Walking the Path of the Passion, in Jerusalem
Updated: Jun 5
Easter, just one month away, is a perfect time to share the sites in Jerusalem that were pertinent to the Passion of Christ. I have been to Jerusalem several times and visited the sites, monuments, and markers that are still present, speculated, or as the guides love to say "held in tradition", which commemorate Jesus' final days in Jerusalem. While I blogged GENERALLY about Jerusalem a few months ago during the Christmas holiday to highlight the city's diversity and cultural influences over the millennia, this time I will SPECIFICALLY hone in on the tradition of Jesus' Passion. Israel welcomes approximately 4.5 million tourists per year of which 60% are Christian tourists. This is a HUGE business in the HOLY LAND and thereby a HUGE source of revenue for Israel. The tours commonly visit several sites in the Galilee, the Jordan River, Bethlehem located in the Palestinian West Bank, and Jerusalem, with a few Old Testament sites peppered in, as well. Christians are taken to these sites by the droves. A FEW of the sites can be authenticated, but the vast majority are "held in tradition". Now let's look at Jerusalem to grasp the setting of Jesus' final days.
The Mount of Olives
I opened my previous Jerusalem blog with 'the classic photo' taken FROM the Mount of Olives looking onto the Old City, featuring the Temple Mount in center view. That is THE VIEW most familiar to anyone who has ever seen a picture of Jerusalem. This time, however, let's turn around and look AT the Mount of Olives. Beautiful views of the Mount of Olives can be seen from atop the Temple Mount or from below in the Kidron Valley. We start here because this was the location where the Galileans typically "camped" when they went UP to Jerusalem, as the city itself was too small to accommodate all the pilgrims and visitors during FEAST times. Passover was a feast and Jesus went up to Jerusalem from the Galilee for his final visit to celebrate Passover. Hence, He and His apostles "camped" there, on the Mount of Olives, whose slopes were covered with olive trees since antiquity. A green, hilly landscape, STILL dotted with olive and cypress trees, it is now home to several churches, such as the Church of the Pater Noster, the Chapel of the Ascension, the Dominus Flevit, the Russian Church of Mary Magdalene, and the Church of the Tomb of the Virgin Mary.
The Garden of Gethsamane
At the base of the Mount of Olives stands the stately Garden of Gethsamane. This is an olive grove today and was during Jesus' time, as well. Some of the ancient gnarled olive trees date back to circa 1000 AD via carbon dating. While that is admittedly much younger than biblical events, it is noteworthy that the central cores, which are the oldest part of the trees, have completely rotted away and therefore could not be sampled. Secondly, olive trees have the ability to grow back from their roots if their trunk is cut down, many of which were, by the Romans, to build the ramparts for the 70 AD siege of Jerusalem. Regardless, it was THERE, per the Gospels, where Jesus went with His apostles after the Last Supper, fell prostrate, and prayed. It was THERE, where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver. And THERE where Jesus was subsequently arrested by the Roman soldiers and taken to Caiaphas, the High Priest. Adjacent to this olive grove is the Church of All Nations erected in 1924, over the remains of two earlier churches dating back to Byzantine times. 'Tradition holds' that it was built over the 'Rock of Agony'.
The 2nd Jewish Temple
Sadly, this is not something you can see today as it was COMPLETELY destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Arch of Titus at the Roman Forum in Italy (shown below), actually celebrates that Roman victory. What you can see in Jerusalem today is the Temple Mount which is the rectangular rock platform on which the Temple once stood. In the photos below, however, you can see a MODEL of the second Jewish Temple as it would have looked during Jesus' time. This model being quite grand, can be viewed and circumnavigated at the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem. It was THERE, on the Temple Mount in the courtyards outside of the Temple, that Jesus flipped the tables on the money-changers who were collecting the temple tax. It was THERE that the Sanhedrin "held court". It was THERE that the young lambs, brought in from Bethlehem, were purchased by pilgrims to be offered for sacrifice at the Temple. I wrote of the sheep pastures of nearby Bethlehem in my Bethlehem blog, as well as the sheep pool just north of the Temple Mount in my prior Jerusalem blog, as they both relate to those sacrifices. The Isreal museum also displays several interesting paraphernalia pertinent to that time period. Below you can see photos of the half-shekels that were collected for the temple tax. Also, you can see an ankle bone with a nail through it, from a Roman crucifixion of some unfortunate soul. Crucifixion was extremely common those days, resulting in thousands upon thousands of deaths. Also, take a look at an original fragmentary sign from the partition around the Second Temple warning non-Jews to not trespass further, otherwise it was punishable by death.
The Antonia Fortress
The Antonia Fortress was the Roman garrison, where the soldiers who were stationed in Jerusalem lived. It was physically attached to the northwest corner of the Temple Mount so that the Roman guards could easily monitor for signs of insurrection, by observing the actions of the Jewish people and priests at both the Temple and on the Mount. It is possible that Pontius Pilate, the appointed Roman governor during Jesus' time, was at the Antonia Fortress when Jesus was taken to him the morning after His arrest. That fortress does not exist today because it, too, was completely destroyed during the Jewish War in 70 AD. You can, however, see it in the model, below. The Praetorium, where Jesus was questioned, whipped, and stripped, could have been located at the Antonia Fortress. But, there are two alternate places that biblical scholars site as possible locations for the Praetorium, those being Herod's Palace and the Hasmonean Palace, neither of which exist today. All three sites can be seen on the map below. Note each's location in relation to Golgotha, the crucifixion site.
The Via Dolorosa
This is a commemoration of the path that Jesus is believed to have taken as he carried His cross from the Praetorium to Golgotha, that is, from the site where Pontius Pilate condemned Him to death to His crucifixion site. This path is marked by round black placards each with a Roman numeral designating the 'Station of the Cross'. The entire concept of the 'way of the cross' BEGAN in the Crusader period, about 1100 AD. Since that time, the path had been re-routed SEVERAL times. Given that the location of the Praetorium, the starting point, remains obscure, it only makes logical sense that the path from the Praetorium to Golgotha is equally obscure. Add to that, the drastic MODIFICATIONS to the layout of the streets and the city from the first century AD to today, and it should be obvious that this "proposed route" is PURELY symbolic, not authentic, but exists to commemorate the solemn event.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre
What is not obscure, however, is the Via Dolorosa's endpoint ... Golgotha. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is believed to have been built over Golgotha and the Holy Tomb (Sepulchre). While most places in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land, for that matter, are 'held in tradition' but NOT archaeologically authenticated, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an exception, as it is the only holy site that has been thoroughly excavated and studied. What they have discovered IN THE VERY FOUNDATION of the original Constantinian church is GRAFFITI by an early Christian pilgrim, specifically a merchant ship with an inscription in Latin reading, "Domine Ivimus" which is translated as "Lord we came." This indicates that the site was already venerated by Christians during the early 2nd century. By the mid-second century when Hadrian established a pagan ROMAN city over the destroyed Jerusalem, the Romans built a temple to Venus exactly atop the site of Golgotha in efforts to eradicate Christian sites and to eliminate any further veneration at the area by Christians, as evidenced by the graffiti. The original church by Constantine was then built over the dismantled Temple of Venus in the early 4th century.
In addition, that specific area which was located outside of the city walls during Jesus' time was a QUARRY, a place suitable for both executions and burials. Such a site had MANY hollowed-out nooks in the bedrock that served as ideal tombs to bury the dead, needing only a rock to be rolled in front of the openings to seal them. Hence, the quarry at GOLGOTHA became a necropolis and hundreds of burial caves have been identified at that location. As to exactly which tomb was Jesus' tomb is, again, 'held in tradition.' The Holy Tomb, otherwise known as the Holy Sepulchre is revered and celebrated. Every year at Easter the Christian community consisting of Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Christians come together to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. They have a ceremony of 'The Holy Fire' WITHIN the church and light torches to celebrate the miracle of Christ's light and resurrection. Take a look at the video below.
(It is actually quite alarming to see so many active flames in such tight quarters and amongst so many chaotic people. It makes me wonder how the Hadassah Medical Center Burn Unit in Jerusalem deals with the repercussions of the Easter celebration. Of course, that is the plastic surgeon in me contemplating the fallout after viewing such a video.)
So these are the noteworthy sites related to the Passion of Christ in Jerusalem. Certainly, there are many more sites that you would be taken to when touring Jerusalem ... countless churches and locations abound that have become associated with Jesus. Some sites, however, have questionable authenticity, at best. As was well documented by Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian contemporary to that time, Jerusalem was razed to the ground and was unrecognizable subsequent to the Jewish War in 70 AD. Hence, VERY FEW structures survived that event. During my visits to Jerusalem, I found that it is certainly interesting to re-visit biblical history. But, it is important to UNDERSTAND TRUE HISTORY when processing a place as COMPLEX as Jerusalem. Only then can you appreciate how the many locations became labeled, how the few became identified, how they evolved, and most importantly, what narrative they serve today.