Where Was Jesus Crucified?
Do the Gospel narratives about Golgotha fit the geography and customs of first century Judea? Yes they do—and reflecting on this question helps us to grasp the significance of Christ's death.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Be sure to listen to the current episode of The Humble Skeptic podcast as Shane Rosenthal discusses this topic with Egyptologist David Rohl.
When thinking about the crucifixion, most people assume that Jesus was taken to a Roman execution site somewhere outside the city wall of Jerusalem. But I’m convinced that a clear reading of John 19:16 indicates that Pilate actually delivered Jesus over to the chief priests, and they were the ones who ultimately led him to the place of execution.As it turns out, evidence from a variety of ancient sources reveals that first century Jews had a well established execution site, and thinking through the implications of this fact will help us to better understand the meaning and significance of Golgotha.
When Judea was reduced to a province of Syria, the power of capital punishment was officially removed from the Judean authorities by Caesar, who entrusted it exclusively to the Roman procurator.The chief priests and rulers clearly admit this in John 18:31, when they say to Pilate, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” Here of course they were thinking of Roman law, since capital punishment was a well established feature of the Mosaic covenant. But before the Romans took control of the region, various sources indicate that it was the custom of the Jews to execute criminals at one particular location near Jerusalem in compliance with the laws of Moses.
After Pilate consented to have Jesus crucified, the next thing John tells us is that the chief priests led Jesus out of the city to a place called “Golgotha” (Jn 19:17-20). This is similar to something Luke records in Acts 7:58 relating to the martyrdom Stephen. Before he was stoned to death, we’re told that he was first cast “out of the city.” Hebrews 13:11-13 gets a little more specific by saying that, “the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.”
When the author to the Hebrews used the phrase “outside the camp,” he was referring to a concept that was rooted in a number of Old Testament passages. For example, in Leviticus 24:13, God reveals to Moses that a particular law-breaker was to be brought “out of the camp,” where representatives of the congregation were to lay their hands on his head and put him to death by stoning. But what’s interesting is the fact that this language also relates to a sacred altar that was located some distance away on the eastern side of the tent of meeting. In fact, according to Numbers 19:2-4, this was the altar where the important red heifer sacrifice was performed: “Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect…you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times.” This also happened to be the place where the ashes from the main altar were deposited: “the priest…shall take up the ashes [of the burnt offerings] outside the camp to a clean place” (Lev 6:10-11).
In time, Israel’s tabernacle would eventually be transformed into the Jerusalem Temple, and according to a text from Dead Sea Scrolls, it was determined “that the sanctuary is the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, that Jerusalem is the camp, and that outside the camp is outside of Jerusalem.” This document goes on to explain that the phrase “outside the camp,” specifically refers to the place where “they take out the ashes for the altar and burn the sin offering there.”So where exactly was this separate altar located? The Mishna provides us with additional clues:
[T]hey would make a causeway from the Temple mount to the Mount of Olives, arches upon arches…on which the priest who burns the cow…[goes] forth to the Mount of Olives…They bound [the cow] with a rope and placed it on the pile of wood, with its head southward and its face westward. The priest, standing at the east, with his face turned west, slaughtered with his right hand and received the blood with his left hand…And he sprinkled with his right hand…seven times toward the house of the Holy of Holies.
Another passage from this ancient Jewish text reveals that the priest who sacrificed the red cow actually stood “at the top of the Mount of Olives and [looked] directly at the door of the holy place at the time of the tossing of blood.”Therefore, by paying close attention to all these sources, we can see that this other altar was located east of the Jerusalem Temple, at the very top of the Mount of Olives. In short, this is the place we should think of whenever we encounter the phrase “outside the camp” in Second Temple Judaism.
This fits with a really important theme of the Bible that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Once our first parents committed high treason against their creator, they were exiled to the east, where the cherubim guarded the way back to the tree of life (Gen 3:24). And later, after Cain murdered his brother, he was sent even further away, “east of Eden” (Gen 4:16). This is significant because according to various Jewish sources, Israel’s tabernacle and later Temple were patterned after Eden,which is why the entrance to the Holy of Holies faced east, and why the Israelites were always sent off into exile in an eastward direction.
This also explains why animal sacrifice was to be performed on the eastern side of both the tabernacle and the Temple, and why the high priest was called to sprinkle the blood with his finger on the eastern side of the mercy seat (Lev 16:14). And it’s why those who committed high crimes were called to bear their own sin as they were sent away to the east, “outside the camp” in order to be executed.In fact, in the laws of Moses, capital punishment is presented as a kind of sacred rite that in its own way served to purify the land which had become polluted and defiled by sin.
Now, with all this in mind, let’s return once again to the scene of the crucifixion. In John 19:17 we’re told that Jesus “went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.” According to the ESV, the meaning of the Aramaic word Golgotha is “The Place of a Skull,” but in reality there are more interpretive options, since in addition to “skull,” the Greek word kranion can also be rendered “head,” “cranium,” or “skull cap.” As a result of these options, some interpreters have thought of Golgotha as cliff face that may have resembled a human skull, while others have imagined it as a kind of small hill shaped like the top of a person’s head that served as an execution mound.
An ancient writer known as Cyril of Jerusalem gives us a hint as to how he interpreted the meaning of this word when he wrote, “Who were they then, who prophetically named this spot Golgotha, in which Christ the true Head endured the Cross? As the Apostle says, ‘He is the Head of the body, the church’…this holy Golgotha, which stands high above us, shows itself to this day…”According to Cyril, the word Golgotha was equivalent to the word “Head,” and in his view, it referred not to a small hill, but one that “stood high above” the place where he delivered this particular message there in Jerusalem. Similarly, in a text from the late first to the early third centuries called The Testament of Solomon, Golgotha is referred to as the topou enkephalou, or “place of the head” (12:1-3). And this document also indicates that victims of capital punishment were “hung up in front of the Temple…” (13:7).
Using the word “head,” rather than “skull,” as a way to define Golgotha also fits with something we find in 2Samuel 15:30-32. In this passage, we find David ascending the Mount of Olives to “the summit where God was worshiped.” Here in this verse, the word “summit” is a translation of the Hebrew word rosh, which essentially means “head.” What’s interesting is the fact that when this passage was later translated into Greek, the word rosh was left completely untranslated, but was spelled out using Greek characters. The best explanation for this fact is likely that at some point, the word rosh began to be used as the name for this sacred area around the summit of this mountain. In other words, perhaps this could be seen as evidence that the top of the Mount of Olives came to be known in Hebrew, as “The Place of the Rosh,” “Summit Place,” or something of that sort. Later, when the Jews returned from Babylon speaking Aramaic, the place began to be called “Golgotha.”
Another intriguing fact about the Mount of Olives is that throughout the Mishna it is commonly referred to as har ha-mishchah, which literally means, “the mount of anointing.”This is likely due to the fact that the olive oil produced here was the primary ingredient of the anointing oil used in a variety of sacred Jewish rituals. And it is this very concept that lies at the heart of the Jewish understanding of “the messiah” (or, ha-maschiach), since Israel had been promised that an ultimate anointed ruler would one day reign on David’s throne forever. As it turns out, it was here on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives, in a town called Bethany, that Jesus was anointed for his ultimate mission, which was “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).
In John’s account of the crucifixion, we’re told that “Many of the Jews read [Pilate’s] inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city” (Jn 20:19). This indicates that Jesus was executed in a public area, and the fact that the location is described as being near to the city is strikingly similar to the words Luke used when he spoke of Jesus’ descent from the Mount of Olives (Lk 19:41). Also, when we take a close look at John’s precise language, it becomes clear that Golgotha was not a small execution mound, but was actually a large area or district, “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” (Jn 19:41). The Greek word “garden” is probably best thought of as an orchard, estate, or plantation, which is the way it’s used in the Septuagint translation of 2Kings 8:26, as well as John 18:1 which refers to the “garden” in which Jesus was arrested (referred to as Gethsemane in Mt 26:36 and Mk 14:32). The fact that this was an olive orchard seems to be clear, since the word “Gethsemane,” literally means “olive press.”
So, in the area where Christ was crucified, there was an orchard, and within that estate, a large tomb had recently been cut into the rock of a hillside (Jn 19:41). This was the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, who in all four Gospels is described as a wealthy man and a respected member of the Sanhedrin. This important detail helps us to see that Golgotha cannot be thought of as an execution mound used exclusively by the Romans, for why would a man of Joseph’s wealth and stature carve out an expensive new tomb in such close proximity to an unclean site of that kind?However, if we see Golgotha as referring to the head, peak or summit of the Mount of Olives, everything falls into place.
This was the place “outside the camp” where lawbreakers were executed in order that God’s righteous anger could be turned aside from the nation (Num 35:30-34, Josh 7:22-26). It was the location of that special altar where the blood of the red heifer sacrifice was sprinkled seven times toward the face of the holy of holies, and where the ashes for the water of purification were stored. This was an area that featured cultivated gardens and olive orchards (Mt 26:36, Mk 14:32, Jn 18:1), and which even to this day is considered one of the most desirable locations for elaborate Jewish tombs due to its significance in Jewish prophecy.And, apart from the Temple precinct itself, this would be the only location in Jerusalem in which a person could see the Temple curtain hanging in front of the door of the Sanctuary as described by Josephus.
This, I believe, is where the chief priests led Jesus once they were given permission to execute him. Because they believed he committed blasphemy (Mt 26:65, Mk 14:64, Jn 10:33), they would have followed the strict procedures laid out in Leviticus 24:13, in which the people were instructed to, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed…” Once they arrived at the place of execution there at the summit of the Mount of Olives, witnesses would be called forward to lay their hands on Jesus’ head (Lev. 24:13),so that he would “bear the consequences of his sin.” Yet in this instance, the one charged with the crime was completely innocent. Though he was a spotless lamb, on this particular afternoon, “the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).
Here we’ll do well to recall that the Jerusalem Temple was symbolic of Eden itself, the site of our original mutiny, and the place from which we’ve been evicted. Therefore, it’s fitting that the second Adam would be led “east of Eden” in order to bear the curse of sin and death. Because the one who suffered in our place was the God-man, the blood he shed was—and is—of infinite value. As he hung there, facing westward, his blood was sprinkled toward the door of the Sanctuary. And because he was exiled and executed in our place, we who stood condemned, are in him declared to be innocent.That which for him was a tree of death, has become for us the tree of life.
This is the true significance of Golgotha. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, was exiled outside the camp so that we who once were far off could be brought near (Eph 2:13, Heb 10:22). He was cut off from the land of the living (Is 53:8) so that we might have life in his name (Jn 20:31). “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach that he endured” (Heb 13:13).
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California. An earlier edition of this article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2019 edition of Modern Reformation magazine.
Jn 19:16-17 says, “So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus…to the place called The Place of a Skull…” Commenting on this passage, Philip Comfort writes, “Strictly speaking, the pronoun...‘them’ in the first part of 19:16...‘he delivered him to them,’ refers to the chief priests. But it was the Roman soldiers who actually carried out the crucifixion. The ambiguity was probably intentional. John wanted his readers to realize that it was the Jewish leaders who were ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death, even though the Romans performed the execution” (New Testament Text and Translation Commentary).
Josephus, War 2:117; cf. Ant. 20:200-203.
See for example Ex 21:15, 31:15, Num 35:33-35, Lev 20:10, 24:10-17, Dt 17:2-13.
Because the Jewish execution site was a feature of the Mosaic law, I believe the Romans would have used this same location for their executions as well, just as they consented to not to leave a man hanging on a cross after sundown on the Sabbath. David Rohl will offer a different perspective on this in an upcoming interview.
4Q397 (cf. Num 1:50-53, 2:1-2; 17, Dt 23:14).
Mid. 1:3 - 2:4.
For example, Jubilees 8:19 tells us that “the garden of Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the LORD.”
See for example, Lev. 24:15, Num 15:35
Num 35:30-34. In fact, according to Lev 24:14, hands were placed on the head of the one about to be executed, which was one of the features of animal sacrifice (cf. Lev 1:4, 3:2, 4:4, 16:21, etc.).
Catechetical Lectures, XIII, 23, 39 (Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers 2, Vol. 7).
In fact, Golgotha appears to be the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew gulgulet, which is translated “head” in Num 1:2, 22, 3:47, etc., but which can also be rendered “skull” (cf. Jdg 9:53, 2Kgs 9:35).
Mid. 1:3, 2:4, Para. 3:6-7, 11; cf. Ex 25:6, 29:7, 30:31, 31:11. There also may be a play on words in 2Kgs 23:13, since the mountain east of Jerusalem is there called har ha-maschchit, meaning “mount of corruption.” This is in reference to the high places that Solomon built on the Mount of Olives in honor of Chemosh and Molech. Could it be clearer that he was not the fulfillment of the promise made to David in 2Sam 7?
In fact, the name “Gethsemane” which is applied to one of the orchards located there on the Mount of Olives, literally means “olive press.”
Ps 2:2, 45:7, Is 61:1, 2Sam 7:12-13, Is 9:6-7, Dan 9:25.
Many people claim that The Church of the Holy Sepulcher located in Jerusalem contains within its walls the true location of the Jesus’ crucifixion and burial tomb. However, the close proximity between the cross and tomb in that building makes this hypothesis extremely implausible. In addition, this church is west of the Temple Mount, which does not fit with the sources already cited which situate the place of execution “outside the camp” to the east.
See in particular Zec 14:4-5. It’s also interesting to note that the glory of the Lord stood on this mountain after departing from the temple in the days of Ezekiel (11:23). According to Acts 1:1-12, this also happened to be the location of Jesus’ ascension as well.
According to Mark 15:38, when the centurion witnesses the tearing of the curtain from “top to bottom,” he reacts by saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” According to Josephus, in addition to the interior curtain that separated the holy place from the holy of holies, there was a large exterior curtain made of Babylonian tapestry which hung in front of the door of the sanctuary (War 5.5.4). This is the only curtain that would have been visible outside of the Sanctuary.
See also Ex 29:10, Lev 1:4, 3:2, 4:4, 16:21, Num 8:12, etc.
See Is 53:11, Jn 15:3, Rom 8:1, Eph 5:27.
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I just happened to read that 2Sam 15 passage and the related Psalms 55 this weekend, and David's exile route east of Jerusalem, through the Kidron, with his "head covered" and all the people weeping seems to foreshadow Jesus's exile out of the city after his betrayal and trial, only Jesus's exile ends in death—very cool passage, especially with the betrayal theme present. Thanks for making that Mount of Olives connection stand out.
Correct. The most important passage on this subject is 2Sam 15. David ascends the Mt. of Olives to the summit, which in Hebrew is called the "rosh." Later when this was translated into Greek, this word was left untranslated, so basically Greek characters were used to spell "rosh," which indicates that the name of the top of the Mt. of Olives in Hebrew was "The place of the Head / Peak / Summit." So, Golgotha is the name of this place when you translate to Aramaic.