What Did Calvary Look Like? An Interview with Leen Ritmeyer (Part 1)
The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ was crucified on a Friday after Passover (probably in April of 33 A.D.) at “Golgotha” (Aramaic for “Place of a Skull”; the Latin Vulgate translated it as “Calvary”). After he died, his body was wrapped in linen clothes and placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s newly hewn tomb, located in a garden.
For the ESV Study Bible we brought together the best people we could find to help us reconstruct what Golgotha and the tomb would have looked like. So we employed the skills of archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer, widely considered the world’s leading authority on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Dr. Ritmeyer was the chief architect of the Temple Mount Excavations which took place in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. He served in a similar capacity in the Jewish Quarter Excavations and also in the City of David Excavations, producing important reconstruction drawings for all of them and for many other sites in Israel and Bible Lands.
Using Dr. Ritmeyer’s extensive research and new drawings, we then turned to the illustration firm Maltings Partnership (in Derby, England) to produce the final, full-color paintings. We knew of Maltings’ superb work from their reconstruction drawings in the DK Travel Guides and the National Geographic Traveler guides. We could not be happier with the final results.
I recently was able to ask Dr. Ritmeyer some questions about Golgotha and the Temple Mount, along with the tomb of Jesus. Part one of the interview is below; part two on the tomb will be in a separate post.
Below is our reconstruction of Golgotha, which can be seen in the foreground, with the massive Temple Mount in the background. The viewpoint of the drawing is from the northwest. (Click the picture to enlarge it to full size.)
The Gospel record tells us that Golgotha, which means a place of a skull (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17; cf. Luke 23:33), was located outside but near the city walls of Jerusalem at that time (Heb. 13:12) and also near a main road (Mark 15:21, 29). Golgotha was located in a garden (John 19:41a), where a new tomb had been made (Matt. 27:60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41b).
Does the Church of the Holy Sepulcher site (over the traditional location, depicted in our drawing) fit with the biblical criteria?
The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher certainly answers to these requirements. Although the church is located inside the walls of the Old City today, this was not the case in the first century A.D. At that time, this site was situated north of the First Wall and west of the Second Wall.
Substantial remains of the First Wall have been found in the Citadel and in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. In these latter excavations, the remains of the Gennath (Garden) Gate and the beginning of what is believed to be the Second Wall have been found, just where Josephus described them as being (cf. War 5.146). Both of these walls and the Garden Gate are indicated on the Golgotha drawing.
The name “Garden Gate” indicates that a garden must have been located nearby. Excavations below the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer have shown that this area used to be an ancient quarry, which was later abandoned. The excavators believe that the area was then filled with arable soil, presumably to turn the ugly quarry remains into a beautiful garden.
In one area, a rocky outcrop was left unquarried, because of the poor quality of the stone. It is believed that this hill was used to crucify criminals, although there are problems with the size of the rock offering enough space for three crosses. Here is a picture of the exposed top of Calvary:
In 313 A.D., the Emperor Constantine the Great published the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity as one of the state religions. Ten years later, his mother Queen Helena visited Jerusalem and legend tells us that she discovered the cross of Jesus. In 325 A.D., Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be built over a temple that the Roman emperor Hadrian had built to Aphrodite, but where, according to tradition, Jesus was buried.
What can you see today of Golgotha within the church?
Most of the rock remains are hidden behind and under the different chapels in the church. However, below the altar in the Greek Orthodox chapel there is a hole through which one can touch the rock. The rest of the rock can also be seen below a glass cover, see picture below:
In 1883 General Charles Gordon argued that the real Golgotha was located to the north of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Garden Tomb. Why do most archaeologists today reject that location as the place where Jesus was crucified and buried?
The Garden Tomb has been investigated by archaeologists, and it is well known today that this tomb was at least 600 years old when Christ died. However, the peaceful setting of the Garden Tomb is infinitely more conducive to meditation than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
In the ESVSB painting one can see the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. Where exactly is the so-called Wailing Wall where many Jews have prayed and worshiped over the last 700 years?
In the Golgotha drawing, the Western Wall is the retaining wall of Herod’s Temple that faces us. The section that is known as the “Wailing Wall,” a term rarely used today, is that part of the wall that lies between Wilson’s Arch and Barclay’s Gate. It was given this name because for many years after the destruction of the temple, it was the closest to the Temple Mount that Jews could go.
I began working on the Temple Mount excavations in 1973, which were led by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar, and I have been making reconstruction drawings and models of the Temple Mount ever since. Most of my reconstructions have been published fairly recently in my book The Quest: Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The degree of confidence I have in these reconstruction drawings is pretty high, although I would never say 100%. After all, nobody alive today has seen the actual Temple Mount before it was destroyed!
My reconstructions are based on archaeological and historical evidence. One needs to study not only the remains in situ (i.e., those remains which have survived in their original location), but also the fallen debris and how buildings were destroyed in the past. One also needs to make parallels with contemporaneous buildings and study the prevalent architectural style. Last, but not least, the study of the ancient sources, which may contain descriptions of the building before it was destroyed, is extremely valuable. Without studying the works of Josephus and the Mishnah, one cannot hope to make an accurate reconstruction drawing of the Temple Mount.
There is, of course, a certain amount of guess work involved if one tries to present a complete reconstruction of an ancient site. That guess should, however, be academically informed and not speculative.
Despite decades of work on the Temple Mount, you had never before drawn it from the northwest, showing it in relation to Golgotha. Why not?
That is true. The reason is that from the angle of view in the Golgotha drawing, one cannot today see the Temple Mount. I usually make reconstruction drawings to show what a site looked like from the most visited direction. That is why my well-known reconstruction drawing of the Temple Mount has the southwest corner in the foreground, for that is the way people approach the Temple Mount excavations.
The viewpoint of the Golgotha drawing would be located in the vicinity of the present-day New Gate at the northwest corner of the Old City. You will never find a guide standing there trying to explain what the Temple Mount looked like, for one cannot see the Temple Mount from that location. One needs to mentally eliminate all the buildings on this side of the Temple Mount and imagine what the area would have looked like 2,000 years ago.
It’s probably the combination of lack of knowledge plus the result of seeing too many popular films on the life of Christ, but the mental image I always had was a hill far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But according to the ESV Study Bible depiction, when Jesus was talking to the thief on his left, he would have seen the massive Herodian Temple in the background. As he looked out at his beloved friend John and his mother Mary he would have seen the Hasmonean Palace and Herod’s Palace in the distance behind them, where he had stood the night before in front of Herod and Pilate. From the cross he could perhaps have seen the tomb into which his dead body would soon be laid. It changes the entire setting, doesn’t it?
Yes, the whole purpose of making accurate reconstruction drawings is to present a scenario, as realistic and authentic as possible. One must also take into account that the site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem was chosen by the Romans, not only for the punishment of criminals, but also as a deterring factor for the whole population. It was therefore located close to one of the major gateways into Jerusalem, the Gennath Gate, and along the busy biblical highway which ran from Shechem in the north to Hebron and Beersheba in the south. That the site was in full view of those traveling along that major road is indicated by Mark 15:29, which speaks of “those who passed by” the place of execution. There have been suggestions based on ancient documents that Golgotha may even have been closer to the Gennath Gate than the site of the Holy Sepulcher.
It would have been with mixed feelings that Jesus looked over the city from the cross. The whole of Jerusalem lay, as it were, at his feet. He would have seen the beautiful Herodian Temple, of which he had prophesied that not one stone shall be left upon another (Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6) and, as you say, the sumptuous palaces where he had been condemned to death. He would have been very sad when he cast a last glance over this beautiful city that never responded to his call and he would have remembered the words he said earlier: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matt. 23:37).
Any thoughts on the final result of the Golgotha painting rendered by Maltings?
The drawings are simply spectacular. I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Capsey of Maltings Partnership, who made the final paintings, and we got on very well together. He is a trained artist, who just loves to draw and paint. His drawing skills are superior, but he is also willing to listen and adjust his drawings when necessary. The reconstruction drawings which appear in the ESV Study Bible are the most beautiful and most accurate reconstructions of Jerusalem and its Temples to date.
The interview with Dr. Ritmeyer—where we discuss what Jesus’ tomb would have looked like—continues in a separate post.