Finally, we reach everyone’s favourite mountain in the Bible. Named after the olive groves that once grew there, the Mount of Olives or Mount Olivet is one of three peaks on a mountain ridge adjacent to the Old City of Jerusalem. It has been used as a Jewish cemetery for at least 3000 years and contains approximately 150,000 graves; however, this is not what makes the mountain so famous for us. Several events took place here during the life of Jesus, thus making it a major site of pilgrimage and worship for Christians.
The ridge containing the Mount of Olives stretches 2.2 miles across the Kidron Valley, an area that the Bible refers to as the Valley of Josaphat. The Mount of Olives is the middle peak, rising to a height of 2684 feet. The other peaks are named Mount Scopus and the Mount of Corruption, which reach 2710 and 2451 feet respectively. The ridge is formed of sedimentary rocks, such as chalk and flint and is believed to have developed during the Late Cretaceous period – i.e. dinosaurs were still around.
The Mount of Olives is first mentioned in the Bible concerning King David’s flight from his third son, Absalom. After turning the people of Israel against his father, Absalom declared himself king and David decided to flee to safety on the other side of the Jordan River where he could make plans and prepare his troops for battle.
The second reference to the Mount of Olives can be found in the Book of Zechariah with an apocalyptic prophecy that God would stand upon the mountain, splitting it in two.
The New Testament frequently mentions the Mount of Olives, partly because it is on the route from Jerusalem to Bethany, the home of Lazarus. Matthew and Mark (and Luke, although this Gospel includes other references) record the same events almost verbatim in the New International Version of the Bible. Matthew 21:1-3 (Mark 11; Luke 19) records, ‘As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”’ This, as you will surely recognise, is the beginning of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, which is traditionally read on Palm Sunday. “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen” (Luke 19:37)
Matthew 24-25 (Mark 13; Luke 21), records the Mount of Olives as the place where Jesus warned his disciples about the eventual destruction of the Temple and signs of the end times. ‘As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"’ (Matthew 24:3) Jesus talks of wars and uprisings, earthquakes, famines and pestilence and encourages his disciples to remain strong. He tells them to watch out for people claiming to be the Messiah and not to fall for anything they say.
The message about the end times was only given to Jesus’ disciples and not to the public who came to hear him speak in the Temple. John 8:1 records that “Jesus went to the Mount of Olives” at the end of the day where he could be alone, away from all the people asking him questions.
The last event involving the Mount of Olives in the Gospels is written in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22. This is where Jesus was arrested having been betrayed by Judas. This, of course, is also written in the Gospel of John, however, John refers to the Kidron Valley rather than the mountain. The beginning of each of these chapters records the last supper, which ends “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26) Luke 22:39 says, “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him,” thus noting that it was not unusual for Jesus to be there. We all know what happened next.
The final time the Mount of Olives is mentioned in the Bible is in the Acts of the Apostles. In chapter one, Jesus is taken up into heaven. Acts 1:12 states, “Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day's walk from the city,” thus confirming that the ascension occurred on the Mount of Olives. Whereas the prophecy in the Book of Zechariah makes the mountain important to the Jewish community, this final event is the biggest reason why the Mount of Olives has become a Christian pilgrimage site.
There is little significant history involving the Mount of Olives between Biblical times and the 20thcentury. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the mountain became under negotiation to allow people access to the holy sites. The Jordanian’s, however, did not allow this to fully happen, only letting non-Israeli Christians visit the mount. It was not until after the Six-Day War in 1967 that Jews had access to the cemetery, albeit in need of restoration. Unfortunately, the gravesite continues to be prone to vandalism.
The cemetery is not the only thing the Mount of Olives has to offer. I have discovered a list of landmarks and just for fun I shall list a few:
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon