Where Did Jesus Die?

Yesterday I noticed that the map “Jerusalem in Jesus’ Time,” bound as Map 17 in my LDS Bible, shows two locations for the crucifixion of Jesus. I don’t know if the folks who included this map knew what they were doing, but in keeping with the Easter themes that have distinguished FPR during this Christmas season, I thought I’d have a say.

The traditional site, labeled “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” is located at B2. The site popularly known as “Gordon’s Calvary” is labeled “The Garden Tomb and Hill of Golgotha,” and is located at B0, near the top (north) edge of the map.

There is actually a third suggestion, not taken seriously, that Jesus was crucified on the Mount of Olives. The main attraction of this idea is that the centurion described in Mt 27:51-54 could see the veil of the temple from where he stood. Since, however, only the Synoptics mention the rending of the veil, and only Matthew might be suggesting that the centurion saw it, and none of the Synoptics seem to know precisely which veil, inner or outer, was torn, this is not much of an attraction.

Gordon’s Calvary (from the Vulgate’ s calvaria) is a knoll about 800 feet north of the Damascus gate. It is said to resemble of a skull, as per the description in Mk 15:22, Mt 27:33, Lk 23:33 and Jn 19:17b. It also has a landscaped garden, an ancient tomb and, in contrast to the Church of the Holy Sepluchre, is mercifully free of teetering crusader architecture and squabbling Christian clerics.

However. It’s just not all that convincing. The site has no link with antiquity. The skull-like appearance was achieved by work done after the 1st century. The walls which are currently nearby are courtesy of the Turks; the walls at the time of Jesus (Second North Wall) are quite a distance away. Finally, the Gospels use the word TOPOS or “place” to describe Golgotha. The idea that a hill was involved comes from some 4th century accounts left by pilgrims which use the Latin MONTICULUS or “small hill.”

This leaves the traditional site, now marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as the most plausible site. It is near the walls and the Garden Gate at the time of Jesus. In the 7/8th centuries BCE, the area was a quarry but by the 1st century BCE, it had been partially filled in, had a small garden area, and was used for tombs. This corresponds well with the hasty burials of the Synoptics and the report of a garden in Jn 19:41. Fifteen years after the death of Jesus, burials in this area were halted because Herod Agrippa extended the wall northward again, enclosing the area within the city limits.

This site, however, was actually chosen by Constantine’s architects in 325 CE, based on local information. Were they right?

First, it is plausible that some memory of at least the general location of the tomb was retained. There was a fair amount of veneration of tombs in 1st century Jerusalem. One of the most powerful figures in the early church in Jerusalem was James, usually identified as a close relative, if not a blood brother, of Jesus. His influence may also have contributed to a memory of the area.

Ironically, the Romans may also have done their part. Following the Second Jewish Revolt, Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina. Jews were not allowed into the city, but Christians were because the city had passed into the hands of a Gentile bishop. In 135 CE a temple to Aphrodite was built over the location of the tomb. By burying the tomb under a prominent landmark, the location of the tomb, at least in general, may have been preserved for the next 200 years!

Then again, who knows?

The Romans may have actually been kindest to the site. Constantine had all sorts of “improvements” made, including removal of much of the rock surrounding the tomb itself. The Persians ripped off the valuable metals found onsite in 614, but the place of [dis]honor goes to Hakim, Fatimid Caliph of Cairo, who in 1009 had the whole site flattened in a rather counter-productive effort to assert the superiority of Islam.

Forty year later two walls were identified, which allowed some reconstruction of the area. In 1149 the crusaders finished a church on the site which looks remarkably, well, European. Here they also buried the kings of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem until they were driven from the area in 1187.

These days, I hear the place is a disaster. Fire and earthquake have reduced the crusader structure to a dangerous state of disrepair. The clerics associated with the site have been unable to agree on the required recontruction, so nothing has happened…yet.

If anyone knows of a good, solid, work on the history of the site and the associated buildings, I’d be much obliged for a citation.

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