883 when English General Charles Gordon found a tomb near a Jerusalem rock formation suggesting a skull, which he thought identified the Biblical “Golgotha,” where Jesus had been crucified. For General Gordon, the clincher was a groove on the ground he thought had been used to roll a stone across the opening. And so, with great fanfare, the “Garden Tomb” opened to the public.
In 1986, Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay concluded the Garden Tomb was not used at the time of Jesus. He also made an observation that escaped General Gordon: The groove in front of the tomb sloped away from the opening and would have prevented the tomb from being closed by a rolling stone.
Guides at the Garden Tomb no longer claim it held the body of Jesus. But Protestant visitors still worship there, experiencing the same emotions as before. Others continue to experience comparable emotions at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As with many other sites in the Holy Land, tradition and belief can be as important as archaeology. And for many, just being in Jerusalem is being close enough.