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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Alleged Site of the Holy Sepulchre

By Edward Robinson (1794–1863)

[Born in Southington, Conn., 1794. Died in New York, N. Y., 1863. Biblical Researches in Palestine. 1841.]

THAT the early Christians at Jerusalem must have had a knowledge of the places where the Lord was crucified and buried, there can he no doubt; that they erected their churches on places consecrated by miracles, and especially on Calvary and over our Lord’s Sepulchre, is a more questionable position. There is at least no trace of it in the New Testament, nor in the history of the primitive church. The four Gospels, which describe so minutely the circumstances of the crucifixion and resurrection, mention the sepulchre only in general terms; and although some of them were written thirty or forty years after these events, yet they are silent as to any veneration of the sepulchre, and also as to its very existence at that time. The writers do not even make in behalf of their Lord and Master the natural appeal which Peter employs in the case of David, “that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.” The great Apostle of the Gentiles too, whose constant theme is the death and resurrection of our Lord and the glory of his cross, has not in all his writings the slightest allusion to any reverence for the place of these great events or the instrument of the Saviour’s passion. On the contrary, the whole tenor of our Lord’s teaching and that of Paul, and indeed of every part of the New Testament, was directed to draw off the minds of men from an attachment to particular times and places, and to lead the true worshippers to worship God, not merely at Jerusalem or in Mount Gerizim, but everywhere “in spirit and in truth.”—The position that the Christian churches in the apostolic age were without the walls of the city, is a mere fancy springing from the similar location of the sepulchre; and still more fanciful and absurd is the assertion, that those churches, if any such there were, might have escaped destruction during the long siege by Titus.

The alleged regular succession of bishops, from the time of St. James to the reign of Adrian, is also a matter of less certainty, than is here represented. Eusebius, the only authority on the subject, lived two centuries afterwards; and says expressly, that he had been able to find no document respecting them, and wrote only from report.

What then after all is the amount of the testimony relative to an idol erected over the place of the resurrection, and serving to mark the spot? It is simply, that writers ex post facto have mentioned such an idol as standing, not over the sepulchre known of old as being that of Christ, but over the spot fixed upon by Constantine as that sepulchre. Their testimony proves conclusively that an idol stood upon that spot; but it has no bearing to show that this spot was the true sepulchre. Eusebius, the contemporary and eye-witness, makes no mention of any tradition connected with the idol. Jerome sixty years later is the only one to ascribe it to Adrian; and Sozomen, in the middle of the fifth century is the first to remark, that the heathen erected it in the hope, that Christians who came to pay their devotions at the sepulchre, would thus have the appearance of worshipping an idol. Yet from these slender materials, the skilful pen of Chateaubriand has wrought out a statement so definite and specious, that most readers who have not had an opportunity of investigation, have probably regarded the matter as a well-established fact.

Thus then the positive proofs alleged in favor of an earlier tradition respecting the Holy Sepulchre, vanish away; and there remains only the possibility, that a fact of this nature might have been handed down in the church through the succession of bishops and other holy men….

But for the value of such a tradition, supposing it to have existed, we have a decisive test, in applying the same reasoning to another tradition of precisely the same character and import. The place of our Lord’s ascension must have been to the first Christians in Jerusalem an object of no less interest than his sepulchre, and could not but have been equally known to them. The knowledge of it too would naturally have been handed down from century to century through the same succession of bishops and holy men. In this case, moreover, we know that such a tradition did actually exist before the age of Constantine, which pointed out the place of the ascension on the summit of the Mount of Olives. Eusebius, writing about A.D. 315, ten years or more before the journey of Helena, speaks expressly (as we have already seen), of the many Christians who came up to Jerusalem from all parts of the earth, not as of old to celebrate a festival, but to behold the accomplishment of prophecy in the desolations of the city, and to pay their adorations on the summit of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus gave his last charge to his disciples, and then ascended into heaven. Yet notwithstanding this weight of testimony, and the apparent length of time and unbroken succession through which the story had been handed down, the tradition itself is unquestionably false; since it is contradicted by the express declaration of Scripture. According to St. Luke, Jesus led out his disciples as far as to Bethany, and blessed them; and while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into Heaven.—Yet Helena erected a church upon the Mount of Olives; and assuredly there could have been no tradition better accredited in respect to the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed, the fact that no pilgrimages were made to the latter, goes strongly to show that there was no tradition respecting it whatever.

We arrive at a similar, though less decided result, in following up another parallel tradition of the same kind. The Cave of the Nativity, so called, at Bethlehem, has been pointed out as the place where Jesus was born, by a tradition which reaches back at least to the middle of the second century. At that time Justin Martyr speaks distinctly of the Saviour’s birth, as having occurred in a grotto near Bethlehem. In the third century, Origen adduces it as a matter of public notoriety, so that even the heathen regarded it as the birthplace of him whom the Christians adored. Eusebius also mentions it several years before the journey of Helena; and the latter consecrated the spot by erecting over it a church. In this instance, indeed, the language of Scripture is less decisive than in respect to the place of the ascension; and the evangelist simply relates that the Virgin “brought forth her first-born son, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” But the circumstance of the Saviour’s being born in a cave would certainly have not been less remarkable, than his having been laid in a manger; and it is natural to suppose that the sacred writer would not have passed it over in silence. The grotto moreover was and is at some distance from the town; and although there may be still occasional instances in Judea, where a cavern is occupied as a stable, yet this is not now, and never was, the usual practice, especially in towns and their environs. Taking into account all these circumstances,—and also the early and general tendency to invent and propagate legends of a similar character, and the prevailing custom of representing the events of the gospel-history as having taken place in grottoes,—it would seem hardly consistent with a love of simple historic truth, to attach to this tradition any much higher degree of credit, than we have shown to belong to the parallel tradition respecting the place of our Lord’s ascension.

The two traditions which we have now examined, both present a much stronger case, than anything which ever has been or can be urged in behalf of the supposed Holy Sepulchre. Yet one of them at least, and probably both, have no foundation in historic truth. On this ground then, as well as on all others, the alleged site of the Sepulchre is found to be without support.

Thus in every view which I have been able to take of the question, both topographical and historical, whether on the spot or in the closet, and in spite of all my previous prepossessions, I am led irresistibly to the conclusion, that the Golgotha and the tomb now shown in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, are not upon the real places of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. The alleged discovery of them by the aged and credulous Helena, like her discovery of the cross, may not improbably have been the work of pious fraud. It would perhaps not be doing injustice to the bishop Macarius and his clergy, if we regard the whole as a well laid and successful plan for restoring to Jerusalem its former consideration, and elevating his see to a higher degree of influence and dignity.

If it be asked, Where then are the true sites of Golgotha and the sepulchre to be sought? I must reply, that probably all search can only be in vain. We know nothing more from the Scriptures, than that they were near each other, without the gate and nigh to the city, in a frequented spot. This would favor the conclusion, that the place was probably upon a great road leading from one of the gates; and such a spot would only be found upon the western or northern sides of the city, on the roads leading towards Joppa or Damascus.