Jerusalem is encompassed by graves. The
ancient cemeteries date back millennia, to the
Iron Age and beyond. In this vast, circumnavigating necropolis,
a number of tombs are particularly impressive, combining elements
from both Greek and Egyptian design. Yet for reasons of earnest
piety and venal turpitude many of the most notable tombs are misidentified.
Again and again, the last resting place of some ancient plutocrat
has been given surrogate fame by the attachment, "by tradition",
of the moniker of a character from Jewish myth and Christian fable.
Thus, for example, the massive, free-standing
funereal monuments of the Kidron Valley, the so-called tombs
of Zachariah and Absalom,
are nothing of the kind, but in fact are cenotaphs
dating from the 1st century BC and built for anonymous patrons.
The nearby tomb
of James has
nothing to do with the "brother
of the Lord" ("thrown from the parapet and buried
on the spot", according to
Eusebius's Church History II, 23), but is the sepulchre, clearly inscribed
in Hebrew, of several members of the Hezir family.
What chance, then, that the "most sacred
site in Christendom", the so called tomb of Jesus, is anything
other than a grotesque and palpable fraud?
The Tombs of Jerusalem
"Jerusalem of the period Second
Temple possessed a necropolis which encompassed the city
on every side. So far, hundreds
of tombs have been found
hewn into the rock in the form of subterranean chambers." – Jerusalem
To the north of the Old City of Jerusalem, the so-called Tombs
of the Kings contain no king and never did. At one stage a
tomb here did contain the sarcophagus of "Queen
Seddan", that is, Helene of Adiabene, a 1st century
queen mentioned by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews,
20) and pious imagination has embellished this simple truth. It
is, certainly, the least offensive of a panoply of holy
deceits. Also north of the city is the tomb of the High Priest
"Simon the Just" – except in fact it isn't,
it is the tomb of a Roman matron Julia Sabine and is inscribed
as such. But devout Jews still pray here. Well, it's
the thought that counts.
the south of the Old City, on Mount Zion, is a highly dubious "Tomb
of King David"
– in actual fact, an inaccessible sarcophagus much revered
by pious Israelis, especially before they reclaimed the "Wailing
Mount Zion, so-called, was never part of the ancient Jebusite settlement
supposedly conquered by King David. That "city" was
confined to the narrow spur which runs southwest from Temple Mount.
But the more westerly elevation was more impressive and Byzantine
Christians identified the hill as David's. Rock-cut tombs
here were assigned to the fabled king in the 12th century and in
the 14th century crusaders helped
the story along by installing a massive stone sarcophagus in what
then became "David's
tomb". Another "David's
or at least "royal tombs from the Davidic
era", are located
on the "correct" easterly
elevation, thus presenting the world with twice the sanctity.
In a remarkable example of divine economy, David's
giant stone coffin shares the ground floor of an unimpressive building
which features the "upper room" of the first
Christian Pentecost! This crusader-built chamber occupies the very spot where
the Holy Ghost put some fiery spirit into the disciples. Or
maybe not. The room, named the Cenacle (or
Coenaculum), is directly above "David's tomb" and within
of all the Churches", the Dormition. The
whole complex is a German Catholic theme park, established after
Kaiser Wilhelm visited the city in 1898.
even more surreal is the "Tomb of Mary" at the
foot of the Mount of Olives. Although Mary died (fell asleep, dormitio)
at the site of the Domition Church, the custodians of
Gethsemane claimed her tomb for themselves (apparently she had
once "rested" there). It should be recalled that
the Blessed Virgin, unlike the rest of the human race, was without
sin and therefore, at the end of her earthly life, was fast-tracked
into heaven, leaving no corporeal remains to grace any tomb. Such
detail could not stay pious enthusiasm for a sepulchre nor would
it trouble the devout that the Queen of Heaven had another tomb,
six hundred miles away at Ephesus, in Turkey, where we are assured
she passed away her twilight years. Now that is impressive – no
body but two tombs!
Of more practical value is the possibility (though
no more than that) that members of the Jewish high council, the
Sanhedrin, like the queen of Adiabene, in the 1st century AD, were
buried a few miles north of the Old City in a district still named Sanhedria.
"time of Jesus", other members of the Judaean elite
were entombed southwest of the city at Silwan, on the eastern slope
of the Kidron valley. The common people, in their thousands, found
their final resting place on the rocky inclines of the Mount of
Olives and the low rises north of the city. No one was buried within,
or even very close to the city. Herod's family tomb – but
not his own – was
built to the west of the city. Tombs within the city proper are
very ancient, from a time before there was a true city.
In the "time of Jesus" a tomb
even close to a city wall would be unthinkable – and just
where were those walls?
|| Site of the Holy
The Tombs of Jerusalem
• How likely is it that a member of the Sanhedrin, sympathetic to the Jesus cause, would "just happen" to have an unused tomb – set "within a garden" no less – and closer to the heart of the city of Jerusalem than all known 1st century tombs?
• How likely that the pristine tomb of "Joseph of Arimathea" would be only a few yards away from, facing and at the same elevation as, the very spot which the Romans would choose to erect a stake of execution?
• How likely, moreover, that the man from Arimathea would get an immediate audience with and then approval from Pilate, return to the site of crucifixion, remove the body, wrap it in linen and spices, lay it in the tomb and roll the door shut, all before sundown?
The improbability of such a convenient set of circumstances is staggering, even before considering the implausibility of a character called "Joseph of Arimathea".
Calvary and the Holy sepulchre – inside
or outside the wall?
" The city of Jerusalem was fortified
with three walls, on such parts as were not encompassed with
unpassable valleys; for in such places it had but one wall
... The city was built upon two hills ... surrounded by deep
valleys, and by reason of the precipices to them belonging
on both sides they are everywhere unpassable." – Josephus, War, 5.4.1.
The steep valleys to the east, south and west of
Jerusalem provided natural defence but at the same time inhibited
the city's expansion. Over time, therefore, the city spread progressively
northward. Each of three successive north walls was built to enclose
an area which was already becoming urbanised – not
to protect completely vacant land, "tombs set within gardens" or
places of public execution.
"As the city grew more
Josephus, "it gradually crept beyond
its old limits." Though
the precise route of each wall is uncertain, little mystery surrounds
either the first north wall, built by the Hasmonean kings to protect
the upper city, nor the third north wall, begun by Herod's grandson
Agrippa I in 41-43 AD and completed by the rebels during 66-70
AD. We know from Josephus that Agrippa's wall threw a
protective barrier around the "new city" of Bezetha.
"So now riches flowed
in to Agrippa by his enjoyment of so large a dominion; nor
did he abuse the money he had on small matters, but he began
to encompass Jerusalem with such a wall, which, had it been
brought to perfection, had made it impracticable for the Romans
to take it by siege; but his death, which happened at Cesarea,
before he had raised the walls to their due height, prevented
him." – Josephus, War 2.11.6
In preparation for his assault on the city, the Roman
general Titus had "orchards, gardens and fences" cleared
from beyond this
third wall (War 5.3.2), which gives some idea of just
how extensive was urbanisation.
Attacks upon Jerusalem, when they came, invariably
came from the north, or, in the case of the assault by Titus in
70 AD, at a weakness identified in a northwestern section of the
outermost wall. In the opening onslaught, the legions
breached the hastily erected barrier and established a bridgehead
near the tower of Psephinus. From this advanced camp the Romans
were able to mount their assault on the second wall.
The route of the second north wall, however, is a
matter of controversy and conjecture – not a brick has been
"Excavations ... of the wall beneath the Lutheran
Church of the Redeemer, ascribed since its discovery in the 1800s
to the 'Second Wall', actually date from the days of Agrippa I,
at the earliest." – Jerusalem Revealed, p24.
In order to preserve the Christian fable
the wall has to be routed around the supposed sites of
Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre. Even then, the shrines are embarrassingly
close to the alleged wall. If the "Hill of Calvary" had
abutted the second wall one might have expected the Romans to have
built a siege ramp upon it. But, in fact, the legionaries breached
the second wall near the Damascus Gate and the Antonia tower.
In all likelihood, for much of its length, the second
north wall lies beneath the 16th century Ottoman "Old City" wall.
Even if the district immediately north of the Hippicus Tower had
been outside the wall in "the time of Jesus" there is
absolutely no question that the area was within the northern boundary
of Aelia, the city that replaced Jerusalem, when the gospellers
wrote their fable. Naturally, they make no mention of this little
detail. Whether Aelia was in fact a walled city is a matter of
debate. Some scholars suggest Hadrian's city extended as far as
Agrippa's third wall and that the Damascus gate was a ceremonial
arch of a central plaza.
The Walls of Jerusalem
• Would the elusive "second north
have doglegged around the future site of the Church
of the Holy Sepulchre?
• Would it really have contrived
to leave the water reservoirs outside the city?
Somewhere in proximity
to the second wall the army of Titus threw up a siege
wall which circumvented the whole of Jerusalem, a feat
comparable to Caesar's classic siege of the Gauls at
Alesia. Josephus reports that this barrier was built
in just three days (War 5.12).
Once the Roman noose was in place,
the defenders faced famine and defeat. It was a catastrophe
for Judaism that seeded the ground for a heresy called
the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast
a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep
thee in on every side." – Luke
||"Titus ... was of the
opinion, that if they aimed at quickness joined with security,
they must build a wall round about
the whole city; which
was, he thought, the only way to prevent
the Jews from coming out any way, and that then they would ... entirely despair
of saving the city." – Josephus, War 5.12.
The Fabrication Factory –
"The trajectory of the burial
tradition sought ... to move from burial by enemies to burial
by friends, from inadequate and hurried burial to full, complete
and even regal embalming." – Crossan, The Historical
an unknown "city of the Jews",
and was even in the 2nd century. Matching the mystery of the town
is the mystery of the man:
the curiously named "Joseph
of Arimathea" is
unheard of anywhere in the gospel story until the closing drama
of JC's burial.
In the earliest of the narratives, the
gospel of Mark,
all twelve disciples were last together on the Mount of Olives when,
in anticipation of his death, JC says that very night "the
sheep shall be scattered" (Mark 14.27). His
arrest, trial and crucifixion follow. But with the groupies
dispersed who was to bury the body? Perhaps when the story was
first told, with the stress upon resurrection in the Kingdom of
God, such mundane detail did not matter.
However, the fate of Jesus' corporeal
remains did leave a worrying loose end. If deference were to have
been paid to Jewish Law, a corpse might have been removed the same
day to avoid "defiling
the land" (Deuteronomy 21.23).
In any event, a felon was likely to be dumped in
an unmarked pit by his executioners.
Such an ignominious end to their
hero was not what the story tellers had in mind.
To navigate past this difficulty, Mark introduces
the weak literary device of a new character at
this point, someone important enough to gain access to the Roman
governor yet who has sympathies with the Jesus movement. Mark invents
a curious hybrid, an "honourable member of the
Jewish council, also waiting for the kingdom of God".
His model is plausibly taken from Homer's Priam, who rescued
the body of Hector for burial in a similar way.
Mark names the body snatcher "Joseph" (fatherly
choice – a father was the usual candidate to bury
the son) "Arimathea" (from "ari",
best and "mathai", disciple). This Joseph,
we're told, pleads successfully with Pilate
for the corpse of Jesus, buys "fine linen" to
wrap it in and himself gets the body off the cross and into an unoccupied
tomb. He even rolls the stone door shut. The man
from Arimathea is obviously an energetic guy – strange
that he never showed up earlier in the melodrama! (Mark 15.43,46).
update on Mark recognizes
the implausibility of a freely available tomb so he clarifies that
Joseph was "rich" and that
the tomb was "new" and Joseph's "own".
Matthew also "firms up" Joseph's religious persuasion.
Remarkably, it seems this Jewish plutocrat was in fact a "Jesus'
disciple". Pity he missed all the fun of
the Ministry. (Matthew 27.57,60).
When the story falls into Luke's
hands Luke is embarrassingly aware that Mark has
previously said the Jewish Council were unanimous in
their condemnation of Jesus (Mark 14.64) so he further
clarifies that Joseph was "good and righteous ... a
dissenter" on the council. Joe is obviously
the strong and silent type – he said nothing at
all at JC's trial! (Luke 23.50,53).
Spot the join
It is easy enough to see where more
primitive versions of the synoptic tale were later cut
and pasted with an aristocratic "retrieving
the body" episode. The tale is seamless with the pericope
(15.40) "There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome ......
[THE RETRIEVING THE BODY INCIDENT] ...... And when the sabbath was past,
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet
spices, that they might come and anoint him." (16.1).
(27.55) "And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed
Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him ...... [THE RETRIEVING THE
BODY INCIDENT] ...... And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary,
sitting over against the sepulchre." (27.61).
(23.49) "And all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him
from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things ...... [THE RETRIEVING
THE BODY INCIDENT] ...... And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath
drew on. And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after,
and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid." (23.54,55).
Tweaking the incongruous element of
a Jesus groupie on the aristocratic Sanhedrin still further ("He
hid his discipleship for fear of the Jews")
and the improbability of a single-handed interment, gospeller John reprises
one of his own original characters, Nicodemus. This "ruler
of the Jews" helps Joe with the burial. In John's revised edition, the entombment acquires regal elements, involving
not just the two aristocratic morticians but no
less than 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes for
wrappings on the body and a tomb set "within a garden".
(John 19.38,42). There is even a gardener! (John 20.15).
For all his efforts, John,
unwittingly, introduces an incongruous element of his own. Joe's
supposed "secrecy" regarding his discipleship does not
sit well alongside his plea to Pilate, nor with the retrieval
of the body from a place of public execution, nor with
the now grandly patronised interment he has given the blasphemer.
no longer fear the Jews? And
what happened to Nicodemus?
The evolution of the story did not stop
there. Later narratives – not making the canon but certainly
shaping Christian "tradition" – include making
Joe a friend of Pilate (Gospel of
Peter 2.2) and a yarn that maintains that Joe was JC's uncle.
It seems Joseph even became the guardian of Mary (move
over John!), that he crossed the whole of Europe to introduce
the faith to Britain (the 16th century
Protestant John Foxe dreamed up that one!) and that he played
a key part in the Grail saga!
Which all goes to show how very inventive
is the human mind – and just how gullible.
The Fabrication Factory –
That night, in his room
JC's night visitor of John 3
appears to lose his "fear of the Jews" by
was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler
of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night ..." -
In John 7 Nicodemus appears
as the "dissenting voice of reason" within
the Jewish high council. Evidently there is a debate
about whether a Messiah can come from Nazareth or Bethlehem.
Nicodemus warns the Jews against "pre-judging" Jesus.
law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what
he doeth?" – John 7.51.
It is, of course, divinely ordained
that "the Jews" will ignore the warning – or
we wouldn't have a story!
"Nicodemus" (from the
Greek, "victorious people") is found only in
the gospel of John and first turns up in chapter
three as the so-called "ruler of the Jews".
It is probably John's
embellished version of the "rich young ruler" of Mark 10,
a character who wants "eternal life" and is
told to sell everything "and give to the poor".
John's more marketable version has Jesus give a different answer: "You
must be born again".
It seems that Nicodemus has been drawn to Jesus because "no
man can do these miracles ... except God be with him" (John
3.2). In John 3 Nicodemus is used as a foil to explain "rebirth
in the spirit", a response to the straightforward
objection – no doubt met by early Christians again and again – how
can an old man re-enter his mother's womb and be born again?
What should alert us to fabrication here is that,
aside from the "water-to-wine" trick at Cana in chapter
two, no miracles have yet occurred. Chapter three
makes clear that John the Baptist "was not
yet cast into
prison" (John 3.23) and according to the synoptic gospels JC's
ministry had not yet begun.
If we prefer John's unique timeframe, JC
has gathered four disciples (Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael – not
Andrew, Peter, James and John!) and rather vaguely, in
the first of three visits to Jerusalem:
believed in his name when they saw the miracles which he did,
but Jesus did not commit himself unto them because he knew
all men and needed not that any should testify of man, he knew
what was in man."
– John 2.24
Thus in this odd passage, it seems multiple, unstated
miracles are a secret. Compounding the absurdity of it all, in John
4 our superhero is again in Cana and cures a nobleman's son
20 miles away in Capernaum and we are told "this is the second miracle
that Jesus did"! (John 4.54)
So just what was it that so impressed Nicodemus
that he "came to Jesus by night" – a
report from a provincial town about wine at a wedding? Fat chance.
is it unfair to ask just who recorded the godman's nocturnal sermon,
complete with three repetitions of "Verily, verily"?
M. Price, Jeffery Jay Lowder,The Empty Tomb: Jesus
Beyond The Grave (Prometheus
Robert Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City (Paternoster, 2004)
H. J. Richards, Pilgrim to the Holy Land (McCrimmons,1985)
Shimon Gibson, Joan Taylor, Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Palestine
Exploration Fund, 1994)
Joan Taylor, Christians and Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins (Clarendon,
Martin Biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Sutton, 1999)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land (Oxford, 1986)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 1997)
Tomb Town Part 2
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
For your copy order:
Copyright © 2007
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no
material herein is sold for profit.