It is popular belief that Jesus died in Jerusalem.
But there are contentions about how true that is.
The question of whether he really died in Jerusalem as he foretold needs to be answered for two reasons. Owing to His prophetic reputation, if he did not die in Jerusalem as he predicted, that he died at all, would be subject to doubt. Besides, it will be a good reason to query the veracity of other claims and prophecies he made.
Where It All Started
Jesus predicted his death on several occasions; often mentioning Jerusalem as the place where he would be killed.
But the instance skeptics often query is that in Luke 13:31-33.
As Jesus approached Jerusalem on a certain day, he was met by some Pharisees who said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” But he said to them, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (NIV).
Not long after, he was killed on a wooden cross. But all that happened outside Jerusalem’s city gates!
According to Hebrews 13:12, “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate”. John 19:17, 20 also reads, “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city”.
These clearly establish that Golgotha, where he died was outside the city gate of Jerusalem.
Now, it may appear as if this fact puts the case to rest. And many Christian skeptics do advance this. But, it is merely a piece of the jigsaw.
Golgotha – Outside the City, Inside the Territory
Even though Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified was located outside Jerusalem’s walls, it was nonetheless within Jerusalem’s territory. That’s because the entire territory of Jerusalem extended beyond her walls. The walls merely surrounded the city but not her entire territory.
This is how we know that Jerusalem’s territory encompassed her walls as well as Golgotha – which was beyond her walls:
#1. Mount Olives and Kidron Valley Constituted the Real Boundary
In the words of Marc Turnage, “the topography of biblical Jerusalem was defined by a series of hills and valleys. The eastern boundary of Jerusalem was the Mount of Olives. Never included within the city of Jerusalem, it served as the city’s cemetery (as it does still today). The Kidron valley separates the western slope of the Mount of Olives from the city of Jerusalem. This valley runs north-south eventually snaking its way to the southeast and draining into the Dead Sea. The Kidron valley forms the eastern boundary of Jerusalem.”
The Biblical Archaeology Truth also notes, “King David’s son, Solomon enlarged the city northward to include the Temple Mount area. Jerusalem then covered about 32 acres and was still defined on its eastern side by the Kidron valley.””
Bible History Online further affirms, “The mount of Olives is located east of the Temple Mount just across the Kidron valley. The Kidron valley also called the valley of Jehoshaphat formed the eastern boundary of the city of Jerusalem.””
From these, you can see that the Mount of Olives and the Kidron valley defined the physical boundary of Jerusalem’s territory on its eastern and southeastern dimensions even though they were not within or along the city’s walls.
So, if Golgotha was not sited beyond this boundary, then it was still within Jerusalem’s territory.
How do we prove this?
According to John 19:19-21, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city.”
This means, the Jews were able to read the sign because Jesus was crucified near the city – at a distance close enough for them to see it. This suggests that Golgotha was just immediately outside the gate for that is the only reason the Jews (who contextually, were within the walls) would have been able to read the notice.
But this only tells part of the story.
Luke 19:28-29 reads that, “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples.”
Notice here that on the way (Jesus took) to Jerusalem, Mount of Olives was before Bethphage and Bethany. Meanwhile, John 11:18 says, “Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem.” If this is so, then Mount Olives which was farther than Bethany (away from Jerusalem) would be located at about two miles (or more) from the city gate.
Since Golgotha was just immediately outside the gate, and Mount Olives (which is one of the landmarks that define Jerusalem’s boundary) was about two miles away, it only makes sense to conclude that Golgotha was within Jerusalem’s territory.
#2. Joseph of Arimathea’s Tomb and Ancient Burial Practice
It was the practice in ancient times to bury people just outside their city walls.
According to Emek Shaveh, “In the course of Jerusalem’s evolution, graves and cemeteries were erected just outside the city, on the slopes and foothills surrounding the city.”
Elizabeth Fletcher also notes that “if a city wanted to expand its walls and build on land that had tombs on it, all the bones had to be exhumed and reburied outside the new city walls.””
The simple interpretation of these is that cities and villages often left some part of their territory for the burial of its people.
The graves in the Kidron valley (2 Kings 23:6), the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:20-38) and the story of the demon-possessed Jesus met at the entrance of Gergesenes (Matthew 8:28) all lend credence to this. They were all outside the respective city gates.
Likewise, Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb where Jesus was buried was outside Jerusalem’s gates. However, going by the foregoing, it was still within Jerusalem’s territory.
We are told that Golgotha and Joseph of Arimathea’s rock-cut tomb where Jesus was buried shared a circumference (John 19:38-41).
And if this is the case, then we can conclude that Golgotha was also within Jerusalem’s territory because both locations were within the same circumference.
#3. Pool of Bethesda
Referring to the location of the pool of Bethesda, Tiffany Mcdougall notes, “In the first century, Herod Agrippa expanded the city walls that brought the site within the city.”
Titus Kennedy substantiates this when he stated that “Josephus, in the late first century ad, mentions the area of Bethesda, and notes that this neighbourhood was north of the Antonia fortress with a small valley in between, in an area of Jerusalem that became walled at the time of Herod Agrippa around 41-44AD (Josephus, Wars). Therefore, at the time of Jesus, the Bethesda neighbourhood was just north of the city walls, but about a decade later that area of Jerusalem became encapsulated by the third wall.””
Simply, the Pool of Bethesda was outside the walls of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. But after then, Herod Agrippa expanded the walls making the Pool to be within the walls.
However, in John 5:1-2, it is recorded that “there is in Jerusalem near the sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.””
Since Bethesda was actually just outside the walls, the bible’s description of it as being ‘in Jerusalem’ implies that what was meant is the territory and not the city. If this is true for Bethesda, then the same can be said of Golgotha (which according to the inference from John 19:19-21 above) was just outside the city.
#4. Jerusalem’s Wall Was Not a Demarcation
At the time of Jesus, most cities built walls mainly for protection and fortification rather than demarcation. And there is ample evidence to conclude that the Jerusalem wall was no different.
To start with, the concept of linear political boundaries was not fully developed at the time. As such, even where walls were supposed to be built as boundaries, their accuracy was questionable.
More so, most of such walls were known to have towers. That was a typical feature of defensive city walls. The walls of Jerusalem had this feature as well, making it obvious it was a protective wall and not a boundary marker.
Meanwhile, the mere fact that Jerusalem’s wall was extended at will reduces the chance that it was a boundary marker. David, Solomon, Hezekiah and Herod Agrippa all expanded the walls without prior conquest.
That means two things. First, the walls were not the exact borders because city borders were usually extended after conquest of neighbouring lands. Since their extensions were not subsequent to conquest, it can be inferred that those areas (they expanded into), were part of their territory in the first place!
If the walls of Jerusalem did not serve boundary purpose at any time, it means the walls did not define the city’s territory. In that light, Golgotha, being outside the gate, was not necessarily outside Jerusalem’s territory.
Literally or Figuratively
We have taken what Jesus said literally and found it to be true.
But what if he meant it in a figurative sense?
It will be true still.
The people, nation, system and entity that Jerusalem signifies were responsible for his death. He did not die outside that systemic entity. Jerusalem was responsible for Golgotha. It was their dedicated execution spot. No wonder it was called the place of the Skull. And, before we forget, it was the people of Jerusalem that ’ordered’ Pilate to ‘crucify him!’
So, whichever way we look at it, there would still be one outcome.
Jesus died in Jerusalem just as He said he would.
Bible History Online. Manners & Customs: City Walls. City Walls in the Ancient World. https://www.bible-history.com/links.php?cat=39&sub=433&cat_name=Manners+%26+Customs&subcat_name=City+Walls
Bible History Online. Manners & Customs: Tombs. Tombs in the Ancient World. www.bible-history.com/links.php?cat=39&sub=412&cat_name=Manners+%26+Customs&subcat_name=Tombs
Bible History Online. The Land of Jerusalem. https://www.bible-history.com/jerusalem/firstcenturyjerusalem_the_land_of_jerusalem.html
Biblical Archaeology Truth. Cobblestone Walkway on Mid-Slope Wall in Area D2. www.biblicalarchaeologytruth.com/nehemiahs-wall.html
Emek Shaveh, 2013. Graveyard Metropolis East of Jerusalem’s Old City. https://alt-arch.org/en/graveyard_metropolis/
Fletcher, Elizabeth. Ancient Tombs of the Dead. Bible Archaeology. www.womeninthebible.net/bible-archaeology/tombs_ancient/
Kennedy, Titus. The Pools of Bethesda and Siloam. www.hopechannel.com/au/read/the-pools-of-bethesda-and-siloam
Mcdougall, Tiffany. Pools of Bethesda. https://carleton.ca/studyisrael/2014/tiffany-mcdougall-pools-bethesda/
Ngo, Robin 2016. The Third Wall of Jerusalem: Where Romans and Jews Battled. Bible History Daily. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/third-wall-of-jerusalem/
Stiles, Wayne 2012. The Walls of Jerusalem through the Centuries – A Timeline. https://waynestiles.com/timeline-of-the-walls-of-jerusalem-through-the-centuries/
Turnage, Marc. The Final Week of Jesus: An Archaeological and Historical Reflection. https://www.marcturnage.com/single-post/2018/04/01/The-Final-Week-of-Jesus-An-Archaeological-and-Historical-Reflection?_amp_
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Ogaga Eruteya is a Nigerian Christian minister, writer and speaker. He writes on Faith, Personal Development, Youth Development, and Life Realities. With his words, he seeks to inspire, motivate, propagate life’s truths and represent a sincere Christian voice. Learn more about Ogaga here.