Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The curious case of the name Golgotha

Golgotha is the name of the place where Jesus was crucified. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and John mention the name Golgotha, but add that this name means κρανιον τοπος (kranion topos; meaning: place of a skull, Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:22, John 19:17). Luke merely mentions that the place was called Skull, using the same wording (Luke 23:33; by some translations interpreted as Calvary). It's obviously very important that the reader realizes that the death of Jesus occurred on The Skull, but what's with that? Every detail of the gospels was carefully chosen and nostalgia was certainly not a concern. It must mean something.

Jesus dies "at the Skull" -- what's with that?

Driven by nostalgia and super-hero worship, early Christian relic-hunters scoured Jerusalem's immediate environs in search for a place that looked like a skull, and Jerusalem's lands being quite cavernous, it didn't take them long to find one. Quite conveniently, the place they identified as the Skull happened to already be enclosed by a Venusian temple from the time of emperor Hadrian. True to form they re-declared it holy, put a fence around it and began to charge admission.

Others believed that the place called Skull was in fact a place of execution or burial, assuming that there would be skulls all over the place. But a place like that would first of all violate Jewish law and would not exist (Numbers 19:16, Deuteronomy 21:23, also see Ezekiel 39:15 and Josephus, Apion.ii-29-30, "not to let anyone lie unburied"), secondly be known by a plural epithet (skulls), and thirdly more likely be known as a place of bones rather than just of skulls. Still, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, in which Jesus was buried, was close to where He was crucified (John 19:41), and tombs usually existed in clusters or necropoleis (Matthew 8:28, 27:52). The second century document called Epistula Apostolorum explicitly states that not the place of Jesus' crucifixion but rather the place where he was buried was called Kranion, or Skull (verse 9). But still, there seems to be very little reason to refer to an entire graveyard as Place of the Skull, then or now.

Slightly more critical Bible critics realized that the ratio between the importance of Golgotha in the gospels and the importance of Golgotha in the rest of ancient writings was thoroughly askew. Why would the evangelists emphasize a place that no one else ever mentions? They surely were not tour guides pitching an important landmark for us to visit, because if they had been, they would certainly have also told us where that place precisely was. They don't.

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