Church of the Holy Sepulchre overview – Israel

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (a.k.a. the Church of the Resurrection) dates back to the 4th Century and is believed to encompass both Golgotha (i.e., Calvary) and the tomb where Christ was subsequently buried.

There are several reasons to believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the authentic site for both Calvary and the Tomb:

  1. Excavations here have revealed that the location was an unused quarry found just outside the city walls prior to 41AD. This is in keeping with Scripture which states the Lord was taken through one of the Gates of Jerusalem and crucified just outside of the city walls (see Mark 15: 20 and Hebrews 13: 12).
  2. Between 41 and 43AD, a wall was built to extend Jerusalem’s perimeter to encompass the area. Even then, the area appears to have not been inhabited. There seems to be a significance that starts to be placed on the site.
  3. The early Christians held worship services on this site until 66AD (according to the writings of Eusebius and Socrates Scholasticus). Couple this with the fact that the earliest Christian Synagogue found in Jerusalem (see entry concerning King David’s Tomb) is oriented toward here, indicating the site is important!
  4. In 135AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian built a Temple to Venus (i.e., Aphrodite) on this site. It seems as if Hadrian was trying to claim the location for traditional Roman religion.
  5. There is an unbroken tradition behind this site that goes all the way back to the time of Roman Emperor Constantine. He was the first Roman Emperor to profess Christianity. In 326AD, he ordered surveyors and historians to determine the exact location where Jesus Christ would have been crucified and subsequently buried. They determined it was the site beneath Hadrian’s Temple to Venus. 
  6. In a sense, they could not have chosen a more costly or inconvenient location.  Substantial buildings had to be torn down, including Hadrian’s Temple. Just to the south of the Temple was an open forum area that could have easily been used for a memorial. Apparently, the Romans were concerned with setting up a memorial/church on the authentic site.
  7. At the time this search was taking place by the Romans, early Church father and historian Eusebius was residing in Caesarea Maritima. He claims that a memorial was located under Hadrian’s Temple that evidenced it to be the original site of Golgotha. A claim also arose that Helena (Constantine’s mother and fellow convert) miraculously located here all three original crosses (those of Jesus and the two thieves crucified with Him). This is fanciful at best and would seem to be a reflection that the era of relic hunting had begun.
  8. Perhaps the best evidence for the authenticity of the site is the existence of 1st Century burial tombs found within.

Scriptural Significance

And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Luke 23: 33

And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, that is to say, Place of a Skull, they gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink. Then they crucified Him… Matthew 27: 33 – 35

And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. Mark 15: 22

And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Luke 23: 33

Did You Know?

A visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can leave one wanting. It is gaudy, a mish-mash of architectural styles, and forever in a state of disrepair. This is owing to two primary factors: (1) Influence of the numerous sects of Christendom controlling the site and (2) Mistreatment by Islamic rulers through the centuries. Like so many other sites found in the Holy Land, the presence of the Cathedral has served to mark the spot for posterity. Its history is as follows:

326 – Romans identify site and begin clearing for constructing a memorial church.

335 – Church is formally dedicated with a speech by Eusebius.  Work continues for another 50 years as engineers attempt to isolate (i.e., cut away from the rock cliff) the specific tomb they believe to have held the Lord’s body.

384 – Chapel around the Tomb or Sepulchre is finally completed. The overall church built on the site at the time was much larger than one found there today.

614 – Persians invade Jerusalem and set ablaze much of the Church.  

630 – Reconstruction efforts are completed under Byzantine Emperor Heraclius

638 – Mohammedan-Arab Caliph Omar conquers Jerusalem from Byzantium.  The Caliph was invited to pray at the Church by Bishop Sofronius. Instead, he declined, stating that if he were to do so, his followers would turn site into a mosque.  

1009 – Fatimid Caliph Hakim begins to systematically destroy the Church. The east and west walls were demolished and the Tomb of Christ was heavily damaged.

1048 – Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachos pays for the site to be restored.  The atrium and basilica were completely lost, leaving only the courtyard and rotunda.  This rotunda becomes basis for the Church visited by the Crusaders.

1099 – Crusaders take Jerusalem in part due to desecration performed by Muslims. 

1112 – Renovations commence in the Romanesque style.

1188 – Saladin takes Jerusalem and the Church is closed for the next few decades.

1244 – Charismians damage the Church and slay many of Jerusalem’s Christians.

1246 – Sultan Ajub apologizes to Pope Innocent IV for the massacre and turns keys of the basilica over to two Moslem families who will open it to arriving pilgrims.

1335 – Pope Clement VI issues a Papal Bull that confers upon the Franciscans the primary responsibility for residing / maintaining the Church.

1346 – Armenian Orthodox Church controls area of basilica believed to be Calvary.

1475 – Armenians cede right of control over Calvary.  A number of Christian denominations are present within the basilica with control over different portions.

1517 – Ottoman Turks wrestle control of Jerusalem from the Egyptian Mamluks. As a result, Greek Orthodox Church gained more influence over the Holy Sepulchre.

1540 – Coptic Christians out of Egypt gain more influence over the site as well.

1545 – Earthquake causes significant damage.

1555 – Franciscans perform significant renovations.

1644 – Georgian and Abyssinian Christians abandon Church, unable to sustain expenses/extortion required by corrupt Turkish officials. 

1719 – Franciscans gain permission to perform significant improvements/repairs to location.  The Greeks and the Armenians also undertake building projects.

1767 – The Greek Orthodox Church accuses the Franciscans of impropriety.  The Ottoman Turks step in and basically end further construction efforts.

1808 – Fire causes extensive damage. Russian Orthodox Church fund many repairs.

1867 / 1927 – Two earthquakes threaten to weaken overall structure.

1934 – The British Authority perform renovations.

1959 – The Franciscans, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox enter into an agreement to work together to repair the site and jointly administer.  Today, they remain the primary custodians for the site. The Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopic Orthodox, and the Syrian Orthodox Churches also hold lesser responsibilities. 

The Crusader layout for the Church originally intended to be a Cross.  The many construction projects have long since changed this.