So – where was Jesus really crucified? An Easter mystery!

Back in 2012, I visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – a real hotch-potch of a church on different levels and sprawling over a large area. Within its ancient walls dating back to the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine is the reputed site of the crucifixion.

But not everybody agrees.

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The crypt of the Holy Sepulchre

Every year, thousands of pilgrims trudge up the Via Dolorosa – as I did – following the last footsteps of Jesus to his place of death. The cobbled road is punctuated with all those familiar sites – such as the point at which he fell and where his face was wiped.

And it all ends up in the Holy Sepulchre. Within the church you can venerate the spot at which the cross was erected and also the tomb of Jesus.

It’s all rather convenient, a sceptic might think. What a happy accident to have both these sacred places under one roof. And the discovery of the location of the crucifixion and the tomb were made by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, on a state visit to Jerusalem in the fourth century AD. In fact, Helena just found one miraculous biblical item after another during her stay.

But there are problems. Was the crucifixion really carried out within the city walls? Wouldn’t it have been more likely for grim executions to be conducted outside the gates, by the local rubbish tip for example, away from the houses of local citizens? You have to consider that the bodies were normally left to rot and be picked at by animals for days afterwards. Did people really want to see that outside of their window?

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The  Garden Tomb – the real site of Jesus’ burial?

Also, where is the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha?

This question led some Christians in the nineteenth century, mainly Protestants, to pick a spot for the crucifixion outside the city walls near a tall mound that does appear to have a skull-like appearance. It’s just north of the Damascus gate. They also alighted on an old tomb nearby as the final resting place of the Messiah – the so-called Garden Tomb.

Now, some critics have argued that this theory has more to do with Protestants having no control over any part of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Even today, that church is divided between the Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Armenian and Greek orthodox churches. They occasionally fight each other in turf wars over who controls which bit of the church – and they’re certainly not letting the Protestants get a look in.

All I can say is that while I adore the Holy Sepulchre, it’s not a convincing site for the crucifixion. However, the Knights Templar thought it was and their churches all over Europe replicated the circular design of the Holy Sepulchre. I’m sure many of you will feel that the symbolic significance is more important than the reality. But some of you may not. So what is the truth?

When you approach the site of the crucifixion at the Holy Sepulchre, there can sometimes be scenes of deep religious ecstasy. You may think I was a bit naughty doing this but on my old iPhone (so apologies for the grainy quality), I filmed some Russian nuns showing their devotion in 2012 before the place where Jesus was executed by the Romans.

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How was Easter celebrated when the Knights Templar were around?

Yates-Thompson-34-f.-84-Resurrection-of-ChristThe crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was central to Christian belief. This was the idea that God had taken human form, had performed miracles and given sermons while alive and then had sacrificed himself to the most degrading form of capital punishment in the Roman empire to save humanity. To the medieval Christian, this was the cornerstone of their faith – a belief in the risen Christ.

For forty days before Easter, medieval folk fasted to prepare themselves for the feast of Easter. Just before Easter, purple cloth was draped over statues and crucifixes. A Catholic school near me has just placed a cloth over the statue of the Virgin Mary just behind the school railings. So this tradition is still continuing today.

The veiling is normally done between Passion Sunday and Good Friday, a period referred to as Passiontide. The statues and crosses are then unveiled on Good Friday with a flourish. In the Middle Ages, the veiling may have started earlier at the beginning of Lent.

The three days before Easter Sunday were called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  In the Byzantine Empire, mourning clothes would be worn on the Friday and Saturday to be replaced by dazzling garments on Easter Sunday.  Church services on Good Friday would be held in almost total darkness to symbolise the gloomy fate of Jesus on that day. But in contrast, Easter Day would be celebrated with an uplifting and joyous Mass – all in Latin of course.

Plays depicting the passion of Christ – the story of his trial, crucifixion and resurrection – were hugely popular. The average medieval peasant was not versed in Latin so the church Mass wasn’t going to inform them about the story of Jesus. They simply didn’t understand a word of what was being said by the priest. Plus most of them were illiterate so even if the bible had been available in English – which it wasn’t – they wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

So visual representation was the only way to tell the story to ordinary people. There is a theory that the Turin Shroud was originally intended to be a prop in one of these Easter plays and not a literal real shroud of Jesus. The peasants would experience all the pain and agony Christ went through in a vivid drama that even Mel Gibson might approve of.

Easter has declined in importance in our secular times compared to Christmas and even Halloween. But it was one of the three most important Christian dates in the Middle Ages with Christmas and Whitsun. The latter was when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. Now that really is a forgotten date in the Christian calendar.

 

The Holy Sepulchre – sacred to the Knights Templar

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Site of the crucifixion – photo I took during my visit

In 2012, I visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre several times in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s a church that inspired the construction of Templar places of worship from London to Tomar with its distinctive circular shape. The dome of the Holy Sepulchre also appeared on Templar seals

The Holy Sepulchre was originally built by the Romans after they converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE. It was, they believed, the site of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. How did they arrive at this conclusion?

Well, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, authorised the demolition of a temple to the goddess Venus in order to venerate the place where Christ died to save the sins of humanity. As the temple came tumbling down, a tomb was revealed. All those present decided that it had to be the resting place of the Messiah.

The first church erected by Constantine was a richly decorated affair with brilliant mosaics and a garden with the rock of Golgotha as its centrepiece. From there, the pilgrim would have entered another open space where a rock cut tomb was exposed to the elements. This church was damaged massively by invading Persians in the seventh century CE and then all but flattened by the volatile Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It’s more than likely that Al-Hakim had the tomb of Jesus hacked to bits.

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Photo I took in the crypt 

The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus began funding of a new church decades later but it was never completed.

In fact, when the crusaders invaded Jerusalem in 1099, the church had no roof. It was left to the newly victorious crusaders to put up a new building that would enclose the site of the crucifixion and the tomb, giving the latter it’s own little chapel. This was consecrated in the mid-12th century. The crypt is possibly the most evocative of the Middle Ages and its walls are covered in carved medieval crosses.

Up until the 19th century, you could have seen the tombs of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I, the first rulers of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. But they were removed by Greek monks doing repairs. I assume that the ill feeling of the Greek church towards the Latin crusaders had continued from the 12th century to the 19th!

The tomb of Jesus was excavated in 2016 and it revealed the existence of an older tomb under a marble slab placed on the spot where Jesus was said to have been buried. The slab dated to 1555 when the Franciscans carried out major renovation work.

Ethiopian monkOne oddity of the Holy Sepulchre is that the church is divided up between different Christian denominations. Since the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic have been custodians. In the 19th century, the church was divided up again to include the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox. The relationship between these different groups is often competitive and unfriendly.

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Priests riot in 2011

Things got ludicrous in 2011 when priests rioted and beat each other with broom handles in a vicious row over who controlled which bit of the church. When I visited, I saw a Coptic Orthodox priest sitting on the roof. Apparently, there is always a Coptic at that spot staking a claim against the Ethiopians. There is also a ladder that has been propped up against a window since 1852 and nobody has moved it because of similar aggro about who can go where and do what.

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Photo I took within the chapel covering the tomb of Jesus

 

Via Dolorosa – where Veronica met Jesus

Needless to say there is no mention of this incident in the gospels but it pops up in various apocrypha (stuff written long after the gospels or not accepted by the church to be included in the bible) like The Epistles of Jesus Christ. Basically, Veronica offered to wipe the face of Jesus and his face was imprinted on the cloth.

There are no firm recordings of the story before the Templar period but after the twelfth century, the cult of Veronica took off – led by the pope, when the veil would be processed through Rome. There were highly unsubstantiated accounts that the veil first arrived in Rome under the emperor Tiberius (the ruler of Rome at the time of the crucifixion) and that by touching it, miracle cures were achieved.

Did the Templars leave a nail from the crucifixion on the island of Madeira?

In 2010, a nail reputed to be from the crucifixion was found on the island of Ilheu da Pontinha in Portuguese owned Madeira. It was contained in an ornate box next to three skeletons and three swords, one with a religious symbol. The nail was smooth suggesting that it had been handled many times in the past.

The theory that emerged was that the Knights Templar had brought this sacred relic to Madeira and three of the order’s knights had been buried with it. It is true that the Templars had a significant base in Portugal with their headquarters in the town of Tomar.

The Bad Archaeology website, which specialises in debunking what it says are false claims, pointed out that it’s very hard to date nails, most of which looked pretty much the same until the 19th century. It also pointed to the inconvenient fact that Madeira, located in the Atlantic some distance from Portugal, was discovered a hundred years after the Knights Templars were suppressed.

A prominent Portuguese archaeologist working at a major excavation on Madeira at the time the nail was discovered derided the claim that it came from the crucifixion. He said it dated to construction work in the 17th or 18th century.

Ilheu da Pontinha has a colourful reputation among the Portuguese as the tiny island has attempted to declare independence from the rest of Portugal in the recent past as this news report details:

 

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