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The Holy Sepulchre: 

 in History, Archaeology, and Tradition

An article by Justin L. Kelley

 in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review


Editor's Note:  This is an article we are publishing here in three parts.  Part One was last week and we have retained it this week with Part Two following.

Part One

Few places on earth excite as much imagination and religious fervor as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  This holiest Christian site has historically inspired both devotion and violence.   Let’s briefly survey what modern archaeological investigation and ancient literary sources reveal about the architectural history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – from its establishment in the fourth century AD to its present form.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre sits embedded in the tightly packed streets of the northwestern section of Jerusalem’s Old City.  Encased within its walls are the remains of a small piece of ancient Jerusalem, which according to Christian tradition, was the site that witnessed the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For nearly 1,700 years, its doors have been thronged by Christian pilgrims seeking the Holy Tomb.  Since the mid-19th century, the abundant historical data within the magnificent building has been the subject of scholarly interest.  Archaeological investigation in particular has been ongoing in the church and its vicinity during the past six decades, most recently between 2016 and 2017.   This research has illuminated the history of both the church and the site on which it was built.

In the final centuries of Israel’s monarchy, the Northwestern Hill of Jerusalem, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the present-day Christian Quarter are located, was partially taken-up by a large stone quarry.  The quarry descended toward the south and extended some 660 by 493 feet.  Portions of it are still visible within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the buildings south of the church.


The old quarry probably originated in the ninth or eighth centuries BC which is evident from the pottery discovered in the earthen fills above the quarry bedrock within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its vicinity.  It seems that the quarry was abandoned, at least partially, in the seventh century BC, and the area settled with scattered suburbs.   A rock-cut tomb dating to the eighth-sixth centuries BC, found underneath one of the Holy Sepulchre’s many chapels, indicates that the quarry was also used for burials nearly a millennium before Jesus’ lifetime.

Archaeologists are not certain what became of the quarry in the years following the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in the sixth century BC,, but it is likely that it was used in the Hellenistic period (332-66 BC) to furnish ashlars {dressed i.e. cut, worked stone] for the construction of buildings and defensive structures built by the Maccabees, and also during the early Roman period (63 BC – 130 AD). Even the First and Second Walls of Jerusalem, as described by the Jewish historian Josephus in his Jewish War, could have been built with stone from this quarry.

During Jesus’ lifetime, the quarry continued to be used as a burial ground, evidenced by the presence of at least two first-century burial caves.   From the Bible, we can also infer that the quarry had been turned into an execution site, locally called Golgotha, where criminals were killed in plain view of the people entering the city from the west.  In keeping with Roman policy, Golgotha would have been located in an area that facilitated public visibility of those suffering capital punishment.  In Jerusalem, the best place for such a site would have been the southernmost section of the old quarry nearest to the east-west road into the city.

The century following Jesus’ lifetime saw the spread of Christianity throughout the known world, as well as two major revolts by the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine against the Roman government, both of which triggered major cultural and physical changes in Jerusalem.   The Second Jewish Revolt resulted in a significant reduction of the city’s Jewish population and the transformation of Jerusalem into a Roman city in 130 AD.  Jerusalem was known for the next 200 years as Aelia Capitolina, named for the emperor in 130, Publius Aelius Hadrianus, who sponsored a number of public works to transform the city into a proper Roman civitas (city-state).  This involved the construction of large paved roads in grid-like arrangements, public market places, and various shrines and temples.

At the site of the quarry on the Northwestern Hill of Jerusalem, archaeology has revealed only meager remains from the Late Roman period [130-324 AD].  However, from the literary sources and the coinage of Aelia, we can safely conclude that Hadrian built a temple complex, probably devoted to Fortuna-Tyche, the goddess of fortune and luck, who was perhaps valued even among the city's Christian inhabitants..

In the fourth century AD, The Roman Empire underwent significant cultural and political changes due in large part to the administration of Constantine the First.   Constantine had converted to Christianity early in his reign and, subsequently, legalized Christianity.  Later, in 380 AD, Theodosius the First made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.  As Christianity took on a new life, interest in recovering sites and artifacts associated with Jesus’ life took hold among its adherents, particularly those in Jerusalem.

Part Two                 

….. The move to recover the holy sites on the Northwestern Hill of Jerusalem likely began with a dialogue between Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, and Emperor Constantine during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.    The fourth-century church historian Eusebius wrote in his Life of Constantine that the emperor desired to unearth the tomb of Jesus and build a monument to the Savior’s resurrection, which would suggest that the tomb was provided to him by someone, probably Macarius.  In Life of Constantine, Eusebius includes a letter written to Macarius by the emperor following the excavation of the tomb, which suggests an ongoing correspondence between the two. Still, the lack of any hard evidence – archaeological, literary, or otherwise – tying the emperor’s request to this particular site is speculative and is always the crux of the problem with any historical claim to the tomb of Jesus.

Interestingly, the circumstances indicate that Jerusalemite Christians had at least a general idea of where Jesus’ tomb was located.  Eusebius’s Onomasticon, a study of Golgotha was well known in the fourth century.  By extension, the location of Jesus’ tomb may very well have been known, and because accessing the tomb meant tearing down the Hadrianic temple complex, Constantine’s involvement was necessary.  Further, without the emperor’s financial backing and workforce, the project would not have been possible.

Constantine authorized the demolition of the old Roman temple, and excavation began.  To everyone’s amazement, so says Eusebius, a rock-cut tomb was revealed (Life of Constantine 3.28).  Constantine’s engineers disengaged the burial cave from the surrounding bedrock to single out the tomb for display in the church.   The cave was adorned with columns and masonry, forming the first Edicule, the structure housing the tomb, which has stood in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in various forms ever since.

Following the discovery of the tomb, construction began immediately on the church itself – a monument to the resurrection of Christ of such magnificence that it would rival the grandest structures of the empire.   Thanks to the writing of Eusebius and other ancient authors, as well as the structure’s depiction on the highly stylized, sixth-century Madaba Map, we can reconstruct the original form of Constantine’s church.

The edifice proper, then called the Church of the Resurrection (Greek: ekklesia tou anastaseos), was oriented on an east-west axis with its entry on the eastern side, past the monumental gateway. Upon entering from the street, visitors would pass through a small courtyard and into the nave of the church, the basilica, from which they would descend into another, larger courtyard. Here they would find the Rock of Golgotha, a monolith from the old quarry, preserved due to its proximity to the tomb.    This venerated limestone monolith is still visible within the church today.   It is unlikely, however, that this monolith was used for the crucifixion due to its small size and surface area.   It has a large, natural fissure running through it (probably why it was left in the quarry) that would have made it unstable for human activity on its surface.

To the west of the Rock of Golgotha, stood the great cylindrical rotunda, call the Anastasis, or “Resurrection.”  Upon entry into the rotunda, pilgrims would face the Edicule of the Tomb.

Byzantine Palestine in general, and Jerusalem in particular, withstood various incursions from the neighboring powers to the East, which resulted in damage to some of its prominent structures, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  With the advent of Islam in the seventh-century AD, Jerusalem surrendered to Muslim forces, who generally dealt peacefully with Christian and Jewish inhabitants for several hundred years.   Unfortunately, peaceful cohabitation did not last, as tension, particularly between Muslims and Christians, increased over time.

In 1009, Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim mandated the demolition of Jewish and Christian places of worship, marking one of the first dramatic expressions of hostility toward non-Muslims on the part of the Islamic authorities of Palestine.  The Church of the Resurrection was almost completely destroyed – the basilica demolished, the upper and eastern portions of the rotund torn down, and the Edicule nearly wiped out, expect for portions of the north and south walls of the rock-cut tomb itself.   

- Conclusion next week -