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I love that old hymn we sing in worship, “Years I spent in vanity and pride, Caring not my Lord was crucified, Knowing not it was for me He died On Calvary. Mercy there was great, and grace was free; Pardon there was multiplied to me; There my burdened soul found liberty, At Calvary! ” Not only have I heard the word Calvary from this song, but I’ve also heard it mentioned in many sermons. What is “Calvary” exactly?
The word comes from a verse found in Luke, “And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, …” (23:33). Curiously, only the King James Version, and the New King James use this word in that verse. If you compare the same verse in the English Standard Version, the New American Standard, the CEV, the NIV, and others, you will see that they do not use the word Calvary in those translations. Instead, they use another word, Golgotha, which is also found in other verses like Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:22; and John 19:17. Even the KJV uses the word Golgotha in those verses.
So, why the difference? Where did this word come from?
First of all, consider what John says, “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha,” (19:17). Here, we see the word is from a specific location with a peculiar name and John explains the translation. The name of the place in Greek is kranion topos (kraniou topou). Now, say the words again slowly. Do you hear a similarity to our English word cranium in there? Our word came from the Greek language! Also, our word topography, meaning “the arrangement of geographical features” comes from the Greek topos, meaning “place.” In Hebrew, the place is called Gulgolet and in Aramaic it is Golgolta. These words were transliterated into the English rendition, Golgotha. So, all of them are just as John translated it, “the place of the skull.”
Secondly, the English rendition of the word Calvary comes from yet another translation of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate. In that version, it is translated as Calvariae Locus. The Latin word calavaria simply means “skull,” just like cranium, kranion, gulgolet, or golgolta do in each of their respective languages. Translators of the King James Version merely transliterated the Latin word into English for their rendition of Luke 23:33. Since the KJV is one of the most widely distributed Bible translations in history, the word Calvary has become a familiar part of our English religious vernacular.
Where is Calvary?
The place itself is often misunderstood. Calvary, (Golgotha) refers to the cliff face of a hill, just outside the Damascus Gate of Old Jerusalem, whose rock protrusions and indentations give it the distinctive appearance of a human skull (photo above). Interestingly, the Bible never says that Jesus was crucified on Calvary. It just says He came “into” the place called “the skull.” The imagery of crosses positioned on top of a hill called Calvary came from old Renaissance paintings and the like. In fact, Golgotha faces an ancient east-west road that runs just north of Jerusalem. The area in front of the cliff face is precisely the type of location the Romans would utilize to crucify individuals so that their gruesome handiwork would scare people passing by, deterring any future rebels against Rome.
Who knew there was so much to a word we sing in a song?