Where Were Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? – The Red Heifer

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 last Post I introduced compelling evidence that the crucifixion of Jesus may have been on the Mount of Olives and not at one of several other sites traditionally proposed. In this Post I present additional support that the crucifixion of Jesus occurred on the Mount of Olives. This evidence relates to the ceremonial sacrifice of the Red Heifer, which is especially significant because this ceremony is a parallel to the sacrifice of Jesus.  This evidence then becomes our third puzzle piece in this topic area.

The Red Heifer Sacrifice

Ritual purity is a necessary condition for Temple worship; however, it has nothing to do with physical cleanliness. Lack of ritual purity is a spiritual state which can be caused by a number of factors, the most severe of which is the exposure to death. As explained by Rabbi Chaim Richman of the Temple Mount Institute, “Once life has departed, it is not the stuff of death itself which renders impurity, but the absence of God-given life.” Rabbi Richman further explains:

“Several methods of restoring purity were used in the Holy Temple, most notably immersion in water, but the Bible’s exclusive remedy for defilement caused by exposure to death was sprinkling with the ashes of the red heifer. Many of the thousands who arrived at the Holy Temple had to undergo this process before they could enter into the court.”

The origins of the Red Heifer sacrifice go back to the Exodus, almost thirty-five hundred years ago. Details are provided in the book of Numbers:

“And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying, ‘This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish . . . and ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest . . . and one shall slaughter her before his face . . .  And shall burn the heifer in his sight . . . and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin . . . and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute forever.’” (Numbers 19:1-10, KJV)

Rabbi Richman further explains the tradition which links the Red Heifer to the golden calf:

“There is a tradition which connects the concept of the red heifer with the sin of the golden calf which Israel, under the influence of the Mixed Multitude, committed in the desert 40 days after the revelation at Mount Sinai, and it must be red, on account of the verse which promises ‘though your sins be as scarlet . . .“ (Isaiah 1:18), for sin is alluded to as ‘red.’”

According to Douglas Jacoby and prevailing Jewish tradition, nine Red Heifers have been sacrificed since the time of Moses (Mishnah; Parah 3:5). However, this is not universally accepted. Jacoby also notes that Ory Mazar, Professor Emeritus of Hebrew University, “. . . believes, perhaps rightly, that this was in fact an annual sacrifice.”

Importance to Temple Worship

The ashes of the Red Heifer were essential to Temple worship because – according to Jewish tradition – they were required for the purification of the Temple, the Temple implements, and the priests themselves. As stated in Numbers 19:21, the ordinance was to be a perpetual statute to the Jewish people.

Ritual cleanliness was especially important to the High Priest who observed the annual service on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It was crucial to the nation that the High Priest maintain ritual purity so as not to be disqualified from performing the Yom Kippur duties. Twice during the week preceding Yom Kippur, the High Priest was sprinkled with the mixture of water and ashes of the Red Heifer to preclude the possibility that he had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body.

Location of the Sacrifice

Rabbi Richman provides the following details regarding the location of the Red Heifer sacrifice and the procedures involved:

“The heifer was prepared on the Mount of Anointment, on the Mount of Olives, directly opposite the eastern entrance to the Sanctuary. After slaughtering the heifer, the priest sprinkled its blood seven times while facing the Temple. Afterwards, the heifer burned on a pile of cedar and hyssop wood, tied together by a scarlet band. A small amount of the ashes was placed in a vessel containing natural spring water and this was sprinkled with a branch of hyssop onto the body of anyone who had become impure.”

The Red Heifer sacrifice was accomplished outside the camp (outside the city), on the Mount of Olives, unlike the burnt sacrifices offered on the altar in the Temple. To accommodate the sacrifice, there was a ceremonially clean place set aside that was considered an extension of the Holy Temple. The Red Heifer was led alive by the High Priest and the other priests eastward through the Miphkad Gate (Nehemiah 3:31), to the designated place just outside the limits of the Camp of Israel.

Ritmeyer states that the complete Temple ritual concerning the sacrifice of the Red Heifer is described in Parah, one of the Mishnaic tractates.  Dr. Ernest Martin adds that “the details of these matters can be found in the Jewish Mishnah (Middoth 1:3, 2:4; and Yoma 7:2) along with the Talmud (Yoma 68b and Zebahim 105b) . . .”

Dr. Martin also states that the location of the sacrifice of the Red Heifer was the same as the location of the Miphkad Altar, the third altar of the Temple, which was located outside the camp and devoted to the incineration of the bodies of sacrificial animals (Leviticus 4:12, 6:11). Jacoby states that according to the Mishnah (Parah 4:2), the Miphkad Altar was technically a pit; and he estimates that it was 2,000 cubits from the Temple on the Mount of Olives, this distance being a reasonable inference from Numbers 35:5.

Another author, James Tabor, states that “The Talmud and Mishnah are clear that this altar was located 2,000 cubits outside the Eastern Gate, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives (bYoma 68a, mSanhedrin 6:1).”

It is interesting that the gate and path used for the procession of the Red Heifer from the Temple Mount – through the Miphkad Gate (Nehemiah 3:31-32) and over the special bridge connecting the Temple Mount with the Mount of Anointment (Mount of Olives) – was the same as that used for the scapegoat, as part of the Yom Kippur ceremonies. Ritmeyer states that the Miphkad Gate of Nehemiah’s time could have been located outside the Temple, and may, therefore, have been a gate in the eastern city wall, near the approach to the eastern gate of the Temple Mount, the Shushan Gate.

Red Heifer Sacrifice and the Sacrifice of Jesus

The writer of Hebrews alludes to the remarkable correspondence between the Red Heifer sacrifice and the sacrificial death of Jesus in the following passages:

“When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer [Red Heifer] sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:11–14)

The writer also alludes to the Red Heifer sacrifice in Hebrews 13 and to the death of Jesus outside the city gate:

“We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat [Red Heifer].  The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp [Miphkad Altar]. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (Hebrews 13:10–13)  

From the earliest of times, Christians have made the symbolic connection between the Red Heifer sacrifice and the death of Christ, equating the image of Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice and the “sprinkling” of His blood to that of the water prepared with the ashes of the Red Heifer. The Epistle of Barnabas, written around AD 100, made this connection:

“Now what type do you think was intended, when he commanded Israel that the men whose sins are complete should offer a heifer [Red Heifer], and slaughter and burn it, and then the children should take the ashes and place them in containers, and tie the scarlet wool around a tree [observe again the type of the cross and the scarlet wool], and the hyssop, and then the children should sprinkle the people one by one, in order that they may be purified from their sins? Grasp how plainly he is speaking to you: the calf is Jesus; the sinful men who offer it are those who brought him to the slaughter. . .” (Epistle of Barnabas 8:1–2)

Jesus, the Lamb of God (John 1:29), was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind (Hebrews 9:26-28). He was a sacrificial lamb insofar as His blood covered us in the same manner as the Passover sacrifice covers us (1 Corinthians 5:7). But the Passover Lamb was not an effective sin offering, because unlike the blood of Christ, the lamb’s blood did not bear sin.

It is interesting that the two goats used in the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) ceremonies were considered sin offerings (Leviticus 16:5–8). One of the goats – selected by lot – was chosen for the Lord and was sacrificed on the Temple altar; the other was the scapegoat (Hebrew, azazel). It was led across the same causeway used by the Red Heifer and into the desert.

Some may wonder why Jesus – as the sacrificial lamb in God’s redemptive plan – was not sacrificed in or near the Temple, since this would surely have highlighted the transition from the Jewish sacrificial tradition. Instead, Jesus died outside the city walls. Quite simply, prophecy had stated that the Messiah would have His hands and feet pierced (Zechariah 12:10, Psalm 22:16) and would be hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23). Could Jesus’ death beyond the city gates have been to fit the pattern of the sacrifice of the Red Heifer?

Jacoby suggests that Jesus’ death was symbolically connected with the Miphkad Altar but did not necessarily take place at this altar.  In addition, he states that the Red Heifer sacrifice was the “. . . approximate site of Jesus’ death and burial.” Both were outside the city walls, on the Mount of Olives.

In short, we find that there is both Scriptural support and support from early Christian writings – like the Epistle of Barnabas – correlating the Red Heifer sacrifice with the sacrificial death of Jesus. Since we know for certain that the Red Heifer sacrifice was routinely performed on the Mount of Olives, I find it highly probable that the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus occurred at or near the same location.

The Near-Sacrifice of Isaac

It has long been speculated that the Mount of Olives might also have been the site on which Abraham offered his son Isaac on an altar which he constructed specifically for that purpose. Admittedly, the evidence is anecdotal, but it is worth considering.

We first note that the place where Abraham was instructed to sacrifice Isaac was a high place. God told Abraham:

“. . . Go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about . . . On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance . . . We will worship and then we will come back to you [the servants].” (Genesis 22:2, 4-5, NIV).

And later in the same Chapter:

“When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son . . . Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘the Lord will provide.’ And to this day, it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’” (Genesis 22:9-14, NIV)   

From the verses in Genesis 22, we can see several interesting things that point to the possibility that the site of Isaac’s near-sacrifice may have later been the site where Jesus was sacrificed. First, it is stated that Abraham had to “look up” to see the mountain “in the distance” where God intended for Isaac to be sacrificed. Compared to Mount Zion, where David later built the City of David, the Mount of Olives is appreciably higher; certainly Abraham could easily have seen it “in the distance.”

Note, too, that on the site where Abraham was expected to sacrifice his son, God said “the Lord will provide . . . On the mountain of the Lord it [God’s sacrifice] will be provided.” Two thousand years later, God did provide the perfect sacrifice – His only son. Since I am making the case that Jesus was crucified on the Mount of Olives, then we must conclude from God’s own words that this must be the same place from which Isaac was to be offered up to God. The author of the book of Hebrews draws a parallel between the willingness of Abraham to offer Isaac and God’s own offering of His only son (Hebrews 11:17–19).

We find also that Abraham said of the mountain that We will worship [there] . . .” I believe there is an interesting correlation between this and what King David did when Absalom forced him to flee from Jerusalem. David went to the Mount of Olives:

“But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot . . . When David arrived at the summit [of Mount of Olives], where people used to worship God . . .” (2 Samuel 15:30, 32 NIV)

According to the Scripture, it appears that David may have paused where people used to worship God,on the Mount of Olives. Although there is no proof of this, Scripture seems to indicate that this may well have been the same place where Abraham worshiped God 1,000 years earlier. If true, the Mount of Olives may have been the site both of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and of Jesus’ sacrificial death, both of which were acts of worship to God through obedience (Romans 12:1).

Although I endeavor in most of my Posts to present verifiable facts, I realize that some aspects of this discussion about the possible correlation between the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus are largely conjecture. However, I believe there is merit to the discussion and feel compelled to share it.

So what do we know for sure? I believe that the case presented for the parallel of the sacrifice of the Red Heifer – and its verifiable, recurring occurrence on the Mount of Olives – with the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus (Hebrews 9:13–14), is alone sufficient to strongly support that Jesus died on the Mount of Olives. When combined with arguments from earlier Posts on this topic, the case for the Mount of Olives becomes especially compelling.

Note: In my next Post, I will identify and discuss the area traditionally designated for executions during the time of Jesus.