Jerusalem, Israel / Palestine
October 5, 2019
Carrying his own cross, He went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha).
Golgotha could not be found on Google Maps, only by guesswork. The Gospels provided not so much an address as clues. It was near, not in, the city. The name referred to a skull, not a place of skulls. Just north of Old Jerusalem, a rock face resembling a macabre cranium with pockmarks for eye sockets loomed over a road. Could this limestone cliff be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion? It was logically beside The Garden Tomb. And curiously behind a bus terminal. The site of the foundation of Christian faith shared space with parked buses? It was a stark reminder that the Holy Land was not in a Christian country.
The task of explaining biblical accounts within a historical context fell on Christian volunteer Prudence Bell, a British lady with a typically stiff upper lip but who was otherwise affable and assiduous. She held up a turn-of-the-century photo as proof. Skull Hill, also called Gordon’s Golgotha, appeared closer to its name: the eye sockets of similar sizes and the nose and mouth still intact. More importantly, it showed a busy road leading into Old Jerusalem at the cliff’s shadow, supporting the fact that Romans were known to execute criminals and rebels in high-traffic public spaces as a deterrent. Calvary was roadside rather than hilltop as depicted in religious art.
The Garden Tomb was set up by a British charity over a century ago, maintained by donations, and managed by multi-national and multi-denominational volunteers. While Catholics had upheld the tradition placing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the end of Via Dolorosa, Protestants favored The Garden Tomb as a likely site of Jesus’ burial. Away from the bustle of Old Jerusalem, the garden and chapels therein provided a tranquil enclave for prayer and contemplation.
Less than a hundred meters from Gordon’s Golgotha, excavations unearthed a wine press and a reservoir from the time of Christ, identifying the site to be a private vineyard, biblically ascribed to Joseph of Arimathea.
At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
The garden, as in biblical accounts, contained rock-hewn tombs dating back to the time of the Old Testament prophets, a point against its authenticity as the tomb of Christ who lived centuries later. However, tomb-spotting was not unusual even in present-day Jerusalem. Our guide had pointed out that limestone caverns in modern residential areas were, in fact, ancient tombs.
The tomb representing Christ’s burial place shared historical features with those of that time. Its doorway was low and narrow; we “bent over” as Mary Magdalene did to go into the tomb. It could fit four or five people at a time. Two Byzantine crosses painted on the walls were added a few centuries later as were Greek symbols of the Alpha and Omega, denoting the tomb’s significance in early Christianity. For effect, a replica of the stone “that had been rolled away from the tomb” rested on a terrace wall.
Ms. Bell concluded her lecture and tour at one of the chapels in the garden. We sang a couple of hymns as our pastor led the communion rites. We partook of the body and blood of Christ. It was a ritual that rendered the question of Gordon’s Golgotha and The Garden Tomb’s authenticity as biblical sites significantly unimportant. The heart of the matter – of Christian faith – was not what was but what was not there.
He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
Matthew 28: 6