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Research Topics

 This article was published in the Spring 2002 issue of Bible and Spade.  GOLGATHARECON image 0

Currently, the most popular alternative site to traditional Golgotha, located in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, is the area of Gordon’s Calvary, with the so-called ‘Garden Tomb,’ but scholarly endorsement of this locality has never been very strong.1 Generally, the current consensus holds that Golgotha was located in the vicinity of the traditional site, somewhere north of the first wall of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, and west of the second wall, though specificity is impossible. In this article, I would like to consider how specific we might be about the localizations of Jesus’ death and entombment.

In my book Christians and the Holy Places, I argued that Constantine chose to build his “Martyrium” basilica (dedicated AD 335) in honor of the cross on the site of the former Temple of Venus because of convenience, and that the Temple of Venus itself was built here (ca. AD 135–50) without any plan to cover up a Christian holy place (see Figure 1 for a visualization of Constantine’s church and surrounding areas) (Taylor 1993:113–42). I concluded that the evidence does not point us to the authenticity of the traditional site precisely as “Golgotha.” but rather to a site slightly further south. However, I have not been completely satisfied with my brief analysis, because it relies upon a basic preconception that Golgotha was primarily the place of the crucifixion, and that the tomb was very close by. As I have worked over the material again, I have noted that this understanding of “Golgotha” as the execution place alone, though a common one, is not supported by the combined evidence of the canonical Gospels. Moreover, the tomb is not said to be very near the site of the crucifixion. This has led me to a further reconsideration of all the available evidence, and the discovery of additional material in the New Testament apocrypha, which may bear upon the issues. In this article I will argue that the crucifixion was indeed further south than the traditional site would locate it, as I argued previously, but that the traditional tomb of Jesus may very well be authentic.

GOLGATHARECON image 1Figure 1: Constantine’s Martyrium basilica in honor of the holy cross, ca.
AD 355: (a) tomb of Jesus, contained in the Edicule;
(b) the rock of the cross; (c) the Martyrium; (d) the Cardo

Golgotha: The Place

Golgotha is mentioned in all four canonical Gospels as being the place where Jesus was crucified (Mk 15:22; 27:33; Lk 23:33; Jn 19:17–18). Luke in fact omits the Aramaic name “Golgotha” and refers to the locality only in Greek translation as “a place called ‘Skull’” (topon kaloumenon cranion). Properly, the Aramaic underlying this would have to be something like meqom-golgolta’, which translates as either “place of the skull,” or “the place of a skull,” or “the place of the skull”; the emphatic ending leaves us with three options. The complete accuracy of the Palestinian Aramaic form is impossible, given the paucity of Aramaic material from this period.2 However, with Hebrew and other Aramaic (including Syriac) equivalents, as well as the “sound” of the word as preserved in the Greek texts of the Gospels, we can suppose that the form was approximately this. Meqom is “place of,” the construct form, which is followed by the nominal emphatic form golgolta ‘(cf. Syriac gagulta’), “(the) skull.”3 In Hebrew the basic root glgl,4 is used in words such as “wheel,” galgal (cf. Is 5:28; Ps 77:19) (Brown, Driver, and Briggs 1996:165). Nouns formed from glgl have to be thought of as round things, which may roll or revolve, i.e., in modern Hebrew, roller skates are "galgilliyyot" In the Bible, a skull might be referred to as “gulgolet” (cf. 2 Kgs 9:35), presumably because it could roll along if it was dropped. Figuratively, however, it could refer to a “head” count: in Nm 1:16, men are counted “according to their skulls/heads”: laggulgelotam (Brown, et. al.: 166). Indeed, in modem Hebrew, gulgolet may mean “head”, in this way, like rosh.

GOLGATHARECON image 2Figure 2: Schematic diagram of the area of
Golgotha according to the Gospel of John.

It is often pointed out that the Arabic equivalent to rosh, ras, can be used for a hill, rising up or sticking out of the ground like a “head.” However, this need not at all imply that what we should be looking for at Golgotha is a little knoll: the “hill of Calvary” is a traditional understanding not found in the New Testament. In Hebrew also, rosh can mean the “top” of a mountain, or a hill (2 Sm 15:32), but if gulgolet can mean rosh, in some sense, and rosh can mean summit, in another sense, it does not mean that gulgolet can mean summit, or, by analogy, a hill in general. The traditional site of the church of the Holy Sepulcher is located on the tilled saddle of part of the slope of a hill, possibly known once as Mount Gareb,5 but this would not have looked in any way like a hill. It would have looked like an elongated crater.

But are we talking about a general vicinity, or else a definite “spot” on the ground? Some scholars have the “spot” understanding, possibly borne of the traditional identification of Golgotha as the “Rock of Calvary” (from the Latin calvarius) in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is a rocky protuberance, on the right of the present entrance of the Church, that may have been especially cut back in either the second century (for the Temple of Venus) or the fourth century (for the Martyrium complex), or simply left over as a rock column at the time the area was used as a quarry (ca. tenth-eighth centuries BC) (Gibson and Taylor 1994:55). Whenever it reached its present form as a kind of rock finger, it would have been logistically impossible for three people to have been crucified on the top of it (Taylor: 131–32). The tomb is often considered to be beyond “Golgotha” proper, but nearby.

However, the Gospel of John gives us the clear impression that Golgotha was not a small, specific locality, associated only with the death of Jesus, but a much larger region. Here we are informed that Jesus was crucified in the topos named Golgotha (Jn 19:17–18), but then

“in (en) the place (topos/Golgotha) where He was crucified there was a garden (kapos), and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had been laid.” (19:41).

Here the author gives us a visual image that may be shown pictorially as circles, the largest of which is Golgotha as a topos, a place or region (see Figure 2). Jesus was both crucified and buried here in two different spots that need not be 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.

The early Church tended also to imagine that Golgotha was a region rather than a specific, small place. When the Rock of Calvary was determined as the actual location of the crucifixion, it still did not become definitive “Golgotha” until about the sixth century. Before that, it was “the rock of the Cross”; (Egeria. Itin. 24.7; 25.9, 11; 27.3, 6; 30.1, 2; 31.4; 35.2; 36.4.5; 37.1.4, 5, 8; 39.2; Jerome, Ep. 58.3.) the basilica itself was “on Golgotha,” which was understood to be a large area.6

In our book Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Shimon Gibson and I explored the geographical features of the area of the Church and beyond, as these existed in the time of Jesus. We reviewed the archaeological findings and determined that the entire area had indeed been an Iron Age quarry, characterized by irregular rock cuttings, scarps and caves (pp. 51-63). The area itself is on a slope, but it had been substantially cut away by the quarrying.

If one were looking for a region that might be named and identified as having an integrity and nameable character on this side of Jerusalem, then one would easily identify the quarry as such. If one looked down on it from the city walls, it would have had clear demarcations around its perimeter, with cuttings becoming gradually deeper towards its central area. To speculate on how a given site might have been named may be pointless, but if, in the slanting light of morning and evening, the shape of the “crater,” and the rocks and caves, started to take on the appearance of a skull, or a human head, perhaps we have a reason for the location being called “the skull place.” The site seems too elongated to be considered a skull shape from a bird’s eye view (as shown in Figure 3). However, someone standing on part of the first wall nearby and looking north would have seen it from a different perspective, which would have contracted it considerably, and it may have been supposed that its actual shape was like a human head. An experiment with my children showed that if I drew an oval shape on a piece of paper and asked them what it was they thought of it as a head or an egg. The word golgolta would have indicated not simply a skull in its skeletal form, but a detached human head, and later Jerome would consider the meaning of “Golgotha” in the Jerusalem dialect of his own day to be “place of beheading” (Comm. in Matt 27:33). Whatever the case, the important thing is that we have here a region that can be identified as having a certain geographical character of its own: it might have been called something other than “the old quarry west of the walls.” If one were to reject the quarry as a whole as being Golgotha, and look for a feature within the quarry, then there would be the problem of reconciling this with the description given in the Gospel of John, which refers to Golgotha as an area large enough to contain a site of a Roman crucifixion and also a cultivated tract of land or garden (kapos) where there was a new tomb.

Returning to Jerome, I have previously suggested that we may look to his comment at the end of the fourth century that “Golgotha” meant “place of beheading” (Comm. in Matt 27:33) for the explanation of the name. Furthermore, Jerome noted that this was local Jerusalem jargon for “execution place” and the areas outside Jerusalem where criminals were executed were called “Golgothas” in his own day: perhaps it was simply a general euphemism (Taylor: 130; Gibson and Taylor: 59). It is possible, however, that local Christians later began to refer to execution places as “Golgothas” on the basis of an understanding that Jesus was executed at such a place of horror. I have noticed the tendency by the news media to refer to situations of atrocity and genocide as a “holocaust.” In this case, specific usage has become general usage. Furthermore, if at the time of Jesus the term was just a general one for “execution place,” then we really have no reason for the Gospel writers to record it so assiduously as a specific, identifiable area. Rather, it may be that the local usage had changed dramatically during the centuries. The Jewish population of the city had been killed or expelled by Hadrian following the Bar Kochba war of 132-35 (so Eusebius, Hist. Eccles. 4.4), and the genocide and desolation in Judea as a whole was so horrific as to be commented upon by Cassius Dio (Hist. Rom. 69.12-14). With such a case of ‘“ethnic cleansing,” it would not be surprising if there were some linguistic modifications, brought about when new population groups came to settle the area.

GOLGATHARECON image 3Figure 3: Area of Golgotha at the time of Jesus.

The Site of the Crucifixion

New Testament

John 19:20 has it that the topos where Jesus was crucified was near the city; many Jews read the titulus, “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews”. Mark 15:29–30 (=Mt 27:39) refers to people passing by on the road (hodos). In the Letter to the Hebrews (13:12), Jesus is described as being crucified “outside the gate.” Therefore, we are told specifically in the New Testament that the precise location of the crucifixion was close to a road and, of course, a gate.

Which gate? In fact, we do not have a huge number of alternatives. As in all walled cities, the roads led outwards from the gates in certain key directions. Walled cities do not generally have a large abundance of gates, because gates increase their strategic vulnerability. Gates served main routes only. If we are to look for a gate close to the region we have identified as Golgotha, there is only one known gate which would fit well for this locality. It is generally supposed that the likely gate was that which Josephus calls “Gennath” (Gardens) Gate (War 5. 146), located in the first wall. According to Josephus, it is here that the second wall began (and went on northwards and around to meet the fortress Antonia).

It is very likely that Gennath Gate is to be identified as being the gate discovered by Nahman Avigad in area X-2, in the northern end of the present Street of the Jews (see Figure 3).7 It is fairly common to site the second wall west of the Gennath Gate, so that another gate is required as an exit towards the west.8 In fact, nothing requires us to site the second wall west of the gate. If Josephus’ comments are accurate, the wall began at the gate, but without necessarily closing it up. It would seem much more logical if the gate remained an exit to the long-established west and north roads, and the new wall still allowed access to these exits from the northern part of the city. A road going west further north could not have traversed the uneven area of the quarry very easily, and further south a road west would have had to go down into the deep ravine running south of the present Citadel. It would have been more logical if the old road going west through the slight valley here remained. The Hasmoneans rebuilt sections of old Israelite walls, and a northern Israelite gate may well have been located here to connect with a main route going north. In Figure 3, I have drawn this road skirting the area of Golgotha. It is likely that access to the road was retained. It is probable that with the building of the second wall an additional northern access was created, and a new north road was developed to link with the old north road, connecting around about present-day Damascus Gate. The fact that there were “Upper Gates” (War 5.336) in the second wall seems most likely to indicate double, fairly grand, gates providing the main northern access for the new part of the city.

Figure 3 shows the probable location of Gennath Gate and the possible roads leading westward toward Emmaus, Lydda and Joppa, and northward to Samaria (and the present Damascus road) as well as a conjectural route for the second wall so that it meets the first wall at the gate itself in a way that means the gate is still an access point to the north and west.9 The road, from which passers-by saw Jesus’ execution, would most probably have been westward-leading, but people on the north road would also have been able to see the execution. Crucifixions were designed to be seen by the public, in order to act as deterrents. With the convergence of two roads at Gennath Gale, the site would have been quite appropriate.

It should be remembered that no remains of any dwellings from the first century have been found in soundings in the area of the old quarry or its environs, which means it is very likely that this area was outside the walls of Jerusalem, and the second wall proceeded further east. How far east is, of course, debated, but it would have been further east than Schick’s excavation of a cave (V in Figure 3) underneath present-day Khan ez-Zeit (Bet Habad) and Suq el-Atarin streets (Gibson and Taylor: 55–57).

Given the New Testament descriptions and the reconstruction of the gate and walls as presented in Figure 3, it seems very likely to me that Jesus was crucified approximately at the spot I have marked with an “x.” We may then imagine that it was both close to the gate, near to the road, and yet just within the region named meqom-golgalta’. This locality is a little over 200 m (220 yds) south of the traditional location for Jesus’ crucifixion (marked with a “y”) and entombment (marked with a “z”). It is some 25 m (80 ft) from the road. An experiment revealed that a sign with letters 10 cm (4 in) high could be read easily at 25 m (80ft). People walking past would almost unavoidably have looked down into the area of Golgotha, at the execution of the three men. Perhaps there was a common burial pit nearby. It would have been a gruesome sight and a miserable shock to thousands of Passover pilgrims, who were streaming into the city.

On the other hand, the traditional location is far from the probable road and not close to any known gate either; no one could read the titulus when passing by at such a distance. In order to endorse the traditional location one would need to suggest that there was a gate leading to the west somewhere in between Gennath Gate and the Upper Gates. However, no gate would take travelers westward through the uneven topography of a quarry, where there is, at any rate, no vestige of a road cut.

As I have argued previously, our earliest sources outside the New Testament seem to lead us to a similar conclusion for the siting of the crucifixion. I should emphasize before proceeding, however, that I am now discussing the precise location of Jesus’ crucifixion, and not his entombment. The question of the placement of Jesus’ tomb is a separate matter, and not dependent on the question of the setting of Jesus’ crucifixion. Most scholars, including myself in previous publications, have tended to force the locations together: if one is to the north, then both are; if one is to the south, then both are. This need not follow. As noted above, we are not told that the sites of the crucifixion and the resurrection were close together in the New Testament, only that these events both took place in “Golgotha.”

Melito of Sardis, Peri Pascha

The foremost evidence we have for the preservation of the memory of the site of Jesus’ crucifixion comes in Melito of Sardis’ Peri Pascha, written in about the middle of the second century (ca.160) (Hall 1979), a few years after Hadrian had built up this area outside the old walls into a forum for his new Roman city Aelia Capitolina, with a Temple of Venus on the northern side. Melito writes poetically of the crucifixion taking place epi meses plateias kai en mesô poleôs (94, 704), “in the middle of a plateia and in the ‘middle of a city.’”10 Elsewhere, he describes the murder of Jesus “in the middle of Jerusalem” (72, 506; 93, 692; 94, 694). What is clear is that a site in the middle of the city of Jerusalem was pointed out to him as the place where Jesus died. This would tally perfectly with the fact that the quarry was outside first century Jerusalem, but inside the city from the middle of the second century onwards.

I have commented previously that it is strange that Melito seems to envisage Golgotha as being a specific spot that could be pointed out in the middle of a city street (Taylor: 121–22). In fact, Melito does not tell us that “Golgotha” was such a small spot; he was referring only to the specific site of the crucifixion. He may well have imagined that Golgotha was a much larger area. Specifically, however, Melito’s evidence corroborates what we may adduce from the New Testament. Figure 4 shows a reconstruction of the layout of this area of Aelia Capitolina. The spot marked “x” corresponds to where it is placed in Figure 3 (“y” corresponds to the traditional location, on the Rock of Calvary, and “z” is the site of the tomb). As we can see, this places the site of the crucifixion in the middle of a main street, the Decumanus.

GOLGATHARECON image 4Figure 4: The area of Golgotha, c. 150-325 AD.

If we turn to the exact translation of Melito’s description, this is precisely what Melito tells us. In common usage, plateia generally means “wide street” (usually colonnaded) (Ibid: 117-8; Gibson and Taylor: 59) and would apply to either the Cardo Maximus or the Decumanus, which met the Cardo at a “T” intersection. Eusebius uses plateia precisely for the Cardo (Vita Const. 3.39); this is the principal plateia of Jerusalem/Aelia. Archaeological excavations have confirmed that the Cardo was 12.5 m (41 ft) wide in its central thoroughfare, with 5 m (16 ft) wide pavements on either side. It was colonnaded on both sides. The eastern main street of Aelia had one set of colonnades, and the Decumanus was probably not colonnaded at all. No columns were found when a part of the Decumanus was excavated in the easternmost end of the Street of the Chain (Geva 1993:762). Nevertheless, the Decumanus was still a wide street, and one of the plateiai of Aelia. We cannot know the precise route of the Decumanus. The northern Cardo is not at the same angle as the later southern Cardo, and sections of the Decumanus may not lie at right angles to either part of the Cardo. However, it seems quite likely that the Decumanus followed the line of present David Street, continuing on to the Street of the Chain, and that it was, while not as wide as the Cardo, wide enough to be impressive. In Figure 4, I have drawn its western section as being about 15 m (49 ft) wide, which may be a modest estimate.

While it is impossible on the basis of Melito’s remarks to say precisely which plateia is being referred to, what we can deduce is that his words would fit with our identification of the site of Jesus’ crucifixion on the basis of the New Testament, if Melito’s plateia is, in fact, the Decumanus.

Eusebius’ Onomasticon

More importantly, perhaps, is the evidence found in Eusebius’ Onomasticon,11 written late in the 3rd century or early in the fourth, some time before Constantine built his basilica on the site of the (destroyed) Temple of Venus. In his notes of various Biblical places he could still find in Palestine, Eusebius wrote of Golgotha: “Place of a Skull,” where the Christ was crucified, which is indeed pointed out in Aelia right beside (pros) the northern parts (tois boreiois) of Mount Zion.

This tends to suggest that the site of the crucifixion — which is what is specifically mentioned by Eusebius — was near the northern parts of “Mount Zion.” Today, Mount Zion is identified outside the southern wall of the city. However, strictly speaking, geographically Mount Zion is the whole of the south-western hill, the “summit” being just south of the present Citadel, where the ground height is 773 m (2536 ft) above sea level. The summit of current Mount Zion is 765 m (2510 ft) above sea level. The southwestern hill was the location of the legionary camp of Aelia, which was relocated to Eilat some time in the reign of Diocletian. It is fairly clear that this camp was generally thought to be outside Aelia; the geometrical street-plan of the city did not apply here. Aelia proper began just north of the camp, i.e. north of greater Mount Zion (Biddle 1994:100). The Bordeaux Pilgrim of AD 333 describes Mount Zion as this greater area, possibly divided by a wall. The pilgrim goes out of Jerusalem and sees the pool of Siloam “beside the wall” (Itin. 592) and then climbs up Mount Zion from there and then goes “inside Sion, within the wall” to see David’s palace, the area of the present Citadel. The pilgrim then passes through “the wall of Zion towards the Gate of Neapolis”; which walls are being referred to is not clear, but these are probably remains of the first wall. The pilgrim may have passed through old Gennath Gate, if it still remained in use. At some point, the extent of Mount Zion shrunk. Some clue as to the extent of Mount Zion in the Byzantine period is given by Eucherius, in the fifth century, who writes that

it is on the south, and over looks the city like a citadel. The greater part of the city lies on the flat tip of a hill which is lower than this Mount. Mount Sion is covered on the northern flank with dwellings for clergy and monks, and its summit, which is level, is occupied by monks’ cells round the church which is said to have been founded by the apostles in honor of the place of the Lord’s resurrection, because it was there they were filled by the Spirit once promised by the Lord... Mount Sion ... is approached by rising ground stretching north.12

This description fits with modern understanding of the extent of Mount Zion. A wall that separated out “Mount Zion” proper from the city was built approximately where the present wall runs, possibly some time in the early Byzantine period. Eucherius writes in the fifth century that a lengthy wall “now embraces Mount Sion, though this was once just outside.”13 This wall would have enclosed the south side of Mount Zion.

If Mount Zion is considered to have included the legionary camp, however, Eusebius’ identification of the site of Jesus’ crucifixion matches what we have already adduced from the evidence. At the end of the third century, the site of the crucifixion could well have been described as being in Aelia, right beside the northern parts of Mount Zion.

Martin Biddle has stated that this, again, is not the correct translation, asserting instead that pros tois boreiois tou Siôn orous means “to the north of Mount Zion” or “north of Mount Zion” (Biddle 99–100) which would fit better with the traditional siting of the place of the crucifixion some distance away. It should be remembered that the Greek preposition is given its exact meaning by the case of the word to which it relates. “To the north,” using pros, would actually have been pros borran, i.e. pros with the accusative form, not the dative. Pros tois boreiois is quite different grammatically. Here we have the preposition with the definite article and an adjectival neuter plural form. This cannot mean “to the north”; literally, it means “hard by/very near (pros) the northerns (tois boreiois).” In this case, “the northerns” are “of Mount Zion.” This construction is used only once in the whole of the Onomasticon: in the case of Golgotha. Interestingly, however, when definite articles with adjectival plural forms are found elsewhere, they refer to locations within city territories rather than directions (76.14-15, cf. 10.18-20; 30.6; 42.11; 54.27, 68.15-16). Pros means “very hard by” somewhere, in this case “the northern parts of Mount Zion.” It can be either inside or outside these northern parts, but it is close to borderline. We could perhaps even translate it as “by the northern edge of Mount Zion.” This gives us quite a specific location. If Eusebius had wanted to be vague, he could have indicated the location directionally, that Golgotha lay ‘to the north of Mount Zion’ somewhere, by employing the expressions he regularly used: pros borran, eis borran, and so on.

If we now combine the evidence of Eusebius with what we have in Melito’s Peri Pascha, then it does seem remarkably consistent, and a location within Aelia is surely right. As for the idea that if Golgotha was “pointed out” it had to be visible in some way (Biddle: 100), I am not sure that this is true. A site can be pointed out as being in a certain vicinity even though not seen. Plaques in London and elsewhere on modern buildings can tell us that a site was where the house of, say, William Blake once lived, and guides will point to the modern building as being on that location; it does not mean that anything of Blake’s house remains to be looked at. Anyone who has been on a guided tour will recall times when the guide may point to a courtyard, or a square, and identify that a certain event took place there. So here, Eusebius points to a location where a certain event took place.

The Site of the Burial

Up to this point, we have been considering the general region called “Golgotha” and the specific location of the crucifixion on the southern edge of that region. The site of the tomb of Jesus, however, might have been located anywhere in the area known as Golgotha, and need not have been close to a busy city gate and main road. Far from it, in fact, the mental image we gain from the Gospel accounts seems rather more peaceful and indicates a more isolated locality (Mk 15:46-16:8; Mt 27:60-28:8; Lk 23:53-24:10; Jn. 19:38-20:8). No one is looking on or passing by here. The fullest description, in the Gospel of John, indicates that in the area of the tomb there was a garden, and here there might even have been a “gardener” (Jn 20:15). The archaeological evidence uncovered in the excavations of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher indicates that topsoil was either thrown in or that it built up naturally in the pit of the quarry in various sections.14 “Gennath” (Gardens) Gate may have gained its name from the fact that this region was quite intensely farmed, despite the irregular features of the topography, with caves and rocky scarps and protrusions, interposed with areas of cultivation (Gibson and Taylor: 61). Tombs and cultivated areas could lie side by side, since the uncleanness of tombs need not affect cultivations (m.Ohol. 17.4, cf. m. Baba Bathra 2.9), and gardens and tombs were often located close by.

In other words, there is nothing to be said in any absolute or categorical way against the traditional site of the tomb of Jesus being genuine. I would still note that it remains a curious fact that no Christian source before Constantine noted the offensive conjunction of a Temple of Venus and the place of Jesus’ entombment (Taylor: 135). The convenience of the location for Constantine’s building program seems initially suspicious, for it would have been far better to build the new Christian basilica with its adjoining courtyards on the very site of the Temple of Venus, than further south on the forum itself, or in the midst of people’s private dwellings and shops; it is possible, one would suppose, that logistics might have played a part. Further excavations in this part of Jerusalem may yet bring to light other tombs from the Roman period; it was not as if the tomb identified as being that of Jesus was the only one in the entire vicinity. In the Church today there is another tomb which dates from the Roman period, known as the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. It is a typical kokhim type tomb, with a number of compartments for the decomposing of bodies.

That said, skepticism does not completely suffice. If we are to speculate on how the Jerusalem church sought to hold on to the memory of the locations of places, once they were covered over with buildings, we would probably have to imagine that witnesses of the mid-second century passed on the information that such and such a site was covered over by such and such a structure. The precise location could very well have been determined by people standing on the surviving walls and figuring this out by recourse to various landmarks still visible, like the rocky protrusion later known as the Rock of the Cross, which very likely did indeed have a statue of Venus at the top: a libation altar found in the excavations close to the Rock of Calvary indicates that some kind of shrine probably existed there (Gibson and Taylor: 67-9). Byzantine Christians would find the newly revealed conjunction a telling indication of Hadrian’s determination to wipe out the memory of sites important in the Christian story. Jerome wrote to his friend Paulinus of Nola that Hadrian had placed “an image of Jupiter on the place of the resurrection (the tomb) and a marble statue of Venus on the rock of the cross” in order to defile “our holy places (so that) they could deprive us of our faith in the Passion and the Resurrection” (Ep. 58.3). Polemic and a later consciousness of “holy places” aside, if Jerome is correct about the placement of the statues, as in the case of the statue of Venus, then a statue of Jupiter seems to have been located, very appropriately, just above where Constantine’s excavators found a tomb.15 A large favissa belonging to the Temple of Venus, where sacrifices were deposited, has been found close by the site of the tomb.

It is certainly very possible that the church preserved the information that the tomb of Jesus was located somewhere under the temenos of the Temple of Venus, even though no extant source ever mentions this or even alludes to it in covert form. If Jerusalem Christians could remember the site of the crucifixion as being in the middle of a colonnaded street, they could probably pass on the memory of the site of the tomb. Equally, if, with the innovations of Constantine, the site of the crucifixion could be moved northwards, then so too the site of a tomb might have been moved. Both traditionalists and skeptics have good reasons for their arguments.

It has been pointed out quite often that there remains the problem of how Constantine’s workmen (or the empress Helena) really identified that the tomb was genuine (Biddle wonders if graffiti on the walls might have identified it). Curiously, it was apparently self-evident.

How was it self-evident? One factor may be worth considering initially: the tomb is described as being a new one, in which no one had yet been laid, and one which had a ledge, seen from the entranceway in its totality: angels sat where Jesus’ feet and head should have been. The Biblical stories, though differing in details, are consistent in their presentation of the tomb. They do not give us the impression that the tomb was a kokhim type. In these, one would be able only to see the standing pit depression, and the feet of whoever might be laid in the kokh. Therefore, we can make a supposition that the excavators would have sought a tomb that conformed to the type of tomb, which we can imagine from the Biblical stories: an arcosolium tomb, with a ledge quite near the entrance. Cyril indicates that there was once a rock shelter before the entrance, which was cut away (Cat. 14.9); the traditional tomb must indeed have been of the arcosolium type.16 Perhaps this is why it was self-evident: it had to conform to the Biblical descriptions. If it did, then it was the tomb of Jesus.

The trouble with this explanation, as with any other that requires some sort of identifying character found in or about the tomb itself, is that none of the stories of the finding of the tomb tell us that anyone looked for physical features. This scrupulousness in fact may reflect a modem consciousness. The people of the time were more impressed by attesting miracles, but there is no story of an attesting miracle to prove that this tomb was the right one. Had there been the least element of doubt, or the need for proof beyond what was absolutely self-evident, an attesting miracle would undoubtedly have been required. It is precisely the miraculous which attested to the discovery of the True Cross in the substructural areas of the Temple of Venus, possibly with the assistance of the empress Helena.17

Upon further consideration of this matter, it seems to me that the fact that the tomb was considered self-evident is the one most important factor that points to the probable authenticity of the traditional site. The traditional view has one key element in its favor (though one that is usually completely ignored): it gives us a perfect reason why no physical proof or legitimating miracle was required for anyone to believe that the tomb was genuine. The reason it was genuine was that it was in precisely the right place, under the statue of Jupiter, as everyone in the Jerusalem church believed (though Eusebius of Caesarea may well have been more skeptical). People only had to remove the statue of Jupiter to find the perfect tomb just exactly underneath it. No further proof was required. It requires us to believe that Hadrian did indeed cover up the tomb purposely and placed a statue of Jupiter on top of it. Previously, I have felt that this course of action would not have occurred to Hadrian, who was hardly the most vociferous opponent of Christians and was among the more tolerant emperors. His enemy, Bar Kochba, had apparently persecuted Christians in Jerusalem during the Second Revolt; would Hadrian have conquered the city, only to serve the church there another blow?

However, only a few years before Hadrian recaptured Jerusalem, Tacitus could write that Christians were “hated for their abominations”, and that they believed “a pernicious superstition” which was “evil”. Such Christians were, during the Neronian persecution following the fire of Rome, tortured to death in public spectacles because of “hatred of the human race” (Tacitus, Annales 15.44). If “Chrestus” means “Christus,” as is generally thought, we learn from Suetonius that Jews were expelled from Rome during the reign of Claudius, for causing disturbances “at the instigation of Chrestus” (Suetonius, Vita Claudii 25.4). Trajan was responsible for the first imperial advice given concerning Christians, in replying to Pliny’s request for instructions from Bithynia, ca. AD 112 (Ep. 10.96). His instructions were that Christians were not to be sought out, but if they are informed against and the crimes associated with the name (flagitia cohaerentia nomini) are proven, then they must be punished unless they recant and prove this by worshipping the Roman gods, and honoring the emperor by offering a pinch of incense and wine.18 Hadrian wrote similarly to Caius Minucius Fundanus, Proconsul in Asia, replying in fact to a letter written by his predecessor. He reacts sharply against the slanderous accusations, whereby people were informing the authorities that certain persons were Christians out of malicious intent. Hadrian wanted proof that any of those so accused actually did anything contrary to the laws. If so, then they should have sentences fitting their crimes, but they should not simply be condemned because they were believed to be Christians (see Justin, Apol. 1.69). The problem for Hadrian was false accusations, but it was understood that if they really were Christians, they would do things contrary to the laws.

Christians did not do things according to the law in one matter above all else: they did not appear to give proper honor to the emperor, or the gods, and thereby threatened the pax decorum, on which the survival of the empire depended. Christians refused to offer the pinch of incense to the (divine) imperial genius or make any sacrifices for the gods, a matter that was impietas in principem, even maiestas, high treason. Their defense that they would pray for the emperor, even though not offer incense (see Tertullian Apol. 29–32), was considered feeble.

As for Hadrian, he showed special respect for Jupiter. In the temple of Zeus Olympius in Athens the statues were of Hadrian, and sometimes, for example at Prusias, he was directly identified with the god (Ferguson 1970:40-1). When Hadrian was planning his world tour some time after AD 120, he issued a coin depicting Jupiter as lord of the world, placing it under the emperor’s care. Towards the end of his life he issued coins honoring Jupiter under the titles of Victor, Protector, and Guardian. At his death a dedication to Jupiter as “Best and Greatest” seems to honor Hadrian himself, identified with the god after his death. In Jerusalem, he built a Temple of the Capitoline Triad - Jupiter, Minerva and Juno — probably on the north side of the Temple Mount.19 According to Cassius Dio (Hist. Rom. 69.12), the erection of a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish temple was the key reason that Jews revolted under Bar Kochba.

It would, perhaps, have occurred to the emperor that to cover up the site where the “god of the Christians” was raised from the dead, and to place a statue of Jupiter over the site, would indeed be fitting. It might have been deliberately anti-Christian and provocative, but not necessarily. For Hadrian, it would have been quite appropriate, and almost an invitation to Christians to do the decent thing: i.e. to come and worship Jupiter and (perhaps) take the opportunity to honor the imperial genius. Furthermore, other local deities could be identified with Jupiter: why not the Christian god? And if a divine event had taken place at this site in Jerusalem, then what better site could there be for a new temple, with a shrine of Jupiter at the exact spot? We know from Eusebius” description that the Temple of Venus had more than one shrine. He writes always in the plural of the shrines there: pagans were honoring their “dead idols “ by “pouring out libations on profane and accursed altars” (Vita Const. 3.36). Christians themselves probably had no notion of the pagan concept of “sacred space,” for the material world was not the realm of the divine presence, either in totality or in miniscule zones (see Taylor: 1993, 295–332); sanctity resided in heaven. But Hadrian may have thought otherwise.

In addition, the evidence of knowledge of the site of the tomb in apocryphal literature needs to be considered, and has not been explored hitherto. In particular, we may look at two works coming from the mid-second century, possibly earlier. In the first place, we have in the Epistula Apostolorum a description of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus (paragraph 9) (Schneemelcher 1991: i, 249–84). Here it is said that he was buried (not crucified) at “Golgotha”: “he was buried at a place which is called ‘the place of a skull’” (kraniou topos). This fits with what we have concluded on the basis of John’s Gospel, but this is different from what is explicitly stated in the Synoptics, and whoever came to the conclusion that the tomb was at Golgotha would have had to make the same extrapolation on the basis of John 19:17-18 or have known the site independently.

In the second place, there is the evidence from the so-called “Akhmim fragment” of the otherwise lost Gospel of Peter.20 Here, it is stated that Joseph took Jesus, washed him, wrapped him in linen, and brought him to his own sepulcher “called 'Joseph’s Garden'” (6.24). This is an interesting name for the location, because it sounds very much like the sort of name that would have been applied to the site as time went by, in order to identity it precisely. In addition, it is a new name, not deriving from the canonical Gospels. It is certainly likely that if Joseph owned the tomb, he owned the garden outside it; the tomb had probably been newly cut in a plot of land he had purchased. That the tomb is named by reference to the garden is intriguing, and may reflect the language of the period after 41–44, when Agrippa I had included this area within his Third Wall. With this innovation, tombs would have been emptied, and tombs already cut would no longer have been used. However, the garden would still probably have been a garden. Within the walls of the city, people could easily have gone to “Joseph’s Garden” and looked into the unused cave/tomb. A further reason to suppose that some knowledge of the site is to be found behind the wording of the Gospel of Peter is the curious detail that when Mary Magdalene and her friends came to the tomb, they “stooped down and saw there a young man sitting in the midst of the sepulcher” (13:55). The doorway of Roman tombs is usually small, and would require people to stoop down. In the Gospel of Peter, we are to imagine the women stooping down to look just through the entrance, to see only through the doorway a little, where they see the young man. He then instructs them. “... stoop this way and see the place where he lay, for he is not here” (13:56). Again, on the basis of what we know of the traditional “tomb of Jesus” and Roman tombs in general, to see the ledge one would have needed to stoop further through the doorway and look to the right. It is a surprisingly accurate portrayal.21

The Acts of Pilate, dated possibly as early as the second century (Schneemelcher: 501–38), is indebted mainly to the Gospel of Luke in its presentation of the crucifixion and burial; Golgotha is not mentioned as the site. Here, the tomb is specifically described as a “cave” (xii, xiii, xv.6: “new cave”). Whether this reflects some knowledge of the fact that the tomb might be described as a cave is difficult to assess, but I include it for completeness.

GOLGATHARECON image 5Figure 5: Visualization of entrance to the tomb of
Jesus on the basis of current information.

It seems that there may be only two alternatives here. In the first place, there is the argument against the authenticity of the tomb: Constantine chose the site of the Temple of Venus for his new basilica in honor of the cross (and the tomb) because it was a good location for redevelopment. Hadrian had built his Temple on the site for no other reason other than it was a prime building location. In this view, the Byzantine choice of the tomb as being that of Christ was arbitrary and dependent on the architectural layout of the new structure. This is the argument I presented in Christians and the Holy Places.

In the second place, there is an argument for the authenticity of the tomb. In this view, Christians in Jerusalem remembered the site of the tomb, and may have visited it from time to time to show visitors. Hadrian indeed covered up the tomb on purpose and placed a statue of Jupiter on the exact spot, as the focus of one of the shrines within a larger Temple of Venus, and this was remembered by the Jerusalem church and communicated in due course to Constantine, who saw fit to remove the Temple entirely and build his new Christian edifice instead. In this case, the authenticity of the tomb was self-evident because of its placement right under a statue of Jupiter. This is basically the traditional view, though the self-evident identification is not given sufficient weight. I would also like to absolve Hadrian from being primarily motivated by malice and avoid the suggestion that Christians themselves thought of the tomb as “holy” in the sense that a pagan might think of a shrine as such.

There is really nothing in-between these two alternatives regarding the tomb, for anything else would rest on amazing combinations of events and coincidences. It must be admitted that my previous suggestion does require a coincidence: that Hadrian built his Temple of Venus very close by the actual tomb of Jesus without knowing it. The traditional view has in its favor that the actions taken by both emperors. Hadrian and Constantine, were conscious and aware, and coincidences are avoided. In addition, one might wonder how likely it might have been that Constantine’s builders could have found another tomb fitting the Gospel description so precisely, in such an excellent position.


Therefore, in conclusion, Golgotha was an oval-shaped disused quarry located west of the second wall, north of the first wall. It was an area of an old quarry, seeming much like an elongated crater in appearance. Jesus was crucified in the southern part of this area, just outside Gennath Gate, and near to the road going west, but visible also from the road north. He was buried some 200 m (656 ft) away to the north, in a quieter part of Golgotha where there were tombs and gardens (see Figure 5 for a visualization of the tomb). The tombs of this region were emptied when the region was included within the city in AD 41–44, but the garden probably remained. Christians in the city may have visited the site and recalled events there in various ways. In the mid-second century, major changes took place in this part of the city, and the large Cardo Maximus was built on a north-south line, with the Decumanus running east-west. This obscured the site of the crucifixion. The site of the tomb was chosen by Hadrian (or his augurs) as a fitting place for a shrine in a Temple of Venus. In order to build this structure, however, the whole area of the old quarry was filled, and large substructural walls were built to support the new temple temenos. The tomb was buried beneath, though the top of the rocky ridge into which the tomb was cut may still have been visible. At any rate, Christians in Palestine knew that the emperor had covered the tomb over and placed a statue of Jupiter (as himself?) on the site. They also remembered the location of the site of the crucifixion beneath a plateia, most likely the Decumanus of Aelia, and told visitors such as Melito about this.

When Constantine captured the eastern Empire and sought to commemorate his victory with the building of a magnificent basilica in Jerusalem dedicated to the sign of the cross, local Christians could point to the site of the tomb and the Temple of Venus as a fitting building zone. The site of the crucifixion, on the other hand, seems to have been quietly forgotten. After all, with the miraculous discovery of the True Cross in the region of the temple temenos, there was convincing proof that everyone should look northwards to the site of the crucifixion anyway. For his localization, an attesting miracle was clearly necessary and thereafter those that pointed southwards could no longer be given credence. Nevertheless, Eusebius may not have been absolutely convinced of the re-siting of the latter placement; he never once calls the site of Constantine’s basilica “Golgotha.” For Eusebius, Golgotha was the place of the crucifixion; the place of the burial of Jesus, on the other hand, though proven absolutely genuine when it was indeed uncovered, was still not “Golgotha” to him.

For those who are interested in the precise location of the proposed site of the crucifixion in today’s Old City, the spot marked with an “x” is a little to the southwest of where David Street meets Habad Street, but north of St. Mark Street. As the Decumanus is plotted with greater certainty, and excavations take place in this area, the localization may become more accurate.


Biddle, M.

1994 The Tomb of Christ: Sources. Methods and a New Approach. Pp. 73–147, 98–9 in Churches Built in Ancient Times: Recent Studies in Early Christian Archaeology, ed. Kenneth Painter. London: University of London.

Brown, F. Driver. S.R., Briggs, C.A.

1966 A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament with an Appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic. Oxford: Clarendon.

Ferguson, J.

1970 The Religions of the Roman Empire. London: Thames and Hudson.

Gibson, S., Taylor, J.E.

1994 Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: The Archaeology and Early History of Traditional Golgotha. London: Palestine Exploration Fund.

Hall, S.G. 1979 Melito of Sardis: On Pascha and Fragments. Oxford: Clarendon.

Schneemelcher, W. (ed) 1991 New Testament Apocrypha, Eng. transl, ed. by R. Wilson. Cambridge: James Clark.

Geva, H.

1993 Jerusalem: The Roman Period. Pp. 758–766 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land’ [NEAEHL]. ed., E. Stern. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society/Carta.

Taylor, J. E.

1993 Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish Christian Origins. Oxford: Clarendon.

(This article first appeared in New Testament Studies, volume 44. Copyright 1998 Cambridge University Press.)


1. The Garden Tomb has been shown to dale from the Iron Age, and therefore cannot be genuine as the tomb of Jesus, see Gabriel Barkay. The Garden Tomb — Was Jesus buried here? Biblical Archaeology Review 12/2 (March/April 1986) 40–53, 56–7. However, the localization still has its supporters, see Jeffrey Chadwick. "In Defense of the Garden Tomb", Biblical Archaeological Review 12/4 (July/August 1986) 16–17.

2. For the difficulty of determining the Aramaic of the time of Jesus, see Bruce Chilton, A Feast of Meanings (Leiden: Brill, 1994): 177-81.

3. See Gibson and Taylor 1994:56–7 and Brown, Driver and Briggs 1966:166, where there is an Aramaic parallel given as gulgalta’. However, we do not have enough information about Jerusalem or Galilean dialects to know for sure how this was pronounced in Erets-Israel, or even if it was pronounced in any uniform way. At any rate, it seems apparent from the Gospels’ transliteration that people dropped the second lamed, and made the taw soft, th. It should be noted that while the Greek of the Gospels gives us an indefinite form for "skull," the emphatic form of the Aramaic would probably require a definite translation.

4. Strictly speaking, the root is galal, meaning "roll, roll away". Brown, Driver, and Briggs: 164.

5. V. C. Corbo, "Golgotha," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (London/New York. 1992) ii: 1072. See also his discussion in id. II Santo Sepolcro di Gerusalemme, i (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1981–2). Other significant contributions to the study of the site may be found in the bibliography of Gibson and Taylor: 93–7.

6. The Bordeaux Pilgrim of AD 333 refers to Golgotha as being the partially filled rise on which the basilica named the "Martyrium" was built (Itin. Burd: 593–4); Cyril of Jerusalem, c.348. refers to Golgotha in the same way (Cat. 1.1; 4.10, 14:5.10-111; 10.19; 12.39; 13.4, 22, 23, 26, 28, 32, 39; 16.4) as does Egeria (Itin. 25.1-6, 8–10; 27.3; 30.1; 37.1; 41.1), Theodosius, De Situ 7. Sec Taylor 1993:120–1; Gibson and Taylor 1994:59.

7. For the identification of Gennath Gate as such, see Nahman Avigad, Discovering Jerusalem (Nashville: Nelson, 1983): 69, Ill. 38. See also Gregory Wightman, The Walls of Jerusalem: From the Canaanites to the Mamluks (Mediterranean Archaeology suppl. 4; Sydney: Meditarch, 1993): 128-29.

8. See for example, the maps presented in Dan Bahat, The Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Carta, 1989) and Wightman, Walls.

9. This presentation of the second wall follows the minimalist view of the second and third walls proposed most recently in Wightman, Walls, but not exactly as Wightman presents it.

10. The Syriac (S2), Coptic and Georgian versions have the plural: "in the middle of the streets," which seems to reflect an awareness of Constantine’s basilica being built in the middle of the streets of Jerusalem, and is probably then an amendment to the original singular. See Hall, Melito, 52.

11. The definitive edition is that of, Erich Klostermann, Das Onomastikon der biblischen Ortsnamen, in Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte II, 1 [Eusebius III, 1] (Leipzig, 1904. repr. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1966).

12. Eucherius makes clear here that the ground begins to rise towards the north again, though not as high as Mount Zion.

13. Ep. 3, transl. by John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1977), 53. In AD 333, the Bordeaux Pilgrim wrote that s/he had to leave Jerusalem to go up Mount Zion (Itin: 592–3).

14. Corbo, "Golgotha": 1072.

15. Greville Freeman-Grenville, review of my Christians and the Holy Places, PEQ July-December 1994:173–4, points to this statement by Jerome to indicate definitively the probable authenticity of the site of the tomb. This is not quite so simple. Jerome wrote at the end of the 4th century, recalling the placement of cultic artifacts in the Temple of Venus at the beginning of the century. His evidence does not move us out of the fourth century, except we can suppose that the statues had been in place for some time before Constantine removed them. The Rock of the Cross was called this because it had a large cross on top of it; it soon came to be considered the actual site of Jesus’ crucifixion, even though it is logistically impossible that the crucifixion of three people could have taken place here, see Gibson and Taylor 1994:56–60; Taylor 1993:122–34. Jerome’s comments do not prima facie prove authenticity; they prove that Christians used previous pagan shrines as the localizations for their identifications. In later centuries, all over the world, Christians often took over existing religious sites and structures and re-identified them. One could argue that even the existence of the favissa only shows that the site of the shrine of Jupiter was close by, not that the tomb itself was authentic. It cannot tell us per se that the statue of Jupiter was precisely over die tomb.

16. For further details of the form of this tomb, see Gibson and Taylor 1994:61–3; Biddle 1994:114–121.

17. For the legends of the finding of the cross, see Gibson and Taylor 1994; 83–5; Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of her Finding of the True Cross (Leiden: Brill. 1992); Stephan Borgehammar, How the Holy Cross was Found: From Event to Medieval Legend (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1991).

18. For the definitive discussion of the reasons why Christians were persecuted, see A. N. Sherwin-White, Early Persecutions and Roman Law Again, Journal of Theological Studies 3 (1952): 199-213; id. Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted? Past and Present 27 (1964): 23-7. See also: G. E. M. Ste. Croix, Why were the Early Christians Persecuted? Part and Present 26 (1963): 6-38; id. Why were the Early Christians Persecuted? — A Rejoinder, Past and Present 27 (1964): 28-33.

19. Gibson and Taylor 1994:69–70. Cassius Dio called it only a Temple of Jupiter (Hist. Rom: 69.12). On the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple. Hadrian placed an equestrian statue of himself (Jerome, Comm. in Matt: 24.15).

20. For this work, see Schneemelcher 1991: i, 249–84.

21. The Akhmim fragment was discovered in the grave of a monk in Akhmim, Upper Egypt, in the winter of 1886–7. It contains part of the Gospel of Peter, the Greek Apocalypse of Peter and the Greek Enoch. The Gospel of Peter was recognized as an authoritative writing in some parts of the early Church but later expunged from the recognized canon (see Eusebius, Eccles. Hist: 3.3.2; 3.25.6), see for further information: NTA i; 216–27.

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