The First Good Friday

History & Archaeology Tell Part of the Greatest Story Ever Told

What Christians believe took place on the first Good Friday is tightly tethered to an historical claim: The Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth took place publicly in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, fifth governor (26-36 AD) of the Roman province of Judea.

All four Christian Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) present the trial of Jesus and his Crucifixion in much detail, while some of Jesus' disciples and later followers of Jesus also write of the Crucifixion in their letters to Christian churches in the first century.

A stone excavated at Caesarea in 1961 is inscribed with the name of Pontius Pilate. Pilate is named in all four Gospels, as well as by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote that Pilate "condemned [Jesus] to the cross." The second-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote that "Christus … suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus." Both Pilate and Jesus are historically linked together by four New Testament writers, one Jewish historian, and one Roman historian.

Also, Mar Bar-Serapion, a stoic philosopher from Syria wrote his son, perhaps as early as AD 73, about the execution of the "wise king" of the Jews:

"What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished." 

All four Gospel accounts of the trial of Jesus affirm that he was charged for claiming to be "King of the Jews." They also affirm that a sign was placed on his cross saying, "This is the King of the Jews." (John has it: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.")

Christians confess the fourth-century Nicene Creed, affirming that God became man and "was crucified for us under Pontius, and suffered, and was buried." It a crucial belief.

The Gospels name the place of execution as Golgotha, "the place of the skull" (also known as Calvary). Where was Golgotha? "Both literary and archaeological evidence help us to identify Golgotha with surprising precision," is the conclusion of scholar Eckhard J. Schnabel, in his magisterial Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days. He provides numerous clues from the Gospels—it was just outside the city, there was a garden there, and a new (unused) tomb—plus evidence from archaeology and history.

The Romans had a specific place for executing criminals outside the city walls. Also, the burial of Jesus had to take place outside the city walls, as the Jews considered graveyards unclean and therefore forbidden inside the City.

History and archaeology indicate that Golgotha was in an abandoned rock quarry which included several rock-hewn tombs. It would take about fifty days of labor to cut out such a tomb—you had to be wealthy to afford one. The Gospels affirm that a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, received permission from Pilate to place the body of Jesus in his own tomb, "cut out of the rock." (Mark 15:46) 

Everyone would have known where Golgotha was. Followers of Jesus knew where his tomb was as well. The Christians of Jerusalem, who numbered in the thousands, knew the site, even after Jerusalem fell to the Romans in AD 70. Sixty-five years later, in AD 135, the Emperor Hadrian saw to it that a pagan temple to Venus was built on top of a site that presumably had been important to Christians living in Jerusalem since the first century, within living memory of those who had witnessed the Crucifixion. So the old rock quarry was filled in to build the new complex on top of Golgotha.

Less than two hundred years later, Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, asked the Emperor Constantine to demolish Hadrian's temple. The Christian historian Eusebius (260-339) reported, "as layer after layer of the subsoil came into view, the venerable and most holy memorial of the Savior's resurrection (that is, the empty tomb), beyond all our hopes, came into view." The pagan temple was demolished and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built there by Constantine.

Within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today lies both the traditional tomb of Jesus and the traditional site of Golgotha (Calvary).

In 2007 Dan Bahat, the former City Archaeologist of Jerusalem and Professor of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University, stated that "Six graves from the first century were found on the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That means, this place [was] outside of the city, without any doubt" thus maintaining that there are no scientific, archaeological grounds for rejecting the traditional location for Calvary. [1]

In the quarry that archaeologists have discovered beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, rock-cut tombs have been discovered that date from the first century, including one tomb of the archosolium type that had been carved into the eastern scarp of the quarry. This may very well be the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in which the body of Jesus was placed. [2]

On the First Good Friday, "Joseph [of Arimathea] bought a linen shroud, and taking [Jesus] down [from the cross], wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where [Jesus] was laid." (Mark 15:46–47)

The distance from the Cross to the Tomb is only about 164 feet. The women who stood at Calvary and watched Jesus as he slowly died not only remained for the removal of his body from the cross and went to see the place of his burial, they remembered the place. As did the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem thereafter, it can very reasonably be assumed.

As to subsequent events concerning Jesus of Nazareth, "wise King of the Jews," at the Tomb and Beyond…that's another chapter, one still being written.

2. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Eerdmans, 2018) p. 344.

is the executive editor of Salvo and the  Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.

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