Being in Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims is to be in a state of awe. Stepping on the stones on which Jesus walked, dipping fingers into the water from which he drank brings the scriptures to vivid life. But are those the stones on which he walked, was that water he touched, and if the events described in the Gospels and in Acts of the Apostles happened, where did they really happen? How genuine are the sites marketed to pilgrims?
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The events described in the Gospels would have taken place in the early 1st century C.E., but Jesus' contemporary followers did not mark the spots. The first churches and shrines only began going up three centuries later, so it can be difficult to know if the places associated with Jesus in Jerusalem are bona fide.
The scanty archaeological evidence remaining from the era often indicates otherwise: many sites could not possibly be genuine. The present-day atmosphere can also be dismaying, for some, such as vendors hawking merchandise along the Via Dolorosa. Yet some could well be the real deal. The site now revered as Golgotha is such a one.
Golgotha – Yes. The traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion lies atop a natural hill now found within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Built in the early 4th century by St. Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, the church clearly has very ancient roots, but the big question is if they extend 300 years back, all the way to the time of Jesus.
Affirmative identification is aided by the fact that the 2nd century Romans, who were very much on the warpath against the up-and-coming religion called Christianity, went to great efforts to expunge any trace of the nascent Christian holy site by building a temple there to the goddess Aphrodite. In trying to cover up the site’s connection with Jesus, they ironically did a great job preserving the precise map coordinates for us. Hail to the Romans!
Other geographic clues found in the Gospels fall neatly into line: the hill marked as Golgotha lies just outside the city walls at the time, near a city gate, and close by a well-traveled road. Then there's the Aramaic name of the site – Golgotha, meaning skull:, archaeologists have found numerous 1st-century tombs in the area, which fits in well with the name.
The Sepulcher burial cave – Not likely. This is the cave in which Jesus was supposed to have been buried late that Friday afternoon, on the first day of Passover. It was provided by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin rabbinical court, who had studied with and was impressed by Jesus, and who offered his own newly hewn burial cave for Jesus' use.
A present-day visitor might be taken aback by the sepulcher’s extreme proximity to Golgotha, no more than 25 meters away. One feels that this nearness of the tomb from the place of execution would be referred to in the text, but it is not. In this critic’s estimate, Golgotha gets high marks for credibly being the site of crucifixion, but the Sepulcher is on flimsier ground.
One structure that is definitely not original is that beneath the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, that supposedly houses the tomb. It is merely an aedicule, a shrine constructed well after the Crusades. The original 1st century burial cave was demolished in 1008 by the Fatimid caliph Al Hakim bi-Amr Allah, who believed he was the Muslim messiah and commanded that Christian holy sites be destroyed.
Via Dolorosa – No way. The “Way of the Suffering” comprises 14 stations supposedly tracking the route taken by Jesus on Good Friday. But there’s a problem: the path in fact evolved first in European cathedrals and church courtyards and was only subsequently transposed to Jerusalem, well after the Crusader period.
Original Christian pilgrims recreating Good Friday apparently took a four-station route called Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) that included the Garden of Gethsemane, the house of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, the Tower of David (the site of Jesus' sentencing to death by Pontius) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Essentially, only the final station is common to both itineraries.
Last Supper Room, on Mount Zion - No. The Coenaculum (coena is Latin for supper) is the ‘upper room’ where the Last Supper was reportedly held. It is situated directly above the purported tomb of King David on Mount Zion.
The Byzantine Christians who identified the two sites were no doubt tickled pink to juxtapose David and Jesus, the man who sired the messianic line and the man who fulfilled the promise. The problem is that based on excavations conducted from the 1860s on, we have no reason to think the tomb was David’s, and that the Byzantines were guilty of wishful thinking, which may also be the case for the Last Supper Room upstairs.
Garden of Gethsemane – Maybe. Ideally, the garden should have the eponymous oil press (Gethsemane = from the Hebrew, gat shmanim = oil press). It doesn’t, or at least it hasn’t been found. There are some mighty ancient olive trees in the garden adjoining the Franciscan-owned church of that name, but that hardly constitutes solid proof – olive trees (and presses) were all over the Mount of Olives.
Although there is a fine Byzantine church mosaic that underlies the current edition, there’s no evidence that the ancient church was ever associated with the ‘night of agony.’ Further complicating matters, both the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches maintain that the original garden of Gethsemane lies within their own nearby compounds. Probably all are wrong.
The site of Ascension from the Mount of Olives – Maybe. The first chapter of Acts relates how Jesus alighted heavenward from the Mount of Olives. The oldest candidate for the site is the 4th century Chapel of the Ascension, although there are two other contenders – the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension and the Lutheran version of same at Augusta Victoria. In this case, the site description appearing in the Bible is too general to be helpful, so there’s no choice but to take it on faith.
The Pool of Bethesda - Yes. John 5 offers the narrative of Jesus healing a paralytic by the Bethesda Pool, situated near the Lion’s Gate north of the Temple Mount. The tradition of being healed at poolside was then adopted by the Romans, who erected a temple to Asclepius (the Roman god of medicine) here.
The pool (as well as remains of the Roman temple) were discovered and excavated over a century ago – a perfect fit with the Biblical description.
Pool of Siloam – Yes. John 9 recounts the episode in which Jesus restores the sight of a blind man by applying an ointment composed of dirt and saliva, and then instructing him to jump into the Pool of Siloam, at the far end of King Hezekiah’s water tunnel. The pool was discovered in 2004, instantly becoming one of the most credible Jesus-was-here sites in Jerusalem.
The 12-year-old Jesus studies Torah with rabbis of the Sanhedrin: Luke 2 recounts the episode where Mary and Joseph head for home at the end of the Passover holiday, but along the way realize Jesus has been left behind in Jerusalem, and eventually find him on the Temple grounds deep in conversation with members of the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land.
At least two sources (Josephus, the Mishnah) explain that the Sanhedrin would convene at the Royal Stoa, a colossal building at the southern end of the Temple Mount. The modern-day visitor can stand in front of the Al Aqsa Mosque, built on the former site of the Royal Stoa, and picture Jesus “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
Garden Tomb - Delightful. This is the Protestant response to not having been in Jerusalem when turf and rights were being divvied up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The site called the Garden Tomb lies just north of Damascus Gate, and features a cliff formation that eerily looks like a human skull (“Golgotha”), as well as a nearby tomb (the “Sepulcher”).
One thorny problem is that the tomb was almost certainly hewn into the rock during the First Temple period, i.e., it is at least 500 years older than visitors are told it is.
Yet the Garden Tomb offers something that none of the abovementioned churches and shrines do. It is open-air and au naturel, as all of these sites would have been in the times of Jesus. What it may lack in confirmable proof of ownership it makes up for in spiritual atmosphere. The visitor who has come seeking authenticity is better able to sit back and appreciate the unchanged general landscape where the verses originally unfolded. And that is definitely legit.