The mystery of Jesus' lost tomb
When I embarked on my adventure to Jerusalem in 2005, my heart was on fire. As a scholar and aficionado of all things mediaeval, I already loved the city for its high drama, fervent passions and brutal history.
But nothing prepared me for its power - its palpable, multilayered energy, and the waves of love and despair that seemed to move through the streets. It was this powerful energy that compelled me, a lapsed Catholic from Melbourne, to embark on an unlikely adventure: searching for the tomb of Jesus Christ.
Of course, I should have stopped and asked myself about the likelihood of such a discovery and questioned my sanity. Except in Jerusalem, you do not ask yourself these kind of questions.
Let me start at the beginning. In 2005, I finished my PhD in migration and travel narratives and found myself in that in-between space where you must decide which step to take next. The logical choice would have been an academic career, and my mind was screaming at me to apply to different universities; to get a "real job" that would lead to a professorship in 10 or 20 years' time.
Somehow it didn't feel right. I was longing for an adventure, for a way out from the normalities of life, and for relief from a dying romance. At that time, at a friend's birthday party, I met two Melbourne men: Steve Shanahan and Martin McBurney.
They seemed like ordinary men (one a businessman and the other an IT programmer), but underneath they were eccentric amateur archaeologists who had devoted years of their lives to a search for the tomb and house of Jesus.
They travelled to Jerusalem whenever they could find time away from work, and when Steve managed to raise enough money.
Their source of information and "map" for this quest were the Gnostic Gospels, now a popular subject of scholarly research. These were written, as the rest of the gospels were, soon after Jesus' death, and almost immediately forbidden by the Synods of the Church.
In the fourth century in the Synod of Nicea, only four gospels would be included in the canon that is today's Bible: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
After centuries of silence about the Gnostic Gospels, they were gradually unearthed, one by one. The first to be found was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Discovered in Egypt in the 19th century, the text was acquired by the National Museum of Berlin, and would have probably been only known to scholars had it not been lovingly translated and published by Jean-Yves Leloup in 2002. Leloup's exegesis and notes of the text made it profound yet easy reading.
This gospel's earliest sections are as old as the so-called canonical gospels of the Bible. The most controversial lines of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene deal with the jealousy of the apostles at Jesus' sharing of his teachings with her: "How is it possible that the Teacher talked in this manner to this woman, about secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant? Must we change our customs and listen to this woman? Did he really choose her, and prefer her to us?" (17:9-20).
When I heard Steve and Martin talking about their next trip to Jerusalem, I was seized by a desire to go with them, to follow the trail of the Gnostic Gospels, and be a part of their adventure.
Convincing them was hard - not until I told them that in my 20s I had been an ardent student of mediaeval studies and had a master's degree in Mediaeval Studies from the University of Toronto, and not until I promised to write a book about their journey did they consider my proposition.
They finally agreed under one condition: I had to read a modern Gnostic source, The Urantia Book.
Like many religious sources, parts of The Urantia Book were apparently channelled through the unconscious - in this case, of a neighbour of William and Lena Sadler, well-known Chicago physicians at the early 1920s.
The neighbour was said to have experienced restless sleep, during which he would carry on a theological discourse — one of which he was unaware upon waking. The Sadlers visited him with a stenographer for more than 250 nightly sessions. This was how parts of The Urantia Book were supposed to have been transcribed.
I liked parts of the book, especially the chapters describing Jesus' life, including the "missing years" of his teens and 20s not included in the Bible. As an academic, however, I had more interest in the ancient Gnostic texts; their age spoke more strongly of their authenticity than a text found in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century.
For Steve and Martin, the book was an important source for their search and subsequent discoveries. Its portrayal of Jesus' life intrigued them - especially the detailed descriptions of the house in which he lived in Nazareth, the places he visited, and even the location of his tomb. These details were too precise to be just a figment of imagination and, in their judgment, worthy of further investigation.
Of course, Steve and Martin weren't the first to search for Jesus' tomb. Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, did the same in the 4th century. I had always admired Helena, and imagined her as an impetuous old lady. At the age of 80, she headed off to the Holy Land to find and commemorate the places associated with Jesus' life. One of her discoveries was the supposed place of Jesus' crucifixion and tomb — the place on which the Holy Sepulchre now stands.
The building of the Holy Sepulchre in the early 4th century was primarily a political act. When the new Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD313, he ordered many churches built, and having a church in Jerusalem made perfect sense. The diplomatic Constantine didn't want to destroy the existing pagan Roman temple on the site unless there was convincing evidence - other than Empress Helena's "discovery" - that it had been the place where Jesus' body was put to rest.
As the story goes, Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem at that time, was eager to find such evidence. Whether his intentions were sincere and he believed it to be the place of Jesus' burial, or he just wanted to destroy the pagan temple and build a Christian basilica on its ruins, is still debated by archaeologists and historians.
We know that Macarius had no evidence at the outset, having lobbied for the basilica before anything was found under the pagan temple. Yet his determination was a fine illustration of the old maxim: "seek and ye shall find". He discovered a 1st-century Jewish tomb under the temple and pronounced it to be the tomb of Jesus. It may well have been. The Emperor subsequently gave permission to destroy the pagan temple, and so the Holy Sepulchre was built.
Not everybody, however, believes the Holy Sepulchre was the place it was claimed to be, and archaeologists have long argued for different possibilities. Many Protestant groups believe that a second tomb, known as the Garden Tomb, is the real site of Jesus' burial.
Like many other sites around Jerusalem, the Garden Tomb has an interesting story behind it. In the 19th century, General Charles George Gordon (1833-85) came to Jerusalem to rest between the wars he was fighting for the British Empire. General Gordon loved Jerusalem and often stayed in the American Colony to meditate, study the Bible and admire the great views of the city.
One day, as he was sitting on a roof of the American Colony building overlooking the city, he noticed a hill resembling a human skull. Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified by the Romans, means "the skull".
General Gordon was convinced he had found the real Golgotha, and that the Golgotha in the Holy Sepulchre had been identified incorrectly. (As Jesus' tomb was most likely in the proximity of the Golgotha, the location of the tomb was therefore also in question.)
His issue with Golgotha being located inside the Holy Sepulchre (as identified by the Church) was that the Church-nominated site was located on a very small, steep and solid piece of rock.
But the Romans were excellent engineers with practical minds; they always looked for logical solutions to problems — sometimes even gruesome ones — such as finding the most efficient way to kill criminals and rebels.
The soil on the hill had to be soft and therefore easy for driving crosses into, on account of the mass executions they carried out on the rebellious Jewish population within their empire. (Anyone who disobeyed them in any way or defied their perception of Pax Romana, the "Roman Peace" of sharing gods and Roman laws, was crucified. Thousands of people suffered so in each rebellion.) The Golgotha of the Holy Sepulchre would not have met their criteria.
The other problem with the location of the Holy Sepulchre was that, according to all sources, the tomb had to be located in a garden, yet the tomb in the Holy Sepulchre is located in a rocky area right by a quarry.
The Bible and the Gnostic Gospels alike say that on the day of the resurrection Mary Magdalene went to a garden — not a stone quarry — to anoint the body of Jesus. When she saw a stranger, she immediately took him to be a gardener (as you would expect in a garden) and not a rock polisher.
But General Gordon could not do much about his discovery: soon after returning to Sudan, he died in Khartoum. Yet his idea survived and doubt about the traditional site of Golgotha persisted. In 1874 a tomb was found by Conrad Schick, a Swiss antiquarian, in the area General Gordon had identified. It became known as an alternative to the Holy Sepulchre — and was named the Garden Tomb.
The Garden Tomb is a beautiful, peaceful enclave in the midst of the delirium of the Old City. The people who volunteer at the site do a wonderful job of preserving the place and telling the story of its discovery. The volunteers don't claim that this is the true tomb of Jesus; rather, it is one of the possible sites and, if nothing else, a memorial.
The strongest argument against the Garden Tomb comes from archaeologists, who agree that the tomb there is from the time of the First Kingdom and, consequently, too old to be Jesus'. According to the New Testament, the tomb in which the body of Jesus was put to rest was a new tomb for the family of Joseph of Arimathea from the Second Kingdom period.
If the Garden Tomb was the first challenge to the claims of the Holy Sepulchre, then Steve and Martin's discovery was the next. In 2003, Martin and Steve arrived in Jerusalem very early in the morning and set about their exploration. Steve's idea was to take measurements near the two tombs to see which accorded better with those outlined in The Urantia Book.
The pair left their luggage in the foyer of the Seven Arches Hotel about 5am and walked down the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley, then up to St Stephen's Gate and along the Via Dolorosa. Based on information in the Bible and The Urantia Book, they estimated the tomb should be between 500 to 1000 metres north of the Damascus Gate.
Steve and Martin passed the Damascus Gate, which is mentioned in all sources as the gate outside which the tomb was located. They sat on a bench near a newsagent's shop with a map and reflected on the precise descriptions of the tomb: it faced east, covered approximately 100 square feet (nine square metres), was hewn out of rock, and lay along the Damascus Road. The pair looked at the map, looked at their compass, then walked around for some time before spying a small footpath leading to a plot of barren land.
This island of empty, undeveloped land right in the middle of Jerusalem, only a short walk from the American Colony Hotel and a major intersection, was being used temporarily as an unauthorised rubbish dump. Steve and Martin soon came to a ledge. They peered over, cleared all the rubbish from the top of the rock and saw an opening, almost completely buried, running in a straight horizontal line across the rock. This was too precise and straight to be natural; it had definitely been constructed.
All they knew at that stage was they had found something akin to a cave, and that it was not natural — it had been carved out of the rock.
I joined them on their subsequent trip in 2005, excited by the possibility of adventure or even a momentous discovery, but most of all following the inner pull of the unnamed desire to be a part of this expedition.
For this journey, Steve hired Israeli lawyers to inquire about the purchase of the land. We also consulted a prominent Israeli archaeologist, Meir Ben-Dov, whom we took to the site. He confirmed that the construction under the garbage was indeed from the Second Kingdom period - that is, from around the first century AD.
I crawled inside the tomb through the pile of rubbish to check if these were man-made walls with an arch on the back wall, as instructed by Ben-Dov.
If there has been a moment of profound rapture in my life that was it. I was struck by the possibility of the discovery that until then I had simply treated as an excuse for an adventure. I did not feel the blisters on my hands, the sour smell of animal dung on my black cashmere jacket and I did not worry about the rats. I was elated.
Whose tomb it was would be impossible to prove. It would be a matter of belief, again, whether or not this was Jesus' tomb.
Steve decided that he wanted to buy the land to establish the Friendship Garden of Jerusalem, a place open to people of all faiths to encourage peace in the conflict-ridden city.
In June 2010, the new and progressive mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, signed an agreement enabling the garden project to proceed. A proper land survey was completed showing the presence of the tomb on location. But Jerusalem being Jerusalem, the good will of the mayor proved not to be enough.
A few weeks later, an unknown person, perhaps a rogue land developer, decided to claim the land for himself. He started clearing the land, bulldozing the tomb in the process. Too late, the landscape architect Steve had hired to build the garden went to survey the site and saw what was happening. He confronted the man and told him to stop as this was municipal land designated for a garden. The landscape architect then immediately informed the City Council. The developer, or whoever he was, disappeared and was never identified.
I know how this sounds: two blokes from Melbourne, neither of them an archaeologist, followed a religious text from the early 20th century, dictated in sleep, and stumbled on a 1st-century tomb in Jerusalem?
On top of that, the tomb was destroyed before more extensive excavations could be carried out. But I am a trained scholar and I was there when Ben-Dov confirmed that it was a first-century tomb. I confirmed for him, too, through crawling through rubbish, that the walls were man-made, with an arch on the back wall.
The mayor of Jerusalem did give permission (in a formal document) to build a garden there. A proper land survey conducted by the municipality in 2010 shows a tomb on the site.
Many important archaeological discoveries have been made by chance or by committed amateurs with a passion. And really, how different is this story from the one of a zealous empress and an ambitious bishop who happened to discover a tomb where once a Roman temple had been? Or the story of a British general dozing off on the top of the American Colony Hotel and envisioning a new location for Golgotha?
Perhaps it is impossible to know whether any of these discoveries were indeed of Jesus' tomb. Archaeologists continue to argue about it while pilgrims pour into the city every Easter.
Of one thing I am certain: I am not your typical Jesus-loving Christian and long ago lapsed as a Catholic, but the discovery and even the search itself excited me - changed me so much that I wrote a book, Jerusalem Diary: Searching for the Tomb and House of Jesus, in which I describe our journey.
On Steve's initiative, the Friendship Garden of Jerusalem is an ongoing project. Its aim is to create a garden where people of all faiths can meet - a space for interfaith dialogue. It should also give some suggestion of the possibility of peace in the region.
As for the continuous search for Jesus' burial place? More than just an archaeological puzzle for scholars and adventurers from around the world, it is also a search for identity - a desire to understand the most important figure in Western civilisation, historical or otherwise.
It is a search for our spiritual "roots" (for lack of a better word), and the answer to the question which rings in every human heart: "Who am I and where do I come from?"
Whatever religion you follow or have fallen from, in the Western tradition, at least, Jerusalem, with its strange power, called by some "a holy madness" or "Jerusalem fever", is the perfect place to undertake this journey of self-discovery.
For me, it was a realisation that, however strongly I wanted to hide behind my degrees, the quest for something deeper within me, within my own life had somehow begun.