Is there any Evidence that Early Christians knew of the location of Jesus’ Empty Tomb?

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. 

Let’s take a look at some quotes from the article and analyze the author’s comments:

“…“See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6) acquires its plenitude of meaning only when spoken in the empty tomb with an appropriate gesture as part of a commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus.

The Sitz im Leben of the source of Mk 16:1-8offers a hint that the death and resurrection of Jesus were celebrated at the tomb in which he had been laid. Would such a practice have fitted into the religions tradition of contemporary Jews?  Should the answer be negative, then my understanding of the hint in Mk 16:6 must be reconsidered. On the contrary, however, should the answer be affirmative, then we have the be- ginning of a tradition of devotion to the tomb of Jesus, which has important consequence for all that happened subsequently. ” p. 63

In this quote from the article, the Bible scholar and author is implying that the wording in Mark suggests a pre-Markan source and that this source was repeating liturgical language used in the veneration of the Empty Tomb by early Christians visiting the site of Jesus’ alleged resurrection, prior to Hadrian’s construction of a pagan temple on top of the site.  Is this possible?  Sure!  But it is a guess.  It may be a scholarly guess, but it is still a guess, a hunch, a theory.

The importance of tombsin the religious life of first-century AD Jews is underlined by the words of Jesus, “you  build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous”  (Mt 23:29; Lk 11:47). The practice is well documented by Josephus.38 There would be little point in such investment, if the tombs were subsequently ignored. Hence, it would have been entirely in keeping with first century religious practice for disciples of Jesus to have gone to pray at the tomb where his body had reposedfor three days.39

Visits to the tomb continued for over a century, i.e. up to the foundation of Aelia Capitolina in 135.A feature of the veneration of pilgrim- age sites in Palestine is the accumulation of graffiti. This is documented in  Jerusalem  for  the  synagogue/church  on  Mount  Sion  (beneath  the Tomb of David) excavatedby J. Pinkerfeld,40  and for the cave on east- ern side of the Mount of Olives studied by P. Benoit and M.-É. Bois- mard,41 and which Joan E. Taylor identified as the Hospitiumof Martha and Mary.42  In Galilee the room in which Jesus stayed in the House of Peter at Capernaum is noteworthy.43 Graffiti were the basis for the earli- est identification of the tomb of St Peter on the Vatican Hill in Rome.44

Were such graffiti to have been painted or scratched in the tomb of Christ,  Eusebius’  whole-hearted  adoption  of  the  cave  discovered  by Macarius immediately becomes intelligible.45    pp.64-65

Holy Multiple Assumptions, Batman!  Where on earth did the author obtain the information that visits to the Empty Tomb of Jesus continued up until Emperor Hadrian destroyed Jerusalem in 135 AD?  Answer:  Thin air!  He is assuming!  Wow!  And notice the comment about graffiti.  The author is suggesting that it was graffiti that might have finally convinced the dubious Bishop of Palestine (Eusebius) of the authenticity of the tomb found under Hadrian’s pagan temple, but the author gives us zero evidence that this was in fact the case!  Assumption following assumption!

Imagine this:  Imagine that the Empty Tomb Story was purely an invention of the author of the Gospel of Mark (Paul never mentions an “empty tomb” in his epistles.)  So the true story is that Jesus had been buried, either by the Romans or the Sanhedrin, in an unmarked common dirt trench grave along with other crucified criminals.  Nothing that the author has presented so far invalidates this possible scenario.  The author is simply assuming the historical veracity of “Mark’s” claim of the existence of an Empty Tomb!  He has no proof that any Christian in the first or early second century venerated an Empty Tomb, he simply assumes they did because he assumes that the rock tomb existed and assumes that if it existed, Jewish Christians would have venerated it as Jews had venerated the tombs of previous notables.

Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions.



No visits to the tomb were possible after 135. The engineersbrought in by Hadrian to plan and build Aelia Capitolina decided to site the Capitoline Temple on a little hill that dominated the north-south line of the Cardo Maximus (see fig. 1).46 The only problem was that it had been defaced by a quarry.47  The only option was to fill and level, and that was exactly what they did, according to Eusebius.  The effort and expense of the great amount of preparatory work necessaryto provide a platform for buildings pointsto the central sanctuary of the city, ratherthan to the shrine of Venus/Aphrodite, important as she may have been to the imperialfamily.


The Christians in Jerusalem interpreted this activity as a form of persecution. Again,according to Eusebius, “Godless  people had gone to great pains to cover up this divine memorial of immortality so that it should  be  forgotten”  (VC 3.26).  In  fact  it  produced  the  opposite. Memory of the tomb was reinforced by bitterness. Its inaccessibility caused it to be remembered all the more vividly.

But did the Christian community in Jerusalem have the continuity to guarantee the accuracy of the memory of the place of Christ’s tomb? Two events would appear to argue for a negative answer, the flight to Pella during the first revolt, and Hadrian’s expulsion of Jews after the second revolt. Neither,I believe, is a conclusive objection.”

So where is the author getting this information regarding the alleged Christian reaction to Hadrian “filling in” the site of the Empty Tomb?  Answer:  Eusebius in the fourth century!  The very guy who doubted the authenticity of the pagan temple site in the very beginning of Constantine’s plans to excavate the site!  And where did Eusebius get this information?  Marcarius, the man who seems to have said or done anything to get his new church built?   And where did Marcarius or whomever in Jerusalem gave Eusebius this “tradition” get this historical information?  Answer:  We are not told.  For all we know it was just another tradition based on hearsay and rumor.

Murphy then goes on to discuss the flight of the Christians of Jerusalem to Pella in the 60’s AD and then Hadrian’s ban of all Jews from the city of Jerusalem in 135 AD.  Murphy argues that Christian Jews remained in Jerusalem during both these time periods so that the memory of the tomb would never have been lost.  But notice again, even if it is true that there was a continual presence of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem from circa 30 AD forward to the time of Eusebius in the fourth century, Murphy has assumed the existence of the Empty Tomb, and has provided zero evidence that Jewish Christians were venerating this site or even knew of its existence!

Eusebius  obviously  oversimplifies  in  claiming  that  the  church  of Aelia (Jerusalem) became exclusively Gentile after the second revolt.69  He affirms the conclusion at the expense of the process, which was not especially complex. Pre-Hadrianic believers of Jewish origins, who were permitted to remain in the city, had cut themselves off from their Jewish roots, and Jewish culture and customs had disappeared. The exclusion of Jews meant that new converts were necessarily Gentiles, whose increasing preponderance gradually changedthe character of the church.
Within a generation or so Jerusalem was a Gentilechurch, but one whose roots went back without interruption to the period of the ministry ofJesus. The continuity of memory focusedon the place of his death and resurrection was strengthened, rather than obliterated, by the erec- tion of the Capitoline Temple over the quarry in which Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus had been located.  p.  72


 How in the world does Murphy-O’Connor know that “the continuity of memory focused on the place of his death and resurrection was strengthened”? He hasn’t given us any evidence…only assumptions.

In my next comment I will take up the issue of whether or not notable Christians in the second and third centuries made visits to the Empty Tomb in post Hadrian Jerusalem, prior to the time of Marcarius and Eusebius.



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