Opening the tomb of Christ

Researchers share their journey inside Christ’s tomb

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ came alive for a group of researchers who opened the tomb where millions believe he was buried over 2,000 years ago.

As they looked upon the holy bed — which they later discovered hadn’t seen light in 1,673 years — they were captivated.

“I was overwhelmed by that sense of seeing something so sacred to Christians around the world,” said Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence for National Geographic.

“And to think, ‘Wow, I’m one of [about] 50 people who are going to see this, and then they’ll close it up again.’’’

The tomb, which resides inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, was opened for just 60 hours on the evening of Oct. 26, 2016. National Geographic’s exclusive coverage can be seen here.

A renovation ‘long overdue’

According to historical accounts, Emperor Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, sent representatives to Jerusalem to locate Jesus’ tomb around 325 A.D. The site they were directed to and where they built a shrine currently lies within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But the Holy Edicule — the shrine that encloses the tomb — has needed significant renovations for years.

“It was a project that was long overdue,” said Dr. Hiebert.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had actually agreed to do the Edicule restoration in 1959, but it took cooperation from each patriarch from the three Christian communities responsible for the tomb (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church and the Armenian Patriarchate) to finally make it happen in 2016.

An interdisciplinary team from the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) was tasked with the restoration, and Dr. Hiebert and a team from National Geographic documented the project.

The restoration was captured on film and publicized in “Secrets of Christ’s Tomb,” an explorer special that premiered on the National Geographic Channel Dec. 3, 2017.

“It really is a project about preserving and conserving one of the world’s greatest historic and sacred sites in the entire world,” said Dr. Hiebert. “And it was literally falling apart.”

Antonia Moropoulou, a professor at NTUA, served as the chief scientific supervisor of the Holy Edicule rehabilitation project.

“It was a great technical, scientific, cultural, political and religious challenge,” she said.

Professor Moropoulou and her team not only convinced the three patriarchs to agree to the renovation of the tomb itself, but they also completed the entire project in just nine months, she said.

Christ’s tomb ‘overwhelms the senses’

The research team hadn’t initially planned on opening the actual tomb until they realized they needed to complete work inside the site to prevent later damage. The patriarchs agreed it needed to be done.

On the evening of Oct. 26, the work began. The doors to the church were locked and team members went inside to lift a slab that covers the holy bed.

“When the riggers went in to actually open the stone covering, it was library silence,” said Dr. Hiebert. “It was incredible. It was almost like you could hear people breathing. It was almost like we were listening to [see] if we could hear the riggers move the marble slab.”

I don’t think in my life I will ever encounter something that had such a personal resonance. It’s changed me a lot.”

The patriarchs were the first to go inside.

“It was amazing to see their smiles when they came out,” said Dr. Hiebert.

When it was the National Geographic team’s turn, they were simply overwhelmed.

“As we said in the film, my knees were shaking,” said Dr. Hiebert. “It was an amazing moment.”

It’s one that had a resounding impact on the archaeologist’s life.

“I continue to be an archaeologist in residence at National Geographic and I continue to go on my digs,” said Dr. Hiebert. “But I don’t think in my life I will ever encounter something that had such a personal resonance.

“It’s changed me a lot,” he said.

Professor Moropoulou felt a sense of connection when the tomb was opened.

“The message of the Resurrection unites all of humanity,” she said. “People of all religions and all ethnicities all kneel at the tomb of Christ.”

Manolis Alexakis, Maria Apostolopoulou, Dr. Ekaterini Delegou, Dr. Kyriakos Lampropoulos and Elisavet Tsilimantou — members of Professor Moropoulou’s team — explained that although they had seen photos and video footage of the tomb, entering it “overwhelms the senses.”

“The architecture, the chanting, the scents take you back in time,” they said. “When entering the Holy Edicule, you bend to enter the holy tomb chamber and realize that everything is different than what you had imagined, yet familiar through the accounts given in the Gospels.”

The team added that visiting the holy site felt like “a visit through the timeline of history.”

Rich discoveries

While the tomb was opened, the NTUA team experienced technological problems that seemed to be inexplicable.

“On October 26, 2016, the instruments presented several discontinuities in their signals, something that we have not yet explained,” they said.

But Dr. Hiebert has seen technology malfunctions on a daily basis, so he wasn’t surprised by the glitches and noted that the rest of the project went smoothly.

“The conservators were able to put a moisture barrier in to protect the holy bed, the holy rock,” he said, “so that once it was covered again, it would basically be preserved for the next 2,000 years.”

Those on-site were more surprised by other findings, including the discovery that the original walls of the cave surrounding the tomb were still intact.

The tomb of Jesus Christ with the rotunda is seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on March 21, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel. The tomb of Jesus Christ in the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City was, on 26 February 2017, without its iron cage for the first time since it was placed around the stone tomb by the British in 1947 to keep the Edicule from falling apart. Greek archaeologists have been working since June 2016 to restore the tomb, believed to be the place where Jesus Christ was buried and then resurrected from after his crucification. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Professor Moropoulou explained that her team had actually seen the non-visible internal layers of the structure through the ground penetrating radar prospection they used before they started their work.

“Of course, when the work started and the holy rock (the original walls of the cave) was actually brought to light, we felt overwhelmed that it had survived throughout almost 20 centuries, embedded within the Edicule,” she said.

The most significant discovery of all came after samples of the mortar between the original limestone surface of the tomb and the marble slab that covers it were taken for dating.

Until the mortar was tested, researchers believed the tomb complex dated to the Crusader period (approximately between 1096-1291) because of the earliest architectural evidence that had been found up until the restoration.

That would have made the tomb no older than 1,000 years old. It would have also meant that it wasn’t the site Emperor Constantine’s delegates had identified as Christ’s burial place.

The results instead dated the mortar to around 345 A.D.

For Dr. Hiebert, the discovery was “mind blowing. It was a total surprise.”

The reason it was shocking, he said, was because the church had been extremely vulnerable over the years, undergoing several invasions and natural disasters.

“Our amazement of being there on October 26, 2016 was even more amplified when we got that information back,” said Dr. Hiebert.

Faith and science ‘coexist perfectly’

For Dr. Hiebert, the experience proved that faith and science go hand-in-hand.

“I consider it as important of a faith-based project as it was a scientific project,” said Dr. Hiebert. “I think in today’s world where there’s this sort of tendency to think about a dichotomy between science and faith, this is a really excellent example of how science and faith coexist perfectly.

“There’s no choice,” he continued. “If you think about the great scientists of Western civilization — Galileo, Isaac Newton, even Albert Einstein — they were all scientists of great faith.

“That’s an important message that I want to tell kids and adults … is that faith and science coexist intractably and perfectly well.”

Make a virtual visit to Christ’s tomb

The National Geographic immersive exhibition “Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience” virtually transports visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the world’s most sacred, ancient monuments. The exhibition will be open at the National Geographic Museum from Nov. 15, 2017 through fall of 2018. (Photo by Rebecca Hale | National Geographic)

National Geographic is hosting a 3-D exhibit at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. that allows visitors to virtually visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“You actually walk into our museum that we have here in Washington, D.C. and you can experience basically what I experienced — walking the streets of Jerusalem, seeing the church for the first time, and then fast forwarding through time in an amazing 3D experience where you are brought right into the Holy Edicule,” said Dr. Hiebert.

“You don’t have to go all the way to Jerusalem to experience what I did,” he added. “You can come right here to Washington, D.C.

For more information, visit

Featured image courtesy of Simon Norfolk | National Geographic Magazine

COMING UP: Punishing the poor and needy

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Every afternoon in downtown Denver, homeless men, women and children are given shelter, food and a place to wash themselves. Not far away, hundreds of people are receiving high quality medical care at one of our Catholic hospitals or Marisol Health. Some local parishes also distribute food, clothing, or help with rent. Whether you are on the Eastern Plains, the Western Slope or along the Front Range, people of faith are contributing their skills and resources to your community and making it a better place to live, and especially for the less fortunate.

Since we celebrated our nation’s independence about a week ago, the ability of people of faith to make a positive contribution to our society has been on my mind. People of faith make our society a better place as they seek the good and the true, and the right to live our faith in the public square is guaranteed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, there are forces at work trying to change that, and if they succeed it will be the vulnerable who are hurt the most.

Many people are familiar with Jack Phillips’ case because he recently received a favorable verdict from the U.S. Supreme Court. In brief, Jack was sued by a gay couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake, since doing so would contradict his belief that God created marriage to be between a man and a woman. His case – and others around the country – clearly show that there are people who want to silence Christian people and use the force of law to make them act against their faith or be punished.

Tim Gill, the multimillionaire who is funding and directing many of these efforts, plainly stated his intentions in a June 2017 Rolling Stone interview. “We’re going into the hardest states in the country,” he said. “We’re going to punish the wicked.” According to Gill, people of faith are “wicked” when their views do not agree with his. In this worldview, there is no room for differences on matters of prudence or conscience.

What you won’t hear from activists like Tim Gill is that the people who will suffer the most from his campaign against faith and the freedom of conscience are the homeless, children waiting to be adopted, or those needing hospital care. In short, the people who will be hurt are those who rely on the charitable activity of people of faith.

Take, for example, the Catholic Charities adoption programs in Boston, Illinois, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. that have been forced to shut down because they believe it’s not in children’s best interest to be placed with a same-sex couple. In Illinois, Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Springfield estimates that about 3,000 children were impacted by their closure. As was predicted, the state is now experiencing a shortage of quality foster families. Surely, this does not benefit society.

It is unexpected, but homeless men and women are also being impacted by changes to regulations. In Sept. 2016 the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized rules that require homeless shelters to accommodate transgender people by placing them according to whatever gender they present themselves as, rather than their biological sex. Most often, it is men identifying themselves as women who approach the shelters, and this frightens the women, especially since many of them have been victimized by men on the streets.

Religious freedom can seem like an abstract concept, but when you look at the fruits of this basic liberty, its importance becomes clear. Moved by their faith, Catholics and others in the Archdiocese of Denver spent 2017 providing over 212,000 nights of shelter, emergency assistance to 28,000 households, 714 job placements, and almost 73,000 volunteer hours through Catholic Charities.

Further, hundreds of immigrants are assisted with English as a Second Language classes, business training, and faith formation through Centro San Juan Diego. In the name of Jesus, tens of thousands of sick people receive medical care at Catholic hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. This list doesn’t include other Christian, Jewish, or Muslim charitable endeavors, nor does it include individuals whose faith guides the way they run their small business or their work for their employer.

It is a convenient and worn-out argument to accuse people of discrimination to pressure them into giving up their beliefs, but this tactic ignores the people who suffer the most from the intolerance of those insisting people of faith give up their beliefs. Our country has long recognized and benefited from the gifts of faithful people, and restricting this spirit of generosity will make our society poorer.

I am grateful that the Supreme Court recognized that Jack Phillips’ right to religious freedom was infringed, but his case will certainly not be the last. As Christians, we must respond to this pressure with the joy that is born from faith, with loving, persistent resistance and forgiveness. Let us respond to Pope Francis’ appeal that he made as he spoke in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights.”