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Golgotha, which means “skull,” is only mentioned by name three times in the New Testament. John 19:17 reveals that the name “Golgotha” is Aramaic (19:17), while Matthew 27:33 and Mark 15:22 translate the Aramaic name into Greek as Kraniou topos, i.e., “Place of a Skull” (ESV). Incidentally, the English word “cranium” is derived from the Greek. Luke 23:33 dispenses with “Golgotha” and only supplies the Greek translation, which the KJV and NKJV curiously translate into English as “the place called Calvary,” the latter term being a transliteration of the Latin term calvaria, meaning “skull.”
As to why this location received a name meaning “skull” is a matter of debate. Origen states that the name is due to a pre-Christian tradition that the skull of Adam was buried there. Though this possibility sounds silly, it is the most ancient tradition and cannot be dismissed out of hand. Whether or not its factual, if people came to associate this location with the first man’s skull, then such could explain the name. Jerome argues that the name was given because a slew of skulls was scattered about this location. The most recent theory is that the location derived its name from its skull-like shape; however, contrary to some of our more popular hymns, there is no solid evidence in the Gospels that Golgotha was a hill or raised place (Masterman 1275).
As to where this location is in relation to modern Jerusalem is also a matter of debate. In the first century, we know that Golgotha was near the city (John 19:20) or outside the city (Hebrews 13:12) along a public thoroughfare (Matthew 27:39; Mark 15:21, 29). Some scholars consider a rocky hill northeast of the modern Damascus gate called “Gordon’s Calvary” to be Golgotha. This rock formation, first suggested by Otho Thenius in 1842, does resemble the face of a skull, but it is difficult to imagine that this formation existed two thousand years ago. Most scholars maintain the traditional view that Golgotha was located where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher now stands. Though this structure is located within the current wall of the city on the northwest side, it would have been outside the city wall in the first century (McRay 211-17).
While Bible scholars may debate why the location was named Golgotha and even where it is located today, no one seriously questions what occurred there. Golgotha was the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, the significance of which cannot be overestimated. Although numerous people were crucified there, only one of them was the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. His crucifixion at Golgotha demands contemplation.
Jesus’ Crucifixion at Golgotha was Vicious
What occurred at Golgotha was undeniably vicious and violent, but nowhere does the New Testament describe Jesus’ crucifixion in any detail (cf. Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). Focusing on John’s account of the crucifixion, Leon Morris states, “John describes the horror that was crucifixion in a single word. As in the case of the scourging, he simply mentions the fact and passes on. Popular piety, both Protestant and Catholic, has often emphasized the sufferings of Jesus; it has reflected on what happened and has dwelt on the anguish the Savior suffered. None of the Gospels does this. The Evangelists record the fact and let it go at that. [. . .] They make no attempt to play on the heartstrings of their readers” (712-13).
While working with the Greenback Church of Christ in East Tennessee a few years ago, I learned about a co-worker of one of our members who liked to argue that Jesus’ hands and feet were not nailed to the cross; instead, they were tied to the cross by ropes. It is true that some people were crucified with ropes, not nails, and if all we had to go on were the one-word descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion in the gospels, a case could be made for ropes, not nails. So, how do we know that Jesus was nailed to the cross rather than tied to the cross? When Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, he showed them the nail marks in his hands (John 20:20, 25, 27; cf. Psalm 22:16).
Yes, the crucifixion of Jesus was vicious, involving excruciating pain, forced immobility, unavoidable humiliation, and a slow, agonizing death, but the level of suffering that Jesus endured on the cross is nowhere discussed in any detail in the NT. Historians have helped us here, but the concerns of the NT writers regarding what happened at Golgotha lay elsewhere.
Jesus’ Crucifixion at Golgotha was Voluntary
John 3:16, a verse known and cherished by many, expresses God’s love for the world in terms of giving his only Son. The Father gave us his Son, and this is important to note, because sometimes people set the Father and the Son in opposition. They see the Father as a stern judge who sentences sinners to hell, and into this picture comes a loving Son who intervenes to save them. But any view of the crucifixion that does not see it as coming from the Father’s love is wrong.
Nevertheless, for our purposes, we must also insist that the Son gave himself, lest someone tries to argue that the Father forced the Son to do something against his will. In 1 John 3:16, we read, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us. . . .” Both the Father and the Son were committed to the crucifixion.
That Jesus’ crucifixion was voluntary is emphasized in John 10:17-18, where Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
On several occasions, Paul tells us that Christ “gave himself.” To the Ephesians, for instance, he writes: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (see 5:2). In his letter to Titus, Paul refers to Jesus as “our great God and Savior,” stating that he “gave himself for us to redeem us” (see 2:13-14).
People did not volunteer for a Roman crucifixion. In fact, it is hard to imagine anyone willingly walking the road to Golgotha to have their wrists and feet nailed to wooden beams. But Jesus did! Unlike everyone else sentenced to die on a Roman cross, Jesus could have called twelve legions of angels to rescue him at any moment (Matthew 26:53). But he didn’t! Jesus willingly laid down his life at the “Place of the Skull,” and that blows me away, especially when I consider why he did it.
Jesus’ Crucifixion at Golgotha was Vicarious
To speak of an act as “vicarious” is to say that the act is performed or suffered by one person as a substitute for another or to the benefit or advantage of another. That Jesus in some way stood in our place – that Jesus was our Substitute when he died – is clear in many places in
Isaiah 53 is undoubtedly a prophecy about Jesus (cf. Acts 8:26-35), written some 700 years before he was born into the world. The language of substitution is employed throughout: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The apostle Peter employs the language of Isaiah 53 in First Peter 2:24-25: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (cf. First Peter 3:18). On several occasions, the apostle Paul employs the language of substitution in describing the death of Jesus (Romans 5:6-10; Second Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 1:4; 2:20; 3:13). The Hebrews writers says that Jesus was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (see 9:28). Perhaps the most shocking testimony to the vicarious, or substitutionary, nature of Jesus’ crucifixion fell from the lips of the high priest that orchestrated Jesus’ crucifixion (John 11:50-52).
Much more could be said, but these passages surely demonstrate that one strand of NT teaching about Jesus’ demise at Golgotha insists that Jesus didn’t just take Barabbas’s place that Friday, he took everyone’s place at his crucifixion. Jesus volunteered to undergo crucifixion and be punished not for any sins that he committed but for the sins that we committed (Second Corinthians 5:14-15). Imagine just for a moment what this world would be like if everyone alive appreciated what Jesus did for them that Friday at Golgotha.
Jesus’ Crucifixion at Golgotha was Victorious
Jesus’ death at Golgotha presents us with a plethora of paradoxes. The cross was an instrument of death, but it gave life. Jesus’ crucifixion was premeditated murder, but it was also a predestined sacrifice. It was a great act of sin on the part of the Jews and Romans, but it was also a great cure for sin. Jesus’ crucifixion simultaneously demonstrated both God’s wrath (i.e. how much God hates sin) and God’s mercy (i.e. how much God loves the sinner). On the cross, Jesus won by losing, triumphed by surrendering, and conquered by dying.
At Golgotha, Jesus crushed the head of that old serpent (Genesis 3:15). Indeed, it was at the cross that the ruler of this world, Satan, was cast out (John 12:31). It was in Jesus’ crucifixion that the devil, who has the power of death, was decimated, resulting in the deliverance of “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15).
At Golgotha, Jesus demonstrated an excruciating grace, redeeming us through his blood and making the forgiveness of our sins possible (Ephesians 1:7). As a result of Jesus’ solitary, perfect, and unrepeatable sacrifice, Jesus is able to save us to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:23) and secure for us an eternal redemption (Hebrews 9:12).
At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the enemies of Christ must have had a very decided view of what was taking place. To them the death of Christ meant the execution of a blasphemer or insurrectionist, the eradication of a false teaching, and in some measure the extinguishment of a dangerous movement. But they were wrong on all counts. They were actually witnessing the victory of God over sin and death.
Yes, what transpired at Golgotha nearly two thousand years ago was a tragedy, but it was also a triumph. Golgotha, a place once associated exclusively with death and condemnation, has become a place that millions now associate with life and salvation, especially when they consider that “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had been laid” (John 19:41).
1 E.W.G. Masterman, “Golgotha.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Editor James Orr, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), pgs. 1275-76.
2 John McRay, Archaeology & the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), pg. 211-217.
3 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John. Revised Edition New International Commentary of the New Testatment, Editors Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pg 712-713.