It doesn’t feel right wearing a purple shirt to church.

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I have come to the Holy Land to pursue a study project, to join an archaeological dig, and to meet and to talk with various people for various reasons. But today, on my first full day, I feel very much like a pilgrim. Not that any of those things are in tension: pilgrims have come here to study for centuries, and to pray about what they are studying.

To my mind, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (or, to use its Greek name, the Church of the Anastasis, the Resurrection) is the most important and the most significant place in the world. This is where I have spent most of my time today: exploring, reading the scriptures, thinking, praying, talking with fellow pilgrims from around the world.

It’s not every day that you see a dead man – cold in the tomb – rise to life, I’ll be the first to admit. To my naturally sceptic mind, the claim that anyone might have done so seems most unlikely. But my inner historian urges me to believe that in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, this is precisely what has happened. I also think that where it happened was here.

I have friends and family who take a different view on the former, and friends and family who, whilst they may agree on the former, find the latter difficult. I’m just going to explain briefly why I take the view I do.

Why I think it happened

The reason I think it happened, in short, is because I find it very difficult to come up with a convincing explanation for the existence of the church otherwise. I am not ignorant of the alternative theories. I know that the New Testament wasn’t written in the order we find it presented to us; I am well aware that it is entirely reasonable to think in terms of a “developing” resurrection tradition.

I just find alternative explanations for the rapid expansion of the Christian Church, to be honest, on balance, more of a stretch than the one to which I subscribe.

Did Jesus not really die, and, in his seriously injured, limping state, manage to convince his disciples that he was gloriously risen? Did the disciples “see a shadow” (as one recent offering from the BBC has claimed) and conclude that he had been resurrected? Or maybe it was St Paul who was effectively the architect of the Christian faith, inventing what we understand as the gospel from whole cloth, for reasons best known to himself?

None of these explanations is impossible. And there are others, too, which could be given a hearing.

But I always find myself thinking back to the first disciples, and to what became of them. On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, they were terrified. A few brave women excepted, they had scattered. Most of them were nowhere to be seen.  And you can’t really blame them. Guilt by association is a frightening charge when your leader has been nailed to a cross.

So why, some weeks later, are they recorded as proclaiming boldly in public that Jesus had been resurrected? They must have done this – the church is founded on this very claim. But why would they do it if they knew, deep down, that the real truth lay somewhere else?

The fact is that many of Jesus’ disciples went to a very brutal death for saying what they said they had witnessed. Would you do that for a lie? Would you do that for anything less than utterly convincing evidence than that what you were claiming was true?

I wouldn’t. Especially since by claiming it I’d have nothing in this world to gain, and everything, including my life, to lose.

Why I think it happened here

A vital factor in assessing the credibility of any claimed biblical site is the age of the traditions associated with it. This, for example, is why the so called “Garden Tomb” absolutely cannot be the site of the burial of Christ: no one thought of it before General Charles Gordon dreamed it up in 1883. [1]

By way of contrast, if you can trace an unbroken line of testimony from antiquity to the present day, then you’re probably on to something important.

Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem returned from the Council of Nicaea in 325AD with permission from Constantine to build a church commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. He needed the sanction of the Roman Emperor because, since the time of Hadrian in the second century, the Capitoline temple had sat on the traditional site of the tomb. That’s not something you can just dig up because you feel like it.

But, with the Emperor’s approval granted, Macarius set to work the same year. We owe the record of the discovery of the tomb to Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, who put it like this (Vita Constantini 3.28):

But as soon as the original surface of the ground, beneath the covering of earth, appeared, immediately, and contrary to all expectation, the venerable and hollowed monument of our Saviour’s resurrection was discovered. Then indeed did this most holy cave present a faithful similitude of his return to life, in that, after lying buried in darkness, it again emerged to light, and afforded to all who came to witness the sight, a clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene, a testimony to the resurrection of the Saviour clearer than any voice could give.

Eusebius expresses surprise at the success, and, given the tension between himself and Macarius of Jerusalem, can well be expected to have been grudging in his praise. What exactly was the nature of the “clear and visible proof” that the right spot had been dug, he does not say. It is unlikely to have been the wood of the True Cross, as later tradition has it. More likely, and also more convincingly, it would have been Christian graffiti [see Jerome Murphy O’Connor, ‘The Authenticity of the Holy Sepulchre’, Revue Biblique 101 (1994), 64-65].

No-one (at least, no-one who is sane) disputes that the site of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the site excavated by Macarius in the fourth century. But there remains a gap between the events described by the gospels and that discovery of just under three hundred years. Could the local Christian community have kept the knowledge of this site alive for that long? Even despite the disruption to life in Jerusalem following the First Jewish Revolt (66-73AD) and the Second (132-135AD)?

I think the answer is probably yes, they did. Historical memory is very tenacious. For considered answers to this question, Fr Murphy O’Connor offers some very solid arguments in the article cited above.

Back to today

So this is where I spent most of today. I saw pilgrims from around the world moved to tears by the opportunity to pray in this place. Some protestant friends, I know, find it cold and alien, even shocking. For me, any sense of that is overridden by the cumulative weight of pilgrimage persistence centred on the most important place on earth.

I only took this photo inside the church today. It's the 1st century Kohkim tombs at the west end, indicating that the church does indeed lie on the site of a 1st century burial ground. No one else seemed all that interested - it was completely pitch dark in here.

I only took one photo inside the church today. This is the 1st century Kohkim tombs at the west end, indicating that the church does indeed lie on the site of a 1st century burial ground. No one else seemed all that interested – it was completely pitch dark in here.

[1] No one would think of it now, incidentally, because the rocky escarpment which Gordon thought resembled the shape of a skull (the meaning of “Golgotha”) no longer looks that way at all since its “nose” dropped off in a storm on 20th February 2015. The Garden Tomb theory has quite literally lost face.