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Mount Calvary

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The place of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.


Etymology and Use

The word Calvary ( Latin Calvaria ) means "a skull". Calvaria and the Gr. Kranion are equivalents for the original Golgotha . The ingenious conjecture that Golgotha may be a contraction for Gol Goatha and may accordingly have signified "mount of execution", and been related to Goatha in Jer., xxxi, 39, has found scarcely any supporters. The diminutive monticulus (little mount) was coupled with the name A.D. 333 by the "Pilgrim of Bordeaux".

Towards the beginning of the fifth century Rufinus spoke of "the rock of Golgotha". Since the sixth century the usage has been to designate Calvary as a mountain. The Gospel styles it merely a "place", ( Matthew 27:33 ; Mark 15:22 ; Luke 23:33 ; John 19:17 ).

Origin of the Name

The following theories have been advanced:

  • Calvary may have been a place of public execution, and so named from the skulls strewn over it. The victims were perhaps abandoned to become a prey to birds and beasts, as Jezabel and Pharao's baker had been ( 2 Kings 9:35 ; Genesis 40:19, 22 ).
  • Its name may have been derived from a cemetery that may have stood near. There is no reason for believing that Joseph's tomb, in which the body of Christ was laid, was an isolated one, especially since it was located in the district later on described by Josephus as containing the monument of the high-priest John. This hypothesis has the further advantage of explaining the thinness of the population in this quarter at so late a period as that of the siege of Jerusalem (Jos., Bell. jud., V, vi, 2). Moreover, each of the rival Calvaries of today is near a group of ancient Jewish tombs.
  • The name may have been occasioned by the physical contour of the place. St. Luke (loc. cit.) seems to this by saying it was the place called "a skull" ( kranion ). Moreover, Golgotha (from a Hebrew root meaning "to roll"), which borrows its signification from the rounded or rolling form of the skull, might also have been applied to a skull-shaped hillock.
  • There was a tradition current among the Jews that the skull of Adam, after having been confided by Noah to his son Shem, and by the latter to Melchisedech, was finally deposited at the place called, for that reason, Golgotha. The Talmudists and the Fathers of the Church were aware of this tradition, and it survives in the skulls and bones placed at the foot of the crucifix. The Evangelists are not opposed to it, inasmuch as they speak of one and not of many skulls. (Luke, Mark, John, loc. cit.)
The curious origins of many Biblical names, the twofold and sometimes disagreeing explanations offered for them by the Sacred Writers ( Genesis passim ) should make us pause before accepting any of the above theories as correct. Each of them has its weak points: The first seems to be opposed to the Jewish law, which prescribed that the crucified should be buried before sundown ( Deuteronomy 21:23 ). Josephus intimates that this enactment was scrupulously observed (Bell. jud., IV, v, 2). The executions cited in support of the opinion are too few, too remote, and too isolated to have the force of proof. Moreover, in this supposition Calvary wold have been called more correctly a place "of skulls" but the Evangelists nowhere use the plural. In the first tow theories no sufficient reason is assigned for selecting the skull in reference to any other member of the body, or the corpse itself, as a name-giver. The third theory is plausible and more popular. Yet it may not be urged a priori, as indicating a requisite for a Calvary otherwise unauthenticated. The Evangelists seem to have been more intent upon giving an intelligible equivalent for the obscure name, Golgotha, than upon vouching for its origin. The fourth theory has been characterized as too absurd, though it has many serious adherents. It was not absurd to the uncritical Jew. It would not seem absurd to untaught Christians. Yet it is among the untaught that names arise spontaneously. Indeed Christians embellished the legend, as we shall see.


The New Testament

The only explicit notices are that the Crucifixion took place outside the city ( Hebrews 13:12 ), but close to it; a newly-hewn tomb stood in a garden not far away ( John 19:20, 41 ); the spot was probably near a frequented road, thus permitting the passers-by to revile the supposed criminal. That the Cyrenian was coming from the country when he was forced into service seems to exclude only two of the roads entering Jerusalem, the one leading from Bethlehem and the one from Siloe ( Matthew 27:30 ; Mark 15:24, 29 ; Luke 23:26 ). Any other road entering Jerusalem might fulfil the condition. The incidents recorded along the sorrowful journey are so few that the distance from the praetorium is left a matter of conjecture.

Early Medieval Narratives

After the Apostolic Age no more is heard of Calvary until the fourth century. Under pagan rule an idol had been place there, and had been later embraced within the same enclosure as the crypt of the Resurrection ( Sozomen, Hist. Eccl., II, 1, 2). Eustachius, Constantine's architect, separated it from the latter by hewing away a great mass of stone. It was St. Melania the Younger who first adorned Mount Calvary with a chapel (436).

The place is described as a "knoll of scanty size" ( deficiens loci tumor -- Eucherius, 427-440), apparently natural, and in the sixth century approached by steps. It was fifteen paces from the Holy Sepulchre. It was encircled with silver railings and contained a cell in which the Cross was kept, and a great altar (Theodosius, 530). Two years after the ravages of the Persians (614), a large church replaced the ruined chapel ( Arculfus, 680). From its roof a brazen wheel adorned with lamps was suspended over a silver cross that stood in the socket of Our Saviour's gibbet. This Church was destroyed in 1010, but was restored in 1048. The rock beneath is spoken of by Soewulf (1102) as being "much cracked near the fosse of the Cross". In the traditions, Adam's burial and Abraham's sacrifice are repeatedly located there.

By 1149 the Calvary chapel had been united by the crusaders with the surrounding oratories into a vast basilica. The part of the rock believed to have held the Cross is said to have been removed and lost in a shipwreck on the coast of Syria while being transported to Constantinople (1809). Another fragment is shown in the chapel of Longinus, one of many in the basilica.

Contemporary Sources

Wilson, Warren, Fraas, and other eminent topographers engaged in the interests of the English Ordinance Survey (1864-5), declare that the lower part of this traditional Calvary is natural, and that the upper part "may very likely be so". The knoll is of soft white limestone (nummulitic) containing nodules, and occupies a position normally required for such a bed in Palestine, viz. above the Missae and Malaki strata respectively. These last beds are seen on lower levels in the basilica. The direction taken by the rent in the rock, 96 degrees east of north, is practically the same as that of the veining of the rocks roundabout. Other points of similarity have been observed. The fissure broadens eastwards. The rock has been cut away on the side of the Holy Sepulchre, thus bearing out the architectural datum afforded by the period of Constantine. Calvary is 140 feet south- east of the Holy Sepulchre and 13 feet above it. The early traditions mentioned at the beginning of this article still cling to it. The chapel of Adam beneath that of Calvary stands for the first. A picture in it represents the raising of Adam to life by the Precious Blood trickling down upon his skull. An altar is there dedicated to Melchisedech. A vestige of the second tradition subsists in a scraggy olive tree a few yards away, religiously guarded, which the Abyssinians still claim to have been the bush in which the ram's horns were caught when the angel stayed the hand of Abraham.

Calvary Chapel

The small, low, poorly lighted oratory, built upon the traditional Calvary, is divided into two sections by a pair of massive pillars. The chapel of the Exaltation of the Cross comprises the section on the north and belongs to the Orthodox Greeks. That of the Crucifixion on the south is in possession of the Latins. At the eastern end, behind a thickly-set row of sanctuary lamps kept constantly burning, there are three altars of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth stations of the Way of the Cross. That of the twelfth station is in the Greek chapel, and marks the position of Our Saviour's Cross. It is near the rent made in the rock by the earthquake. Two black marble discs at its sides indicate the presumed positions of the malefactors' crosses. Behind it, among numerous icons, stands a large painted image of the Crucified Saviour.

The altars of the Crucifixion and Mater Dolorosa (eleventh and thirteenth stations) belong to the Latins. The image on the latter, or middle, altar is screened, and incased with a profusion of votive offerings. The floor of the chapel, which is on a level with the top of the rock, is covered with coarse mosaics. A round stone in the pavement on the Latin side, near the eleventh station, marks the place of the tenth. In the roof, there is a mosaic representation of Christ. Entrance to the chapel is obtained by the stairways. The two most frequently used are at the west end. The eighteen steps in each stairway, which are narrow, steep and much worn, are mostly of pink Santa Croce marble commonly quarried in Palestine.


It is beyond doubt that the Calvary we have been considering is the same as that of the Middle Ages, but is it correct to identify it with that of the Gospels ? It has long been far within the city walls. But did the city wall which has enclosed it for so many centuries enclose it when Christ was crucified? That is, did the present city wall exist when the Saviour was put to death ? If so, this could not have been the place of the crucifixion; for Christ was crucified outside the walls ( Hebrews 13:12 ), St. Willibald (eighth century), Soewulf (twelfth century), and many others asked themselves this question. But it was not until two centuries ago that an affirmative answer was ventured by Korte, a German bookseller (see below). Not, however, until the last century did the new opinion obtain supporters. Then a school sprang up which first rejected the old side and eventually set about seeking new ones. Catholics, as a class, with many leading Anglicans support the traditional claims.

The authenticity of Calvary is intimately bound up with that of the Holy Sepulchre. Relative to the authenticity of the sites of both, the ecclesiastical writers who are the first to break silence after the Evangelists seem to leave no room for doubt. Now it is not easy to see how these, the chief representatives of an apologetical age, could have overlooked the above difficulty advanced by modern writers, especially since simple pilgrims are known to have advanced it. The spirit of investigation had awakened in the Church long years previous to them; and the accredited custodians of the tradition, the Jerusalem community, had been ruled by a continuous succession of bishops since Apostolic times. Under these circumstances, our first available witnesses tell us that a remembrance of the site had actually been transmitted. As a telling testimony to the confidence they merit herein, it need only be remarked that of sixteen modern charts of the Holy City collated by Zimmermann (Basle, 1876) only four place Golgotha within the second or outermost wall in the time of Christ Moreover, Dr. Schick, the author of one of these, accepted the traditional view before his death. Dr. Reiss, in his "Bibel-Atlas" (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1895), also agrees with the majority. (See JERUSALEM; HOLY SEPULCHRE.)


The most popular of several sites proposed is that of Otto Thenius (1849), better known as Gordon's Calvary, and styled by the latter, "Skull Hill", because of its shape. Conder is the chief supporter of this view. This site is the elevation over Jeremiah's Grotto, not far from the Damascus Gate. In default of an historic basis, and owing to the insufficiency of the Gospel data -- which may be verified equally well on any side of the city -- the upholders of the new theories usually take for granted one or other of the following statements, viz: that Christ should have been immolated north of the altar, like the typical victims ( Leviticus 1:10, 11 ); that Calvary was a place of public execution; that the place reserved for crucifixion, if there was one, was identical with a presumed stoning-place; that a modern Jewish tradition as to a fixed stoning-place could be substantiated in the time of Christ; and that the violent mob to which Christ was delivered would have conformed to whatever custom prescribed for the occasion. These affirmations all bear the mark of fitness; but until documents are produced to confirm them, they must inevitably fall short as proof of facts.

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