Via Dolorosa PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Via Dolorosa
Stations of the Cross
We know that Jesus bore the cross, or its horizontal beam, through the city. We do not know the route he took. According to Murphy-O'Connor, p. 35 , in the Byzantine period,  pilgrims used to start their procession at the Church of Ascension on the Mt. of Olives, descend to Gethsemane, and then proceed through Stephen's Gate, roughly following today's route to the Holy Sepulcher. By the 8th century, this had changed. They would go from Gethsemane around the south side of the city to a site they identified as Caiaphas' House, somewhere on Mt. Zion, then to a place near the Haram that they identified as Pilate's Praetorium, and finally to the Holy Sepulcher. At one point in the Middle Ages, the Latins split and followed two different routes. Then the Franciscans organized a walk of eight stations. European pilgrims took this tradition home, where the eight increased to fourteen. New pilgrims arrived, expecting fourteen, so the number of stations in Jerusalem mounted accordingly. It would indeed be a miracle if the present Via Dolorosa corresponded to the historical one.
via-dolorosa_2poss.jpgSome scholars favor the notion that Pilate interrogated Jesus on the west side of the Old City, near the Citadel south of today's Jaffa Gate. Southward from this Citadel spread Herod's palace, about 900 feet long. Here Pilate would have resided on coming up from Caesarea to oversee events during Jewish festivals (Philo, Delegation to Gaius, 38). John 19:13 places the encounter at Gabbatha, which means "high point," and this palace occupied the highest point in the city. Finally, the Gospels tell us that the trial took place "on the judgment seat" (Matthew 27:19). Josephus describes a hearing before the palace on such a seat in 66 AD; it too resulted in crucifixions:

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, when the high priests, and the men of power, and those of the greatest eminence in the city, came all before that tribunal. (War   II 14.8) More from Josephus' account...

Yet this tribunal sounds improvised. There is a good argument for locating the event in the Antonia Fortress. Part of its expanse is occupied today by the Omariyya School, site of the official "First Station." Pilate had come to Jerusalem to supervise events lest they get out of hand. His best observation point would have been the Antonia, for the Temple courts, where people gathered, lay below. The Antonia had been built by Herod with a double purpose: to guard against attacks from the north (where alone there was no protecting valley), but also as a fort from which the ruler might keep watch over the Temple.

The traditional Via Dolorosa

(Pilate had good reason to be nervous. According to Smallwood (in the Penguin Jewish War , p. 465), he couldn't have had a legion under him. The legate of a legion had to be of senatorial rank and could not serve under Pilate, a mere equestrian. Pilate's army consisted of 3000 soldiers, mostly local Gentiles -- not enough to rule Judaea. With no inkling of the Jewish covenant faith, the Romans had vastly underestimated the chances of unrest. A few years before, Pilate himself had learned otherwise.  Philo reports that he was quick to crucify without judicial process.)

Jerusalem from N

Apart from the Antonia, we have no other site that we can logically or historically connect to the Via Dolorosa. At one time it was believed that the ancient stone pavement or lithostrotos in the Convent of the Sisters of Zion had belonged to it. Likewise, the high arch we see on the street, just west of this pavement, was called Ecce Homo: pilgrims thought that Pilate had here presented Jesus to the people, saying "Behold, the Man!" (John 19:5).

Since the late 1970's, however, archaeologists have established that Hadrian built both the pavement and the arch, probably after putting down the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 AD. The pavement was part of his eastern forum (whose counterpart on the west was at the present Muristan, southeast of the Holy Sepulcher). Instead of walls, Hadrian built a series of monumental arches, one of which was later mistakenly dubbed the "Ecce Homo."

As for the endpoint of the Via Dolorosa, the empty Sepulcher, was it the place? There are several arguments in its favor, we shall see, though none are decisive.