The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is one of ancient history’s most proven events. The fact has been substantiated by theologian and historian alike. It has been written without hyperbole:
“Even those scholars and critics who have been moved to depart from almost everything else within the historical content of Christ’s presence on earth have found it impossible to think away the factuality of the death of Christ.” -John McIntyre, 'The Uses of History in Theology'
An example of this statement is the affirmation of Dr. Bart Erhrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While critical of the New Testament in many instances and denying the supernatural essence of Christianity, the noted secular scholar affirmed this in his 'The Historical Jesus: Lecture Transcript and Course Guidebook, Vol. 2:'
“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontus Pilate.”
The four Gospels assert this pivotal landmark in redemptive history. Secular authorities of the day confirmed it. The Early Church affirmed it. Millions and millions believe it. But where did the crucifixion happen? The answer to that question is closely related to God’s will and God’s ways. To put it simply, the location of the crucifixion of the Jesus is both known and unknown.
What We Know about the Location of the Crucifixion
The Gospels affirm that Christ was crucified outside of the gates of the city of Jerusalem. Both John and the writer to the Hebrews affirm this fact:
“Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (John 19:20, NKJV).
“Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Hebrews 13:12, NKJV).
The Bible also confirms that the crucifixion was carried out by officials of the Rome Empire in confederation with Jewish rabbinical leaders, the Sanhedrin. The presence of Roman military personnel point to the military nature of the mission and the significance of the execution to both locals and, due to local pressure, the Roman provincial government (recommended book: Jesus: A New Vision). We know that one could see the Roman execution on the cross from a great distance. For we read,
“There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” -Mark 15:40
Most significantly, we know the name of the place where Jesus was crucified. C. W. Wilson writes, “It is clear . . . that Christ was crucified at a known spot, with a distinctive name . . .” For after being humiliated and harassed by carrying his cross through the crowded streets of angry onlookers, leading to the execution site, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified at “a place called Golgotha, that is to say, the place of the skull” (Matthew 27:33 ESV). Golgotha “is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic Gulgulta, which corresponds to the Hebrew Gulgoleth,” according to Wilson. The Greek equivalent is kranion (from which the English word, cranial, is derived). It is Dr. Luke who uses the Latin word, calvaria. The English transliteration is the well-known designation, Calvary. The actual translation into English would be “skull or cranium” (Carl Hensley, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible).
The Jewish Wars of Rebellion (A.D. 66-73) that witnessed the A.D. 70-71 destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by Titus (A.D. 39-81), undoubtedly added to the digression of local terrain (Lawrence Schiffman, From Text to Tradition). Finally, the noted church historian of antiquity, Eusibius, journeyed to Jerusalem to discover the site of the Lord’s crucifixion. The great church father and scholar went there with Queen Helena (A.D. 246-330), the Roman Empress and mother of Constantine the Great (A.D. 272-337). The local Jerusalem Christians led Eusibius and Helena to a site outside of the gates of the old city (the walls were enlarged in the sixteenth century), a site where liturgical celebrations had been held until “A.D. 66” (Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land). The landscape went through significant changes when Hadrian (A.D. 36-138), in 135, built temples to Roman deities, including Aphrodite and Jupiter, in the Aelia Capitolina (the new Roman name that Hadrian gave for Jerusalem).
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor states, “Despite the evidence of Jerome and certain late Byzantine texts the Holy Sepulcher remains the most probable site of the Capitoline temple.” And that is a remarkable statement. For in A.D. 326, Helena’s son, Constantine began construction on a Christian edifice, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which would enclose both Golgotha, the place of crucifixion, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, the burial place and the site of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Murphy-O’Connor, in the Oxford Archeological Guide from the Earliest times to 1700, summarized both the history and archeology of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the alternative possibilities and concluded, “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried? Yes, very probably.”
What We Don’t Know about the Location of the Crucifixion
In answer to the question above, and despite the unequivocal assertions of some, we must reply, “plenty.” We know what we don’t know, and we are certain that we don’t know what we don’t know. Let’s take just the clear biblical claim that our Lord was crucified at Golgotha. While we know what the word, Golgotha, or Calvary, means (i.e., “skull”), we don’t know whether it is referring to one of three origins to the name.
Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, Might Refer to the Legendary Place of Adam’s Skull
Yes, that’s right. The Church Father, Origen (A.D. 185-253), both a Hebrew scholar and a resident of Jerusalem, relates Golgotha to the place where Adam’s skull was believed to be buried. If you think Origen is a little “off,” one might challenge your view by pointing to other leaders of the Early Church who believed that Jesus was crucified in the field of Adam’s burial. This number would include the respected Athanasius (A.D. 296-373), Epiphanies (A.D. 312-403) and Basil of Caesarea (A.D. 329-379).
The second view of Golgotha is more logical, but still differs from the majority view:
Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, Might Refer to the Place of Roman Executions
In this scenario, the place where our Lord was crucified was a common “killing field” for rebels and criminals hostile to Roman occupation. Thus, the area was littered with skulls of “condemned criminals” (Wilson, Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre). Once the flesh was gone from the skull and skeleton, the family members would bury the remains. No less than the preeminent Christian scholar and Bible translator, Jerome (A.D. 347-420), and the English historian and monk, Venerable Bede (A.D. 673-735), held to this position. There is a famous burial ground in London called “Bunhill Fields” (Alfred Light, Bunhill Fields). That word “Bunhill” is a colloquial pronunciation of “Bone Hill.” Nonconformist ministers and others outside of the pale of the Church of England were buried there. This second view of Calvary purports that the hill where Christ was crucified was, also, a “Bunhill Fields.”
Now. The third view is likely the one that you have heard.
Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, Might Refer to a Geological Formation Resembling a Skull
This understanding has remained the most popular view of the place of Golgotha since at least the eighteenth century. Some have, thus, written of Golgotha as a bald hill top, a rock formation that resembles a human skull. Yet, we must remember that there are no references to this in the Bible. Yes, it was an elevated place that could be seen, but it is not called Mount Calvary by any Biblical writers, nor any Greek, Jewish, or Roman observers. It appears to be a late Western notion (Wilson, Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre).
Now, all of this might be somewhat upsetting to some who have believed one or the other concepts about Golgotha. Moreover, the controversy underscores the reality: we really are only sure about what the Bible says. And is that enough?
We Know All We Need to Know
The Bible tells us that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross between two thieves, one repentant and one not. The Bible also tells us who crucified Christ: a conspiracy of Roman officials and Jewish religious leaders. In other words, Gentile and Jew alike were represented in the cosmic crime of deicide (“the murder of God by Man”). We know that the cross could be seen from a long way. We know that there were women there, including the mother of Jesus. We know that the Apostle John was there. We know that many deserted our Lord Jesus Christ in his greatest hour of need. But there is much more that we don’t know. It is as if the Holy Spirit has placed a permanent veil over the scene. We must remember that the deed was so awful that the earth quaked in repulsion and darkness descended upon the awful scene, as if Creation itself could not bear the visage. But as to the precise location where Jesus Christ was crucified, we cannot be certain. It may very well be that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher covers the site of Calvary and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where our Lord was raised from the dead.
So, there are some things that we know from Scripture. And there is enough archaeological evidence and ancient literature to substantiate Christ’s crucifixion and to suggest a location. And there is much that we do not know. We remember the warning from Deuteronomy 29:29:
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
But this we know: Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ died for us at a place called Calvary. It was there that the Creator of the world was crucified by those whom he had created. he died for our sins and fulfilled the Covenant of Works (“if you disobey you shall die”). He took the wrath of God upon his sinless soul and met all of the demands of the Law for all who would receive him (The Covenant of Grace). Jesus Christ was crucified upon the roughhewn timber from a forest that he made, with nails fashioned from iron that he created. And yet in that location Jesus looked down upon those who crucified him and unjustly spit upon him and sought to humiliate him, and said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).
There is a narrative in the life of our Lord that is important to us in our study. In the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah appear to Peter, James, and John to attest to the divinity of Jesus. This is a powerful theological touchpoint in redemptive history. For in that glorious moment, the “Law and the Prophets” affirm the Person of Jesus as the One they wrote of; the Old Covenant yields to the New; the ancient prophecies were fulfilled; Christ’s identity is fully revealed to the disciples and supernaturally confirmed; eternity touches time; and heaven comes down (once more) to earth. It was a resplendent scene to be sure. Peter wanted to erect three tents to commemorate the event (perhaps, to return to the tent markers and build a greater temple). Our Lord Jesus told Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration that he should not build (as Peter wished to do) any sacred edifice to mark the physical place of that great gathering.
The Lord also told the Samaritan woman at the well, in John 4:21-23, that from now on believers must worship God “in spirit and in truth,” not on this mountain nor on that mountain. It’s not about a place. It’s about a Person. It’s not about the physical any longer—land, temples, altars. It is about the eternal. It’s not about the signs. It’s about the Savior.
And maybe that is why we know enough about the location of his crucifixion, but we don’t know everything. It is by faith that we look upon that old rugged cross to see its best location: This cross is the place where a “Great Exchange” took place. For Jesus assumed the punishment for the sins of all of those who would call upon him in repentance and faith; and it is the place where the holiness of Christ was granted to sinners like me. Or, as I used to tell our church’s children in Confirmation Class, “At Calvary’s cross, Jesus took your sin. You received his perfect life.”
This Easter, and in every season of our lives, the precise place where Jesus was crucified for you and me is that place where we turn to Him in brokenness and in love. It is that place where by faith we join Mary and John and the Roman centurion who confessed, “Truly, this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). That soldier knew. And you can know, too. Where was Christ crucified? Jesus Christ was crucified at the crossroad of God’s love and your brokenness. Of that you may be certain.
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.
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