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The Final Week of Jesus: An Archaeological and Historical Reflection

During Holy Week, thousands of Christians from around the world stream into Jerusalem to walk the ground and visit the sites that commemorate and remember Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. These pilgrims are shown traditional sites and locations that appear on standard Christian pilgrimage tours of Israel and Jerusalem. Many of these “traditional” sites have nothing to commend them either historically or archaeologically. The traditions associated with many of these sites grew up due political and economic agenda, misunderstandings by western visitors, and misinformation by local guides.

The Gospels do not provide a sightseeing guidebook of places associated with Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. And, the locations they do provide, for example Gethsemane and Golgatha, they do not identify neither do other ancient, contemporary sources. The Gospels do, however, offer certain key information (often ignored by the common reader) that together with contemporary sources, like Josephus, and archaeological discovery we can reasonably suggest locations or places that help us to imagine the geography and events of the final days and hours of Jesus’ last week, most of which have nothing to do with locations shown to modern pilgrims to Jerusalem.


Jerusalem from the south

One of the greatest challenges in guiding visitors to Jerusalem is to help them understand that the current “Old City” of Jerusalem has nothing to do with biblical Jerusalem, in either the Old Testament or New Testament periods. The current Old City walls were built in the sixteenth century by the Turkish Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. The layout of the Old City began to take shape during the late Roman period (2nd-4th centuries CE), when Jerusalem was reimagined as a Roman city, named Aelia Capitolina. The details within the Old City that one encounters today emerge from the Crusader and later Moslem and Ottoman periods.

Even the name “Old City” is a modern phenomenon that did not come into being until Jewish neighborhoods began to be built outside the walls of Jerusalem in the 1860s and 1870s. Once a “New City” emerged the walled part of the city became referred to as the “Old City.” The oldest part of Jerusalem, situated on the eastern hill, what today is referred to as the City of David, and in the Bible was known as Mount Zion, lies outside the modern Old City of Jerusalem. Likewise, much of Jesus’ Jerusalem lay outside the modern Old City walls. Understanding this is vital for the student of the New Testament who wants to gain a sense of the geography of Jesus’ final days.

The topography of biblical Jerusalem was defined by a series of hills and valleys. The eastern boundary of Jerusalem was the Mount of Olives. Never included within the city of Jerusalem, it served as the city’s cemetery (as it does still today). The Kidron Valley separates the western slope of the Mount of Olives from the city of Jerusalem. This valley runs north-south eventually snaking its way to the southeast and draining into the Dead Sea. The Kidron Valley forms the eastern boundary of Jerusalem.

The Kidron Valley separates the Mount of Olives from the eastern hill (City of David), biblical Mount Zion. On the eastern slope of the eastern hill, one finds the main water source of Jerusalem, the Gihon Spring, which is a karstic spring. This water source explains why Jerusalem began on the eastern hill and not on other higher hills that surround it. The eastern hill contained the city of the Jebusites that David conquered and made his capital. Bounded by valleys on its eastern, southern, and western sides, Solomon expanded Jerusalem to the northern part of the eastern hill where he built his palace, administrative buildings, and his temple to the God of Israel.

On the west side of the eastern hill, a valley separates the eastern hill from the western hill (modern day Mount Zion). This valley, which runs north-south, is called the Tyropoean or Central Valley. The Western Wall of the Temple Mount (see below) extends across this valley to the eastern slope of the western hill. During the reign of King Hezekiah (8th century BCE), the western hill was included within the walled city of Jerusalem. To its west, the western hill has the natural fortification of the Hinnom Valley, which runs north-south, but twists southeast around the southern part of the western hill until it meets up with the Central and Kidron Valleys.

Jerusalem at the end of the First Temple period, when it was destroyed by the Babylonian armies of King Nebuchadnezzer, included the eastern hill, the Central Valley, and the western hill. It had natural fortifications of deep valleys on its eastern, southern, and western sides. It was vulnerable from the north, which is why all attacks against Jerusalem come from the north. The northern part of the western hill, however, has a small transversal ditch that travels west-east. This ditch—the line of which follows David Street today within the Old City of Jerusalem—offered minimal defense, so the northern stretch of Hezekiah’s wall that incorporated the western hill into the walls of Jerusalem followed the line of the transversal valley.

When the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity and Nehmiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, he only rebuilt the walls the surrounded the eastern hill. He did not include the western hill, where still some of Hezekiah’s walls stood. In the second century BCE, the Hasmonean rulers (Jewish priest-kings) built the walls of Jerusalem to include the western hill. In places on the western hill, their wall incorporated existing stretches of the earlier walls of Hezekiah that remained standing. Josephus refers to this wall built by the Hasmoneans as the “First Wall.”

At some point in the first century BCE, a second wall was built that connected to the First Wall and the area of the northern end of the Temple Mount. This wall enclosed an area of shops north of the first wall. It is unclear from the ancient sources who built this wall, whether it was one of the last of the Hasmoneans or Herod the Great. As the remains of this wall lie under the Christian and Muslim Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem today, limited archaeological excavations have been able to determine the date of the wall’s building or its exact route. Josephus refers to this wall as the “Second Wall,” and he states that it met with the First Wall at the Gennath Gate, which is the only gate he mentions in the northern wall line of the First and Second Walls.

The Jerusalem Jesus knew existed of the First and Second Walls. The modern Old City walls are roughly 2.2 miles in circumference; the walls of Jesus’ Jerusalem were twice that size. After Jesus, in 41-44 CE, the grandson of Herod the Great, Agrippa I began to build a Third Wall that stretched to the north of the Second Wall enclosing the northern neighborhoods of Jerusalem. He never finished this wall, but the Jewish rebels completed it on the eve of the Great Revolt. This was Jerusalem (the First, Second, and Third Walls) destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. It was also the largest Jerusalem extent of Jerusalem until the modern period when neighborhoods grew up outside of the modern Old City.

Jesus’ Jerusalem was dominated by two foci: the palace of Herod the Great and the Temple Mount. Herod’s palace stood at the highest point of the city on the western hill. To its north it was guarded by three towers—Phasael (named after his brother), Mariamne (named after his beloved Hasmonean wife, whom he had killed), and Hippicus (probably the commander of his cavalry). Little remains of Herod’s palace, as most of it lies buried under the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. The base of one of the three towers remains. Within the Tower of David Museum and the moat that surrounds it, some remains of walls of Herod’s palace as well as a large pool with steps can be seen. In the Kishle, which was the prison during the Ottoman and British periods, remains of Herod’s palace can also be found. Some portions of the palace were also uncovered in the Armenian Garden by Dan Bahat.

In the eastern part of the city, on the northern end of the eastern hill, stood the Temple Mount. Herod began a building project that transformed the northern part of the eastern hill, where the Temple of Solomon had stood, as well as the Second Temple built by Zerubbabel and the Jews that returned from Babylon, erecting his temple, which stood twice as high as the current Dome of the Rock on top of the Temple Mount today. He also renovated the sacred area of the temple and the courts surrounding it. Construction continued after Herod’s death on the Temple Mount with the construction of the western and southern walls of the Temple Mount including the building of the Royal Stoa and what is today referred to as Robinson’s Arch (named after the American who identified it in the 19th century, Edward Robinson). The area of the Temple Mount was still under construction when Jesus was in Jerusalem; it was completed shortly before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.

The Temple of Jerusalem in the First Century

The Temple Mount was the primary focus of pilgrim activity as Jews from all over the land of Israel and beyond streamed into Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Shavu’ot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles). The New Testament attests to its prominence by making it the most mentioned piece of real estate within the New Testament. Pilgrims approached the Temple Mount from the south. They first immersed themselves either in the Pool of Siloam, which sits in the Central Valley on the southern tip of the eastern hill, or in the other ritual immersion pools that surrounded the Temple Mount. After immersing and being ritually pure, pilgrims received a token identifying their purity to enter the sacred area of the temple. One such token was discovered in excavations along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount by Eli Shukron, and it bears the inscription: “Pure to the Lord.”[1]

Pilgrims entered the Temple Mount from the south. Remains of the southern gates used by pilgrims can still be seen on the southern wall of the Temple Mount, outlined by a Double and Triple Gate. The Triple Gate lies approximately 100 meters east of the Double Gate. The Mishnah described pilgrims entering and exiting the Temple Mount through these gates:

“Whosever it was that entered the Temple Mount came in on the right and went and came out on the left, save any whom aught befell, for he went round to the left. ‘What ails you that you go to the left?’ ‘Because I am a mourner.’ ‘May He that dwells in this house give you comfort!’ ‘Because I am under a ban.’ ‘May He that dwells in this house put it into their heart to bring you near again!’” (m. Middot 2.2).

On its northern side, the Antonia Fortress adjoined the Temple Mount. This fortress overlooked the Temple courts. Built by Herod the Great on top of the Hasmonean Baris fortress, the Antonia was most likely one of Herod’s first building projects as it honored his friend and benefactor, Mark Antony, whose defeat by Augustus at Actium (31 BCE) made him unpopular within the Roman Empire. The Antonia Fortress housed Roman soldiers, who could watch the activities that went on in the Temple, and, in case of any unrest, could be on hand to restore order within the temple precincts (see Acts 22:31-40).

The Antonia Fortress

The Temple Mount with the temple dominated the attention of pilgrims and Jews in Jerusalem (like Jesus); however, Herod’s palace, located at the highest point within the walled city, had a commanding view of the Temple Mount. This was Jesus’ Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem of Jesus


Palm Sunday

The Gospels relate that on his final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus approached the city from the east, coming via Jericho (Luke 19:1). Galilean pilgrims had three ways that they could travel from Galilee to Jerusalem. They could take a westerly approach, which would take them through the Jezreel Valley, down the coastal plain, and up to Jerusalem, most likely following the ancient road via Upper and Lower Beth Horon. By this route they would approach Jerusalem from the north.

The second option led them from Galilee to Jerusalem through the hill country of Samaria (John 4:3-4). This was the quickest route, the easiest to travel, and water was most plentiful; however, it brought Jews through the land of the Samaritans. Tensions rose at times between Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem traveling through Samaria and the Samaritans, so Jewish pilgrims would elect to travel a different way to Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51-53).

The third route pilgrims used led them through the Harod Valley, which funnels out of the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, past Beth-Shean (Scythopolis; i.e., “between Samaria and Galilee” Luke 17:11), crossing the Jordan River, and journeying down the east bank of the Jordan River, which was inhabited by Jews. Pilgrims then crossed the Jordan River opposite Jericho passing the ancient city as they ascended to Jerusalem, journeying from 1200 feet below sea level to almost 2700 feet above sea level in a span of approximately thirteen miles. This latter route was the way Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem on his way to the Passover.

Approaching Jerusalem from the east and Jericho led one over the Mount of Olives, which the Gospels describe as the path that Jesus took (Luke 19:28-29). Today, every Palm Sunday, pilgrims from all over the world walk down the Mount of Olives on a Palm Sunday processional. This modern route cannot be the ancient way Jesus entered into the city, as it leads through a first century cemetery. Corpse impurity conveyed the greatest degree of ritual impurity within Judaism; therefore, if Jesus had travelled down the Mount of Olives using the route of modern pilgrims, he would have contracted corpse impurity and not been able to enter the Temple as he immediately did. There are two saddles that allowed easier passage over the Mount of Olives, one in the north and the other in the south. More likely he crossed the Mount of Olives using one of these routes, most probably the southern saddle.

It seems most probable that his route took him via the southern stretch, in particular due to his coming through Bethpage, which marked the outer limits of Jerusalem (m. Menahot 11.2; b. Pesahim 63b). This route also would provide him the easiest access into the city near the Pool of Siloam, which he could have used for ritual immersion, and proceeded into the temple complex and its courts. Upon entering Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple (Luke 19:45) where much of the events of his last week took place (Luke 20:1).

According to the Gospels, he did not stay in Jerusalem, but resided in Bethany, which sits on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives less than two miles from Jerusalem. The population of Jerusalem surged during the pilgrim festivals (Josephus, Antiquities 18.313), which meant that many pilgrims stayed outside of Jerusalem (Antiquities 17.213-214). Each day Jesus journeyed from Bethany into Jerusalem (Mark 11:11-12). In Jerusalem, he taught in the temple courts and challenged the priestly, Sadducean aristocracy for their corruption, while the people hung upon his every word (Luke 20:19).

The Passover Meal (Last Supper)

Celebration of the Passover brought Jesus to Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel indicates that Jesus’ family made the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover (2:41-42). Although Jesus stayed in Bethany, the celebration of the Passover meal had to take place within the walled city of Jerusalem (m. Pesahim 7.9, 12; 10.3). The Passover lamb had to be eaten in the presence of the Lord, i.e., in the temple courts, but this was not practical with tens-of-thousands of pilgrims, so the sages of Israel extended the sanctity of the Temple to the walled city of Jerusalem on the evening of Passover (the 14th of Nissan). Thus, the pilgrims who stayed in the villages around Jerusalem came into Jerusalem on the evening of Passover to celebrate the festival and eat their meal.

Priests generally offered (i.e., slaughtered) all other sacrifices; however, the Passover lambs were to be sacrificed by the pilgrims bringing them (Deut. 16:2; m. Pesahim 5.6; Philo, Spec. 2.145). When Jesus sent Peter and John saying, “Go and prepare the Passover (τὸ πάσχα: i.e., the Passover lamb) in order that we may eat,” he not only sent them to prepare the place where they would celebrate the meal, but to sacrifice the lamb itself in preparation for the dinner. Peter and John would have entered the Temple precincts with other pilgrims and slaughtered the lamb they had purchased. The sacrifice was performed on the 14th of Nissan and had to be eaten on the night of Passover (Deut. 16:6; Antiquities 3.248; War 6.423).

The name of the festival, Passover (pesah: פסח; Luke 22:1; War 2.10; 6.423; Antiquities 2.313; 3.248; 9.271), refers also to the sacrifice, the Passover lamb (פסח: pesah: τὸ πάσχα; 2 Chr. 35:11; m. Pesahim 3.7; Luke 22:7; Antiquities 11.110). In other words, when Jesus stated to his disciples, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you,” he referred to the roasted lamb that sat on the table in front of him.

In recent years, some have suggested that Jesus’ last supper did not include a Passover lamb. This suggestion arises from the fact that in John’s Gospel Jesus’ last supper takes place “before the feast of Passover” (13:1; see 18:28). Those who argue that Jesus’ last supper did not include a lamb suggest that John best preserves the historical reality.

Some also appeal to the different calendars used within the first century between the various Jewish groups to explain the discrepancy between John and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). They suggest that Jesus actually observed a (Passover) meal in line with the solar calendar followed by the Essenes, the Qumran Community. Such a suggestion ignores several pertinent details: 1) Jesus followed rabbinic prescription in eating his Passover meal within the walled city of Jerusalem. The Essenes did not participate in the temple cult because they saw the temple as defiled, but even if they had, it seems probable that they would have expected to eat the Passover within the temple precincts (see Jubilees 49.19-20). 2) Jesus and his disciples reclined at table (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:18; Luke 22:14; John 13:23, 28), which was typical within broader Jewish practice at Passover. Josephus mentions that the Essene custom was to sit while eating (War 2.130). 3) Jesus and his disciples ate out of a common dish (Matt. 26:23; Mark 14:20; Luke 22:17; John 13:26). The Essenes ate out of personal dishes and did not dine out of a common bowl (War 2.130), most likely due to their strict purity concerns. For these reasons, the evidence does not fit that Jesus observed an Essene Passover. Moreover, the language used in the Synoptic Gospels indicates that a lamb was part of Jesus’ meal. Essene Passover meals would not have included a lamb since they did not participate in the temple cult.

John’s removal of Jesus’ last supper from being a Passover meal likely comes from his desire throughout his gospel to present Jesus as the lamb (1:29) and the beloved son (Gen. 22:2; John 3:16). The earliest Jewish tradition dates Abraham’s offering of Isaac to Passover (Jubilees 17.15-18.14). John’s desire to present Jesus as the beloved son, the lamb, led him to alter Jesus’ last meal from being a Passover meal, so that he could depict Jesus as dying at the moment when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (19:14).

Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac

While Jesus observed a Passover meal, eating a roasted lamb, which had been sacrificed earlier that day in the temple, the Passover meal in the first century was not the Passover Seder observed within Jewish homes today. The Passover meal in the first century consisted of the roasted lamb, two cups of wine—one before the meal (Luke 22:17) and one after (1 Cor. 12:25)—not the four cups of wine drank during the Seder today, and the singing of the Hallel (Psalm 113-118; see Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). The development of the Seder and haggadah began in the early rabbinic period, after the destruction of the Jerusalem and the temple.

The Gospels do not indicate where in the city Jesus celebrated the meal with his disciples, only describing it as a “room upstairs” (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12). Early Christian tradition placed this room on the western hill. Literary and archaeological evidence, however, does not exist to verify such an identification. Pilgrims that visit Jerusalem today are shown the site of the Upper Room on the western hill, which has been mistakenly identified as Mount Zion since the Byzantine period. The place pilgrims are taken, however, dates to the Crusader period, and has no archaeological or historical basis.


After eating the Passover meal within the walled city of Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples withdrew to the slopes of the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39; Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). Matthew and Mark indicate that they came to a place called Gethsemane. The Gospels are the only first century sources that mention Gethsemane; therefore, we do not know where on the Mount of Olives it was located.

The Mount of Olives lay within “a Sabbath’s day journey” (Act 1:12)—the limits of travel on a holy day. This prohibited Jesus returning to Bethany, which lay beyond the boundaries of travel permitted on a holy day. Instead Jesus and his disciples stayed on the Mount of Olives that night probably surrounded by other pilgrims who had exited the walled city after eating their Passover meals. It has been suggested that Jesus, drawn by custom (Luke 22:39), went to a place on the Mount of Olives remembered as a place David used to pray (y. Berachot 4.8b).[2]

We cannot pinpoint the location where Jesus and his disciples spent the night. The current site identified as the Garden of Gethsemane dates to the late Byzantine period, and therefore, cannot be given serious consideration for historical accuracy.

The traditional location of Gethsemane

The Mount of Olives sits as the eastern boundary of Jerusalem. It also acts as the eastern watershed of the hill country around Jerusalem. The eastern slope of the Mount of Olives descends into the wilderness as it falls off into the Jordan River Valley. This wilderness provided refuge for people throughout history, including David as he fled from Absalom. When Jesus prayed, on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, within less than an hour he could have disappeared into that wilderness. In other words, when he prayed, “Not my will, but Yours be done,” he stood at the door of escape. If he wanted to, he could have gone over the Mount of Olives and disappeared into the wilderness, away from Caiaphas and Pilate. This reality becomes very clear when one stands on the Mount of Olives.

Before the Chief Priests

After Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, a group of the chief priests and their temple guard, led by Judas Iscariot, came out to arrest Jesus. They needed Judas, not to identify Jesus, who was known to them, but to help them identify where on the Mount of Olives Jesus and his disciples were among the many pilgrims camping out there after the Passover meal.[3]

They led him first “to Annas” (John 18:12-14, 24; see Luke 3:2), who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas the acting high priest. From Annas, they took Jesus to the house of Caiaphas where he was held in the courtyard of the high priest’s home (Luke 22:55, 61). To pass the time and amuse themselves, the men who held Jesus played an ancient game blindfolding Jesus and beating him demanding that he “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” (Luke 22:63-64).[4] Apart from this cruel, macabre game, Jesus’ night passed relatively quietly waiting in the courtyard of the high priest’s home for morning.

Pilgrims to Jerusalem today are shown two locations identified as the house of Caiaphas. One sits atop the western hill in a property owned by the Armenians, just next to the Dormition Abbey. The more popular location is the modern church: Saint Peter in Gallicantu. The church property sits along the eastern slope of the western hill. The modern church is built on top of Byzantine ruins of a monastic church, which a very late document (6th century CE) identifies as the place Peter went after he denied Jesus. The Byzantine ruins are built atop rock-cut structures, cisterns, and stables. The precise dating of these structures is unclear, although some date them to the first century BCE or CE.

Pilgrims are shown the stables with the holes cut into the wall where the animals were tied and told this is the prison of the high priest’s house where Jesus was tied and beaten. Local guides identify a nearby cistern as the pit Jesus was held in as he awaited appearing before the chief priests and Sadducean leaders. Local guides and pastors have even taken to reading Psalm 88 saying that this psalm describes the experience of Jesus in this pit.

Like the demons cast into the pigs, the problems with this are legion. 1) The structure identified as the place where Jesus was tied and beaten is a stable for animals. The holes on the wall were not used to tie people prior to beating, but to tether animals. 2) Jesus was not beaten by the guards of the chief priests. They blindfolded and mocked him in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ home (Luke 22:55, 63-64). Jesus was only beaten by Roman soldiers (see below), not by the Jews! 3) The pit shown to pilgrims is a cistern. All houses in Jerusalem are built on top of cisterns. It does not rain in Jerusalem from April to October, so water is caught in rock-cut cisterns under the homes. These ancient cisterns continued to be used into the period of the British Mandate. It was never used as a pit or a prison. 4) Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion happened at Passover, during the spring of the year, after the winter rains. When the cisterns would have been full of water! If Jesus had been held in a cistern, he would have been doing the backstroke. 5) More importantly, the Gospels clearly state where Jesus was held in Caiaphas’ home: the courtyard (Luke 22:55, 61). While it is understandable that local tour guides do not pay close attention to the details of the biblical text, it is unfortunate that too many pastors and spiritual leaders repeat these nonsensical, non-biblical traditions. 6) The four canonical Gospels nowhere mention or allude to Psalm 88 within the context of Jesus’ final hours. Using this and placing Jesus in the cistern is nothing more than modern myth.

While the house of Caiaphas has not been identified, archaeological excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City have uncovered high priestly homes. One home yielded a stone weight with the inscription: “belonging to Bar Kathros,” a high priestly family.[5] Later rabbinic tradition remembers the high priestly families and their cruelty, financial misconduct, and clandestine activities against their fellow countrymen:

Woe is me because of the house of Boethus; woe is me because of their staves! Woe is me because of the house of Hanin (Annas; Luke 3:2; John 18:12-14); woe is me because of their whisperings! Woe is me because of the house of Kathros; woe is me because of their pens! Woe is me because of the house of Ishmael the son of Phabi; woe is me because of their fists! For they are high priests and their sons are [temple] treasurers and their sons-in-law are trustees and their servants beat the people with staves (see Luke 22:63-64; b. Pesahim 57a; t. Menahot 13.21).

Stone weight with the inscription: "Belonging to Bar Kathros"

In the neighborhood of houses next to the house of Bar Kathros, archaeologists uncovered other palatial houses including a mansion that is over 6,000 square feet! This house contained imported Roman fine ware, frescoed walls in the latest Roman styles. This house also contains several Jewish ritual immersion baths suggesting that the occupants were a high priestly family.[6] These homes provide a window into the high priestly opposition to Jesus, and their financial corruption that is attested in Josephus, the New Testament, and rabbinic sources. While we cannot identify this mansion as belonging to the family of Annas, or his son-in-law, the opulence of the house certainly indicates the wealth that would have existed within the longest ruling high priestly family (see Antiquities 20.198).[7]

Priestly mansions in Jerusalem

At dawn, they led Jesus from Caiaphas’ house into the chamber of the Jewish council (Luke 22:66). Notley has noted the Luke consistently used the phrase, “the Sanhedrin” (τὸ συνεδριον) in his Gospel and the early part of Acts to refer to the council-chamber, the Chamber of Hewn Stone (לשכת הגזית; m. Pe’ah 2.6; m. Sanhedrin 11.2; m. Middot 5.4; y. Sanhedrin 19c), where the Jewish council met (in and around the Temple Mount).[8] Jesus was brought into the council-chamber to stand in front of the clan of Annas (see Acts 4:6), with his son-in-law Caiaphas presiding, to find sufficient evidence to hand Jesus over to Pilate and Rome as an enemy of the State (see Luke 23:2). Clearly, Jesus did not stand in front of the full Sanhedrin, nor did he undergo a trial before the Jewish council.

Flusser has noted that two graves were set aside for those executed by order of the Sanhedrin (m. Sanhedrin 9.6);[9] Jesus, of course, was not buried in either of those graves. Moreover, tractate Semahot states that those executed by the State, i.e., Rome, were to be given proper burial rites (2.9), but those executed by the Sanhedrin were not to be given rites (2.6). At no point, after Jesus’ death was there an attempt not to give him proper burial rites, as should be expected if the he was condemned by the Sanhedrin. In fact, the women coming on the first day of the week to Jesus’ tomb came to prepare the body and give it burial rites (Luke 24:1).

Jesus Before Pilate

Rembrandt, Jesus before Pilate

After questioning him, the chief priests, led by Caiaphas, felt they had sufficient evidence to condemn Jesus before Pilate, so they took him to the Roman Prefect, to the praetorium (Matt. 27:27; Mark 15:16; John 18:28), and charged him with political sedition (Luke 23:2). Pilate, like all Roman Prefects and Procurators, usually resided in Caesarea along the Mediterranean coast. Pilate came to Jerusalem for the Passover festival to make sure to maintain a show of imperial power and “to keep the peace” during the Jewish celebration of liberty and freedom from Egyptian bondage.

Modern pilgrims to Jerusalem are told that Pilate resided in the Antonia Fortress, the fortress located on the northern side of the Temple Mount. This tradition arose during the Crusader period when the Crusaders made the mistaken assumption that Pilate condemned Jesus on the Temple Mount. The modern Via Dolorosa (“the way of suffering”) emerged within the Crusader period originating on the northern end of the Temple Mount and taking pilgrims past the European merchants (because of course pilgrimage has a large financial component).

Pilgrims are shown a street pavement under the Convent of the Sisters of Zion and the Ecce Homo arch and told by local guides that this pavement is the lithostratos[10] where Pilate condemned Jesus to death (John 19:13). Excavations have revealed, however, that this pavement dates to the Emperor Hadrian’s reconstruction of Jerusalem as a Roman, pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, in the second century CE! It was not part of the Jerusalem of Jesus.

For the past forty years, scholars and archaeologists have recognized that the place Pilate stayed in Jerusalem was the palace of Herod on the western hill. Mark’s Gospel identified Pilate’s location, the praetorium, as the palace (15:16). The book of Acts describes Herod’s palace in Caesarea as “the praetorium of Herod” (23:35) indicating that the residences of Herod the Great were designated as praetorium. The first century Jewish writers Josephus (War 2.31) and Philo (Legat. 38.299) mentioned that Herod’s palace in Jerusalem served as the residence of the Roman governor when he came to Jerusalem. First century sources never identified the Antonia Fortress as a palace. All of this suggests that Pilate resided during the feast of Passover at Herod’s palace on the western hill of Jerusalem, near present day Jaffa Gate. There he condemned Jesus to death, the Roman soldiers mocked him and beat him, and from there Jesus was led to his place of execution.[11]

The Way of the Cross

The modern Via Dolorosa (“the way of suffering,” i.e., the way Jesus traveled from Pilate to Golgatha) emerged in the Crusader period due to the mistaken idea of the Crusaders that Pilate condemned Jesus on the Temple Mount. The modern path, with its traditions, have grown up since then and have no foundation within history or archaeology.

Since the Byzantine period, the western hill (modern Mount Zion) has been identified as the place where Jesus was flogged during his confinement in Caiaphas’ house. As noted previously, according to the Gospels, Jesus did not undergo a flogging while in the residence of the high priest. This tradition developed in part due to Byzantine anti-Jewish notions that sought to identify the Jews as responsible for the flogging of Jesus.[12] This Byzantine tradition, however, although confused, likely bears witness to the earlier memory of Jesus’ flogging by the Roman soldiers in the palace of Herod the Great on the western hill. In fact, the earliest tradition that identified a route of Jesus’ journey from his flogging to his place of execution begins from the western hill, in the Armenian church of St. James, and ends at the Holy Sepulcher.

Jesus’ condemnation by Pilate at Herod’s palace on the western hill seems certain. Herod’s palace stood within the walls of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, and we know that Jesus was crucified outside of the wall (Heb. 13:12); thus, his route had to take him outside of the walls of Jerusalem. We mentioned above that Jesus’ Jerusalem consisted of what Josephus referred to as the First and Second Walls. Josephus mentions that the only one gate existed in the northern stretch of the First Wall. It occurred in the wall where the First and Second Walls met (War 5.146). Josephus mentions that the name of this gate was the Gennath (“Garden”) Gate.

The excavations in the Jewish Quarter led by Nahman Avigad uncovered such a gate along the northern line of the First Wall.[13] Visitors to Jerusalem can see the outline of this gate today along the Byzantine cardo. Black tiles on the modern pavement sketch out the walls, tower, and gate. Visitors can even descend down stairs and see the gate as well as the earthen fill that closed it.

The Gennath Gate

Gates are named for lies outside of them. For example, Jaffa Gate receives its name because the road heading towards Jaffa goes out from that gate. The naming of a gate, the Gennath (“Garden”) Gate, indicates that outside of the gate lay gardens and orchards (see John 19:41).

The Holy Sepulcher (see below) sits approximately 125 meters from the Gennath Gate. This gate, most likely, served as Jesus’ exit outside of the walls of Jerusalem to his execution. His route followed the trajectory from the top of the western hill by Herod’s palace—modern day Jaffa Gate and the Armenian Quarter—down the slope of the western hill, out of the Gennath Gate, towards his place of execution.

Golgatha and the Tomb

Visitors to Jerusalem today are shown two locations that vie as the place of Jesus’ execution and burial: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary. The tradition of the Holy Sepulcher goes back prior to the Byzantine period (see below). The tradition of the Garden Tomb and Gordon’s Calvary only emerged in the 19th century, in large part due to Protestants not having a place within the traditional location of the Holy Sepulcher.

The tomb of the Garden tomb was discovered by a peasant in 1867. It was investigated by Conrad Schick, a European correspondent for several learned societies in Europe. Some began to suggest that possibly this was the tomb of Jesus. To understand the basis of this suggestion, we must realize that Protestant Europeans had no claim to any part of the Holy Sepulcher. Also, Protestants were not a recognized religious entity until the 19th century by the Ottoman Empire; therefore, the growing Protestant visitors and journeymen to Jerusalem wanted their own place for the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.[14] The motive, then, was political, not historical or archaeological.

In 1883, the British General Charles Gordon came to Jerusalem. General Gordon had already achieved a great degree of fame for his exploits within the British Empire, but that fame would pale compared to the glory he received as a martyr of the Empire at Khartoum. And, in part, his stature after his death in Khartoum elevated the prominence of the Garden Tomb and the site he (and others) identified as Calvary.[15] He heroic status strengthened the claim of those who wanted to identify the Garden Tomb and its surroundings as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial despite no historical or archaeological evidence.

Gordon was not a scholar; in fact, he was a spiritual mystic. And, that mysticism led him to identify a rocky outcrop north of the modern Old City walls and the Damascus Gate as the site of Golgatha. Visitors to the Garden Tomb are told that Gordon identified the hill, which had (and has) a Muslim cemetery on top, because the side of the hill, in certain light, looks like a skull, but this, in fact, is myth.[16] When visitors go to the Garden Tomb, this is the only explanation that they are given for Gordon’s identification of the hill as “skull hill.”[17] Unfortunately, that is not the actual story as to why Gordon identified that hill as Golgatha.

As stated, Gordon was a spiritual mystic; and thus, he viewed the geography of Jerusalem in a mystical manner. He viewed the city in the shape of a human skeleton. The skull of the skeleton was in the north (where Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb currently reside); the pelvis was at the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. The legs stretched southward along the ridge of the eastern hill, and the feet were at the Pool of Siloam at the southern end of the City of David. This was Gordon’s “proof” that this rocky hill was Golgatha.[18]

While it is true that that Gordon was not the first westerner to suggest identifying this hill as Golgatha, his fame led his name to be attached to the site, and it gave the site its prominence. Yet even those who suggested the identification of this rocky hill as Golgatha did so motivated by religious and political aims and not historical, scientific, or archaeological.

Those who identified the hill as Golgatha pointed to this area as a known area of Jewish execution and stoning, particularly used by the Sanhedrin. The earliest Christian traditions place the stoning of Stephen within the area. The guides of the Garden Tomb also make this point trying to suggest that this was a place of execution, so it makes sense for the hill to be Golgatha. While this may have been a place of Jewish execution, the Jews did not kill Jesus. In a very subtle way, the association of the site with Jewish execution and the execution of Jesus hints at the Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus. Jesus, however, was executed by Rome, on a Roman cross, at the directive of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.

But what about the tomb of the Garden Tomb? Since the tomb was discovered in the 19th century, many tombs and tomb complexes have been discovered around Jerusalem and throughout the land of Israel. We now know very clearly the different styles of tombs in different periods, for example, the Old Testament and New Testament periods. How people bury their dead says a lot about how they view death, dying, and the afterlife. One thing we see within the Bible is that people in the Old Testament viewed death in a different manner than those in the New Testament. These differences appear within the archaeological record when we look at the styles of tombs.

The Gospels are clear that Jesus was buried in a new tomb, a rock-hewn tomb, in which “no one had ever been laid” (Luke 23:53). We should, therefore, expect that the tomb of Jesus will look like other known first century tombs discovered around Jerusalem.

The Garden Tomb is not a first century tomb! We will discuss first century tombs below, but the Garden Tomb belongs to a complex of tombs going back to the 8th-7th centuries BCE (Iron Age II). In fact, within the part of Jerusalem where the Garden Tomb is, there are no first century graves. The first century tombs lay further to the north. The Garden Tomb is the same style of tomb found within the complex of the Monastery of St. Etienne (St. Stephen), whose property adjoins the Garden Tomb property on the north. All of these tombs date to the same period and were likely part of the same burial complex of tombs.[19]

The Garden Tomb was remodeled and used again as a tomb in the Byzantine period.[20] This is the origin of the Christian marks and symbols found around it. Byzantine and Crusader Christians placed religious marks and symbols everywhere finding them at the Garden Tomb does not indicate that early Christians ever identified the Garden Tomb as the tomb of Jesus. Moreover, the tomb never served as a place of burial in the first century.

While the Garden Tomb is a lovely property outside of the Old City, away from the hustle and bustle of east Jerusalem, the tomb is too early to be the tomb of Jesus. Based upon the testimony of the Gospels that Jesus was laid in a new tomb, and what we know of first century tombs from archaeology, we can definitely state that the Garden Tomb cannot be the tomb of Jesus.

The traditional location identified as the location of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which sits within the heart of the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The origin of the church goes back to the Emperor Constantine. His mother the Empress Helena on a visit to the Holy Land (326 CE) was shown this location by local Christians and identified as the place where Jesus’ crucifixion and burial took place. Upon that site, her son built the first church, which was called the Church of the Resurrection.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Archaeological excavations within the church have uncovered the history of the site. In the 8th-7th centuries BCE, the location of the Holy Sepulcher was a large limestone quarry to the northwest of the walled city of Jerusalem. According to the excavator, the site continued to be used as a quarry until the first century BCE when it was filled in with soil and stone flakes from the quarry. The site at this time became a garden or orchard that contained fig, carob, and olive trees. At the same time, it developed into a cemetery.[21] Within the complex of the Holy Sepulcher, six tombs dating to the first century have been discovered.

Kokhim tomb inside the Holy Sepulcher

One of the challenges for modern visitors to the church is its location within the modern Old City of Jerusalem, and, as we noted previously, Jesus was crucified outside of the city. But once we understand the course of the walls in the first century, and that Jews do not bury within the walls of a city but outside, we understand that the area of the Holy Sepulcher stood outside the First and Second Walls of Jerusalem—outside the walls of Jesus’ Jerusalem.

Jewish tombs in the first century consisted of two types: kokhim and arcosolia. The most common being the kokhim. A kokh (singular) was a long, narrow recess cut into a rock tomb in which a body, coffin, or ossuary could be laid. The typical kokhim tomb was hewn into the hillside and consisted of a square chamber. The initial work was carried out with an iron hammer and pick. The tomb chambers and kokhim were smoothed with a chisel, two to three centimeters wide. The entrance to an ordinary kokhim tomb was a small square opening that required a person entering to stoop. The height of the chamber was usually less than that of a person, so they often cut a square pit into the floor of the chamber.[22] This pit created a bench on three sides of the chamber where the bodies of the deceased could be prepared. After the chamber and the pit were cut, the kokhim were cut level with the top of the benches and perpendicular to the wall of the tomb in a counter clockwise direction, from right to left, in every wall except the entrance wall. Within a kokhim tomb, one to three kokh were usually cut per wall. The kokhim had roughly vaulted ceilings and were the length of the deceased or a coffin. Kokhim were originally cut for primary burials. After the deceased was placed into the kokh, a blocking stone sealed the square entrance of the tomb.[23] Small stones and plaster helped to further seal the blocking stone. The tomb was sealed in a manner that it blended into the surrounding hillside.

Entrance to a kokhim tomb in Jerusalem with its blocking stone

In addition to the kokhim tomb, arcosolia tombs began to appear sporadically during the first century CE.[24] The arcosolia is a bench-like aperture with an arched ceiling hewn into the length of the wall. This style of burial was more expensive since only three burial places existed within a tomb chamber instead of six or nine, as typically found within kokhim tombs. Approximately 130 arcosolia tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem and over half of them also contain kokhim.[25] Ossuaries could be placed on the arcosolia benches.

The tomb identified within the Holy Sepulcher as the tomb of Jesus was originally an arcosolium (singular) with an antechamber; however, the centuries of pilgrims and the various destructions of the church have deformed and obliterated the tomb. What visitors see today is a later structure; nevertheless, the tomb originally contained a first century arcosolium tomb.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian built on top of the quarry-garden-cemetery a raised platform with another platform on it where he built a temple to Venus/Aphrodite in the second century CE. This pagan temple was removed when Constantine built his church.

Constantine built a rotunda around Jesus’ tomb. The rock of Golgatha was exposed to the open air in a garden, and on the other side of the garden, Constantine built a basilica church.

The question arises whether or not the Holy Sepulcher contains the location of Jesus’ tomb. What we can say is this: 1) The site, unlike the Garden Tomb, was a cemetery in the first century with first century tombs. 2) From the second century CE until the arrival of the Empress Helena, the actual tomb had been covered for 300 years. The fact that the local Christian memory remembered this location, where a first century cemetery existed, even though it was covered by the Hadrianic temple indicates the authenticity of the site.[26] 3) When Helena was shown this site, it sat like now within the walled, urban city of Jerusalem, which would have seemed strange to ancient pilgrims as it does to modern. Yet, the memory of the local Christian community remembered that this location once lay outside of the walls of Jerusalem.[27] Ten to fifteen years after Jesus’ death and burial the Third Wall of Jerusalem began to be built. This wall brought area of the Holy Sepulcher into the walled city of Jerusalem, where it has remained ever since.

Thus, there is nothing in terms of archaeology or tradition to argue against the Holy Sepulcher. To the contrary the evidence points to the authenticity of the site. It contains first century tombs, it lay outside of the First and Second Walls of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, it sits a short distance outside of the Gennath Gate—the only known gate in the northern wall line of Jesus’ Jerusalem, and the memory of the local Christian community continued to identify it as the location even when the local landscape changed dramatically.


A few years ago, I took my kids to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. My kids had a wonderful time seeing the world of Harry Potter from the books and movies come alive before their eyes, but of course, it wasn’t real. It’s a made-up world. Too many pilgrimage tours to Israel unfortunately are like taking the family to the fantasy world of Harry Potter (and have about as much basis in reality). The sites and information conveyed by local guides does not reflect the reality of the biblical text, historical knowledge, or archaeological discovery.

As pilgrims wander the streets of Jerusalem this Holy Week seeking to touch the Jerusalem of Jesus, while they will be told that they have, unfortunately, most have not. But it is still possible to see the Jerusalem of Jesus. To see places and remains that help us imagine the opposition to him, his last hours, his tragic death, and his resurrection. By entering the Jerusalem of Jesus, we gain the ability to understand the personalities of Jesus and his contemporaries, like Pilate and Caiaphas. We understand the issues of the day and his message better. We gain a greater appreciation for this axial week in the history of the world.

[1] Eli Shukron, “Did Herod Build the Foundations of the Western Wall?” in City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem. The 13th Annual Conference (Jerusalem: Megalim, 2012), 13-26.

[2] David Flusser, Jesus (3rd ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 144, n. 26.

[3] Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge (2nd ed.; Jerusalem: Carta, 2014), 363.

[4] Flusser, Jesus, 187-194.

[5] Nahman Avigad, Discovering Jeusalem (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), 120-139.

[6] Avigad, “Jerusalem: Hasmonean Period, Herodian Period,” in The New Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (ed. Ephraim Stern; vol. 2; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993), 733.

[7] Rainey and Notley, The Sacred Bridge, 363.

[8] Ibid. In private communication, Notley has also noted to me that most likely the Great Sanhedrin did not exist in Jesus’ day. It had been disbanded by Herod the Great. Apparently, Agrippa I, Herod’s grandson, reinstated it. The chamber where the council had met still existed, but the council, the Sanhedrin, itself did not. It is interesting to note that Luke, in Luke-Acts, preserves such a nuanced reading. In Luke and the early part of Acts, the Sanhedrin refers to the council-chamber, but in the later part of Acts (i.e., after Agrippa I), the Sanhedrin also refers to the council itself. The appearance in Mark and Matthew of the full Sanhedrin may be anachronistic reflecting the situation at the time of Mark and Matthew’s writing. It is important that John also does not know of Jesus standing before a session of the Jewish Sanhedrin.

[9] Jesus, 147.

[10] On the proper identification of the lithostratos, see my blog, "Pilate's Pavement, the Lithostratos."

[11] R. Steven Notley, Jerusalem, City of the Great King (Carta: Jerusalem, 2015), 40-41.

[12] It is unfortunate that local tour guides as well as pastors and other spiritual leaders continue to support and promote Byzantine, anti-Jewish, and non-biblical ideas that Jesus was flogged in the house of the high priest Caiaphas.

[13] Nahman Avigad and Hillel Geva, “Jerusalem: The First Wall,” in The New Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (ed. Ephraim Stern; vol. 2; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993), 724-729.

[14] Sarah Kochav, “The Search for a Protestant Holy Sepulchre: The Garden Tomb in Nineteenth Century Jerusalem,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 46 (1995): 300-320.

[15] Seth J. Frantzman and Ruth Kark, “General Gordon, the Palestine Exploration Fund and the Origins of “Gordon’s Calvary’ in the Holy Land,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 140:2 (2008), 1-18.

[16] See Frantzman and Kark, “General Gordon,” 7.

[17] The idea that the rock of Golgatha looked like a skull is a modern idea. Most likely the name Golgatha, the “place of the skull,” attached itself to the site because it was a known place of execution. It had nothing to do with the look or shape of the rock.

[18] See Frantzman and Kark, “General Gordon,” 8-11; Barkay, “The Garden Tomb—Was Jesus Buried Here?,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 12:2 (1986), 40-57.

[19] Barkay, Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Mark the Burial of Jesus?,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 12:3 (1986), 26-45.

[22] Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), 89-92.

[23] For a discussion on the “blocking stone” that sealed the tomb of Jesus, see Kloner, “Reconstruction of the Tomb in the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre According to Archaeological Finds and Jewish Burial Customs of the First Century CE,” in The Beginnings of Christianity: A Collection of Articles (ed. Jack Pastor and Menachem Mor; Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2005), 269-278.

[24] Hachlili, Rachel, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period (SJSJ 94; Leiden: Brill, 2005), 69-71; Kloner and Zissu, Ibid., 85-86.

[25] Kloner and Zissu, Ibid., 81-82.

[26] See Bahat, “Holy Sepulchre,” 26-45.

[27] Bahat, Ibid.

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