The New Testament and Christian tradition tell us that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans in the year 30 or 33, some 20 centuries ago. According to the Gospel of Luke, his body was put in a tomb that was guarded by a Roman soldier. Jesus was then resurrected and ascended to heaven. What has intrigued the Christians ever since is the question of exactly where Christ’s tomb is located.
We know that he was crucified and entombed in Jerusalem, and it has been believed for centuries that his tomb is inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This crypt lies beneath a shrine called the Edicule, a term derived from a Latin word, aedicule, meaning little house. According to tradition the tomb was a limestone cave.
Within the crypt, it’s said that Jesus was laid on a shelf of rock carved from the side of the cave. This belief in the precise location of the tomb of Jesus actually dates back to the 2nd century. It was then that the Emperor Hadrian constructed a temple in honor of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, to conceal the place where the troublesome Jesus had apparently been entombed.
Then another Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, intervened in either 325 or 326. He was the first emperor to follow the Christian faith and consequently commanded that the pagan temple be demolished. Constantine then had a Christian church built in its place – what we now call the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And as the new church was being constructed, it’s said that Constantine’s mother, Helena, found Christ’s tomb.
But the church that now stands in Jerusalem is not the same one that Constantine built. It’s on the same site, but the original church was destroyed in 614 when Khosrau II, Emperor of the Sassanids, captured Jerusalem and put the church to the torch.
In 630 yet another Roman emperor, Heraclius, recaptured Jerusalem and restored the church, only for it to be badly damaged once more by earthquakes in 746 and again at the start of the 9th century. A number of fires then further damaged the church in the ensuing decades.
These years of destruction came to a head in 1009 when the grandly named Muslim caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then in a welcome example of religious tolerance, Al-Hakim’s son, Caliph Ali az-Zahir, permitted the reconstruction of the church.
But in spite of the best efforts of the Byzantine Empire, the rebuilding of the church progressed slowly, and little had been achieved by the end of the 11th century. Christians who made the pilgrimage to Christ’s tomb found that parts of the holy site were little more than piles of rubble. Then came the Crusades.
The First Crusade reached Jerusalem in 1099. It was followed by seven more Christian invasions stretching almost to the end of the 13th century. And during this period, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was extensively restored, becoming the seat of Jerusalem’s Christian Patriarch.
After these rebuilding efforts, however, there followed decades of neglect. These lasted until 1555, when Franciscan monks carried out further reconstruction work. But another fire badly damaged the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1808. As a result, the Edicule and the Rotunda that sits above it were rebuilt over the next two years, with the Rotunda again reconstructed in 1870.
In fact, the 1555 restoration was a key moment for what is thought to be the actual tomb of Jesus, set within the Edicule at the heart of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Some researchers believe that the marble cladding located there may have been installed earlier; in any case, Christ’s tomb has not been seen by anyone since at least 1555.
Throughout the 20th century, there was continued restoration work. And the question that was now being asked was: just how far back could any of this battered structure be dependably dated? In other words, what were the earliest surviving remnants of this most holy of Christian sites? Perhaps most crucially, how old was the purported tomb of Jesus?
Until recently, the oldest archaeological dating that had been confirmed within the church went back no more than 1,000 years. These sections originated during the 11th- and 12th-century rebuilding work done by the Crusaders, after the Caliph Al-Hakim had destroyed the previous church in 1009.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is today controlled by six different strands of the Christian faith. As a result, it can require a considerable amount of diplomacy to get any decisions made about the maintenance and archaeological exploration of the church. But in 2015 the groups agreed to allow researchers from the National Technical University of Athens to undertake a thorough study and renovation of the Edicule, along with the tomb within it.
The Edicule has been in a somewhat perilous state since it was damaged in a 1927 earthquake. In fact, the British authorities that still controlled Jerusalem in 1947 were so worried by the condition of the Edicule that they stabilized it with essential but distinctly unattractive scaffolding. The current restoration work has included the removal of this scaffolding.
And a group of 50 National Technical University of Athens experts were tasked with the hugely important job of restoring the Edicule. The project was led by chief scientific supervisor Professor Antonia Moropoulou – an eminent academic with a huge amount of hands-on experience of complex restoration projects. She and her team arrived in Jerusalem in the summer of 2016, and the specialists soon got to work.
The restoration team’s first task was to take away the ugly metal supports. This scaffolding – which rose to 30 feet high – had been installed in the late 1940s in order to stabilize the Edicule. And Moropoulou seemed jubilant after the arrangement had been removed, telling NPR in 2017, “This monument today is free. It is emancipated from the iron grids.”
Moropoulou had been more solemn in tone before this moment, though. Speaking to NBC News in June 2016, she explained, “We have very difficult and challenging work here. We discovered by nondestructive techniques that there are cracks on the holy rock that surrounds the tomb.” These fissures were the result of the pressure that had been exerted over the years by the stone columns supporting the dome above the Edicule.
But Moropoulou’s team had to do more than just stabilize the rock on which the Edicule rests. You see, it emerged that they also had a massive cleaning task on their hands. Over many years, the candles that had been lit by pilgrims visiting Christ’s tomb had coated the Edicule and its surroundings. And this grime, which also included bird dung, needed to be carefully cleared away.
World Monument Fund president Bonnie Burnham would go on to highlight the connection between the metal supporting structure and the dirt that had collected around the Edicule. She emphasized, too, the importance of removing the unsightly reinforcement. Speaking to NBC News, she said, “This is a complete transformation of the monument.”
“The monument was surrounded by scaffolding that made it very difficult to really appreciate,” Burnham continued. “And the scaffolding was often used by the worshippers to place candles, so the entire outside of the building was covered with black soot and you couldn’t really see the color.”
Burnham believed, then, that simply taking down those metal girders would have a dramatic effect on the future of the Edicule. Indeed, she claimed that this change – along with the other restoration measures – would “stimulate a new respect on the part of the visitors to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the building.”
However, cleaning the marble slabs of the Edicule’s façade was a delicate procedure. The restorers utilized cotton swabs to painstakingly clear away the disfiguring layers of dirt, with each sheet then carefully returned to its original position after having been spruced up.
And after the specialists had removed the pigeon dirt and the smoke and wax stains caused by the worshippers’ candles, the deep red color of the marble emerged for the first time in many years. Then, when the stone slabs that had surrounded the Edicule had been removed, the restorers were able to reinforce the structure’s heart before replacing them.
Once the façade slabs had been displaced, though, it was clear that the stonework that lay beneath them required some maintenance. In the end, then, parts of the structure were actually rebuilt using a specially formulated grout mix, while the area was also strengthened with titanium webbing.
But a highly dramatic moment in the restoration project came on October 26, 2016. On that day, the researchers and technicians were now ready to remove the marble slab that had covered Christ’s tomb since – at the latest – the 1555 restoration work done by Franciscan monks. Some experts maintain that the cladding may have already been in place for hundreds of years before that.
As this crucial point in the restoration process approached, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was closed to worshippers. Inside the church, meanwhile, the Edicule was surrounded by the restorers as well as representatives of the Copts, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Franciscans – all of whom were there to witness the exposure of Christ’s grave.
In the lead-up to the event, Moropoulou emphasized its significance, saying, “We are at the critical moment for rehabilitating the Edicule. The techniques we’re using to document this unique monument will enable the world to study our findings as if they themselves were in the tomb of Christ.”
When the marble slab had been removed from the tomb, however, there was a surprise in store. You see, the researchers had expected to find what is called the burial bed – or where Christ’s body may have rested before he was resurrected. And while this feature would have appeared as a shelf-like structure carved from the limestone rock, instead the onlookers merely found debris.
“The marble covering of the tomb has been pulled back, and we were surprised by the amount of fill material beneath it,” archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert told National Geographic in 2016. “It will be a long scientific analysis, but we will finally be able to see the original rock surface on which, according to tradition, the body of Christ was laid.”
So, the conservators worked to clear away this layer of material. Then, after some 60 hours of labor – and not long before the tomb was scheduled to be resealed – they came to a second marble block. This feature had been wrought from a white-hued version of the material, featured a carving of a cross and appeared to date to the time of the Crusaders.
And there were even more surprises in store. Once the team had taken off that 14th-century layer, they saw that yet another slab of marble rested underneath. This third piece was a gray color, and its mortar fixing appeared to be from the 4th century. Notably, this was the era in which the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been commissioned by the Roman Emperor Constantine.
But, as it happens, this slab proved to be the final one above the bedrock. And while speaking to National Geographic, Hiebert described his feelings when that last covering was removed. “I’m absolutely amazed,” he said. “My knees are shaking a little bit because I wasn’t expecting this. 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.”
Ultimately, the researchers collected pieces of the mortar that had been used to fit the slab immediately above the rock. Then, after that, the material was sent for analysis. And there was a lot at stake, too. If the samples confirmed the age of the fitting of the last slab, that would go a long way to proving that this could indeed be Jesus’ tomb.
Finally, in November 2017, the results of the lab tests on the mortar came through. And, sensationally, these findings showed that the final slab had in all probability been laid down in the 4th century. Of this monumental discovery, archaeologist and expert on the tomb Martin Biddle told National Geographic, “Obviously that date is spot-on for whatever Constantine did. That’s very remarkable.”
Beneath that last layer of marble, the experts were also delighted to find the limestone walls of the cave in which it is believed that Jesus was interred. And Moropoulou was in no doubt about the significance of this find. She told NBC News, “The opening of the tomb was a unique moment not only for us, but for all humanity.”
What’s more, the dating of that mortar has completely changed what we understand about the age of the monument. Previous work in the area, you see, had only suggested that the tomb and its surroundings originated in or around 1400.
But how sure can we be that this is truly the final resting place of Jesus Christ? Well, we do know that, in 325 A.D., a converted Emperor Constantine sent men to Jerusalem to search for Jesus’ burial site. And, apparently, the ruler was told that the grave lay beneath the pagan temple we heard about earlier – one that the Emperor Hadrian had built 200 years before.
It seems, though, that Hadrian had constructed the tomb – which was dedicated to the goddess Venus – with the express purpose of obscuring the grave of Jesus. And ancient historian Eusebius recorded that Constantine later ordered the demolition of the Roman temple, with this work then managing to reveal Jesus’ tomb. All of this seems to fit, too, with what was uncovered during the 2016 excavation of the grave.
Biddle also believes there may yet be further evidence that proves the authenticity of the tomb of Jesus. Specifically, he told National Geographic that there could be ancient graffiti on the stonework that may be of vital importance in confirming that Jesus was buried there. And he added, “I don’t myself think Eusebius got it wrong – he was a very good scholar – so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for.”
Remarkably, there is no shortage of incredible discoveries that can give us insight into the life and death of Jesus Christ. In the ancient city of Hippos in Israel, for instance, one monumental find could have huge implications for historians’ understanding of an iconic Bible story.
It’s summer on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, and a team of archaeologists are slaving away under the boiling sun. In the ruins of an ancient city, the researchers have discovered the remains of a church that was constructed by Christians many years ago. And as they dig deeper, the team discover a mysterious mosaic. Could this ancient artwork shed new light on a miracle straight out of biblical times?
The area that the archaeologists were investigating certainly has a long and storied history, in any case. In fact, by the time that Christians arrived in the fourth century A.D., Hippos-Sussita was already a bustling metropolis. And as they were keen to spread their faith to the city inhabitants, these early followers of Jesus Christ subsequently erected a number of places of worship – including the South-West Church.
Then, in July 2019, archaeologists were meticulously excavating this ancient church in a bid to learn more about its mysterious past. And there, beneath a layer of ash, they discovered the most fascinating artifact of all. For 1,600 years, a colorful mosaic had been hidden from sight; now, however, its striking subject matter was about to be revealed.
We’ll learn more about what the experts discovered later, but first let’s explore the history of the region in which the mosaic was found. In the Jordan Rift Valley in northeast Israel lies the Sea of Galilee – a vast freshwater lake more than 30 miles across. And on a hill to the east of the water, a great settlement once stood. First established some time in the first century A.D., the city would come to be known as Antiochia-Hippos by the Romans, while the region’s Aramaic speakers would call it Sussita.
Then, in the second century A.D., Hippos became part of the Roman province of Palaestina. And from that point onwards, the city began to thrive. Before long, its streets had become grand boulevards lined with Egyptian marble, while an advanced water system was also built to support the burgeoning population.
Then, as Hippos grew, buildings befitting its status as a wealthy Roman settlement began to appear. A basilica, a theater and an odeon were all constructed along with a shrine honoring the Emperor. Then, in the fourth century A.D., Christianity came to the empire, and before long places of worship also began to spring up throughout the city.
According to archaeologists, Hippos was home to a minimum of seven different churches – possibly more. And for centuries, the city continued to thrive as a hub of the Christian religion. In fact, even after Muslim armies conquered the region in the seventh century A.D., the locals were permitted to continue with their religious beliefs.
In 749 A.D., however, Hippos was almost completely destroyed by a devastating earthquake, with the city subsequently lost to time for virtually the next 1,000 years. Then, in the mid-20th century, archaeologists started excavating the region. And over the course of several decades, a fascinating story began to emerge.
From the 1950s onwards, researchers began uncovering ancient domestic structures in the ruins of Hippos – including the remains of a grand church in the southeast of the city. Yet large-scale excavations did not take place until the turn of the century, when an international team embarked on an ambitious project.
Beginning in 2000, specialists from Israel’s University of Haifa joined forces with professors from the Polish Academy of Sciences, the National Museum in Warsaw and Concordia University in the United States in order to learn more about Hippos. And over the course of ten seasons, they made a number of fascinating discoveries.
Most notably, in 2005 the team began excavating a location in the southwest of the city, as at the time some believed that the ruins of an ancient synagogue might be found in the area. And, at first, the relics recovered from the site seemingly appeared to confirm this theory, too. Ultimately, however, archaeologists would realize that they were actually looking at the remains of another church.
Thought to date from the fifth century A.D., this place of worship was dubbed the South-West, or Synagogue, Church. And according to researchers, it had once been housed in a rectangular building that had been constructed on an axis from east to west. A semicircular recess is also thought to have been built into the wall.
Yet although archaeologists have only been able to excavate the eastern end of the church so far, they have nevertheless managed to build up a surprisingly clear picture of the structure. It seems that the main hall once boasted two rows of five columns that split the room into two aisles and a nave. And, most impressively of all, the floor of the church was once covered in elaborate mosaics.
But there was one thing that really made the South-West Church stand out from the other ruins scattered across Hippos. You see, researchers suspected that this building was not destroyed in the disastrous earthquake in 749 A.D.; instead, they believe that it fell long before tremors tore through the city.
In particular, experts discovered evidence that the South-West Church had actually been destroyed by a great fire. And according to Dr. Michael Eisenberg from the University of Haifa, who co-directed the excavations, this particular event may have occurred towards the beginning of the seventh century. At around that time, Eisenberg has pointed out, the region was invaded by the Sassanians from Persia.
What’s more, although later Muslim invasions remained largely tolerant of Christianity, there is evidence to suggest that the Sassanians were less open-minded in that regard. It’s said, for one, that members of the Sassanian Empire may have burned a monastery that was once located close to Hippos – meaning it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they were also responsible for destroying the South-West Church.
Whatever the reason for the building’s destruction, though, researchers are in little doubt that it burned down. Specifically, they believe that part of the structure caved in, thus coating the main hall in a layer of ash and debris. But while this dramatic event meant the end for the South-West Church as an active place of worship, it also preserved it for future archaeologists to explore.
Yes, while other structures weathered and decayed gradually, the South-West Church was effectively frozen in time. And in July 2019 Eisenberg explained the process in an interview with Haaretz, saying, “The mosaic floor is the best preserved in Hippos thanks to the sudden collapse of the roofing and walls, which instantly covered up the entire mosaic with a protective layer of ash.”
Then, from 2010 onwards, excavations at Hippos were conducted by a team of Israeli and American researchers. And during their 2019 season, these investigators made some incredible discoveries at the location – now known as the Burnt Church. The archaeologists uncovered two inscriptions that had been overlooked by previous excavations, for example, and through these they gathered some fascinating insight into the people who once lived in Hippos.
According to reports, the engravings had also been preserved beneath the layer of ash inside the church and were both in excellent condition. Yet one team member soon noticed that something was wrong. And Gregor Staab, an epigraphist at the University of Cologne, Germany, would go on to claim that the Greek writing that made up the inscriptions was actually of a very poor standard.
“There is a nonexistent word,” Eisenberg explained to Haaretz. “There are spelling mistakes throughout the writing.” And, bizarrely, the quality of the writing serves in marked contrast to the skill evident in the mosaics throughout the church. This has led experts to conclude that Greek may not have been the main language in Hippos at the time.
“[Greek] may have been relegated to being [the people’s] holy tongue,” Eisenberg continued. “We are starting to wonder if their speech was Aramaic, and only the holy scripture and ceremonies were in Greek.” If true, then, this theory would mean that those who had built the Burnt Church had spoken the language typically associated with Jesus Christ.
Plus, even despite their poor quality, the inscriptions did actually reveal some interesting facts about the Burnt Church. For instance, the features seemingly indicate that the structure was built in honor of a martyr named Theodoros. But even though they have a name to go on, researchers have been unable to find out any more about the mystery man.
Elsewhere, researchers uncovered more beautiful mosaics that had been preserved on the church floor – including one example that seemingly features a rendition of a pomegranate. Once a symbol of fertility, this fruit was apparently used by Christians to represent the resurrection and the concept of eternal life.
In another part of the church, meanwhile, archaeologists revealed depictions of etrogs – a type of citrus fruit that is used in Jewish traditions. The team’s painstaking work also uncovered sections of mosaic that were devoted to geometric designs as well as those featuring various animals. A number of exotic birds are illustrated on the unearthed mosaics, too, although it’s as yet unclear which species are represented.
The mosaics that have been causing the biggest stir, however, are the ones that depict some very specific items. On the floor of the recess in the eastern wall, a pattern of colorful tiles takes the form of two fish, while others at another location feature a number of baskets – with each containing five loaves of bread.
And to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Bible, these items are instantly familiar. According to the Gospels, Jesus once performed a miracle that has become known as the “Feeding of the 5,000.” Apparently, after John the Baptist died, the son of God retreated to a remote spot. But when a large crowd followed Jesus there, the story goes, his disciples grew concerned that they had nothing to feed them.
Nevertheless, Jesus is said to have told his disciples to bring him what food they had. And while this bounty ultimately turned out to be just two fish and five loaves of bread, Christ was nevertheless apparently able to feed the entire crowd of 5,000 men and many more women and children with these meager rations.
What’s more, in Eisenberg’s opinion, the connection between the story and the designs in the church is remarkable. He told Haaretz, “There are definitely five loaves – not three or six. Their colors may reflect different types of flour, wheat and barley. Then there is the pair of fish on the mosaic in the apse. The association that came to mind was the miracle of the loaves and the fish.”
That’s not all, either. In the Bible, the story explains that there was even food left over after the crowd had had their fill, leading Jesus’ disciples to subsequently collect a dozen baskets of the excess fish and loaves. And, interestingly, back at the Burnt Church researchers noted that the same number of receptacles are depicted on the mosaic floor.
Yet the mosaic in the eastern recess is not the only one in the Burnt Church that depicts fish. According to the archaeologists, there is also a design on the floor of the nave that features two groups of three aquatic creatures. In total, then, that makes eight fish on display throughout the building.
So might the mosaics indicate that the Feeding of the 5,000 happened in Hippos – or, at the very least, somewhere nearby? Well, traditionally, biblical scholars have identified a region known as Tabgha as being the site of the miracle. And this location is actually on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee – so, across the water from the Burnt Church.
In fact, Tabgha now plays home to a modern place of worship that is known as the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish. And according to tradition, this building marks the site where the miracle took place. What’s more, beneath the 20th-century building, there is another Byzantine mosaic that appears to depict the event.
However, some have pointed out that the Tabgha mosaic depicts only four loaves. And, of course, the biblical accounts of the Feeding of the 5,000 clearly states that the disciples had five loaves – just as can be seen in each of the baskets in the Burnt Church. So, does this all mean that Hippos is more likely to be the real site of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles?
Well, according to Eisenberg, it’s possible. For one, following the Feeding of the 5,000, it’s claimed that Jesus sent his followers to Capernaum on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. The gospels state, however, that they all traveled by boat. And while the location could easily have been reached by land from Tabgha, a journey from Hippos would have required crossing the lake.
Despite these links, however, Eisenberg was quick to point out that nothing can be claimed for sure. He told Haaretz, “We can’t know why these adornments and motifs were chosen. They could convey deeper meaning beyond mere decoration or depiction. It can be hard to draw the line between where art ends and symbolism and religion begin.”
In addition, Eisenberg has pointed out that fish have been used as symbols for thousands of years. In fact, they likely appeared in the region before Christianity itself arrived. And on top of that, the creatures portrayed in the Burnt Church don’t actually look like any that Jesus may have encountered in the Sea of Galilee.
“Without a doubt, [the fish are] not local,” professor Moshe Gophen, who specializes in mosaic depictions of fish in the region, told Haaretz. “They probably came from the Nile. The fish shown here have a split dorsal fin, and the lake fish have a single dorsal fin.” How exactly did the sea creatures end up in a design so far from home, then?
Apparently, there could be a number of explanations. The artisan who created the mosaic may have been working from a catalog and thus have been inspired by an Egyptian design, for example. It’s even possible that the individual concerned may have been from Egypt themselves. Whatever the truth, though, it highlights the fact that the discovery remains very much open to interpretation.
To date, archaeologists have excavated around 90 percent of the mosaic that covers the floor of the Burnt Church, with Eisenberg hoping that future work on the remaining 10 percent will tell us even more about the site. And as they move forward, researchers plan to use 3D modelling techniques to study the design in greater detail. Will there be even more revelations to come? The truth remains to be seen.