* An archeologist believes Christ's burial site may remain intact in
Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Thomas H. Maugh II
July 21 2001
Christian faithful have been convinced that the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher in Jerusalem marks the site of Jesus' burial ever since
Byzantine Emperor Constantine erected the church in the year 325,
making it the holiest site in Christendom.
But experts have feared that Christ's tomb itself had been destroyed
by the earthquakes that have struck the site over the intervening
millenniums. And many question whether Constantine was correct in
concluding that the church marks the true site of the burial.
However, research conducted over the last 10 years by British
archeologist Martin Biddle suggests that the tomb may remain intact
inside the edicule, the small interior shrine originally built in the
4th century to protect the rock-cut tomb. The edicule was rebuilt in
the 11th, 16th and 19th centuries and Biddle's explorations indicate
that--contrary to the beliefs of scholars--the four edicule
structures are nestled inside one another like Russian matryoshka
"Before we started, nobody believed that," Biddle said. "We've shown
that to be true."
The Rev. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor of the Dominican Ecole Biblique in
Jerusalem calls Biddle's discovery important. "If it were taken apart
very carefully, like peeling an onion, one could see the various
periods," he said.
Biddle's studies, recounted in his book "The Tomb of Christ,"
published in 1999 by Sutton, are the focus of "Secrets of the Dead,"
to be broadcast Tuesday at 8 p.m. on KCET-TV.
Because Biddle's work was performed without disturbing the shrine,
most of his evidence is indirect. But archeologists and theologians
may soon get a more direct look at the inner structures and the
actual tomb itself.
The edicule is "structurally in a very bad condition," and will have
to be renovated, Biddle says. "We're quite clear about this. We will
have to disassemble it and start over. . . . There is going to be a
great deal discovered. Naturally, we hope that it will be discovered
in our time."
That renovation, unfortunately, relies on the cooperation of the six
religious groups that have jointly operated the church under an
agreement known officially as "the Status Quo" that dates to at least
1852. Three major religious groups--Greek Orthodox, Armenian and
Roman Catholic--and three minor communities--the Copts, Syriacs and
Ethiopians--must all agree on whatever renovation is to be done.
Critics have charged that it is unlikely that they will be able to
agree on a reconstruction plan for the edicule. But Biddle notes
that, since 1970, "they have managed to agree on the reconstruction
of the whole of a very complicated building. The only thing left to
do now is the tomb and the floor of the great rotunda."
What will archeologists find if the edicule is dismantled? Biddle's
evidence suggests there is an intact rock-cut tomb. "It would
probably not be a pretty thing," he said, "but it would give us a
great deal of information."
And how will they know it is Christ's tomb? For that matter, how did
Constantine conclude that it was?
Biddle suspects there is graffiti written on the tomb by early
Christians that might say, in effect, "This is where Jesus was
buried." The practice was common during the period in question, and
the Tomb of St. Peter under the Vatican in Rome, for one, shows such
The tomb has spent most of its existence hidden. In the 2nd century,
the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a temple over the site. The crypt was
rescued by Constantine, who legalized Christianity in 314 and sent
engineers to Jerusalem to build churches at the sites of important
events in Christ's life.
When the team asked local Christian leaders where Jesus was crucified
and buried, they pointed to the temple and said Christ's tomb was
under it. The engineers destroyed the temple, cleared the rubble,
built a shrine over the tomb and then constructed the Church of the
Holy Sepulcher to protect it.
The shrine was damaged by fires in 614 and 966, then partially
destroyed by Caliph al-Hakim in 1009. The Crusaders rebuilt the
shrine and church by 1167, and the edicule was remodeled in 1555. But
it suffered another disastrous fire in 1808, which severely damaged
the edicule and the rotunda.
The edicule was rebuilt, but the rotunda remained open to the
elements for 60 years and the edicule was badly damaged by rain and
snow. Settling has opened cracks in the structure and, when Biddle
explored the spaces within with an endoscope like that used by
doctors for examining the colon, he found that water had rotted the
iron clamps holding the stones together.
"Photographs from the British mandate in the 1940s showed that [the
edicule]was already beginning to collapse," Biddle said. British
authorities were so concerned that they ordered it encased in steel
straps to hold the stones together. But even that framework is now in
danger of coming apart, he said.
"The edicule is very good at surviving," he concluded. "But it is
about time that this sacred site is restored."
Thomas Maugh can be reached at thomas.maugh@l...
Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times