If you exit the Old City from the Damascus Gate and head north on Derech Shchem Street past a big construction mess, you’ll soon come to a small sign on your right marked “The Garden Tomb.” Whereas the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the traditional (albeit gaudy and religious) site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, the Garden Tomb is what most people would hope the historic site looks like.
Discovered in 1867, the same year that Canada became a nation, it’s a park-like oasis surrounded by a big stone wall. It’s managed by the British-based Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association.
It seemed like one of the only sane places in Jerusalem. Unlike most of the town, they made very few absolute claims.
My tour guide’s name was David, a kindly British volunteer in his early sixties. He and his wife live on the property, receiving free housing and a small stipend in exchange for giving people tours all day.
He had a ceaseless smile and a very winsome way, and he never tried to convince anyone of anything. He gave us a tour, explaining what each thing may have possibly been, always saying “perhaps” or “maybe.”
Whereas the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been considered the traditional site since the fourth century, the Garden Tomb has a number of factors that make it an equally solid contender.
First, it’s outside the walls of Jerusalem. It’s near a gate and on an ancient road, which was a typical place to crucify people—crucifixion was meant to be a crime deterrent, and the Romans wanted everyone to see.
Second, the Bible mentions that there was a garden nearby. The Garden Tomb complex contains an ancient winepress, suggesting nearby agriculture.
Third is the matter of Golgotha, “the place of the skull.” No such thing can be found at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but a creative eye can easily spot one from the Garden Tomb. It’s not actually on the property—it sits behind the parking lot of a Muslim bus company. Two minarets are in sight, and there’s a Muslim cemetery on top. Whereas the focal point of most skulls is the cranium, the most distinct feature of the Golgotha skull are the eyes and nose.
Last, but certainly not least, is the presence of an actual ancient rock-cut tomb. A small entry has been carved into a large rock face, and there’s a trough in which a stone could theoretically sit to be rolled in front of an occupied tomb. The guide explained that, in biblical times, people weren’t actually buried in tombs. Bodies were basically placed in tombs to rot for a few years before their bones were collected and placed in a small box called an ossuary. Thus, a tomb could be used again and again.
I went inside the tomb, which contained two small rooms, maybe one hundred square feet in total. The first room as I entered was a preparation room, where bodies would be prepared for burial. The second room, to my right, was where the body of Christ was possibly placed on top of a rock table. The tabletop was missing now, and there was a worn white gate that protected the room, but you got a fairly good idea of the scene. I paused in prayer and thanked God for the miracle of resurrection, that what was dead could be made new. True transformation could happen. It wasn’t just a hope that was enacted in a religious washing ritual. Soul transformation was real, and I prayed it would occur in me.
“Is this the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection?” asked the guide. “I don’t know for sure. But what I do know, for sure, is this: Jesus died for my sins, conquered death, and is coming again. The spot where Jesus died really doesn’t matter. What matters is that His Spirit is still alive, in my heart.”
As I left Jerusalem, I couldn’t shake the deep sadness that had taken residence in my soul. The Holy Land was anything but. It was a crass mix of commercialism, political maneuvering, and religious infighting. It was exactly the environment in which Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers, and it was exactly the environment in which Jesus was crucified. Not that Jerusalem had been all bad—it was there that I fell in love with the Lord’s Prayer and that I came to appreciate my faith’s Jewish roots and to further understand where our paths diverged. It was there that my Lord and Savior lived and died.
As my time drew to a close, I reflected on the prayer I had placed within the Western Wall: “Peace in Jerusalem. Peace in the world. Peace in my heart. Shalom.”
Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace, prosperity, and blessing. It’s like a one-word all-encompassing “props.” Jewish people use it as a hello and a good-bye, and it connotes a sense of completeness. It’s the best one-word prayer ever. Shalom is the prayer I placed in the Western Wall, and shalom is the medicine I’d prescribe for Jerusalem—a deep, God-breathed indwelling of peace and prosperity and blessing. An end to the unrest and a sense of wholeness is what the Holy City needs. It’s what the Middle East needs. It’s what I need.
This is an excerpt from Jared Brock’s new book, A Year of Living Prayerfully.