Last month in Jerusalem, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I and a small band of fellow pilgrims were privileged to view a rare artifact that has been jealously guarded by the Armenian Orthodox Church since it was discovered in 1971.
The artifact itself is unimpressive. It’s a crude sketch of a boat done on the side of a large stone, with an inscription in Latin below it that says, “Domine, Ivimus.” This may be translated as, “Lord, we came.”
That sketch is older than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself. It is believed to be the oldest known evidence that early Christians venerated this spot as the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Popular movie depictions of the crucifixion usually show Golgotha as a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem. In fact, Golgotha was located in an abandoned stone quarry. The “hill” was a mound of flawed limestone, unsuitable for building, that was left behind after all the useful stone had been cut away.
Visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can see holes chiseled into the top of this mound. These holes would have held the uprights of the crosses on which condemned criminals were crucified. When the Romans crucified Jesus on this spot, they unwittingly fulfilled the prophetic words of Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This was a verse that Jesus knew and quoted.
Because the quarry was convenient to Jerusalem, it served as a place of execution. It was also a place where wealthy Jewish people built their tombs. A rich man, like Joseph of Arimathea, could afford to pay for the considerable labor involved in cutting a tomb into a wall of solid rock before the age of the jackhammer. The Gospels agree that it was Joseph who made his tomb available for Christ’s burial, and that it was a “new” tomb, recently hewn from the rock. Evidence suggests that there was a garden there at the time of Christ, as also mentioned in the Gospels.
Jesus’ tomb was a place of pilgrimage from the earliest days of Christianity. But that would change after the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-70 A.D., when Jerusalem was besieged and sacked by the Romans. The Roman emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild the ruins as a Roman city, which he re-named Aelia Capitolina. Despising Christians as much as Jews, because they were regarded as a Jewish sect, he filled in the quarry at Golgotha and built a temple to Venus over the crucifixion mound and the tomb. Thus, he made the sites inaccessible, but he didn’t succeed in wiping them from the memory of believers.
This was the situation when the emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christians in 313 and became a patron of the Christian church. Constantine sent his mother, the empress Helena, to the Holy Land in 326 to document the sites associated with the life of Christ. When the august lady arrived at Jerusalem looking for Golgotha and the tomb, the locals pointed to Hadrian’s temple and told her, “Dig there.”
So where does the sketch of the boat figure into this story?
Helena demolished the temple to Venus. Her workers incorporated some of the stones into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which she built to house the rock of Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. Over the centuries, the Church became the shared property of various Christian denominations—principally the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic, but also the Egyptian Copts, Syriacs and the Ethiopians.
The Armenian Orthodox Church has custody of the Chapel of St. Helena, which the Armenians call the Chapel of St. Gregory. In 1971, the Armenian Bishop Guregh Kapikian suspected that there was something beyond the eastern wall of the chapel. He ordered an excavation and found, clogged with rubble, an adjoining space that is today the Armenian Chapel of St. Vartan. Clearing out the rubble exposed part of the original quarry, and also the stone with the sketch of the boat.
The Chapel of St. Vartan is normally closed to visitors. But fortunately for my fellow pilgrims and I, the leader of our group was an Episcopal priest who was on friendly terms with Armenian Orthodox Patriachate. He was able to get the door to the chapel unlocked for us so we could view the remarkable relic within.
Is the sketch really the work of early Christian pilgrims? It is impossible to know for certain. But the archeologists can tell us this much: The stone on which the sketch was made is of a type used at the time when emperor Hadrian built his temple to Venus; it may have formed part of the foundation of the temple. Very likely it ended up amid the rubble when the temple was demolished because the builders of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre decided not to recycle it.
The sketch is an accurate depiction of a type of boat in use during the First and Second Centuries, A.D.—and early Christians used boats as a symbol of their faith.
The inscription below the sketch is in Latin, suggesting that whoever drew it was from the western part of the Roman Empire, perhaps even from Rome. Finally, it was common for pilgrims in the ancient world to leave pious inscriptions at the holy places they visited—just as it is for tourists to leave graffiti today.
So one plausible explanation is that a group of First or Second Century Christian pilgrims made a long and difficult journey to Jerusalem to venerate the tomb of Christ. When they found their access cut off by Hadrian’s pagan temple, they left the sketch and inscription as a testament to their fidelity.
Because the evidence is not conclusive, the skeptics are free scoff if they choose. But for my fellow pilgrims and I, it was an awesome moment. Having just venerated the rock of Golgotha and the tomb of Christ ourselves, we could say with those believers who had journeyed to this spot nearly two thousand years before us, “Lord, we came.”
For a detailed archeological study of the sketch and inscription, see Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem: the archaeology and early history of traditional Golgotha by Shimon Gibson (Palestine Exploration Fund, 1994)
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