October 28, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Church of the Holy Sepulcher Repairs Underway

The alleged site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection is being opened for the first time in centuries.

One of the world’s most revered sites is being repaired by a restoration team specializing in reinforcing old structures, according to PhysOrg. Within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, a chapel called the Edicule [Lat., “little house”] surrounds marble slabs covering what many believe to be the site where the body of Jesus was laid and rose again. The Edicule was last restored in 1810 after a fire, and was reinforced with an iron cage in 1947 when it showed signs of wear. Other than that, the centerpiece of the structure – the tomb itself, covered by marble slabs – has not been seen for centuries. Now, workers who have reinforced the Parthenon and King Tut’s tomb have come here.

Edicule 2006, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Reinforced Edicule in 2006. Photo by David Coppedge

A photo gallery on Live Science shows images of the famous church and some of the work going on. The best photos, including a video clip, were posted by the National Geographic Society, which was able to form a strategic alliance between six religious sects that control the church in order to effect the repairs. It took nearly 50 years of negotiations, Live Science says, to get the groups to agree on a method and secure funding. National Geographic describes the excitement of uncovering something for the first time in centuries:

Inside the tomb, which usually glows with a faint constellation of wax candles, bright construction lighting filled the small cell, revealing tiny details that are usually overlooked. The marble slab that covers the holy bench—roughly 3 by 5 feet and carved from creamy marble—had been pulled away from the wall. Beneath it was a grey-beige stone surface. What is it? a conservator was asked. “We don’t know yet,” she replied. “It’s time to bring in the scientific monitoring tools.”

Nobody knows for sure where Jesus’ body was laid. Many Christian tourists find spiritual respite in the Garden Tomb north of the city, which seems to fit the description in the Gospels and has a hill nearby that resembles a skull. The best scholarship, however, locates the site inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (also called the Church of the Resurrection). When Helena, the mother of Constantine, came to the Holy Land in 326 AD to try to identify Biblical holy sites, Christians were still venerating this particular burial cave as the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. The top of the cave was removed so pilgrims could see into it, and a shrine was built over it by Constantine. The current church, dating from the 12th century, is the last in a series of reconstructions of the original shrine and is visited by thousands of tourists every year. Nearby the Edicule is a glass window said to be a portion of the hill of Golgotha (Calvary), showing an earthquake crack in the rock.

Golgotha window, Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Golgotha window inside Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Photo by David Coppedge

Even so, three centuries intervened between the events described in the gospels and the visit by Helena. Evangelical Christians do not rely on holy sites for their faith, but rather on the record of Scripture. They say the truth of the resurrection stands on Scripture as predicted in the Old Testament,  described in the New Testament by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and proclaimed by Peter, Paul, John and the other writers of the NT epistles. Archaeological and historical evidence reinforces what the Bible teaches, but does not substitute for it.

Still, this rare look under marble slabs unseen for centuries arouses curiosity and excitement among people worldwide. We will provide any updates to the story that appear in the news.

Update 10/29/16: Two copies of an interesting article that differ only in the photos shown can be read at the Times of Israel and at CBS News. Given only 60 hours to work, the crew has already made “astonishing” finds: an extra slab under debris from the top slab that probably hasn’t been seen since the 12th century or earlier. They also used ground-penetrating radar to discover that the six-foot high cave walls are still intact. A new window will be placed allowing pilgrims to get a glimpse of the original wall.

Update 10/31/16: The most complete coverage so far has been posted by National Geographic. Photos and a video clip allow readers to look at what was found under the slab.

When the marble cladding was first removed on the night of October 26, an initial inspection by the conservation team from the National Technical University of Athens showed only a layer of fill material underneath. However, as researchers continued their nonstop work over the course of 60 hours, another marble slab with a cross carved into its surface was exposed. By the night of October 28, just hours before the tomb was to be resealed, the original limestone burial bed was revealed intact.

“I’m absolutely amazed. My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this,” said Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic’s archaeologist-in-residence. “We can’t say 100 percent, but it appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time, something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades.”

The cross on the second slab may date from the time of the Crusades. Under that may be the original bed in the cave of the traditional tomb of Jesus, never before seen by anyone alive today. The article also explains the reasons why this site is the most likely tomb, although it is just one of many similar cave burial sites in the area. Live Science says the team observed the original bedrock limestone of the gravesite.

With the work now completed, the site was re-sealed and may not be uncovered again for many years, if ever.  Workers will now reinforce the Edicule around the tomb. The archaeologists documented everything, providing evidence enough for decades of study. NG is preparing a documentary on the findings that will air in November.

Update 11/07/16: National Geographic posted some of the best photos taken by the chief photographer of the project under the title, “I photographed Jesus Christ’s tomb.” (That’s true only if the site really is authentic.)

The Bible repeatedly warns against idolatry. Christians don’t worship a church; they are the church – the called-out ones, obeying God’s word. It’s the teachings of Jesus, and all of Scripture, that should inform the heart and direct one’s life. Most Christians appreciate visiting the historical sites in Israel because of how they enhance the memories of Scriptural passages. It’s stimulating to see the actual places where Jesus and other Bible characters lived and walked. It’s a reminder that their faith is based on historical realities, not man-made fables: realities written down by eyewitnesses. But they don’t need to go to a particular site to worship. Jesus himself sought those who would worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23).

Like Gideon’s ephod and Moses’s brazen serpent, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has become a snare that leads to idolatry. Scorned by some as the Church of Bells and Smells, it is filled with candles, incense, symbols and other outward expressions of worship that do not necessarily reflect true faith in the heart. Jesus warned his disciples of their trust in the beautiful Temple that Herod built (Matthew 24). In the same way, we must come to Christ with our minds and hearts, not trusting in works of stone.

To the extent that places like Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the Garden Tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher serve as reminders of God’s word, they can be means of enhancing worship. Archaeological work on a place as famous as this church has merit in and of itself. But they are not substitutes for genuine trust in God. The resurrection of Jesus is one of the best-attested facts in history, as former atheists Lee Strobel (legal reporter) and J. Warner Wallace (legal detective) found by detailed investigations of the evidence. But as they would both say, knowing the facts is not enough. One must commit to where the facts are pointing: the truth of Christ as the Son of God, who offers salvation to all people that He provided by His death and resurrection. Paul said, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:10).

Your heart is the church of the resurrection. That’s where the “real you” makes decisions on what you will believe, what you will trust, and what direction you are headed. We would never ask you to believe something that isn’t true. But if you see from the Bible and the historical evidence that Jesus really is risen from the dead, then what are you waiting for? Trust in Him today.

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