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GOLGOTHA (gŏl'gō-tha, Gr. Golgotha, from Aram. gulgaltā’, skull). The place of our Lord’s crucifixion. From the Hebrew gulgoleth, which implies a bald, round, skull-like mound or hillock. The Latin name, Calvarius (“bald skull”), has been retained in the form Calvary (Luke.23.33). In NIV, following RSV, it is simply, “The Skull.” Two explanations of the name are found: (1) It was a place of execution and therefore abounded in skulls; (2) the place had the appearance of a skull when viewed from a short distance. The Gospels and tradition do not agree as to its location. Both Matthew (27:33) and Mark (Luke.15.22) locate it outside the city, but close to it (John.19.20) on the public highway, which was the type of location usually chosen by the Romans for executions. Tradition locates it within the present city.

Gordon's Calvary.
Garden Tomb.
At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, crowds wait on Eastern morning for the opening of the door and the announcement that Christ is risen.

GOLGOTHA gŏl’ gə thə (Γολγοθα, skull). The Aram. name of the place near Jerusalem where Christ was crucified.

The Biblical record.

That Golgotha was near Jerusalem is without question, though hints in the Biblical record are few. Hebrews 13:12 indicates that Jesus suffered “outside the gate.” Therefore, Golgotha was not within the city wall in NT times, although not far outside (cf. John 19:20). Matthew 27:39 indicates that Golgotha was by a well-traveled road (cf. Mark 15:21). Furthermore, it was visible from some distance according to Mark 15:40 and Luke 23:49. This has led many to think of it as a hill, but nowhere in the Bible is that so stated.

The location of Golgotha.

Although many places around the holy city have been suggested as the site of Calvary, only two are serious contenders for the spot of both the crucifixion and the burial.

One primary claim to the site is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, whose history goes back to the 4th cent. It is within the walls of the old city today, but its supporters maintain that the NT city wall would place it outside the city. Because modern buildings heavily cover all real estate in the area, no excavation is yet possible to determine just where that northern NT wall was.

The location of this site can be traced to the Christian Rom. emperor Constantine. Eusebius, a contemporary historian, commissioned Bishop Marcarius to find Golgotha and the tomb. This was nearly 300 years after the crucifixion. The Church of Constantine was then built on the site of Hadrian’s Aphrodite temple and named in honor of St. Helena, the emperor’s mother. Legend has it that upon excavating for the tomb, a fragment of the true cross was found that effected miracles of healing, and thus certified the site. The tradition that this is the site is very old but it is mostly tradition. Earlier, the pagan emperor Hadrian had deliberately obscured many Christian holy sites with his temples.

The other major contender for the site of Calvary is known today as the Garden Tomb and/or Gordon’s Calvary. Suggested by Otto Thenius in 1842, General Charles Gordon declared in 1885 that this was the site of the crucifixion and burial, found some 250 yards NE of the Damascus Gate. There are some arguments to support the location, as well as some serious criticisms.

Gordon’s Calvary is a hill, or knoll and is certainly outside the city walls (both modern and NT). The most serious problem with the Holy Sepulchre’s location does not affect this choice. A garden and a tomb (in fact, several tombs) are in the immediate vicinity. Those who contest this identification maintain that the hill was part of a ridge that is still visible on the N wall of Jerusalem adjacent to Herod’s Gate. Thus is was not a separate hill in NT times. The tombs are at least of Byzantine vintage, but no one can say whether they are older than that. The topographical feature of the hill that makes it look like a skull would not have been present in NT times. In fact, this hill, which is called by the Jews, “the Grotto of Jeremiah,” is thought to be a mine site developed only in the past two or three centuries. A better explanation of “the place of a skull” would be that either the hill was bare rock, or it served as a cemetery.

Protestants prefer the latter site because the organization that owns the land has landscaped it to make it resemble their concept of Joseph of Arimathea’s garden. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, of course, a building on top of a site. It is highly decorated and the scene of much activity. It requires a good imagination to see a garden tomb there.


J. Jeremias, Golgotha (1926); G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways (1935), 341-381; C. Marston, The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem, London, The Garden Tomb Association (1941); Jerusalem: The Garden Tomb of Golgotha [no author], London, The Garden Tomb Association (1945); L. T. Pearson, Where Is Calvary? (1946); J. Simons, Jerusalem and the O T (1952), 282-343; A. Parrot, Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (1957); C. C. Dobson, The Garden Tomb and the Resurrection (n.d.); L. E. Cox Evans, “The Holy Sepulchre,” PEQ (July-Dec., 1968) 112-136.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

1. The Name:

Four reasons have been suggested for the name Golgotha or "skull":

(1) That it was a spot where skulls were to be found lying about and probably, therefore, a public place of execution. This tradition apparently originates with Jerome (346-420 AD), who refers to (3), to condemn it, and says that "outside the city and without the gate there are places wherein the heads of condemned criminals are cut off and which have obtained the name of Calvary--that is, of the beheaded." This view has been adopted by several later writers. Against it may be urged that there is no shadow of evidence that there was any special place for Jewish executions in the 1st century, and that, if there were, the corpses could have been allowed burial (Mt 27:58; Joh 19:38), in conformity with Jewish law (De 21:23) and with normal custom (Josephus, BJ, IV, v, 2).

(2) That the name was due to the skull-like shape of the hill--a modern popular view. No early or Greek writer suggests such an idea, and there is no evidence from the Gospels that the Crucifixion occurred on a raised place at all. Indeed Epiphanius (4th century) expressly says: "There is nothing to be seen on the place resembling this name; for it is not situated upon a height that it should be called (the place) of a skull, answering to the place of the head in the human body." It is true that the tradition embodied in the name Mons Calvary appears as early as the 4th century, and is materialized in the traditional site of the Crucifixion in the church of the Holy Sepulcher, but that the hill was skull-like in form is quite a modern idea. Guthe combines (2) and (3) and considers that a natural skull-like elevation came to be considered, by some folklore ideas, to be the skull of the first man. One of the strangest ideas is that of the late General Gordon, who thought that the resemblance to a skull lay in the contours of the ground as laid down in the ordinance survey map of Jerusalem.

(3) That the name is due to an ancient pre-Christian tradition that the skull of Adam was found there. The first mention of this is by Origen (185-253 AD), who himself lived in Jerusalem 20 years. He writes: "I have received a tradition to the effect that the body of Adam, the first man, was buried upon the spot where Christ was crucified," etc. This tradition was afterward referred to by Athanasius, Epiphanius, Basil of Caesarea, Chrysostom and other later writers. The tomb and skull of Adam, still pointed out in an excavated chamber below the traditional Calvary, marks the survival of this tradition on the spot. This is by far the most ancient explanation of the name Golgotha and, in spite of the absurdity of the original tradition about Adam, is probably the true one.

(4) The highly improbable theory that the Capitolium of AElia Capitolina (the name given by Hadrian to his new Jerusalem) stood where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now is, and gave rise to the name Golgotha, is one which involves the idea that the site first received the name Golgotha in the 2nd century, and that all the references in the Gospels were inserted then. This is only mentioned to be dismissed as incompatible with history and common sense.

2. The Site:

With regard to the position of the site of the Crucifixion (with which is bound up the site of the Tomb) the New Testament gives us no indication whatever; indeed, by those who abandon tradition, sites have been suggested on all sides of the city--and West Two views hold the field today:

(1) that the site of the Crucifixion, or at any rate that of the Tomb itself, is included within the precincts of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; and

(2) that a prominent, rounded, grassy hill above the so-called "Grotto of Jeremiah," Northeast of the Modern Damascus Gate, has at least a very high probability of being the true site. It is impossible here to go into the whole question, which requires minute and long elaboration, but excellent review of the whole evidence may be consulted in "Golgotha and the Holy Sepulcher," by the late Sir Charles W. Wilson, of PEF. Here only a few points can be touched upon.

(1) For the traditional view it may be said that it seems highly improbable that so sacred a spot as this, particularly the empty tomb, could have been entirely forgotten. Although it is true that Jews and Christians were driven out of Jerusalem after the second great revolt (130-33 AD), yet GentileChristians were free to return, and there was no break long enough to account for a site like this being entirely lost. Indeed there are traditions that this site was deliberately defiled by pagan buildings to annoy the Christians. Eusebius, at the time of Constantine, writes as if it were well known that a Temple of Aphrodite lay over the tomb.

He gives an account of the discovery of the spots still venerated as the Golgotha and the Tomb, and of the erection of churches in connection with them (Life of Constantine, III, 25-40). From the time of Constantine there has been no break in the reverence paid to these places. Of the earlier evidence Sir C. Wilson admits (loc. cit.) that "the tradition is so precarious and the evidence is undoubtedly so unsatisfactory as to raise serious doubts."

The topographical difficulties are dealt with in the JERUSALEM. It is difficult for the visitor to Jerusalem sufficiently to realize that the center of gravity of the city has much changed; once it was on the Hill Ophel, and the southern slopes, now bare, were in Christ’s time crammed with houses; in later times, from the 4th century, it was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher round which the city tended to center. There is no insurmountable difficulty in believing that the site of the Crucifixion may be where tradition points out. As Sir C. Wilson says at the end of his book, "No objection urged against the sites (i.e. Golgotha and the Tomb) is of such a convincing nature that it need disturb the minds of those who accept, in all good faith, the authenticity of the places which are hallowed by the prayers of countless pilgrims since the days of Constantine" (loc. cit.).

(2) The so-called "Skull Hill" or "Green Hill" appears to have appealed first to Otto Thenius (1842), but has received its greatest support through the advocacy of the late Col. Conder and of the late Dr. Selah Merrill, U.S.A. consul at Jerusalem. The arguments for this site are mainly:

(a) its conspicuous and elevated position--a position which must impress every reverent pilgrim as strikingly suitable for an imaginary reconstruction of the scene. The very greenness of the hill--it is the first green spot in the neighborhood of the city--may influence the subconsciousness of those who have been brought up from childhood to think of the "green hill far away," as the popular hymn puts it. When, however, we consider the question historically, there is not the slightest reason to expect that the crucifixion of Jesus, one of many hundreds, should have been dramatically located in a setting so consonant with the importance with which the world has since learned to regard the event. There is no evidence whatever that the crucifixion was on a hill, much less on such a conspicuous place.

(b) The supposed resemblance to a human skull strikes many people, but it may be stated without hesitation that the most arresting points of the resemblance, the "eyeholes" and the rounded top, are not ancient; the former are due to artificial excavations going back perhaps a couple of centuries. Probably the whole formation of the hill, the sharp scarp to the South and the 10 or more feet of earth accumulated on the summit are both entirely new conditions since New Testament times.

(c) The nearness of the city walls and the great North road which make the site so appropriate today are quite different conditions from those in New Testament times. It is only if the present North wall can be proved to be on the line of the second wall that the argument holds good. On this see Jerusalem.

(d) An argument has been based upon a supposed tradition that this spot was the Jewish place of stoning. This so-called tradition is worthless, and not a trace of it can be found outside interested circles, and even if it were the "place of stoning," it would be no argument for its being "Golgotha." To the Oriental, with his great respect for traditional sites, the church of the Holy Sepulcher, covering at once the Tomb, the Calvary, and other sacred spots, will probably always appeal as the appropriate spot: to the western tourist who wishes to visualize in the environs of Jerusalem in an appropriate setting the great world’s tragedy, such a site as this "Skull Hill" must always make the greater appeal to his imagination, and both may find religious satisfaction in their ideas; but cold reason, reviewing the pro’s and con’s, is obliged to say "not proven" to both, with perhaps an admission of the stronger case for the traditional spot.