Mount of Olives in the New Testament
Josephus frequently uses the expression "Mount of Olives" (e.g. Ant, VII, ix, 2; XX, viii, 6; BJ, V, ii, 3; xii, 2), but later Jewish writings give the name Heb: har ha-mishchah, "Mount of Oil"; this occurs in some manuscripts in 2 Ki 23:13, and the common reading Heb: har ha-mashchith, "Mount of Corruption," margin "destruction," may possibly be a deliberate alteration (see below). In later ages the Mount was termed "the mountain of lights," because here there used to be kindled at one time the first beacon light to announce throughout Jewry the appearance of the new moon.
To the natives of Palestine today it is usually known as Jebel et Tar ("mountain of the elevation," or "tower"), or, less commonly, as Jebel Tur ez zait ("mountain of the elevation of oil"). The name Jebel ez-zaitun ("Mount of Olives") is also well known. Early Arabic writers use the term Tur Zait, "Mount of Oil."
Situation and Extent
The mountain ridge which lies East of Jerusalem leaves the central range near the valley of Sha`phat and runs for about 2 miles due South. After culminating in the mountain mass on which lies the "Church of the Ascension," it may be considered as giving off two branches: one lower one, which runs South-Southwest, forming the southern side of the Kidron valley, terminating at the Wady en Nar, and another, higher one, which slopes eastward and terminates a little beyond el-`Azareyeh (modern Bethany).
The main ridge is considerably higher than the site of ancient Jerusalem, and still retains a thick cap of the soft chalky limestone, mixed with flint, known variously as Nari and Ka`kuli, which has been entirely denuded over the Jerusalem site. The flints were the cause of a large settlement of paleolithic man which occurred in prehistoric times on the northern end of the ridge, while the soft chalky stone breaks down to form a soil valuable for the cultivation of olives and other trees and shrubs.
The one drawback to arboriculture upon this ridge is the strong northwest wind which permanently bends most trees toward the Southeast, but affects the sturdy, slow-growing olive less than the quicker-growing pine. The eastern slopes are more sheltered. In respect of wind the Mount of Olives is far more exposed than the site of old Jerusalem.
The lofty ridge of Olivet is visible from far, a fact now emphasized by the high Russian tower which can be seen for many scores of miles on the East of the Jordan. The range presents, from such a point of view particularly, a succession of summits. Taking as the northern limit the dip which is crossed by the ancient Anathoth (`anata) road, the most northerly summit is that now crowned by the house and garden of Sir John Gray Hill, 2,690 ft. above sea-level. This is sometimes incorrectly pointed out as Scopus, which lay farther to the Northwest.
A second sharp dip in the ridge separates this northern summit from the next, a broad plateau now occupied by the great Kaiserin Augusta Victoria Stiftung and grounds. The road makes a sharp descent into a valley which is traversed from West to East by an important and ancient road from Jerusalem, which runs eastward along the Wady er Rawabeh.
South of this dip lies the main mass of the mountain, that known characteristically as the Olivet of ecclesiastical tradition. This mass consists of two principal summits and two subsidiary spurs. The northern of the two main summits is that known as Karem es Sayyad, "the vineyard of the hunter," and also as "Galilee," or, more correctly, as Viri Galilaei (see below, 7). It reaches a height of 2,723 ft. above the Mediterranean and is separated from the southern summit by a narrow neck traversed today by the carriage road.
The southern summit, of practically the same elevation, is the traditional "Mount of the Ascension," and for several years has been distinguished by a lofty, though somewhat inartistic, tower erected by the Russians. The two subsidiary spurs referred to above are: (1) a somewhat isolated ridge running Southeast, upon which lies the squalid village of el `Azareyeh--Bethany; (2) a small spur running South, covered with grass, which is known as "the Prophets," on account of a remarkable 4th-century Christian tomb found there, which is known as "the tomb of the Prophets"--a spot much venerated by modern Jews.
A further extension of the ridge as Batn el Hawa, "the belly of the wind," or traditionally as "the Mount of Offence" (compare 1 Ki 11:7; 2 Ki 23:13), is usually included in the Mount of Olives, but its lower altitude--it is on a level with the temple-platform--and its position South of the city mark it off as practically a distinct hill. Upon its lower slopes are clustered the houses of Silwan (Siloam).
The notices of the Mount of Olives in the Old Testament are, considering its nearness to Jerusalem, remarkably scanty.
Old Testament Associations
(1) David's Escape from Absalom:
David fleeing before his rebellious son Absalom (2 Sam 15:16) crossed the Kidron and "went up by the ascent of the mount of Olives, and wept as he went up; and he had his head covered, and went barefoot: and all the people that were with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went (2 Sam 15:30). .... And it came to pass, that, when David was come to the top of the ascent where he was wont to worship God, (m), behold, Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat rent, and earth upon his head (2 Sam 15:32).
And when David was a little past the top of the ascent, behold, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him, with a couple of asses saddled, and upon them two hundred loaves of bread, and a hundred clusters of raisins, and a hundred of summer fruits, and a bottle of wine" (2 Sam 16:1).
It is highly probable that David's route to the wilderness was neither by the much-trodden Anathoth road nor over the summit of the mountain, but by the path running Northeast from the city, which runs between the Viri Galilaei hill and that supporting the German Sanatorium and descends into the wilderness by Wady er Rawabi.
(2) The Vision of Ezekiel:
Ezekiel in a vision (11:23) saw the glory of Yahweh go up from the midst of the city and stand "upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city" (compare 43:2). In connection with this the Rabbi Janna records the tradition that the shekhinah stood 3 1/2 years upon Olivet, and preached, saying, "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near"--a strange story to come from a Jewish source, suggesting some overt reference to Christ.
(3) The Vision of Zechariah:
In Zec 14:4 the prophet sees Yahweh in that day stand upon the Mount of Olives, "and the Mount of Olives shall be cleft in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south."
In addition to these direct references, Jewish tradition associates with this mount--this "mount of Corruption"--the rite of the red heifer (Nu 19); and many authorities consider that this is also the mount referred to in Neh 8:15, whence the people are directed to fetch olive branches, branches of wild olive, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of thick trees to make their booths.
It is hardly possible that a spot with such a wide outlook--especially the marvelous view over the Jordan valley and Dead Sea to the lands of Ammon and Moab--should have been neglected in the days when Semitic religion crowned such spots with their sanctuaries. There is Old Testament evidence that there was a "high place" here. In the account of David's flight mention is made of the spot on the summit "where he was wont to worship God" (2 Sam 15:32 margin).
This is certainly a reference to a sanctuary, and there are strong reasons for believing that this place may have been &NOB (which see) (see 1 Sam 21:1; 22:9,11,19; Neh 11:32; but especially Isa 10:32). This last reference seems to imply a site more commanding in its outlook over the ancient city than Ras el Musharif proposed by Driver, one at least as far South as the Anathoth road, or even that from Wady er Rawabi.
But besides this we have the definite statement (1 Ki 11:7): "Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, in the mount that is before (i.e. East of) Jerusalem, and for Molech the abomination of the children of Ammon," and the further account that the "high places that were before (East of) Jerusalem, which were on the right hand (South) of the mount of corruption (margin "destruction") which Solomon the king of Israel had builded for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the children of Ammon, did the king (Josiah) defile" (2 Ki 23:13).
That these high places were somewhere upon what is generally recognized as the Mount of Olives, seems clear, and the most probable site is the main mass where are today the Christian sanctuaries, though Graetz and Dean Stanley favor the summit known as Viri Galilaei. It is the recognition of this which has kept alive the Jewish name "Mount of Corruption" for this mount to this day. The term Mons offensionis, given to the southeastern extension, South of the city, is merely an ecclesiastical tradidition going back to Quaresmius in the 17th century, which is repeated by Burckhardt (1823 AD).
Olivet and Jesus
More important to us are the New Testament associations of this sacred spot. In those days the mountain must have been far different from its condition today. Titus in his siege of Jerusalem destroyed all the timber here as elsewhere in the environs, but before this the hillsides must have been clothed with verdure--oliveyards, fig orchards and palm groves, with myrtle and other shrubs.
Here in the fresh breezes and among the thick foliage, Jesus, the country-bred Galilean, must gladly have taken Himself from the noise and closeness of the over-crowded city. It is to the Passion Week, with the exception of Jn 8:1, that all the incidents belong which are expressly mentioned as occurring on the Mount of Olives; while there would be a special reason at this time in the densely packed city, it is probable that on other occasions also our Lord preferred to stay outside the walls.
Bethany would indeed appear to have been His home in Judea, as Capernaum was in Galilee. Here we read of Him as staying with Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42); again He comes to Bethany from the wilderness road from Jericho for the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11), and later He is at a feast, six days before the Passover (Jn 12:1), at the house of Simon (Mt 26:6-12; Mk 14:3-9; Jn 12:1-9).
The Mount of Olives is expressly mentioned in many of the events of the Passion Week. He approached Jerusalem, "unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount of Olives" (Mk 11:1; Mt 21:1; Lk 19:29); over a shoulder of this mount--very probably by the route of the present Jericho carriage road--He made His triumphal entry to the city (Mt 21; Mk 11; Lk 19), and on this road, when probably the full sight of the city first burst into view, He wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19:41).
During all that week "every day he was teaching in the temple; and every night he went out, and lodged in the mount that is called Olivet" (Lk 21:37)--the special part of the mount being Bethany (Mt 21:17; Mk 11:11). It was on the road from Bethany that He gave the sign of the withering of the fruitless fig tree (Mt 21:17-19; Mk 11:12-14,20-24), and "as he sat on the mount of Olives" (Mt 24:3 f; Mk 13:3 f) Jesus gave His memorable sermon with the doomed city lying below Him.
On the lower slopes of Olivet, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus endured His agony, the betrayal and arrest, while upon one of its higher points--not, as tradition has it, on the inhabited highest summit, but on the secluded eastern slopes "over against Bethany" (Lk 24:50-52)--He took leave of His disciples (compare Acts 1:12).
View of the City from Olivet
The view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives must ever be one of the most striking impressions which any visitor to Jerusalem carries away with him. It has been described countless times. It is today a view but of ruin and departed glory compared with that over which Jesus wept. A modern writer with historic imagination has thus graphically sketched the salient features of that sight:
"We are standing on the road from Bethany as it breaks round the Mount of Olives and on looking northwest this is what we see. .... There spreads a vast stone stage, almost rectangular, some 400 yards. North and South by 300 East and West, held up above Ophel and the Kidron valley by a high and massive wall, from 50 to 150 ft. and more in height, according to the levels of the rock from which it rises. Deep cloisters surround this platform on the inside of the walls. .... Every gate has its watch and other guards patrol the courts. The crowds, which pour through the south gates upon the platform for the most part keep to the right; the exceptions, turning westward, are excommunicated or in mourning. But the crowd are not all Israelites. Numbers of Gentiles mingle with them; there are costumes and colors from all lands. In the cloisters sit teachers with groups of disciples about them. On the open pavement stand the booths of hucksters and money-changers; and from the North sheep and bullocks are being driven toward the Inner Sanctuary. This lies not in the center of the great platform, but in the northwest corner. It is a separately fortified, oblong enclosure; its high walls with their 9 gates rising from a narrow terrace at a slight elevation above the platform and the terrace encompassed by a fence within which none but Israelites may pass. .... Upon its higher western end rises a house `like a lion broad in front and narrow behind.' .... From the open porch of this house stone steps descend to a great block of an altar perpetually smoking with sacrifices. .... Off the Northwest of the Outer Sanctuary a castle (the Antonia) dominates the whole with its 4 lofty towers. Beyond .... the Upper City rises in curved tiers like a theater, while all the lower slopes to the South are a crowded mass of houses, girded by the eastern wall of the city. Against that crowded background the sanctuary with its high house gleams white and fresh. But the front of the house, glittering with gold plates, is obscured by a column of smoke rising from the altar; and the Priests' Court about the latter is colored by the slaughterers and sacrifices--a splash of red, as our imagination takes it, in the center of the prevailing white. At intervals there are bursts of music; the singing of psalms, the clash of cymbals and a great blare of trumpets, at which the people in their court in the Inner Sanctuary fall down and worship" (extracts from G.A. Smith's Jerusalem, II, 518-20).
Churches and Ecclesiastical Traditions
To the Bible student the New Testament is the best guide to Olivet; tradition and "sites" only bewilder him. Once the main hilltop was a mass of churches. There was the "Church of the Ascension" to mark the spot whereby tradition (contrary to the direct statement of Luke) states that the Ascension occurred; now the site is marked by a small octagonal chapel, built in 1834, which is in the hands of the Moslems.
There a "footprint of Christ" is shown in the rock. A large basilica of Helena was built over the place where it was said that Christ taught His disciples. In 1869 the Princess de Latour d'Auvergne, learning that there was a Moslem tradition that this site was at a spot called el Battaniyeh south of the summit, here erected a beautiful church known as the Church of the Pater Noster and around the courtyard she had the Lord's Prayer inscribed in 32 languages.
When the church was in course of erection certain fragments of old walls and mosaics were found, but, in 1911, as a result of a careful excavation of the site, the foundations of a more extensive mass of old buildings, with some beautiful mosaic in the baptistry, were revealed in the neighborhood; there is little doubt but that these foundations belonged to the actual Basilica of Helena. It is proposed to rebuild the church.
Mention has been made of the name Viri Galilaei or Galilee as given to the northern summit of the main mass of Olivet. The name "Mount Galilee" appears to have been first given to this hill early in the 4th century and in 1573 AD Rawolf explains the name by the statement that here was in ancient times a khan where the Galileans lodged who came up to Jerusalem. In 1620 Quaresmius applies the names "Galilee" and Viri Galilaei to this site and thinks the latter name may be due to its having been the spot where the two angels appeared and addressed the disciples as "Ye men of Galilee" (Acts 1:11). Attempts have been made, without much success, to maintain that this "Galilee" was the spot which our Lord intended (Mt 28:10,16) to indicate to His disciples as the place of meeting.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.