Where Were Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? – The Mount of Olives

Where Were Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?

Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death, Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and complete chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.

In my previous Post on Gospel Accounts I introduced evidence that the crucifixion of Christ most likely occurred on the Mount of Olives. In this Post I will investigate this position more completely.  This evidence becomes the second puzzle piece in this topic area.

Tearing of the Temple Curtain

Included in the list of events which the centurion and others observed at the time of the crucifixion was the tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom. Some theologians have suggested that the centurion and others at the crucifixion site on the Mount of Olives might have been alerted to the tearing of the curtain by the loud sound as it was ripped in two, the sound resounding across the Kidron Valley. This was no small curtain.  Some extra-biblical sources have stated that the curtain was several inches thick. Dr. Leen Ritmeyer notes that it was “. . . one hand-breadth thick . . . as stated in the Mishnaic tractate Shekalim 8.5.” If true, the curtain would certainly have caused quite a sound when it was ripped apart by God. At any rate, the Scripture account alludes to the fact that the centurion and others not only heard this event, but saw the curtain as it was torn.

Seeing the Curtain Torn

The account of the centurion and others actually seeing the tearing of the curtain is incredibly significant, because that would require the crucifixion to be in a location from which they could witness the event. This could only be from a vantage point which would allow a view directly into the Temple. Only from an elevated easterly direction would this be possible. Of course, directly east of the Temple is the Mount of Olives. Accordingly, despite claims by others that the crucifixion occurred elsewhere, Scripture strongly implies that it occurred on the Mount of Olives, as this is the only elevated, easterly location from the Temple that would have permitted the necessary view of the Temple curtain.

Could the centurion and others actually have seen the curtain from a site on the Mount of Olives? This question is answered by Leen & Kathleen Ritmeyer in their book, Secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which includes an illustration with a cross-section of the Temple and enclosure, including the large Nicanor Gate, the lesser wall at the entrance into the Court of the Women, and the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. The Ritmeyer’s description is as follows:

“A VERTICAL SLICE.  This section drawing cuts through the Temple Mount from west (left) to east (right) and shows the relative positions of Temple structures . . . Es-Sakhra [Arabic name for the rock inside the present Dome of the rock] is the highest point of the Temple Mount, located at the center of the Dome of the Rock and in the innermost (and westernmost) room of the Temple, the Holy of Holies.  This most sacred enclosure was walled on the south, west, and north sides; a veil hung over the opening on its eastern side. The Temple’s eastern orientation allowed the High Priest to look directly into the sanctuary while sprinkling the blood of the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley from the Temple.”

In Middoth 2:4 of the Mishnah, the rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, it states that the priests which offered the sacrifice of the Red Heifer needed to be able to see the altar of burnt offerings in the Temple from their vantage point on the Mount of Olives:

“All the [Temple] walls were high, save only the eastern wall, because the priest that burns the Heifer and stands on top of the Mount of Olives should be able to look directly into the entrance of the sanctuary when the blood [of the Red Heifer] is sprinkled.”

So we see that not only has Scripture stated that the centurion and others saw the curtain torn, but that the description from the Mishnah also provides for this possibility as a requirement of the Red Heifer sacrifice. Finally, from their own accounts, we learn that the Ritmeyers actually verified that it was possible from the Mount of Olives to view directly into the Holy Place and see the curtain.

More related to the Red Heifer sacrifice is provided in my next Post, The Red Heiffer.

Of course, a reasonable question to ask is “which curtain in the Temple complex was torn?” There were actually two curtains in the Temple – one in front of the Holy of Holies, the other in front of the double doors leading into the Holy Place. Most theologians believe that it was the inner-most curtain – between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place – that was torn. The usual theological interpretation is that the tearing of the curtain removed the long-standing restriction that only the High Priest had direct access to God. The tearing of the curtain symbolically – and practically – made direct access to God, through Christ, available to all who believe.

Certainly, through Christ we have access to God in our prayers and in our relationship with Him, but does this necessarily mean that the inner curtain of the Temple was the one which was torn by God?  Maybe not. There is a little known complication related to the inner curtain theory: There were actually two curtains rather than a single curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place! In both the Rose Guide to the Temple and the Secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, reference is made to the Mishnah (Yoma 5.1), which describes this curtain as being of double construction, with about half a meter between the two curtains. The High Priest passed through this curtain to arrive at the Holy of Holies chamber. The Ritmeyers describe the High Priest’s path as follows:

“He would first have gone in via the south side of the outer curtain which was left slightly open, then passed through a gap on the north side of the inner curtain.”

If indeed the inner curtain was torn, then God would have had to tear two curtains, rather than a single one. Certainly, God could have done this; but it is a small complication added to the inner curtain theory.

On the other hand, the case for the tearing of the outer curtain seems more plausible. An interesting view is presented in an article entitled, “The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark’s Cosmic ‘Inclusio’” by David Ulansey. Ulansey makes a case for an analogy between the “tearing of the heavens” at the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:10) and the “tearing of the temple curtain” at the death of Jesus (Mark 15:38). Ulansey also makes the case for the outer curtain being the one which was torn. He offers the following points to support this conclusion:

*  Many interpreters have assumed that it was the inner veil [curtain], and have understood the tearing of the veil to have been Mark’s way of symbolizing the idea that the death of Jesus destroyed the barrier which separated God from humanity.  Recently however, favor seems to have shifted to the view that it was the outer veil – the strongest argument being that Mark seems to have intended the awestruck response of the centurion to the manner of Jesus’ death (Mark 15:39) to have been inspired by his seeing the miraculous event of the tearing of the veil; but he could only have seen this event if it was the outer veil that tore, since the inner veil was hidden from view inside the temple.”

*  This conclusion supports the analogy of the “tearing of the heavens” at the baptism of Jesus and the “tearing of the temple veil” at the death of Jesus.

*  Further supporting his analogy is the following excerpt from Ulansey’s article, including several accounts from Josephus:

“The evidence to which I refer consists of a passage in Josephus’s Jewish War (sic) in which he describes the outer veil [curtain] of the Jerusalem temple as it had appeared since the time of Herod.  According to Josephus, this outer veil was a gigantic curtain 80 feet high.  It was, he says, a ‘Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill. Nor was this mixture of materials without its mystic meaning: it typified the universe . . .

“Then Josephus tells us what was pictured on this curtain: ‘Portrayed on this tapestry was a panorama of the entire heavens . . .’  In other words, the outer veil of the Jerusalem temple was actually one huge image of the starry sky! Thus, upon encountering Mark’s statement that ‘the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom,’ any of his readers who had ever seen the temple or heard it described would instantly have seen in their mind’s eye an image of the heavens being torn, and would immediately have been reminded of Mark’s earlier description of the heavens being torn at the baptism.

“This can hardly be coincidence: the symbolic parallel is so striking that Mark must have consciously intended it.  We may therefore conclude that (1) Mark did indeed have in mind the outer veil, and (2) Mark did indeed imagine a link between the tearing of the heavens and the tearing of the temple veil – since we can now see that in fact in both cases the heavens were torn – and that he intentionally inserted the motif of the ‘tearing of the heavenly veil’ at both the precise beginning and at the precise end of the earthly career of Jesus, in order to create a powerful and intriguing symbolic inclusion.”

It is also interesting to note from Josephus that the outer curtain was on the outside of the actual doors – unlike what one would imagine – and that the curtain and the doors were set back in the gate. Since the outer curtain was therefore on the outside of the doors into the Holy Place, it would have been quite possible – indeed probable – for the centurion to witness its tearing, even if the doors to the Holy Place were closed. Josephus provides the following detail:

“As to the holy house itself . . . the first gate [into the porch before the Holy Place] was 70 cubits high, and 25 cubits broad; but this gate had no doors; for it represented the universal visibility of heaven . . . and through it the first part of the house, that was more inward did all of it appear; which, as it was very large, so did all the parts about the more inward gate [into the Holy Place] appear to shine to those that saw them; but then, as the entire house was divided into two parts within, it was only the first part of it that was open to our view. Its height extended all along to 90 cubits in height [vs. 60 cubits in height in the Holy Place], and its length was 50 cubits, and its breadth 20; . . . the inner part was lower than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors of 55 cubits altitude, and 16 in breadth; but before these doors [into the Holy Place] there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain . . . Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe . . .”

There is one consideration regarding the opposing argument for the inner curtain (veil) being the one which was torn that I believe needs to be made. This observation was made by Alfred Edersheim in his classic publication from the late 1800s, The Temple – Its Ministry and Services:

“Indeed, everything seems to indicate that, although the earthquake might furnish the physical basis, the rent of the Temple Veil was – with reverence be it said – really made by the Hand of God. As we compute, it may just have been the time when, at the Evening-Sacrifice, the officiating Priesthood entered the Holy Place, either to burn the incense or to do other sacred service there.”

If it was at the precise time that the Priesthood opened the outside curtain and the doors leading into the Holy Place that God tore the inner curtain, then certainly the centurion could have seen the inner curtain being torn. Even so, it appears doubtful that the Priesthood could have opened the immense outer veil sufficiently to have offered a clear view all the way back to the inner curtain. Consequently, the outer curtain theory is still favored.

In conclusion, I believe it safe to say that we do not know with certainty which curtain was torn, the outer one or the inner one. However, the case presented by Ulansey for the outer curtain is compelling. Moreover, given that there were actually two curtains separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (with a space between them), it seems more reasonable that the single outer curtain (at the entrance to the Holy Place) would be the one torn by God and witnessed by the centurion at the crucifixion site of Christ.

Regardless which curtain was torn, we must accept the account of Scripture, which specifically states that the centurion saw the curtain torn in two. This is the single most important point of this discussion and the one which most clearly supports the argument for the crucifixion site being on the Mount of Olives. Several other arguments supporting this position are included in the following sections.

Site Well Traveled by the Jews

We know from Scripture that the crucifixion site was outside the city walls (Hebrews 13:12) and on a site which was well traveled by the Jews (John 19):

“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, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek.” (John 19:19-20, NIV)

So, is it possible that “many of the Jews” would have read the sign attached to the cross of Jesus if the site of the crucifixion were on the Mount of Olives? Absolutely! The Mount of Olives was part of the route taken by the majority of pilgrims traveling to the Temple Mount, and one of the entrances was via a causeway from the Mount of Olives to the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount. This fact is included in the Mishnah (Parah 3:6) and is referenced by Dr. Leem Ritmeyer in The Quest (where he also provides an illustration of the causeway):

“They made a causeway from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, an arched way built over an arched way, with an arch directly above each pier [of the arch below], for fear of any grave in the depth below.”      

Some have suggested that a causeway completely across the Kidron Valley might have been impractical, due to the depth of the Kidron Valley.  Accordingly, Ritmeyer has suggested a ramp:

“Ramp or Bridge?  The Hebrew word for causeway is kevesh, which is usually translated as ‘ramp’ and not bridge, which is gesher.  I suggest therefore that the stepped approach to the Golden Gate, just described, was the beginning of this arched ramp that continued down into the Kidron Valley and up again to the Mount of Olives.  There is therefore no reason to suggest that an actual bridge was built over the Kidron Valley.  Such a bridge would have had to span an enormous distance, as the valley is located some 180 feet (55 m) below the level of the sill of the Golden Gate.  The so-called bridge thus would have been 20 feet (6 m) higher than the famous Pont du Gard in France, which is 160 feet (49 m) high!”

Whether it was a causeway or a ramp, the extra-biblical evidence supports an approach road from the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount. This path to the Temple Mount would have been especially crowded with large numbers of Jews during the Feasts of Passover/Unleavened Bread and the other Pilgrim Feasts (Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles). I conclude, therefore, that the Mount of Olives site would certainly meet the Scriptural imperative that “many of the Jews read this sign.(the sign above Jesus’ head at the crucifixion site).

Site with Adjacent Graves

What about the Scriptural reference that the crucifixion site was located near graves? For the centurion and others to have witnessed graves being opened – and to be consistent with Scripture concerning the near-proximity of Jesus’ burial site – the crucifixion site, graveyard, and burial chamber must have been relatively close to each other. Otherwise, there would have been insufficient time before the Sabbath for Joseph of Arimathea to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus and for Joseph and Nicodemus to wrap the body with spices and move the body to the tomb. Remember that the Gospel account states, “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was . . . a new tomb” (John 19:41, NIV).

The Mount of Olives has historically been an extremely desirable burial site, owing largely to its reference in Scripture as the anticipated site for the return of the Messiah (Zechariah 14:4). Indeed, it is very plausible that a Jewish man at the time of Jesus would desire a burial site on the Mount of Olives, especially a “rich man,” as Joseph of Arimathea was described in the Gospel accounts (Matthew 27:57).

Site with a Garden Nearby

Lastly, the Gospel account in John states, “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb . . . they laid Jesus there” (John 19:41-42, NIV). Is it likely that the Mount of Olives would have had a garden? Certainly. Jesus often visited Gethsemane, described as an olive grove (garden), on the Mount of Olives.

In conclusion, the Mount of Olives not only meets the specific requirements detailed in the Gospel accounts; but it was also uniquely situated to support the sighting of the Temple curtain that was so miraculously torn as part of these accounts. Neither of the traditional sites on the western or north-western sides of the Temple Mount would have allowed for this view into the Holy Place of the Temple.

Please Note: This discussion strongly endorses the Mount of Olives as the crucifixion site, owing both to the accounts of Scripture and to the sighting requirements to the Temple entrance at the traditional Temple location. However, I recognize that other combinations of crucifixion sites and/or Temple locations may also meet these requirements. I address one such possibility in my discussion of an alternate location for the Second Temple (Herod’s Temple). Read about it in my upcoming Post Where Was Herod’s Temple? 

Finally, regardless the precise location of the Temple, Scripture context and the sighting requirements previously discussed require that the crucifixion site be due east of that location.

Note: In my next Post, I will discuss the importance of the ceremonial sacrifice of the Red Heifer and the parallels of that tradition to the crucifixion of Jesus.