Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

224. "The Place of a Skull" (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33; John 19:17)*

"Golgotha" is from the Hebrew "gulgoleth" (skull; it is turned into New Testament Greek as "kranion" (cranium) and in the Latin Vulgate becomes "Calvaria." The last of these names has found its way into the English Bible and into common use simply through the influence of the Bible of the church of Rome. It should therefore be used specially by those who have strong sympathies with Rome.

Assumption that the name is descriptive led General Gordon to identify the spot, and his conclusion is fairly commonly accepted. Sir Ambrose Fleming (Vict. Inst. 1930) has this: "Part of this cliff (at Jeremiah's Grotto') when seen from the front has a most remarkable resemblance to a human skull; there are the holes forming the eye sockets, and a broken nose, and a slit which resembles a mouth. When once it has been pointed out, it cannot possibly be overlooked. This skull-formation is certainly not an artificial construction and not of very recent date, and if it has existed for 1900 years there is nothing more likely than that a place showing such a curious characteristic would come to be called "Skull Hill", or "the place of a skull", by persons familiar with it ... There is an ancient tradition that it was called also "the place of stoning."

There is other appropriateness about this identification. The Law commanded that the burnt offering be slain on the north side of the altar (Lev. 1 :11), and the ashes of the sin-offering were to be poured out "without the camp" (Lev. 4 :12; Heb. 13 :11). Thus there is point in the use here of the word "place" (maqom) which commonly has the meaning of "a sanctuary, an altar, a holy place."

The name Golgotha itself is intended to be read with symbolic meaning. Matthew's phrasing seems to imply this: "a place called Golgotha, that is to say, the place of a skull." Yet Matthew wrote for Jews who would not need to have the name interpreted for them. What then is its symbolic meaning? At least four possibilities present themselves:

  1. Wordsworth has suggested that the original meaning was: "The skull of Goliath." Certainly Nob, to which David brought Goliath's head (1 Sam. 17 :54; 21 :9) was in the immediate vicinity of Golgotha, if not identical with it. And the entire episode lends itself readily to interpretation as a type of Christ's greater victory. Thus: After some outstanding achievements against those who ravaged the flock, he-an eighth son, and despised by his brethren-came from Bethlehem at his father's command, leaving his sheep, in order to fight the great Enemy alone. He put aside all human help and support, and with the first (Gen. 3 :15) of five stones bruised the adversary in the head. This success rallied the Lord's people behind him, and they now added their onslaught and victory. In answer to enquiry: "Whose son is this?" the leaders can only reply: "We cannot tell" (Mt. 22 :41-44). He is the son of Jesse (="God exists'), and he has for his prize a king's daughter (Ps. 45 :14) and freedom for his oppressed people. Thereafter the men who were close kin to the Enemy become his choicest followers (2 Sam. 15:18,19).
  2. The close connection with the name Gilgal suggests "the rolling away of the reproach of Egypt" (Josh. 5 :9; Col. 2 :11,12), which again was itself only part of another elaborate type of redemption. A people redeemed out of bondage were baptized "in the cloud and in the sea." Given God's law, they experienced a long wilderness pilgrimage before reaching their inheritance. The Jordan ( = "that which goes down") the barrier to their progress, was divinely cut off at Adam, and they came into the Land with the Ark of God's covenant two thousand cubits ahead of them, and then in their midst. Twelve stones were left in Jordan and twelve fresh stones were erected or the bank. Circumcision rolled away the reproach of Egypt. The manna ceased, being no longer necessary. With the blowing of Jubilee trumpets and a sevenfold circuit (cp. the Trumpets of Revelation), there came earthquake and irresistible victory over the stronghold of the Enemy. And in all this they were helped by their brethren whose own inheritance was not in the Land itself.
  3. Or, yet again, in view of the use in the gospels of Hosea 10 :8,9; "They shall say to the mountains, Cover us; and to the hills, Fall on us. O Israel, thou hast sinned from the days of Gibeah (Gabbatha)," the Gilgal allusion may be to Hosea 9 :15: "All their wickedness is in Gilgal (Golgotha); for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of my house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters."
  4. Quite differently, "Golgotha" may be intended to suggest the wheels (galgal of the cherubim chariot of the Lord: Ez. 10:2,6,12,13, (an impressive context!) and Dan. 7:9 (Jesus had used v. 13 about himself at his trial: Mt. 26:64). This suggestion is the more apt because of the Psalm 22 quotation derisively thrown at Jesus on the cross by the chief priests: "He trusted in the Lord that he would deliver him," is, in the original, "He rolled himself (Heb. gol) upon the Lord" (Ps. 22:8).
Which of these ideas was intended by the early church to be associated with the name Golgotha?

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