Our van stopped in front of a crumbling concrete wall spray painted with Islamic symbols and stained with bleeding rust. I slowly opened the car door, its hinges squeaking loudly in protest. Stepping from the vehicle, I heard the sound of broken shards of glass crunch under my descending boot along with distant shouting. The commotion seemed to be coming my way.
A nearby heap of burning trash wafted sour-smelling smoke. A sudden gust of hot wind sent smoldering haze up past second story windows where women wearing headscarves glared down at me.
A pack of teenage boys, along with a few men, suddenly appeared down a narrow road strewn with garbage and all seemed agitated, if not angry, in their advance. But they all scattered like a startled flock of birds when a large man suddenly stepped toward me from between some buildings. The man was wearing old rubber sandals, sweatpants, a grease-sullied T-shirt, and a curdled scowl that extended down to his bulging neck. I had been told he was a man not to be trifled with and who had the final say in all things pertaining to the Silwan Village.
I had paid well to meet this Palestinian man who was, by all indications, the village headman. He ponderously strode up and stopped only when he was face to face with me. He was awkwardly close as he breathed out, “Whuu you wunn?” There was no handshake, nor any pleasantries associated with the usual protocols of meeting someone new.
I had tried to get into the notorious Silwan Village a couple of times before, but was always turned away by strafing rocks from gangs of angry Muslim youths. Over the centuries, this aesthetically impoverished neighborhood has been known as an enclave of murderers, thieves, and malcontents. In the 1800s, the famed explorer Charles Warren wrote, “The people of Siloam [Silwan] are a lawless sect, credited with being the most unscrupulous ruffians in Palestine.” Today it is not all that different in the Silwan Village.
The hefty man stood expressionless in front of me. His head was cocked to one side, arms interlocked and feet planted widely. I asked, as calmly as I could, for his permission to see the cliff area which was hidden from view behind a row of nearby homes. All he offered back was a resolute stare of distrust and the same repeated English words, “Whuu you wunn?” which were hard to make out from the viscosity of a thick Arabic accent. I assumed he was trying to communicate, “what do you want?”
I had come from the old city of Jerusalem to meet this man with my Arab driver, Sammer, a local pizza shop owner named Jacob, and a Palestinian man named Achmed. Achmed was a crafty sort of guy who lived in the Silwan Village and I had paid him handsomely to bring about this prearranged meeting.
It was comforting for me to finally be inside the walls of this nefarious neighborhood under the protection of this village leader, or at least I hoped I had his safeguard. I hurriedly dug in my pocket and fumbled to remove my cell phone, which contained several pictures of the Silwan Village dating back to the 1870s. The images on the small screen showed the Silwan long before the place was choked with houses and scattered with so much refuse. The man took my phone and stared at it a long moment and to both my surprise and relief, the hint of a faint smile ripened across his heretofore dour face.
The local youths and men started to appear again, seemingly out of nowhere. Most of the crowd pressed in to see the phone’s vintage imagery, trying to identify where their homes were now located and I began to find the swelling crowd tilting in favor of my presence. A few boys chuckled in delight and one man even patted me on the back as he pointed proudly at the historical imagery of his neighborhood on the luminescent face of my phone.
I was both pleased and relieved when the village leader shrugged his broad shoulders with a slight dip of his head and gestured me to follow him. It was a gesture I took as granting me permission to see the cliff area. I felt sure that even if I tried to tell him why this particular cliff was so important to me, he would never believe me. If my heart was not racing enough, it now shifted to a different gear, but that is exactly what I did not want to happen. I needed to stay focused as this would probably be a one-time visit, and a short one at that.
I walked closely behind the man, going east down a fence line as we maneuvered through the gap between houses. Off to my left, we startled a pit bull who lunged at me, straining against his stout chain and thick, leather collar. The dog was shaped like an engine block covered in brown fur and displayed a set of slobber-glistened teeth. I walked on and noticed off to our right a pair of mangy ribbed-thin cats hissing, apparently also startled by our sudden visit.
The smoldering smoke, the barking dog, the hissing cats and the boys shouting behind us made for an otherworldly experience. However, I was not concerned with the cacophony of distractions. I was actually standing at the foot of the stone cliffs I had come so far and had spent so much time and treasure trying to see: the cliffs of the Silwan village. I gazed up at several ancient split-open tombs, which were exactly as the Bible described! My mouth went chalk dry, “Could this be the place…could these cliffs actually be evidence revealing where Christ was crucified?”
The Phone Call
I answered the phone in my office but really didn’t want to. I’d been working intensely on this book for twelve weary hours and the computer screen was becoming line after line of blurry text. I exhaled a tired “Hello” and heard a gravelly voice cut in: “Do not write this book.”
The voice belonged to a well-known scholar and longtime friend, who, frankly, didn’t know much about what I had researched, written, or discovered. But, he did know the subject matter was volatile.
I already knew suggesting an altogether new site for Christ’s crucifixion would be controversial. But, to warn me not to even write about it out of concern of what critics would caustically say, or do, was alarming. This cautionary advice from my colleague surprised me because it came from a man well known for passing through the razor-wire gauntlet of critics who have opposed some of his own revolutionary interpretations of Scripture. Our short conversation ended bluntly with, “Bob, you’ve built an international ministry from your explorations, research, and books. Don’t risk it all now.”
After the call, I shut down my computer and stared into its uncaring face, which soon dissolved into a grey glow. I whispered uneasily, “He is probably right.”
After all, who was I to proclaim that I may have discovered new evidence showing the actual place where our Lord was executed? And to my knowledge, it is where no one has ever looked before.
Catholics have held for 1,700 years that the place of the crucifixion is under a church in Jerusalem. In the fourth century, Roman Emperor Constantine proclaimed that his mother, Helena, had discovered through visions and dreams the exact place where Jesus was killed on a cross. A magnificent church was soon built upon that very spot. It was known as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and exists to this day.
After Constantine, and during the ensuing Middle Ages, a dark shadow of fear and superstition spread across Europe. It became an ominous place where demons were thought to be lurking around every corner and fairy tales handed down from generation to generation were believed to be real. Grey-haired sages with withered faces told horror stories around late-night fires, listeners quaking at the thought of goblins inhabiting shadows just beyond their doors. There was a palpable fear of priests, of missing Mass, and of soul-searing confessionals. Most of all, people were terrified of what they considered to be a vengeful and capricious God. If sudden lightning happened to split out of a brooding sky, whole villages would be sent into a panic, cowering under a perceived curse of God’s punishing wrath.
The Dark Ages were also a time when staid ecclesiastical directives were not to be challenged and anyone doing so was considered to be a blasphemer. Those that were accused of being a heretic were often tortured till they recanted or, in more severe cases, chained to wooden pillars with straw spread at their feet. When the fire was set, the condemned frantically yanked on sooty chains that soon slackened in morbid silence. The message had been sent for all to see: no one should ever contest directives from clergy.
It was against this backdrop of paranoid and spiritually paralyzing fear that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher became the unchallenged location for Calvary. After all, the Church and its ecclesiastical hierarchy had certified it as the actual place of the crucifixion, the passage of time sealing it into a seemingly irrevocable vault of tradition.
When the stagnated fear of the Middle Ages had run its course and alternative religious constructs emerged, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was eventually questioned as being the true Calvary. For instance, in 1883 a famed British officer named General Charles Gordon boldly challenged the rightful pedigree of the Holy Sepulcher as the place of Golgotha. His proposed place for the crucifixion of Christ was nearby the Damascus gate.
While living for a time in Jerusalem, General Gordon observed what he believed was a skull-like formation in a rock cliff near his temporary residence. To him, Scripture suggested this as the “place of the skull,” and thus, Christ’s execution location. Due to Gordon’s heroic status as a war veteran, the designation of the site steadily gained acceptance. Since Gordon was an avowed Protestant, as were the majority of his English countrymen, the notion of a different site than the Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulcher was appealing to many. A new tradition of Christ’s execution, burial, and resurrection was conveniently born, to the delight of British Protestants.
Even though Gordon’s Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are visited with swarms of sightseers daily, they are both fraught with many geographical flaws. Simply put, they do not align with Scriptural directives. These inconsistencies with the Bible will be examined in detail later on in this book.
An Old General and a Skull Face
All across Israel there are many so-called “suggested Holy sites” which are based on, at best, questionable historical lineages. Tour guides with an ounce of integrity would freely confess that many of the locations they tout as true have little to do with truth. In the Middle Ages, for instance, many ancient holy places earned their bronze shrines from little more than the bony raised finger of an old cleric, pointing with emotional certainty toward a patch of land. Having mysteriously declared the site as holy ground, it would be only a matter of time before another cathedral would rise out of the dust of Jerusalem at that very place. Centuries later, tour buses and religious throngs would crowd the polished marble floor of its adjoining gift shop.
Please do not misunderstand me, some popular tourist destinations make for accurate historical locations. Yet, the fact remains that many do not.
As a former police investigator, I discovered that every tick of the clock, every subtle breath of wind or splash of rain can forever eradicate fragile evidence. When investigating ancient Biblical events, the passage of time is infinitely crueler. As the years turn into centuries and the centuries meld into a forgotten past, even durable evidence can easily be lost in the murky morass of history. The Bible, however, says,“For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light.” (Luke 8:17)
In this book, we will take a long journey to find that which has been hidden for two millennia. We will follow fading voices from antiquity that will guide us along dim pathways known only to the prophets. Scripture’s magnetic compass will chart our way across vast wastelands of man-made traditions and mangled misinformation. By the end of the book we may, as improbable as it may sound, find ourselves lifting the candle of discovery to stand at the actual place where holy flesh was once nailed to common wood … and the world was changed forever. That place is known to us today as Golgotha, or Calvary. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher holds a 1,700-year-old tradition of being the most popular location for Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. However, let us begin with Gordon’s Calvary as we walk new steps upon ancient pathways. In 1883, Charles Gordon made a stunning pronouncement that he had discovered the true location of Calvary and it became a sensation…but not at first.
I first learned about General Gordon as a teenager in an old darkened theatre while watching the movie, Khartoum. Set in 1886 in Sudan, Charlton Heston starred as General Charles Gordon. I recall the film’s spectacular desert scenery, framing rows of regimental British soldiers riding atop bellowing camels, poised for battle. The widescreen was soon filled with a cloud of dust, as opposing warriors charged into the fray with flags unfurled and the glint of sabers clashing under a cloudless desert sky.
At the end of the movie, Major General Charles Gordon made his last stand. The Muslim warriors breached the walls of the besieged British fortress at Khartoum and swarmed in for the kill. Charlton Heston made a heroic Gordon, standing ramrod stiff at the top of a flight of steps, completely fearless in the face of certain death. Running up the stairs towards him were a horde of frenzied, screaming warriors. However, they suddenly and inexplicably stopped. Only moments earlier, the Mahdists had rioted in wild and unrestrained fashion, shooting and shouting, but in the blink of the eye, when confronting Gordon, they froze like statues in a haze of lingering rifle smoke.
Gordon did not twitch so much as a muscle as he stood there staring down the paralyzed mob with his sword at his side. In that instant, a lone spear hissed through the air and embedded deep into Gordon’s chest. The Muslims erupted into a frenzied rampage again. The scene ended as the camera panned to a building set ablaze, sparing us the following gruesome moments of history. In real life, Gordon’s heroic death transformed him into England’s beloved national hero, elevating him to a stature rivaled only by Queen Victoria herself.
As a kid watching this classic movie, little did I know my life would one day intersect with Gordon’s story. No, I didn’t face down Muslim hordes in the Egyptian Sudan like Gordon. But I did travel to Jerusalem many times looking for the lost place of Christ’s crucifixion. In doing so, I wanted to learn more about the fascinating, enigmatic, and famous war hero whose name carried such weight in the search of Calvary. But in my own research of this man, I found a far darker and more complex side than Charlton Heston’s character portrayed. I also discovered that the “Golgotha” he endorsed was riddled with many Scriptural and geographical flaws.
Before his demise at Khartoum, Charles G. Gordon lived for a time in the Holy Land. One day in 1883, he stood not far from the Damascus gate, staring intently at the craggy limestone cliffs nearby. His eyes were fixed on what he perceived to be the weather-carved features of a skull. In Matthew 27:33, Golgotha is called the “Place of the Skull.” In the cliff face, Gordon observed a geological display of two small indentations like sunken eye sockets, and other rough “facial” contours that fit the appearance of a skull.
Two things convinced Gordon this was the real Golgotha placement: a skull-like facial feature carved into the cliffs and an ancient tomb nearby. In a letter to his sister written on January 17, 1883, he wrote these animated words on his second day in Jerusalem:
“I feel, for myself, convinced that the Hill near the Damascus Gate is Golgotha... From it, you can see the Temple, the Mount of Olives and the bulk of Jerusalem. His stretched out arms would, as it were, embrace it: ‘all day long have I stretched out my arms’. Close to it is the slaughter-house of Jerusalem; quiet pools of blood are lying there. It is covered with tombs of Muslims. There are many rock-hewn caves; and gardens surround it. Now, the place of execution in our Lord’s time must have been, and continued to be, an unclean place... so, to me, this hill is left bare ever since it was first used as a place of execution. ... It is very nice to see it so plain and simple, instead of having a huge church built on it.”
And then, as with so many theories that take flight on gossamer wings, Gordon forthrightly declared to the world that this skeletal image must be the true site of Calvary, a name derived, interestingly, from a Hebrew word identical to Golgotha. Even though his evidence for such a weighty claim was willow thin, his name and prestige alone carried with it a sizable dose of trusted credibility.
Not many initially bought into his theory; however, his heroic death at Khartoum elevated him to what we would call today “rock-star status.” Similar to the posthumous records sales after the untimely deaths of Elvis and John Lennon, Gordon’s Golgotha decree spread virally across England and beyond. People want to hang on to their heroes and in death they are elevated to new heights of adoration. Following the events at Khartoum, “Gordon’s Calvary” location in Jerusalem experienced a meteoric rise in public approval. Admiring patrons flocked in droves to see the beloved Gordon’s famous “skull-faced cliff.” It became a place revered as the true location associated with Christ’s death.
So, who is Major General Charles Gordon really? Born in 1833 to the son of a senior British Army officer, his childhood and primary influences virtually assured the precocious young Gordon would carry on the family business. He joined the army when he was only sixteen years old and quickly found himself commissioned to the Royal Engineers in 1852. His bravery in the Crimean War did not go unnoticed, and he soon earned a reputation as a courageous and devoted soldier. During the bloody Taiping Rebellion, he further distinguished himself, playing a major role in halting that violent insurgency.
By the same token, Gordon also stood out for his oversized and egocentric lust for power and authority, with an extreme and dominating personality. The latter caused Lord Cromer to describe him as “mad or half-mad.” An incessant smoker, heavy drinker, and, paradoxically, an unapologetically fervent man of prayer, Gordon became to those around him infuriatingly enigmatic and eccentric. But in battle, he was a great soldier and magnificently courageous.
It should shock no one that Hollywood’s portrayal of Khartoum was far different than actual events. Prior to the overthrow of the fortress by Muslim hordes, for instance, heavy rains had gorged the White Nile, bringing floods that overflowed ditches and leveled ramparts on the western side of Gordon’s southern line of defense. Land mines around the perimeter had been buried beneath thick slime and pooling water, and the receding river left a nearly mile-long quagmire of mud. If Gordon hoped the mucky conditions might have deterred the Mahdi warriors, he was mistaken. They saw their chance to storm the vulnerable fortifications, slogged their way by foot through a wide ribbon of glistening mud, and took the fortress.
Gordon probably spent much of the day before he died watching his enemies through a telescope as they loaded their camels and glided mysteriously through the trees. The siege had already lasted many months and the Muslim warriors’ numbers had grown to a staggering size. I can envision him glancing up at the horizon and praying that the promised relief party of soldiers would soon arrive. They eventually would, but they came a few days too late to save the fortress, as well as Gordon.
Gordon may have been sleeping in the early hours the following morning, when the din of war drums cut through the darkness. It is said that a traitor opened the gates, letting in the rebels who raced through the streets amid rapid rifle reports while dervishes stormed the walls screaming “DEATH TO ALL!”
Gordon hastily donned his regimental uniform, grabbed his pistol and, with a sword at his side, went down to confront the invaders, knowing he would be dead in a matter of minutes. There are many versions of how he died, including the Hollywood version. The panicky chaos of those last minutes makes an accurate historical portrait of his death difficult. But a story from his bodyguard Khalil, who fought at his side, together with Mahdi warrior reports, give this account:
“The British soldiers at the Fort laid down heavy rifle fire, but, in spite of that, the enemy used axes to break open the southern gate of the palace garden. They rushed up the stairs where Gordon was standing. A spear penetrated his right-hand, yet somehow he seemed to stop the rush with revolver fire directed into the surging mass of men. It seems he forced the dervishes to briefly withdraw, but another spear wounded his shoulder as the enemy forced themselves upon his position once again. Gordon fired with more shots, but when his revolver was empty, he had nothing left for defense but his sword. A dervish in the courtyard below placed a well-aimed rifle shot somewhere in the chest area of Gordon, knocking him backwards and into a wall. He somehow managed to get to the bottom of the stairs where he received a spear thrust into his right side. In the fury of the moment, no one actually saw Gordon die. His head was severed and carried in a leather bag to the Mahdi’s camp. Two days later, the much awaited relief party of soldiers came in sight of Khartoum.”
On February 5th, news reached London that Gordon was dead. The grisly news that his head had been paraded through the streets on a pike furthered the anguish of England. His remains were never found, but his fame lived on. An impassioned period of national mourning followed, as shop windows across London displayed pictures of the dead hero draped in black bunting. As news spread, the public outpouring of grief spilled far beyond Britain – into Paris, Berlin, and as far as New York.
Distraught as well as outraged, Queen Victoria directed a scathing note to Prime Minister Gladstone who, due to his own political intrigues, pacifism, and perhaps professional envy, had clearly dragged his feet in ordering regimental assistance to rescue Gordon. Her scornful message accused the humiliated Gladstone of indirectly murdering the general. Songs and poems sailed off the printing presses as tributes to Gordon appeared throughout England in the form of memorials and boys’ clubs. Within ten years of his death, more than twenty-five books, pamphlets and articles had been dedicated to Gordon’s mounting legend.
Gordon’s Calvary in Jerusalem, likewise, grew in equal standing, in large part because the fallen soldier had become a glorified hero. It is no surprise his proposed place of Calvary became a spiritual Mecca for zealous patrons inspired to behold their idol’s skull mountain, standing in reverent awe where he had christened the new Calvary.
In that emotionally charged era, it is not shocking that few dared to sully Gordon’s name by hinting that, perhaps, evidence of the rocky skull face as Christ’s execution site was not all that convincing. Because of the British response to Gordon’s martyrdom, his skull image in that stone cliff shot to heights of prominence as the true place of the crucifixion. To the predominantly Protestant citizenry of England, Gordon’s Calvary provided a place of veneration other than the competing Catholic Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This story is certainly a fantastic one, predicated on a true-life narrative. However, I cannot help but wonder, “What if…?”
What if Gordon hadn’t died at Khartoum? He certainly would not have attained his adored status as a fallen idol across England. Had he lived that day at Khartoum, we probably would not have a tourist site today known as Gordon’s Calvary. Before his death, his theory had not gained much traction at all. The evangelical Gordon was the “penultimate symbol of Victorian England’s perception of the holy land.”
In Gordon’s time, moreover, new sciences such as Darwinian evolution began to cast doubt upon certain long-held belief structures of society. People became confused with notions of how life emerged and survived without God’s direct involvement. So when Gordon died, many Brits adopted a position that he had been martyred in service to both country and God. He became a sort of surrogate messenger from above who not only had defended the realm, but was also inextricably affixed to an important religious discovery that had reinforced a trust in God’s Divine presence.
Reading between the lines of history, I have already alluded to another factor that clearly contributed to the perceived legitimacy of Gordon’s Calvary. With the Roman Catholic, Greek, and Armenian Orthodox churches in control of the Holy Sepulcher, Protestant England’s national aspirations of naming a competing holy shrine would have been immensely compelling. This is a prime example as to how enduring traditions are born. In the emotional wake of Gordon’s heart-wrenching death, a prideful nation, wrestling with issues of faith, science, and culture, seized upon his brash proclamation anointing a new denominational monument to Christ the King.
Gordon’s Calvary, also known as “Jeremiah’s Grotto,” is one of the more beautiful and serene settings in Jerusalem. I have been there and enjoyed it as a lush, cool oasis amid Jerusalem’s clamor, chaos, and traffic. Visitors describe their “genuine experiences,” in some cases prompting them to linger for hours, meditating and praying in the green, manicured garden’s shady calm. Some raise hands toward heaven, bathing the stone fortifications in songs of praise. I have felt a serene tranquility there myself. Whether it is the real place or not, our God delights in sincere praise and prayers whenever — and wherever — they’re offered. It is not a conditional requirement that a place needs a connection to a holy event that matters, but rather a heart that is made holy from the event on the cross that matters.
It was only a few years after Gordon was killed that renewed interest swelled for placing the Garden Tomb as the site of Golgotha. Canon Tristan of Durham considered the place “simply priceless.” In 1892, the highest dignitaries in the English Church threw their full support toward the land’s purchase and in 1893-94, a huge influx of subscribers, trustees, donors, scholars, artists, clergy, and patrons of the Garden Tomb secured the purchase of the land. This lifeless, dry scab of dirt would be irrigated, transforming it into a landscaped place of lush serenity that still holds exquisite beauty today.
But many were not convinced that this was the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. The mystical views of Gordon, and other doubtful criteria, were not confirmation for many. So, in an attempt to appease most, the trust deed included these words, “That the Garden and the Tomb be kept sacred as a quiet spot, and preserved on the one hand from desecration, and on the other hand from superstitious uses.”
Gordon today would be absolutely crushed to learn that the nearby “Garden Tomb” he adopted as the place where our Lord once lay had, in actuality, been chiseled out in the wrong era. I recently met with famed scholar and archaeologist, Gabriel Barkay, in Jerusalem. Barkay has done extensive analysis of the Garden Tomb. He told me the tomb there could not be the tomb of Christ, informing me that the traditional Garden Tomb was carved out of rock in the sixth century BC.
In Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Manners and Customs, it states that the huge time gap between the original carving of Gordon’s tomb and the date of Christ’s crucifixion utterly disqualifies it as the “fresh-cut” tomb mentioned in Luke 23:53.
Though Gordon chose it because of its close proximity to “Skull Mountain,” it’s simply too old to be the tomb of Christ. The tomb cited in the Gospels where Jesus’ body was taken was a recently cut tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, “...in which no one had yet been laid.” Unfortunately for Gordon, according to tomb-dating experts, Gordon’s “Garden Tomb” was at least 700 years old by the time Jesus died.
John 19:41-42 states that Christ was crucified in a garden and in a new tomb. “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews’ Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby.”
Gordon’s Garden Tomb is not only way too old to be from Christ’s time, its dimensions are also problematic because it is cut to accommodate not one, but two bodies. In actuality, the Bible says nothing about the size of the tomb, only that it was “his” (Joseph of Arimathea’s) new tomb.
“Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed.”
In light of this Scriptural and archaeological evidence, Gordon’s tomb theory seems sadly misdirected. I also found compelling graphic evidence which suggests the cliff did not always resemble a skull. A drawing of this same area from by a man named “Sandy” in 1610 AD depicts Gordon’s cliff with nothing resembling a skull-like aspect. Other photos as recent as the 1930s indicate what seems to be radical erosion of the shale-like limestone cliff. Using even the most facile powers of observation, there can be little doubt the area’s capricious winds and rains continuously and relentlessly alter the cliff’s appearance. In an online article, Jeff Baggett noted,
“The Jerusalem site many Christians believe is ‘the Place of the Skull’ has been forever altered. Located behind Jerusalem’s bus station and adjacent to the Garden Tomb, the rocky escarpment with its two cavernous ’eyes’ has been linked to the events of Jesus’ passion since the mid-19th century. Recent storms and erosion caused the collapse of the skull’s ’nose’ on February 20th.”
Taking into account the cliff’s steady, rapid, and irrefutable decay, it almost defies logic that it resembled a skull nearly 2,000 years prior to Gordon’s visit to Jerusalem. Besides all that, and far more convincingly, according to Dr. Ernest Martin, “The new testament writers were not actually suggesting that the place of Jesus’ crucifixion, the ’Place of the Skull,’ looked like an actual skull. They were, rather, referring to the term’s original Aramaic meaning translated as the ’place of the head or the poll.’”
It should be noted here that many rock formations can be seen in and around Jerusalem today that more closely resemble a skull than Gordon’s Calvary. Some suggest that his formation was shaped by a quarry as recently as three centuries ago.
“And they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. Then they gave Him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but He did not take it. And when they crucified Him, they divided His garments, casting lots for them to determine what every man should take. Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him.”
The verse in Mark describing Golgotha as the “Place of a Skull” has been hotly debated through the centuries. There may be other options for that citation, of course, eliminating any connection to its physical appearance. Could it possibly be the place where David buried the skull of Goliath, or maybe ground which was littered with skulls from those crucified at the site?
New Testament Greek scholar Dr. William Welty, Executive Director of the ISV Foundation, helped me better understand the historical and cultural antecedents of these Scriptural references. I asked him to explain his understanding of the “place of the skull” and received a thorough civic and linguistic exegesis:
“We may eliminate on linguistic grounds the common notion held by those who have read the crucifixion narratives only in the English language translation that the term ‘Place of the Skull’ used by the Gospel writers to describe the crucifixion site refers to the apparent shape of the mountain. This is because the term does not refer to the geological appearance of the hill, but rather to the purpose for which the place was utilized. It was not a first century Israeli or Roman practice to name geological features after their visual appearance. Instead, if they were not named after a person of public importance or of historical significance, sites were named as an indicator of their public function. Accordingly, it is highly unlikely that the area known today as Gordon’s Calvary was the site of the Messiah’s death.
“We suggest the term Skull Place, which is the literal translation of the Greek phrase Κρανίου Τόπος (Kraniou Topos), refers to the known use of an elevated portion of a hill directly east of the City of David. This area was probably used for undertaking head counts for census enumerations and other similar public functions. Think of the area as a form of public staging area where crowds of people were processed for a variety of civil and criminal administrative purposes. Matthew and Mark used the Greek directional preposition of ascent ἐπὶ τὸν Γολγοθα̂ν τόπον (epi ton Golgothan topon), which may be translated literally as ‘Upon Golgotha Place,’ and gives the first of two clear indicators as to the location of the crucifixion site. The preposition ἐπὶ (epi) connotes an ascending direction of movement that terminates in a location on top of the place designated; i.e., at the ascent of a gathering place called by the Romans Golgotha. A second grammatical indicator of the crucifixion site is contained in John 19:17’s exegetical narrative description of the entourage having to proceed out (Greek: ἐξη̂λθεν, exelthen) of the city and then to enter into (Greek: εἰς, eis) the vicinity of the area called by the Jews ‘Skull Place.’ To sum up, the narrative recorded by all four Gospel writers informs us, when studied synoptically, that the entire entourage of soldiers and condemned prisoners were accompanied by a large crowd of onlookers. When they left the seat of Pilate’s judgment, they proceeded out of the city, ascended to the top of a nearby hill, and gathered in a central area that was large enough to accommodate the presence of at least about 100 people, if not more so.”
In summation, a person of public or historical significance often earned recognition by having their name affixed to a place as a tribute to their public service. Gordon’s Calvary is the Protestant’s traditional “Place of a Skull,” and whatever its real meaning, it certainly was not named after a rock that looked like a skull. Besides, after two thousand years of erosion the rock formation would have changed significantly in its features. Harsh erosion has occurred in the last one hundred years, and so two thousand years ago it must have appeared considerably different. It seems to me England’s military hero may have assigned much more significance to a cliff with two holes in it than history would demand. This, along with the wrong dating of the tomb at the popular tourist place known as Gordon’s Calvary makes it beyond difficult to reconcile it as the actual place of Christ’s crucifixion.
As the Bible says, Christ’s body was placed in a newly cut tomb never occupied by any postmortem resident, yet the tomb at Gordon’s Calvary is around six hundred years older than Jesus.
As with Gordon’s Calvary, or any other suspected Biblical site, heightened emotional attachments to a place does not certify it as the real location no matter how passionate one’s declaration may be.