Is this the "pavement" where Pilate condemned Jesus?
['pre-trip" / archaeological portion of a chapter from my book, Footsteps that Echo Forever: My Holy Land Adventure of Archaeological and Spiritual Discovery]
This is a fascinating topic, that has a lot more to do with deductive speculation, historical accounts, sacred tradition, and reckoning of historical geography and architecture than archaeology per se. But the overlap is obvious. Catholics and other Christians who are interested in the historical grounding of the Christian faith will, by nature, be curious about the facts of the matter: what we know with high certainty, and what is speculation to a more or less degree.
As I have done in other chapters, my aim is to present readers with a survey of what is believed to be known about these two sites. First, we shall examine the evidences for the location of Golgotha (“Place of the Skull”), or Calvary (Calvariæ Locus: the same name in Latin): the holy place of Christ's crucifixion: where He redeemed the human race (those who accept by grace His free gift of mercy) from sin and opened the way for us to be saved and to go to heaven.
I'd like to first look (as a sort of counter-point) at a densely-argued treatment in favor of the site of the crucifixion in a spot other than where Catholic and Orthodox tradition hold it to be (within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). Joan Taylor contended for this in her article, “Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of Jesus' Crucifixion and Burial.”1
She sites as her historical evidence (besides some semi-vague New Testament evidence), Melito of Sardis’ work, Peri Pascha (c. 160):
Melito writes poetically of the crucifixion taking place epi meses plateias kai en mesô poleôs . . ., “in the middle of a plateia and in the ‘middle of a city.’” Elsewhere, he describes the murder of Jesus “in the middle of Jerusalem”. . . . What is clear is that a site in the middle of the city of Jerusalem was pointed out to him as the place where Jesus died. This would tally perfectly with the fact that the quarry was outside first century Jerusalem, but inside the city from the middle of the second century onwards.
. . . this places the site of the crucifixion in the middle of a main street, the Decumanus.
. . . In common usage, plateia generally means “wide street” (usually colonnaded) . . . and would apply to either the Cardo Maximus or the Decumanus, which met the Cardo at a “T” intersection.
. . . While it is impossible on the basis of Melito’s remarks to say precisely which plateia is being referred to, what we can deduce is that his words would fit with our identification of the site of Jesus’ crucifixion on the basis of the New Testament, if Melito’s plateia is, in fact, the Decumanus.
She then points to what she sees as corroborating evidence:
More importantly, perhaps, is the evidence found in Eusebius’ Onomasticon,written late in the 3rd century or early in the fourth, some time before Constantine built his basilica on the site of the (destroyed) Temple of Venus. In his notes of various Biblical places he could still find in Palestine, Eusebius wrote of Golgotha: “Place of a Skull,” where the Christ was crucified, which is indeed pointed out in Aelia right beside (pros) the northern parts (tois boreiois) of Mount Zion.
By means of various arguments, far too complex to summarize presently, she deduces that this is consistent with Melito's observation, and concludes at length:
For those who are interested in the precise location of the proposed site of the crucifixion in today’s Old City, the spot marked with an “x” is a little to the southwest of where David Street meets Habad Street, but north of St. Mark Street. As the Decumanus is plotted with greater certainty, and excavations take place in this area, the localization may become more accurate.
This spot is almost due south of the site within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and slightly east: at a little less than 200 meters' distance.
Martin Biddle, professor of medieval archaeology at Oxford, whom Dr. Taylor cites several times in her article, disagrees. In his book, The Tomb of Christ2, he states, after much particular and complex argument:
A simpler view is that Melito is using plateia to mean 'open place, plaza, square' rather than 'street' in the strict sense, and is reflecting a rather precise tradition that in his time the site of the crucifixion was believed to lie in the centre of an open space in the middle of Aelia Capitolina. If so, Melito may here reflect the Jerusalem tradition which guided the search undertaken on Constantine's orders a hundred and fifty years later . . . (p. 62)
Dr. Taylor argued that Constantine moved the site of Golgotha northward (close to the tomb) to what was then a pagan temple, but Dr. Biddle, after sifting through the textual evidence of Eusebius, refers in passing (citing Dr. Taylor as the proponent in his footnotes), to “a whole new theory that Constantine shifted the traditional location of Golgotha northwards to the site of the temple [of Venus]. This will not do” (p. 64). He concludes:
The site chosen for the excavations of 325/6 remains, however, the decisive evidence for the survival of knowledge of the site of the crucifixion as a topographical location . . . (p. 64).
Referring to the 1998 article by Dr. Taylor, Dr. Biddle observes:
In a recent article Dr Taylor has maintained her view that the site of the crucifixion lay to the south of the traditional site of Golgotha . . . She now locates Golgotha 200 m away from the tomb, precisely in the middle of the supposed site of the main east-west street of Aelia, the Decumanus, no certain trace of which has yet been located . . .3
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,4 in its article on Golgotha (Vol. II, 1275-76, by E. W. G. Masterman), states, in favor of the traditional site:
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 Gentile Christians 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 [Sir Charles W. Wilson] 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.”
. . . 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.).
The New Bible Dictionary5, similarly, notes two competing claims as to location, but favors the traditional belief:
[T]he one is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the other Gordon's Calvary, commonly known as the Garden Tomb . . .
The Garden Tomb was first pointed out in 1849; a rock formation there resembles a skull; and admittedly the site accords with the biblical data. But there is no tradition nor anything else to support its claim. The more ancient site is much more likely; but any identification must remain conjectural.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, in the article cited above, provided far more damaging counter-evidences to Gordon's Calvary:
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.
The “Garden Tomb” associated with Gordon's Calvary is also given short shrift by Dr. Joan Taylor in her aforementioned article:
[S]cholarly endorsement of this locality has never been very strong. Generally, the current consensus holds that Golgotha was located in the vicinity of the traditional site, somewhere north of the first wall of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, and west of the second wall, though specificity is impossible . . . the traditional tomb of Jesus may very well be authentic.
Upon further consideration of this matter, it seems to me that the fact that the tomb was considered self-evident is the one most important factor that points to the probable authenticity of the traditional site. The traditional view has one key element in its favor (though one that is usually completely ignored): it gives us a perfect reason why no physical proof or legitimating miracle was required for anyone to believe that the tomb was genuine. The reason it was genuine was that it was in precisely the right place, under the statue of Jupiter, as everyone in the Jerusalem church believed (though Eusebius of Caesarea may well have been more skeptical). People only had to remove the statue of Jupiter to find the perfect tomb just exactly underneath it. No further proof was required. It requires us to believe that Hadrian did indeed cover up the tomb purposely and placed a statue of Jupiter on top of it.
[Footnote 1] The Garden Tomb has been shown to dale from the Iron Age, and therefore cannot be genuine as the tomb of Jesus, see Gabriel Barkay. The Garden Tomb — Was Jesus buried here? Biblical Archaeology Review 12/2 (March/April 1986) 40–53, 56–7.
Archaeologist Bargil Pixner summed up the evidence:
Today Catholic, Protestant and Israeli archaeologists all agree that the locations for the New Testament places are under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.6
Regarding the authenticity of Gordon's Calvary, on the same page he informed his readers that “today no serious archaeologists shares this opinion.”
Moreover, he noted that the present Via Dolorosa probably starts at a different place than the beginning of the actual route that Jesus took to the place of His crucifixion. Fr. Pixner provides further details:
It is now widely accepted that N. Avigad discovered the remains of the Gennath (Garden) Gate . . . This gate, by which Jesus was probably led from the city (cf. Heb 13:12), lay south of the crossing of today's Suk es-Zeit and King David Street. (p. 304)
Since that was where the gate of the city was, on the way to Golgotha outside the city, it is one distinct spot where the pilgrim can say with significant assurance: “Jesus carried His cross at this spot.” Fr. Pixner describes the beginning of the “historical Way of the Cross”:
. . . the Praetorium of Pilate, is far more difficult to locate . . . most researchers reject today for historical and archaeological reasons the belief that the Praetorium was in the fortress Antonia. . . . The present majority view for the location of the Praetorium of Pilate prefers instead the area of the Citadel near today's Jaffa Gate . . . (p. 308)
The last part of the procession route, from the Praetorium to Golgotha, is the oldest continuous commemoration for the Way of the Cross and goes back, as we can see, to the first part of the fifth century. . . . If we accept the beginning of this “Way section” within the range of the “archaeological garden,” in which are also the ruins of the German Crusader Church of St. Mary, then the route must have gone first north along today's Nisgav Ladach Road, then left through Chain Street, up to the Suk es-Zeit (the former Cardo Maximus) and from there to the Martyrion of the Anastasis basilica and onto the rock of Golgotha. . . . (p. 310)
Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson also opts for an “alternate” Via Dolorosa, based on the same assumption of a different starting point:
In a new book, titled “The Final Days of Jesus,” Gibson says he has found the location of Jesus’ trial, where Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, condemned him to death by crucifixion. Traditionally it is believed that the trial took place at the Antonia Fortress, outside the Temple Mount, near Lion’s Gate. But Gibson believes the trial was actually conducted in an area just outside what is now the western wall of the Old City. “You have a courtyard and a pavement and a rocky outcrop on one side,” he says of the site. “In the Gospel of John, you have a description of the trial taking place at the Lithostratus, Greek for pavement, at a place called Gabata, which is the word for an ancient hillock or a rocky outcrop, and this is what we have here.” So if the trial was outside the Old City, as Gibson believes, and not in the Antonia Fortress, then the traditional Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus took to his crucifixion, is wrong. I retraced with Gibson the route of his new Via Dolorosa, which begins in a nondescript parking lot in the Armenian Quarter. It skirts the Ottoman walls of the Old City, next to what is known as the Tower of David near Jaffa Gate, then heads toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.7
The Wikipedia article, “Via Dolorosa” provides a handy summary of recent findings and theories:
[A]rchaeological discoveries in the 20th century now indicate that the early route of the Via Dolorosa on the Western hill was actually a more realistic path.
The equation of the present Via Dolorosa with the biblical route is based on the assumption that the Praetorium was adjacent to the Antonia Fortress. However, like Philo, the late-first-century writer Josephus testifies that the Roman governors of Roman Judaea, who governed from Caesarea Maritima on the coast, stayed in Herod's palace while they were in Jerusalem, carried out their judgements on the pavement immediately outside it, and had those found guilty flogged there; Josephus indicates that Herod's palace is on the western hill, and it has recently (2001) been rediscovered under a corner of the Jaffa Gate citadel. Furthermore, it is now confirmed by archaeology that prior to Hadrian's 2nd-century alterations (see Aelia Capitolina), the area adjacent to the Antonia Fortress was a large open-air pool of water.
In 2009, Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson found the remains of a large paved courtyard south of the Jaffa Gate between two fortification walls with an outer gate and an inner one leading to a barracks. The courtyard contained a raised platform of around 2 square metres (22 sq ft). A survey of the ruins of the Praetorium, long thought to be the Roman barracks, indicated it was no more than a watchtower. These findings together “correspond perfectly” with the route as described in the Gospels and matched details found in other ancient writings.
Fellow archaeologist James D. Tabor enthusiastically described Gibson's findings in a review8 of his book, The Final Days of Jesus:
In this review I want to concentrate on what I consider two of the most significant new contributions Gibson offers for our better understanding of Jesus and his last days and I will finish up with a few caveats and observations on the book overall.
The first has to do with the location of Jesus’ trial before the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, the identification of the Praetorium, that is the headquarters of the governor, the “courtyard,” and more particularly, the “pavement” of the judgment seat, called lithostrotos in Greek or gabbatha in Aramaic (see John 18:28, 33; 19:9, 13, cf. Matt 27:27 and Mark 15:16). The traditional route Jesus took to the place of crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa, traced by pilgrims by the thousands on Good Friday, begins in the northeast of the city, at the Church of St Anne. Indeed this is the 1st Station of the Cross. This is based on the assumption that Jesus’ trial before Pilate was at the military barracks of the Antonio Fortress, located on a high rocky outcrop at the northwest corner of the Temple complex. Today there is a scholarly consensus that this location is incorrect, and that the Praetorium was located at Herod’s Palace, on the west side of the city. It has become clear that this magnificent palace was used by Pilate as his residence as well as the military and civic headquarters of Roman rule in Jerusalem. Gibson offers a full exposition of this correct location and why it has become preferred over the traditional site.
. . . But he goes much further in details, having excavated with Magen Broshi along the outside of the western city wall in the 1970s. There a monumental gateway was revealed with the remains of a large courtyard and intact pavement between the fortification walls. Gibson, with maps and detailed drawings, makes a compelling case that this is indeed the very spot where the governor would have had his bema or judgment seat, and he shows in detail that the language of the Gospels, particularly in John, with Pilate going inside the palace, and back out again, and the crowds gathered outside below, fits the location we can see today perfectly. In fact, the steps, dating from the Herodian period, are now exposed, leading up to the remains of the gate and the platform or pavement. . . . Since Gibson first took me and my students to this site back in 2000 I have been back many times, studied it thoroughly, and I have become convinced it is indeed one of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries in the past 100 years related to the life of Jesus. The impact of Gibson’s identification is hard to overemphasize, as this would be the precise location, uncovered down to the pavement, of one of the most famous scenes in the life of Jesus, namely Pilate’s “Ecce Homo,” (“Behold the man” John 19:5) declaration.
Once again, it is striking how recent these findings are. If legitimate (there are always other scholars who disagree), they are quite significant regarding the details of Christ's Passion.
On the other hand, apart from archaeological particulars that Gibson may have discovered, his opinion about the location of the Praetorium goes back at least to 1929, since The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia opines in its article on the topic (Vol. IV, 2428-2429, by E. W. G. Masterman):
pre-to'-ri-um praitorion, Mt 27:27 (the King James Version “common hall”); Mr 15:16; Joh 18:28,33; 19:9 (in all margins “palace,” and in the last three the King James Version “judgment hall”); Ac 23:35, (Herod's) “palace,” margin “Praetorium,” the King James Version “judgment hall”; Php 1:13, “praetorian guard” (margin “Greek 'in the whole Pretorium,'” the King James Version “palace,” margin “Caesar's court”):
The Pretorium was originally the headquarters of a Roman camp, but in the provinces the name became attached to the governor's official residence. In order to provide residences for their provincial governors, the Romans were accustomed to seize and appropriate the palaces which were formerly the homes of the princes or kings in conquered countries. Such a residence might sometimes be in a royal palace, as was probably the case in Caesarea, where the procurator used Herod's palace (Ac 23:35).
The Pretorium where Jesus was brought to trial has been traditionally located in the neighborhood of the present Turkish barracks where once stood the Antonia and where was stationed a large garrison (compare Ac 21:32-35), but the statements of Josephus make it almost certain that the headquarters of the procurator were at Herod's palace. This was a building whose magnificence Josephus can hardly sufficiently appraise (Wars, I, xxi, 1; V, iv, 4). It was in this palace that “Florus, the procurator took up his quarters, and having placed his tribunal in front of it, held his sessions and the chief priests, influential persons and notables of the city appeared before the tribunal” (Wars II, xiv, 8). Later on, “Florus .... brought such as were with him out of the king's palace, and would have compelled them to get as far as the citadel (Antonia); but his attempt failed” (II, xv, 5). The word translated "palace" here is aule, the same word as is translated "court" in Mr 15:16, “the soldiers led him away within the court (aule), which is the Pretorium.” There is no need to suppose that Herod Antipas was in the same palace (Lu 23:4 ff); it is more probable he went to the palace of the Hasmoneans which lay lower down on the eastern slope of this southwest hill, where at a later time Josephus expressly states that Herod Agrippa II and his sister Bernice were living (Wars, II, xvi, 3).
The palace of Herod occupied the highest part of the southwest hill near the northwest angle of the ancient city, now traditionally called Zion, and the actual site of the Pretorium cannot have been far removed from the Turkish barracks near the so-called “Tower of David.” It is interesting to note that the two stations of the Turkish garrison of Jerusalem today occupy the same spots as did the Roman garrison of Christ's time. It is needless to point out how greatly this view of the situation of the Pretorium must modify the traditional claims of the “Via Dolorosa,” the whole course of which depends on theory that the “Way of Sorrow” began at the Antonia, the Pretorium of late ecclesiastical tradition.
This line of thinking goes even further back than that. In 1893, A Dictionary of the Bible: Comprising Its Antiquities, Biography, Geography, and Natural History, Volume 1, Part 29 stated:
1. In John xviii. 28, 33, xix. 9, it is the residence which Pilate occupied when he visited Jerusalem; to which the Jews brought Jesus from the house of Caiaphas, and within which He was examined by Pilate, and scourged and mocked by the soldiers, while the Jews were waiting without in the neighbourhood of the judgment-seat (erected on the Pavement in front of the Praetorium), on which Pilate sat when he pronounced the final sentence. The Latin word praetorium originally signified . . . the general's tent in a Roman camp (Liv. xxviii. 27, &c.); and afterwards it had, among other significations, that of the palace in which a governor of a province lived and administered justice (Cic. Verr. ii. 4, § 28, &c.). The site of Pilate's praetorium in Jerusalem has given rise to much dispute, some supposing it to be the palace of king Herod, others the Tower of Antonia; but . . . the former was probably the Praetorium. . . . Pilate certainly lived there at one time (Philo, Leg. in Caium, 38, 39); and it is scarcely conceivable that the Roman Governor would have occupied any other palace than that which, with its three great towers, formed the citadel of the Upper City (Jos. B. J. ii. 3, § 2; v. 5, § 8). Herod, who, at the time of the trial of Christ, was at Jerusalem (Luke xxiii. 7), no doubt lived in the old palace of the Asmoneans, which stood above the Xystus, on the east side of the Upper City. . . . It appears from a passage of Josephus (B. J. ii. 14, § 8) that Gessius Florus not only resided in the palace, but set up his judgment-seat in front of it. Winer conjectures, with great probability, that the procurator, when in Jerusalem, resided with a body-guard in the palace of Herod (Jos. B. J. ii. 15, § 5), while the Roman garrison occupied Antonia.
In a 2011 joint volume with chapters from 13 scholars, The World of Jesusand the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in the EarlyCommunities of Faith,10 Dr. Shimon Gibson contributes the chapter, “The Trial of Jesus at the Jerusalem Praetorium: New Archaeological Evidence” (pp. 97-118). He writes:
It was here [at Herod's Palace] that the trial of Jesus took place, and on this matter there is almost unanimous agreement among scholars. But there is less agreement on whether the trial took place inside or adjacent to the praetorium. (p. 99)
Nowadays, a consensus of opinion exists among scholars that the trial of Jesus took place at Herod's palace.
It is highly unlikely that Jesus was tried at the Antonia, since it served primarily as a military observation tower (pyrgos) with a specific function: to keep an eye on the activities of the Jewish worshipers on the Temple Mount and to prevent rioting or demonstrations there. It was to this spot, one will remember, that Paul was later brought after having been saved from the temple mob (Acts 21:30-36). . . . it would appear that this fortress was no more than a very large and high tower . . .
Herod's palace lay at the northwest angle of the Upper City, in the area spanning the distance between the present-day citadel, Kishle, and Armenian Garden. (p. 108)
Jesus was most likely . . . paraded down the streets of the Upper City to the Gennath Gate, where he was led out of the city to Golgotha. (p. 118)
This “consensus” data (if accepted), leads to the inexorable conclusion that the actual Via Dolorosa was completely different from the familiar one of tradition. Pious and venerable as that devotional tradition is, it doesn't seem to square with history and archaeology.
The Catholic faith is not subverted in accepting the new proposed route. Christians, as always, have nothing to fear from new facts of history or archaeology being uncovered or further substantiated. What is non-negotiable is that there was a trial and that Jesus was condemned by Pontius Pilate, carried His cross to Golgotha, and was crucified. The exact locations of these events may be properly debated.
1 Posted on the Associates for Biblical Research website: 11 January 2010. This article first appeared in New Testament Studies, volume 44. Copyright 1998: Cambridge University Press.
2 Phoenix Mill / Stroud / Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1999.
3 Footnote 54 for Chapter 3; p. 148. In footnote 91 for the same chapter (p. 149), Biddle noted that Dr. Taylor was persuaded by a 1994 article of his that the traditional site of Jesus' tomb is likely authentic (having previously argued in 1993 that it was “very unlikely to be authentic.”).
4 Edited by James Orr, John Nuelsen, Edgar Mullins, Morris Evans, and Melvin Grove Kyle, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1939. Available online, on several sites.
5 Organizing editor: J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962; “Calvary,” p. 181, by D. F. Payne.
6 Paths of the Messiah and Sites of the Early Church from Galilee to Jerusalem (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 304. On p. 305, accessible for viewing via Google Books, is a diagram of this portion of the city and Golgotha during the time of Jesus.
7 “Archaeologist: Jesus took a different path,” Ben Wedeman, CNN World website, 10 April 2009. A diagram of Gibson's proposed route of the Via Dolorosa can be found in the article, “Pilgrims tracing the last steps of Jesus have been going the WRONG way for 2,000 years, says historian,” by Dalya Alberge, Mail Online, 10 April 2009.
8 “Shimon Gibson: Final Days of Jesus out in paperback,” TaborBlog, 28 March 2010. The article contains a photograph of the proposed site of the “pavement” and courtyard where Pilate judged Jesus, and an artist's conception of what it may have looked like.
9 Edited by Sir William Smith and J. M. Fuller, second edition (London: John Murray, 1893; first edition, 1863); “Judgment-Hall,” 1849-1850).
10 Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. A very helpful diagram showing the locations of the two competing theories of the Praetorium and Via Dolorosa, appears on p. 101: accessible on the Google Books page for this book. A reproduction of Herod's Palace is found on p. 111, and a photograph of the area today, on p. 105.