Did notable Early Church Fathers visit the Empty Tomb of Jesus?

Roman Catholic priest and scholar, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, has written a very interesting article (read it here) regarding the authenticity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a church in Jerusalem in which Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe is the actual Empty Tomb of Jesus.  But as interesting as the article may be, I allege that the author gives zero evidence that early Christians venerated this tomb or even knew of it’s existence, prior to its “discovery” in the fourth century.  I allege that the author is making many, many assumptions. 

Did notable Christians visit an Empty Tomb of Jesus between 135 AD, when Emperor Hadrian destroyed the city and allegedly built a pagan temple on the site, and the time of Eusebius, Bishop of Palestine, in the fourth century when the tomb was allegedly uncovered?  Let’s read more Murphy-O’Connor’s article:

“Melito of Sardis is considered by many to have made a journey to Jerusalem in preparation for his sermon Peri Pascha,  which was composed between AD 160 and 170, because Eusebius quotes a letter of Melito, which contains the words, “I visited the east and arrived at the place where it all happened and the truth was proclaimed”  (History, 4.26.13-14). The context of this remark, however, does not concern holy places, but the books of the OT and the prophecies that they contain. In consequence, Biddle’s observations are very much to the point, “We do not know whether the sermon was written before or after this journey, nor if he visited Jerusalem, and so we cannot be sure whether he obtained his information on the spot or at second hand”.75   My point, remember, is that such information was available.

Three times in the Peri  Pascha  Melitoaffirms that the crucifixion took place ‘in the middle of the city’. This certainly derives from a Jerusalem tradition because Melito knew that the gospels placed the execution and burial of Jesus outside the city (see above). The fourth allusion is slightly different, “But now in the middle of the street and in the middle of the city (nyn de epi mesês plateias kai en mesô poleôs), at the middle of the day for all to see, has occurred a just man’s unjust murder” (line 704). ‘In the middle of the city’ is apparently given greater precision by ‘in the middle of the street’.In this translation plateia is taken as the feminine adjectiveof platys ‘broad,wide’, with which hodos ‘road’ is normally supplied or understood.76 The rendering, however, makes no sense in terms of the topography of Jerusalem. Thus, it is  preferable  to  take  plateia  in  another  well  attested  sense,  namely, ‘plaza, square’, and to think of the open space within the temenosof the Capitoline Temple.77 This would be very close to the rock of Golgotha, which was visible to Eusebius, and which may have supported the statue of Aphrodite. Even though the tomb of Christ had been inaccessible since the construction of the Capitoline Temple in AD 135, it is highly significant that the devotion of Christians was never transferred to an alternative site.”
pp. 74-75 
Wow!  Now how in the world does Murphy-O’Connor obtain from any of this information that Melito was aware of the existence of an Empty Tomb?  Answer:  Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions!

Alexander of Cappadocia, in AD 212, accordingto Eusebius,

 
When he [Narcissus] had reached such an advanced age that he could no longer carry out his duties, the Alexander already mentioned, then holder of another bishopric, by the providence of God was summoned to share the duties with Narcissus, by means of a revelation given to him at night in a vision. Thereupon, as if in accordance with an oracle, he journeyed from Cappadocia, his original see, to Jerusalem in order to worship there and to examine the historic sites (euchês kai tôn topôn historias  heneken). The Christian community welcomed him most warmly and would not let him return home again (History, 6.11).
 
 

Yep.  I see it!  I see it now!  This one vague sentence about visiting Jerusalem’s holy sites is absolute proof that Alexander of Cappadocia visited the Empty Tomb of Jesus!  Right…  If the Tomb existed, then yes, I’m sure it would have been one of the “holy sites”, but this statement in no way, shape, or form confirms the existence of an Empty Tomb or that Alexander of Cappadocia visited it.

“Origen(c.185-c.254) apparently visited Jerusalem for the first time in AD 215 at the invitation of bishop Alexander.84  At that point he was still only a layman, and must have been flattered at being invited to preach in such a prestigious community. It would have been rather unu- sual if Alexander had not encouraged him ‘to examine the historic sites’ as he himself had done, and was perhaps still doing. Certainly there are enough traces in the works of Origen to make it clear that he had an interest in checking out the places mentioned in the Scriptures that he found particularly interesting. If he did not always visit, he certainly consulted, which is the point that I am making regarding the stimulation of local memory.

His treatment of the place of the baptismis most instructive:

 

We are fully aware that almost all the manuscripts read “This took place at Bethany”. It appears that this reading is very ancient, and we have also read ‘Bethany’ in Heracleon. Nonetheless, having retraced the steps of Jesus, his disciples and the prophets,we are convinced that ‘Bethabara’ should be read

rather than ‘Bethany’. The same evangelist informs us that Bethany, the home town of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, is 15 stadia from Jerusalem. The Jordan is much further away, about 180 stadia, and nothing resembling Bethany can be found in the area around the Jordan. However, people are shown  (deiknysthai), it  appears,  on  the  bank  of  the  Jordan  ‘Bethabara’, where, we are told (historousin), John baptized (Commentary on John 1:28)

 
‘People are shown’ and ‘we are told’ betray Origen’s relianceon local knowledge (again the language of tourism), but ‘nothing resem- bling Bethany can be found in the area around the Jordan’ is most natu- rally interpreted as an unsuccessful personal effort to find the mysteri- ous town of ‘Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan’ (Jn 1:28). This is confirmed by his claim to have ‘retracedthe steps of Jesus and his disciples’.85
In Jerusalem Origen went to see the site of the miracle in Jn 5:1-9. It took place beside “a pool called in Hebrew Bethzatha having five porti- cos”. One wouldhave expected the figure four.It can only have been the double pool in the grounds of St Anne’s Church that inspired Origen to postulate “four  around the edges and anotheracross the middle” (Commentary on John 5:2).  It is extremelydoubtful that he saw any- thing. It is most improbable that these pools were ever surrounded by porticos because not a single remnant of any of the hundreds of postu- lated columns has ever been found. Any porticos would have belonged to the pagan healingtemple to the east of the pools.86
Origen’s researches also extended to Bethlehem:
 
 
The cave in Bethlehem is shown where he was born and the manger in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes. What is shown there is famous in these parts even among people alien to the faith, because it was in this cave that the Jesus who is worshipped and admired by Christians was born.87
 
This text is intriguing on a number of counts.Note again the language of tourism, ‘it is shown’. Origenaccepts without questionthe local belief that Jesus was born in a cave, even though this is never mentioned in the gospels. Moreover, he clearly implies that the cave is accessible, and that the manger isvisible, and perhaps that he visited there. ” pp.76-77

To expect Eusebius or any other writer of antiquity to mention all and every pre-Constantinian visitor to the Holy Land is as absurd as imagining that today’s newspapers mention all visitors to Israel. The important get their names in the paper, and it was ever so. We have no idea how many visitorsthe Holy Land received prior to the reforms of Constantine. I suspect, however, that the handful whose names have been acciden- tally recordedwere just the tip of the iceberg.No doubt the scholars were more self-aware than lesser mortals, but very often relatively un- educated people experience a keen yearningto learn and experience. The instinct that animated the vast numbers of those who came to Jeru- salem in the fourth and later centuries cannot be presumed to have been non-existent in the time of Aelia.
Finally, we should not underestimate the importance of the questions of long-time residents who wished to deepen their habitual knowledge. Jerome, in particular, often mentions those whom he consulted in the hope that they might be able to answer his queries.  ..79

 

Wow!  Origen visited a cave in Bethlehem and saw the very manager in which Jesus had been born!  Now, if you believe that, folks, I have some swamp property in South Florida I’d like to sell ya!  Anyway, back to the Empty Tomb:  Do we see anywhere in Origen’s writings that he visited an Empty Tomb???  Answer:  No!

 

 

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