“to a place called Golgotha (which means, Place of a Skull).” There is strong evidence that the crucifixion of Christ occurred on the Mount of Olives. While no one piece of evidence completely makes the case, the cumulative evidence is overwhelming that the Lord Jesus was crucified near the top of the Mount of Olives. Added to that is the fact that the other two sites proposed by most of Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb, do not fit with all the biblical evidence for the place of the crucifixion. Nine points of evidence are listed below:
1) A Mount of Olives crucifixion fits with the roads of Jerusalem, especially the road between the Temple and the Mount of Olives.
Many people and priests passed by and mocked Jesus, so he was crucified near a road, one that a lot of people and priests would travel on Passover day (Matt. 27:37, 41; Mark 15:29, 31; John 19:20-21. There is historical evidence that at the time of Christ there was a bridge or partial bridge over the Kidron Valley leading from the Mount of Olives to the Temple. Although archaeologists and historians argue about the bridge, at the very least there was a well-traveled road from the east gate of the Temple to the Mount of Olives. Also, there was a well-traveled north-south road on the top of the Mount of Olives. So a crucifixion site near the top of the Mount of Olives would have been close to major roads, and the people and priests would have been traveling on those roads to get to the Temple for Passover. Furthermore, the priests would have used the east-west road to get to the place where the unclean parts of the sacrifices were burned, which was on the east side of the city and most likely near the top of the Mount of Olives. It is unlikely that the chief priests and people would go much out of their way to mock a dying criminal. But if the crucifixion was near the top of the Mount of Olives, the road between the Temple and the eastern altar on the Mount of Olives would have made access to the crucifixion site easy and a large number of priests and people would pass there on their way to or from the Temple, especially on the eve of Passover. In contrast, it does not seem like there would be nearly the foot traffic at the traditional sites and especially not for the priests.
2) Jesus was our sin offering, and was crucified where the Temple sin offerings were burned, on the east side of the Temple.
Jesus Christ was the sin offering that paid for our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). The Bible says that the bodies of the sin offerings were burned outside the camp, and the evidence supports that place outside the camp and the city of Jerusalem was to the east. The Bible says that the bodies of sin offerings were to be burned at a place outside of the camp that was ceremonially clean (cp. Ex. 29:14; Lev. 4:12, 21; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27; cp. Heb. 13:11). The ashes from the altar of sacrifice in the Tabernacle and Temple were taken to a clean place outside the camp and dumped there, and that dumping would have been at one specific place; the priests and Levites did not dump ashes from the altar in lots of different places. Then Leviticus specified that the bodies of sin offerings were burned at that same “clean place where the ashes are poured out” (Lev. 4:12). That clean place was outside the camp of Israel while they traveled, and outside the city of Jerusalem once that capital city was established.
There is historical evidence that the “clean place” was east of the camp. Also, the Tabernacle only had one gate and it was on the east side, and Hebrews 13:11-12 speak of the sin offerings being burned outside the camp and for that reason Jesus suffered “outside the gate,” which would have been to the east.
It would have taken a lot of effort to burn the bodies of the sin offerings. Burning the body of a bull to ashes takes a lot of wood and heat. Logically, to do that would have meant building some kind of altar or altar-like structure that would support the wood and the animal body and allow air to get to the fire and keep it hot and burning. Although the Old Testament does not call the place of burning an altar, the Book of Hebrews does, and Hebrews 13:10-12 refers to an “altar” outside of Jerusalem where the bodies of animals were burned. In fact, the Book of Hebrews goes so far as to say that “we [Christians] have an altar” where the sin offerings were burned, so the altar east of the Temple is for believers, which is exactly correct if Jesus was the sin offering and died near that eastern altar. After all, Jesus Christ was God’s sin offering for the sins of the people of the world, so it would be logical that he would be sacrificed near that altar where the bodies of sin offerings, including the Red Heifer, were burned, which would be on the Mount of Olives.
Furthermore, the wording of Hebrews 13:10-13 supports the connection between the sin offerings and Jesus Christ. Thus, Hebrews 13:11 says that the bodies of the sin offerings are burned outside the camp, and then Hebrews 13:12 says, “for this reason Jesus also suffered outside the gate.” It is important to note that the comparison that Hebrews is making is drawing upon the Tabernacle of Moses. For example, Hebrews 13:10 speaks of people serving in the “tent” (i.e., the Tabernacle), not the “Temple.” Also, Hebrews 13:11 speaks of the sin offerings being burned outside “the camp,” that is, the camp of Israel in the wilderness. If the text was referring to a later time, i.e., after the city of Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple set up, the text would have said “outside the city.” The reason that Hebrews refers back to the Tabernacle is that the Tabernacle was portable and it moved around, and Hebrews is contrasting that with a permanent city that is coming in the future. Hebrews says that believers “do not have a permanent city here” but are looking forward to there being one (Heb. 13:14). It would not do for Hebrews to speak of Jerusalem but then indicate it was not permanent, because Old Testament prophecy shows that Jerusalem is permanent; it will be rebuilt and renewed, but it is permanent, it will be Jesus’ capital city when he rules the earth. The Tabernacle imagery in Hebrews is important for the study of where Jesus was crucified because Hebrews says that Jesus suffered “outside the gate” and the only gate of the Tabernacle was on the east side. So Jesus suffering where the bodies of the sin offerings were burned and that being “outside the gate” is supporting evidence that Jesus was crucified east of the Temple, and east of the Temple was the Mount of Olives. [For more on the altar east of the Temple where the bodies of sin offerings were burned, see commentary on Heb. 13:10].
3) The Red Heifer sin offering was a type of Christ and it was both sacrificed and burned on the Mount of Olives.
The Red Heifer was a sin offering that typified Christ in many ways. She (a heifer is a female cow) was a sin offering (Num. 19:9, 17), but unlike the regular sin offerings that were slaughtered in the Temple and then the body was carried out east of the Temple and burned, the Red Heifer was both slaughtered and completely burned to ashes outside the Temple and east of it. Numbers 19:1-9 describes the burning of the Red Heifer outside of the camp of Israel and according to the Mishnah, a Jewish commentary on the OT, a bridge across the Kidron led to an altar where this burning occurred. “After the establishment of the Temple in Jerusalem the ritual of the Red Heifer was celebrated on the Mount of Olives; leaving the Temple by the East Gate, the procession led by the High Priest crossed the Kidron Valley on a special causeway [bridge] and climbed to the summit where the animal was sacrificed” (Mishnah, tractate ‘Parah’).
The Book of Numbers also gives good evidence the Red Heifer was slaughtered and burned east of the Temple. Numbers 19:4 says, “and Eleazar the priest is to take some of her blood with his finger and sprinkle her blood toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.” The fact that the priest sprinkles the blood “toward the front of the Tent of Meeting” shows that the Red Heifer was sacrificed on the east side of the Tabernacle/Temple because the “front” of the Tabernacle/Temple was to the east. Blood could not be sprinkled toward the front of the Tabernacle from any direction but the east. Any blood sprinkled from the north, south, or west of the Tabernacle or Temple would be sprinkled toward the side or back, not the front. Jacob Milgrom writes about the phrase “toward the front of the Tent of Meeting” in the JPS Torah Commentary: “According to the rabbis, the front, that is, the entrance of the Tent [the Tabernacle], must be seen. Hence if the wind blows the Tent flap shut, the sprinkling is invalid. During Second Temple times, the High Priest performed the ceremony atop the Mount of Olives, which afforded a view of the entrance to the temple building” (Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1990, p. 159). Also, the Oxford Archaeological Guide to the Holy Land, notes that the Red Heifer was burned on the Mount of Olives (Oxford Archaeological Guide to the Holy Land, Oxford University Press, 5th edition, 2008, p. 139).
4) The Bible says Jesus was crucified near “the Place of the city,” which was the Temple, and the Mount of Olives was very near the Temple.
John 19:20 says that Jesus was crucified near the Temple, “the Place of the city,” and the Mount of Olives was very close to the Temple, right across the Kidron Valley. The NIV translates John 19:20 as, “the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city,” and almost all English versions read in a similar way. But a more accurate translation of the Greek text is “where Jesus was crucified was near the Place of the city” (cp. Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible). The Jews referred to the Temple as “the Place,” and the word “Place” is used for the Temple in a number of verses in the New Testament (cp. Matt. 24:15; John 4:20, 11:48, 19:20; Acts 6:13-14, 21:28). If Jesus was crucified near the “the Place of the city,” i.e., the Temple, then the most likely place would have been on the Mount of Olives, right across the bridge and a few hundred yards from the Temple.
In the Greek text the word “city” is in the genitive case (thus, “of the city”), and the governing noun of the genitive phrase is topos, “place,” so the correct translation of the Greek text is “near the Place of the city.” To translate the Greek text as “the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city,” is to separate the genitive from its governing noun and treat the genitive as an accusative, which it is not.
There are several reasons why most English Bibles read “the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city,” instead of “where Jesus was crucified was near the Place of the city.” One reason is the lack of understanding among western scholars that the Temple was called “the Place,” especially in light of where Jesus was crucified. Another reason is that the traditional English translation of John 19:20 goes back to the 1500’s (cp. William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1534 and the Geneva Bible of 1599; etc.), and many translators like to stay close to a traditional reading if they can. Also, the traditional translation supports the traditional sites for the crucifixion because they are “close to the city” of Jerusalem but would not likely have been considered to be close to the “Place” (the Temple) by people in Jesus’ time.
The tradition of referring to the Temple as “the Place” is very old. For example, in the Old Testament the temple is referred to as ‘the place.’ Geoffrey Bromiley writes, “In a rich formula which is constantly repeated, the Jerusalem Temple is called ‘the holy place which Yahweh your God shall choose…to cause his name to dwell there’” (p. 197). “…the LXX [Septuagint] developed the term [topos, “place”] into a technical one for the holy place (p. 198). “Historically, then, the land is no longer Israel’s place even before the final expulsion from Palestine [at the Babylonian Captivity], the theological understanding of ‘place’ is fully oriented to the temple as the holy place” (p. 199). “The OT-Jewish use of topos for the Jerusalem Temple is continued in the New Testament…” (p. 204), (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, ed.; Geoffrey Bromiley, translator; Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1972, Vol. VIII. Punctuation added for clarity and Greek words were put in English letters).
5) People near the cross could see the tearing of the Temple veil, which would only be possible from near the top of the Mount of Olives.
The Bible indicates that the soldiers and people at the crucifixion could see the Temple veil tear, and the only place outside the walls of Jerusalem where that curtain could be seen was near the top of the Mount of Olives. Matthew shows that the veil of the Temple tore right when Jesus died. Matthew 27:50, 51; and 27:54 say, “50And Jesus, having cried out again with a loud voice, yielded up the spirit. 51And Look!, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth was shaken, and the rocks were split. 54Now the centurion and those who were with him keeping watch over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, were greatly afraid, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
All three of the synoptic Gospels point out that people “saw” things that were happening, and the tearing of the Temple veil is specifically mentioned in all three synoptic Gospels, and seeing it tear would have made a powerful impact on anyone at the crucifixion site. Also, the fact that the Temple veil tore from top to bottom showed that God was the one who tore the veil because if people did it, they would have had to have torn it from bottom to top. This act of God was almost certainly part of the reason the centurion said that Jesus was the Son of God (Matt. 27:54).
When Matthew says when the centurion and soldiers “saw the earthquake and the things that were happening,” there is no good reason to exclude the ripping of the Temple veil from the things the people saw, and the only place in Jerusalem outside of the Temple where a person could see the Temple veil was the Mount of Olives. The Temple was clearly visible from the Mount of Olives, and so was the veil that covered the front of the Temple. The veil in front of the doors of the Holy Place was a massive curtain that Josephus describes as being 55 cubits high and 16 cubits wide, which would be over 80 feet high and 24 feet wide (Josephus, Jewish Wars, book 5, chap. 5, para. 4; 210-214). The Temple faced east towards the Mount of Olives, and so anyone standing near the top of the Mt. of Olives would have been able to physically see the Temple veil being torn. Note that Matthew 27:50-51, Mark 15:37-38, and Luke 23:45-46 all record the events of Jesus dying and the Temple veil being torn in the same two-verse context. Upon seeing what happened the soldiers and the people proclaimed that Jesus was righteous or even the “Son of God” (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47-48), and the people in the crowd beat their breasts (Luke 23:48). So the fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all indicate that the people at the crucifixion site could see the Temple veil torn open is good evidence that the crucifixion was on top of the Mount of Olives.
The Bible says that the “veil of the Temple” was torn, but scholars are divided as to whether the veil that was torn was the inner veil between the Holy Place and Holy of Holies, or whether it was the outer veil that could be seen by worshipers and was in front of the doors of the Temple. But logically, if only the inner veil was torn the common people would still not have access to God. In fact, if only the inner veil was torn the people would not have known it. Only the priests and Levites could go into the Holy Place, so if only the inner veil was torn the priests and Levites would be able to enter the presence of God, but the people would not be able to enter, and would have had no sign that they could enter. The point of the Temple veil tearing was not so that Levites and priests would have access to God, but that every believer had access to God, and that would demand that it was the outer veil that was torn open, and many scholars agree with that.
Ulrich Luz writes: “The narrator speaks of ‘the curtain.’ It does not appear to bother him that there is more than one. The [two] possibilities are the curtain that separates the holy of holies…from the rest of the Temple, and the curtain at the main gate between the Court of the Israelites and the actual Temple building...the outer curtain is more suitable for an interpretation as a sign of disaster. It was the only curtain that was visible and publicly accessible so that people could see at all what had happened. Furthermore, there are texts that associate this main entrance to the temple with signs of disaster that announce its impending destruction. …For the readers of the gospel of Matthew who are aware of Jesus’s prediction of the coming destruction of the temple (Matt. 23:38-24:2)…an interpretation in terms of the destruction of the temple was more likely” (Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, Matthew 21-28).
The theologian and translator Saint Jerome (c. 345-420 AD) wrote that in his estimation it was the outer veil of the Temple that tore (Jerome, Epistle 120, his letter to the woman Hedibia, question #8). Grant Osborne admits that there is no way to know for sure which of the two veils is meant, but writes: “The outer veil...fits the imagery of a public sign, and Josephus (J. W. 5:3) and several Jewish sources speak of the tearing of Herod’s magnificent veil at the entrance (so [William] Lane, [Craig L.] Blomberg, [Herman] Ridderbos, [W. D.] Davies and [Dale C.] Allison)” (G. Osborne, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew). Robert Gundry writes that the “veil” of the Temple “refers either to the inner curtain dividing the holy place from the holy of holies in the Temple or to the outer curtain at the front of the holy place (see BAG, s. v., whose certainty in favoring the inner curtain is not justified). If the outer curtain is meant, we might think of a sign of judgment visible to the general public….” (Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art). Alan McNeile makes a case for the outer veil and wrote that the Gospel “almost certainly pictures a portent visible to all, not only the priests who happened to be in the Holy Place at the moment (The Gospel According to Matthew).
Davies and Allison write, “Some expositors hold that the veil is the outer veil and its rending foreshadows or symbolizes the destruction of the temple in AD 70. …This interpretation is especially attractive as similar portents announcing the doom of the temple are recorded by both Josephus (Bell. 6:288-309) and the Talmud (b. Yoma 39b; y. Yoma 6.43c). One may also observe that Liv. Proph. Hab. 12 attributes the prophecy to Habakkuk: Concerning the end of the Temple…the veil of the sanctuary will be torn to pieces….’ If our Gospel’s rending of the veil anticipates or inaugurates the end of the temple, it thereby vindicates Jesus’s prophecy against the place (Matt. 24:2). Further, it is most appropriate that, immediately after people mock Jesus for his prophecy about the temple (Matt. 27:40), his word should be vindicated. …In addition to the two common lines of interpretation several others may be noted. (i) T. Levi 10:3 foretells that ‘the curtain of the temple will be torn, so that it will no longer conceal your [priests] shameful behaviour.’ (ii) those who view the darkness of Matt. 27:45 as mourning can find the same theme here: the temple mourns by tearing its garment. (iii) several early Christian sources refer to the temple Angel mourning and then leaving. …In addition, if there is any connection between the rending of the veil and the similar signs remembered in the Jewish sources…it is worth observing that these last mention signs near the outer entrance, not the Holy of Holies” (W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, International Critical Commentary: Matthew 19-28, Vol. III, Bloomsbury T&TClark. Full biblical references added).
6) The Bible says Jesus was crucified at the place of the skull, and the word “skull” was used of counting people, and the top of the Mount of Olives was a place people were counted for the Temple tax.
John 19:17 says that Jesus was crucified at “the place of the skull (which in Aramaic is called golgotha and in Hebrew is called gulgoleth).” It was common to use the word “skull” to mean “counting” or “numbering.” We do a similar thing today when we “take a head count.” The word gulgoleth is used 12 times in the Old Testament, and although three times it refers literally to a skull, the other nine times it refers to a poll or counting of people (cp. Exod. 16:16 “each”; Exod. 38:26 “person”; Num. 1:2, 18, 20, 22 “one by one”; Num. 3:47 “each one”; Judg. 9:53 “skull”; 2 Kings 9:35 “skull”; 1 Chron. 10:10 “head”; 1 Chron. 23:3 “total”; 1 Chron. 23:24 “individually”).
So, when Jesus went “to the place of the skull” it could easily have meant “to the place of the counting” which is what gulgoleth meant most of the time in the Old Testament. The top of the Mount of Olives was a place where the Jews registered for the Temple Tax prior to the feast (E. Martin, Secrets of Golgotha, chapter 8). Thus, the top of the Mount of Olives would have been known as “Golgotha,” the place of the counting.
While Gordon’s Calvary, the traditional protestant spot of the crucifixion, looks somewhat like a skull today, there is no evidence that it did at the time of Jesus. The hollow eyes and nose of the “skull” at Gordon’s Calvary are cisterns that were broken and exposed through erosion, and it is quite possible that the erosion occurred after the time of Christ and that the area did not resemble a skull at the time of Jesus, 2,000 years ago. But in any case, it is most likely that “the place of the skull” referred to counting, not to a literal skull.
7) The Hebrew text of Matthew does not say Jesus was crucified at the “place” of a skull, but the “mountain” of a skull, and the most prominent mountain in the area was the Mount of Olives.
There is historical evidence that Matthew penned the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, not Greek, and the Gospel of Matthew that exists in Hebrew is called Even Bohan. In Even Bohan the site of Christ’s crucifixion in Matthew 27:33 is referred to as a “mountain” (George Howard, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, pp. 144, 145). The word in the Hebrew text is har, mountain or hill, not just “place.” So, whereas the Greek text of Matthew calls the site of the crucifixion a “place” (“the place of skull” or “the place of numbering”), the Hebrew says the “mountain of a skull” or “the mountain of numbering.” Jerusalem is hilly. Jerusalem has a valley to the east and one to the south, and a third valley running up through the core of the city just west of the Temple. Also, the Temple is on a mountain, Mount Zion, and the Mount of Olives is directly east of Jerusalem. However, there is no mountain to the north, northwest or west of the Temple Mount. Given the hilly nature of Jerusalem, there is no good reason that the traditional sites of the crucifixion would be called a “mountain” or even thought of as a separate prominent hill, whereas the Mount of Olives clearly would be. In fact, it is called the “Mount” of Olives because it is a mountain, in fact it is the most prominent mountain in the vicinity of Jerusalem, even higher than the Temple Mount itself. Furthermore, it is directly across the Kidron Valley from the Temple and thus only a few hundred yards east of the Temple. There is no good reason that the Hebrew text of Matthew would have “mountain” to describe the traditional sites of the crucifixion, but it would have used “mountain” to describe the Mount of Olives. Thus, the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew gives us supporting evidence that the site of the crucifixion was on the Mount of Olives. [For more on the Gospel of Matthew being penned in Hebrew before being translated into Greek, see commentary on Matt. 3:3. For a version of Even Bohan with commentary, see George Howard, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, Mercer University Press, 1995].
8) Roman custom was such that the Romans tried to crucify people close to the crime they committed or the place of their arrest, and for Jesus both of those were on the Mount of Olives.
According to Roman custom, enemies of the state were regularly crucified at the scene of the crime or the place of arrest. Dr. Ernest Martin gives evidence to the fact in his book Secrets of Golgotha (second edition, chapter 6, p. 72-79). The Romans correctly assumed that most criminals against the state had local support, so crucifying a criminal in the general area of their crime or arrest made sense in that it discouraged people from becoming involved with criminal activities. In fact, much of the reason for crucifying a criminal instead of executing them in some other way was the public terror caused by crucifixion, which was gruesome and excruciatingly painful, and especially so since the crucified person usually did not die until the third day on the cross.
Pilate crucified Jesus for the “crime” of declaring himself a king, and he was publicly declared to be the king by the people as he rode on the donkey from the top of the Mount of Olives. The people shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38; John 12:13). Pilate confirmed that by asking Jesus if he were a king, to which Jesus replied that he was (John 18:37). Also, it is well known that Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, which is on the west slope of the Mount of Olives. So both the “crime” and the arrest of Jesus were associated with the Mount of Olives, and given the traffic that would have passed by the top of the Mount of Olives on Passover, and given Roman custom, a crucifixion site near the top of the Mount of Olives makes perfect sense.
9) The Bible says that in the place Jesus was crucified was a garden and a new tomb, and the Mount of Olives is known for having both those things.
John 19:41 says that at the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden with a new tomb in it, and both tombs and evidence of ancient olive trees have been found on the Mount of Olives. In fact, the Hebrew words transliterated as “gethsemane” are gat sehmanim, or “oil press,” and a grove of olive trees large enough to have an oil press would rightly be called a “garden.” The Mount of Olives was a customary place in Jerusalem for a tomb to be cut out of the rock, and many tombs have been found there. Since the west slope of the Mount of Olives was close to the Temple it was expensive land, so it makes sense that if a tomb was cut out on the Mount of Olives, it would have had to have been paid for by a wealthy man, and the Scripture points out that Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy (Matt. 27:57). Thus, the Mount of Olives perfectly fits the description in the Gospels that the crucifixion was close to a garden and Joseph’s tomb.