IDENTIFYING THE BIBLICAL TOWN OF EMMAUS WHERE JESUS REVEALED HIMSELF IN “THE BREAKING OF THE BREAD”
The story of the encounter between the resurrected Jesus Christ and two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus is one of the most dramatic post-Resurrection stories in the Gospels. On the Sunday after the crucifixion two disciples of Jesus leave Jerusalem to travel back to their hometown of Emmaus discussing the events of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection on their journey (Luke 24:13-17). As the men talked about the events of the past week Jesus came and walked beside them, but like Mary Magdalene they were prevented from recognizing Him (John 20:14). Jesus inquired about the events they were discussing. The disciples told the “stranger” that they had hoped Jesus of Nazareth would be the promised Messiah, but they could not understand all the tragic events that had transpired. Jesus rebuked them, calling them foolish men and then patiently explained that it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer before entering into his glory. Starting with the books of Moses, and going all through books of the prophets, Jesus explained to them the passages in Sacred Scripture that were about Him (Luke 24:18-27). When they reach their destination, the disciples were so enthralled with this stranger's teaching that they invited him to stay with them. As Jesus sat with the disciples at the dinner table, He took the bread, said the blessing and then broke the bread and handed the pieces to His disciples. In the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened and they recognized the risen Savior. Jesus then disappeared from their sight.
Jesus encounter with His Emmaus disciples was the first Lord's Day liturgical service. The liturgy began with the breaking open of the Word and ended with the revelation of the glorified Christ in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread. Filled with joy over what they had witnessed, the two disciples immediately returned to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles they had seen the resurrected Jesus Christ. In St. Luke's account, only one of the disciples is named and that is Cleopas (Luke 24:13), but according to Christian tradition the other disciple is believed to have been Cleopas' son, Simeon, who became the second Christian bishop of Jerusalem after the death of James, kinsman of Jesus, the first bishop of Jerusalem (Church History, Eusebius, 3.11.1-2).
This encounter with Christ is mentioned in Mark 16:12, but only St. Luke records this story with many details (Luke 24:13-35), and the Gospel of Luke is the only New Testament book which mentions the town of Emmaus. The encounter between the resurrected Jesus and two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus is one of twelve post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the New Testament; eight of these encounters are recorded in the Gospels:
The location of the biblical town of Emmaus has been a source of controversy. There are nine candidates for the site of this encounter between Jesus and His two Emmaus disciples. However, only four sites can be considered serious candidates. The word Emmaus means “warm well,” and since the name suggests there must be a well or natural spring near the site, some candidates can be eliminated. The other clue to the location of Emmaus is found in the biblical text that records the distance of Emmaus from Jerusalem. Most translations of Scripture record the distance as sixty stadia, or a little more than seven miles.
There are four leading contenders for the honor of being declared the biblical Emmaus:
Emmaus Qubeibeh is northwest of Jerusalem, and within the seven mile radius. The ruin of an old Roman fort is located near the site which was named Castellum-Emmaus by the Crusaders who set up their own fort on the site. The Crusaders identified el-Qubeibeh as Emmaus circa 1290. Abu Ghosh is just outside of Jerusalem. It does have a natural spring which may have led some Crusaders to identify it as Emmaus. The Crusaders built a castle and a church there in 1141. The next candidate is Motza. The ancient name during the Crusader period was Colonia, hence the Arabic name Qaloniyeh. The Latin word for Motza could be Amassa, making the Greek form, Ammaous(2). Ammaous does sound similar to Emmaus, but the problem with these three sites is that none of them are linked to the biblical Emmaus until the Crusader period when Christians were trying to identify all of the holy sites mentioned in Scripture. It should also be considered that in the Crusader period with travel to the Holy Land for pilgrims being relatively safe, identifying a town with a biblical site, then as now, meant the influx of wealth from the pilgrim trade.
The last contender is Emmaus-Nicopolis. A site named Emmaous is mentioned by the 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (3) that may be Emmaus-Nicopolis. This town is located near Latrum, a town on what was the well-traveled Roman road from the coast up to Jerusalem. There is a natural spring/well on the site, but the problem is the distance of Emmaus-Nicopolis from Jerusalem. A Roman stadia is about 607 feet, and using the Roman measure, Emmaus-Nicopolis is circa 18 miles or 160 stadia from Jerusalem.(4)
The evidence that may support Emmaus-Nicopolis as the biblical Emmaus is found in some ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke. Some manuscripts like the revered fourth century Codex Sinaiticus record in Luke 24:13 that Emmaus was 160 stadia and not 60 stadia from Jerusalem. Several ancient biblical scholars also support the distance of 160 stadia from Emmaus to Jerusalem. The third century Church father Origen, catechetical head of the famous school of theology and biblical studies in Alexandria, Egypt, identified 160 stadia as the distance to Emmaus as recorded in the text of Luke 24:13. The early Church father, Eusebius, the late third/early fourth century Christian bishop of Caesarea, identified 160 stadia as the distance to Emmaus recorded in several ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke. Eusebius had the advantage of access to the vast collection of Christian manuscripts and ancient copies of New Testament texts available in the library of Caesarea, the former center of Roman government in the Holy Land. He also recorded this distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus as 160 stadia in his famous travel log of the Holy Land entitled the Onomasticon (5). St. Jerome, the fourth century Church father and official Church translator of the Sacred Scriptures into the Latin vulgate, supported Eusebius' identification of the distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus as 160 stadia in his Latin translation of Eusebius' Onomasticon. Sozomen, the fifth century Church historian, supported the 160 stadia as the accurate reading of the Lucan text, and identified Emmaus-Nicopolis as the most likely site of the biblical Emmaus (6). Finally, Emmaus-Nicopolis is understood to be the site of the encounter between the risen Jesus and two disciples in the breaking of the bread in almost all the journals of Christian pilgrims from the fourth century AD onward.
The next problem to overcome in identifying Emmaus-Nicopolis as the site of the encounter with the risen Jesus Christ is the distance Jesus and the two disciples could have covered in a day's journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and the disciples' journey back again to report the event to the Apostles (Luke 24:33-35). The round trip journey was about 36 miles. Luke's account also records that the disciples encouraged the stranger, the disguised Jesus, to stay and dine with them saying: Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent (Luke 24:29). It was dangerous to travel at night; would the disciples have eaten with Jesus, discovering His true identity in the breaking of the bread, and then returned to Jerusalem in the dark?
For the Jews, the day ended at sundown. Therefore, the next day began with the setting of the sun. When the Bible mentions it was “evening,” according to the cultural tradition of the times, the “evening” began at 12 noon when the sun had reached its highest point in the sky and began to descend. The disciples probably began their journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus early Sunday morning because they were unable to make the trip home the day before. It was forbidden to travel on the Sabbath (Saturday) according to Jewish law.(7) If an average man travels at approximately 3.5 miles per hour, the disciples and the disguised Jesus probably arrived in Emmaus-Nicopolis in just under five hours. They probably left for Emmaus shortly after sunrise, having heard the account of some of the women who went to the tomb before dawn (John 20:1) and who reported to the Apostles that angels told them Jesus had risen from the dead as He had promised, and after also hearing that Peter and John found the tomb to be empty (Luke 24:24; John 20:3-10).
If the Emmaus disciples left Jerusalem very early in the morning, they would have arrived at their destination about noon. It was the practice to take the main meal at noon, and since the day had reached its mid-point and the sun was now descending in the sky, it would have been considered that the day was descending into the “evening” and their statement urging Jesus to stop and eat with them would have been understandable. Once they realized the stranger who explained how all of Sacred Scripture had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth was Himself Jesus the Lord, the disciples immediately returned to Jerusalem to spread the news of Jesus' Resurrection appearance and teaching. In their excitement they would have run or perhaps lessened the time of the journey by riding a donkey. They could have started the return trip to Jerusalem in the early afternoon and could have arrived back in the holy city before sunset on Resurrection Sunday. Immediately after they arrived to share their news, as they were giving their testimony, Jesus appeared to the two Emmaus disciples and the Apostles in the Upper Room (Luke 24:36). It wasn't yet sunset because St. John records: In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them (John 20:19). If it was “that same day, the first day of the week,” then the sun could not yet have set or it would have been the beginning of the “second day” of the week.
There is, however, more evidence which points to Emmaus-Nicopolis as the site of the New Testament Emmaus. In the mid-1800s the American orientalist, Edward Robinson, found the ruins of three ancient churches just south of the village of Emmaus-Nicopolis. In 1879 an archaeological excavation of the site found an impressive triapsidal basilica with an elaborate baptismal pool dating to about the fifth century AD, and an earlier, smaller fourth century AD church with inscriptions written in both Greek and Samaritan. Churches of the size of the Byzantine period basilica indicated that this church was the seat of a bishop and was an important Christian site. It was also discovered that in the Crusader period another church was rebuilt over the site of the ruined Byzantine church which was probably destroyed in the Moslem invasion of the Holy Land in the 7th century AD. In a second excavation between 1924 and 1930, the archaeologists discovered among the ruins of the Byzantine basilica, in the corner of the nave, the remains of a much earlier domestic home which dated to the Roman period. The church seemed to have been purposely built over this structure which the fourth century Christians may have believed was the house of the disciples who walked the Emmaus road with their Savior and shared a meal with the risen Christ.
In addition to the possible residence of the two disciples of Jesus, Emmaus-Nicopolis could boast of another famous Christian resident. Sextus Julius Africanus was a third century AD Christian historian and Roman prefect. Africanus is best known for writing the Chronografiai, a five volume history of the world from Creation to 221AD. The brilliant Church father Origen (head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt and after leaving his post there, a resident of Caesarea in the Holy Land), referred to Julius Africanus as his “brother in God through Jesus Christ.” Julius Africanus honored his home town by leading a delegation to Rome in 222AD to petition the Roman Emperor Elagabalus to grant Emmaus the status of a “polis,” an officially recognized town in the Roman Empire. The petition was granted, and the city was renamed Emmaus-Nicopolis, the “victorious city of Emmaus,” a fitting name for a town whose Christian disciples were the first to recognize the risen Savior in the “breaking of the bread.”
(1) John 20:26 records that Jesus appeared “eight days later.” Eight days after Resurrection Sunday, as the ancients counted, is the next Sunday. Without the concept of a 0-place value, the Jews counted any time sequence with the first day in the sequence as #1; therefore, with Resurrection Sunday as day #1, day #1 is the next Sunday (see Christianity and the Roman Empire, Ralph Novak, Trinity Press International, 1971, page 282).
(2) A village named Ammaous is mentioned in 1 Maccabees 3:40, 57; and 4:3 as the place “in the plain” or “lowlands” where Judas Maccabee attacked the forces of Syria and Philistia.
(3) There were obviously several towns in antiquity in the Holy Land who bore the name “Emmaus.” This was not unusual. There was a Bethlehem in both Judah and in the Galilee, for example. Josephus mentions an Emmaous/Ammaous in Jewish Wars 2.4, 3 (63); 2.5,1 (71), and he identifies a town called Emmaous/Ammaous in Antiquities of the Jews 17.10,7 (282); 17.10,9 (291), as a village that was burned to the ground by the Roman army in revenge for the killing of Romans but which was later rebuilt and became one of the chief towns in a list of Roman toparchies in 66AD (Jewish Wars 3.3,5 (55). This site could be the Emmaus which became Emmaus-Nicopolis. Emmaus-Nicopolis was located next to the Roman garrison at Latrum which was on the main road to Jerusalem from the coast. It could also be Emmaus Qubeibeh, northwest of Jerusalem, and the site of an old Roman fort. However, in Jewish Wars 7.6,6 (217), Josephus also mentions another Ammaous as a place about 30 stadia from Jerusalem where the Roman general Vespasian settled eight hundred veterans discharged from the Roman army. That site would be about 3.5 miles from Jerusalem and can probably be identified with Colonia, also called Motza. Motza or Mozah is mentioned in Joshua 18:26 and also in the Jewish Mishnah (Sukkoth 4.5) as the place from which willow branches were brought to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles.
(4) Fr. Fitzmyer identifies the Roman stadia as 625 Roman feet, which is 607 English feet, or 185 meters. Fitzmyer calculates 60 stadia would equal roughly 6.8 miles and 160 stadia as roughly 18.4 miles (see Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke, vol. 2, Fitzmyer, page 1561), while Hershel Shanks calculates the distance as a little over 17 miles, or 35 miles round trip (Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2008, volume 34, #2: “Emmaus Where Christ Appeared,” Shanks, page 44).
(5) Eusebius in his Onomasticon (GCS 3.1.99), identified Emmaus-Nicopolis as the town from which Cleopas came, the present Nicopolis, a famous town of Palestine.
(6) Sozomen, in his Church History 5.21 identified Emmaus-Nicopolis as the home of Cleopas and his son.
(7) St. Luke records in Acts 1:12 that the Mount of Olives was no more than a Sabbath walk from Jerusalem. The rabbinic rules in the Mishnah: Shabbat, with certain exceptions, limit walking outside a walled city to 2,000 cubits, or about 0.57 of a mile.
The Law of the Sinai Covenant decreed the Sabbath as a day of rest (Ex 20:8-11; 23:10-12; 31:12-17; 34:21; 35:1-3; Lev 19:3; 23:3; Num 15:32-36; Deut 5:12-15). The penalty for violating the “Sabbath rest” was death (Ex 31:14-15). The list of prohibitions for observance of the Sabbath is found in the Mishnah: Shabbat where thirty-nine categories of “work” are prohibited on the Sabbath (also see Mishnah: Betza 5.2). These myriad of restrictions are not found in Scripture but were added later. Jesus condemned the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 23 for placing so many unreasonable burdens upon God's people. The Pharisees often criticized Jesus work “working” on the Sabbath by healing the sick (Mk 3:1-6; Lk 13:10-14; 14:1-6) and by allowing his disciples to pick grain in a field when they were hungry (Matt 12:1-2; Mk 2:27; Lk 6:1-2). Jesus' response to them is found in Matthew12:3-8 (also Mk 2:27-28; Lk 6:5).
(8) An “apse” on a church is the portion of the building forming a termination or projection, semicircular of polygonal in plan and having a done or vaulted roof. The ruins of the Emmaus church had what would have been an impressive and costly three sided apse over what would have been the sanctuary of the church building. Webster's International Dictionary: apse, noun; Greek (h)apsis, (h)apsidos, an arch, vault, joining, from (h)apto, to join.
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Additional information Why did the Apostles and Disciples stay in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth?
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