The Chapel of the Ascension, Jerusalem

The Chapel of the Ascension and Surrounding Courtyard
  • The Traditional Site of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven
  • Site of the Byzantine Imbomon Church (Church “On the Hill”)
  • Current location of the Crusader-period Chapel of the Ascension

Biblical events remembered here:  
(1) The ascension of Jesus into heaven forty days after his crucifixion and resurrection;
(2) The return of Jesus with his people at his second coming.

Possible historical site of:  
(1) The Jewish fire signal used to announce the sighting of the new moon,
(2) The burning of the red heifer to produce the ashes used for cleansing from the impurity of contact with the dead,
(3) The burning of the sin offerings offered up on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). 

Location:  On top of the Mt. of Olives, east of Jerusalem. 

Authenticity:  The chapel is in the right general location for Jesus’ ascension, though the actual site is probably a bit further east on the old road to Bethany.  This road runs from west to east just a few steps south of the entrance.  So at the very least, Jesus and the disciples passed right by this spot shortly before Jesus' ascension.

View down on the top of the Mt. of Olives.  The Bethany-Jerusalem road goes from bottom right to upper left in the photo.  (Google satellite view)

The Ascension of Jesus:  Jesus’ ascension is reported in three places in the New Testament (Mark 16:19, Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:6-12) and mentioned in many more (John 3:13, 6:62, 20:17; Acts 2:32-36; Eph. 4:8-10; Rev. 12:5).  The most detailed account is in the book of Acts:

"Then, having come together, they were questioning him, saying, ‘Lord, at this time are you restoring the kingdom to Israel?'  But he said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has set by his own authority, but rather you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.'  And after he said these things, he was lifted up while they were watching, and a cloud took him up out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into the sky as he was going, look, two men had come up beside them in white clothing, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why are you standing looking into the sky?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way that you saw him go into heaven.  Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mountain called ‘Of the Olive Grove’ (Elaionos; the Greek name for the Mt. of Olives)...." (Acts 1:6-12). 

This clearly identifies the site of Jesus’ ascension as being on the Mt. of Olives.  The gospel of Luke further specifies that it was a spot near Bethany (“He led them out [of Jerusalem] until [they were] near Bethany,” Luke 24:50).  Since the main route to Bethany from Jerusalem ran right over the Mt. of Olives, these two descriptions match up perfectly.  Bethany (known today as al-Azariya in memory of Lazarus whom Jesus raised there from the dead) is on the east side of the Mt. of Olives.  It’s just a little less than a mile away from the Chapel of the Ascension. The old road from Jerusalem to Bethany, today a narrow paved road, passes by just south of the Chapel.  This is the same road that Jesus had taken a few weeks earlier on Palm Sunday, riding a donkey in the other direction, toward Jerusalem.  His ascension could have been anywhere between here and the edge of Bethany.

The Scapegoat on the Day of Atonement:  The road from Jerusalem to Bethany goes out in the same direction, and was likely the same road, that the scapegoat was led along on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) as it was taken out into the desert.  This was one part of a unique sacrifice offered on that day of two identical goats, one offered up on the altar in the Temple, the other taken out and released in the desert (Lev. 16:5-10, 15-28).   This second goat had all the sins of Israel laid on it by the high priest, which it then took away from the city:  removing those sins from the people.  In the same way, Jesus took the sins of mankind out this same road and removed them from us as he ascended into heaven (Psa. 103:10-12). 

The Sin Offerings on the Day of Atonement:  The first goat of the special sacrifice of two goats on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was offered up in the Temple (Lev. 16:15-19) together with a bull (Lev. 16:11-14).  These two animals were then taken “outside the camp” to be burned with fire (Lev. 16:27).  Some believe that the site of this burning (the “place of ashes” of Lev. 4:12) was where the Chapel of the Ascension is now located.  This burning of the bodies of the sacrifices on Yom Kippur is referred to in Heb. 13:11-12 as a type of the Messiah, who also suffered outside the city: (“For of those animals whose blood is brought [as an offering] for sin in the holy places [of the Temple] by the high priest, their bodies are burned up outside the camp.  Because of this, Jesus, too, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate [of the city.]”)

The Burning of the Red Heifer:  A more certain identification of this site is as the place of the burning of the red heifer.  This is the heifer whose ashes were used to purify from contact with the dead (Num. 19:1-10).  The reason for this greater certainty is that the rabbis specifically mention that this took place on the Mt. of Olives (which they call the Mount of Anointing) at a point directly east of the doors of the inner Sanctuary (Num. 19:4, Midd. 1:3, 2:4; Par. 3:6-7,11).  This matches the site of the Chapel of the Ascension.  The site was accessed by a bridge (or “causeway”) built across the Kidron Valley and part way up the slope of the Mt. of Olives.  This was to prevent contact with the graves of the dead.  Jesus and his disciples would have taken this same bridge on their way out of the city on the day of his ascension.  This red heifer is also a type of the Messiah (“For if...the ashes of a heifer sprinkling the unclean makes them holy with regard to the cleanness of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Messiah...cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Heb. 9:13-14; also Heb. 10:22).

Fire Signals Announcing the New Moon:  Since this is the highest spot on this section of the Mt. of Olives, it was also likely the site of the Jewish fire signal sent up every month to announce the new moon (R. Sha. 2:4).  This was at a time when the new moon had to be sighted visually (the first sliver of the waxing moon), and confirmed by the Sanhedrin Council in the Temple.  This signal was then relayed from mountain to mountain until much of the Jewish world in the eastern Mediterranean got the message.  This had been discontinued, though, by the time of Jesus because of enemy signals intended to confuse the Jewish people.  In its place, the Great Sanhedrin sent out emissaries (apostles) to personally take out the message, much as Jesus sent out his apostles with the good news of salvation, a mission that Jesus spoke to them about that day just before his ascension (the Great Commission, Acts 1:7-8). 

The Return of Jesus:  The coming return of Jesus to the exact spot from which he ascended was not only foretold by the angels who were there that day (Acts 1:10-11, see above).  It was also prophesied by the prophet Zechariah long before: 

“And his feet will stand on that day on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west, a very large valley... And the LORD my God will come, all the holy ones will be with you [Jerusalem]” (Zechariah 14:4-5).

The holy ones with Jesus at his return will be all those who have loved him and believed in him from all the ages.  Many talk about the rapture or catching away of the believers when Jesus returns, but that’s only the beginning.  After that, they will come back down with Jesus to rule and reign on the earth.  This will be the beginning of the Messianic Age, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and there will be no more war (Isa. 11:6-9).  The earth will be renewed, or as Jesus put it, it will be a palingenesia, a new Genesis, a new start for the world (Matt. 19:28).   

Many parts of the Church have neglected or even rejected this teaching of the Messianic age to come.  But Jesus and the disciples firmly believed and taught it, when wrongs will be righted and the earth will be renewed.  The apostle Paul said that all of creation groans in anticipation of this revelation of the children of God (Rom. 8:22). 

The Byzantine Period Church:  The first church associated with the Ascension of Jesus was the nearby Eleona Church built by the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena in 333 AD.  The ruins of this church can still be seen beside the Pater Noster Church, just a few meters away.  

But the actual site of Jesus’ ascension was thought to be on “an open hillock nearby” (the pilgrimage diary of Egeria, mid 4th cent.).  This small rise on top of the Mt. of Olives is where the Chapel of the Ascension is currently located.  At the time, this was an open area, and the annual celebration of Jesus' ascension took place outdoors.  But soon afterwards, a church was built on this higher location by a wealthy Roman lady, a member of the imperial family (Poimenia, in 378). 

This newer church was known as the Inbomon Church, which means “on a height.”  It was an octagonal church with a circular colonnade that held up a dome.  Octagonal churches were used to mark the spot where a Biblical event had taken place.  On top of the church was a cross that could be seen from a long distance away. This church was destroyed by the Persians (in 614).  But it was soon rebuilt as a circular structure, in which the inner enclosure, a little larger than the current enclosure, was open to the sky.  This meant that you could stand in the church and look up into the sky, much as the disciples had done when Jesus ascended. 

The Current Chapel:  The much smaller octagonal chapel we see here today (the “edicule”) was built by the Crusaders.  At that time, the arches in the sides of the chapel were open and the roof was open to the sky.  This was then converted into a mosque by the Muslim sultan Salah ad-Din (Saladin) and given to a couple of his followers (in 1198).  It is still in Muslim possession today.  Islam also believes that Jesus ascended into heaven:  the Koran says that "God raised him up to himself" (Sura 4.158). 

The Muslim owners permit Christian services here once a year on the Feast of the Ascension.  If you look carefully, you can see hooks in the walls of the courtyard that are used to secure awnings used by the different Christian communities celebrating the feast. 

The tiny burial crypt next to the chapel is revered by all three local religions: Jews believe it contains the 7th-century BC prophetess Huldah (2 Kings 22:14); Christians believe it to be the tomb of the 5th-century saint Pelagia, a repentant harlot from Antioch who became a hermit on the Mt. of Olives; while Muslims maintain that the 8th-century ascetic and Sufi mystic, Rabi'a al-Adawiyya, known for her devotion to the unconditional love of God, is buried there. The Christian tradition of Saint Pelagia is the oldest of the three.

Interior of the Chapel of the Ascension with the "footprint" of Jesus in the marble box.

Inside the Chapel: The footprints of Jesus on a stone here were first mentioned at the time of the construction of the Imbomon church.  One of these was later removed to the el-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, where it is associated with Mohammed’s nighttime journey to heaven (the Mi’raj).  The remaining "footprint" can still be seen (in the marble square by the candles in the photo above). 

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