The Mount of Olives - First Century Jerusalem

The Garden of Gethsemane
Painting of the Mount of Olives as it looked in the Nineteenth Century


The Mount of Olives was a ridge of hills east of Jerusalem, separated from it by the Kidron or Jehoshaphat Valley. The Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed was outside the city, opposite the eastern wall of the Temple . Here was the garden of Gethsemane which means "olive press."


A north-to-south ridge of hills east of Jerusalem where Jesus was betrayed on the night before His crucifixion. This prominent feature of Jerusalem's landscape is a gently rounded hill, rising to about the height of 830 meters (2,676 feet) and overlooking the Temple.


The closeness of the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem's walls made this series of hills a grave strategic danger. The Roman commander Titus had his headquarters on the northern extension of the ridge during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He named the place Mount Scopus, or "Lookout Hill," because of the view which it offered over the city walls. The whole hill must have provided a platform for the Roman catapults that hurled heavy objects over the Jewish fortifications of the City.


In ancient times the whole mount must have been heavily wooded. As its name implies, it was covered with dense olive groves.


The Mount of Olives is also mentioned in a reference by the prophet Zechariah to the future Day of the Lord: "In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west, making a very large valley; half of the mountain shall move toward the north and half of it toward the south" (Zech 14:4).


In the New Testament the Mount of Olives played a prominent part in the last week of our Lord's ministry. Jesus approached Jerusalem from the east, by way of Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives (Mt 21:1; Mk 11:1). On the night of His betrayal, He and His disciples sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26), to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36; Mk 14:32). In this garden, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and delivered into the hands of His enemies.



Name. Its descriptive appellation is "the Mount of Olives" (Heb. har hazzetim, only in Zech 14:4; Grk. to oros tou elaiov, the mount on which the olive grew; Matt 21:1; 24:3; 26:30; Mark 11:1; Luke 19:37; John 8:1). It is referred to (2 Sam 15:30) as "the ascent of the Mount of Olives"; "the mountain which is east of Jerusalem" (1 Kings 11:7); "the mount of destruction" (2 Kings 23:13), from the heathen altars erected there by Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 11:7); "the hills" (Neh 8:15), and "the mount called Olivet" (Acts 1:12). The hill has now two names, Jebel et-Tur, i.e., "the Mount," and Jebel et-Zeitun, "Mount of Olives."

Physical Features. The Mount of Olives is a limestone ridge, rather more than a mile in length, running in general direction N and S and covering the whole eastern side of the city of Jerusalem. At the N the ridge bends to the W, enclosing the city on that side also. At the N about a mile intervenes between the city walls, while on the E the mount is separated only by the valley of Kidron. It is to the latter part that attention is called. At a distance its outline is almost horizontal, gradually sloping away at its southern end; but when seen from below the eastern wall of Jerusalem, it divides itself into three or perhaps four independent summits or natural elevations. Beginning at the N they are: Galilee or Viri Galilaei, from the address of the angel to the disciples (Acts 1:11); Mount of Ascension, now distinguished by the minaret and domes of the Church of the Ascension, in every way the most important; Mount of the Prophets, subordinate to the former; and Mount of Offense. Three paths lead from the valley to the summit. The first passes under the N wall of the enclosure of Gethsemane and follows the line of the depression between the center and the northern hill. The second parts from the first about fifty yards beyond Gethsemane and, striking off to the right up the very breast of the hill, surmounts the projection on which is the traditional spot of the lamentation over Jerusalem and thence proceeds directly upward to the village of Bethany. The third leaves the other two at the NE corner of Gethsemane and, making a considerable detour to the S, visits the so-called "Tombs of the Prophets" and, following a slight depression that occurs at that part of the mount, arrives in its turn at Bethany. Every consideration is in favor of the first path being that which David took when fleeing from Absalom, as well as that usually taken by our Lord and His disciples in their morning and evening walks between Jerusalem and Bethany, and that also by which the apostles returned to Jerusalem after the ascension. Tradition assigns many sacred sites to the Mount of Ascension, Gethsemane, and the place of lamentation. The third of the traditional spots mentioned-that of the lamentation over Jerusalem (Luke 9:41-44)-has been shown to have been badly chosen and that the road of our Lord's "triumphal entry" was not by the short and steep path over the summit but the longer and easier route around the southern shoulder of the southern of the three divisions of the mount.


Scripture Notices. The Mount of Olives is mentioned in connection with the flight of David from Absalom (2 Sam 15:30); with the building there of high places by Solomon (2 Kings 23:13); and with the vision of the Lord's departure from Jerusalem (Ezek 10:4,19; 11:23), in which last passage the prophet said, "And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood over the mountain which is east of the city." The command to "go out to the hills, and bring olive branches," etc. (Neh 8:15), indicates that the mount, and probably the valley at its base, abounded in various kinds of trees. In the time of Jesus the trees were still numerous (Mark 11:8). The only other OT mention of the Mount of Olives is in Zechariah's prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the preservation of God's people (Zech 14:4). The NT narrative makes Olivet the scene of four remarkable events in the history of Jesus: the triumphal entry-its scene being the road that winds around the southern shoulder of the hill from Bethany to Jerusalem (Matt 21:1,8-10; Mark 11:1,8-10; Luke 19:29,36-37,41); the prediction of Jerusalem's overthrow (Mark 13:1-2); Gethsemane-after the institution of the Lord's Supper, Jesus led His disciples "over the ravine of the Kidron" and "out to the Mount of Olives," to a garden called Gethsemane (John 18:1; Matt 26:30,36)


The Garden of Gethsemane
Photo of the Traditional Site of the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives

Also See: Herod's Temple


Map of Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Click to Enlarge)

Ancient Jerusalem - First Century Jerusalem

"Whoever has not seen Jerusalem in its splendor has never seen a fine city."? Babylonian Talmud (Succah, 51b)

Click around on the Picture

Primary Sources for the Study of First Century Jerusalem: Josephus, The Mishnah, The New Testament, Pliny.

First Century Jerusalem

The Jerusalem of Herod the Great


The Jerusalem Jesus knew nowhere near resembled the city David conquered in the tenth century BC. At that time, it had been a small, isolated hill fortress, valued more for its location than its size or splendor. Yet from that time on it was known as the City of David, and the kings of David's dynasty, especially his son Solomon, had enlarged and beautified it.


In the sixth century BC, the army of Nebuchadnezzar leveled Jerusalem and drove its citizens into exile. During the long years of captivity in Babylon, the Jews in exiles' prayers and longings focused on the distant Holy City. But the city rebuilt by the Jews who returned a century later was far inferior to its former splendor. It was, ironically, the hated tyrant Herod the Great who restored Jerusalem to its former grandeur.


In the 33 years of his reign (37-4 B.C.), Herod transformed the city as had no other ruler since Solomon. Building palaces and citadels, a theatre and an amphitheatre, viaducts (bridges) and public monuments. These ambitious building projects, some completed long after his death, were part of the king's single-minded campaign to increase his capital's importance in the eyes of the Roman Empire.


No visitor seeing Jerusalem for the first time could fail to be impressed by its visual splendor. The long, difficult ascent from Jericho to the Holy City ended as the traveler rounded the Mount of Olives, and suddenly caught sight of a vista like few others in the world. Across the Kidron Valley, set among the surrounding hills, was Jerusalem, "the perfection of beauty," in the words of Lamentations, "the joy of all the world."


The view from the Mount of Olives was dominated by the gleaming, gold-embellished Temple which was located in the most holy spot in the Jewish world and really God's world. This was the Lord's earthly dwelling place, He mediated His throne here and raised up a people to perform rituals and ceremonies here that would foreshadow the coming of His Messiah kinsman redeemer who would be the lamb of God, slain for the sins of the whole world.


The Temple stood high above the old City of David, at the center of a gigantic white stone platform.


To the south of the temple was THE LOWER CITY, a group of limestone houses, yellow-brown colored from years of sun and wind. Narrow, unpaved streets and houses that sloped downward toward the Tyropean Valley, which ran through the center of Jerusalem.


Rising upward to the west was THE UPPER CITY, or Zion, where the white marble villas and palaces of the very rich stood out like patches of snow. Two large arched passageways spanned the valley, crossing from the Upper City to the temple.


A high, thick, gray stone wall encircled Jerusalem. It had been damaged, repaired and enlarged over the centuries, and in Jesus' day it was about 4 miles in circumference, bringing about 25,000 people into an area about a square mile. At intervals along the wall were massive gateways. Just inside each gate was a customs station, where publicans collected taxes on all goods entering or leaving the city.


First Century Jerusalem

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