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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Mount of Olives

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MOUNT OF OLIVES (τὸ ὄρος τῶν ἐλαιῶν, Matthew 21:1; Matthew 24:3; Matthew 26:30, Mark 13:3; Mark 14:26, Luke 19:37; Luke 22:39, John 8:1; and τὸ ὄρος τὸ καλούμενον ἐλαιῶν, Luke 19:29; Luke 21:37).—One of the universally accepted holy sites around Jerusalem. It is to-day known as Jebel et-Tûr (the mountain of the elevation or tower) by the Moslems, and as Jebel ez-Zeitûn (the mount of olives) by native Christians and, indeed, also by Moslems. By the Jews, besides the above mentioned, the name ‘mountain of light’ has also been given, from the fact that here used to be kindled the first beacon-fire to signalize through the land the appearance of each new moon.

The mount due east of Jerusalem forms the culminating height of a range which, separating itself from the central plateau near the village of Sha‘phat, runs for two miles, first S. and then S. W., and terminates beyond the village of Silwân at the Wady en-Nâr. The beginning of the range has very generally been accepted as the Scopus (prospect) of Josephus, and the part running S. W.—Batn el-Hawa—considerably lower than the part east of the city and not higher than the Temple area itself, has by many been identified as the Mount of Offence. Although these have been described by some authorities as parts of the Mount of Olives, there seems no real reason for including them in the description, and to do so is confusing.

The natural boundaries of Olivet are to-day well defined by two ancient roads. To the N. a very ancient highway to Jericho, after traversing a deep bay* [Note: This open valley, in which to-day are many olives and also at least one ancient olive press, is an attractive site for Gethsemane (which see), though it must be admitted that tradition is all against it.] in the range, which from the city side seems to separate the range into two, crosses a low neck cutting off the northern part, now crowned by the house of Sir John Grey Hill, from the southern loftier mass—the true Mount of Olives. To the S. the road which runs to Bethany forms a convenient if somewhat arbitrary division, cutting off Olivet from the so-called ‘Mount of Offence’ and from other spurs to the south. To the W. the boundary is sufficiently plainly marked off by the deep valley of the Kidron, while to the E. [Note: Elohist.] there are indications (see Luke 19:29; Luke 24:50; cf. Acts 1:12) for including within the limits the projecting spur on which Bethany stands. Probably the limits were never defined geographically, but the whole area was distinguished, as it is to some extent to-day, by its thick plantations of olives, figs, and palms,—hence the names Bethphage (house of figs) and Bethany (house of dates). This fertility, though no doubt most constantly observed by the city dwellers, to whom the beautiful slopes, then as they do to-day, would appeal most refreshingly as viewed from the dirty, squalid streets, must also have held out to the tired and thirsty travellers, ascending the dry and dusty wilderness from the Jordan to the city, an enchanting prospect of coolness and refreshment. For this alone it would appear only reasonable to include the sites of the villages on the eastern side, with their abundant gardens, as an essential part of the Mount. There can be little doubt that in the days of Christ the hill was thickly spread with verdure over parts which to-day are given up to churches, hovels, and extensive cemeteries.

Viewing the mountain thus, two principal summits and two subsidiary spurs may be described. The N. summit is that known as Karem es-Sayuâd (the vineyard of the hunter), and also as the Viri Galilœi; it reaches a height of 2723 feet above the Mediterranean, and is separated from the S. mass by a narrow neck of land traversed to-day by the new carriage road. As far back as 530 this hill is spoken of as Galilee, and in the Acts of Pilate (about 350) a mountain near Jerusalem called ‘Galilee’ is mentioned, It is said to have first received its name Γαλιλαία because the Galilaeans attending the feasts used to encamp there, or as Saewulf (1102) says, it ‘was called Galilee because the Apostles, who were called Galilaeans, frequently visited there.’* [Note: Attempts have been made to harmonize the accounts of the appearances of Jesus after His resurrection by supposing that this was the place where He appointed His disciples to meet Him. A recent discussion of the subject by Lepsius will be found in Das Reich Christi, Nos. 7 and 8 (1902).] The S. summit, of practically equal height, is the traditional Mount of the Ascension, and has for some years been distinguished by a lofty tower erected by the Russians. Here, too, Constantine erected his Church of the Ascension in 316 on the site where now stands its successor (erected 1834–5) of the same name. Here also is the Church of the Creed and the Paternoster Church, the latter a modern building on the site of one of that name destroyed long ago. Scattered over the summit is a modern Moslem village—Kefr et-Tûr—which combines with the noisy conduct of its rapacious inhabitants in spoiling the quiet beauty and holy associations of this sacred spot.

A small spur running S. is sometimes known as the Hill of the Prophets, on account of the interesting old ‘Tomb of the Prophets’—a sepulchre generally believed, until recently,† [Note: According to Father Vincent and M. Clermont-Ganneau, it is not Jewish, but belongs to the 4th or 5th cent. a.d. (see PEFSt, 1901, pp. 309–317).] to have been originally Jewish—which is situated there; and the other somewhat isolated spur to the S. E. [Note: Elohist.] , on which stands the wretched, half-ruined village of el-‘Azarîyeh, on the site of Bethany, should, for reasons given, be included in the Mount.

Along the W. slopes facing the city lies the reputed Garden of Gethsemane (part, too, of the Mount, cf. Luke 22:39; see Gethsemane) of the Latins and its Greek rival; and a little higher up the hill to the S. the great Russian Church of St. Magdalene. The greater part of the slopes of the S. W. part of the hill is filled with a vast number of graves, those from the valley bottom till a little above the Bethany road being Jewish, while higher up are some Christian cemeteries. The Jews have a strong sentiment about being buried on this spot, the slopes of the ‘Valley of Jehoshaphat’ being traditionally, with them and with the Moslems, the scene of the resurrection and final judgment.

Traversing this side of the Mount are three steep paths, all probably ancient. The most evident and important is the N. one, which continues the line of the path from the St. Stephen’s Gate and the Tomb of the Virgin. It runs along the depression between the two summits, and is the direct route for travellers crossing the Mount from or to Bethany. Too steep for riding, it is essentially the short cut for the pedestrian. The second path, still steeper, branches off from this just above the Garden of Gethsemane, and after passing the traditional scene of the lamentation of Jesus over the city, leads to-day to the Russian tower and buildings. It is the path of the modern pilgrim. The third, more gradual in ascent, starts from the Garden of Gethsemane and ascends the hill through Russian property in a S. direction, passing near the ‘Tomb of the Prophets.’ Whether the first or second of these lies most in the direction of our Lord’s frequent passages from the city to the Mount of Olives and to Bethany, it is difficult to say, but it can hardly be supposed that He came by such a path on the morning of His triumphal entry into the city. The only likely course for the highroad of Roman times must have been in the general direction of the present Bethany and Jericho road; and, as Dean Stanley has suggested, the most natural site for the scene of the lamentation over the city is the point where this highroad crosses the S. W. shoulder of the Mount and the first full view of the city is obtained. A viaduct appears to have connected the Mount with the Temple hill, probably on the site of one of the two bridges which to-day span the dry torrent bed of the Kidron.

The Mount of Olives in the days of Christ must have presented rural fertility, verdure, and quiet very grateful to country visitors to the great metropolis; fresh mountain breeziness in contrast to the closeness and foulness of the city atmosphere, and a view of the beloved and sacred city in which all that was sordid was lost, and only the beauty and grandeur remained. This view is, when the historical associations are taken into consideration, probably the most fascinating in the Holy Land. It is seen at its best about the hour of sunset. In its essential details it is one on which the eyes of Christ must frequently have rested.

To the immediate W. is the Holy City, separated from the onlooker by the deep Valley of Jehoshaphat; just within the wall lies the ‘Dome of the Rock’ and the al-Aksa mosque, and in the open space of the great Temple area figures of people may be discerned moving about. Beyond this enclosure lie, pile above pile, the domed houses of the modern city, interspersed with the minarets, the synagogue domes, and the church towers of the followers of the three great Semitic religions: most prominent of all are the two domes and the massive tower which go to make up the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Far to the W. lie the battlements of the so-called Tower of David, and behind that, on the horizon, the W. mountains of Judaea shut off the distant sea. The roar of the city is deadened, but the fresh breeze carries the chiming of many bells, the blast of a military bugle or the roar of a salute from the barracks, reminding the onlooker that it is no dead city of the far past he is looking at. Somewhat to the N. the eye passes from the close-packed streets of the Moslem and Christian quarters, past the long line of the N. wall, to the many buildings of the newer Jerusalem, chiefly mean Jewish houses, but among them many handsome buildings like the great French Hospice, the Russian Cathedral, or the Abyssinian Church. Here lies all that is progressive and of promise for the days to be. Beyond again, against the sky line to the N., rises the outline of Nebi Samwîl crowning the height of Miẓpeh.

Turning S. the spectator sees the bare slopes south of the city walls, once thickly covered with the houses of the poor, terminating in the two deep valleys of Kidron and Hinnom, while on the opposite slope some of the houses of Silwân may be distinguished. Far to the S. in a gap in the hills lies the convent of Mar Elias on the road to Bethlehem; and to its left a crater-shaped hill—the Herodium—the burial-place of Herod the Great.

As the eye passes gradually E. [Note: Elohist.] over the wilderness of Judaea, it is caught by the still beauty of the Dead Sea lying nearly 4000 feet below, but in the clear atmosphere looking very near, while behind lies the long level line of the beautiful hills of Moab. More in the foreground a few houses of Bethany appear, and behind them the village of Abu Dîs—inhabited by the hereditary robbers of the Jericho road. Northward of the great lake, beyond a vista of tumbled hills and parched valleys, lies the Jordan Valley, through the centre of which may be traced, by a serpentine line of green, the course of the famous river itself. Eastward of this the line of Moab is continued N. as the mountains of Gilead, with their one distinct summit—Jebel Ôsha‘—almost directly E. [Note: Elohist.] of the onlooker.

Gospel incidents connected with the Mount of Olives.—Although, with the single exception of John 8:1, all the incidents expressly connected with the Mount of Olives belong to the Passion week, there can be no doubt (Luke 21:37) that this quiet spot was one beloved and frequented by the Master. Here He withdrew from the city for rest and meditation (John 8:1) and for prayer (Matthew 26:30 etc). Once we read of His approach to the Mount from the Eastern side ‘unto Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives’ (Mark 11:1 || Matthew 21:1 || Luke 19:29). Over a part of the Mount He must have made. His triumphal progress to the city (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19), and on this road He wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:40-44). During the whole of that week ‘in the daytime he was teaching in the temple; and at night he went out and abode in the Mount that is called of Olives’ (Luke 21:37)—the special locality on the Mount being Bethany (Matthew 21:17, Mark 11:11). Crossing over from Bethany, Jesus illustrated His teaching by the sign of the withering of the barren fig-tree (Matthew 21:18-19 || Mark 11:12-14; Mark 11:20-22), and on the slopes of this hill, with the doomed city spread out before them, Christ delivered to His disciples His wonderful eschatological discourse (Matthew 24:3 f. || Mark 13:3 f.). Then here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, occurred the Agony, the Betrayal, and the Arrest (Matthew 26:36-56, Mark 14:26-52, Luke 22:39-53, John 18:1-12). Lastly, on the Mount, not on the summit where tradition places it, but near Bethany, occurred the Ascension (Luke 24:50-52, Acts 1:12).

To these incidents where the Mount of Olives is expressly mentioned may be added the scene in the house of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), the raising of Lazarus (John 11), and the feast at the house of Simon (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-19); for, as has been shown, Bethany was certainly a part of the Mount of Olives.

Literature.—PEF [Note: EF Palestine Exploration Fund.] Mem., ‘Jerusalem’ volume; papers by Schick and others in the Quarterly Statements (PEFSt [Note: EFSt Quarterly Statement of the same.] ); Groves, art. ‘Mount of Olives’ in Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] ; R. Hofman, Galilœa auf dem Oelberg, Leipzig, 1896; Porter in Murray’s Handbook to Palestine; Robinson, BRP [Note: RP Biblical Researches in Palestine.] vol. i. (1838); Stanley, SP [Note: P Sinai and Palestine.] ; Socin and Benzinger in Baedeker’s Palestine and Syria; J. Tobler, Siloahquelle und Oelberg, 1852; Vincent (Père), ‘The Tombs of the Prophets’ in Revue Biblique, 1901; C. Warren, art. ‘Mount of Olives’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible .

E. W. G. Masterman.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mount of Olives'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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