Will the Real (Insert Place Here) Please Stand Up?


One thing I really like to ruminate about is the fact that we really just don’t know exactly where some places referred to in Scripture are. This includes places that we think we know - but it turns out in reality that they were/are just one of the many candidates.

We do know where some places referred to in the Bible are: the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Jerusalem, Beersheba, just to name a few. But when it comes to, say, Golgotha or the ‘upper room’ or the ‘mountains of Ararat’ or Mount Sinai/Horeb, you have two or more competing sites that claim to be the place in question.

There are cases when even though we do know the location, we aren’t sure of the exact spot: for example, everyone knows Jesus was born in Bethlehem (whether everyone believes that is another question), but where exactly in Bethlehem? Was it really in the site where the Church of the Nativity now stands, or could it have been in another spot in the same general region?

Now I’m not delving into the question about whether the authenticity of a particular location is important (a question I’ve wondered in the past) - that’s not what this thread’s about. I’m not geared for heavy stuff (I’ll leave that to the experts). This thread is simply for introducing all these different locations and weighing some pros and cons.


I’m sure you’ve read the appropriate section in Innocents Abroad

[quote=Mark Twain]When one enters the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Sepulchre itself is the first thing he desires to see, and really is almost the first thing he does see. The next thing he has a strong yearning to see is the spot where the Saviour was crucified. But this they exhibit last. It is the crowning glory of the place. One is grave and thoughtful when he stands in the little Tomb of the Saviour–he could not well be otherwise in such a place–but he has not the slightest possible belief that ever the Lord
lay there, and so the interest he feels in the spot is very, very greatly marred by that reflection. He looks at the place where Mary stood, in another part of the church, and where John stood, and Mary Magdalen; where the mob derided the Lord; where the angel sat; where the crown of thorns was found, and the true Cross; where the risen Saviour appeared–he looks at all these places with interest, but with the same conviction
he felt in the case of the Sepulchre, that there is nothing genuine about them, and that they are imaginary holy places created by the monks. But the place of the Crucifixion affects him differently. He fully believes that he is looking upon the very spot where the Savior gave up his life. He remembers that Christ was very celebrated, long before he came to Jerusalem; he knows that his fame was so great that crowds followed him all the time; he is aware that his entry into the city produced a stirring sensation, and that his reception was a kind of ovation; he can not overlook the fact that when he was crucified there were very many in Jerusalem who believed that he was the true Son of God. To publicly execute such a personage was sufficient in itself to make the locality of
the execution a memorable place for ages; added to this, the storm, the darkness, the earthquake, the rending of the vail of the Temple, and the untimely waking of the dead, were events calculated to fix the execution and the scene of it in the memory of even the most thoughtless witness. Fathers would tell their sons about the strange affair, and point out the spot; the sons would transmit the story to their children, and thus a period of three hundred years would easily be spanned–[The thought is Mr. Prime’s, not mine, and is full of good sense. I borrowed it from his “Tent Life.”–M. T.]–at which time Helena came and built a church upon Calvary to commemorate the death and burial of the Lord and preserve the sacred place in the memories of men; since that time there has always been a church there. It is not possible that there can be any mistake about the locality of the Crucifixion. Not half a dozen persons knew where they buried the Saviour, perhaps, and a burial is not a startling event, any how; therefore, we can be pardoned for unbelief in the Sepulchre, but not in the place of the Crucifixion. Five hundred years hence there will be no vestige of Bunker Hill Monument left, but America
will still know where the battle was fought and where Warren fell. The crucifixion of Christ was too notable an event in Jerusalem, and the Hill of Calvary made too celebrated by it, to be forgotten in the short space of three hundred years.

I think that’s a reasonable analysis. Though I’d have gone simpler: executions are generally going to happen in the same place because nobody wants them happening anywhere near their place and even if you’d never heard of Jesus Christ you would know that that hill over there was where people had been executed for hundreds of years. So per the excerpt above: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre may be nowhere near the actual Sepulchre but it is likely pretty close too, if not actually on the spot, of the Hill of Golgotha. And while the exact location identified in that Church for Christ’s crucifixion may be off by fifty yards or by five hundred, it’s close enough that the Pilgrim’s should feel a sense of awe when standing before the statute of Christ at that location.

I’m no biblical archeologist but just glancing around on the net, it appears the CotHS would be just outside Herod’s City Walls. Which again is supportive (if not conclusive) as to Golgotha. You would expect executions to happen outside the city walls but near the gates (gibbets in Medieval times) as a warning to others coming and going.

With respect to Christ’s Tomb, it seems highly unlike that Roman era Jews would have tombs so near the regular execution site (unless we’re talking pauper’s tombs which was not the case for Jesus’ tomb) and you’d expect a number of other tombs to be in the same area (as . Still it’s not a huge deal, Christ was buried in a cave-like tomb near Jerusalem so the cave-like tomb at the Church can certainly give the Pilgrim a better idea of what Christ’s tomb was like and bring to life the mention of the tomb in the Gospels. I have no clue if the Garden Tomb is Christ’s actual tomb, but it is certainly a better candidate than the one in the CotHS.


Since Trevor brought this up: Golgotha.

1.) What do we know about Golgotha from the gospels?

Well, first, all four gospels agree about the name: Kraniou-topos ‘Skull-place’ or ‘Skull’ (Matt. 27:33; Mk. 15:22; Lk. 23:33; Jn. 19:17-18). John (19:41) gives the impression that the name didn’t just refer to a small, specific locality, associated only with the death of Jesus (as we assume when we refer to, say, ‘Mount Calvary’), but to a much larger region: “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had been laid.”

So ‘Golgotha’ for John doesn’t just refer to the site of the crucifixion, but encompasses both the spot where Jesus was crucified and the garden where His tomb was located. (We can see the same thing in early Christian literature: early Christians also tended to imagine that Golgotha was a region rather than a specific, small place. It wasn’t until the 6th century that ‘Golgotha’ came to specifically refer to the rocky outcrop encased within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now known as the Rock of Calvary.)

Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two locations were side-by-side; the maximum distance between these two locations will depend on how large an area Golgotha was in the first place. No source tells us that the tomb and the place of the crucifixion were very close to one another. For all we know, Golgotha could have been this large area.

You know those movies and paintings where Golgotha is depicted as this secluded area (often shown as a hillock or mountain) some distance away from Jerusalem? That’s not really what the gospels depict.

John (19:20) expressly mentions that “the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city.” Matthew (27:39-40) and Mark (15:29-30), both mention “those passing by” taunting Jesus; this might suggest that Jesus was crucified near or by the roadside. In the Letter to the Hebrews (13:12), Jesus is also described as being crucified “outside the gate.”

An anonymous author writing in the name of the 1st century rhetorician Quintilian said this (Declamationes Minores 274):

When we crucify criminals the most frequented roads are chosen, where the greatest number of people can look and be seized by this fear. For every punishment has less to do with the offence than with the example.

We know from this and other texts that Romans usually executed criminals either in public places or in the place where they did their crime, to set an example. This would fit in with the inference from the gospels that Golgotha was a public area close to the streets and the city.

Kind of like Spartacus.

And here’s is the important thing: none of the gospels ever speak of Golgotha as being a hill. In fact, there is no explicit mention of Golgotha being a raised place until the 4th century, when it is spoken of as a monticulus (‘little hill’) by the anonymous pilgrim of Burdigala (modern Bordeaux). The expression does not occur again until once in the 6th century, after which we do not come across it until Bernard the Pilgrim visited Palestine in the 9th century and spoke of a Mons Calvariae (by which he probably meant the Rock of Calvary).

The early Greek Christian writers, with the exception of Sts. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-389/390) and Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 313-386), also never speak of it as being connected with a hill or a height, and it must be remembered that both lived a bit after the traditional area, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands, was officially discovered by Constantine. In fact, St. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), himself a native of Palestine, expressly says of the area: “There is nothing to be seen on the place resembling this name; for it is not situated upon a height that it should be called (the place) of a skull, answering to the place of the head in the human body.”

Now some of you might be familiar with that tradition that Golgotha was actually the mountain where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac (‘Mount Moriah’). That tradition should be taken with a grain of salt: Jewish tradition - guided by the reference in 2 Chronicles 3:1 - identifies that mountain with the Temple Mount.

In fact, the thing is, that the early Christians have appropriated a number of Jewish traditions about the Temple Mount and applied it to their own holy places. That explains why Golgotha came to be seen as Mount Moriah and as Adam’s burial place (there is also a Jewish tradition that places Adam’s burial place underneath the Temple Mount instead of Hebron, the majority idea): Christians took those ideas about the Temple and applied them to Golgotha. (This is somewhat encouraged by the fact that Isaac’s sacrifice was seen as prefiguring the crucifixion of Jesus, and that Jesus was seen as the new Adam.)

I actually personally think that Jesus of Nazareth was one Jesus film that depicted Golgotha ‘accurately’: not this secluded, improbably high mountain some distance away from Jerusalem - as in The Passion of the Christ - but an area just by the city walls.


Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting! :thumbsup: Just adding that I don’t think what I wrote disagrees with this bit right here. The maps I’m looking at (which may or may not be accurate) show the location of the CotHS as being right outside what was part of Herod’s Wall (though of course it is now within the walls of the old city).


I’m gonna work backwards and start with the more obscure idea before going in to Gordon’s Calvary-Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which we’ll save for last).

Mount of Olives


Yes, there’s actually a few recent scholars such as Nikos Kokkinos, Ernest Martin, and lately, James Tabor (of The Jesus Dynasty) who suggested that maybe, ‘Golgotha’ was actually an area in the Mount of Olives. Some of the main arguments for this view include:

(1) They take the reference to Hebrews of Jesus being crucified “outside the camp” (13:10-13) as a reference to the Red Heifer ceremony, which was performed on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. (The Epistle of Barnabas (8.2) makes the symbolic connection between the Red Heifer and Jesus more explicit: “The calf is Jesus: the sinful men offering it are those who led Him to the slaughter.”) They argue, what if Jesus was actually crucified on the Mount of Olives - the historical fact gave rise to this allegory?

(2) An apocryphal work known as the Acts of Pilate (2nd-3rd century at the earliest; work as it is now dates from around the 4th-5th century) depicts Pilate sentencing Jesus to be crucified “in the garden where [He was] seized.” They argue that this fits in with Roman laws that state:

[INDENT]The same Emperor stated in a Rescript that slaves should be punished in the place where they are alleged to have perpetrated the offence, and if their master desires to defend them, he cannot have them sent back into his province, but must undertake their defence where the illegal act was committed.

The Divine Pius stated in a Rescript addressed to Pontius Proculus that, where a sacrilegious act had been committed in one province, and afterwards a less serious crime was perpetrated in another, after having taken cognizance of the offence committed in his own province, he must send the defendant into the one where he had been guilty of sacrilege.


The Governor of a province shall send back a deserter to his own commander, after he has been heard, with a report, unless the deserter has committed some serious offence in the province in which he was found; for the Divine Severus and Antoninus stated in a Rescript that the penalty should be inflicted upon him in the place where he perpetrated the crime.


It has been held by many authorities that notorious robbers should be hanged in those very places which they had subjected to pillage, in order that others might be deterred by their example from perpetrating the same crimes, and that it might be a consolation to the relatives and connections of the persons who had been killed that the penalty should be inflicted in the same place where the robbers committed the homicides. Some also condemned them to be thrown to wild beasts. (Digest 48)

(3) Supporters of this view think that a crucifixion on the Mount of Olives would allow the centurion to observe the tearing of the Temple veil (here imagined as the ‘outer veil’ that hung in front of the Temple doors, not the ‘inner veil’ that separated the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies), which would then account for his confession. (Some people would add that the splitting of the rocks mentioned in Matthew may be an echo of the splitting (same verb in the Septuagint) of the Mount of Olives in Zechariah 14:4-5.)

(4) James Tabor mentions: “The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (preserved by Ibn Shaprut in his work Even Bohan), published by George Howard, refers to the site of the crucifixion, in Hebrew, as Har Golgotha, which means a “mountain” or “hill,” and certainly not the little outcropping of rock preserved at the stone quarry where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands.”

(5) Another of Tabor’s argument (I’m getting lazy, so I’ll just quote him :D) is: “Josephus says that during the Jewish revolt (66-70 CE) as many as 500 Jewish victims per day were crucified “before the wall of the city,” in order to terrorize the population (War 5:289; 5:449-450). This description fits perfectly with the Mt. of Olives, before the main city gate, with the Romans camped just to the north on Mt Scopus. This was the only location that could be seen by anyone in the city of Jerusalem, and the week Jesus died it would be visible to passersby arriving from all directions for the Passover feast, thus providing a visible warning to those who might be tempted to sympathize with rebels.”[/INDENT]

These are the pros. The cons will follow.


Here are the cons:

(1) You might argue that while the author of Hebrews and the author of Barnabas make parallels between the OT sacrifices such as that of the Red Heifer ritual and Jesus’ crucifixion, believing the latter was the former’s fulfilment, it does not necessarily follow that Jesus must have been crucified in the same place(s) where these rituals were held, or that this symbolism can only be valid if the crucifixion occurred in that same spot.

As Peter Walker (The Weekend that Changed the World: The Mystery of Jerusalem’s Empty Tomb, p. 144-145) points out:

Martin’s whole approach, however, is marked by the conviction that the Old Testament types and the Jewish regulations must have been fulfilled literally in the details of Jesus’ crucifixion. Even if the point concerning the cultic significance of the “east” have some validity, it doe not follow that this essentially Roman execution obligingly conformed to this Jewish notion. The Roman authorities are much more likely to have wanted the deed to be done as quickly as possible and to have made use of a location much nearer to hand. Nor this there any positive evidence of a Jewish execution side on the Mount of Olives. In the case of Stephen’s stoning, the only necessity was to move him “out of the city” (Acts 7:58).

Clearly the writer of Hebrews was convinced that Jesus’ death did fulfil the cultic sacrifices associated with the Temple (hence his whole argument in chapters 7-10). There is nothing, however, to suggest that this fulfilment could only be valid if the crucifixion occurred in exactly the self-same spot. For the author of Hebrews Jesus’ death also fulfils the cultic sacrifice of animals within the Temple precinct, and his exaltation into heaven encapsulates the Day of Atonement ritual when the High Priest had entered the Holy of Holies (Hebrew 9:12, 24; 10:12, etc.). Yet it would be quite absurd that Jesus also died (or indeed ascended into heaven!) whilst within the Temple precincts. Theological parallel can be quite valid, regardless of precise geographical identity.

Instead almost all commentator uniformly understand the “altar” of Hebrew 13:10 to be a graphic but symbolic means of summarizing the author’s whole argument concerning Jesus’ death as the ultimate sacrifice. The whole point of his letter is to persuade the Jewish Christian to whom he is writing (possibly in Rome?) that through Jesus they have complete access to God, which is not dependent in some way on Jerusalem. To emphasize the literal Mount of Olives at this point would effectively undercut the entire purpose of his letter.

(2) I wouldn’t be too sure about using a late source such as the Acts of Pilate as definitive proof that the crucifixion did take place on the Mount of Olives.

James Tabor gives the Acts of Pilate a 2nd century date (The Jesus Dynasty, p. 227: “A 2nd-century Christian text called the Acts of Pilate say Jesus was crucified near the place where he had been arrested, that is, the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.”), but this is rather misleading. Justin Martyr in the 2nd century does say after he has mentioned the passion and crucifixion of Jesus: “And that these things happened you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.”

But as other scholars point out, even if we assume that he is actually referring to an apocryphal known by that title, we still aren’t sure whether that ‘Acts of Pontius Pilate’ he mentioned is the same work as our Acts of Pilate. In fact, our Acts of Pilate was more likely composed during the 4th-5th century.

Although there was a keen interest in Pilate in early Christianity and the existence of the Acts of Pilate was known to second-century writers (Justin, 1 Apol. 35.9; 48.3; cf. Tertullian, Apol. 21.24), the present Acts of Pilate dates from the fourth century or later; however, the use of earlier materials in its composition is likely. The Acts of Pilate proper may well have been intended as a response to forged Acts of Pilate spread by the Roman authorities in support of paganism under the emperor Maximinus Daia (311-312; cf. Eusebius, H.E. 1.9.3; 1.11.9; 9.5.1; 9.7.1). (Michael P. McHugh, “Acts of Pilate,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, ed. Everett Ferguson.)

Plus, we can’t preclude the possibility that the author (or the source he used) conflated the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested with the “garden” in Golgotha. I mean, such conflations can and do happen in early Christian literature.

It’s true that there was these imperial rescripts which state that convicts and slaves are to be punished in the place where they committed their offense (which I quoted earlier). But notice that those rescripts are attributed to “the Divine Pius” (Antoninus Pius, reigned 138-161) and to “the Divine Severus and Antoninus” (Septimius Severus-Caracalla, reigned 193-211 and 198-217; co-emperors during 198-211). I don’t know at the moment whether there was already such a similar custom in the 1st century, and if there was, whether it was a universal, ‘this-is-what-you-must-absolutely-do’ type of ruling.


He did go to the Mount of Olives, was it, and sweat blood there and ask that this chalice pass over him.


Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has said everything that needs to be said, I think, about the Garden Tomb:

*This tomb in a quiet garden is venerated by many as the tomb of Christ: it conforms to the expectations of simple piety and it is outside the walled city. It is much easier to pray here than in the Holy Sepulchre. Unfortunately there is no possibility that it is in fact the place where Christ was buried …

The first visitor to popularize this site as Golgotha was General Charles Gordon in 1883: he thought he recognized the shape of a skull in the hill behind the tomb. The excavation of the nearby Church of St. Stephen, and in particular the discovery of the tombstone of the deacon Nonnus, which mentioned the Holy Sepulchre, quickly convinced Protestants desirous of having a Holy Place of their very own that this was the place where the Byzantines located Calvary and the Tomb. Despite the protestations of those best qualified to judge, the Anglican Church committed itself to the identification, and what had been known scornfully as ‘Gordon’s Tomb’ suddenly became the ‘Garden Tomb’. Sanity eventually prevailed, and the Anglican Church withdrew its formal support, but in Jerusalem the prudence of reason has little chance against the certitude of piety.*



Would the little hill on the right be the place. It looks a bit like the top of a skull and if the temple was where the golden dome is then the temple curtain might be visible from there.
Doubtful whether they would bring criminals on a long hike to execute them, all they need is to bring them outside the city walls and somewhere visible to passers by.


You bring up a very good point there, and this could actually count as an argument against the Mount of Olives proposal: if Golgotha was really on the Mount of Olives, then why didn’t the gospels and Acts explicitly say so? They after all mention the Mount of Olives in connection with Jesus a number of times: the apocalyptic discourse, Gethsemane, the ascension.

To continue with the cons:

(3) The problem with the argument that the centurion would have or needed to see the temple veil being torn is, the gospels themselves never really make this assertion. Mark mentions that the centurion said that Jesus was God’s son “when He saw how he breathed His last,” while Matthew says that it was “when [they] … saw the earthquake and what took place.” Nowhere in these passages do the torn veil really feature as a factor in the centurion’s confession, and to be honest, the attempts to read the temple veil into it somehow really sound rather contrived. You might say that the torn temple veil could even be an instance of dramatic irony: the reader knows something that the characters in the drama do not: that the temple veil was torn. In other words, there’s really no need to think that the centurion would have seen or even needed to see the curtain tear apart in order to to make his confession. A plain reading of Matthew and Mark IMHO makes more sense.

(4) AFAIK only James Tabor really tries to bring in the ‘Hebrew Gospel of Matthew’ (aka the Shem Tov Matthew) as an argument for the identification. The Shem Tov Matthew is a complete text of Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew found interspersed among anti-Catholic commentary in the 12th volume of a polemical treatise ‘The Touchstone’ or Even Bohan (c.1380-85) by Shem Tov ben Isaac ben Shaprut (aka Ibn Shaprut), a Spanish Jewish physician living in Aragon. The interesting thing about the Shem Tov Matthew is that it has some readings that diverge from the canonical text of Matthew.

Now James Tabor is of the opinion that the Shem Tov Matthew represents an authentic ancient text of Matthew independent of the canonical version, and that’s the reason why he invokes it. (Other scholars convinced of the Shem Tov Matthew’s supposed authenticity are Hugh Schonfield of The Passover Plot, George Howard, or Michael Rood.)

The problem is Tabor and these other scholars are in the minority in this one (to be fair, that by itself isn’t an argument). Other scholars would point out that the Shem Tov text probably isn’t as ancient or as authentic as these writers would like to make it out to be: for one, they point out that the Hebrew text has Latin or Greek loanwords, which to them would point out to the text actually having a Latin base rather than a Hebrew one. This holds true even where you might have expected the text to just give the Hebrew equivalent. (For example, ‘Petros’ for Peter instead of Kephas, ‘Qristo’ - Christus - for mashiaḥ, ‘libela repudio’ for “divorce decree,” ‘paan sagrah’ for “holy bread,” ‘paralatiko’ for “paralytic,” ’ rezinah de isteriah’ for “Queen of the East,” etc.) Not to mention that the text makes what seems to be blunders in geography (such as ‘Gilgal’ for Galilee or ‘Macedonia’ for Magdala!)

(Here’s an article giving some arguments against the idea of the Shem Tov text being authentic: Is the Hebrew Matthew
an Authentic Document?

(5) Tabor brings up the fact that the people who were crucified in AD 70 would have likely been executed on the Mount of Olives, and that it was a public, visible area. Fair enough, but I personally don’t really buy his conviction that Golgotha must have been there just because it was “the only location that could be seen by anyone in the city of Jerusalem” (While the Romans as far as we know did crucify people in public places where as many people as possible can see them, I don’t really think that Jesus and the two thieves would have needed to be literally seen by everyone who was in and out of Jerusalem at that time!)


Well, it depends on the writer. If we’re going by the ‘Jesus was crucified on the place of the Red Heifer sacrifice / Gethsemane’ route, then it would really be somewhere on the slopes of the mount.


I’ll be honest: out of the three candidates I’m going to cover here (Mount of Olives, Gordon’s Calvary, Church of the Holy Sepulchre), Gordon’s Calvary has probably the weakest claim. The Mount of Olives proposal at least has a couple of tempting, even if not convincing, arguments in its favor (the typology factor and the centurion factor).


Is there any way to recreate his footsteps to lead you to a possible distance which might point a direction. If he was scourged and imprisoned overnight they might lead him out before dawn but he falls when there is a crowd, so maybe daybreak in the city, walking slowly with help at 6:30 am. So if he died at the 6th hour and was alive on the cross for 3 hours and if we say the 6th hour is 6 hours after sunrise then he died at 12:30 pm and was crucified at 9:00 am. So that would leave 2 and a half hours between the prison and the crucifixion. Maybe walk a mile at most given all delays and preparations and very slow progress. So about 3 miles from the temple to the mount of olives. Injured and falling and carrying a cross a lot less than 1 mile per hour. He might have walked in that state for a mile or half mile or less.


hope you are well Patrick457, am going to sit down now.


I still think this is an interesting thread, but per the other thread literal accuracy wasn’t critical for the Gospel writers, they had literal, figurative, mystical and prayerful points to make and limited space to work.

Focusing too much on literalness leads one into the traps of fundamentalism or deism/agnosticism/atheism. Just as atheists can lose their life measuring it out in coffee spoons, the faithful can lose it measuring out Christ’s Passion in cubits. I’ll stand by my comment on the CotHS, it’s close enough to Calvary for government work. If St. Helena had built it in right on Temple Mount, we’d have a problem, because the location would conflict not just with the literal interpretation but with the figurative and mystical as well as well, as-is, it clearly works.


Gordon’s Calvary-Garden Tomb

This is pretty much the alternative to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre nowadays.

Ever since the 17th-18th century, more people have begun to express their dissatisfaction with the traditional site, first and foremost because it is now currently within the city walls - whereas it is clear from the NT that Golgotha was outside the city. Most of these people were Protestants who did not have any territorial claims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and who felt that the traditional site is too cluttered with

This was not a new observation: medieval Christians had already noticed that the traditional site was within the city and proposed various ideas as to why it was so. St. Willibald of Eichstätt (AD 754) believed that it was because St. Helena - who is thought to have found the True Cross - “arranged that place so as to be within the city.” A 12th-century English pilgrim named Saewulf, meanwhile, attributed the task to Hadrian when he rebuilt the city during the 2nd century AD.

The standard theory for most of the 20th century was to connect the northern wall of the Old City with the ‘third wall’ which was built to protect the north side of the city starting from the time of Herod Agrippa (AD 41-44). However, more recent scholars seem to think that Agrippa’s third wall was actually much farther north than the current northern walls. What’s interesting with this idea is, it would turn out that both the traditional site and Gordon’s Calvary would be within the city walls at this point.

A 1911 map of Jerusalem. Note how the third wall of Josephus is identified with the northern wall of the Old City. For much of the 20th century, scholars actually thought this was the case.

More recent reconstructions of the third wall based on further research. Note - Gordon’s Calvary is also within the third wall.

In 1841 Dr. Edward Robinson’s Biblical Researches in Palestine, which at the time was considered to be the standard work on the topography and archaeology of the Holy Land, argued against the authenticity of the traditional location (p. 407-418). Robinson also believed that the traditional location would have been within the city walls also during the Herodian era (something modern scholars now dispute), and he argues that the tradition surrounding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre isn’t as authentic or as reliable upon closer scrutiny as supporters would have them. He was careful not to name any specific alternate candidate; he did, however, suggest that the crucifixion would have taken place somewhere on the road to Jaffa or the road to Damascus.

Thus in every view which I have been able to take of the question, both topographical and historical, whether on the spot or in the closet, and in spite of all my previous prepossessions, I am led irresistibly to the conclusion, that the Golgotha and the tomb now shown in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, are not upon the real places of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. The alleged discovery of them by the aged and credulous Helena, like her discovery of the cross, may not improbably have been the work of pious fraud. It would perhaps not be doing injustice to the bishop Macarius and his clergy, if we regard the whole as a well laid and successful plan for restoring to Jerusalem its former consideration, and elevating his see to a higher degree of influence and dignity.

If it be asked, Where then are the true sites of Golgotha and the sepulchre to be sought? I must reply, that probably all search can only be in vain. We know nothing more from the
Scriptures, than that they were near each other, without the gate and nigh to the city, in a frequented spot.’ This would favour the conclusion, that the place was probably upon a great road leading from one of the gates; and such a spot would only be found upon the western or northern sides of the city, on the roads leading towards Joppa or Damascus.

Two Claims on Christ's Tomb


Motivated by Robinson’s research, a German scholar named Otto Thenius proposed that a rocky knoll north of Damascus Gate, which, as Thenius noticed, resembled a skull, was the biblical Golgotha. He also suggested that a nearby man-made cavern or quarry (aka Jeremiah’s Grotto, Al-Adhamiyah) was actually the tomb of Jesus.

Gordon’s Calvary, late 19th-early 20th c.?

Gordon’s Calvary as seen from the northern wall (Jeremiah’s Grotto is the cavern on the right of the picture), ca. 1901

His idea about Jeremiah’s Grotto failed to catch on, but his identification of the skull-looking knoll as the biblical Golgotha became popular.

Thenius’ identification was accepted and repeated by people such as American industrialist Fisher Howe (1850), English clergyman Henry Tristram (1858 - he was also one of the advocates of purchasing the nearby Garden Tomb in 1893), and British soldier and explorer Claude R. Conder (1872). Even the French scholar Ernest Renan (of Vie de Jésus fame) later tentatively accepted the site as a possible contender for the biblical Golgotha. It was, however, Major-General Charles Gordon, who visited Jerusalem in 1883, that the site is most commonly associated with. Gordon was influenced by the scholarship of Conder and his correspondences with another proponent of the site, German architect and missionary Conrad Schick.

Accepting Conder’s and Schick’s arguments, Gordon himself passionately proposed additional arguments - which he himself admitted were “more fanciful” and imaginative - based on scriptural typology: Gordon read Leviticus 1:11 ("[The sheep for a burnt-offering] shall be slaughtered on the north side of the altar before the LORD") as pointing to Jesus having also been slain north of the “altar” (Gordon’s Calvary being north of Jerusalem and of the Temple Mount).

Because of Gordon’s importance in British society at that time the idea took hold and people began to consider seriously the claim that this might be the biblical Golgotha. Once people considered this knoll was the location of Golgotha, they naturally looked for a suitable nearby ancient tomb that would fit the biblical description.

Incidentally, years ago (1867) a Greek family who owned property in the area at the time found what looked like a cave - then buried underground - after digging in the area for water. They contacted Conrad Schick; Schick realized that the landowners had just discovered an ancient Jewish tomb, and subsequently detailed and published it. It was this tomb discovered by Schick that proponents of Gordon’s Calvary touted as the tomb of Jesus. Having now both a tomb and a possible site of crucifixion, people were eager to further explore the area.

In 1892, a notice was placed in the London Times asking people to donate the funds necessary to purchase the site, in the belief that the place ought to be preserved. The Garden Tomb Association was formally established in 1893, and the property was purchased in 1894 (though it would actually be a number of years before all the legal formalities were completed); two ladies in particular, Charlotte Hussey and Louisa Hope, were the driving force behind this campaign.

Since then, more studies were performed in the area - on the tomb in particular. A cistern (1885) and a wine press (1924) discovered nearby have been cited as evidence that the area had once been a garden. This particular tomb also has a stone groove running along the ground outside it; Gordon argued that it was a slot that once housed a stone, corresponding to the biblical account of a stone being rolled over the tomb’s entrance. In addition, there have also been claims of what look like early Christian and Byzantine/Crusader-era graffiti in the area and supposed traces of a Byzantine church in the site, which to supporters point out to the site being of some significance for early Christians.


The cons:

One problem with the identification of Gordon’s Calvary with the biblical Golgotha is, it relies too much on the shape of the hillock as it was in the 19th century. In February this year, Gordon’s Calvary was affected by a storm, which resulted in the skull’s ‘nose’ collapsing. As the author of the blogpost notes: “The recent storm and the resultant erosion suggests that the escarpment would have been greatly altered in the years since it was created by quarrying. I would consider it doubtful that anything like the skull-shape visible in recent years was known in the first century.” (Gordon’s Calvary, it seems, was originally a stone quarry, but we don’t know when it was used as such. Some scholars even think that it was only relatively recently - say, two or three centuries ago - that the site was used as a quarry.)

The site in 1894.

The site in 1961.

The site in 2008.

The site as of now (2015).

In fact, we might even question the need to identify ‘Golgotha’ with a hill. As I noted in an earlier post, the gospels (John in particular) seem to identify Golgotha as the name of a wider region, and they never mention anything about Jesus being crucified on a hill. It was only a later tradition that engendered the idea of a ‘Mount Calvary’, after the rocky outcrop now in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We now know that Thenius’ and Gordon’s et al.'s assumption that Golgotha was a hill, and that it was because of this hill’s shape that it was named ‘Place of a Skull’ to be itself a rather questionable premise.



About the tomb itself:

The main argument against the Garden Tomb being the tomb of Jesus is, first and foremost, it’s too early. John claims that Jesus was buried in “a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.” However, it turns out that the Garden Tomb is actually part of a complex of tombs in the area that date from the late Iron Age (8th-7th century BC) - hardly a ‘new’ tomb at all. In style, it is more similar to other Iron Age cave tombs than to ones built in the 1st century AD.

(Here’s a nice article going into some detail about this: Revisiting Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. The author, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, is a Mormon, and upholds the identification of Gordon’s Calvary as the biblical Golgotha, but he does give some very good and detailed arguments against the authenticity of the Garden Tomb, which he once supported.)

How are we then to explain the Byzantine and Crusader era graffiti found in the site? It turns out that the site seems to have been ‘recycled’ at that time, which would explain these inscriptions. Now it’s really not surprising that the Byzantines and Crusaders would use the site: the Garden Tomb is just about a hundred yards south of the monastery-church of St. Stephen. In fact, the tomb seems to have been altered in the Byzantine era (a few archaeologists even go so far as to date the Garden Tomb itself to the Byzantine era), which could point to the site being used for burial - something that would not have occurred had anyone at the time identified the tomb as that of Jesus.

The cistern - which was one of the thing supporters adduced as proof that the site was a garden in the 1st century - actually turned out to be a 12th century Crusader-era installation (the Crusaders seem to have used the site as a stable, and as such they also altered features of the area). The stone groove or track running outside the tomb, which supporters claimed was where the rolling stone was lodged, was in fact a water channel.

Chadwick, in his article, writes:

The small winepress is difficult to date, and it is unclear whether the press was present during the Herodian period or was constructed later. But a winepress is, in any case, no evidence of a garden, since the biblical term “garden” does not refer to an area where grapes are grown. The term in the New Testament used to describe a grape-producing plot is “vineyard” (Greek amteloni; see Matthew 21:28).[21] The term “garden” (Greek kepos) is used to describe an orchard of fruit-producing trees, very often olive trees (see John 18:1, where the term kepos refers to the olive garden near Gethsemane, and John 19:41, where kepos denotes the garden in which the tomb was located). …] Additionally, the term for the caretaker of a vineyard is “husbandman” (Greek georgos) in John 15:1, whereas the term employed in John 20:15 is “gardener” (Greek kepouros). This language also suggests that the plot in which Jesus’ tomb was found was not a vineyard. The winepress found near the Garden Tomb may suggest that a vineyard was once there but proves nothing concerning a garden there in New Testament times.

Contrary to what Garden Tomb visitors are often told, the presence of a large cistern near the tomb in no way suggests that the area was a working garden in Jesus’ day. Artificial irrigation of working gardens, whether olive gardens (like the garden near Gethsemane) or other fruit-producing gardens, was not practiced in the land of Israel during biblical times. Winter rains and summer dews were the adequate sources relied upon for watering of olives and other tree fruits, as well as grapes, grains and grasses. The only exception was the small “garden of herbs” (vegetable garden) often maintained adjacent to a private home (see Deuteronomy 11:10). But since a tomb had been cut in the garden of Jesus’ burial and since it was outside the city wall, no home would have been in that garden—it was not a small vegetable garden of which the New Testament is speaking. The supposition that a “gardener” might be at work there (see John 20:15) also suggests that it was a fruit-producing garden of trees, most probably an olive garden, in which Jesus’ tomb was located. Such a garden, as already stated, would have required no irrigation. The large cistern near the Garden Tomb proves nothing concerning a garden.

More important, the bell-shaped cistern was not even present at the site during the first century A.D., nor anytime close to the life of Jesus. It was, in fact, cut out and plastered sometime between about A.D. 1100 and 1187, during the Crusader period. The type of plaster used to seal the cistern against water leakage is known from other Crusader cisterns in Israel, and Crusader crosses carved into the interior wall of the cistern are a typical identifying stamp of twelfth-century construction.



Speaking of which, there was a Byzantine-era tombstone found in the church complex which says: Thēk(ē) dia/pher(ousa) Nonnou dia/k(onou) Onis(imou) / tēs ag(ias) t/ou Ch(risto)u a(nastaseō)s k(ai) / tēs mo(nēs) avtēs “Private tomb of the deacon Nonnus Onesimus of the Holy Resurrection (Anastasis) of Christ and of this monastery.” Some supporters of the Garden Tomb location are quick to use this inscription as a proof for supposed Byzantine-era veneration of the site as the tomb of Jesus (the argument was, if the deacon buried here served the “Holy Resurrection” - in the Byzantine period, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was known as the ‘Church of the Anastasis’ - the nearby Garden Tomb must be the tomb of Jesus); but the inscription, when read carefully, doesn’t really say anything about the location of the tomb of Jesus or indicates that it was at the Garden Tomb: Nonnus Onesimus was a monk in the monastery attached to the church of St. Stephen, but at the same time he served as a deacon in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Such a combination was far from unusual.

The reason why the Nonnus inscription was even brought up was because when the Garden Tomb was still newly-discovered, there was a rumor that a tombstone in the St. Stephen Church was found which said something along the lines of: “I, Eusebius, have desired to be buried in this spot, which I believe to be close to the place where the body of my Lord lay.” In reality, there was another tombstone found in the same church, this time to a deacon named Euthymius Pindiris, but this particular inscription doesn’t mention anything about the tomb of Jesus or whether it was nearby. It seems that the Euthymius inscription and the Nonnus inscription were confused with one another, and rumor exaggerated what the actual inscription said (cf. The Garden Tomb and the Misfortunes of an Inscription, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor).

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