An old Christian hymn evokes God’s help to never to forget the suffering of Jesus – “King of my life, I crown Thee now, Thine shall the glory be; lest I forget Thy thorn-crowned brow, Lead me to Calvary… Lest I forget Thy love for me, lead me to Calvary.” These are heartfelt and meaningful words. But you might be shocked… There was no such place as Calvary in ancient Jerusalem.
Search all over the New Testament and you will not find it. You will not find it in any of the gospel passages, describing how Jesus was executed. You may find it in the English translations, but not in the Greek text. Mark, Matthew, and John all mention Golgotha – a word which according to them translates as “the place of the skull”. Luke also mentions the “skull place” but does not mention the original Semitic name.
Three gospels mention that Golgotha is a Hebrew word, though no one is certain if it was truly Hebrew, Aramaic, or some mixture of the two. In Aramaic גֻלגָלִתָא (gulgulita) could mean a "skull" or a "head". According to the Dictionary of the Targumim (Jastrow) it means “a round stone” or “a ball”. The association with the round-shaped skull makes sense. But that is not exactly the same as Γολγοθά (golgotha) the original word preserved in the Greek manuscripts. So we are actually not sure about the original term and we are left with the translations supplied to us by the gospel authors themselves.
Indeed, Golgotha was a real place situated somewhere outside the walls of first-century Jerusalem, not far from the garden with tombs of wealthy people. But the name Calvary comes from the Latin word calvaria which translates as “skull”. The Latin word Calvary was not in use in Jesus’s day and his followers did not call the place where he died Calvary.
Only when Jerome created the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (late 4th century) the word Calvary came into gradual Christian use. So here is the mystery – Calvary is not a biblical word, but rather a post-biblical one. Today people sing songs about Calvary, not even realizing they are using a Latin word from the Vulgate translation. Calvary is not a true biblical word since the 1st-century inhabitants of Jerusalem and the gospel writers themselves never used it.
So, if you wish to continue to use Latin terminology then, by all means, please continue calling the place of Jesus’ death Calvary. But if you want to be biblically and historically accurate call it - Golgotha as New Testament texts do. When I say there was no such place as Calvary in ancient Jerusalem I am not suggesting that such a location did not exist. I am saying that the gospel writers and the disciples never heard of Calvary because they did not know Latin. Some may say that I am nitpicking. But language is never superficial. It has specific meanings and it conveys powerful images and ideas into our minds.
Some may argue, “what’s the difference what we call it? Greek, Hebrew, Latin… That does not change anything.” Actually, it does. Using Latin terms which did not exist in the 1st century Jerusalem creates a false sense that the setting is not really Jewish and as if it all happened in Rome or somewhere else. It changes the context and transforms it. The English Bible has already been thoroughly de-Judaized and stripped of its Semitic feel over the centuries. People’s names, geographical locations, many cultural customs have all been changed and transformed through language beyond recognition. Many theological ideas and terms from ancient Hebrew were smoothed out to the degree they are not recognizable.
It may seem like not a big deal and a trivial matter. But that is exactly the reason why modern readers misunderstand the meaning of so many Biblical passages. The context is missing, so Bible readers take the words and ideas out of context and come up with new meanings. The words matter but the context changes everything!