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Where is the Real Via Dolorosa?

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To be honest, I have done flip-flops with this one over the years. In the beginning of my career I went with the crowd, promoting the idea that the traditional Via Dolorosa, which travels across the Muslim Quarter north of the Temple Mount, was the authentic route on which Jesus carried the cross.


A few years ago, I started to gravitate toward the notion that the actual Via Dolorosa followed the route of Saint James Street on the western side of the Old City of Jerusalem. Of late, I have gravitated back to my original position, guiding tourists through the traditional route, which is overwhelmingly accepted not only by history, but by all local and international churches, and by the masses of tourists who come here.


The Modern Via Dolorosa.


Let me set the stage. The modern Via Dolorosa is the traditional route accepted by both the Catholic, Anglican and all Orthodox churches. It is a popular tourist trek, with historic Stations of the Cross marked throughout. Souvenir shops line the entire route. There are legends about historic events which present themselves all along the way. Every Friday at 3:00 PM Catholic friars lead a one-hour procession down this road, retracing what they believe is the path that Jesus walked on His way to Calvary. The traditional Via Dolorosa has a deep and well-charted history of acceptance going back to the Byzantine years, of which I will cite historic references later.


The Western Corridor (Saint James Street - the alternate theory).


In contrast, there is a modern theory that places the way of the cross through an unceremonious western corridor of the city (Saint James Street) that attracts no pilgrims eager to retrace Christ’s steps, almost no shops, and no long-standing tradition of being the route of Jesus’ passion. The only two historic proof-texts supporting this hypothesis (cited below) have been only recently invoked. This Saint James route grazes the ancient site of the Herod’s Grand Palace, which is now consumed by an undeveloped mound of dirt, a parking lot, an Armenian seminary, a police station, and the Tower of David Museum.


What I believe.


I believe that Pontius Pilate, whose headquarters were in Caesarea by the Sea, resided at Herod’s Grand Palace when he visited Jerusalem, but that Jesus was tried in the vicinity of the Antonia Fortress.


I believe that Pontius Pilate came to Judea at this time because it was the Jewish Passover, and that both Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount in particular, would have been swollen with both local Jews, and those who traveled to Jerusalem for the celebration. In the minds of the Romans these circumstances would have made the Temple Mount a potential flashpoint for trouble, so Pilate and the whole Roman cohort needed to keep a watchful eye on things.


I lean toward the notion that on the day of Jesus’ trial Pontius Pilate woke up in Herod’s Grand Palace, and went to work that morning by walking with his military entourage to the Antonia Fortress, where he was joined by the remainder of the Roman cohort. His purpose was to monitor the disposition of the crowd that was being assembled on the Temple Mount.

I believe that the true way of the Cross started north of the Temple Mount, and proceeded westward. Once out of the city Jesus would have taken a hard left turn toward Golgotha. My identification of this route as the true Via Dolorosa is not based on devotion, nor tradition, but on a survey of ancient documents.

Flavius Josephus.

There is a statement by Flavius Josephus in 75 AD which asserts that a particular Roman governor, Gessius Florus, resided in Herod’s Grand Palace when visiting Jerusalem. Josephus says, “Now at this time Florus took up his quarters at the palace; and on the next day he had his tribunal set before it, and sat upon it… (Wars of the Jews 2:14,8).

Gessius Florus was the seventh governor who ruled Judea from Caesarea in 64-66 AD, and who served about 35 years after Pontius Pilate (the fifth governor of Judea).


It should also be noted that Josephus says that tribunal judgments were made by Florus at the “palace”. However, Josephus does not herein define what or where this “palace” was. You see, in another book Josephus acknowledges that there were two palace-like complexes in Jerusalem at this time, the other one being the Antonia Fortress just north of the Temple Mount. Of this second “palace” Josephus says,


Now as to the tower of Antonia…the inward parts had the largeness and form of a palace, it being parted into all kinds of rooms and other conveniences, such as courts, and places for bathing, and broad spaces for camps; insomuch that, by having all conveniences that cities wanted, it might seem to be composed of several cities, but by its magnificence it seemed a palace….There was also a peculiar fortress belonging to the upper city, which was Herod's palace. (Antiquities, 18.4.3)


Josephus’ chronicle of the Antonia Fortress is illustrated in terms that describe this particular complex as something far more opulent than just a military barracks. It bears repeating that Josephus not only calls both complexes palaces, but that both are also called fortresses.




There is another story written in 40 AD by the Jewish historian and philosopher, Philo, in which it is claimed that Pontius Pilate resided at Herod’s Grand Palace when visiting Jerusalem. In his book, On the Embassy to Gaius (38,39:299-306), we learn that Pontius Pilate hung some shields in the “dwelling-house of the governor”; shields that were offensive to the Jews.


Considering these two citations, I am persuaded to believe that Pilate (as well as other governors) did stay at the Grand Palace on the west side of the city, but I have a specific reason why I believe that Pilate went to work at the Antonia during the crucial days of Passover, which I will explain later.


What was the Praetorium?


Three of our Gospels mention the Praetorium. John 18:28 calls it a place where Jesus was delivered to Pontius Pilate. Matthew 27:27 and Mark 27:27 call it a place where the “whole Roman cohort was assembled – where Jesus was stripped, mocked and beaten, with a crown of thorns placed on His head.


A praetorium in Roman usage was a word originally signifying the headquarters of the commanding officer in Roman military encampments. In its military usage, the word came to be used of the council of war held in the commanding officer's headquarters and of the bodyguard of the emperor (the Praetorian Guard) or of a Roman governor. Finally, its meaning was extended in a local sense, as well, to designate the governor's official residence in a Roman province or administrative district, who was also the commander of the local military unit.


The Whole Roman Cohort.


I believe that one major clue as to where the Praetorium was is in the statement about the entire Roman Cohort being present at Jesus’ trial. It is well-known that the Antonia Fortress was partly a barracks for soldiers. It is also known that Jesus’ trial occurred during Passover. It is equally understood that the reason that the Antonia Fortress was built in the first place was to oversee the entire Temple platform, and that the crowds visiting the Temple during Passover created a trouble spot, potentially spawning insurrection.


A cohort (from the Latin cohors) was a standard tactical military unit of a Roman legion Although the standard size changed with time and situation, it was generally composed of 480 soldiers. Collectively, Matthew 27:27 and Mark 15:16 say that the soldiers of the governor took Jesus away and assembled the “whole” Roman cohort around Him. Note that the soldiers in this passage, who guarded the governor, are a separate group from the whole cohort.


During the prescribed celebrations, riots and sedition often broke out amongst the Jews in the area of the Temple. The Roman soldiers were therefore held under arms in this area, watching the populace, to suppress any attempted insurrection. I contend that the “whole cohort” of soldiers would not have been called away from the Antonia during the Passover, where they were much needed in case of trouble, to observe the scourging of one man on the west side of town. The reason that the Scriptures emphasize that the “whole cohort” was present at Jesus’ scourging is that the location of this event was the Antonia Fortress. It is illogical to believe that the “whole” company of soldiers would have been taken off duty at the Temple Mount to observe the humiliation of one man at the Grand Palace.


Take note also that in the praetorium Jesus was scourged and crowned with thorns – bloody events that give us the sense that all of this was not done inside an elegant palace, but in a military complex.


The Testimony of Ancient Pilgrims.


In 333 AD the Bordeaux pilgrim mentions Golgotha as being on his left as he was walking from Mount Zion towards the northern Gate: “On the right”, he says, “we perceive, down in the valley, walls where once stood the house or praetorium of Pilate. There the Lord was judged before His Passion. That statement right there places the praetorium in the vicinity of the Antonia Fortress.


The Brevarius of Jerusalem (around 436 AD) mentions in the praetorium “a great basilica called Saint Sophia, with a chapel, cubiculum, where our Lord was stripped of his garments and scourged”.


Peter the Iberian (around 454 AD), who lived in Jerusalem, went down from Golgotha “to the basilica named after Pilate”, and then to that of the Paralytic, and then to Gethsemane. This statement suggests that the “basilica named after Pilate” was in the vicinity of the Antonia Fortress.


It seems that the local tradition remained constant, showing at all times up to the present day the praetorium of Pilate was in the Antonia Fortress.


The Gate Outside the Western Wall of Jerusalem.


Archeologist Shimon Gibson has hypothesized that a now walled-up gate in the western wall of the modern city was where Pilate’s pavement (Gabbatha) was. However, this gate shows no evidence that it was used for the purpose of Pilate’s tribunal, nor is there any textual tradition which would lead one to believe so.

The Crowds Lining the Streets of the Via Dolorosa.

We are told consistently in Scripture that there were crowds following Jesus as He marched toward Calvary. With this many eye-witnesses, logic would dictate that a wave of oral tradition would reverberate throughout the centuries, detailing not only where the Via Dolorosa was located, but what specific events happened there on the day that Jesus carried His cross.

There are fourteen stations of the cross. Nine of them are referenced in the Bible. Five are not. I personally believe that all fourteen stations commemorate events that actually occurred, and that they took place in or near the sites historically recognized as the traditional stations.

But, back to oral tradition. Consider what the following Scriptures tell us about the number of witnesses on the day that Jesus died:

In addition, in compiling his Gospel, Luke claims to have drawn on the testimony of eye-witnesses, some of whom may have been in Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was crucified. Consider his statement:

Since many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…(Luke 1:1-2)

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