Garden of Gethsemane: History and Archaeology

Garden of Gethsemane, Church of All Nations, Jerusalem
A priest wanders though the olive trees at the Garden of Gethsemane. Frédéric Soltan/Corbis via Getty Images

The Garden of Gethsemane is the name of a small urban garden located next to the Church of All Nations in the city of Jerusalem. It is traditionally associated with the last days on earth of the Jewish-Christian leader Jesus Christ. The name "Gethsemane" means "[olive] oil press" in Aramaic ("gath shemanim"), and references to olives and olive oil permeate the religious mythology around Christ.

Key Takeaways: Garden of Gethsemane

  • The Garden of Gethsemane is an urban garden located next to the Church of All Nations in Jerusalem.
  • The garden includes eight olive trees, all of which were planted in the 12th century CE.
  • The garden is associated by oral tradition with the final days of Jesus Christ.

The garden contains eight olive trees of impressive size and appearance with a rock-lined pathway meandering through them. The standing Church of All Nations is at least the third version of a building at this location. A church was built here during the fourth century CE when Constantine's Holy Roman Empire was in full force. That structure was destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th century. The second structure was built during the Crusades (1096–1291) and abandoned in 1345. The current building was built between 1919 and 1924.

Origins of the Garden

The earliest possible mention of a church at this location is by Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260–339 CE) in his "Onomasticon" ("On the Place Names of the Holy Scriptures"), thought to have been written about 324. In it, Eusebius writes:

"Gethsimane (Gethsimani). Place where the Christ prayed before the passion. It is located at the Mt. of Olives where even now the faithful fervently utter prayers." 

The Byzantine basilica and the garden next to it were first mentioned explicitly in the travelogue written by an anonymous pilgrim from Bordeaux, France, which was a seat of the early Christian church in the 330s. The "Itinerarium Burdigalense" (the "Bordeaux Itinerary") written about 333 CE is the earliest surviving Christian account of travel to and around the "Holy Land." She—scholars are inclined to believe the pilgrim was a woman—briefly lists Gethsemane and its church as one of over 300 stops and cities on her way. 

Another pilgrim, Egeria, a woman from an unknown location but perhaps Gallaecia (Roman Spain) or Gaul (Roman France), traveled to Jerusalem and stayed for three years (381–384). Writing in the "Itinerarium Egeriae" to her sisters back home, she describes the rituals—pilgrimages, hymns, prayers, and readings—performed at many locations throughout Jerusalem at different times during the year, including Gethsemane, where "there is in that place a graceful church." 

Olives in the Garden

There are no early references to olive trees in the garden, apart from the name: the first explicit reference to them came in the 15th century. The Roman Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37–100 CE) reported that during the siege of Jerusalem in the first century CE, the Roman emperor Vespasian ordered his soldiers to level the land by destroying vegetable gardens, plantations, and fruit trees. Italian botanist Raffaella Petruccelli at the Trees and Timber Institute in Florence and colleagues also suggest the trees may not have been of significance to the early writers. 

Petrucelli and her colleagues' study of the genetics of the pollen, leaves, and fruit of the eight existing trees indicates that they were all propagated from the same root tree. Italian archaeologist Mauro Bernabei conducted dendrochronological and radiocarbon studies on small pieces of wood from the trees. Only three were intact enough to be dated, but those three are from the same period—the 12th century CE, which makes them among the oldest living olive trees in the world. These results suggest that all of the trees were likely planted after the Crusaders took possession of Jerusalem in 1099, and later rebuilt or restored many shrines and churches in the region, including a church at Gethsemane.

The Meaning of "Oil Press"

Biblical scholar Joan Taylor, among others, has argued that the "oil press" name of Gethsemane refers to a cave on the hillside within the garden. Taylor points out that the synoptic gospels (Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:39–46, Matthew 26:36–46) say that Jesus prayed in a garden, while John (18:1–6) says that Jesus "goes out" to be arrested. Taylor says Christ may have slept in a cave and in the morning "went out" into the garden. 

Archaeological excavations were conducted at the church in the 1920s, and foundations of both the Crusader and Byzantine church were identified. Biblical scholar Urban C. Von Wahlde notes that the church was built into the side of the hill, and in the wall of the sanctuary is a square notch that might have been part of an olive press. It is, like a lot of ancient history, speculation—after all, today's garden is a specific location by an oral tradition established in the 4th century.

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