The Geography of Golgotha – Matthew 27:31-33

 

I have decided to cancel this evening’s sermon – but you aren’t invited to leave just yet. I don’t know how to describe this message, but it is not a sermon. It might be a lecture, a lesson, an address or merely just rambling, but it is not a sermon. I thought that since it is helpful to me to review the geography of the crucifixion, it might also be helpful to you. I’ve thrown together a few thoughts on details which are somewhat incidental to the actual crucifixion.

For example, we often speak of “Calvary” as the place where our Saviour purchased our redemption. But Biblically speaking, for every reference we make to “Calvary,” we should refer to “Golgotha” three times. Did you know that “Calvary” is mentioned in only one verse in the entire Bible? Luke 23:33 – “And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.” In the other three gospels we are told that Jesus was taken to “Golgotha” to be crucified. And “Golgotha” is only mentioned three times – once in each of the other Gospels. The actual place of the crucifixion is not mentioned in any of the Epistles or in the Book of Acts. Perhaps that in itself should tell me to stop where I am and dismiss us in prayer. Apparently the actual location of Golgotha is not strictly important. Nevertheless, I forge ahead, because I do feel lead of the Lord to do so.

Perhaps a review of our Lord’s travels in the previous twenty-four hours might be helpful.

Jesus and His disciples had been spending the nights in Bethany on the other side of the Mount of Olives. The previous day He rode into the city on an ass to the praise of a great many people. That evening He celebrated the Passover and Lord’s Supper at some undisclosed upper room. Then He went back out to Olivet – specifically into the Garden of Gethsemane, where He was taken by the soldiers of the high priest. In the dead of night he was taken to the houses of Caiaphas and Annas, which were located in the upper city in the western portion of Jerusalem. Then early in the morning He was taken to Pilate’s Judgment hall. At some point He was sent to King Herod, who may or may not have been staying in the family palace. After that Christ was sent back to Pilate and from there He was led towards Golgotha. So in the past twenty-four hours, our Saviour had gone back and forth across the city several times.

But please keep in mind that Jerusalem was not Rome, New York or even Spokane. Notice the scale and try to visualize the distances. Jerusalem was a small, tightly packed community. There were lots of people, relatively speaking, but few 50′ by 100′ lots. But still, in our Saviour’s weakened condition, to travel from Pilate’s judgment hall to Calvary would have been strenuous.

But where exactly was Golgotha?

The Bible gives us a couple of clues but no definitive statements. Hebrews 13:12 tells us that Christ died for our salvation, outside of the city proper. “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate.” But remember is that the city of Jerusalem began even much smaller than it was in Jesus’ day. Today there are city walls well within the city limits, and you can see some of them even in our illustration of the city in Jesus’ day. So precisely where were those walls on the day in which Jesus died?

Another Biblical clue, as to the site, is suggested in verse 39 – “And they that passed by reviled Him.” There was apparently a lot of foot traffic in the area of Calvary. Furthermore, as we looked at Simon last week, Mark 15:21 says, “And they compel one Simon, a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country…. to bear (Jesus’) cross.” It appears that Calvary was close to a road – to an highway.

ISBE – “The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,” says that through the years, outside every quadrant of the city was declared to be Jesus’ execution site. But it went on to say that the accepted and traditional site is probably the actual place of Jesus’ death. So it appears that Jesus died on the western side of the city. And there was a major road leading toward Joppa, and from that one swung south towards Beersheba. The Cyrenian, if he was just arriving, could certainly have been coming from either place.

Why was the place called “Calvary” or “Golgotha?”

We are told that the word “Golgotha” means “the place of the skull.” And John tells us that it is an Hebrew word “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgatha.” Luke is the one who calls the place “Calvary,” but he doesn’t define or translate the word. However, ten seconds in Strong’s Concordance tells us – that the word is “kranion” (kran-ee’-on). And what is a cranium? It is our skull.

But what was the derivation of that name? ISBE tells me that there are several suggestions, a couple of which of which are pretty farfetched. First, it is suggested that this was a place where for some time public executions had taken place. As a result there were lots of human bones, including skulls laying about. Jerome who was born in 346 AD is the first to write about this idea, so it comes pretty late. And it just isn’t consistent with the Jews” detestation of exposed human remains. A truly ridiculous idea is that Adam’s skull had been found there. Origen who was born in 185 and who lived in Jerusalem for twenty years said that people had come to him with that story. But there is hardly a word coming from Origen which I trust. The third idea is that the traditional site for the crucifixion is a hill with a rocky face to one side. There are several indentations in one side which make it look like the eerie face of an eye-less skull. I have several pictures of that hill and it is very possible to see those eyes and a mouth if you are looking for them. But in contrast to that idea, there are no early Greek or Roman writers who ever saw the image of a skull on that hill. Perhaps erosion in the years since the crucifixion, or even human manipulation could have created the skull-like image. So why did it have the name “Golgotha” or “Calvary” even in Jesus’ day? No one knows for sure.

And by the way, here is something else to consider – where does the Bible say anything about a hill? All four gospels simply speak of a “place” – “topos” called Golgotha. The word “hill” is not common anywhere in the Bible, but the word is never even closely used in regard to Calvary. It is quite logical to picture a flat area with enough top soil to make digging holes for those crosses easy.

While I am dealing with subjects peripheral to the actual crucifixion let me return to something that I mentioned last week.

What about the cross itself?

There are at least four different forms or shapes of crosses. Upon which did our Saviour die? There is one which is generally called “St. Anthony’s cross,” which has the shape of the letter T. Obviously that could not possibly be the cross of Christ for one Biblical fact. Another image we sometimes see is called a “Greek cross,” which has cross members with the same length as the vertical shaft. That just doesn’t make sense – it isn’t logical. Why use more lumber than was actually necessary? A third variety, called the “St. Andrew’s cross,” is in the shape of the letter X. That would certainly make the crucified person extremely uncomfortable. But it would make the crucifiers uncomfortable as well, requiring a whole lot more work.

I think that the scriptures like Matthew 27:37 pretty much demand that the cross look like the one we ordinarily envision. The soldiers “set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” The cross upon which our Saviour died must have had a piece which extended above His head.

Of course, all of this is moot except for one point. It doesn’t matter upon what type of cross Jesus died, and it doesn’t matter where the crucifixion took place, if it has no bearing upon you. If you will not trust the Christ who died on Golgotha; if you will not love and serve Him, then you will die in your sins. And then, at least as far as your soul is concerned, Christ will have died in vain. Then it doesn’t matter where it was that Jesus died.