Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Place of the skull

All four evangelists agree on the name of the place where Jesus was crucified. It was called Golgotha, which is a Hebrew term meaning the place of a skull. Note that the word "skull" is singular. There's no suggestion whatsoever that Jesus might have been crucified in a place strewn with skulls, in the plural. Golgotha may have got its name because it was a small hill that looked like a skull. In other words, a skull-shaped mound. Look at the following photo:

Does that image correspond to your vision of the place where Jesus and the two thieves were nailed to crosses? Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you prefer), that curious mound does not lie in the Holy City. In fact, it's a limestone outcrop located in a corner of the cemetery of Saint-Romans, a village about twenty minutes away from where I live, on the road between Pont-en-Royans and Saint-Marcellin.

Many Christian pilgrims who visit Jerusalem are frankly disappointed by the place that is alleged to be the real Golgotha. It simply does not correspond to what most people imagine as the place of the Crucifixion. Visitors are astonished to discover that, to reach Golgotha, they have to enter a dull-looking church and then walk up a tiny narrow staircase. It's as if a tourist in New York were to be told that the Statue of Liberty is in fact hidden away in a basement zone of Rockefeller Plaza.

In the Greek gaudiness of the official Golgotha, there's nothing in particular that might remind us of a skull. It's no more nor less than a kitsch bazaar. If ever you approached the site with surging thoughts of the terrifying tales of the final hours of Jesus as related in the Gospels, these mental images are soon chased away by the omnipresent garishness, and the bustle of excited Orthodox pilgrims who must find the atmosphere just right. It's a question of culture and sensitivity. Nobody brought up, like me, in the subdued harmonious ambiance of Anglican traditions could feel at home in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. On the other hand, I have no trouble envisaging their Golgotha as a great place for a good Christian fight.

In another corner of the Holy City, there's a place known as the Garden Tomb which corresponds more closely to the legendary image of Calvary on the top of a small hill. With a little imagination, the rocks at this place might be seen as skull-shaped... except that they're half-hidden behind an Israeli bus depot.

That faded photo, attached to a pole, is intended to show Protestant pilgrims what this particular "place of the skull" once looked like, at an unspecified date in the recent past, when the surroundings of the Garden Tomb might indeed have reminded passersby of a skull.

Frankly, between the Scylla of having a brass lamp thrown at me by an Orthodox monk, and the Charybdis of having a bus back over me while meditating religiously in the vicinity of a Byzantine rock tomb, I would find it far more fulfilling to embark upon a research project aimed at revealing that the real Jesus was whisked away at the last moment by CIA operatives and brought in chains and an orange jumpsuit to the village of Saint-Romans, where he died in mysterious circumstances.

When you think about, that name is surely a code that starts to explains various loose ends: Saint, because Jesus was saintly, and Romans because Pontius Pilate and his Roman employers were behind this whole execution affair. Admittedly, there are quite a few details that have to be filled in before we can expect hordes of pilgrims to start thronging to the cemetery of Saint-Romans. But I'm sure the local tourist authorities will help me to assemble the missing facts. Maybe a local stone mason and sculptor might be employed in remodeling a little that limestone façade, to make it look even more like a human skull. Here's a view of this fabulous site as it would be seen by approaching pilgrims, gazing with fervor across fields that have been plowed by humble pious peasants ever since Biblical times (which could be transformed at little cost into a vast parking zone):

The convenient thing about religious beliefs and traditions is that nobody ever expects you to be overly concerned about reality, or even plausibility. On the contrary, the taller the tale, the better it generally goes over.

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