One of my favourite places in and around Jerusalem is a lovely garden known as ‘The Garden Tomb’ which houses a rock-cut tomb, unearthed in 1867, and which has subsequently been considered by some Christians to be the site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The Garden Tomb is adjacent to a rocky escarpment which since the mid-nineteenth century has been proposed by some scholars to be Golgotha (it is also known as ‘Skull Hill’ or ‘Gordon’s Calvary’). This, of course, is in contradistinction to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – which, since the 4th century, has traditionally been recognised (primarily by Catholic and Orthodox Churches) as the site where the death and resurrection of Christ are believed to have occurred. During the 19th century doubts were raised concerning the authenticity of the traditional site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These concerns motivated some Protestants to look elsewhere for the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
In 1842, near to the Damascus Gate, a German scholar named Otto Thenius noticed a rocky escarpment which, in his opinion, resembled the face of a skull. Since ‘golgotha’ is the Aramaic word for ‘skull’ Thenius concluded that the biblical references to the place of Jesus’ execution being at a place named ‘Golgotha’ (Matthew 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17) possibly referred to the shape of the place, and that therefore this rocky escarpment may well have been the Golgotha. Such a view seemed to be supported by the fact that Sephardic Jews regarded the site as traditionally being a place of execution by stoning. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this view that this was indeed the genuine site of Christ’s crucifixion, however, was Major-General Charles George Gordon – Gordon of Khartoum – who visited Jerusalem in 1883. Since 1894 the Garden Tomb and its surrounding gardens have been maintained as a place of Christian worship and reflection by a Christian non-denominational charitable trust.
It is impossible to say with absolute certainty whether either of these two places – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Garden Tomb – is the genuine site of Jesus’ death and resurrection, or indeed exactly where these two pivotal events in the history of the world took place. In many ways, knowing the exact location of the sites is not important. What is important is that at this particular point in history ‘Jesus died and rose again’ (1 Thessalonians 4:14) in order to make a way of salvation possible for all who truly believe! Having said that, there is still something very wonderful about visiting ‘the Holy Land’ and being able to visit the ‘key places’ where the events recorded in the Bible took place, and ‘walk where Jesus walked’! Though acceptance of the validity of the traditional site, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is not a tenet of faith for any major Christian denomination, many Catholic and Orthodox Christians ignore the potential of the Garden Tomb, and hold fast to the traditional location. Nevertheless, the Garden Tomb has become a popular place of pilgrimage, especially among Protestant Christians, and for me, personally, carries a much deeper and more meaningful ‘atmosphere of reality’ than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
To be honest with you, I intensely dislike the atmosphere you find in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, riddled as it is with ‘religious infighting’ between the various ‘Christian’ denominations that claim the right to be there, and the rowdy ‘pushing and shoving’ orchestrated by dreadful tour guides all trying to get their respective ‘tour parties’ through the church as quickly as possible in order to ‘move on’ to the next site in their itinerary?! We have Christian friends in Israel who refuse to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre anymore, simply because they find it so ‘unholy’ nowadays?! In contrast the Garden Tomb – even though it too has become more ‘commercialised’ today than it was 10 years ago when we first visited – essentially remains a very special, serene garden with places set apart to have time to pray, or take communion, or ponder the events that possibly transpired there over 2000 years ago. Taking as much time as you like to sit overlooking ‘Skull Hill’ or to stand in the Empty Tomb with its wonderful sign by the door, ‘He is not here for He is Risen!’, transports you back to the reality of the events of that first Easter and its significance, in a way that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre fails to do!
The last time I visited the Garden Tomb -18 months ago – I was struck by something that I somehow had failed to recognise before. Stupidly, I had always thought that Jesus was crucified on the brow of Golgotha or ‘Skull Hill’ – now a Muslim Cemetery. Perhaps it was because of the subliminal influence of such hymns as Cecil Francis Alexander’s, ‘There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall’ – it has been suggested that most of us get our theology from the hymns and songs that we sing rather than from the Bible – that I have been singing for decades? Our very helpful guide, however, pointed out that in fact Jesus would have been crucified at the foot of the hill, not on the top of the hill. It would have been alongside the path where ordinary people passed by on a daily basis? It was near to the local ‘rubbish dump’ where the people passing by would have gone to get rid of their refuse? In hindsight, of course, this is obvious!
Reflecting on this, my mind went immediately to that scripture in the Book of Lamentations – ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the Lord brought on me in the day of his fierce anger?’ (Lamentations 1:12). Lamentations is a small poetic book, attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah, bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah in 587 BC, incorporating a sorrowful commentary on the sufferings experienced by the Judeans both during and after the siege of Jerusalem, and also containing a representative confession of national sin – the real cause of Judah’s downfall! Lamentations 1:12 has become a classic expression of grief … and the parallel to the lament of Jesus Christ over heedless Jerusalem is striking – ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings … but you were not willing?!’ (Matthew 23:37). It was this thought, of course, that inspired the 18th century clergyman Charles Wesley, to pen the words of the famous hymn that begins, ‘All you that pass by, to Jesus draw nigh; to you is it nothing that Jesus should die?’
Today Golgotha or ‘Skull Hill’ is situated just behind a bus terminal, which is smelly and dirty, near to Muslim market stalls selling fresh fruit and fresh bread and lots of sweets. The large car park adjacent to the place where Jesus was possibly crucified is ostensibly for buses, but locals also park their cars there. It is all very bustling and busy … this place where Christ died for the sins of the world … and still the vast majority of people pass by oblivious to the significance of those events 2,000 years ago?! Somehow, all this seems so appropriate for me! Christ in a car park! Christ dying on a cross for sinful men and women like you and me! Christ dying for ordinary people who travel on buses, drive cars, and shop at markets, etc! Christ dying in a former ‘rubbish dump’ … even for people considered as ‘refuse’ by the rest of society! What is not appropriate, however … is that any of us should simply ‘pass by’ … without giving Jesus Christ a second thought?
All you that pass by,
to Jesus draw nigh;
to you is it nothing that Jesus should die?
Your ransom and peace,
your surety he is,
come, see if there ever was sorrow like his.
He dies to atone
for sins not his own.
Your debt he has paid, and your work he has done:
you all may receive
the peace he did leave,
who made intercession, ‘My Father, forgive.
For you and for me
he prayed on the tree:
the prayer is accepted, the sinner is free.
The sinner am I,
who on Jesus rely,
and come for the pardon God cannot deny.
His death is my plea;
my advocate see,
and hear the blood speak that has answered for me:
he purchased the grace
which now I embrace;
O Father, you know he has died in my place!
Charles Wesley (1707-88)