Constantinian Authenticity: Golgotha

This week we continue to examine the assertions of a scholar, Joan E. Taylor who in her book Christians and the Holy Places: the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press, makes the case that none of the holy sites on which Constantine built churches in the Holy Land were authentic. Today we look at her case against the authenticity of the Constantinian Church of the Resurrection, called today “the Church of the Holy Sepulchre”.

If the inauthenticity of the Bethlehem site can be laid at the door of mischievous pagans or stupid Christians, the inauthenticity of the Golgotha site is laid by Taylor at the door of Constantine, who seems to function as the chief villain of the piece. For Taylor, Constantine was largely uninterested in the actual authentic sites and more interested in confiscating formerly pagan sites as part of his programme of Christianizing his empire. Thus Constantine chose the site of a former temple to Venus to build his new complex commemorating the Cross and Resurrection, not because he believed that was the actual site but simply to commandeer the pagan temple of Venus.

No one denies that the Church of the Resurrection was built over a former temple of Venus. This fact is acknowledged as early as Eusebius, who wrote of the place right after it was built. Whether or not the pagan temples were erected as a deliberate affront to the Christians (as Eusebius thought) scarcely matters. After 135 A.D. all of Jerusalem was rebuilt and transformed into a pagan city, even changing its name from “Jerusalem” to “Aelia Capitolina”. The desecration of sacred sites need not have been intended by the Romans as a deliberate insult to the Christians any more than to the Jews, but the Fathers were not wrong to view it as pagan desecration nonetheless.

Taylor however suggests that the reclaiming of a pagan cult center was the sole reason for the choice of the site. Further, she suggests that locals once knew that the original site of Golgotha and the empty tomb was “further south, towards the northern part of Mount Zion, probably under the western forum” near the current Muristan bazaar and the modern Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, but that Constantine chose the site north of this in order to demolish the pagan center and replace it with his Christian one. To the locals who knew that this was the incorrect site Constantine offered the crosses that were found in the area as proof that his site was the correct one, and “the matter was clinched when an empty tomb was discovered and heralded as being that belonging to Christ. Further tombs which came to light were simply cut away” (Taylor, op. cit., p 141).

What evidence does Taylor cite for the original place of crucifixion being not under the pagan shrine but in a forum to the south? In the late second century, Bishop Melito of Sardis preached a Paschal homily, a poetic work on Christ’s cross and resurrection. In this poetic work, Melito contrasts the murder of Christ with usual murders to accentuate its heinousness. Most murders are committed in the dark, away from public gaze, in hidden places. The murder of Christ, however, was brazenly and spectacularly public. As Melito says, “If the murder took place by night, and if he was slaughtered in a deserted place, I might have been able to keep silent. Now in the middle of the street [Greek plateia], and in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day before the public gaze, the unjust murder of a just man has taken place” (Concerning Pascha, ch. 94). Taylor looks at this poetry as if it were pinpoint-accurate geography, and asserts that Melito’s homily can be used as a trustworthy source to locate the place of the crucifixion on a map of Jerusalem. According to Taylor, by using the word “street”, plateia, Melito means to locate the site in the avenue of colonnades south of the pagan temple, at the forum near the current Muristan.

Surely this is an astonishing leap, and slender foundation on which to erect such an edifice of argument.   And it is also misses the point of the sermon: Melito is not saying that Christ was crucified in what was later the wide plateia of the city, but in what was then the open streets of the city. Taylor admits that Melito knew that Christ was in fact crucified outside the city gate, and not actually “in the middle of the city”. And that is exactly the point: Melito was speaking poetically, not historically. Taylor wants to make Melito say that Christ was crucified in what was later the middle of the city, after another city wall was added in 135, but that is not what he Melito actually said. When Melito said that Christ was murdered “in the middle of the day before the public gaze”, he placed the event in the past, inviting us to visit the past and to witness the outrage for ourselves. It would overturn his entire point if he was interpreted as saying that Christ was murdered in what would later be the middle of the city and would be later be in the middle of the street. The outrage Melito points to depends upon it occurring in the middle of the day, in the middle of the city, and in the middle of the street at the time when it happened. The spectacular public nature of the murder is what made it outrageous. One cannot transform his homiletic poetry into pinpoint-accurate geography of a later time as Taylor attempts to do.

What then of Eusebius’ claim that the wood of the cross was found on Golgotha, where Constantine built his church? If the site of the crucifixion was indeed further south on the later-built plateia of the Muristan, how could Eusebius identify Golgotha and the discovery of the cross in a nearby cistern at the northern site? Taylor answers by trying to argue that the term “Golgotha” represents not the hill on which Jesus was crucified but “an entire region…a reasonably large area…when the site [of Golgotha] was identified as lying under the temple of Venus, this idea of its being a fairly sizeable region was preserved” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 120). Thus “Golgotha” was a large area, within which was the rock of Calvary. “It may be that the Jerusalem church, aware that Golgotha was a sizeable region, identified its center as being around the southern part of the forum” (Taylor op. cit., p. 122).

But this is contrary to the usage of that day, which identified Golgotha with the rock of Calvary on which Jesus was crucified. When the pilgrim from Bordeaux came to the site in 333, she wrote “On your left is the small hill Golgotha where the Lord was crucified, and about a stone’s throw from it is the vault where they laid His body and He rose again”. Note: Golgotha in this usage is not an “entire region” or “a sizeable region”, but a “small hill”, and the “vault” for our Lord’s burial is not on Golgotha, but “about a stone’s throw from it”. Eusebius, who wrote as a contemporary, was also clear: the church which Constantine built was erected at the very site at which Jesus was crucified and buried. That Golgotha did not include the forum to the south of it, as Taylor alleges, but was north of it.

Further, according to Taylor, the Christians of Constantine’s time knew that the church did not mark the actual site of the crucifixion. For them, the rock of Golgotha on which Constantine placed a cross commemorated the crucifixion, but did not mark its actual location: “It was not Constantine’s intention that pilgrims should imagine that the crucifix on the rock marked the place of Christ’s death…there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Christians of the fourth century saw this rock [in the church, marking the place of the crucifixion] as anything special” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 123). Indeed, according to Taylor they had no interest in the actual place of Christ’s death and resurrection, because His body was no longer there, but in heaven. For them “the empty tomb was unimportant”, since the “Christians’ theology of Christ Risen went sharply against any idea that the tomb in which his body had lain should be venerated” (Taylor, op. cit., p. 137, 136).

This is lack of concern for authenticity of place is not reflected in the Fathers writing at that time. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), for example, preaching in the Constantinian church, makes repeated references to the events that occurred there. Compare his Catechetical lecture 13,38-39: “Take as an indestructible foundation the Cross and build upon it the other articles of faith…Gethsemane bears witness where the betrayal occurred…the hall of Pilate, now laid waste by the power of Him who was then crucified; this holy Golgotha which stands high above us; the sepulchre near to hand where He was laid and the stone which was laid on the door, which lies this day by the tomb.” Cyril, as he was preaching in the Constantinian basilica, made reference to the “holy Golgotha” as the rock which “stands high above us”; he referred to Christ’s sepulchre as “near to hand” and the stone as “lying this day by the tomb”. For him, the basilica did not simply commemorate these events which might have happened elsewhere. Rather, Cyril knew himself to be standing in these very places.

Cyril’s sermons reveal that the Christians of his day in the fourth century did indeed care about the authenticity of the holy places. Taylor asserts that there is no record of Christians venerating the tomb prior to the time of Constantine. That is true, and is adequately explained by the fact that Christianity was then under constant threat by the state and that travel was expensive. It does not mean that Christians (for example) in Gaul had no interest in the holy places, only that they had no means of getting there. When Christianity became legalized under Constantine and they gained the means of safely getting there, they came in droves. What changed with Constantine was not the perennial desire of the human heart to touch the holy, but the opportunities to do so.

And we have no reason to think that what was true for the mass of Christians was not also true for Constantine. If love for Jesus made fourth century pilgrims like Egeria and bishops like Cyril of Jerusalem care about geographical authenticity, why would Constantine be mysteriously immune to such? Why suggest that his desire to obliterate a pagan shrine in Jerusalem “trumped” the common Christian concern to find the true holy places? It is true that as a Christian (or at least a Christian sympathizer) he would have taken some satisfaction in seeing pagan shrines replaced by Christian ones. Yet he was still a smart politician, and knew that most of his empire was still pagan. It would have been impolitic in the extreme to wage cultural war against the majority of his subjects, and the idea that what was uppermost in his mind was the destruction of pagan shrines does not accord with the available evidence. In the so-called “Edict of Milan” he announced toleration not just for the Christians but for all religions, including the pagan ones, “so that each man may have a free opportunity to engage in whatever worship he has chosen, to ensure that no cult or religion may seem to have been impaired by us”. Certainly Constantine made crystal clear his own preference for Christianity, but he did not go out of his way to enrage the pagans. In another edict he even allowed public pagan divination to continue, for “we [i.e. Constantine] do not prohibit the ceremonies of a bygone perversion [i.e. paganism] to be conducted in the free light of day”. It seems unlikely therefore he more motivated by a desire to stamp out pagan shrines than he was by a desire for historical accuracy.   The likelihood is that he built his Jerusalem basilica where he did because that was where the locals told him that was where the original hill and tombs stood.


Finally: a look at Taylor’s view of the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives.



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