An oasis of calm in Jerusalem


Tomb: The site believed by some to be the burial place of Jesus Christ is of doubtful authenticity, but many pilgrims find it a source of spirituality.

April 23, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Just off East Jerusalem's gritty Nablus Road, a busy thoroughfare filled with the choking exhaust of many buses and the cries of vendors hawking many wares -- cardamom pods, olive-wood Nativity scenes and much else -- lies a sylvan retreat off the beaten tourist track.

Up a narrow street and through a stone archway is a tranquil, tidy, manicured garden that would make any Londoner proud. This is the Garden Tomb, revered by many Protestants as the site of the climactic events of Jesus' life and ministry.

"Welcome to the Garden Tomb of Jesus and to a little bit of England," says Reg Bradby, a retired probation agent from the English town of Kendal. For five years he has been coming to Jerusalem twice a year for month-long stints as volunteer docent at the tomb.

Amid all the holy places in the Holy Land that are under the custody of the Roman Catholic Franciscan order or one of the branches of Orthodoxy, the Garden Tomb is one place that Protestants can call their own. Swimming against the current of most scholarship, they believe that this is where Jesus Christ was crucified, died, was buried and rose from the dead.

Pope John Paul II did not come here during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month. He went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, which many call Christianity's holiest site. There, he celebrated Mass in front of what Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe to be the tomb of Christ.

He later made an unscheduled stop at Calvary, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion, which is in a dark, cramped chapel up a steep staircase near the entrance of the church.

While biblical scholars say strong evidence exists that the Holy Sepulcher does sit on the authentic location of Jesus' death and resurrection, it is, for many, hard to imagine the events that took place there, given the hordes of people marching through it.

It can become so loud and crowded in the Holy Sepulcher, as cameras flash and tour guides shout to be heard above the din, that simply approaching the shrines is difficult. Pilgrims jostle each other to kiss the Stone of Unction, site of Jesus' anointing before burial, and wait in long lines to spend just a few seconds in the tomb.

Contrast that with the Garden Tomb. Entering the gate leaves behind the noise and chaos of Nablus Street. The path is of polished flagstone. The bushes and hedges are trimmed. Pansies and petunias line the path. Birds chirp, and the shouts and delighted squeals of children playing at a school next door drift over the stone wall.

The Garden Tomb's strongest drawing point for the pilgrims who come here, many of them evangelical Christians, is that it looks like the scenes described in the Gospels.

That is exactly what British Gen. Charles George Gordon thought when he looked down on this spot from the wall of the Old City during a stay in Jerusalem in 1883. On a cliff face, he noticed a rock formation that appeared to be in the shape of a skull. This, Gordon became convinced, was Golgotha, the "place of the skull" of Jesus' crucifixion as described in the Gospel of Matthew.

What was even better was that 16 years earlier, a tomb cut into the solid rock of the cliff had been discovered adjacent to the skull rock formation. Could this be the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy secret follower of Jesus who asked for his body and buried it in his own tomb?

It all seemed to fit. The Gospels say that Jesus was crucified outside the city walls near a busy road. The Garden Tomb lies a short walk from the Old City's Damascus Gate. Today it is next to a bus station; in Jesus' day, it would have been a busy crossroads. And the site has been described as a former quarry where executions, mostly stonings, were carried out.

The only problem is the overwhelming evidence that the Holy Sepulcher indeed marks the spot of these pivotal events of Christianity. Although the church stands today within the city walls, it would have been outside in the time of Jesus.

And there is evidence that the Christian community in Jerusalem worshiped at this location in the first century, shortly after Jesus' death. The Garden Tomb, on the other hand, was altered during the Byzantine era and was used for a time as a stable by the Crusaders, which the early church would never have allowed had it considered the place sacred. Moreover, the Garden Tomb bears characteristics of a burial place of the seventh to ninth centuries B.C., making it too old to be the unfinished tomb of Joseph of Arimathea described in the Gospels.

Nevertheless, some Protestants, notably the Anglican Church, accepted Gordon's contention.

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