Noted historian John Dominic Crossan imagined the scene for the upcoming "Tomb of Jesus" documentary airing at 8 p.m. EST on Easter Sunday (March 31) on the National Geographic Channel. "When the emperor or the emperor's mother comes and says, `I would like to build a magnificent basilica over the site of the tomb,' you don't say, `Well, your imperial highness, we don't know where it was,'" Crossan says in the one-hour special. "Of course you're going to pick somewhere."
As the documentary by producer and director John Scheinfeld points out, the story of the tomb -- like the larger Easter story itself -- doesn't stop there. The site was picked largely from local legend. It soon became one of the holiest sites in Christianity when the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built atop the tomb. Ever since, most Christians regarded it as the actual site where Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected. "The question is, how did they know it's the right one?" University of Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley-Smith asks in the film. "That's the $64,000 question."
The site gained some competition in 1867, when a picturesque garden tomb was found along the Damascus Road north of the city. Nearby, an exposed rock formation looked like a skull -- perhaps Golgotha, the "Place of the Skull" identified in Matthew's Gospel as the site of the crucifixion.
British Gen. Charles Gordon insisted it was the original tomb in 1883, and the site was purchased by the Garden Tomb Association of England in 1894. While historians do not doubt the site contains a first century Jewish tomb, few believe it was the tomb of Jesus. "It's very nice, it's very pretty," Riley-Smith says. "It appeals to people who are put off by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but that doesn't make it genuine."
In many ways, the mysterious location of the actual tomb is like a virus infecting many historical sites. The stable in Bethlehem were Jesus was born was never found, but the Church of the Nativity has claimed its place in Manger Square. No one knows for sure if there was ever a Plymouth Rock, but a monument stands nonetheless as the site where Pilgrims first landed in the New World.
When it comes to the life of Jesus, however, legends take on new meaning. As the film's narrator says, "To touch the ground, to kiss the stone, to enter the tomb enables people to form a tangible connection to their faith."
Ultimately, the film concedes that "the resolution of the mystery is an expression of faith." Scheinfeld's documentary features biblical and historical experts from the left, right and center.Most scholars agree that determining the exact location of the tomb is, at best, a guess. While the four Gospels are sacred texts, they are rarely treated as authoritative history. "The question concerns the details," a skeptical Crossan says. "Are they historically accurate, or are they really parables made by the early church for other purposes?"
Crossan, for one, does not doubt the crucifixion story but theorizes that Jesus was never buried. Others think Jesus survived the crucifixion and lived well into old age. Still others say the Easter story is nothing more than a religious myth.
Scheinfeld, who spent more than a year making the film, said he isn't going to take sides. "I would much rather leave it for people to watch the real scholars" he said in an interview