Any Christian visiting Jerusalem has to wonder where the events recalled in the gospels took place. Where was Jesus judged by Pilate? What was the way he went to Calvary? Where was he buried?
Reliable historians generally weigh in positively on the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepucher “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers. (p 49)
Our traditional Stations of the Cross, which begin along Jerusalem’s “Via Dolorosa” at the place where the Fortress Antonia once stood are less historically reliable. Murphy-O Connor says they are “defined by faith and not by history.” (pp 37-38)
Pilgrims, not archeologists, gave us this route. After the Christian church was established by Constantine in the 4th century, pilgrims processing from the Mount of Olives on Holy Thursday would go through St. Stephen’s Gate and as they went up to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher would stop at certain places to recall incidents from the Passion story. Over time the places were different. Our present stations along the Via Dolorosa were fixed only in the 19th century. (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, p 37)
A look at the above map of Jerusalem from the time of Jesus at the Israel Museum–which we have simplified a little– suggests another possible picture. At the far right bottom is a luxurious palace complex (only part is visible in the picture} built by Herod the Great. When Pontius Pilate came from Caesaria Maritima for the feast he stayed there. Herod Antipas stayed at another part.
The gateway to a public courtyard beyond the palace buildings would have been where Pilate received the crowd and passed judgment on Jesus. As the gospels say, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod who was nearby, since Jesus, a Galilean, was Herod’s subject. The houses surrounding the palace belonged to Jerusalem’s ruling class.
After sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate handed him over to a detachment of soldiers quartered somewhere in the great towers to the left of the palace, who scourged him and crowned him with thorns.
They then led him away to Calvary, probably parading him through part of the upper city as a warning to others. The small rock outcropping near to the wall on the left of our first picture is Calvary where he was crucified. He was buried in a tomb only a stone’s throw away, according to the gospels.
Today only some remains can be seen in the area called the Citadel which still dominates the western part of the Old City. From this high place, Herod could look down on the city. Obviously, the Jews despised his pretentious display so close to the temple; in September 66 AD, Jewish revolutionaries attacked and burned down the place, setting off the war that ended with Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 AD.
Yesterday Fr. Pol and I were up on the southern ramparts of the city wall where Herod’s palace once stood. Nothing remains of Herod’s palace, but the towers are still there though rebuilt a number of times since then. The last major change was in the 14th century. If you look at the foundations, you can see some of Herod’s construction.
Murphy-O’Connor suggests a way they may have taken Jesus to Calvary from here. “If, as seems likely, Jesus was brought into the city on his way to execution, the approximate route would have been east on David Street, north on the Triple Suk, and then west to Golgotha.” (p.38)
Fr. Pol and I traveled that route yesterday, down David Street, to the Triple Suk and then west to Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. My sense is Murphy-O’Connor is right, but I think we better not change the Via Dolorosa. One reason is that good piety, which gave us the Stations of the Cross, has a truth and beauty all its own. It should not be looked down on. Another reason is that it would start a war in Jerusalem, and the city has enough grief now.