This week we field a question from a Palm Beach Atlantic College student named Alex. Alex related a conversation he had with a teacher who had “read somewhere” that the site where Abraham had offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice was the same site where Jesus had been crucified. “I was wondering if there was any proof of this.”
Finding proof of where biblical events took place is virtually impossible, especially events not associated with a specific, grandiose architectural structure that exists today (or is extant as a positively identified ruins) or an event associated with a unique geographical site.
For instance, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Of course, a tour guide in Israel could take you to the spot where John baptized Jesus, but the guide has little to go on other than tradition and speculation. Certainly Jesus could have been baptized there, but we really cannot be certain and there is no proof. No stele or monument was erected at the time, Jesus’ footprints were not preserved in plaster, and the Polaroid hadn’t yet found its way into the marketplaces of Judea.
However, the lack of absolute proof of the whereabouts of a given event has not restrained scholars, archaeologists, pilgrims and tour guides in promoting their speculations. Indeed, many of these sites have become sacred in the hearts and minds of many pilgrims who make their way to the Holy Land.
Now, on to Alex’s question. The site of Abraham’s obedience in offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 220 has long supposed to have been at the top of Mount Moriah in present day Jerusalem. There, at the top of the hill, is a large flat rock that has been used as an altar through the millennia and through several cultures. This site, however, was in use at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion—it was the location of the Jewish Temple, and the Temple was in full operation the day of Jesus’ death.
Locating the exact site of Jesus’ death can be little more than speculation with a sprinkling of logic and/or tradition thrown in. The biblical references to the site name it Golgotha, an Aramaic word translated as Place of the Skull (Matthew 27.33; Mark 15.22; John 19.17). The reference to the skull may have its roots in one of three possibilities.
First, the site may have been the spot where public executions took place. Against this view is the lack of any evidence that suggest there was a particular place for executions in the first century Jewish faith.
A second possibility suggests the hill where Jesus was crucified may have looked, geographically, like a skull. However, there has yet been a site so identified, and no writers of that time made any reference to this possibility.
The third notion suggests that this site was called the Place of the Skull because there was a common tradition of that day, according to the writer Origen who lived in Jerusalem for 20 years during his lifetime (ca. 185-253), that maintained the skull of Adam was buried beneath the very spot where Jesus was crucified. Indeed, today there is an excavated cave below traditional Golgotha where this “skull” is on display, a testament to the ancient tradition. So, perhaps unlikely though it might seem, this could indeed be the spot where Jesus was crucified. However, in reference to Alex’s question, this site is outside of the city, nowhere near Mount Moriah where Abraham is said to have offered his son as a sacrifice.
There is another possibility of the twin sites that has been raised. According to Ron Wyatt, a fairly well known scholar, there is at least some evidence that Abraham may have traveled not to Mount Moriah, but to the Mount of Olives for his sacrificial act. Then, in a burst of creativity in his book The Secrets of Golgotha, Wyatt postulates and sets out to prove that Jesus was crucified on that site as well. The postulates and writings of Wyatt have been seriously undermined by some; however, his theory is at least intriguing, if nothing else as allowing the portrait of Abraham’s sacrificial act to picture Jesus’ death.
In reality, it is virtually impossible by today’s technology to prove the whereabouts of either Abraham’s offering or Jesus’ crucifixion, which leaves us little more than speculation and tradition. However, some speculations and traditions can be taken more seriously than others simply because of what little we do know. And we know Jesus wasn’t crucified inside the Temple, ruling out the Mount Moriah site. Which leaves us traditional Golgotha or the Mount of Olives or…? We’ll probably never know this side of the grave.
Unless you ask a tour guide in Israel.