The Church of the Holy Sepulchre


Types of Truth


church The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The church in 2010, from left to right: the bell tower (12th century), rotunda (large dome), Catholicon (smaller dome), and ambulatory



The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. According to traditions dating back to the fourth century, it contains the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus' empty tomb, where he is believed by Christians to have been buried and resurrected. The tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula.

The New Testament describes Jesus' tomb as being outside the city wall, as was normal for burials, which were regarded as unclean. Today, the site of the Church is within the current walls of the old city of Jerusalem. It has been documented by archaeologists that in the time of Jesus, the walled city was smaller and the wall then was to the east of the current site of the Church. In other words, the city had been much narrower in Jesus' time, with the site then having been outside the walls; since Herod Agrippa is recorded by history as extending the city to the north (beyond the present northern walls).

Today, the wider complex around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre also serves as the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, while control of the church itself is shared among several Christian denominations and secular entities in complicated arrangements, mostly unchanged for almost two centuries, and some duties for much longer. The main denominations sharing property over parts of the church are the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic, and to a lesser degree the Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox.

Years ago I watched a television documentary on this church. The journalist was speaking with a resident Roman Catholic monk and pointed out that archeologist and historians agreed that the actual sepulchre was located some distance away. The monk replied such information was unimportant as this location was made holy by the thousands of pilgrims who for centuries had come here to worship. The journalist reacted with a puzzled look on his face.  When modern scientific man is confronted with differences between poetic and scientific truth he reacts much like the journalist: puzzled.

I address this Gordian knot without the sword of Alexander.

 Plato considered poetry to be a copy of the phenomenal world, and hence, removed from reality. Reality is in the idea, a universe based on math. Aristotle thought the imitation involved in poetry was creative. The poet draws material from the world around him but creates something different.  Poetry imitates things not as they exist but as might be or as they ought to be. In each case a transformation is implied. What poetry recreates is the permanent and universal aspect of the human experience.  The question we moderns ask: which transformation is authentic?

The historians focus is on particular happenings and  deals with a superficial and factual reality. If half a  dozen individuals are involved in a car wreck, there may well be half a dozen different versions of that historical happening, plus the police report and the version of a judge.  Another example: The subject of the American Civil War is a continuing argument among historians about the causes, blame, and  historical reverberations. Generally, the winner of a given war writes the history and places the blame on the losers.

Poetry deals with a presentation of reality within the laws of probability and necessity. A  poet can invest universality to particular events.  The Trojan War has been given a universal and permanent value and meaning through poetry by Homer. Thus poetry is more philosophical than history and may well embody a higher reality. I once had a professor of English tell me, "Its all there in the Iliad!"

Poetry  usually  follows the rules of probability and necessity.  Incidents should seem believable, connected, and ordered.  However the poet’s law of probability can makes even the impossible seem probable.  Aristotle prefers the “probable impossibility” to the “improbable possibility.” It is the poet’s ability to apply the rule of probability that creates “willing suspension of disbelief” in the audience or reader. Aristotle thus defends poetic truth and places it on a higher level than history, which merely presents factual truth. The poet relates what may happen, within the laws of probability. He universalises particular facts and invests permanence on transient happenings.

Christianity Poetry or History

A dying-and-rising deity is a religious motif in which a god or goddess dies and is resurrected. Examples of gods who die and later return to life are most often cited from the religions of the ancient Near East, and traditions influenced by them include Biblical and Greco-Roman mythology and by extension Christianity. The concept of a dying-and-rising god was first proposed in comparative mythology by James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890). Frazer associated the motif with fertility rites surrounding the yearly cycle of vegetation. Frazer cited the examples of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis, Dionysus and Jesus. Frazer argued that all myths are echoes of rituals, and that all rituals have as their primordial purpose the manipulation of natural phenomena.

At first Frazer received  favorably reviews, then the work was the subject of controversial debate over the following decades. One of the leading scholars in the deconstruction of Frazer's "dying-and-rising god" category was Jonathan Z. Smith, who dismissed the theory as "largely a misnomer based on imaginative reconstructions and exceedingly late or highly ambiguous texts", suggesting a more detailed categorisation into "dying gods" and "disappearing gods", arguing that before Christianity, the two categories were distinct and gods who "died" did not return, and those who returned never truly "died".  Smith gave a more detailed account of his views specifically on the question of parallels to Christianity in Drudgery Divine (1990). Smith's 1987 article was widely received, and during the 1990s, scholarly consensus seemed to shift towards his rejection of the concept as oversimplified, although it continued to be invoked by scholars writing about ancient Near Eastern mythology. Since the 1990s, Smith's scholarly rejection of the category has been widely embraced by Christian apologists wishing to defend the historicity of Jesus, while scholarly defenses of the concept and its applicability to mystery religion, have been embraced by the new atheism movement wishing to argue the Christ myth theory.

Historical Jesus

A number of scholars have criticized the various approaches used in the study of the historical Jesus. Since Albert Schweitzer's book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, scholars have stated that many of the portraits of Jesus are "pale reflections of the researchers" themselves. Schweitzer stated: "There is no historical task which so reveals a man's true self as the writing of a life of Jesus."  John Dominic Crossan summarized saying, many authors writing about the life of Jesus "do autobiography and call it biography."

The historical analysis techniques used by biblical scholars have been questioned, and according to James Dunn it is not possible "to construct (from the available data) a Jesus who will be the real Jesus."  Classicist historian A. N. Sherwin-White "noted that approaches taken by biblical scholars differed from those of classical historians."  Historian Michael R. Licona says biblical scholars are not trained historians for the most part. He asks, "How many have completed so much as a single undergraduate course pertaining to how to investigate the past?"  Licona says N. T. Wright, James G. D. Dunn, and Dale Allison have written substantive historically minded works using hermeneutics, but even so, there remains "no carefully defined and extensive historical method...typical of professional historians.

Donald Akenson, Professor of Irish Studies in the department of history at Queen's University has argued that, with very few exceptions, the historians attempting to reconstruct a biography of the man Jesus of Nazareth apart from the mere facts of his existence and crucifixion have not followed sound historical practices. He has stated that there is an unhealthy reliance on consensus for propositions which should otherwise be based on primary sources, or rigorous interpretation. He also identifies a peculiar downward dating creep, and holds that some of the criteria being used are faulty.

It is difficult for any scholar to construct a portrait of Jesus that can be considered historically valid beyond the basic elements of his life. As a result, W.R. Herzog has stated that: "What we call the historical Jesus is the composite of the recoverable bits and pieces of historical information and speculation about him that we assemble, construct, and reconstruct. For this reason, the historical Jesus is, in Meier's words, 'a modern abstraction and construct.'" According to James Dunn, "the historical Jesus is properly speaking a nineteenth and twentieth-century construction, not Jesus back then, and not a figure in history". Dunn further explains "the facts are not to be identified as data; they are always an interpretation of the data.   Jesus was seen as historically "authentic" only where he was dissimilar from Judaism, whereas, in contemporary studies since the late twentieth, there is near unanimous agreement that Jesus must be understood within the context of first century Judaism.

There is no physical or archaeological evidence for Jesus, and there are no writings by Jesus.  First century Greek and Roman authors do not mention Jesus. Textual scholar Bart Ehrman writes that it is a myth that the Romans kept detailed records of everything, however, within a century of Jesus' death there are three extant Roman references to Jesus. While none of them were written during Jesus' lifetime, that is not unusual for personages from antiquity. Josephus, the first-century Romano-Jewish scholar, mentions Jesus twice. There are enough independent attestations of Jesus' existence, Ehrman says, it is "astounding for an ancient figure of any kind". While there are additional second and third century references to Jesus, evangelical philosopher and historian Gary Habermas says extra-biblical sources are of varied quality and dependability and can only provide a broad outline of the life of Jesus. He also points out that Christian non-New Testament sources, such as the church fathers, rely on the New Testament for much of their data and cannot therefore be considered as independent sources.

The primary sources on Jesus are the Gospels, therefore the Jesus of history is inextricably bound to the issue of the historical reliability of those writings. The authenticity and reliability of the gospels and the letters of the apostles have been questioned, and there are few events mentioned in the gospels that are universally accepted.  However, Bart Ehrman says "To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly." He adds: "There is historical information about Jesus in the Gospels."

The adage that history is composed of lies told on dead people contains some truth; thus, the lack of historical statements outside of the Gospels does not confine the basis of the religion to the  category of myth. The Gospels stand, but the interpretations have changed with the times. And so have the symbols. The crucifixion was seen as an embarrassment for the early church until the middle ages when it became the supreme symbol of Christianity.


In 1870, Heinrich Schliemann excavated a site in northwestern Turkey believed to be Troy.  Schliemann was a German adventurer and con man who took credit for the discovery, even though he was digging at Hisarlik, know by British archaeologist Frank Calvert to be Troy. Eager to find the legendary treasures of Troy, Schliemann blasted his way down to the second city, where he found what he believed were the jewels that once belonged to Helen. As it turns out, the jewels were a thousand years older than the time described in Homer's epic. Moreover, his excavations destroyed what later archaeologists identified as Homer's Troy.

The ruins of several cities, one atop another, have very little effect, if any, on Homer's Iliad, other than to confirm what was already known; bronze age warriors laid siege to a city in Asia minor. The same can be said for the search for the physical roots of Christianity: any finds would be irrelevant to the Gospels. Novels such as The Da Vinci Code make interesting reading, but nothing more.

Christians have different opinions and beliefs which some critics take to be weakness, but dialogue and arguments keep the religion from devolving into mere cant. The institutions supporting the religion will  continue to be in crisis because they are managed by fallible and weak human beings.

Kazantzakis in his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, argues that by facing and conquering human weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God's will without giving in to the temptations of the flesh. Had Jesus succumbed to any such temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other religious leader.

 Kazantzakis' novel tries to reclaim the values of early Christianity, such as love, brotherhood, humility, and self-renunciation.  The psychology of the novel is based on the idea that every person, Jesus included, is weak by nature as well as good, violent and hateful as well as loving. A psychologically healthy individual does not ignore or bury the evil within him. Instead, he channels it into the service of good. Christianity, then, is a lifelong struggle each individual must endure, but saved from ourselves through Jesus as role model. In a nutshell, Christians say when you are faced with a dilemma ask yourself, what would Jesus do.

Whether the sepulchre of Jesus is located in a church in Jerusalem or not is unimportant. What is important are the thousand of pilgrims that have gone and still go there to gain strength from Christ in their life long struggles.


Pilgrimages to holy places are customary for almost all Christians, but there are differences in other forms of worship. Images have divided  believers as far back as the early church; the making and veneration of portraits of Christ and the saints were consistently opposed. The use of icons nevertheless steadily gained in popularity, especially in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Icons were outlawed in the 8th century, but Empress Theodora, finally restored icon veneration, an event still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy.

The Protestant Reformation spurred a revival of iconoclasm, or the destruction of images as idolatrous. ... The conflict over idolatry, which began on the Continent with Luther and Calvin's polemics against Rome, eventually crossed the Channel into England with Henry VIII's break with Rome.

Accusation of idolatry continue into the present and are part of the polemic of Christian against Christian, so that Protestants are accused of bibliolatry and Roman Catholics of Mariolatry. Catholics use the crucifix to  emphasizes Jesus' sacrifice—his death by crucifixion, which Christians believe brought about the redemption of humankind,  while Protestants use the resurrection cross. It seems most  Protestants are now comfortable with two dimensional figures of Jesus, but are nervous around three three dimensional representations.




The Gero Cross, c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, is the oldest large sculpture of crucified Christ in northern Europe. Commissioned by Gero, Archbishop of Cologne. In most earlier depictions Christ holds his head erect and looks straight ahead, or in some Carolingian examples looks down at the Virgin at the foot of the cross. The slumped head, and the twisted body, are not found in Byzantine art. In crucifixions of the Gothic period a still more slumped and curved figure of Christ, with knees bent sideways, was to become the standard depiction.