World

01.06.15 3:19 PM ET

Oops! Jesus’ Last Steps Are in the Wrong Place

The discovery of the site where he was sentenced to die confirms that pilgrims are off course in Jerusalem.

Archeologists may have uncovered the site of the trial of Jesus. While excavating the floors underneath an abandoned building next to the Tower of David museum in Jerusalem, archeologists came across the foundation walls and sewage system that lay beneath Herod the Great’s Jerusalem palace.

According to scholars, this is most likely the place that Jesus was sentenced to die. In the Gospels, Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate in a “praetorium,” a Latin term for the general’s tent in a military encampment. Modern historians locate this praetorium in Herod’s Palace and now, for the first time, the palace is accessible to public view.

The unveiling of this site marks a fine confluence of archeology and biblical text; it is a wonderful opportunity for people to visit an important Christian site. The only problem is that for hundreds of years tourists have already been visiting the site of the trial of Jesus, in a completely different part of Jerusalem. The Via Dolorosa or “Way of Sorrows,” the road that Jesus is believed to have travelled as he carried his cross from his trial to his crucifixion, is currently at the top of must-see lists of religious attractions for visitors to the city. Each year more than a million Christian pilgrims visit Jerusalem hoping to retrace the steps of the Savior.

The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and is marked by nine stations of the cross. The first of these commemorates Jesus’s sentencing before Pilate, and is found at the Antonia Fortress, the traditional location for the trial. But the route of the Via Dolorosa, like so many religious sites in Israel, doesn’t have a particularly strong historical pedigree—it was established only in the 18th century

If Jesus wasn’t tried at the Antonia Fortress then the Via Dolorosa has been wildly mis-mapped. To paraphrase Indiana Jones, they’re walking in the wrong place.

This may come as unwelcome news to those in the tourist industry but to archeologists the only surprising thing is that the discovery is making news now.

In her 2012 book The Archeology of the Holy Land from the Destruction of Solomon’s temple to the Muslim Conquest, Professor Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, writes, “The praetorium – the palace of the Roman governor in Jerusalem – was Herod's palace, not the Antonia fortress.  Therefore, Jesus was sentenced to death and took up the cross not in the area to the north of the Temple Mount, but on the western side of the city.  This means that the route walked by Jesus is different from the one walked by modern pilgrims (the Via Dolorosa).” Magness told me that this wasn’t even her original observation and that “there is nothing new in this story.”

Indeed, the remains of Herod’s Palace beside the Tower of David were first discovered in 2001. So why is this find making news now? The answer seems to be that this is the first time that tourists will have access to the site and archeologists will be able to profit from Christian interest. The archeological find, some fifteen years in the making, has made headlines only now that the museum has started to offer public tours. The director of the Tower of David Museum, Eliat Lieber, expressed the hope that the prison would eventually become a standard attraction for Christian tourists. History has become news, and now it’s open for business.

Whatever the reason, the news of the discovery publicizes the fact that historical accuracy of the pilgrimage route was always on shaky ground. As it currently stands, the Via Dolorosa follows the account given in the Gospel of John. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the final stop on the Via Dolorosa, is believed by Christians to be built on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, a place known as Golgotha.

The original site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was identified in a moment of inspiration by Helena, mother to the Roman emperor Constantine, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the fourth century. But there is a problem with its location. The Bible clearly specifies that Jesus was executed outside the city walls; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is inside the walls. Even in the medieval era this disparity made Christians uncomfortable. As a result, Protestant Biblical archeologists identified a second site, known today as the Garden Tomb, as the actual place of Jesus’s death and burial. The historical accuracy of this second site is also hotly contested, but it remains a popular pilgrimage site for Protestants to this day.

Even if we could settle on a location, just the idea that Jesus was buried close to Golgotha is up for debate. It is based on a detail found only in the Gospel of John. None of the other, much earlier gospels have Jesus buried so close by. Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that Jesus was buried in the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and it’s highly unlikely that prominent members of Jewish society had family tombs next to places of crucifixion.  Even if we could match the Bible stories with the archeology we couldn’t be sure that we had the right story.

As Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke University, told the Daily Beast, “The Gospel writers have little interest in the precise location of Jesus’ trials. Writing a generation or more after the events they are describing, and at some geographical distance, it is unlikely that they provide us with the kinds of clues that we would like to see. So while this discovery is exciting, we should be cautious about over-stating its importance for studying the historical Jesus.” Tradition has the beginning of the Via Dolorosa wrong, and probably the end too; it’s safe to say that the stuff in between probably doesn’t pan out either. In short, we don’t know the route that Jesus walked or the location of Jesus’ tomb.

Somewhat ironically, pilgrimage routes tend to change with political regimes and shifting religious trends, rather than with new archeological discoveries. So the religious tourist industry can sleep easy: they’ll cash in no matter the truth