The Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: New Testament, Old Testament, The Bible


What is the difference between the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane?


The Mount of Olives is also known as Mount Olivet. It is named for the many olive groves that once graced its slopes. It is part of a mountain ridge that extends over two miles on the eastern side of the Old City of Jerusalem and separates it from the Judaean desert. There are three peaks in this range. The Mount of Olives is the center peak and, at its tallest point, is 2684 feet (about 4319 km). The northern peak is Mount Scopus at roughly 2700 feet (4345 km); the southern peak is known as the Mount of Corruption, which is approximately 2400 feet (3862 km).

The mount is actually a hill comprised of a sedimentary rock that is made up of a soft chalky substance along with hard flint material. The chalk was easily crafted, but it was not useful for construction, which is why the ancients did not cover the Mount with cities. Instead, the Mount became an important burial place dating back to the days of the First Temple. Most of those graves are found on the southern slope; the graves on the northern slope date back to the Second Temple period. Though there have been periods when the Mount was not used as a burial site, it has been a popular place to visit through the ages.

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Jordanians were in control of the region. Jews were prevented from going to the area because they were not allowed to enter Jordan. During this time, the cemeteries were desecrated, and many tombstones were destroyed. Roads were established through the cemetery, and a new hotel was built on its summit. That led to the building of a parking lot, a gas station, and even an army barracks – all on top of the graves. After the Six Day War, fought during the summer of 1967, the cemetery was returned to Jewish control and was re-opened for use. The Israeli government also began to restore the cemetery by repairing the damage. The cemetery continues to be used as a Jewish burial site today and is the final resting place for many notable Jews, including Menachem Begin, who was Israel's sixth Prime Minister who served from 1977-1983.

The Mount of Olives is one of Jerusalem's holiest places. References to it can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. The earliest reference is found in 2 Samuel 15:30 when David ascended the Mount of Olives in order to flee Absalom's coup. Ezekiel 11:20 states that the glory of God stood upon "the mountain on the east side of the city." Zechariah also referred to it in his vision of future warfare against Jerusalem (14:4ff). In that apocalyptic time, the Lord will stand upon the Mount and it will split in two. The people will flee through this valley. This prophecy formed the basis for the tradition that from the Mount of Olives God would redeem the dead when the Messiah came. Needless to say, many Jews want to be buried there.

Most of the biblical references to the mount of Olives, however, can be found in the New Testament. It is mentioned in all four gospels. Jesus travels along the Mount, but more often he can be found teaching from the Mount of Olives. It is also where he wept over Jerusalem (see John 18:1). And that also brings us to the garden of Gethsemane, which is located at the base of the Mount of Olives, on a slope directly across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. It is a garden of about 1200 square meters, located close to the route from the Temple to the summit and crest that led to the town of Bethany. According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus went to a "place called Gethsemane to pray," while John reports that he went to "a garden." Luke states that he went to the Mount of Olives (see 22:43-44).

In Hebrew, the name of the garden means, "Oil press." In the garden are eight very old, gnarled trees that are surrounded by an iron fence with a Byzantine motif. The timelessness of these trees inspires a sacred atmosphere, but efforts to link them to the time of Jesus have faltered. Radiocarbon dating conducted in 1982 indicated that some of the wood might have been 2300 years old. More recently, in 2012, the Italian National Research Council conducted studies and determined that the trees were in excess of 1000 years old. Moreover, they all derived from one parent tree. So it is possible that these trees were offshoots of trees dating to the time of Jesus. This is made more plausible by the fact that if the parent tree is cut down, shoots come back from the same roots.

The oil that is derived from the trees in Gethsemane is used for sanctuary lamps, and the pits become rosary beads. There is a natural grotto in the garden that's believed to be unchanged since the first century. It is thought to be the place where the disciples fell asleep while Jesus prayed, as well as the site of his arrest. Near this grotto is a place known as the tomb of Mary. Christians believe that she was buried there after she "fell asleep." Others claim this is where she ascended. But other traditions have claimed at least three other locations for the exact same events. Modern scholars concede that the exact places are unknown.

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