Gordon’s Calvary – Israel

From the time the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was first erected until the 18th Century, there was very little dissent on the location of Christ’s crucifixion. This all changed though as biblical archaeology came into its own and Westerners gained increasing access to the Holy Land. No longer would tradition be the sole arbitrator of the locations of sites.

Scriptural Significance

Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.
Hebrews 13: 12

The Scripture is clear that Jesus Christ was crucified outside of Jerusalem. Over time this has led to some consternation regarding the authenticity of the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Today, it is found within the city walls of Jerusalem.  Though there are good reasons to believe this was not the case during the time of Christ’s crucifixion, many nonetheless began to question the location. Couple this with the fact that the Sepulchre was in a general dilapidated state, and you can see why pilgrims yearned for an alternate site for the holiest place in Christendom.  

Historical Significance

In 1738, a German publisher by the name of Jonas Korte visited Jerusalem. He concluded that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was too close in proximity to Herod’s Temple to have been outside of Jerusalem’s city walls.

In 1801, a Cambridge mineralogist named Edward Daniel Clarke visited Jerusalem.  He concluded that Christ’s crucifixion must have taken place in a different location than the west side of the city.

In 1838, Edward Robinson visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He had recently been appointed the Professor of Biblical Literature at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He took great issue with some of the lore associated with site. He thought it preposterous for example that Helena (Emperor Constantine’s mother) would have just happened to have come across the actual Cross of the Lord – some 3 centuries later. He also found it a bit of a stretch to conclude that Golgotha would be situated so close to a burial tomb. 

While the Orthodox and Catholic Churches were strongly connected to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the same did not exist for Protestants. Robinson’s concerns further fueled the desire to find an alternate location for the place where Christ died.  This is not to say that many Protestants didn’t find good scholarly reasons for accepting the traditional site. However, the debate began anew.

Robinson did not propose a particular alternative site. He did offer that Christ was probably crucified along one of the main roads leading to either Joppa or Damascus. 

Jeremiah’s Grotto

A German preacher and scholar by the name of Otto Thenius did propose Calvary to be a rocky outcropping on the Northern side of the city in 1842. The area was referred to as Jeremiah’s Grotto.  Tradition tabbed this as the place where Jeremiah had penned the Book of Lamentations as he grieved over Jerusalem’s destruction. 

One of the more appealing aspects of Thenius’s suggestion was the fact that the outcropping at the time looked very much like a skull.  It is debatable as to whether it looked that way in the 1st Century, but it did very much in the 19th Century and still holds considerable resemblance even now.  This photo was taken @ 1882:

In 1850, an American by the name of Fisher Howe visited the Holy Land. Howe was one of the founders of Union Theological Seminary in New York. He too concluded that Jeremiah’s Grotto was the most likely place of Christ’s crucifixion. In 1858, a British clergyman by the name of Henry Baker Tristam also suggested this approximate area as the locale of Golgotha. 

The Palestine Exploration Fund

Perhaps more than any other institution, it was the British Army that lent credence to the idea of Jeremiah’s Grotto as the site of the Lord’s crucifixion and subsequent burial. In 1872, Claude R. Conder, a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, was conducting a mapping survey of Palestine. This was conducted under the auspices of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

Did You Know?

The Palestine Exploration Fund was founded in 1865 and is still functioning today. Its initial purpose was to survey Ottoman Palestine. Its remit fell somewhere between an expeditionary survey and a military intelligence gathering.  As a result, it had a complex relationship with Britain’s Corps of Royal Engineers. 

Condor and Lord Kitchener had conducted extensive exploration in the territory west of the Jordan River. They concluded that the area of Jeremiah’s Grotto was the likely location for the crucifixion of criminals in the 1st Century. 

Condor argued that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was located inside the city walls early in the 1st Century. Since Hebrews 13: 12 reveals that Christ suffered outside the city gate, Condor pegged the “rounded hill” known as Skull Hill as being the correct spot. Located just 500 feet outside of the Damascus Gate, this 50-foot high rocky precipice is actually higher than the highest point on the Temple Mount. 

John 19: 41-42 made it also clear that a garden and 1st Century tomb was very near to Golgotha. Condor found evidence that both were resident near here at the time of Christ. Condor did not believe that the hill’s shape and apparent “skull-like” look had any bearing one way or the other as to why it should be considered Golgotha.  

There is also a long-standing Sephardic tradition that identifies the knoll area in front of the Damascus Gate as the “place of stoning”. Early Christian tradition fixes this as the place where Stephen was stoned to death in Acts 7.

The most famous proponent of the view that Skull Hill is biblical Golgotha was Major-General Charles Gordon who visited Jerusalem in 1883. The name of this legendary military commander had become so entwined with Skull Hill, that many believe Gordon was the first to discover it. This is just not the case. However, Gordon’s name has become a moniker for the site.

Gordon believed that Leviticus 1 contained a topographical hint as to the location of Calvary around Jerusalem:

He shall kill it on the north side of the altar before the Lord; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall sprinkle its blood all around on the altar.

Leviticus 1: 11

Gordon interpreted this verse to mean that Christ, the prototype, must have been slain north of the “alter” – Skull Hill was north of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

Jeremiah’s Grott, 1894

Golgotha is the Aramaic word for skull. Some have taken this to be an indication that the location where Christ was crucified actually looked like a skull. Other believe this may have been the place where David brought Goliath’s skull after decapitating the Philistine giant:

48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. 50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. 51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword. When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran … 53 When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp. 54 David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.  I Samuel 17: 48 – 51; 53 – 54      

The symbolism is profound. David had dealt the mortal blow to Goliath via the stone. David then cut off Goliath’s head with the latter’s own sword. In the same way, the Lord Jesus Christ took Satan’s own weapon of death that hung over humanity’s head. He used that very weapon to defeat the Devil at Calvary for humanity’ sake. 

Gordon’s Calvary, 1961

Today, a bus stop is located directly in front of Skull Hill. One has to wonder how many people pass by here everyday and never think about what might have taken place just a few yards away.