Is the Via Dolorosa the Wrong Route?

Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson thinks that church tradition as had the traditional “Way of Suffering,” the route Jesus took from his trial to the Cross, all wrong. From a recent CNN article:


Gibson says he has found the location of Jesus’ trial, where Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, condemned him to death by crucifixion.

Traditionally it is believed that the trial took place at the Antonia Fortress, outside the Temple Mount, near Lion’s Gate. But Gibson believes the trial was actually conducted in an area just outside what is now the western wall of the Old City.

“You have a courtyard and a pavement and a rocky outcrop on one side,” he says of the site.

“In the Gospel of John, you have a description of the trial taking place at the Lithostratus, Greek for pavement, at a place called Gabata, which is the word for an ancient hillock or a rocky outcrop, and this is what we have here.”

So if the trial was outside the Old City, as Gibson believes, and not in the Antonia Fortress, then the traditional Via Dolorosa, the route  Jesus took to his crucifixion, is wrong.

What I really found telling was this comment at the end:

Munib Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, does not reject Gibson’s ideas outright, but insists that tradition cannot be brushed aside.

“I respect all of the archaeological excavations, but at the same time I have to follow what our forefathers and foremothers taught us,” says the energetic but soft-spoken man in his late 50s, standing outside the Austrian Hospice in the Old City, which is on what most people know as the Via Dolorosa.

Surveying the street around him, full of Muslims, Christians and Jews, he says, “For me, the Via Dolorosa is this one.”

I’ve been based in Jerusalem for three years and have seen plenty of new theories about various aspects of Biblical accounts come and go. While I do believe Gibson’s account makes sense, I also know that when it comes to faith, tradition is a powerful glue that holds religion together.

And I suspect that the crowds of faithful walking through the Old City this Good Friday will most likely cleave to tradition and ignore the latest theory.

Tradition is a powerful thing indeed. Look: I’m no archaeological expert. Maybe Gibson is right. From the article, it doesn’t appear that anything of importance, indeed anything the Bible itself teaches, is at stake.

My faith is not dependent on “tradition.” Neither is my practice or my piety, as it seems it is for many who walk the Via Dolorosa. So it won’t bother me if it’s true. And frankly, it shouldn’t bother anyone else; we should be happy that a little more understanding has been added to our historical understanding of the earthly life of our Lord. 


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