When thinking about the crucifixion, many people assume that since the Romans were in charge, Jesus was most likely taken to a Roman execution site somewhere outside the city wall of Jerusalem. But in John 19, we’re told that Pilate delivered Jesus over to the chief priests and that they were the ones who led him out of the city.1 So if the Jewish authorities were the ones who ultimately led Jesus to his death, then perhaps we should stop to ask where it is they might have taken him. As it turns out, there is evidence that the Jews had a well-established execution site outside the City of Jerusalem. Thinking through the implications of this little-known fact will help us better understand the significance of Golgotha.
When Judea was reduced to a province of Syria, Caesar officially removed the power of capital punishment from Judean authorities, entrusting it exclusively to the Roman procurator.2 In John 18:31, the chief priests and rulers clearly admit this when they say to Pilate, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” Here, of course, they were speaking of Roman law, since capital punishment was a well-established feature of the Mosaic covenant.3 Before the Romans took control, however, a variety of texts indicate that Jewish authorities executed criminals at one particular location for specific theological reasons. As to whether the Romans used this same execution site once they came into power, we can only speculate.4
After Pilate gave his consent to have Jesus crucified, John tells us that the chief priests led Jesus out of the city to a place called Golgotha (John 19:17-20). This is similar to the account recorded in Acts 7 of Stephen’s martyrdom. In Acts 7:58, we read that before Stephen was stoned to death, he was first cast “out of the city.” Hebrews 13:11–13 provides this parallel:
The bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.
When the writer of Hebrews used the phrase “outside the camp,” he was referring to a concept rooted in a number of Old Testament texts. For example, in Leviticus 24:13, God declared to Moses, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him.” But what’s interesting is the fact that this phrase was also used to designate the location of a sacred altar that was some distance away on the eastern side of the tent of meeting. In fact, according to Numbers 19:2–4, this was the altar in which the special red heifer sacrifice was to be performed:
“Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect. . . . You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times.”
This was also the place where ashes from the main altar were to be deposited: “The priest . . . shall take up the ashes [of the burnt offerings] outside the camp to a clean place” (Lev. 6:10–11).
Israel’s tabernacle would eventually be transformed into Jerusalem’s temple. According to a Dead Sea Scrolls text, in the centuries leading up to the time of Christ the Jews determined “that the sanctuary is the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, that Jerusalem is the camp, and that outside the camp is outside of Jerusalem.” This document then explains that the phrase “outside the camp” specifically refers to the place where “they take out the ashes for the altar and burn the sin offering there.”5 This appears to be the same altar mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel when he wrote that the bull of the sin offering was to be “burned in the appointed place belonging to the temple, outside the sacred area” (Ezek. 43:21).
So where exactly was this separate altar outside of the City of Jerusalem located? The Mishnah (Para. 3:6–9) provides us with some additional clues:
They would make a causeway from the Temple mount to the Mount of Olives, arches upon arches . . . on which the priest who burns the cow . . . [goes] forth to the Mount of Olives. . . . They bound [the cow] with a rope and placed it on the pile of wood, with its head southward and its face westward. The priest, standing at the east, with his face turned west, slaughtered with his right hand and received the blood with his left hand. . . . And he sprinkled with his right hand . . . seven times toward the house of the Holy of Holies.
Another passage from this ancient Jewish text reveals that the priest who sacrificed the red cow actually stood “at the top of the Mount of Olives and [looked] directly at the door of the holy place at the time of the tossing of blood” (Mid. 1:3–2:4). By paying close attention to all these sources, therefore, we can see that this separate altar was located east of the temple, at the very top of the Mount of Olives. In short, this is the place we should think of whenever we encounter the phrase “outside the camp” in Second Temple Judaism.
As it turns out, this fits with a critical theme of the Bible that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Once our first parents committed high treason against their Creator, they were exiled to the east, and the cherubim guarded the way back to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24). Later, after Cain murdered his brother Abel, he was sent even farther away to “the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). This is significant, because according to a variety of Jewish sources, Israel’s tabernacle and (later) temple were both patterned after Eden, God’s original dwelling place,6 which is why the entrance to the holy of holies faced east and why God’s people were always sent off into exile in an eastward direction (2 Kings 17:23; 1 Chron. 9:1; Isa. 27:8).
This also explains why animal sacrifice was to be performed on the eastern side of both the tabernacle and the temple, and why the high priest was called to sprinkle the blood with his finger on the eastern side of the mercy seat (Lev. 16:14). And it’s why those who committed high crimes were called to bear their own sin as they were sent outside the camp to the east and executed (Lev. 24:15; Num. 15:35). In fact, in the Law of Moses, capital punishment was presented as a sacred rite, which in its own way served to purify the land that had become defiled by sin.7
With all this in mind, let’s return to the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. In John 19:17, we’re told that Jesus “went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.” According to the ESV, the meaning of the Aramaic word Golgotha is “The Place of a Skull.” In reality, however, there are more interpretive options: in addition to “skull,” the Greek word kranion can be rendered “head,” “cranium,” or “skull cap.” As a result of these options, some interpreters have thought of Golgotha as a place near a cliff face that may have resembled a human skull, while others have imagined it as a kind of small hill or mound that was shaped like the top of a person’s head.
The ancient writer Cyril of Jerusalem gives us a hint as to how he interpreted the meaning of this word:
Who were they then, who prophetically named this spot Golgotha, in which Christ the true Head endured the Cross? As the Apostle says, “He is the Head of the body, the church.” . . . This holy Golgotha, which stands high above us, shows itself to this day.8
According to Cyril, the word Golgotha was equivalent to the word head.9 In his view, it referred not to a small hill but one that “stood high above” the place where he delivered this particular message in Jerusalem.10
Using the word head rather than skull as a way to define Golgotha seems to fit with what we find in 2 Samuel 15:30–32. In this passage, David ascends the Mount of Olives to “the summit where God was worshiped.” In this verse, the word summit is a translation of the Hebrew word rosh, which essentially means “head.” What’s interesting is the fact that when this passage was later translated into Greek, the word rosh was left untranslated and was simply spelled out with Greek characters. The best explanation for this oddity is likely that, at some point, the word rosh began to be used as the name for this sacred area around the summit of this mountain. In other words, perhaps this could be seen as evidence that the top of the Mount of Olives came to be known, at least in Hebrew, as “The Place of the Head.”
Another intriguing fact about the Mount of Olives is that throughout the Mishnah it is commonly referred to as har ha-mishchah, which literally means “the mount of anointing.”11 This is probably due to the fact that the olive oil produced here was the primary ingredient of the anointing oil used in a variety of sacred Jewish rituals.12 It is this very concept that lies at the heart of the Jewish understanding of “the messiah” (ha-mashiach), since Israel had been promised that an ultimate anointed ruler would one day reign on David’s throne forever.13 As it turns out, it was here on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives, in a town called Bethany, that Jesus was anointed for his ultimate mission: “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–8).
In his account of the crucifixion, John says that “many of the Jews read [Pilate’s] inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city” (20:19). This indicates that Jesus was executed in a public area; and the fact that the location is described as being near to the city is strikingly similar to the words Luke used when he spoke of Jesus’ descent from the Mount of Olives (19:41). Also, when we take a close look at John’s precise language, it becomes clear that Golgotha was not a small execution mound. Rather, it was a much larger area, since it included a cultivated garden or orchard expansive enough to include a large tomb recently cut into the rock of the hillside (John 19:41; cf. Matt. 27:60). This was the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, who in all four Gospels is described as a wealthy man and a respected member of the Sanhedrin. This important detail helps us see that Golgotha cannot be thought of as an execution mound used exclusively by the Romans. For why would a man of Joseph’s wealth and stature carve out an expensive new tomb in such close proximity to an unclean site of that kind?14 If we see Golgotha as referring to the head, peak, or summit of the Mount of Olives, however, then everything falls into place.
This was the place “outside the camp” where lawbreakers were executed so that God’s righteous anger would be turned aside from the nation (Num. 35:30–34; Josh. 7:22–26). It was the location of that special altar where the blood of the red heifer sacrifice was sprinkled seven times toward the face of the holy of holies, and where the ashes for the water of purification were stored. This was an area that featured numerous gardens and orchards (Matt. 26:36; Mark 14:32; John 18:1), which even to this day is considered one of the most desirable locations for elaborate Jewish tombs due to its significance in Jewish prophecy.15
This, I believe, is where the chief priests led Jesus once they had been given the green light to execute him. Because they believed he committed blasphemy (Matt. 26:65; Mark 14:64; John 10:33), they would have followed the strict procedures laid out in Leviticus 24:14, in which the people were instructed to “bring out of the camp the one who cursed.” Once they arrived at the place of execution there at the summit of the Mount of Olives, witnesses would be called forward to lay their hands on Jesus’ head,16 so that he would “bear the consequences of his sin” (Lev. 24:15). Yet in this instance, the one charged with the crime was completely innocent. Though he was a spotless lamb, on this particular afternoon, “the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Here, we do well to remember that the temple in Jerusalem was symbolic of Eden itself, the site of our original mutiny and the place from which we’ve all been evicted. It is fitting that our second Adam would be led to this spot, “east of Eden” (as it were), in order to bear the curse of sin and death. Because the one who suffered in our place was the God-man, the blood he shed was—and is—of infinite value. As he hung there facing the door of the temple, it was his blood that sprinkled the eastern side of the mercy seat (Lev. 16:14; Isa. 52:15). And because he was exiled and executed in our place, we who stood condemned are in him declared to be innocent (Isa. 53:11; John 3:18; Rom. 8:1; Eph. 5:27). What for Jesus was a tree of death has become for us the tree of life.
This is the true significance of Golgotha. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, was exiled outside the camp, so that we who once were far off could be brought near (Eph. 2:13; Heb. 10:22). He was cut off from the land of the living so we might have life in his name (Isa. 53:8; John 20:31). “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach that he endured” (Heb. 13:13).
Shane Rosenthal, executive producer of White Horse Inn, is this year’s program host for the Gospel of John series.