HE IS RISEN; But Not from the Garden Tomb!


Like most of what I write here, this is an opinion piece, not based on personal experience or my own research, but rather on a lot of reading and thinking about things that pique my interest. With, occasionally, some personal observation thrown in. Of course, my opinions don’t really carry much weight in the world. My readership is small, and in any case, the question in consideration is mainly of academic interest, important only to purists like me.

Recent scholarship recognizes two main possibilities for the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial: Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb; and inside the bounds of the Church of the Resurrection (hereinafter, “the church”). The current scholarly view is that the latter is the correct choice. I am personally 98% sure that the former is not correct and 85% sure that the latter is. Here are some arguments:

Gordon's Calvary Typology (2)

Gen. Charles Gordon popularized the notion that the northern site is correct, based not on archaeological evidence but on a strongly anti-Semitic typology which I will describe below. The church location was given official status by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century based on local Christian tradition. An apparently unbroken chain of succession of bishops in Jerusalem, and the importance of the death and burial, make it quite easy for me to believe that the tradition is valid.

In Gordon’s thinking, the skull-shaped outcropping represents the skull of Jesus; the Antonia Ridge, which arcs from northwest to southeast between his Golgotha and the Antonia Fortress outside the northwest corner of the Temple Mount is Jesus’ spine and torso; the Mount itself is the pelvis; the ridge on which the City of David rests represents the legs; and the Siloam pool, the feet. According to this imagery, that made the Jewish Temple an anus!

Gordon, like many people since, was impressed by the skull shape itself. After all, “Golgotha” does translate to “skull hill.” The problem with this is that with 2,000 years of weathering, the probability that the outcropping looked at all the same in Jesus’ day as it does now is virtually zero. The traditional site of Golgotha may be aptly named for either of two reasons: first, another Christian tradition, not so easy to believe, is that the skull of Adam was buried beneath the cross; the more plausible explanation is simply that this was a common execution site.

John 19 Inset

Both sites are likely execution places in that both are located at rock quarries close to a major road and a populated area. These conditions were ideal for Roman crucifixions, which were designed to be seen and to provide a deterrent to future malfeasance. Additionally, Jewish stoning was done by placing the guilty party at the bottom of a cliff or in a pit and rolling large stones on top of him or her.

Jewish law forbade executions inside the city. It was long thought that because the church location was inside the Third Wall of Jerusalem, it could not be the legitimate site of an execution. Gordon’s Calvary, on the other hand, was about a hundred yards outside the Third Wall, just off the Damascus Road. We now know, however, that the Third Wall was built later during the regency of Herod Agrippa I and later rulers, so both sites were appropriately outside the city at that time.

Both sites meet the criteria of a tomb in a garden located near the execution site. Gordon preferred the tranquil setting of the northern site as compared to the pomp and bustle of the church. This is merely an emotional preference, not any kind of proof, since in Jesus’ day the site of the garden at the church would have been just as tranquil.

Another “proof” used to champion the northern site was the discovery of two early tomb inscriptions found nearby. These have since been discredited.

The most telling argument of all is that it has become apparent from subsequent archaeological studies in Israel that the burial grounds around the church contain Second Temple era tombs, while the Garden Tomb and all those around it are from the Iron Age, in particular around the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Since John’s gospel describes Jesus’ tomb as “new”, it almost certainly wouldn’t have been built to specifications that had gone out of style centuries earlier. Though the two styles were somewhat similar at first glance, they were actually very much different.

I would suggest one more argument of my own to support the church as the authentic burial site: during the Roman period, Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter, not on the Temple Mount as used to be thought, but in the present Christian Quarter, adjacent to the eventual site of the Church of the Resurrection. Outside his temple, and squarely on top of the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, he leveled the terrain and erected a statue of Aphrodite! Perhaps this was a response to the Christian traditions. My thinking is that, because the 10th Roman Legion was still quartered in the city, there would still, just a century later, be a great deal of institutional embarrassment over the “losing” of Jesus’ body and the subsequent development of a major and very troublesome new religion around the claims of His resurrection at that spot. I think that the inevitable Roman military traditions alone would constitute a very powerful argument in favor of that location.

Easter Myths, part 1

Updated 7/12/2022

If you think I’m about to say that the resurrection is a myth, forget it! The resurrection of Jesus is central to my life and theology. I’d have no reason to exist without it. This is about “other stuff.”

Myth: The resurrection occurred on Easter Sunday. This won’t come as a shock. We all know that Easter is a Christian commemoration of the event, not a celebration of the exact day of the year. But why do we do it that way? In the early centuries of Christianity, many churches in the Roman Empire began to object to celebration on the traditional date, considering it to be a “humiliating subjection to the Synagogue.” During the 2nd Century, many of those churches had begun celebrating Easter on a Sunday, regardless of the Biblical calendar. For a clue to the mindset, there’s this ancient text: “Sunday commemorates the resurrection of the lord, the victory over the Jews.”

In AD 325, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to discuss two major issues in the church. One of those was “the Passover Controversy”, the disagreement between churches that commemorated the resurrection on the Jewish feast day and those that did not. Constantine’s view, of course, won out. He wrote,

It seemed to every one a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity, who, polluted wretches! Having stained their hands with a nefarious crime, are justly blinded in their minds.”

It is fit, therefore, that, rejecting the practice of this people, we should perpetuate to all future ages the celebration of this rite, in a more legitimate order, which we have kept from the first day of our Lord’s passion even to the present times. Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews. … In pursuing this course with a unanimous consent, let us withdraw ourselves, my much honored brethren, from that most odious fellowship. … [I urge you] to use every means, that the purity of your minds may not be affected by a conformity in any thing with the customs of the vilest of mankind. … As it is necessary that this fault should be so amended that we may have nothing in common with the usage of these parricides and murderers of our Lord.

The date for Jewish celebration of the Passover season Feasts is tied by Divine Ordinance to specific dates on the Hebrew calendar (see Leviticus 23). Non-Jews are released from such ordinances, so I don’t care on what day we celebrate the Resurrection. But you should be aware that the name, “Easter”, and most of the secular traditions tied to the holiday are pagan in origin, and that Nicene Council separated it from Passover for blatantly anti-Semitic reasons.

Myth: The crucifixion occurred on Passover, Nisan 14. Well, yes and no. The crucifixion happened on Nisan 15, after the sacrifices and after the official Passover as specified in Torah. It became customary, even in the New Testament, to refer to the three spring feasts together as “Passover.” Technically, Passover is just the short period of twilight between Nisan 14 and 15, on the Jewish calendar (see Part 2 of this series). Immediately after Passover, the 7-day Feast of Unleavened Bread begins on Nisan 15. And in the middle of this period, there is the Feast of Early Firstfruits. Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover Seder. That meal always begins during that twilight period, true Passover, and ends around midnight on Nisan 15, when celebrants adjourn to the streets and rooftops to sing the Hallel Psalms together. The crucifixion, therefore, occurred on Nisan 15, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

My reckoning of the Crucifixion Week timeline. ©Ron Thompson

Myth: Jesus died at the very instant that the High Priest plunged his knife into the heart of the Passover Lamb. I’ve heard this one even from Ray Vander Laan, a man I consider to be an expert on Israel and its customs. But it’s wrong on so many levels! First, the sacrifices occurred during the day before the Seder, on Nisan 14; the crucifixion was the next day, Nisan 15. Second, there wasn’t just one lamb; there was a lamb for approximately every ten people celebrating. Perhaps 100,000 lambs, killed over a period of hours! Which one are they talking about? Third, the High Priest killed only his own lamb, and that much earlier in the day, before the Temple gates were opened. All the other lambs had to be killed by their owners, not by a priest. Fourth, each lamb was killed by a quick slash of its throat, as specified by scripture. A knife to its heart would be considered cruelty, and in the context of the Feast, could get one stoned. Sometimes, the melodrama in the pulpit is just crazy!

To be continued…

For a complete series on the Principle Jewish Feasts, as specified in Leviticus 23, please see The Jewish Feasts–The Back of My Mind.