A Jewish Tomb in the Holy Sepulchre

In a Jerusalem spot beloved to Christian pilgrims, a sliver of Jewish history lies buried away.

Mike Rogoff
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Just behind these Armenian priests at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies some fascinating Jewish history.
Just behind these Armenian priests at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies some fascinating Jewish history.Credit: AP
Mike Rogoff

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is no place for quiet contemplation. Pilgrims from around the globe elbow each other to glimpse, touch and kiss what are for many the most precious spots on earth. Here, most Christians believe, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, buried and resurrected.

It's worth a visit for the history alone. But once you’ve climbed the steep steps to Calvary (aka Golgotha), and then snapped a shot of the traditional tomb under the great dome, follow us to an intriguing, very ancient space.

The Tomb of Jesus (on your left as you enter the church) is enclosed in a structure called an edicule. At the rear of the church, opposite a tiny Coptic shrine, is an opening (watch the step) that leads to a run-down back room known as the Chapel of St. Nicodemus. In the far wall of this little chapel is the opening to a rock-hewn, two-body tomb, an outstanding example of upscale Jewish burial 2,000 years ago.

This, supposedly was the tomb of Nicodemus, a Jewish man who, according to scripture, helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus (John 19). Around the damaged entrance to the tomb you'll see a groove where a stone slab once sealed it to keep in the stench of the decomposing body, exactly as related in the story of the death of Lazarus (John 11). After the burial, mourners would gather in the “weeping chamber” just inside the entrance. The body would be washed, anointed with sweet-smelling oil or spices like “myrrh and aloes,” and wrapped “in linen cloths, according to the burial customs of the Jews” (John 19).When the body had completely decomposed (between one and two years later), the bones were collected in a stone casket called an ossuary (from the Latin for “bone”), freeing the original tomb to be cleaned and prepared for a fresh burial.

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