The Christian faith stands or falls on Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. These two historical events are foundational to understanding God’s forgiveness, eternal life, and the hope we have in Christ. And if they didn’t happen, the faith falls apart. When discussing the resurrection, the apostle Paul drives this point home:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Corinthians 15:12-14).
These events truly happened, and there is quite a bit of extra-biblical evidence that they occurred. So can we identify where the Romans crucified Jesus?
What Scripture tells us about the crucifixion
Both Matthew and Mark tell us that the crucifixion happened at a place called Golgotha. The Aramaic word golgotha means “skull.” And both Gospel writers interpret the term for us:
They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”) (Matthew 27:33, see also Mark 15:22).
Luke doesn’t bother to call it Golgotha (Luke 23:33). And John reverses Matthew and Mark’s order and calls it the “place of the Skull” and then informs his readers how it’s translated into Aramaic.
People raised in Western culture are more used to hearing that Rome crucified Jesus at Calvary. When King James translators translated “skull” in Luke’s account, they borrowed from the Latin term calvaria meaning “skull” or “bald head.”
From the context, it would appear that this was a familiar location. But scholars have some questions about the site. For instance, was it called “the skull” because the hill was shaped like a skull? Or did it get that name for the number of executions that occurred there? Scholars are not certain.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
One of the oldest accepted sites for Jesus’s crucifixion is where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands in the northwest quarter of Jerusalem’s old city. After the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D 70 , the city became a Roman colony, and the name was changed to Aelia Capitolina.
Legend has it that Empress Helena (Constantine’s mother) visited Aelia Capitolina and found a temple to Venus built over the “accepted” location of Jesus’s tomb. In the cavity where Venus’s temple stood, it’s said they discovered three crosses. Because of a miraculous healing related to one of the three crosses, they were able to identify “the true cross.”
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected in the fourth century in the place where they found those crosses. For many from various Christian traditions, it has become an essential pilgrimage site.
Is this a likely location for the crucifixion? There does seem to be some significant problems with it. First of all, it doesn’t seem plausible that Jewish custom would have allowed Golgotha to be located within Jerusalem, and Rome (who attempted to maintain peace with Israel) probably wouldn’t have pushed the issue.
When we look at Scripture, it seems to point to the fact that Jesus was crucified outside the city:
Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek (John 19:20, emphasis added).
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:11-14, emphasis added).
Gordon’s Calvary (Skull Hill)
A more popular site for many evangelical Christians is a rocky outcrop north of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. As far as we can tell, this bald hilltop became the subject of interest in the 19th century, when a German theologian named Edward Robinson first suggested it as a potential site. Charles Gordon, a well-known British major general, endorsed this view in the late 1800s, and it came to be associated with him.
What features make it a potential location for the crucifixion? First of all, it’s an actual hill. This helps make sense of Mark’s words: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome” (Mark 15:40). It would be much easier to see from a distance if the location was on a rise.
Some also argue it’s more likely this place would be known by Romans and Jews alike as “Golgotha” if there were skull-like features. Gordon’s Calvary (or Skull Hill as it’s come to be known) has two holes in the rock’s formation that resemble the eyes on a skull. Another feature that makes this a likely site is its proximity to the Garden Tomb, one of the potential locations of Jesus’s tomb.
But this is still a contested site. One of the major arguments against is the very fact that it just isn’t traditionally accepted. Many argue that if this was where the Lord was crucified, it would be much more significant and have been referenced much earlier than the 19th century.
Near the Lion’s Gate
In recent years, a missionary named Rodger Dusatko has suggested another site close to Jerusalem. This site is a hill right outside of the Lion’s Gate. Incidentally, the Lion’s Gate marks the location where Christians observe Jesus’s final walk from the prison to His crucifixion (Via Dolorosa).
This potential site for Golgotha is a sloping hill outside of the wall, 330 meters northeast of where the temple stood. According to Dusatko, the word used to describe Golgotha isn’t skulla, which would signify the entire skull. Instead, the Gospel writers used kranion. This is where we get our English word “cranium”-the upper, curved part of the head. The hill outside the Lion’s Gate resembles this portion of a skull.
It’s Dusatko’s conviction that a direct sightline to the temple is essential when considering a potential location for Calvary. The reason can be found in Luke’s account:
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:44-47).
From Dusatko’s perspective, the centurion witnessed the tearing of the Temple curtain, and this is what convinced him that Jesus was a significant figure.
Critics of the Lion’s Gate hill would say that Luke wasn’t explicitly stating that the centurion saw the curtain torn. From that particular vantage point, the centurion would be able to see the temple, but wouldn’t have been able to see the curtain. Luke was likely saying that the centurion, having witnessed the day’s events, was convicted of Jesus’s righteousness.
Jesus and Adam?
One of the most interesting legends surrounding the crucifixion location has to do with the skull of Adam. It all started with Origen (A.D. 184-A.D.253), one of the most influential theologians and biblical scholars in the early church.
In his commentary on Matthew, Origen writes, “Concerning the place of the skull, it came to me that Hebrews hand down [the tradition that] the body of Adam has been buried there; in order that ‘as in Adam all die’ both Adam would be raised and ‘in Christ all will be made alive.’”
Epiphanius of Salamis (A.D. 315-A.D. 403), the bishop of Salamis, Cyprus, said this in his Panarion, “… our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on Golgotha, nowhere else than where Adam’s body lay buried. For after leaving Paradise, living opposite it for a long time and growing old, Adam later came and died in this place, I mean Jerusalem, and was buried there, on the site of Golgotha.”
This legend was handed down throughout history. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Chrysostom (A.D. 349-A.D. 407) says, “‘And He came to the place of a skull.’ Some say that Adam died there, and there lies; and that Jesus in this place where death had reigned, there also set up the trophy.”
The early church perpetuated this legend through the writings of Athanasius, Basil of Seleucia, and even Jerome (who disagreed, believing that Adam was buried in Hebron and not Jerusalem).
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre even has a Chapel of Adam located beneath the proposed rock of Golgotha. The significance of this site rests on the idea that when the earthquake occurred during Jesus’s death, the ground beneath the cross cracked open and His blood ran down to Adam’s skull, securing the connection between Adam’s sin (which impacted us all) and Christ’s redemptive blood.
This is one of those myths that are incredibly interesting but serves absolutely no purpose. As we’ve seen, it’s difficult enough to isolate the location where Jesus was crucified. To think we have any idea where Adam’s body may be buried is pretty unlikely. And it’s a good reminder of the need to focus on the facts in these discussions.
So what do we know?
It should be evident by now that we can’t be sure of the location of Jesus’s crucifixion. Does that mean it never happened? Not at all. Numerous extra-biblical accounts confirm that Christ was put to death just as the Gospels tell us.
Tacitus was a first-century historian (and senator) in Rome. In his Annals, he explains how the emperor Nero responded to the fire in Rome by persecuting Christians-but in doing so, he confirms how Jesus died:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired (Tacitus, Annals, emphasis added).
Thallus was a first-century historian, and a lot of his work has been lost-but the second-century historian Sextus Julius Africanus quotes him. What’s interesting here is that Africanus quotes Thallus as he explains away the earthquake and darkness that occurred at the crucifixion:
On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18:1).
A Syriac philosopher of the same time period named Mara bar Serapion equated the killing of Jesus to the death of other philosophers who were killed for their convictions:
What are we to say when the wise are forcibly dragged by the hands of tyrants and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence without the opportunity of making a defence? They are not wholly to be pitied.
What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished.
God justly avenged these three wise men. The Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die; he lived on in the teaching which he had given (Mara bar Simpson, a letter to his son).
These are only a couple of extra-biblical and extra-Christian sources that help to confirm what the Gospels tell us about Jesus’s death on the cross. And even if we never know the exact location of Jesus’s death, we can still put our faith in the fact that:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).
Through His death, Jesus set His plan in motion to reconcile the world to Himself, and it’s the reason why we have a message of reconciliation. We can’t be certain of the location of the crucifixion, but in Paul’s words we know that, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20a). And we can have faith that God was at the cross reconciling the world to Himself.
Thankfully, Jesus’s death isn’t the end of the story. Celebrate the resurrection with us by reading and sharing Why Is the Resurrection of Jesus So Important?