Calvary

The place where Jesus was crucified was known as “a place of a skull” (Matthew 27:33). The Apostle John noted that it was “called in Hebrew Golgotha” (John 19:17) and Luke’s gospel provided the Latin version of this word, calvaria which is where the English term Calvary comes from. The exact location of this spot is unknown, but some think it “may have been a small hill (though the Gospels say nothing of a hill) that looked like a skull, or it may have been so named because of the many executions that took place there” (note on Mark 15:22). The name of the site was probably given so that there would be no confusion about the fact that a public execution actually took place. It is possible that Jesus knew of the site before he was taken there and had mentally prepared himself for the inevitable crucifixion that was going to take place.

Crucifixion was “a Roman means of execution in which the victim was nailed to a cross. Men condemned to death were usually forced to carry a beam of the cross often weighing 30 or 40 pounds, to the place of crucifixion. A cross might be shaped like a T, an X, a Y, or an I, as well as like the traditional form. A condemned man would normally carry a beam of it to the place of execution. Somewhere along the way Simon of Cyrene took Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21), probably because Jesus was weakened by the flogging. Heavy wrought-iron nails were driven through the wrists and the heel bones. If the life of the victim lingered too long, death was hastened by breaking his legs (see John 19:33). Archeologists have discovered the bones of a crucified man, near Jerusalem, dating between A.D. 7 and 66, which shed light on the position of the victim when nailed to the cross. Only slaves, the basest of criminals, and offenders who were not Roman citizens were executed in this manner. First-century authors vividly describe the agony and disgrace of being crucified” (notes on Mark 15-21, 24 and John 19:17).

Luke’s record of Jesus’ crucifixion contains details that are not found in the other three gospels. Luke opened his letter with this statement:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightiest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke’s motivation for writing his letter to Theophilus was to explain what had happened to Jesus in terms that were understandable to a non-Jewish Roman citizen. Luke was a physician and had spent a considerable amount of time traveling with the Apostle Paul. His education was probably an advantage in translating the Jewish records into modern language that could be understood by the general population. Luke’s use of the term calvaria, or in English Calvary, as the name of the place where Jesus was crucified has made it a well-known landmark that is still visited some 2000 years later.