By J. R. MacPherson
The English Historical Review, Vol. 7 (1892)
Introduction: It is not probable that any person whose opinion is worth expressing would now positively assert that the buildings which are known all the world over as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre do actually cover the spot where Jesus of Nazareth was buried. The line of the second wall of the city of Jerusalem is, indeed, still undetermined, ‘refusing to be found’ as Mr. Besant puts it — and so competent a judge as Consul Schick believes that that line, when it is recovered, will exclude those buildings from the city as it was at the beginning of our era — but it is at least extremely improbable that their site has any claims to authenticity, having been selected by mere chance by persons who knew, at all events, no more about the matter than we do. The tendency at present is altogether in favour of the localising of the sites of the crucifixion and the sepulchre to the north of the city outside the Damascus gate, near the spot known as Jeremiah’s Grotto. But if on the ground of historical accuracy these buildings must cease to draw towards them the religious devotion of Christendom, they become scarcely less interesting to the historian and the archaeologist. Their rise and their fall have been for fifteen centuries epoch-marking events in history: they bring us face to face with the first Christian emperor of the Romans, the founder of the eastern empire; with the inroads of Chosroes, the Persian conqueror; with the rise of Mohammedanism; with Charlemagne, the first Teutonic emperor of the west; with the successive dynasties that have borne sway among the followers of the prophet; with the great crusading enterprises of the middle ages; with the quarrels of east and west for nearly a thousand years. p418Their influence has asserted itself in political history even more than in ecclesiastical, and if it seem strange to us that the blood of Europe should have been so freely shed to rescue them from the infidel, we recognise the fact that they have now ceased to be a factor in European politics only because none of the great powers would run the risk of the consequences entailed by meddling with them. As one turns to the history of the buildings themselves, one is attracted towards it by the very mists which conceal so much, as well as by the glimpses which old records afford; and one finds that while much must remain uncertain, one may still follow their history from century to century. One has to be content to leave as doubtful what cannot be ascertained, and not to endeavour to reconstruct details for which no authority offers even plausible guidance; but one finds that the story of the buildings forms a nearly continuous record, as it is obtained from historians, geographers, and pilgrims, both Christian and Mohammedan.