After the crucifixion of Jesus, the body was to be placed in a tomb according to the typical practice of Judea in the 1st century AD. According to the Gospels, the rock cut tomb of Jesus would have been quite costly and was financed by a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43-46). The tomb was described as a new tomb just outside the city, hewn out of the rock, single chambered, having a bench or trough on which to place the body, and sealed with a large stone (Matthew 27:60, Luke 23:53, John 19:41, John 19:20, Mark 15:46, Mark 16:5, John 20:11-12). Rock hewn and stone sealed tombs with a bench are of a type known from the region during the Roman period, and several examples have been discovered nearly intact (Rahmani, “Ancient Jerusalem’s Funerary Customs and Tombs”). Details about the tomb of Jesus recorded in the Gospels allow specific criteria to be applied to the evaluation of ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area and written sources from antiquity which describe the tomb of Jesus and its location.
Because of the significance of the resurrection from the tomb, the Christian community remembered and revered the place of the tomb of Jesus since antiquity, passing this information down from generation to generation through local tradition, written history, and a commemorative church. This tradition for the location of the tomb of Jesus likely traces all the way back to 33 AD and the burial of Jesus, since a substantial Christian community remained in Jerusalem from the time of Jesus through the Byzantine period in the 7th century AD, except for a brief departure from about 66-73 AD during the First Judean Revolt against Rome when many Christians moved to Pella and other nearby areas not involved in the revolt (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History). Historical sources from antiquity mention the tomb of Jesus and buildings that were placed over it in the Roman and Byzantine periods, showing that the location was not forgotten over the centuries. According to a 2nd century AD Latin inscription DOMINVS IVIMVS (“Lord, we went”) and an accompanying drawing of a ship, an early Christian symbol, the area of the tomb was remembered and being visited by Christians even while the Roman temple stood (Clermont-Ganneau, Archaeological Researches in Palestine). Eusebius, a Roman historian and Christian bishop of Caesarea who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, recorded that the rock cut tomb of Jesus had been covered with a temple dedicated to Venus (Greek Aphrodite) by Emperor Hadrian around 135 AD (Eusebius, Life of Constantine). Jerome, a 4th and 5th century Church Father who lived much of his life in nearby Bethlehem, also affirmed that a Roman sanctuary had occupied the location of the tomb of Jesus, noting that Emperor Hadrian had erected a statue of Jupiter on the site of the tomb and a statue of Venus on the stone hill of the crucifixion (Jerome, Letter to Paulinus). Further, Cyril of Jerusalem saw the actual tomb early in the 4th century when the Roman temple had been removed but before the architect Zenobius began building the church, and he described it as a tomb that had been carved into the hillside, although the top overhang had been cut away by that time (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures). This description of the tomb indicates it was of the arcosolium type (arched recess for the body in the main chamber) rather than the loculi type (burial niche extending out from main chamber), which agrees with the explanation of the tomb of Jesus in the Gospels, although it was not the most common type of tomb in 1st century Judea (cf. also The Acts of Pilate which described the tomb as a new cave). These scholars lived in the region and were very familiar with the city of Jerusalem, Roman history, and Church history, indicating that their claims were authentic and based on both eyewitness and local knowledge. The seemingly problematic reference to the two Roman deities Venus and Jupiter may be explained by the possibility of a double temple to Jupiter and Venus at the site. The Roman double temple concept built on an east-west axis, especially involving Venus, had precedent in other building projects of Hadrian, such as the earlier double temple of Venus and Roma situated between the Forum and the Colosseum at Rome (Ammianus; Taylor, “Hadrian’s Serapium in Rome”). The temple to Venus and Jupiter in Jerusalem erected by Hadrian was also next to the Roman Forum in Jerusalem, which conforms to typical Roman practice and places the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site of the Roman temple and tomb of Jesus. Further, Eusebius actually wrote that there was more than one idol and altar at this sanctuary, indicating that there were shrines to both Jupiter and Venus in what was probably a double temple (Eusebius, Life of Constantine). Eusebius was obviously aware of the tradition of the tomb of Jesus as early as the 3rd century AD, but if the information that he and Jerome recorded is correct, then Emperor Hadrian also knew the location of the tomb of Jesus, or at least where Christians less than 100 years after Jesus considered the tomb to be located. It is not only likely, but nearly certain that Christians passed down a continuous memory of the location of the tomb from the time of the burial in about 33 AD in light of the tomb being the location of the most important event in Christianity—the resurrection of Jesus.
The covering of sites associated with Jesus was part of a concerted effort by Hadrian to suppress and eliminate Christianity by building pagan temples and shrines at locations important to Christianity, which also occurred at the nativity location in Bethlehem, the Pool of Bethesda, and probably the Pool of Siloam. Excavations at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher revealed that a Roman temple, to Venus and apparently also Jupiter, had been built over a 1st century tomb in the time of Emperor Hadrian during the reconstruction of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina around 135 AD (Wilkinson, “The Church of the Holy Sepulcher”; Freeman-Grenville, “The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre”; Conant, “The Original Buildings at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem”). Although a few scholars have suggested that there may have been another temple in the city dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus, whom the city was partially named after, the presence of a second Roman temple located elsewhere in the city from the time of Hadrian has not been confirmed by either written or archaeological sources. Hadrian may have intended to build another Roman temple on the Temple Mount, but this seems to have been thwarted by the Bar Kokhba Revolt and construction was never carried out. There is no evidence of any Roman temple on the Temple Mount, but only statues of the Emperors Hadrian and Antonius Pius placed on the remaining platform. A coin issued by order of Emperor Hadrian in Jerusalem/Aelia Capitolina reads “COL(onia) AEL(ia) KAP(itolina)” and shows a temple with 3 figures inside. These figures are typically considered the gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva who compose the Capitoline Triad. As the temple which was over the tomb of Jesus may have been a double temple to Venus and Jupiter, common in the Roman period and especially during the reign of Hadrian who believed his family had a connection to Venus, the coin may even be depicting the temple or one section of the double temple that was placed over the tomb of Jesus. One of these coins was even found in excavations under the church, demonstrating that building projects were done at the site in the time of Emperor Hadrian. Despite the many persecutions and various attempts at eliminating Christianity, the Church in the Roman Empire not only persisted, but it grew to such an extent that Christianity was legalized in 313 AD by the Edict of Milan during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. Soon after, construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher began under the direction of the architect Zenobius in about 326 AD, just a year after the First Council of Nicaea met.
While no other site has an ancient tradition identifying it as the tomb of Jesus, not all agree that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the location of the tomb of Jesus. Due to misunderstandings about the location of the walls of Jerusalem in antiquity, several scholars in the past mistakenly thought that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was located inside the walls of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus in the 1st century AD. Because of this, alternative options were sought. The Garden Tomb, which is located outside of the Old City walls and far away from the walls or gates of Jerusalem dating to the time of Jesus, was investigated and proposed in the late 19th century by German scholar Conrad Schick, influenced by a recently proposed alternative location for the crucifixion site. However, archaeological analysis of the Garden Tomb demonstrates that the tomb actually dates to the Iron Age II around the 7th or 8th century BC and it was only used in the Iron Age and then again in the Byzantine period (Barkay, “The Garden Tomb”). Therefore, it is hundreds of years too early to be the tomb of Jesus and was not even used in the Roman period. Additionally, the Garden Tomb also had two chambers rather than one, and the construction is not of the type which would allow for a rolling stone to seal the tomb. Thus, the Garden Tomb does not match ancient descriptions of the tomb of Jesus in date, design, or location. Instead, the “Garden Tomb” area may serve as a general visual example of what the garden area around the tomb of Jesus would have been like in the 1st century AD.
Recently, another alterative location for the tomb of Jesus was proposed, although this site has received little acceptance in either the Christian or scholarly communities (Gibson, “Is the Talpiot Tomb Really the Family Tomb of Jesus?”; Meyers, “The Jesus Tomb Controversy”). This tomb, located far south of the walls of 1st century Jerusalem, was discovered by accident in 1980 during construction of an apartment complex. The resulting salvage excavation found ten ossuaries (bone boxes typically carved out of limestone) from Roman period Judea, dating to approximately the 1st century BC through the 1st century AD. Ossuaries of this type are found in many burial caves throughout the region, typically spanning the period from the 1st century BC into the 2nd century AD. These ossuaries, six of which were inscribed, were key in producing the claim that this was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, that the bones of Jesus Christ had been found, and that Jesus had a wife and children. The names found carved on the six Talpiot ossuaries are of interest, although they are extremely common names for the Roman period in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The names inscribed on the ossuaries were erroneously read, such as the alleged but false “Mary of Magdala” inscription (Pfann, “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room”). Another ossuary includes a “[…?] son of Joseph” which had been claimed as “Jesus son of Joseph,” but several scholars follow the more believable reading “Hanun son of Joseph” or admit that the first part of the inscription is mostly indecipherable. It must also be noted that Jesus was never referred to as “Jesus son of Joseph” in the Gospels or the New Testament epistles. The names found on the ossuaries were extremely common for the time, and by themselves suggest nothing other than that the tomb was used by Judeans during the Roman period. There are also no Christian markings on the Talpiot Tomb, such as anchors, fish, crosses, ships, etc. that might indicate it had anything to do with Jesus or early Christianity. Finally, there is absolutely no ancient tradition or record associating the Talpiot Tomb with Jesus or early Christianity. The data demonstrates that neither the Talpiot Tomb nor the Garden Tomb were the tomb of Jesus, nor were they ever regarded as such until modern times.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, however, does have a tradition going back to or near the time of Jesus. In the 4th century, Emperor Constantine had the temple to Venus and Jupiter dismantled, and once removed, what was identified as the tomb of Jesus underneath was visible again. This chamber tomb of particular interest, cut into the limestone, dates back prior to the building of the Roman temple, and it was regarded as the tomb of Jesus in antiquity by both the Roman government and the Christian community as evidenced by the building of the pagan temple, the church above and around the tomb, and the historical sources. According to analysis, this tomb had a single, short hallway passage from the entrance into a single square shaped room where the body would lay. The architecture of the entrance suggests that a large circular stone had sealed the tomb, although similar tombs do exist that have square sealing stones rather than round. The description of the tomb in the Gospels makes it clear that it was a single chamber rock cut tomb, and that a round circular sealing stone was used, which would agree with archaeological findings (Matthew 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 24:2). The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was erected around the site of the tomb rather than above it, but during construction of the Roman temple it seems that the builders cut away much of the rock hill around the tomb to level the area. The church was dedicated in September of 335 AD by Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem. Due to destruction of the church and tomb by the Islamic Caliph known as Hakim the Mad in 1009 AD, what remains today requires more imagination than what was obvious during the Byzantine period. Archaeological investigations in Jerusalem have also shown that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was outside and north of the walls of Jerusalem from the time of Jesus, so burials would have been allowed in the area. In fact, excavations uncovered the existence of several ancient tombs cut into the hillside, which may have been called “Gareb” (Jeremiah 31:39). One of these tombs, approximately 20 meters west of the tomb of Jesus and called the “Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea,” appears to have been cut between the 1st century BC and 44 AD when the walls of Jerusalem were extended north by Herod Agrippa I. This was a multi chamber tomb which had 9 oval shaped recesses along the walls. The other rock cut tombs in the immediate area primarily date to the 1st century BC and 1st century AD. A few other ancient tombs in and around the vicinity of the church appear to have been of the more common loculi type, which utilizes slots in the walls in which to place bodies or ossuaries and often have multiple hallways and chambers, rather than the arcosolium type of tomb used for Jesus as described in the Gospels. The church was also in an area that was a quarry from around the 8th century BC through the 1st century BC, when it was filled with soil and stone chips, and converted into a garden (Gibson and Taylor, Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?”; Broshi, “Excavations in the Holy Sepulchre”; Kenyon, Digging up Jerusalem). It seems that Joseph of Arimathea had a tomb cut into a rocky hill in this garden area, and Jesus was placed into this tomb after the crucifixion. By the beginning of the 2nd century AD, buildings were constructed in this area, as the “third wall” of Jerusalem had been built. Evidence from archaeology, ancient historical sources, geography, and Christian tradition all point to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as housing the remains of the tomb of Jesus, which can still be visited today.