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Church of the Holy Sepulchre

SEPULCHRE, CHURCH OF THE HOLY sĕp’ əlkûr (Matt: τάφος, G5439; Luke: μνη̂μα, G3645; all four gospels: μνμνει̂ον; grave, tomb). An ancient church in Jerusalem, purportedly located over sites of Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and hence the greatest “holy place” of Christendom.

In locating the place of our Lord’s passion, the NT states only that His death occurred “near the city” (John 19:20), at “the place of a skull...called...Golgotha” (v. 17), and that His burial was “in a new sepulchre, in a garden, in the place where he was crucified” (v. 41). It was hewn out of the rock, and owned by Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:60). Tombs would naturally lie outside the walled areas of a city, but the site of the “holy sepulchre” remains otherwise unidentifiable. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in a.d. 70, but esp. after the devastation in a.d. 135, which was followed by a leveling of the entire area, the banishment of all Jews (including Christian Jews), and the construction of the completely new Rom. city of Aelia Capitolina on the site, any preserved memory of the exact spot of Jesus’ tomb would seem unlikely.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre occupies a spur of the NW hill of Jerusalem (q.v., I, B). It lies within the present N wall of the Old City, which approximates that of Aelia Capitolina and of the N wall of Herod Agrippa I (a.d. 41-44); whether it lay N, and hence outside of the previous wall that is described by Jos. (War. V. 4. 2) is still a matter of debate (see Jerusalem, III, B). In any event, the site was used for a 2nd cent. Rom. forum, at the W end of which were erected temples to Jupiter, Juno, and Venus.

At Christianity’s official recognition at the Council of Nicaea in 325, Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem was authorized by the emperor Constantine to tear down the temples; and it was beneath the last named that Macarius recovered a cavern, which traditionally marks the “holy sepulchre.” An argument, however, that favors this tradition lies in the very unlikelihood of such a spot’s being deliberately so selected, within the then city of Jerusalem. Constantine immediately authorized the erection of a magnificent church, which was dedicated in 335.

The church consisted of the “Anastasis,” resurrection—a rotunda, resting on columns, over the tomb, from which the surrounding rocks were cut away and to which the present rotunda corresponds—and a large basilica to the E, with courts both to its E and between it and the Anastasis. The church was badly damaged at the Pers. conquest of Jerusalem in 614, and after the Arab occupation in 638 the Omariyeh Mosque took the place of its forecourt. In 1009 the Fatimid caliph Hakem did not simply demolish the church and its relics but had the very rocks of the supposed Golgotha and sepulcher cut away and destroyed. The Anastasis alone was subsequently rebuilt in 1048, from funds supplied by the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX, Monomachus; it was honored by the Crusaders as the supreme object of their campaigns. The church was inartistically restored and the formerly open dome closed in by the Gr. community in 1809 and is currently in process of reconstruction in order to restore more of its ancient form. Little remains to suggest the original sepulcher, which is more effectually visualized at the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary (q.v.), N of the Damascus Gate, but this is an unauthenticated site that has received notice only since 1867.


W. Harvey, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Structural Survey (1935); A. Parrot, Golgotha et Saint-Sepulcre (1955); K. Kenyon, Jerusalem: Excavating 3000 Years of History (1967), 147-154.