Christian Churches of God

No. 217z




Golgotha: the Place of the Skull


(Edition 1.0 19971027-19971027)

The location of the site of the crucifixion is an important story in its own right. Where is it and what was the significance of the events that transpired there? What do the names of the places mean?





Christian Churches of God





(Copyright ã 1997 Wade Cox)

(Summary by Patti Gambier, Ed. Wade Cox)


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Golgotha: the Place of the Skull

The location of the sites of the crucifixion and Golgotha are explored in this paper and the Christian traditions and Bible accounts are compared.

The Mount of Olives is the centre summit of three summits to the east of Jerusalem and was used as the sacrifice of the red heifer (see the paper Messiah and the Red Heifer (No. 216)) for the purification of the priesthood. This area looked directly west to the east gate of the Temple, across the Kidron. A road in ancient time over this summit was used by David in his flight to Transjordan.

This second summit was used for the lighting of the signal beacons for the New Moon. Also it is significant that Messiah will descend on this Mount (Zech. 14:4). It appears to be the site of the last meeting prior to His ascension. Many aspects of the faith focus on this central summit.

During the last week the disciples accompanied Messiah from Bethany, east of the Mount, through the hamlet of Bethphage to the summit where Luke 19:41 tells us that Christ wept over Jerusalem.

"Golgotha" is a transliteration of the Aramaic from the Hebrew word meaning "skull" from SHD 1538 (Jud. 9:53; 2Kgs. 9:35). It is variously translated kranion (Gk), calvaria (Latin) and the English uses Calvary, skull, Golgotha or cranium.

Where, then, was Golgotha? The experts say that all that can be said is that it was outside the city walls (Jn. 19:20; Heb. 13:12) on a hill because it could be observed from a distance (Mk. 15:40, "looking from afar"). But we can see far down a depression. It was near a road because there were passers-by (Mk. 15:29). John 19:41 states the tomb was near a garden. Christ was buried there because it was on the preparation day of the Jews for the feast of the Passover, which began at sundown. It was not within the city limits.

Eusebius places Golgotha north of Mt. Zion. There are two sites pointed out to travellers now - "Calvary" in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the northwest and "Gordon’s Calvary" to the north.

It is of note that no interest was evident in the location of the crucifixion by Christians until the 4th century. This shows that the events that took place there were far more important than the place itself, which did not deserve veneration.

History says that Constantine sent a bishop to find the sites, and that supposedly by vision the Queen Mother Helena guided the bishop to a site, which was the site of a temple to Aphrodite, erected by order of Hadrian, and where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today, inside the present walls. The earliest record of this edifice is 333 CE, and was dedicated in 335 CE inside the walls. This is a problem.

There is also confusion regarding the walls that were progressively built around Jerusalem, and where the walls went is still a matter of conjecture in relation to the site of Golgotha in the northwest as tradition has it. The "City of David" was to the southern side of the Temple mount, and from archeology there was no habitation on the east of the Temple. Josephus refers to the monuments of Helena, Queen of Adiabene and the "Causeway of the Kings" near the north wall. The traditional view is that Christ’s tomb and Golgotha were northwest of the Temple, where the Chapel of the Resurrection now stands.

In 70 CE Golgotha was within the city, or at the wall. In 1842 and 1885 a rocky hill northeast of the Damascus Gate was identified — now known as "Gordon’s Calvary", and lies in an area of Byzantine burial caves. This place is north of the city, and not east. So there are two likely sites accepted by modem scholarship.

We know from the Bible Christ’s burial is located in a garden (Jn. 19:40,41; 20:15). Gethsemane is located in the Mount of Olives to the east of Jerusalem

Thus in summary, it is thought by some that Christ was crucified:

1. To the northwest of Jerusalem;

2. To the northeast of the Damascus Gate, and hence north of Jerusalem; and

3. To the east on the Mount of Olives (as has also been suggested).

It is not known with any certainty where the place of Golgotha was.

The Mount of Olives is identified on some grounds. One ground being that the red heifer was sacrificed on the Mount, and that the garden of Gethsemane was close by, so Christ was crucified there.

Burial was also permitted to the north of the city. The evidence is the tomb of John Hyrcanus and the "tombs of the kings", and tombs of Helena and Izates of the house of Adiabene.

Josephus says these tombs were north of the city and lay on the east side of the road into Jerusalem from the north. He says these were three furlongs from the walls of Jerusalem in the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE) and within the third wall at the siege by Titus in 70 CE. So, at the time of Christ the walls being further south than in 70 CE, the crucifixion could have been anywhere up to the monuments prior to 41 CE.

So locations for the crucifixion could be beside the road to Nablus northeast of the Damascus Gate, or the road over the Mount of Olives with the garden of Gethsemane close by towards Bethany. Both locations qualify.

Another proposition for the Mount of Olives is that it faces directly towards the Temple and into the Holy of Holies. This is advanced from a reading of Matthew 27:50-54. The assumption that the centurion and the soldiers saw the Temple veil torn in two requires a number of specific things to have happened.

This Temple was the third Temple and was by Herod, replacing the second Temple. He also rebuilt the tower or fortress of Akra and renamed it Antonia with tunnels to the Temple. The Judean governors used the fortress of Antonia as temporary residence during feasts, and it is accepted that Pilate stayed there and that it was the place of his trial of Christ at the Pavement or Gabbatha (Jn. 19:13). This pavement is in front of Antonia and 150 feet square.

The "stations of the cross" follow from here and the impossible route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These stations are fanciful and have been changed many times over the years. The arguments for the traditional site of the crucifixion are inconclusive, but the arguments against it are not cogent (see art. "Golgotha" in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 439 and "Jerusalem", ibid, pp. 843-866).

The modern identification of the "stations of the cross" are physically impossible to have been the correct places as the city generally is much higher now than it was then, and the streets lay in different patterns. There is virtually nothing of the churches and shrines today that is possibly correct in their identification with the activities at the time of Christ. All of the traditions we have of the places now identified come from highly questionable tradition no earlier than the fourth century (see Interp.Dict., ibid., art. Jerusalem p.861).

We know the site was near the city (Jn. 19:20) and outside the gate (Heb. 13:12). The straight route from the pavement outside Antonia would have been through the Damascus Gate and to the Nablus road; or straight out the east gate of the wall and over the causeway and up to the Mount of Olives. So the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre makes no sense if Antonia is the beginning.

The construction of Herod’s Temple would have precluded any view from the Mount of Olives into the Holy of Holies. There was not just a veil in front of the Holy of Holies. There was a set of doors in front of that and then another great veil over those doors, which were shut, as were the great Corinthian Doors on the outer area (see Josephus "Wars" v.v.2,3,4, 5).

For the way into the Holy of Holies to have been visible from the Mount of Olives the Great Doors would have to have been thrown open and then both veils rent and the other set of doors would also have to have been opened.

Moreover, the angle from the Mount of Olives would have to be precise and very high, and considering the distance involved it is not likely the Romans would have carried out the crucifixions there. They were usually carried out by the road as a warning and example to the populace.

It is also unlikely that the high priest would have accepted the profaning of the site by the ritual execution of common thieves and Gentiles, at the sacred site for the sacrifice of the red heifer.

Anyway, the tearing of the veil does not need to have been seen. The important thing is that the site of the crucifixion was deliberately not set aside and venerated because of the dangers of idolatry as we see happening with the relics of the bodies in the later Catholic system.

This paper is designed to give a feel for the localities and background to other papers on the subject such as Timing of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection (No 159). It also demonstrates that much of what we are told about Jerusalem by Christian tradition is incorrect, and much we are told from the Bible can be identified correctly and shows that the account is true and accurate.