Crucifixion was described by the Roman orator Cicero as "the most cruel and hideous of punishments." It was reserved for criminals without Roman citizenship and usually only for those who threatened the Roman social order: rebels, runaway slaves, those who attacked the property of the wealthy and those who committed treason by claiming power not authorized by Rome. It was designed to deter crime. Perhaps invented in a somewhat different form by the Persians and spread to the Middle East by Alexander the Great, this means of execution was said to have been adopted by the Romans from their blood enemies, the Carthaginians, who used it to execute defeated admirals; the Romans refined it to produce a very slow and extremely painful death.
In the footsteps of Jesus...
6th Station of the Station of the Cross - Jesus takes up his cross
We are now standing alongside Phasael's Tower (below left), the only extent remains of the three defense towers that once guarded the north side of the palace of Herod the Great. The upper part of the tower is Islamic, but the stones at the base (which is solid all the way through) are original. This is where we have chosen to mark our 6th Station of the Cross because its lower 16 courses of large protruding stones, weighing about a ton each, may have borne silent witness to the first halting steps of a severely beaten and bloodied Jesus northward toward the rocky outcropping called Golgotha in Aramaic and Calvaria in Latin — the place of his crucifixion. (Below right) other fortifications of the Citadel, also known as the "Tower of David," located on the western side of the Old City by the Jaffa Gate. Buried beneath the Citadel’s foundations are the remains of fortifications dating from the end of the monarchic period (8th to 6th centuries BC) through the early Arab period (7th to 11th centuries). The outline of the citadel known today is from the Crusader period; the citadel itself was built in the mid-16th century by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
It was early on Friday morning, April 3, 33 AD* (after 6:00 a.m. but before 9:00 a.m.). As recorded by Matthew, following the severe beating and mocking homage by the "the whole company of soldiers," a four-man execution detail, commanded by a centurion, led Jesus toward the site set aside for crucifixions. Stumbling over the rough pavement, Jesus was weighed down by the heavy wooden beam (patibulum) of his cross. Two other condemned men were also straining under their crossbeams on the way to their executions, a pair about whom nothing is known. Processions were part of Roman crucifixions, especially in the case of political prisoners, because they added to the humiliation and disgrace, and demonstrated to onlookers what would happen to anyone else who rebelled against Roman rule.
*This date for Good Friday is given on p. 345 of Dr. Paul Maier's book "In the Fullness of Time" ©1991 by Paul L. Maier. Assuming 6 BC as the year of Jesus' birth, he would have been 38/39 years old at the time of his crucifixion.
Today, the most direct route from the Citadel to Golgotha heads east along David Street (below), a narrow stepped alleyway lined with shops mostly devoted to selling household items and tourist trinkets, everything from Dome of the Rock paperweights and mother-of-pearl rosary beads to carved olive-wood nativity scenes. In the 1st century AD, as now, Jerusalem was a city teaming with life, with people going about their normal business. Then, as now, shopkeepers were beginning to set out tables of handcrafted wares to entice Passover pilgrims into making last minute purchases; women, too, had begun preparations for their Sabbath meals.
7th Station of the Cross - The women of Jerusalem weep over Jesus
Early this Friday morning, word had just begun to spread among city-dwellers and visitors that the Jewish officials had seized the popular rabbi from Nazareth the previous evening, then succeeded overnight in getting him convicted and sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate. Upon hearing the news, a "large number of people followed him" along the narrow street, including some of those who had joyously hailed his arrival five days ago. Jesus turned to a number of them and said:
"Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children" (Luke 23:28 ).
(Above left) 8th Station of the Cross on the traditional Via Dolorosa commemorating Jesus speaking to the grieving women of Jerusalem; (above right) stone-carved marker embedded in the wall, with a Latin cross and the Latin word nika (Greek niki) meaning "victory."
8th Station of the Cross - Simon of Cyrene is made to carry the cross for Jesus
Severely weakened by horrific beatings, exhaustion and loss of blood, Jesus was soon unable to carry his own crossbeam any farther. The soldiers assigned to his execution detail seized a bystander, a Diaspora Jew named Simon who had come to Jerusalem on pilgrimage from the region of Cyrene in North Africa, and commanded him to carry the crossbar for the weak and bleeding Jesus. The experience is thought to have converted him. From Acts, we know that the Cyrinian Jews had their own synagogue ("Synagogue of the Freedmen," see Acts 6:9) in Jerusalem. Mark 15:21 records that he was the "the father of Alexander and Rufus" (Greek names, but not uncommon among contemporary Jews), who were undoubtedly known to the early Christians to whom the gospel of Luke was written. The name Rufus also crops up again at the conclusion to Paul's letter to the Romans (Romans 16:13).
(Above left) Entrance to the small Franciscan chapel at the 5th Station of the Cross on the traditional Via Dolorosa: Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the cross for Jesus; (above right) the chapel at Station 5.
Our journey continues: Two thousand years ago, the topography of the city was roughly the same. David Street heads steadily downhill until it intersects with Christian Quarter Road then Muristan Road (below left). Both lead to Souk al-Dabbagha Street which, in turn, takes you to the entrance plaza of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Souk al-Dabbagha also follows the course of the northern city wall at the time of Jesus. (Below right) inside one of the area shops.
(Below left) Wall of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer opposite Dajani's Orient Bazaar, where tourists can find souvenir's of their pilgrimages, including "Jerusalem Crosses" (below right). Directly ahead is the entrance to the Aftimos market. The church is located in the Muristan (from the Persian word for hospital "bimarestan"), now an Arab market. During the Crusades this was where the order of the Knights Hospitallers (also known as the Knights of St. John and Knights of Malta) had their headquarters and hospitals for tending wounded knights and sick and injured pilgrims. Some members of the group opt to climb up the seemingly endless spiral staircase (177 steps) within the church's landmark bell tower to take in the amazing views of the city, especially the Dome of the Rock, with the Mount of Olives beyond; also the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
|(Left) Landmark bell tower of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and the Mora fountain. The church was built by German Lutherans in the northeast corner of the Muristan over the Church of St. Mary of the Latins, which had been constructed c.1050 by wealthy merchants from Amalfi, Italy and had fallen into disrepair. It houses four Lutheran congregations speaking four different languages: Arabic, German, English and Danish.|
Jesus and the execution detail, along with a growing crowd of onlookers, soon came to the Gennath** Gate, at the point where the north and the west city walls met. From there roads led west to Emmaus and Joppa (today's Route 1 to Tel Aviv/Jaffa) and south to Bethlehem and Hebron (modern Route 60). In Christian tradition it is called the Gate of Judgment where Christ's death notice was posted. Here, the procession exited the city, squeezing past grumbling pilgrims who were forced to step aside. Many of them had walked all night to ensure arriving in the Holy City before the start of the Passover Sabbath. But their joy soon turned to sadness and anger when they saw the Romans about to execute three more Jews during this holiest of festivals.
**Gennath, from the Hebrew gannah, meaning "gardens" or "orchard." The gate is not mentioned in the Bible, only by Josephus. Its name indicates that it led to a garden outside the city wall. It is interesting that John (19:41) tells us that at "the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no-one had ever been laid."
(Above left) Approaching the 7th Station of the Cross on the traditional Via Dolorosa. (Above right) the 7th Seventh Station is thought be on the site of the Gennath Gate. If so, Jesus' death notice would have been posted here.
Some 30 feet beyond the gate was an abandoned rock-quarry converted into a burial complex for wealthy families. Here there was a bare, isolated, 16-foot-high hill called "Golgotha" (derived from Aramaic, meaning skull, supposedly because it resembled a human skull). No stranger could mistake the fact that this was a place of execution, because upright beams, left there from previous crucifixions, stood naked against the brilliantly blue sky. Today, instead of a stark hill, we see a domed pile of limestone blocks and columns that is the holiest place in the Christian world.
(Above left) the rocky outcropping called "Golgotha" in an abandoned quarry outside the city walls, as depicted in the scale model of 1st century AD Jerusalem at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
A right turn at the end of Souk al-Dabbagha Street brings us into the courtyard before the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (above right), called the greatest shrine in all Christiandom. Before we can enter the church we have to wait for the completion of a recession by a large group of Armenian monks and priests. That gives us time to review some background.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most complex, yet fascinating, structures in existence. Belying its status as Christianity's holiest shrine, it lies almost hidden within the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City; only its two domes distinguish it from its surroundings (below left).
(Right) Ethiopian priest holding his cross-shaped Bible from which he had just read a passage. He then repeated a the phrase "Kyrie Eleison" (Greek for 'Lord have mercy') three times, inviting his audience to do the same.
First time visitors to the church may be surprised, even shocked, at its unimpressive, almost shabby, appearance. After years of hearing the crucifixion accounts in the gospels, imaginations may be filled with images of an an isolated skull-shaped hill, situated outside city walls, and a nearby rock-carved tomb in a tree filled garden. Instead they are greeted by a building that is not only inside city walls, its exterior has no visual impact, appearing to be made up of a clutter of mismatched elements. It certainly doesn't rank among the world's most beautiful churches; some have called it ugly. You hardly know where to look for something that will awe or inspire or make you feel closer to Jesus. Its interior has been described as looking like "a cross between a building site and a used furniture depot." American author Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame, visiting the Holy Land in the mid-19th century AD, was hardly enamored with the church. He thought it "a sickening cheat." But the architectural jumble that is today's church is the result of its tortured history rather than the plan of architects. Consequently, the holiest place in the Christian world is beautiful in its parts, but difficult to consider as a whole.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also called the Church of the Resurrection, is shared by six Christian denominations. The primary custodians are the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic Churches. In the 19th century, the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox acquired lesser responsibilities, which include shrines and other structures within and around the building. Times and places of worship for each community are strictly regulated in common areas.
Does the Church of the Holy Sepulcher really mark the place of Jesus' execution and resurrection?
The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher certainly meets the requirements. Although the church is located inside the walls of the Old City today, the site on which it built was 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 said they were (cf. War 5.146).
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 was a quarry that was later abandoned. Excavators believe that the area was then filled with soil, presumably to turn the ugly quarry remains into a beautiful garden.
Here, our tracing of the actual route of Christ's Passion merges with the final five stations of the cross of the traditional Via Dolorosa:
(Below left) Inside the church entrance. (Below right) immediately to the right, a steep flight of 19 stone-cut steps climbs 16 feet to a pair of chapels at the summit of the rock of Golgotha (or Calvary).
The first chapel is the Catholic chapel of the Nailing of the Cross (below left) with a 12th century mosaic over the altar depicting Jesus being stripped of his garments and nailed to the cross. Immediately left of this chapel, over the actual rock of Golgotha around which the church was built, is the Altar of the Cross (above right) tended by the Greek Orthodox. Behind the altar are life-size icons depicting Christ on the cross clad in a silver loin cloth. He is flanked by icons of the virgin Mary and the disciple John.
Under the ornate icons is the rocky summit of Golgotha (below left) enclosed by glass to protect it from those who would chip away pieces as souvenirs, as has undoubtedly happened in the past. Under the small altar table (below right) is an inconspicuous silver ring marking the spot where it is said Jesus' cross stood. Many, including myself, bend down on hands and knees to reach through the opening and touch the rock below.
9th Station of the Cross - The crucifixion of Jesus
Stumbling weakly to the base of the hill, Jesus was offered a mixture of wine mixed with myrrh (used as sedative to dull pain; ironically, one of the gifts of the Magi at his birth). Mark records that he refused it. He and the other two condemned men were stripped naked and knocked to the ground flat on their backs. Their arms were stretched out over their crossbeams and tied in place. Long iron nails were driven between the bones of their wrists into the wood, probably piercing a nerve and causing excruciating pain. The soldiers then grabbed each crossbeam (patibulum) and lifted them by ropes, dragging the men by the wrists until their feet were off the ground. The three must have writhed with the pain. Each crossbeam was fixed onto its upright (stipes crucis) already standing atop the hill, forming a cross shaped like a capital T. Then the condemned men's feet may have been nailed through the ankles to a wooden foot rest (called a suppedaneaum), or against the upright itself. If the feet were pulled downward and nailed close to the foot of the cross, the prisoner died too quickly. The Romans learned to push the feet upward so the condemned could use the nails to stretch upward, prolonging the agony. The legs were made to straddle a wooden peg — called the sedile or sedere cruce — causing extreme pain because it concentrated the weight of their bodies at the end of the spine ― a Roman refinement meant to lengthen the time condemned hung on their crosses — from hours to days. At the top of each cross, a sign (titulus) was attached proclaiming each victim's name and crime. The four gospel writers present Jesus' titulus in slightly different forms, but all include "King of the Jews," and it was written, according to John, in "Aramaic, Latin and Greek" (John 19:20). The chief priests protested the wording to Pilate, saying that he should have written, "This man claimed to be king of the Jews." But Pilate shot back, "What I have written, I have written." It was the anti-Semitic governor's way of making a final stab at the Jewish subjects he despised, saying in essence, "What a pitiful king you Jews have!" Beneath this mocking titulus, Jesus began his ordeal, according to Mark, about the "third hour" (9:00 a.m.).
The trio hung on their crosses totally naked, unable to control normal bodily functions and in agonizing pain; muscle-cramps made breathing increasingly more difficult.
"From the sixth hour until the ninth hour (noon to 3:00 p.m.) darkness came over all the land" (Matthew 27:45). Passersby entering and leaving the city through the nearby Gennath Gate joined the soldiers in sneering at Jesus: "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe" (Mark 15:31-32).
The gospels record seven statements by Jesus on the cross: three in Luke only, three in John only, one in Matthew and Mark:
Near the start of the ordeal, he prayed on behalf of his executioners:
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
When one of the felons hanging next to him chided,
"Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
But the other criminal rebuked him.
"Don't you fear God since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."
Then he said,
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
"I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
According to gospels, the only members of Jesus' inner circle to witness the crucifixion were his mother Mary, his aunt Mary (wife of Clopas, also called Cleopas or Alphaeus, mother of James, sometimes called "the younger" or "the less" and Joses), Salome (wife of Zebedee and mother of the disciples James "the older" or "the great" and John) and Mary Magdalene. Of all his male disciples, only "the disciple whom he loved" (presumably John) came to Golgotha, and when Jesus noticed him standing near his mother he made final provision for her: "Dear woman, here is your son." And to John he said, "Here is your mother" (John 19:26,27). Later, the story is told, John took her to Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia (modern western Turkey), and there she lived out the remainder of her life. Her supposed house is shown to tourists visiting this major archaeological site.
About 3:00 p.m., with the sky growing darker, Jesus cried in Aramaic, the common spoken language of Palestine: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" (meaning "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). But onlookers mistook him as asking the prophet Elijah for help.
Jesus' ordeal was coming to an end. But at the Temple on the opposite side of the city, the opening ceremony of the Passover was about to commence. The high priest, Joseph Caiaphas, in his ceremonial clothing consisting of a blue headdress and blue robe (fringed with golden bells and pomegranates) ascended the steps into the inner Temple precincts. Although extremely tired from the night-long interrogations of Jesus, he was now totally absorbed in his ritual duties. Simultaneously, on Golgotha, Jesus weakly uttered a mild complaint: "I am thirsty" (John 19:28).
Immediately one of the soldiers filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. After taking the drink, Jesus cried out in a loud voice: "It is finished" (John 19:30), announcing the completion of his life's work.
Finally, as recorded by Luke (23:46), Jesus spoke one last prayer, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit," echoing the words of his ancestor David: "Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth" (Psalm 31:5).
After this, he died.
Back at the Temple, at the moment Jesus took his last breath and, as the sound of a flute rose up before the altar of sacrifice, the curtain veiling the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was torn in two from top to bottom, and an earthquake rocked the massive Temple foundations.
There were other strange phenomena; dead men came out of their graves and appeared to many. The hour of judgment had come, but how many in the city knew it? Certainly not Joseph Caiaphas and the other Jews engaged in the Passover ceremonies realized the importance of the drama on rocky hill of Golgotha to the west. They may not even have taken the darkness brooding over the city as a warning sign. One man, however, felt a connection between the shaking of the earth and the final cry of the man who's execution he had been charged with overseeing — the centurion placed in charge of the execution detail. Standing on the darkened hillside just beyond the city walls, light came to him. "Surely this was a righteous man," he said (Luke 23:47). Nothing more is known of him, the first of millions of non-Jews who came to believe.
10th Station of the Cross - Jesus' body is prepared for burial
Except for the centurion and those family members and followers still standing watch near the crosses, Jesus' death went unnoticed. The soldiers were still gambling over the condemned men's possessions. Then one of the Sanhedrin emissaries sent to observe the execution noticed that Jesus had not moved in a while. With the special Passover Sabbath fast approaching, the men headed quickly to Herod's palace to ask Pontius Pilate to have the men's legs broken to hasten their death so their bodies could be removed from the crosses. We have a law, they said, quoting:
"You must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance" (Deuteronomy 21:23).
This breaking of the legs was a procedure used only in the case of Jewish crucifixions. Elsewhere the bodies were left on the crosses and might take up to three or four days to die. Per Pilate's orders, the soldiers took large mallets and swung them as hard as they could into the shins of the two men to either side of Jesus, shattering their bones. Without support from their legs to relieve the pressure exerted on the lungs when hanging by the writs, the men suffocated in minutes. When the soldiers came to Jesus' limp body, they saw that he was no longer breathing. To make sure that he was dead, one soldier rammed a spear into his side, producing a flow of "blood and water" (the result of piercing the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart and the heart itself, according to one medical diagnosis).
Normally the bodies would have been left to the elements — wild animals and scavenger birds. But, Joseph of Arimathea,* boldly came to Pilate, asking that he be allowed to bury Jesus' body. A member of the Sanhedrin and a secret follower of Jesus, he had not voted to condemn Jesus at the earlier trial. Pilate did not grant permission immediately, but waited until he had first checked with the centurion in charge of the crucifixion detail to ascertain that Jesus had indeed died.
*Arimathea, a place not certainly identified; Luke calls it "a Judean town." The name means "heights" and some sources have identified it with Ramah, 5 miles north of Jerusalem.
Rushing to beat the start of the Sabbath (which began, then as now, at sunset), Joseph went to the market and purchased linen cloth in which to wrap the corpse. Then he and his Sanhedrin colleague, Nicodemus (another secret disciple who, as reported in John 3:1-21, had a private conversation with Jesus earlier in his ministry), lovingly prepared Jesus' body. The normal burial procedure, according to the Mishnah, was to first anoint the body with oil to clean it; followed by a bath with water to rinse off any soil and blood; then a second anointing followed by perfume. Possibly these first steps were omitted because of the approaching start of the Sabbath, because the men simply covered Jesus' body with a mixture of dry spices — "myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds" (John 19:35). Then they wrapped him in the linen strips, and his head in a separate cloth and placed it on a pillow of stones — all according to Jewish custom of the time.
Stone of Unction
|Back down on the main floor of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, directly inside
the entrance, is the so-called "Stone of Unction"
(right), the supposed place where
Jesus' body was taken down from the cross and prepared for burial. Tradition has
it that this polished pink stone protects the actual stone where Jesus' body was
prepared for burial with "myrrh and aloes" by Joseph of Arimathea and
Nicodemus. The present limestone slab dates to 1810; it replaces a 12th century
AD stone lost in the fire of 1808.
We watched as one pilgrim after another dropped to his or her knees to kiss the slab as if it were the very stone where their Savior's cold stiff body had lain. One elderly woman pulled a scarf from her neck, rubbed it on the stone as if to extract its latent healing-force. Returning the now sacred relic to her neck, she stood up, crossed herself on the chest.
From the Stone of Unction we followed her some 65 feet to the west to the focal point of the church, its round rotunda (or Anastasis, Greek "resurrection"), which preserves the location, and a few original columns, of Constantine's 4th-century Church of the Resurrection built on the site of Christ's tomb.
11th Station of the Cross - Jesus' lifeless body is placed in Joseph of Arimathea's family tomb
Nicodemus and Joseph then placed Jesus' body in a new, unused, rock-cut tomb in an abandoned quarry. According to John's gospel it was in a garden (Greek kepos) near the place of execution. This action by Joseph is made doubly meaningful when you realize that such rock-cut tombs were very expensive because of the labor involved in carving them and the fact that he commissioned it for his own burial and that of his family. Thus, Jesus was accorded all the respect of a valued and loved family member. Jesus' burial in this manner must have truly angered Caiaphas, Annas and their Sadducee cronies because interment in a new tomb in a garden setting was akin to treating Jesus as royalty, like two kings of Judah from the line of David — Manasseh, who "rested with his fathers and was buried in his palace garden, the garden of Uzza," and Amon, who "was buried in his grave in the garden of Uzza" (2 Kings 21:18, 26).
(Above) the so-called "Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea," an anonymous burial cave in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This rock-cut Jewish tomb, dating from the time of Jesus, is in the Syrian-Jacobite chapel directly behind the edicule containing tomb of Christ (right).
The presence of these tombs within the church and so near Jesus' tomb proves that Golgotha and the "new tomb" in a garden of John's gospel was originally outside the city walls, since burial of the dead was forbidden within the city.
|It was now about 6:00 p.m. Across the city to the
east, a priest climbed to the top of the
tower at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Standing alongside a stone
marked: "to the place of the trumpeting," he raised a shofar (ram's horn
trumpet) to his mouth and sounded a long sad note, announcing the start of the
holiest of all days, the Passover Sabbath (and the cessation of all work). As
the incessant noise and busyness of the city fell into quietness, Joseph and
Nicodemus removed the wedge holding the heavy wheel-shaped stone. It rolled
across the outer burial chamber, blocking the tomb entrance against grave
robbers and animals. With heavy hearts, they proceeded to their homes in the
Upper City for their own Passover observances.
(Right) Roman period tomb with rolling stone discovered during road construction near Megiddo in northern Israel.
Jesus' Life Home n A Time to Mourn