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here did the pivotal event of all the ages take place? Modern archaeology sheds new light on an old controversy.
THE DEATH and resurrection of Jesus Christ together formed the most significant event of all history! Yet the precise location where he was crucified, buried and resurrected has intrigued Christians and historians for centuries. Of course, the fact of that great event does not depend on locating the authentic site. Yet it is only natural that Christians would have an interest in knowing where their saviour died - and where he rose again.
What does the Bible tell us about the location? The Gospel writers call the place where Christ was crucified Golgotha - an Aramaic word meaning 'the skull'. Calvary is the Latin form of the word. Scripture does not reveal the precise location of Golgotha. It simply states that Christ's crucifixion took place outside the city of Jerusalem, though near to it (John 19:20; Hebrews 13:12). Jewish law did not permit executions and burials inside the city.
Further, Christ was undoubtedly crucified near a well-travelled road, since passers-by mocked him (Matthew 27:39; Mark 15:21, 29-30). The Romans selected conspicuous places by major thoroughfares for their public executions. The crucifixion probably took place on a hill, because it was at an elevation high enough to be plainly visible at a distance (verse 40).
As for the tomb or sepulchre, we are only told it was in a garden near the place of crucifixion (John 19:41).
Rival Sites of Jesus' Crucifixion and Burial
Various locations around Jerusalem have been suggested as the site of Christ's crucifixion and burial. However, in recent times, only two have been deemed worthy of serious consideration. The traditional site lies within the area now occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City (click on map to enlarge). The huge church embraces within its walls a hill called Latin Cavalry and, nearby, the traditional tomb of christ.
The other contending location is a rocky hill - Christ commonly called Gordon's Calvary - just north of Jerusalem's Old City (see enlarged map) named in honour of the British military hero General Charles Gordon, who promoted the site in the 19th century. Near Gordon's Calvary is a quiet garden, with a rock-hewn tomb popularly called the Garden Tomb, held by some to have been the sepulchre of Christ.
Golgotha Outside City Walls
In recent decades, archaeological excavations have revealed more facts about the Jerusalem of Christ's day - including the route of the city walls at the time. As we have seen, the Bible requires that Golgotha lie outside those walls.
It is true that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is well within the walls of today's Jerusalem. Yet does that disqualify it as the authentic site? In fact, it does not. The walls that now surround the Old City are not the walls of Christ's day. They were erected later in the 16th century by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Excavations and literary evidence show conclusively that when Christ was crucified, the line of the city wall ran south of the site on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands (see enlarged map).
Ancient tradition is another important consideration when evaluating alleged holy sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a longstanding tradition in its favour that can be traced back to the time of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity.
Queen Helena, Constantine's mother, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326AD. The Christians living in Jerusalem then pointed out the location of Calvary and Christ's tomb to Helena and her travelling companion, the historian Eusebius.
It was a rather unexpected place. They claimed the holy site lay buried beneath Jerusalem's Temple of Venus (or Aphrodite), which had been built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian a century after Christ's crucifixion. Helena ordered the pagan temple to be demolished and removed to uncover Jesus's tomb and Calvary. The excavations revealed several ancient tombs. Evidence pointed to one in particular as the tomb of Christ.
The workers also uncovered a rocky outcrop that was identified as the hill of Calvary. A church was built adjacent to the site in 335AD - the forerunner of today's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet can we trust a tradition as late as the fourth century.
Though Hadrian banned all Jews from Jerusalem in 135AD, Christians not of Jewish ancestry could and did live in Jerusalem. An uninterrupted tradition could, therefore, have easily been passed down through generations to Christians. Consider, too, that Jerusalem's Christians were so certain the tomb lay under Venus temple that they persuaded Helena to order - and pay for - the expensive demolition of the temple.
Had they not been certain that a tomb and rocky hill lay beneath it, they would hardly have dared to suggest the costly work. Clearly, their conviction must have been tied to a long and probably reliable tradition.
The Place of the Skull
However, what of the notion that Golgotha was so named because it in some way resembled a skull? The shape of a human skull - replete with eye sockets, nose and mouth - is visible in the cliff-face of Gordon's Calvary (see photograph). Scripture, however, requires no such features.
The notion that Golgotha, 'The Place of the Skull' (Matthew 27:33), Was so named because of the skull-like appearance of the hill is a modern idea dating only from the 19th century. From early Christian times, virtually all commentators held that Golgotha was named simply because it was a place of execution, where the skulls and bones of criminals lay scattered.
Further, Gordon's Calvary was probably part of a ridge - and not a separate hill - in Christ's time. The topographical features of the hill that make it look like a skull were not in the first century. Archaeologists believe it to be a mine site developed only in the past two or three centuries. In other words, its skull-like appearance is the result of modern quarrying operation.
The fact that Gordon's Calvary was first suggested only in the last century is clear testimony that the hill did not resemble a skull until recent times. Otherwise, it would have been put forward as an alternative candidate for Golgotha in earlier centuries. Yet no ancient or medieval tradition connects the crucifixion with the place.
Garden Tomb From Iron Age
Christ's tomb was a 'new tomb' (Matthew 27:60). Any tomb not identifiable as a first-century tomb is obviously out of running. Extensive archaeological work has shown conclusively that the ancient rock-cut tombs within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are, indeed, first century tombs, as required by Scripture.
The Garden Tomb, by contrast, was originally hewn out centuries earlier - in the Iron Age, in the eighth or seventh century BC, during the time of the later kings of Judah. This is based on the plan and characteristics of its rooms, the type of chisel used in cutting out the tomb, the artefacts excavated inside and other factors. Thus, it does not qualify as a 'new tomb' of the first century.
Is It Important to Know?
The verdict of archaeology is clear: Gordon's Calvary and the Garden Tomb have little evidence in their favour. Was, then, the site now occupied by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the actual location of Christ's crucifixion and burial? It seems likely that it was. No other site has a claim so weighty.
Of course, we cannot know with 100 per cent certainty, nor is it important that we do. Salvation does not hinge on a particular location, but on the sure reality of the death resurrection on Jesus Christ.