A Farewell to the Emmaus Road

A painting of the Emmaus Road encounter described in Luke 24 by artist Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A painting of the Emmaus Road encounter described in Luke 24 by artist Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Revised: 17-April-2017

The Emmaus Road narrative is the climax of Luke’s Gospel. In it, two of Jesus’ disciples encounter their resurrected Lord as they follow the road leading west from Jerusalem. Not only do the hearts of the disciples burn as they speak with their risen Master, the hearts of the readers burn as well, since, unlike the disciples, we know that it is Jesus himself who is accompanying them as the disciples relate the sad tale of how all their hopes for the redemption of Israel were dashed when Jesus was crucified outside the walls of the holy city. Readers feel almost as if they were present with the disciples on the road as Jesus walked and spoke with them.

 

Despite the importance of this story and its location for Jesus’ followers living in Israel today as well as for modern-day pilgrims who visit the land of the Bible, little has been done to preserve the ancient remains of a Roman road that are still visible in the area where Jesus traveled with two of his disciples on the day of his resurrection.

Searching for Luke’s Emmaus

A Roman tombstone found near Emmaus-Nicopolis. The inscription mentions the fifth Roman legion Macedonica, which according to Josephus (J.W. 4:443) Vespasian stationed at Emmaus in 68 C.E. before marching the rest of his forces to Jerusalem. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A Roman tombstone found near Emmaus-Nicopolis. The inscription mentions the fifth Roman legion Macedonica, which, according to Josephus (J.W. 4:444-445), Vespasian stationed at Emmaus in 68 C.E. before marching the rest of his forces to Jerusalem. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Identifying the village Luke referred to as Ἐμμαοῦς (Emmaous) has challenged ancient pilgrims as well as modern scholars.[1] At least two sites bore the name Ἀμμαοῦς (Ammaous)—a slight variation in spelling from the name recorded in Luke’s Gospel—in the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. The book of 1 Maccabees mentions a location called Emmaus, which was situated near the topographical boundary between the Shephelah and the coastal plain (1 Macc. 3:40).[2] Josephus referred to this Emmaus as a πόλις (polis, “city”),[3] a term normally reserved for a large and well-organized population center. Perhaps this city ought to be identified with the אַמְאוּס (’am’ūs, “Emmaus”) mentioned in rabbinic sources (e.g., m. Arach. 2:4; Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, chpt. 27 [ed. Schechter, 55]; Eccl. Rab. 7:7 §2),[4] which is described as having a market (m. Ker. 3:7).[5] The city was later renamed Nicopolis in the third century C.E.[6] After the Byzantine Empire lost control of the Holy Land, Nicopolis reverted to the name ‘Imwas (derived from Emmaus) among the Arabic speakers who lived in the area.

 

Coin of Elagabalus dated to "Year Two" of the foundation Nicopolis-Emmaus. Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.
Coin minted during the reign of the Emperor Elagabalus (218-222 C.E.) dated to “Year Two of (the renaming of) Nicopolis.” Image courtesy of the Classical Numismatic Group.
Remains of a Byzantine church at Emmaus-Nicopolis. Photographed by Todd Bolen, courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.
Remains of a Byzantine church at Emmaus-Nicopolis. Photographed by Todd Bolen, courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.

Although a tradition emerged during the Byzantine period identifying Emmaus-Nicopolis as the Emmaus mentioned in Luke 24:13,[7] the distance of this site from Jerusalem (some nineteen miles) contradicts the information given in the Gospel account. Luke described the disciples as going down from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back again to Jerusalem on the same day (Luke 24:33). But disciples traveling by foot would have been hard pressed to cover in a single day the thirty-eight mile round trip necessitated by an identification of Luke’s Emmaus with Emmaus-Nicopolis. Moreover, Luke 24:13 explicitly states that the distance to Emmaus was sixty stadia, that is, only about seven miles from Jerusalem.[8] Therefore, despite the strong and relatively early Christian tradition equating Emmaus-Nicopolis with Luke’s Emmaus, this identification is unlikely to be correct.

Four proposed locations of Luke’s Emmaus. Nicopolis was favored in the Byzantine period and still has its supporters among scholars. Castellum (Abu Ghosh) and el-Qubeibeh were favored in the Crusader period and are approximately located 60 stadia from Jerusalem, the distance indicated in Luke. Qaloniyeh (Qalunya)-Motza has recently found support among a handful of leading scholars. Map courtesy of Carta Jerusalem, used here with permission.

There was, however, another Emmaus that was known to have existed in the Second Temple period, and this second Emmaus fits the information presented in Luke’s Gospel far more comfortably than Emmaus-Nicopolis. Josephus reports that after Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 C.E. and the rebellion was suppressed, the Roman emperor Vespasian set aside land near Jerusalem as a settlement for veteran Roman soldiers:

About the same time Caesar sent instructions to Bassus and Laberius Maximus, the procurator, to farm out all Jewish territory. For he founded no city there, reserving the country as his private property, except that he did assign to eight hundred veterans discharged from the army a place [χωρίον] for habitation called Emmaus [ὃ καλεῖται μὲν Ἀμμαοῦς], distant thirty stadia from Jerusalem. (J.W. 7:216-217; Loeb, adapted)

The information regarding this second Emmaus accords well—though not perfectly—with the details of Luke’s narrative. Unlike Emmaus-Nicopolis, which Josephus referred to as a πόλις (polis, “city”), Josephus calls this other Emmaus a χωρίον (chōrion, “place,” “field”), which is closer to Luke’s description of Emmaus as a κώμη (kōmē, “village”). The distance Josephus measures between this Emmaus and Jerusalem (about three and a half miles) also fits with Luke’s description of the disciples making the journey to Emmaus from Jerusalem and back again on the same day.

Nevertheless, one hitch remains. While Josephus states that this Emmaus was thirty stadia distant from Jerusalem, Luke 24:13 measures the distance as sixty stadia, twice the distance reported by Josephus. This discrepancy might be overcome, however, if we were to suppose that Luke cited the entire distance the disciples traveled the day of Jesus’ resurrection on their round trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back again, instead of the distance between the two locations.[9]

 

A rabbinic discussion of the Feast of Tabernacles celebrations that were observed in the days of the Second Temple sheds additional light on the Emmaus described in Luke 24:13 and J.W. 7:217:

The commandment of the willow branch: how was it carried out? There was a place [מָקוֹם, māqōm] below Jerusalem called Motza [מוֹצָא, mōtzā’]. They went down there and gathered from there willow branches and brought them and stood them up on the sides of the altar and their tops bowed over the altar…. (m. Suk. 4:5)

Commenting on this mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud adds that according to Rabbi Tanhuma, a fourth-century C.E. sage, “Kalonya [קָלוֹנְיָיא, qālōnyyā’] was its [i.e., Motza’s—DNB] name” (y. Suk. 4:3 [18b]).[10] The Babylonian Talmud ascribes the same statement to an anonymous tannaic authority (i.e., a baraita), adding that the name Motza was derived from Kalonya’s exemption from imperial taxation (b. Suk. 45a).

 

Steps leading down to one of Motza’s springs. Each year orthodox Jews come here to get water for baking their matzah for the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.

This rabbinic evidence is invaluable for identifying the location of Luke’s Emmaus for three reasons. First, the name Kalonya and its tax-exempt status connects the Mishnah’s Motza to Josephus’ second Emmaus, the one that became the location of a Roman veteran’s settlement. This is because the most plausible explanation of the name Kalonya is that it comes from the Latin word colonia (“colony”),[11] a term that could have loosely applied to a veteran’s settlement. Moreover, a tax exemption would have been a natural incentive to encourage the Roman veterans of the war to settle the area.[12] Second, if the Emmaus-Motza-Kalonya identification is accepted, the Mishnah’s evidence of a Jewish presence at Motza lends credibility to Luke’s account of disciples traveling, perhaps even returning home, to Emmaus.[13] Archaeological discoveries also indicate a late Second Temple-period Jewish presence at Motza.[14] Third, the rabbinic description of Motza as merely a מָקוֹם (māqōm, “place”) matches Josephus’ characterization of Emmaus as a χωρίον (chōrion, “place”), both of which are compatible with Luke’s reference to Emmaus as a κώμη (kōmē, “village”). Thus, the combined evidence from Luke’s Gospel, Josephus and rabbinic literature strongly supports the identification of Luke’s Emmaus with Motza-Kalonya.

Luke Josephus Rabbinic Literature
Place Name: Emmaus (Ἐμμαοῦς) Emmaus (Ἀμμαοῦς) Motza (מוֹצָא)
Description: village (κώμη) place (χωρίον) place (מָקוֹם)
Distance from Jerusalem: 60 stadia (round trip?) 30 stadia “Below Jerusalem,” evidently within easy walking distance.
Status: Became a veterans’ settlement. Called Kalonya (קָלוֹנְיָיא, “colony”).

The “place below Jerusalem called Motza” referred to in the Mishnah is mentioned as early as the book of Joshua, where it is assigned to the tribal allotment of Benjamin. The book of Joshua refers to Motza as הַמֹּצָה (hamotzāh, “the Motza”; Josh. 18:26), spelled with a final ה instead of an א as in the Mishnah, and with the definite article prefixed to the name.[15] Whereas the translators of the Septuagint rendered ha-Motza in Josh. 18:26 as Αμωσα (Amōsa),[16] Josephus appears to have transliterated ha-Motza as Ἀμμαοῦς (Ammaous).[17] If this analysis of the name Ἀμμαοῦς is correct, then Luke’s Ἐμμαοῦς (Emmaous, “Emmaus”) is best understood as an independent transliteration of ha-Motza, again with the definite article, which the author of Luke found in his written source.

A willow tree (salix acmophilla). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Mishnah’s association of Motza with willow trees suggests that the name “Motza,” literally “that which brings forth,” refers to the springs that water the valley where Motza is located, since willows prefer to grow in places where there is a permanent source of water.[18] The word מוֹצָא (mōtzā’) in the sense of spring is attested, for example, in Isaiah 41:18, which refers to מוֹצָאֵי מָיִם (mōtzā’ē māyim, “springs of water”). Doubtless the Romans chose to found a colony at Motza in part because of the permanent springs that watered the valley there. The Romans must also have been attracted to this location by the fact that just to the north of Motza the valley broadens, offering a pleasant and spacious area for settlement. Since the valley was well watered and had rich soil, it was an excellent spot for agricultural development. Another advantage of Motza’s location that made it suitable for a Roman veterans’ colony was its strategic position protecting the ascent to Jerusalem on the road leading from Jaffa.[19]

If the identification of Luke’s Emmaus with the Emmaus mentioned by Josephus as the location of a Roman colony is correct, and if the identification of this Emmaus with the Motza-Kalonya known from rabbinic literature is accepted, then we are able to pinpoint the approximate location of Luke’s Emmaus, since the Hebrew-Latin name Kalonya was retained as Qalunya by the Arabic speakers who resided in this location until modern times.[20]

The hilltop village shown in the center of this photo is Motza Illit. On the slopes across the highway from Motza Illit was the Arab village (until 1948) of Qalunya. Photographed by Horst Krüger, February 2003.

Physical evidence of a Roman presence at Motza-Kalonya is supplied by the remains of an ancient Roman bath,[21] and a Roman tombstone adorned with the bust of a girl and bearing a Latin inscription.[22] Regarding this tombstone, Fischer, Isaac and Roll state, “In the eastern Roman provinces the use of Latin on private inscriptions is typical of genuine (as opposed to titular) veteran settlements…. It is, in fact, so rare that this inscription may be considered important additional confirmation of the identity of Motza with Vespasian’s veteran settlement.”[23]

Drawing of Qalunya (here spelled "Calonia" in the central peak) from Giovanni Zuallardo's (Jean Zuallart's) <a href="https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_pDu7u960C-sC" target="_blank"><i>Il deuotissimo viaggio di Gierusalemme</i></a> published in 1586. The bridge, shown also in the image to the bottom right, may have been built on Roman period foundations. The Latin title reads <i>Vallis Terebenti</i> ("Valley of Terebinths," i.e., Elah Valley) since pilgrims at that time mistakenly identified this site as the place where David's battle with Goliath took place. Hence the Latin inscription beneath the hill that reads <i>Hic occisus fuit Goliad</i> ("Here Goliath was slain.") Image courtesy of <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vallis_Therebinthi_-_Zuallart_Jean_-_1587.jpg" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>.A sketch of Qalunya as it was in the 1870s, which appeared in Charles Wilson's <a href="https://archive.org/details/picturesquepales01wils"_blank"><i>Picturesque Palestine Sinai and Egypt</i></a> (4 vols.; London: J. S. Virtue; 1880). The bridge, which may have been built on Roman foundations, was washed away in a flood in the winter of 1877-1878, an event that was described by Conrad Schick in the <a href="https://archive.org/details/quarterlystateme19pale"_blank"><I>Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement</i></a> 19 (1887): 51. Image courtesy of <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kolonia,_and_Wady_Beit_Han%C3%AEna,_favourtie_place_of_resort_of_the_people_of_Jerusalem;_it_is_famous_for_its_well-kept_vineyards_and_vegetable_gardens_(NYPL_b10607452-80384).jpg"_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>.In the center of this photo is a highway bridge that now spans one of the tributaries of the Sorek Valley. Water flows down the narrow valley during the winter rainy season. A corner of Ramat Motza can be seen in the upper left of the photo. Photographed by Horst Krüger, February 2003.Photograph of the Arab village of Qalunya as it was in 1918. Image courtesy of <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Qalunya_1918.jpg"_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

My Experiment

An aerial view of the Motza neighborhood photographed by Moshe Milner. Courtesy of Israel’s National Photo Collection.

Because I found the above-cited evidence regarding the location of Luke’s Emmaus at Motza-Qulonya to be compelling, I conducted an experiment to put this hypothesis to the test. On October 2nd of the year 1987, I walked with my son Natan from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (the Kotel) to the springs at Motza following the route of the Roman road (on which, see below) as closely as possible in order to measure how long such a journey would take. It was the eve of Yom Kippur, so no vehicles were moving on the streets to slow us down, and we set out from the Western Wall at 6:10 p.m. under a full moon, walking at a leisurely pace. Together we covered the distance from the Western Wall to the Motza springs in one hour and twenty minutes.[24] My experiment proves that Jesus’ disciples could easily have made the trip down from Jerusalem to Motza-Emmaus and back again within the time frame Luke describes. According to Luke, the two disciples who were heading to Emmaus set out from Jerusalem sometime after morning, for they knew of the women’s report of the empty tomb (Luke 24:22-24), but it could have been as late as mid-afternoon. The disciples did not head back to Jerusalem until after they had sat down for their evening meal in Emmaus (Luke 24:29, 33).

Aerial photograph of Jerusalem’s environs from Gustaf Dalman’s Hundert deutsche Fliegerbilder aus Palästina (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1925). Superimposed on the photograph is the approximate route of the Emmaus-Jerusalem road marked in red. Part of the route is hidden from view as the road descends into the valley as it approaches Qalunya.

The Roman Road

Facing east toward Jerusalem up the valley through which the road to Emmaus once ran. The Har Hamenuhot cemetery, the light colored structure in the center of the photo, now dominates the landscape.
View from the hill upon which the Arab village of Qalunya was situated facing east toward Jerusalem up the valley through which the road to Emmaus once ran. The Har Hamenuhot cemetery, the light colored structure in the center of the photo, now dominates the landscape. Photographed by Horst Krüger, February 2003.

Even if readers do not find the identification of Luke’s Emmaus with Motza-Qalunya convincing, we can still agree that the remains of the Roman road that runs down from Jerusalem past Motza to Emmaus-Nicopolis marks the route Jesus and his disciples took to Emmaus on the day of Jesus’ resurrection.[25]

 

In 2002, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) surveyed the remains of a paved road that led west from Jerusalem to Emmaus-Nicopolis which can still be observed in the vicinity of modern-day Motza.[26] The IAA’s report, which identifies the remains of the road as Roman, states that “the road runs, for most of its length, in the depth of the ravine, and finally, zigzags and ascends next to Har Hamenuhot cemetery.”[27] The road continues east from Motza, through a ravine past the Har Hamenuhot cemetery “to Giv‘at Shaul, to Giv‘at Ram, and through the Jaffa Gate to Jerusalem.”

 

The pink shading shows the area where the remains of the Roman road from Jerusalem to Emmaus are still (barely) visible.

When I measured the remains of the Roman road some twenty years ago, when the remains were much more visible than they are today, I found that the Roman road was about twelve feet (or three meters) wide. According to the IAA’s report: “The road was paved with the usual road-building technique: cleaning and straightening of the route, laying down of the curbstones on the road’s edges, and filling in the space in between them with a layer of foundation stones, upon which the paving was laid. The paving was done, apparently, with the help of flat stones or carved stones that were fitted one to another, or with a layer of gravel, or pebbles, etc. (according to Israel Roll).”

 

When I first became acquainted with the Roman road near Motza, some of the pavement and many of the curbing stones were still clearly visible. Sadly, over the past recent decades I have watched as the Roman road has fallen prey to severe erosion, such that in many places the remains of the road have been completely obliterated. The IAA’s report notes that the condition of the Roman road is poor, adding that “the road in its present state is torn up, and often it is accompanied by the smell of sewage.” The odor of which the IAA’s report complains, is undoubtedly caused by the sewage pipe, which follows the path of the ancient Roman road.

The Mekorot pumping station, part of the National Water Carrier, located near the village of Ramat Motza that boosts the water piped from Israel’s costal plain to Jerusalem. Part of Mekorot’s “Fourth [Pipe]line.” Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.

A sketch of the remains of the Roman road to Emmaus drawn by Margaret Dickinson, a member of a Bill Bean (CSBR) tour group which David Bivin took to visit the site.

The natural beauty of the Emmaus road was initially marred by the installation of a pumping station and enormous water-main that supplies Jerusalem. Much of the physical damage to the Roman road, however, can be attributed to the expansion of the Har Hamenuhot cemetery, mentioned above. Covering two large hills along the modern highway leading from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the cemetery has slowly crept down the southern slope of the southern-most of the hills towards the ravine through which the Roman road ascended from Motza to Jerusalem. During the course of the cemetery’s expansion, huge boulders were knocked down the slope by the unsupervised bulldozers at work above. These boulders crashed into everything in their path, knocking down the forest of 50-year-old cedar and pine trees that once lined the Roman road. The boulders also flattened picnic tables and slides and swings used by children of the families who came to this formerly beautiful spot on recreational outings. The cemetery construction also ruined monuments and memorial plaques honoring those who had donated to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund) to create the recreational area where the remains of the Roman road are now barely visible.

The series of slides from the years 1992, 1997, 1999, 2003 and 2016 featured below is a testimony to how much of the Roman road has already been irrevocably lost.

Emmaus Road Photos 1992:

The route of the Roman road leading west from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. A gravel quarry can be seen on the hillside at the left-center. The Har HaMenuhot cemetery is on the slopes to the right. The highest point on the horizon is Kastel. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.The steep ascent of the road as one ascends beside the hospital. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.Facing east. The beginning of the steep ascent. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.The rock crusher-gravel maker was positioned beside the British Mandate road, next to a quarry. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.Already by 1992 the damage to the road caused by erosion was severe. But the trees are still standing on the cemetery side of the water main. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.David Bivin surveys the remains of the ancient Roman road near Motza-Emmaus. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.The curbing of the road in relation to the water main. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.Closeup of a section of curbstones. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.Tour group member sitting on one of the curbing stones that has been revealed by the erosion. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.A row of curbstone with only their tops showing. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.A long section of curbing but with a gully caused by erosion down the middle of the road. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.Wider-angle view of the same section of the road as in the previous photo, but here we can see the relation of the road to the water main. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.A ground-level view of a piece of the road which remained whole in 1992. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.The Emmaus Road, the water main, and, on the horizon, the Kastel peak. Photographed by Lucinda Dale-Thomas, spring 1992.

Emmaus Road Photos 1997:

Photographed by Joel Fishman.Photographed by Joel Fishman.Photographed by Joel Fishman.Photographed by Joel Fishman.Photographed by Joel Fishman.Photographed by Joel Fishman.Photographed by Joel Fishman.

Emmaus Road Photos 1999:

David Bivin with a tour group at the Emmaus road.The water main that now runs alongside, and sometimes through, the ancient remains of the Roman road to Emmaus. Here, in this hidden valley, the 42-inch water pipe, part of the “Fourth Line,” was not buried, as it was for most of its length from Beth Shemesh. The pipe’s stanchions destroyed one side of the ancient roadbed.Runoff has washed out a section across the remains of the Emmaus Road.David Bivin with a tour group at the Emmaus road.Close up of remains of the Emmaus Road.Photographed by Diane Marroquin.Dedicatory plaque commemorating the donation by Goldie Bechal of London, England of recreational equipment to <i>Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael</i> (Jewish National Fund) in memory of her husband and son. Photographed by Diane Marroquin.Photographed by Diane Marroquin.Photographed by Diane Marroquin.Photographed by Diane Marroquin.Photographed by Diane Marroquin.

Emmaus Road Photos 2003:

Almond blossoms in the foreground. In the background, Motza Elite, and above, houses of Kastel and the Kastel peak. Photographed by Horst Krüger.Looking down on the area of the cemetery that borders the Emmaus Road when only the foundation platforms of this area had been built. Photographed by Horst Krüger.View of the cemetery from higher up the opposite hill. Photographed by Horst Krüger.View from the opposite hill showing the new terraces of the cemetery, the water pipeline running down the ravine, and the rock crusher. Photographed by Horst Krüger.Photograph taken by Horst Krüger in 2003 of the area with which the IAA's report on the Roman road is concerned. Most of the Roman remains are hidden from view behind the trees.View showing the destruction of the upper part of the road below the hospital. Photographed by Horst Krüger.The valley floor is now covered with surface soil and rock that has washed down from above (in the background to the left is the rock crusher). Photographed by David Bivin.It’s now easier to walk on the water main than on the eroded road. Photographed by David Bivin.An old pipe buried in the center of the road is now exposed. Severe erosion has given us a look deep into the road. Photographed by Horst Krüger.Closeup of the pipe shown in previous photo. To the left of the pipe curbing stones are visible. Photographed by David Bivin.The erosion is horrendous; however, it has revealed much of the interior of the roadbed. Photographed by David Bivin.A bit of the road’s curbing in still visible, but most of the road has washed away. Photographed by David Bivin.Horst Krüger inspects a line of stones. Photographed by David Bivin.A very long stretch of curbing that has held together. Photographed by David Bivin.Temporarily, some of the road’s curbing remains in place, but mostly we see gravel and rocks that have washed down from higher up the valley. Photographed by David Bivin.Here, a bit of the road’s curbing remains. Photographed by David Bivin.The destruction of the Emmaus Road is complete in this section of the valley. Photographed by David Bivin.The rock crusher at the top of this section of the road (view to the east). Photographed by David Bivin.Not much, if any, left of the road. Photographed by David Bivin.The valley floor is now just a gulley. Photographed by David Bivin.

Emmaus Road Photos 2007:

Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Expansion of the Har Hamenuhot cemetery encroaches onto the path of the Roman road to Emmaus. Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Expansion of the Har Hamenuhot cemetery encroaches onto the path of the Roman road to Emmaus. Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.David Bivin stands beside the Bechal dedication monument with its missing metal plaque. Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Wider angle photo showing the relationship of the cemetery to the park and the dedicatory monument. Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.David Bivin surveys the smashed picnic tables destroyed by falling rocks during the careless expansion of the Har Hamenuhot cemetery. Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.These picnic tables have been nearly swallowed up in the rubble from the Har Hamenuhot cemetery above. Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.Some of the remaining trees beside the Emmaus Road’s northern side have been knocked down due to the cemetery’s expansion, and have covered the water main. Photographed by Chris deVries, March 16, 2007.The remains of a red slide, part of the play equipment in the former KKL park. The rubble ran down the slopes of the cemetery and destroyed the park before the wall and fence were erected by cemetery authorities. Photographed by David Bivin.

Emmaus Road Photos 2016:

Photographed by Gary Asperschlager, November 12, 2016.Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton, November 12, 2016.Gravel crusher next to the British Mandate period road that runs beside the Roman remains. Photographed by Gary Alley, October 17, 2016.Photographed by Gary Alley, October 17, 2016.Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton, November 12, 2016.Photographed by Gary Alley, October 17, 2016.Rubble, refuse and other debris from the Har Hamenuhot cemetery above have tumbled into the valley where the Roman road to Emmaus once ran, partially covering the water main that was blackened in a recent fire. Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton, November 12, 2016.The huge water main that now runs beside the remains of the Roman road that led from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Photographed by Gary Alley, October 17, 2016.This manhole cover next to the water main shows where the sewer line disturbs the remains of the Roman road. Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton, November 12, 2016.Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton, November 12, 2016.Photographed by Gary Alley on October 17, 2016.Photographed by Gary Alley on October 17, 2016.Photographed by Gary Asperschlager on November 12, 2016.Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton on November 12, 2016.Photographed by Gary Asperschlager on November 12, 2016.Photographed by Gary Asperschlager on November 12, 2016.Photographed by Gary Asperschlager on November 12, 2016.Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton on November 12, 2016.The Kastel peak rises above the remains of the Roman road to Emmaus. Photographed by Joshua N. Tilton on November 12, 2016.
Most archaeologists are of the opinion that the network of roads the Romans built in the land of Israel was not constructed prior to the period of the First Jewish Revolt (ca. 70 C.E.), and that the most extensive Roman road construction took place during the reign of Hadrian in the second century C.E.[28] The earliest dated milestone belonging to a Roman road in Israel is from 69 C.E.[29] Despite the probable construction of the Roman road near Motza after the time of Jesus, the route it follows traces the same path Jesus and his two disciples followed to Emmaus. The ravine is so narrow that any road built in it could not have been more than a few meters to the left or right of path on which Jesus and his disciples walked. It is therefore a shame to see the remnants of this potent reminder, which has withstood the passing of so many centuries, disappearing so dramatically in so short a time.


 

This relief from Trajan's Column (erected 113 C.E.) depicts Roman soldiers engaged in road construction. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This relief from Trajan’s Column (erected 113 C.E.) depicts Roman soldiers engaged in road construction. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Farewell

The IAA’s report on the Roman road near Motza states that although “the road has been badly damaged, with proper restoration there exists a high potential for developing the road as a scenic route for hikers (‘pilgrims’) from Motza to Jerusalem.” Fourteen years on from the writing of the IAA’s report, the window of opportunity for this dream to be realized is closing rapidly. I fear that soon we may have to bid the Emmaus road a final farewell. Perhaps it is a good reminder that what is built by flesh and blood has its season and then is no more, while those whom Heaven has acclaimed endure forever.

I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Ronny Reich and Dr. Stephen J. Pfann for directing me to useful resources on Roman roads in general, and concerning the Emmaus road in particular. I would also like to thank all those who contributed photographs to this article including Gary Alley, Gary Asperschlager, Lucinda Dale-Thomas, Chris deVries, Horst Krüger, Diane Marroquin, Joshua N. Tilton, Israel’s National Photo Collection (Photography Dept. of the Government Press Office), the Classical Numismatic Group and Wikimedia Commons. Special thanks are due to Carta Jerusalem for allowing me to use their map of the various possible locations of Luke’s Emmaus. In addition, I would like to thank Brian Becker for making the slideshows, which are such an essential part of this article, possible on JP’s website. Finally, I wish to thank my editor, Joshua N. Tilton, for his assistance in preparing this article for publication.
  • [1] Among the many scholars who have weighed in on the debate are, Stanley A. Cook, “Emmaus,” in Encyclopaedia Biblica (4 vols.; London: Adam and Charles Black, 1899-1903), 2:1289-1290; Kirsopp Lake, The Historical Evidence For the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (London: Williams & Norgate; New York: Putnam & Sons, 1907), 99-100; Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.–A.D. 135) (ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1973), 1:512-513, n. 142; John Wilkinson, Jerusalem as Jesus Knew It: Archaeology as Evidence (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 162-164; Richard M. Mackowski, “Where Is Biblical Emmaus?” Science et Esprit 32.1 (1980): 93-103; Moshe Fischer, Benjamin Isaac and Israel Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II: The Jaffa-Jerusalem Roads (BAR International Series 628; Oxford: 1996), 222-224; Carsten Peter Thiede, “Where Exactly Is Emmaus?” Israel Today (2002): 15; Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2006), 367-68; Paul H. Wright, Greatness Grace & Glory: Carta’s Atlas of Biblical Biography (Jerusalem: Carta, 2008), 197; Hershel Shanks,“Emmaus Where Christ Appeared,” Biblical Archaeology Review 34.2 (2008): 40-80.
  • [2] The Shephelah is an intermediate zone of low rolling hills that forms a north-to-south band between the coastal plain and the hill country of Judea.

     

    A passage from the Jerusalem Talmud also locates this Emmaus on the boundary between the Shephelah and the coastal plain:

    Rabbi Yohanan said: …from Beit Horon to Emmaus [אמאוס] is the mountainous region, from Emmaus to Lod it is Shephelah, from Lod to the sea it is a plain. (y. Sheviit 6:2 [25b])

    In the above statement Rabbi Yohanan describes the road that ran south-west from Beit Horon to Emmaus and then turned north-west from Emmaus to Lod along the boundary between the coastal plain and the Shephelah.

  • [3] See Jos., J.W. 3:55; Ant. 12:298; 13:15; 14:436; cf. 1 Macc. 9:50.
  • [4] Additonal rabbinic sources that may refer to Emmaus-Nicopolis are discussed by Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 153-155.
  • [5] Certainly the Emmaus referred to in the Jerusalem Talmud passage cited in the footnotes above is to be identified with Emmaus-Nicopolis. It is reasonable to suppose that the same Emmaus is referred to in all of the rabbinic passages we have cited.

    The vocalization אַמְאוּס (’am’ūs) is that given in the Kaufmann codex. Jastrow vocalizes this name as אִמָּאוּס (’imā’ūs) and traces it back to Ἐμμαοῦς / Ἀμμαοῦς, which he takes to be a Hellenized form of חַמְּתָה (ḥametāh, “hot springs”). See Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (2d ed.; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903; repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2005), 74. Other scholars, however, question this derivation. See Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 151.

  • [6] See Mackowski, “Where Is Biblical Emmaus?” 96-97; Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 153.
  • [7] Cf. Eusebius, Onomasticon 90:15; Jerome, Letter 108:8.
  • [8] Some New Testament manuscripts read 160 stadia (approximately 19 miles) instead of 60 stadia. This secondary reading appears to be a scribal attempt to conform the biblical text to the tradition that identified Luke’s Emmaus as Emmaus-Nicopolis. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1975), 184-185; c.f. R. Steven Notley, In The Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land (Jerusalem: Carta, 2014), 81-82.
  • [9] See Lake, Historical Evidence for the Resurrection, 100; Notley, In the Master’s Steps, 82.
  • [10] The sixth-century C.E. monk Cyril of Scythopolis also knew of a place by this name, as he refers in his writings to αἰ πηγαὶ Κολωνίας τε καὶ Νεφθοῦς (“the springs of Kolōnia and Nefthous”; Life of Sabas §67 [ed. Schwartz, 168]). Cited by Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 223, who state that Nefthous is to be identified as “Nephtoa (Lifta) near Motza, to the NE.”
  • [11] See Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, 1379; Fischer, Isaac and Roll (Roman Roads in Judaea II, 223) state: “Josephus’ Ammaus must be the same place [as the Kalonya mentioned in the Talmud—DNB] because only a veteran settlement would acquire the name Colonia. Josephus emphasizes that only one such settlement was founded in the area of Jerusalem and there is only one place-name which indicates a connection with veterans in the region.”
  • [12] The rabbinic derivation of the name Motza from the verb for tax exemption (יצא) is not a serious etymology, but the wordplay probably does convey accurate information regarding the Roman settlement at Motza. See Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 222. It is likely that the Jewish population in Motza was either extinguished or displaced prior to the establishment of the veterans’ settlement, and consequently the memory of the Second Temple-period village of Motza had begun to fade by the Talmudic period.  This could explain why Motza had to be identified as Kalonya in rabbinic sources.
  • [13] If the two disciples were, indeed, returning home to Emmaus, this might provide further evidence in support of Robert Lindsey’s theory that at an early stage of his public career Jesus had itinerated throughout Judea. See Robert L. Lindsey, Jesus, Rabbi & Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words, 61-62; David N. Bivin, “Jesus in Judea.” Safrai, on the other hand, suggested that Emmaus was not the final destination of the disciples, but was a stop on their return route to the Galilee. See Shmuel Safrai, Pilgrimage at the Time of the Second Temple (Tel Aviv: Am Hassefer, 1965), 116 (in Hebrew). Safrai appears to have assumed that the Emmaus of Luke 24 was Emmaus-Nicopolis.
  • [14] Archaeological evidence for a Jewish presence in Motza at the end of the Second Temple period include a richly decorated Herodian-period private house south of the road near Motza and the use of Motza marl, a type of clay found at Motza, at a Herodian-period kilnworks at the outskirts of Jerusalem near and above the Emmaus Road. On the Herodian-period house, see Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 226, 229. On the kilnworks, see Benny Arubas and Haim Goldfus, “The Kilnworks of the Tenth Legion Fretensis,” in The Roman and Byzantine Near East: Some Recent Archaeological Research (Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 14; Ann Arbor: 1995), 95-107.
  • [15] The name Motza also appears on seal impressions on jar handles from the late sixth or early fifth century B.C.E. The reference is probably to the same location as that mentioned in Josh. 18:26. Note that the spelling on the jar handles (מצה and מוצה) agrees with the spelling in Joshua (with a final ה) instead of the spelling in the Mishnah (with the final א). On these seal impressions, see Nahman Avigad, “New Light on the MSH Seal Impressions,” Israel Exploration Journal 8 (1958): 113-119.
  • [16] Alexandrinus. Vaticanus renders הַמֹּצָה as Αμωκη (Amōkē).
  • [17] The “a” at the beginning of “Ammaous” evidently is Josephus’ representation of the Hebrew definite article. According to Fischer, Isaac and Roll (Roman Roads in Judea II, 223), “The name ‘Ammaus’ can only with some difficulty be understood as a derivative of ‘Hamoza,’ although this is not impossible.
  • [18] See Michael Zohary, Plants of the Bible: A Complete Handbook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 131.
  • [19] See Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 95, 222, 229.
  • [20] See Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 223.
  • [21] Fischer, Isaac and Roll (Roman Roads in Judaea II, 226) cite J. Press, Eretz-Israel, Topographical and Historical Encyclopedia, iii (1952, Heb.), 558-559, for the Roman bath, but have no further information to offer.
  • [22] See Y. H. Landu, “Unpublished Inscriptions From Israel: A Survey,” in Acta of the Fifth Epigraphic Congress of Greek and Latin Epigraphy Cambridge 1967 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971), 387-390, esp. 389.
  • [23] Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 228.
  • [24] Fischer, Isaac and Roll (Roman Roads of Judaea II, 223) estimated that it would take about an hour to walk thirty stadia, the distance Josephus measured between Jerusalem and the Emmaus that became a Roman colony. However Fischer, Isaac and Roll also note that Josephus’ measurement of thirty stadia from Jerusalem to Motza-Emmaus is only a rough estimate. They measure the distance as thirty-eight stadia, which agrees even better with the results of my walking experiment.
  • [25] See Wright, Greatness Grace & Glory, 197.
  • [26] The Israel Antiquities Authority’s report, entitled “Ma’ale Romaim, Road” was completed by Shachar Poni, Jerusalem’s city architect, and Jon Seligman, Jerusalem’ regional archaeologist, in the summer of 2002. The report can be viewed at the following web address: http://www.antiquities.org.il/images/archinfo//001-030/029.pdf, and is archived here. Translations of the IAA’s report quoted in this article are my own.
  • [27] For a more comprehensive description of this part of the Roman road, see Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads of Judaea II, 95-97.
  • [28] See M. Avi-Yonah, “The Development of the Roman Road System in Palestine,” Israel Exploration Journal 1 (1950): 54-60; Israel Roll, “The Roman Road System in Judaea,” Jerusalem Cathedra 3 (1983): 136-161; Yoram Tsafrir, Leah Di Segni and Judith Green, Tabula Imperii Romani Iudaea Palestina: Eretz Israel in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994), 21; Fischer, Isaac and Roll, Roman Roads in Judaea II, 1.
  • [29] The milestone, which makes reference to the Emperor Vespasian, was found near present-day Afula in the Jezreel valley. On this milestone see, Benjamin Isaac and Israel Roll, “A Milestone of A.D. 69 From Judaea: The Elder Trajan and Vespasian,” Journal of Roman Studies 66 (1976): 15-19. On Roman milestones from the land of Israel in general, see Benjamin Isaac, “Milestones in Judaea from Vespasian to Constantine,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 110 (1978): 47-60.

Holy Land Postcard: Hula Valley Nature Reserve

The featured image above shows numerous migratory birds who find refuge in the Hula Valley Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.
A boardwalk allows visitors to walk out over the Hula lake. Blinds (shown here on the left) conceal visitors from the local wildlife. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.
A boardwalk allows visitors to walk out over the Hula Lake. Blinds (shown here on the left) conceal visitors from the local wildlife. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.

The Hula Valley is the site of a wide shallow marsh and lake fed by the Jordan River as it flows from its sources at the foot of Mount Hermon. When modern Israelis began to populate the Hula Valley, a serious problem was malaria infection, which was transmitted by the Anopheles mosquitoes that bred in the valley’s wetlands. War and conflicts delayed early plans to drain the swamp in order to make the land useful for agriculture, with the result that major drainage of the Hula Valley did not begin until the early 1950s. In hindsight that decision has been rethought as naturalists came to realize how important diverse ecosystems are to a healthy environment, and efforts were made to return at least some of the area to the natural ecosystem that was lost. The result of this effort is the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, which I visited on a recent trip to Israel.

Catfish team in the waters of the Hula lake. These non-kosher fish (because they lack scales) were the "bad fish" in Jesus' parable of the drag net. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.
Catfish teem in the waters of the Hula Lake. These non-kosher fish (because they lack scales) were the “bad fish” in Jesus’ parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:48). Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.

The Hula Valley Nature Reserve protects the habitat of some of Israel’s rarest wetland flora and fauna. The reserve also provides visitors with access to a fascinating range of wildlife, with easy walking trails and shelters to observe them without too much disruption of their environment.

A coypu swims past a group of lazily sunbathing turtles. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.
A coypu swims past a group of lazily sunbathing turtles. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.

On my visit I was able to photograph some broad shots for an overview of the lake, as well as migrating pelicans flying overhead, catfish swimming in the waters below, turtles sunning themselves on rocks, water buffalo grazing, and coypu (an aquatic rodent originally from South America) nibbling on the vegetation.

The beautiful white-throated kingfisher is a common sight at the Hula Valley Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.
The beautiful white-throated kingfisher is a common sight at the Hula Valley Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.

A coypu contentedly munches on the abundant vegetation. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.
A coypu contentedly munches on the abundant vegetation. Photo courtesy of Gary Asperschlager.

 

A visit to the Hula Valley Nature Reserve adds the enjoyment of observing the natural beauty of God’s creation to the usual pilgrim’s goal of experiencing the biblical geography of the Holy Land.

Gospel Postcard: Magdala

The earliest mention of Magdala, a town which lay on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, is found in the writings of Strabo (mid-first cent. B.C.E to early first cent. C.E.). Strabo, who referred to Magdala by its Greek name Taricheae (“salted fish”), stated: “At the place called Taricheae the lake supplies excellent fish for pickling; and on its banks grow fruit-bearing trees” (Geography 16:2 §45; Loeb). Magdala’s Hebrew name, Migdal Nunia (“fish tower”; b. Pes. 46a), also refers to the fishing industry, which was the economic backbone of this town. Both the Babylonian Talmud (ibid.) and Josephus (Life §157) mention Magdala with respect to its proximity to the city of Tiberias.

View from Magdala's shore facing south toward Tiberias. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
View from Magdala’s shore facing south toward Tiberias. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
The cliffs of Arbel overshadow the site of Magdala. Image courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
The cliffs of Arbel overshadow the site of Magdala. Image courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

The Gospels do not mention Magdala except obliquely as the hometown of “Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out” (Luke 8:2; cf. Mark 16:9). Since “Mary” was one of the most common names for Jewish women in the first century C.E., mentioning the town of her origin helped to distinguish this Mary from the other Marys who were associated with Jesus.

Despite the absence of any definite report in the Gospels to confirm our suspicions, the probability that Jesus visited Magdala during his itinerant mission is strong. Not only did Jesus have at least one follower from Magdala—the Mary mentioned above—but literary and recent archaeological evidence reveals that Magdala boasted a vibrant Jewish community in the first century C.E.

A Magdal street blocked with column drums, perhaps part of Josephus' defensive preparations for the Roman assault. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
A Magdala street blocked with column drums, perhaps part of Josephus’ defensive preparations for the Roman assault. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

According to Josephus, Magdala was an important Jewish population center at least as early as the mid-first century B.C.E. (J.W. 1:180). Josephus, who was commander of the Galilee during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, describes how, in preparation for the Roman assault, he had personally overseen the fortification of Magdala. Although Josephus boasts that Magdala was “completely surrounded…with solid ramparts” except for the side facing the water (J.W. 3:464), only hastily built roadblocks have been found in recent excavations. These finds confirm Josephus’ own admission that the fortification of Magdala was not as strong as that of Tiberias (J.W. 3:465).

A ritual immersion bath (mikveh) discovered at Magdala. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.
A ritual immersion bath (mikveh) discovered at Magdala. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Other archaeological finds indicating a flourishing Jewish presence in Magdala include several ritual baths (mikva’ot), a public structure, which has been identified as the first-century synagogue, and a stone table bearing the earliest known carving of the Temple’s menorah (see featured image above). These new archaeological finds attest to the bustling Jewish town that thrived on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus.

 

 

Aerial photograph of the first-century synagogue discovered at Magdala. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Aerial photograph of the first-century synagogue discovered at Magdala. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In The Master's Steps

To learn more about Magdala and other towns that Jesus may have visited, we recommend Dr. R. Steven Notley’s New Testament atlas, In the Master’s Steps: The Gospels in the Land (Jerusalem: Carta, 2014).

Biblical Geography on YouTube

We at Jerusalem Perspective would like our readers to be aware of an excellent resource for studying biblical geography: the Satellite Bible Atlas video commentary series on YouTube. The videos explore the physical settings of biblical narratives, helping viewers to understand how the lay of the land shaped and informed biblical events. The satellite images and aerial photographs featured in the videos afford a bird’s-eye view of Bible lands with a precision and accuracy no ordinary map can provide.

Watch the first video in the series here:

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The video commentary is a companion to the Satellite Bible Atlas by William Schlegel, Associate Professor of Bible at The Master’s College, Israel Bible Extension (IBEX). But even for those who do not own the Satellite Bible Atlas, the videos offer an excellent introduction to the physical settings of the Bible.

 

 

 

Video Clip: Halvor Ronning on “The Importance of Bible Geography for Understanding Jesus”

In this video, excerpted from his lecture “The Importance of Bible Geography for Understanding Jesus,” delivered at the 2006 Jerusalem Perspective Conference, “Insights into Jesus of Nazareth: His Words, His Wisdom, His World,” Halvor Ronning discusses the important role geography plays in the story and message of Jesus.

JP-Conference-LogoThe complete lecture, along with the rest of the presentations delivered at the 2006 Jerusalem Perspective conference, is available through the En-Gedi Resource Center. To purchase the lectures in audio MP3 format, or to purchase video recordings of the lectures included in an 8 DVD set, click here.

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Jesus the Galilean, a Stranger in Judea?

Over a year ago Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition (not the Justin Taylor, SM of Hebrew University) posted a blog summarizing seven differences between Judea and the Galilee during the Time of Jesus. The summary was from R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew.[1] While I agree with France’s so-called lament that NT scholars know little about the world of “first-century Palestine,” we should be careful not to carry on long-standing myths about the world of 1st century Judaism that do not bear out in archaeological or historical sources.

While there were differences between Galilee and Judea these differences seem limited to geographical realities and particular interpretations regarding the commandments. We should not presume, however, that the ancient Jewish communities’ lack of monolithic (or unilateral) unity is equal to a stark separation in thought, language, and even race.[2] Unfortunately, if Taylor’s summary of France is correct, his list of differences between Galileans and Judeans does not take into account the full weight of archaeological and historical evidence. Much of this regarding the Galileans is the mistaken notion that in the days of Simon to Judah Aristobulus, the Maccabean kings repopulated the Lower Galilee on the western side of the lake with Itureans who were forcefully converted to Judaism. In that sense, the Jews of Galilee were distinctly different than their Judean counterparts. The Galileans Jews were thus uneducated, agrarian groups of commoners who were looked down upon by the educated and wealthy southerners. Thus, Jesus’ Galilee, and Jesus himself, was part of society that descended from forced converts who spoke differently and were lax concerning the observance of the law. At a minimum it separates Jesus (philosophically, religiously, and culturally) from the religious and cultural center of Jewish life in the 1st century. That minimum is too heavy a price to pay!

So I will deal briefly with Taylor’s seven points and what is France’s final result. Taylor’s comments appear italicized with a corresponding JT. My comments will appear below the quote.

1. Racially

JT: …the area of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel had, ever since the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C., a more mixed population, within which more conservative Jewish areas (like Nazareth and Capernaum) stood in close proximity to largely pagan cities, of which in the first century the new Hellenistic centers of Tiberias and Sepphoris were the chief examples.

First, “racially” is intentionally provocative and furthers the assumed chasm between Galilee and Judea. Let me just add that all of these seven points are closely intertwined and really should be spoken of as a unit which defines the cultural/religio-historical reality of the Galilee in the first century CE. But we will proceed with the points as they have been presented.

To this point, archaeology has shown that after the Assyrian conquest of the Galilee, the population of the Galilee declined. At sites that have been excavated throughout the Galilee there is a lack of continuation of settlement between the 8th and 5th century BCE.[3] In fact, Aviam has shown that while in the larger cities—like Sepphoris and Tiberias—there was a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, while smaller villages, which in the Lower and Upper Galilee were predominantly Jewish, maintained closed communities.[4] Aviam concludes, “There were apparently no pagan temples or communities in the rural areas of Eastern Upper Galilee and Lower Galilee.”[5]

Excavations of Sepphoris have shown that during the time of Jesus the city had a vibrant Jewish population—a city that Joseph, a craftsman, and Jesus would have went to work and even perhaps visited the market. One of the indicators of Sepphoris’ Jewishness is the discovery of numerous ritual immersion pools—though scholars have debated their identification (Hanan Eshel[6] , Ronny Reich[7] ). Wherever one stands on this debate, Meyers and Chancey have noted the following: “Unfortunately, some scholars have misperceived Sepphoris as a center of Greco-Roman culture in the time of Jesus on the basis of finds from the centuries after Jesus. Sepphoris was indeed a thriving and growing city in the early first century C.E., but the evidence for Hellenistic culture is limited. As for the city’s population, the overwhelming majority were Jews. Gentiles, if they were present at all, were a small and uninfluential minority.”[8] More recently Chancey adds that the evidence for Gentiles in Sepphoris of the first century CE is actually quite small.[9] So, a Hellenistic center, Sepphoris was not! In addition, archaeological studies in Tiberias, founded by Herod Antipas in 20 CE,  shows the presence of pagans and their temples. Tiberias’ absence from the New Testament is perhaps the result of the city’s foundation being laid on a cemetery. The archaeological record, however, still indicates a  Jewish presence.

2. Geographically

JT: Galilee was separated from Judea by the non-Jewish territory of Samaria, and from Perea in the southeast by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis.

1) The Samaritans are not necessarily Jewish. While there still remains some question as to their origin, they may have originated in part from the northern tribes that were destroyed during the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century BCE. They accept, however, a Pentateuch that is very similar to the Jewish Pentateuch albeit with certain alterations that place the Samaritan holy place in Mount Gerizim (Samaria). For all intents and purpose, their traditions closely parallel many of the Jewish holidays and celebrations.[10] It is true however that Jews and Samaritans, since the days Hasmoneans, had a tense relationship.

2) Decapolis: It does not appear that the Decapolis, a federation of 10 Greco-Roman cities, existed during the days of Jesus and historical sources indicate that this federation is known in different formations only after the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). Notley comments, “We simply do not know what the genesis was for the origins of the Decapolis. It may have stemmed from the desire of these cities to define themselves in contradistinction to the neighboring regions heavily populated with Jews, who had recently rebelled against Rome.Use of the term in the Gospels may reflect the period in which the individual writings were composed (i.e. post-70 CE), because there is no corroborating evidence to suggest that the Decapolis was known in the days of Jesus.”[11]

3) In reality, Taylor’s summary of France is simply a geographical description of the Holy Land in the days of Jesus (except of course from the Decapolis). We know, however, that rites of pilgrimage significantly narrowed the geographical differences between the Galilee and Judea. Three times a year—Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), and Feast of Booths (Sukkot)—Jewish communities would set up caravans to make a pilgrimages to Jerusalem.[12] Jesus, though a Galilean is presented in the Gospels as coming to Jerusalem during these Holy Days (e.g., John 10:22). When he was a child he visited the holy city with his parents every year (Luke 2)—a tradition he likely kept during his adult years. Furthermore, Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem was not simply the time of his crucifixion and resurrection; it was also Passover—one of the holidays that Jesus appeared to observe on a yearly basis. So, in this case, the Galileans, at least according to the Gospels, would feel comfortable in Judea and in Jerusalem. Some of this comfort is related to the fact that many of the Jewish Galileans descended from Judeans who migrated from the south to repopulate the Galilee during the Hasmonean period. Additionally, historical sources indicate that many of the priests who serve in Jerusalem’s Temple lived in the Galilee. We even have evidence in the plain of Genosar (in the Galilee) of wealthy priests who may have played a role in controlling the Temple. So, it is clear that  Judeans are welcomed in the Galilee and vice versa.

3. Politically

JT: Galilee had been under separate administration from Judea during almost all its history since the tenth century B.C. (apart from a period of “reunification” under the Maccabees), and in the time of Jesus it was under a (supposedly) native Herodian prince, while Judea and Samaria had since A.D. 6 been under the direct rule of a Roman prefect.

This administrative difference does not necessarily affect the Jewish  identity of the Galileans. At the end of the day, although Antipas was in control of Galilee (since the death of his father Herod) and generally a procurator (e.g., Pilate) was in control of Judea, Rome was in control. From the documents available to us, it does not seem that the administrative reality had much of an effect on the religious identity of Jewish communities in either the Galilee or Judea.

4. Economically

JT: Galilee offered better agricultural and fishing resources than the more mountainous territory of Judea, making the wealth of some Galileans the envy of their southern neighbors.

Unfortunately, this is stated with no reference to either France or any ancient sources. While there were surely wealthy Jewish Galileans, Jerusalem was no stranger to wealth. Discoveries from the Second Temple period in what is now Jerusalem’s Old City (known as the Herodian quarter) have revealed massive palatial homes, which were apparently occupied by the Jerusalem priests and other wealthy inhabitants. Surely, the ability fish—to which 16, or so, first century harbors have been identified—and the fertile soil of the Galilee (e.g. the Beth Netofa Valley) would have brought wealth to some,  I am not sure that we have any evidence for a general wealth that was “envied” by the Judeans. Moreover, had their been any “envious” feelings between Judeans and Galilean, we should not presume that it was widespread or common, especially when we are lacking evidence for such a thing.

5. Culturally

JT: Judeans despised their northern neighbors as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication being compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence.

Not so. Greco-Roman life and architecture existed in a number of places through the Land of Israel, especially in major cities. In fact, as the archaeological record has shown, within major cities there was a co-existence between Jews and Gentiles. Josephus remarks that within the Holy City of Jerusalem there was an amphitheater and a theater—clear signs of Hellenistic influence upon a city. Josephus remarks further that these Hellenistic elements were not in line with Judaism (Ant 15:268). But in Galilean villages, those communities that were Jewish appear to be closed communities—in other words they maintained their Jewish cultural distinctions, some of which they shared with their Jewish communities in the south. Furthermore, those Jewish communities appear to makeup a significant geographical chunk of the Lower and eastern Upper Galilee—that is on the western side of the lake. Archaeologically speaking, the Gentile communities on the western shore of the sea of Galilee seem to form a ring of sorts around the Jewish villages that occupy a large portion of the western shore. The southern most border of this ring is the Jezreel valley (or Mt. Tabor), on the eastern end is the Gentile city of Beth-Shean, the western boundary is the village Chabulon located near the coastal city of Akko-Ptolemais (which was a large Gentile city), with the northern border being made up by Baqa (Peqi’in) and Thella (northeastern).[13]

The map gives one idea of the Jewish/Gentile border on the Western side of the lake. This is adapted from Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee form a boundary of sorts. There are also Jewish sites on the eastern side of the lake, especially in certain parts of the Golan (e.g. Gamla).
The map gives one idea of the Jewish/Gentile border on the Western side of the lake. This is adapted from Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. The Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee form a boundary of sorts. There are also Jewish sites on the eastern side of the lake, particularly in certain parts of the Golan (e.g. Gamla).

6. Linguistically

JT: Galileans spoke a distinctive form of Aramaic whose slovenly consonants (they dropped their aitches!) were the butt of Judean humor.

Dialectal differences between the Galileans and Judeans in the Second Temple period are not necessarily an easy thing to assess. Furthermore, much of this information is taken from Rabbinic literature. The problem with this methodology is that New Testament scholars fail to note that there was a considerable linguistic shift after the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE), nearly 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.[14] Therefore, we cannot simply use post-Bar Kokhba evidence to determine the linguistic nature of the Galilee in the first century. In fact, Turnage has noted from the evidence available that the linguistic nature of the Galilee was tri-lingual (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) where Hebrew—though both Aramaic and Greek were known and used—would have been the primarily language in use.

7. Religiously

JT: …the Judean opinion was that Galileans were lax in their observance of proper ritual, and the problem was exacerbated by the distance of Galilee from the temple and the theological leadership, which was focused in Jerusalem.

Schiffman answers this succintly: [W]e find no evidence of widespread laxity in the Galilee in tannaitic times or later. On the contrary, our study finds time and again that tannaitic sources attributed to the Galileans a higher degree of stringency in halakhic observance than to the Judeans… [I]n most cases, the Galileans were more stringent in regard to the law than their Judean coreligionists. Other instances indicate that differences of practice were minor or resulted from distance from the Temple. In no case did the sources portray the Galileans as lenient or less observant.[15] Safrai has also noted this Galilean stringency to halakhic matters.[16] The stringency that is reported of the Sages from Galilee in the Rabbinic period probably developed and was influenced by the Galilean sages of the Early Roman period.[17]

France’s conclusion as quoted by Taylor

JT:…even an impeccably Jewish Galilean in first-century Jerusalem was not among his own people; he was as much a foreigner as an Irishman in London or a Texan in New York. His accent would immediately mark him out as “not one of us,” and all the communal prejudice of the supposedly superior culture of the capital city would stand against his claim to be heard even as a prophet, let alone as the “Messiah,” a title which, as everyone knew, belonged to Judea (cf. John 7:40-42).

This is not the case. While we must assess for the development of cultural distinctions between Galilee and Judea, we must also take into account how the two Jewish revolts affected these areas. They would have precipitated significant communal shifts, therefore we need to be careful reading Rabbinic opinions back into the Second Temple period without a close examination. That being said, if handled correctly one gets an opportunity to see in Rabbinic literature how Tannaitic literature to some extent develops from the early Roman period. This includes, Galilean stringency to the observance of the Law and the fact that many of our most respected rabbis were originally from the Galilee. Furthermore, the pilgrimage festivals, Jesus’ desire to be in Jerusalem (as well as his family’s yearly journeys to Jerusalem), and the Pharisaic presence in the Galilee suggest that there is a close connection between these two geographical locations.

Taylor’s final point:

JT: This may at first blush sound like interesting background material that is not especially helpful for reading and interpreting the gospels. But Mark and Matthew have structured their narratives around a geographical framework dividing the north and the south, culminating in the confrontation of this prophet from Galilee and the religious establishment of Jerusalem.

Coming this far, we must re-imagine Taylor’s final statement. Noting the geographical differences present in Matt and Mark (not so much in Luke) may be heavy-handed, since it does not seem to effect many of the stories, if any stories, in the Gospels. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, especially in Luke, it is his overwhelming popularity that prevents the priestly elite from getting a hold of him (Luke 19:48). The popularity is not only from Galileans who have traveled to Jerusalem, but from Judeans as well. In fact those that cried over Jesus during the crucifixion are referred to as the “daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23:28). Those who are said to weep were Jerusalemites crying over the death of a Galilean. So we have clear evidence in the Gospels that a Galilean finds acceptance, and was in fact “at home,” in Jerusalem, and Judea.[18] Thus, it is clear that Jesus the Galilean, and by extension the Galileans, generally speaking, did not find Jerusalem to be an alien city—neither an Irish man in London, or an Englishman in New York—religiously, culturally, or linguistically. Apart from Jesus, such can be seen in the book of Acts. In the early chapters of Acts, the members of The Way frequent the Temple in Jerusalem and as we move through out the book it appears the early church has centralized themselves in Jerusalem. This suggests that Jesus, the Galilean, was not the only one that felt comfortable in Judea, his disciples felt the same.

We should attribute any differences between Galileans and Judeans, especially what we have recorded in historical documents, primarily to issues of opposing halakhic opinions. Various halakhic opinions should not be understood, however, as a point of stark division in Judaism but rather a point of intra-Jewish discourse. The disagreements that Jesus often finds himself in are generally matters of Torah observance. To suggest that the aforementioned seven points stand is to misread the evidence that we know with the unnecessary consequence of tearing Jesus from his proper place in Jewish culture.

  • [1] (NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)
  • [2] As you will see below “race” is a term used by France. It is an unfortunate term that I do not think best describes the differences between Galilee and the Judea
  • [3] Mordechai Aviam, “The Hasmonean Dynasty’s Activities in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Galilee—35 Years of Archaeological Excavations and Surveys: Hellenistic to Byzantine Period (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 41.
  • [4] See Aviam’s discussion of the Jewish and Gentile border in “Border between Jews and Gentiles in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans, and Christians, 9-21
  • [5] “Borders between Jews and Gentiles in the Galilee” in Jews, Pagans, and Christians, 17.
  • [6] “They are not Ritual Baths” BAR 26/4 (Jul/Aug, 2000).
  • [7] “They are Ritual Baths” BAR 28/2 (Mar/Apr, 2002).
  • [8] Mark Chancey and Eric Meyers, “How Jewish Was Sepphoris in the Time if Jesus” BAR 26/04 (July/Aug, 2000).
  • [9] “The Myth of a Gentile Galilee” The Bible and Interpretation (Feb, 2003). See also, idem, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (SNTSM 118; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • [10] “Samaritans” Encyclopedia Judaica (vol. 17; New York: Thomas Gale, 2007 ), 718-737.
  • [11] Anson Rainey and Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2005), 362.
  • [12] See Shmuel Safrai, “Pilgrimage in the Time of Jesus”; also, idem, Pilgrimage in the Time of the Second Temple (Jerusalem, 1985 [Heb.]); Mordechai Aviam, “Reverence for Jerusalem and the Temple in Galilean Society,” in Jesus and the Temple: Textual and Archaeological Explorations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 123-144.
  • [13] Aviam, “The Borders,” 13. These boundaries are based on Josephus’ description of when he comes to the Galilee to fortify certain cities and prepare for war with Rome.
  • [14] Marc Turnage, “The Linguistic Ethos of the Galilee,” The Language Envoronment in First Century Judea: Studies in the Synoptic Gospels vol. 2 (JCP 26; Leiden: Brill, 2014); cf. also Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language, 115-116.
  • [15] Lawrence Schiffman, “Was There a Galilean Halakhah?” in The Galilee in Antiquity (New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 144–45.
  • [16] Safrai, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century” in The New Testament and Jewish-Christian Dialogue, Immanuel 24/25, 174–80; See the JP version.
  • [17] Turnage, “Linguistic Ethos,” 173.
  • [18] For the record it should be noted that the word Ἰουδαία (Judea) and its various forms appear sparingly in the Synoptic Gospels and not as some sort of foreign territory separated from the Galilee.

Views That Have Vanished: The Photographs of David Bivin

Forty-five years ago, when I first came to Israel, I was an avid photographer. Throughout the 1960s, I traveled all over the country with my camera in hand, taking pictures of beautiful landscapes, archaeological excavations, and cultural events. After about a decade and several thousand photographs, I put the camera aside and turned to other pursuits. When publishing Jerusalem Perspective magazine (in the 1980s and 1990s), I had great need of images for the magazine, but time and technology never allowed me to make use of those photos. About four years ago, I approached Todd Bolen (founder of BiblePlaces.com) with the idea of creating a digital collection from the best of my photographs. Today, I am pleased to announce that the collection is finished and available.

The collection is a real treat, as Israel has changed dramatically in the last four decades. We selected the 700 best photographs from Israel, the West Bank (in the early 1960s, before it was captured by Israel), Jordan, and other countries. I have relived the events, as I added explanations to the photographs. The CD-ROM has all of the images in high-resolution, in both jpg and PowerPoint format.

Capernaum synagogue and Church of Peter, 1968

If you want to get an idea of just how much things have changed, take a look at some “Then and Now” views. On the CD, we have more than 100 photo comparisons that illustrate how urbanization and archaeological work has dramatically changed the look of the biblical sites.

There are many unique photos in the collection, including:

    • Archaeological excavations with Yigael Yadin at Megiddo and Masada
    • The Old City of Jerusalem shortly after its capture by Israel in June 1967

Beth Shean before excavations, 1968

  • Important biblical sites in the West Bank that are hard (or impossible) to visit today, including Hebron, Shiloh, Shechem, and Samaria
  • Photographs of many of my teachers, including well-known scholars such as Michael Avi-Yonah, Anson Rainey, Avraham Malamat, Nelson Glueck, and Yohanan Aharoni
  • Biblical sites that have since been destroyed, including the palace of Saul at Gibeah, and the house of Peter at Capernaum before it was built over
  • Military parades in Jerusalem, including the one commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the state of Israel

We think you’ll love traveling back through time and seeing the land the way that it was. You can read more about the collection, see a complete list of photos, and learn why this collection is unique.

David Bivin

Jaffa Gate shortly after the capture of the Old City, July 1967

Israel: A Relief Map on the Scale of 1:1

One of the many exciting advantages of living in Israel is access to biblical sites. Nothing beats reading a biblical story at the place where it happened. A few months ago, I took a group of tourists to the Galilee. In this photo (courtesy of Horst Krueger) I stand, Bible in hand, on Tel Jezreel, site of the winter palace (near Naboth’s vineyard) of Jehoram, the son of Ahab. I am reading to the tour group the story of General Jehu’s furious chariot drive from Ramoth Gilead to Jezreel, and his execution of Jehoram, king of Israel; Ahaziah, king of Judah; and Jehoram’s mother, the wicked Queen Jezebel (2 Kings 9).

The BiblePlaces Newsletter

I want to bring to your attention an exciting and colorful newsletter. If you are a teacher or student of the Bible, you will want to subscribe to it. It’s free!

The BiblePlaces Newsletter features free, high-resolution photographs of sites and scenes related to the Scriptures. Each monthly issue also has the latest in archaeological discoveries and related resources, particularly of use to those who teach the Bible. In a recent issue, about half a dozen photographs of the Judean Wilderness were included and these can be used freely for educational purposes. In an upcoming issue, the author promises a review of electronic maps that can be incorporated into PowerPoint presentations. Another sample issue is available here, and you can subscribe here.

The Sea of Galilee from Arbel. Photo from the BiblePlaces Newsletter, November 2011.

Jesus’ Final Journey to Jerusalem

Revised: 2-Dec.-2015

Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for the events collectively referred to as the “Passion Week” was well planned. For some time he had been “on his way to Jerusalem” (cf. Luke 9:51; 17:11), and in his final approach he passed through Jericho. This oasis city had been in existence already for thousands of years, and its location astride the route to Jerusalem brought many travelers.

Jericho Area From the South

The blind man Bartimaeus probably benefited from the generosity of many pilgrims who were en route to celebrate the feasts at the Temple (Luke 18:35-43). Not satisfied with this, Bartimaeus pleaded with the “Son of David” to restore his sight. In healing him, Jesus praised this blind man for his eyes of faith, which though not seeing, believed.

Sycamore-fig tree in Jericho

Continuing into Jericho, Jesus and the disciples passed a sycamore-fig tree. This hardy tree is evergreen, but its fruit is not as desirable as the true fig. Reaching heights of up to 60 feet (20 m.), one short tax collector found a perch in it to see the Messiah (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the tree and invited himself to the man’s house. Though “on his way to Jerusalem,” Jesus made time to bring healing to a second inhabitant of Jericho, and before he departed he noted that “salvation had come to this house.”

Herod’s palace in Jericho

The road to Jerusalem leads past the site of a series of palaces along the banks of the Wadi Qilt. Built first by the Hasmonean kings, these palaces were later enlarged and rebuilt by Herod the Great. At 800 feet (250 m.) below sea level, the Jericho area is warm in the winter, making it Herod’s favorite retreat in the colder months. Shortly after ordering the slaughter of babies in Bethlehem, Herod died here. At its peak, the complex included multiple wings spanning both sides of the Wadi Qilt, a sunken garden, large swimming pools, bathhouses, and beautifully decorated reception halls.

The Ascent of Adumim

From Herod’s palace, the road begins a quick and difficult ascent into the Judean wilderness. Known biblically as the “Ascent of Adumim,” this road travels on the southern side of the Wadi Qilt (Josh. 15:7). In the photo, the Wadi Qilt is the deep gorge running diagonally from the lower right corner and the Ascent of Adumim can be seen just above it. Herod’s palaces are located where the Wadi Qilt enters the Jordan Valley, and the Dead Sea is 6 miles (10 km.) south. The root of “Adumim” means “red,” and the plural may be translated as “red places.” The name most likely comes from the red earth that appears along the route.

The Judean Wilderness

The journey from Jericho to Jerusalem is an arduous trip of 18 miles (29 km.). From an elevation of 800 feet (250 m.) below sea level to the summit of the Mount of Olives at 3,000 feet (940 m.) above sea level, Jesus and the other pilgrims would have climbed nearly 4,000 feet (1,250 m.) in the day’s journey. Furthermore, the terrain of the Judean Wilderness is dry, rugged, and with few sources of water. This un-populated region provided seclusion and refuge for those like Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist.

Shepherd with Flock in Wilderness

Following the winter rains, this same wilderness is full of life. The normally barren hills sprout green grass and colorful flowers. Shepherds are quick to take advantage of the conditions and graze their flocks. The “Son of David” certainly would have recalled his forefather who once tended his sheep in this area. In his teaching Jesus referenced the temporary nature of such grass (Luke 12:28), and his disciple Peter would later recall Isaiah’s words, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Pet. 1:24- 25). The haste with which the grass withers can be seen in a few days in the wilderness.

Inn of the Good Samaritan

Further along the road to Jerusalem is the traditional “Inn of the Good Samaritan.” Jesus had given the parable of the man who “was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves” (Luke 10:30). The traditional inn is much later than the time of Jesus, but certainly the disciples and pilgrims were familiar with the potentially dangerous conditions of this route. Travel in groups provided not only companionship but protection. As Jesus approached Jerusalem this time, it was in anticipation of the feast of Passover, and the pilgrim throngs along the way were apparently treated to more parables from the master-teacher (cf. Luke 19:11ff.).

Perath (Farah) Spring in Wadi Qilt

One of the springs not far off the route to Jerusalem is the Perath spring. This abundant source of water supplied many thirsty travelers in antiquity. The LORD once sent Jeremiah to this spring as one of his object lessons (Jer. 13). Hiding his loincloth in a crevice, Jeremiah returned sometime later to find it completely ruined. In the same way, the LORD intended to bring to ruin the pride of the people of Judah and Jerusalem. A few centuries later, Jesus would weep for those descendants of Jeremiah’s hearers who too rejected the plan of God for them.

Mount of Olives, Judean Wilderness and Dead Sea—Looking Southeast.

The final ascent to Jerusalem is over the Mount of Olives. The three peaks of the two-mile-long ridge are dominated by towers today (marked 1, 2, 3 on photo). Jesus would have deviated from the main route just before reaching his destination in Bethany (marked B). In the distance are the Judean Wilderness and the Dead Sea, both natural barriers to traffic from the east. Because of the isolation, Herod the Great built two strong fortresses in this area. Closer to Jerusalem he constructed the Herodium, and along the western shore of the Dead Sea he fortified Masada.

Location of Bethany

The ancient village of Bethany is today known as el-Azarieh, preserving the name of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus stopped short of Jerusalem to spend the night and enjoy a feast with his friends (John 12; Mark 14). The site is today commemorated by two churches (Roman Catholic – left; Greek Orthodox – right) with the traditional tomb of Lazarus in between (cf. John 11). On the following day when Jesus headed into Jerusalem, he stopped at Bethphage to mount a colt before riding in to the acclamations of the crowd.

Photographs courtesy of BiblePlaces.com. Click on this link to view some of the thousands of high-resolution images by Todd Bolen available in “The Pictorial Library of Bible Lands” collection.

The Search for Bethsaida: Is It Over?

One of the challenging tasks for archaeologists and biblical historians alike is the identification of sites mentioned in the Bible—some of which were destroyed and disappeared in time without a trace. The first comprehensive attempt to locate these sites was that of Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian (ca. 265-339 A.D.). In his Onomasticon Eusebius cataloged all of the cities and regions mentioned in the Old Testament and the Gospels.[1] Supplementing this list when possible, Eusebius provided detailed information concerning their locations, including their distances in Roman miles from other well-known cities and villages.

Although the scale of Eusebius’ compilation is impressive, the work’s most glaring failure is the historian’s unfamiliarity with the Hebrew of the Old Testament. On occasion he mistakes a Hebrew adverb, adjective or obscure noun for a proper name. In so doing, he (and/or the Greek translations he used) invented places that never existed. At other times, the brevity of his descriptions—with nothing more than details taken from the Bible itself and no additional information about the site—suggests that the location of the site was already lost by the beginning of the fourth century.

This seems to be the case with Bethsaida, one of the cities mentioned in connection with the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13). Eusebius reports: “The city of Andrew and Peter and Philip. It is located in the Galilee next to the lake of Gennesaret.” Eusebius drew his information about Bethsaida from the tradition of the Fourth Gospel that it was the home of Philip, Andrew and Peter (Jn. 1:44), and “in the Galilee” (Jn. 12:21). His detail that it was “next (pros) to the lake of Gennesaret” is taken from the description by the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius (Antiquities 18.28), whom Eusebius credits by name elsewhere. Since Eusebius only repeats details about Bethsaida found in well-known, first-century witnesses, and he himself supplies no additional physical details, it seems reasonable to conclude that by his own day the hometown of the apostles had been abandoned and its location forgotten. Other desolated biblical sites—that amounted to nothing more than a visible pile of ruins in the fourth century—are described as such by Eusebius. His silence concerning Bethsaida would seem to indicate that our New Testament city had disappeared entirely.

Bethsaida was lost for centuries, and its location the subject of speculation by pilgrims and mapmakers. With the advent of geographical exploration of the Holy Land in the nineteenth century, the search intensified in the northern region of the Sea of Galilee. Two theories put forward during that time still dominate the debate today. Edward Robinson (1838) was the first to suggest that et-Tell—the location of the present-day Bethsaida Excavations Project (BEP) under the direction of Dr. Rami Arav—was the site of ancient Bethsaida-Julias. Later, a German explorer, Gottlieb Schumacher (1888), proposed an alternative site at el-Araj—today located on lands maintained by the Israel Nature Reserves. Although never excavated, el-Araj is favored by Mendel Nun of Kibbutz Ein Gev, primarily on the basis of early Roman-period surface remains, a few of which are still visible near the present-day shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Over the last decade the debate between these two opinions has intensified on the pages of scholarly journals. Although Nun is widely considered one of Israel’s leading authorities on the Sea of Galilee, editors of a recent article by him in Biblical Archaeology Review felt the need to excise his identification of Bethsaida at el-Araj.[2] Less than six months later, they published an article by Arav championing the identification of Bethsaida at et-Tell.[3] Today, for Christian visitors to the Holy Land, the debate seems a foregone conclusion. Et-Tell is identified both on Israel government maps and road signs as “Bethsaida.”

Yet, have ten years of excavations at et-Tell demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it was the site of ancient Bethsaida? Nagging questions remain. True, it is rare that archeology can prove with absolute certainty the identity of a particular site. Recent exceptions are Tel-Miqne (Ekron) and Tel el-Qadi (Dan), where inscriptions found at those sites identified them as the ancient biblical cities. More often, however, the task of site identification is the complex application of multiple disciplines: historical philology, linguistics, geography and archaeology.

While there are limits to the certainty of conclusions drawn solely on the basis of archaeological excavations, they can serve in another way—to eliminate mistaken identification. If multiple, independent and reliable historical sources indicate human settlement during a particular period, and an archaeological investigation finds no corresponding material remains that correlate to that historical period, then the paucity of the evidence brings into question the identification of the site. In this brief study I want to survey the ancient historical descriptions of Bethsaida and conclude by asking whether the ancient picture of the site corresponds to the discoveries of the Bethsaida Excavations Project.

The first historical references to Bethsaida are those found in the New Testament. As we mentioned above, it was one of the Galilean cities where Jesus ministered. Here Mark records that Jesus healed a blind man (Mark 8:22). It is also the region where Jesus withdrew on more than one occasion in the Gospels: “On their return the apostles told him what they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart (i.e., by boat: Mark 6:32) to a city called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10; cf. Mark 6:45).

Outside of the New Testament our most extensive resource for first-century Bethsaida is that of Josephus Flavius. He includes the city in his description of the course of the Jordan River that “traverses another hundred and twenty furlongs, and after the city of Julias (Bethsaida) cuts across the Lake of Gennesar” (War 3.515). According to Josephus the name “Julias” was awarded to the city by Philip, son of Herod the Great, in honor of the emperor Augustus’ daughter. “He raised the village of Bethsaida on Lake Gennesaret to the status of city by adding residents and strengthening the fortifications. He named it after Julia, the emperor’s daughter” (Antiquities 18.28; War 2.168). It is here also that Josephus records Philip died and was buried in a tomb he had built for himself (Antiquities 18.106-107).

Before he surrendered to the Romans at Jotapata and became an imperial court historian, Josephus had been given the responsibility by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to fortify the population centers of Galilee and prepare troops there for battle. The description of Josephus’ responsibility to fortify the cities of the north is an important indication that he was personally familiar with what was involved in Philip’s contribution to fortifications of Bethsaida.

Early in the war, the marshy plain near Bethsaida was the location of fighting between Jewish forces led by Josephus and the troops under the command of the Roman Sulla (Life 399). Here Josephus’ horse stumbled on the marshy land and fell, injuring its rider. He escaped, but only to surrender a short time later.

With this brief survey of the ancient description of Bethsaida, we can summarize what is known about the city through the eyes of the ancient records. With this outline of Bethsaida, our way can be drawn simply: Do the finds from the Bethsaida Excavations Project at et-Tell correspond to the historical and geographical description given by the ancient witnesses?

  1. It was a fishing village (beit tsaida) that was transformed by Herod Philip into a Hellenistic-style city (Julias).
  2. Philip added to the population and the fortifications of the city.
  3. It contained both Gentile (Syrian) and Jewish population (War 3.57; Jn. 1:44); and some among the latter were observant (Acts 11:8).
  4. Accessible by boat (Mark 6:32), it lay on the Sea of Galilee (Ant. 18.28).
  5. It was situated about 200 meters from the River Jordan which coursed by it and emptied into the Sea of Galilee (Life 399).
  6. It was in lower Gaulanitis opposite the higher hill country (War 2.168).
  7. The area nearby included a marshy plain (Life 402).

Our picture of the first-century Bethsaida is coming into focus. The city underwent significant changes during the two centuries leading to the New Testament period. From a small, thriving Jewish fishing village to a Roman period polis, it increased in prominence and size. Its stature grew to the extent that it was even selected as the burial place for the regional tetrarch, Herod Philip.

Do the Bethsaida Excavations Project’s finds correspond to the picture we’ve just drawn? If so, then the city of the apostles has finally been found; but if not, there may still be investigative work to be done.

Over the past ten years there has been various and conflicting claims made by the excavators. To give a single example, Arav wrote in 1997:

In 65-66 the Roman armies of Agrippa II clashed with rebels in a series of battles that failed to result in a clear victory for either side (Life 71-73). The archaeological evidence is that the city was destroyed and never rebuilt.[4]

Precisely what archaeological evidence attests to the destruction of Bethsaida is not given by Arav. Moreover, in the recently published second volume of the Bethsaida Excavation Report (1999), another member of the team—Professor Hans Kuhn—states:

It is certain that Bethsaida-Julias was still settled after the Jewish-Roman war (66 to c. 74 CE). I cannot recognize any evidence either of an archaeological nature or in Josephus’ works, that Bethsaida was destroyed in the course of the Jewish-Roman war, or even that the city was abandoned about the year 67 CE.[5]

Kuhn repeats the numerous references in rabbinic literature to Bethsaida given in Richard Freund’s article in the first volume of the BEP report.[6] These references strengthen the suggestion that the city continued to exist. To the rabbinical witnesses should be added two classical writers—Pliny the Elder (ca. 75 A.D.; Natural History 5:21) and the Egyptian historian Ptolemy (ca. 250 A.D.; Geography 5.15.3)—who both knew the location of Bethsaida during the late Roman period.

Kuhn is mistaken, however, in his unfounded assumption that Bethsaida was destroyed in a massive earthquake in 365 A.D. Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea and the first church historian, speaks knowingly of a continuing village at Capernaum and visible ruins of Chorazin. Nevertheless, his lack of any firsthand detail regarding Bethsaida indicates that by the beginning of the fourth century Bethsaida had already disappeared. On the other hand, BEP member Fred Strickert ignores the second and third-century witnesses to Bethsaida and suggests that the city was destroyed in the well-known earthquake of 115 during the reign of Trajan. His forced reading of a textual variant in 2 Edras 1:11 to read “Bethsaida” instead of “Sidon” is the only evidence he can muster to support his contention.[7]

Problems and contradictions abound elsewhere in the assumptions and conclusions of the BEP report. The scope of this study will limit us to focus on two problems that run to the heart of the site identification of et-Tell as Bethsaida. The first problem is that of the distance of the site from the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Both the New Testament and Josephus’ description describe Bethsaida near the lakeshore. The present-day site some two miles from the lakeshore is an impediment to its identity as a fishing village. The suggestion was made by the archaeologists that the present-day distance was a result of geological activity and silting of the Jordan River.

Bethsaida is located on the fault line of the African-Syrian rift that has seen extensive geological activity throughout history. According to the extensive geological study of the region provided in the 1999 BEP report, the area did experience a sudden catastrophic event resulting in a change of the northern shoreline. While the excavators cite this event to explain why et-Tell is so far from the shoreline, what they do not say is that this catastrophic event occurred ca. 25,000 years ago and has no relevance to a dramatic and sudden change in the shoreline in the Roman period. Thus, while soil testing in the plain around et-Tell indicate that at one point the area was inundated, that does not mean the site was on the lakeshore in the New Testament period.

One piece of material data that is routinely ignored by the excavators is the level of the lake in the first century. All of the discussion of geological activity draws attention away from the real problem. Even if a catastrophic geological event could be identified in the Roman period, this would not change the fact that in order for the lake to reach the place suggested by the excavators, the lake level would have to be 20 feet higher.

Extensive surveys around the Sea of Galilee have given us verifiable and objective data regarding the levels of the lake in the New Testament period. Breakwaters and piers that belong to the sixteen first-century harbors around the lake indicate what the water level was. The present lake level is -210.5 meters below sea level. Mendel Nun suggests that the present lake level is about one meter higher than in antiquity because of a modern-day dam that has heightened the water level. The suggested basalt blocks of “an old dock facility” at et-Tell are given an elevation of -204 meters by the BEP excavators (Bethsaida Excavation Report, vol. 1, p. 86). These blocks lie 6.5 meters (approximately 20 feet) higher than the present-day water level. If the BEP assumption is correct, then the lake would have inundated the shoreline promenade at Capernaum (-209.25 m.) and the ports of Tiberias (-208.30 m.) and Kursi (-209.25 m.).

Equally problematic for the identification of et-Tell as Bethsaida is the stark absence of material remains from the early Roman (i.e., New Testament) period. Archaeological evidence suggests that et-Tell was the location for a significant fortified city in the Iron Age (9th-7th centuries B.C.). It was destroyed probably during the Assyrian invasion in the 7th century. There is evidence of settlement during the Persian period reaching a climax in the Hellenistic period. This stands in stark contrast to the Roman period. According to the assessment of BEP team member Sandra Fortner:

The general time span for dating ranges from 200 BCE to 100 BCE, and rarely to the first century BCE…. A decline in the number of fineware from the first century CE is obvious. The main evidence for fineware dates from the second and beginning of the first centuries BCE.[8]

The evidence of the fineware accords with the structures discovered. Two large Hellenistic private homes were unearthed. Yet, Roman period houses are poorly attested both in terms of their number and size. Only one was mentioned in the 1999 report.

To date there exists no evidence of the fortifications attributed by Josephus to Philip’s enhancement of the city. Nor is there any remains from what could be called a polis city. Victor Tcherikover described what type of institutions were part of a polis city in the Near East.[9] It is important that the awarding of polis status upon a city was intended to introduce elements of Greek culture into Near Eastern societies. Thus, one would have expected to see some evidence of a theater (Tiberias, Sepphoris), gymnasium (Beth Shean), hippodrome (Sebaste, Caesarea), or other elements of Greek-Roman life introduced into Bethsaida-Julias. After over ten years of excavations, the only elements the BEP report can point to is a proposed Roman temple that is questioned by members of the team.

Arav and Freund have recently proposed that the reason we do not find more than the foundation for the suggested “temple” remaining is because it was reused in the synagogue of Chorazin. Only two bits of evidence are given for such a fantastic suggestion. First, the width of the Chorazin synagogue is the same as that of the proposed Bethsaida Roman Temple. Second, an eagle in a frieze from the Chorazin synagogue is proposed by the excavators to be evidence that it originally belonged to a Roman structure, since the eagle was the symbol for Rome. These two assumptions fail on both counts. The width of the synagogue is the same as other undisputed Roman-Byzantine synagogues. Thus, there is no necessary connection to the foundations from et-Tell. Second, the eagle is a common motif found in Byzantine synagogues. We thus need not follow Arav’s suggestion that in the Chorazin synagogue are elements from the now dissembled Bethsaida temple.

*For Mendel Nun’s longest critique of archaeologist Dr. Rami Arav’s work at et-Tell, see “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?” Jerusalem Perspective 54 (Jul.-Sept. 1998): 12-31.

  • [1] R. Steven Notley and Ze’ev Safrai, Eusebius, Onomasticon: A Triglott Edition with Notes and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
  • [2] Mendel Nun, “Galilee Harbors from the Time of Jesus,” BAR 25 (Jul./Aug. 1999): 18-31, 64.
  • [3] R. Arav, R. A. Freund, and J. F. Shroder Jr. “Bethsaida Rediscovered: Long-Lost City Found North of Galilee Shore,” BAR 26 (Jan./Feb. 2000): 44-51, 53-56.
  • [4] Rami Arav, “Bethsaida” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (ed. E.M. Meyers; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1:303.
  • [5] Bethsaida: A City by the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee (ed. R. Arav and R. A. Freund; Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1999), 2:284.
  • [6] Bethsaida: A City by the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee (ed. R. Arav and R. A. Freund; Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1995), 1:267-311
  • [7] Fred Strickert, “The Destruction of Bethsaida: The Evidence of 2 Esdras 1:11” in Bethsaida: A City on the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee (ed. R. Arav and R. A. Freund; Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press), 2:347-372.
  • [8] Sandra Fortner, “The Search for Bethsaida in Rabbinic Literature” in Bethsaida: A City by the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee (ed. R. Arav and R. A. Freund; Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1995), 1:99-126.
  • [9] Victor Tcherikover, “The Cultural Background” in The World History of the Jewish People First Series: Ancient Times, vol. 6, The Hellenistic Age (ed. A. Schalit; Jerusalem: Massada, 1972), 33-50.

The Man Who Would Be King

Revised: 23-Feb-2009
TalentsTBC
The Parable of the Talents as depicted in a stained-glass window that ornaments the sanctuary of the Thomaston Baptist Church. Photo courtesy of Joshua N. Tilton.

Traveling through Israel, one is sometimes provided with new insights that the physical setting of the land gives to familiar passages. As is often the case, Jesus chose precisely the right place or occasion to reveal a spiritual truth. On the occasion of the Last Supper he used the customary practice of a sage serving his disciples at the Passover meal to reinforce his charge that his disciples should serve one another. Immediately prior to telling the parable, Jesus used popular criticism concerning his dining with a tax collector, Zacchaeus, to emphasize that people should not limit the Father’s ability to restore and redeem those who are lost.

On a journey with a group of British students, Dr. David Gill, a lecturer in Greek and Roman archaeology in South Wales, presented me with a novel suggestion concerning the setting for Jesus’ telling the Parable of the Pounds/Talents (Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-28). According to Luke’s version of the parable, it opens with an unjust nobleman who has left for a foreign land to be crowned king. His subjects send a delegation behind him with a message that they do not want to be ruled by him. Meanwhile, he has given his servants talents to invest. Some are diligent with the nobleman’s investment, while others are not faithful and hide the talents out of fear.

Jesus’ parable echoes other “King” parables that are found in rabbinical literature. The king is almost always intended to represent God. In this instance, the message of the parable is to encourage the hearers to be faithful with what God has entrusted to each one of us, i.e., our souls. At some point in the future we will all need to give account for that with which we have been entrusted.

By the way, the reader is not intended to understand the wickedness of the nobleman to suggest that God is wicked. Instead, the unspoken moral of the parable is: If the servants are expected to be faithful to a would-be king who is wicked, how much more should we be faithful to a King (i.e., God) who is good.

Mention of the “wicked nobleman” is also evidence of Jesus’ skill as a storyteller. The unexpected detail that the would-be king was “wicked” is intended to hold his hearers’ attention. On other occasions Jesus uses the same technique, with the story of a Samaritan—the contemporary archenemy of the Jews—who is “the good neighbor” (Luke 10:29-37), or the judge who is “unjust” (Luke 18:1-6). These twists to the expected would have kept Jesus’ hearers spellbound. If you will, they create a first-century “Who shot J. R.?” Recent research into Jesus’ style of parables indicates that he possessed a profound skill at using this traditional rabbinical style of teaching.

It is not often noticed that this parable is told after Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Jericho and “as he was nearing Jerusalem” (Luke 19:11). Dr. Gill suggests that Jesus could have told this parable as he was passing the winter palace of Herod the Great, which lies near the first-century road leading from Jericho to Jerusalem. We will see in a moment how mention that the wicked nobleman was going to another country to receive a kingdom coincides with the story of the family of Herod.

Herod’s Winter Palace

Reception Hall of Herod's northern palace in Jericho. Image courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.
Reception Hall of Herod’s northern palace in Jericho. Image courtesy of BiblePlaces.com.

We find the winter palaces of the Hasmonean Dynasty and Herod the Great at the mouth of Wadi Qelt, about two miles south of Jericho. Built during the first century B.C., the ruins indicate a high degree of ingenuity by the Hasmoneans and Herod, which created a prosperous region. For the first time, the Hasmoneans were able to harness the water resources of nearby springs to create pools, gardens and orchards that produced figs, persimmons, vegetables and even the legendary balsam. Subsequently, according to the first-century historian, Josephus Flavius, to the older structures, Herod the Great added additional buildings “better and more comfortable for visitors” (War 1.407).

These royal residences were the setting for significant events during the reign of Herod. Excavations have uncovered a large Hasmonean pool that measures 60 by 50 feet in size and 12 feet deep. Scholars suggest that in this pool Herod ordered the murder of his brother-in-law, the 17-year-old Hasmonean high priest, Aristobulus III. It seems that the popularity with which the young priest was received by the people in his first public function during the Feast of Tabernacles kindled Herod’s well-known jealousy and paranoia.

When the festival [of the Feast of Tabernacles] was over and they were being entertained at Jericho as the guests of Alexandra [Herod’s mother-in-law and Aristobulus’ mother], he [Herod] showed great friendliness to the youth…. As the place was naturally very hot, they soon went out in a group for a stroll, and stood beside the swimming pools, of which there were several large ones around the palace, and cooled themselves off from the excessive heat of noon. At first they watched some of the servants and friends [of Herod] as they swam, and then, at Herod’s urging, the youth [Aristobulus] was induced [to join them]. But with darkness coming on while he swam, some of the friends, who had been given orders [by Herod] to do so, kept pressing him down and holding him under water as if in sport, and they did not let up until they had quite suffocated him. In this manner was Aristobulus done away with when he was not yet eighteen years old and had held the high priesthood for a year. (Antiquities 15.53-56)

Archeologists have remarked how well the archeological setting fits the story told by Josephus. We should also note how well the character of Herod portrayed in the story coincides with the New Testament image of Herod, as a ruler who was consumed with paranoia and bent on destroying any possible usurpers of his throne (cf. Matt. 2:1-19).

The Herodium. The photo shows a pool in the foreground.
The Herodium. The photo shows a pool in the foreground.

The palace at Jericho also was the setting for the final chapter in Herod’s life. Josephus recounts that it was here that Herod died and his body taken to the Herodium, south of Bethlehem, for burial. Herod recognized his lack of popularity; so, to assure that the nation would mourn his passing, he arrested leading figures from across the country, had them held at the palace in Jericho, and gave final instructions to his sister Salome and her husband, Alexas, what should be done after his death.

I know the Jews will greet my death with wild rejoicing; but I can be mourned on other people’s account and make sure of a magnificent funeral if you will do as I tell you. These men under guard—as soon as I die, kill them all—let loose the soldiers amongst them; then all Judea and every family will weep for me—they can’t help it! (War 1.660)

Fortunately for those imprisoned, Herod’s family did not follow through on his final wishes, and the men were released.

The Rejected King

Finally, as I mentioned above, I have been recently challenged to consider whether Jesus’ proximity to this palace might not have been the catalyst for his reference to the “man who went off to receive a kingdom.”

Scholarship has recognized the similarities between this story and that recounted concerning Archelaus’ attempts to inherit the kingdom of his father, Herod the Great. When Herod died, Caesar Augustus divided the kingdom between Herod’s three sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip. The latter two were granted the title of tetrarch with Antipas receiving Galilee and Perea (in the Transjordan) and Philip given the region lying in the vicinity of today’s Golan Heights.

Archelaus was given the title ethnarch and promised the title “king” on the condition that he demonstrated he deserved it. After ten years ruling Judea, he traveled to Rome to appeal to Caesar Augustus to receive his father’s kingdom. However, he was followed by a delegation of his countrymen who accused him of various atrocities. One charge was that he had brutally murdered a number of persons in the sanctuary of the Temple alongside their sacrifices. Augustus concluded, “Archelaus had proved himself unfit to rule by his illegalities; what would he be like after receiving authority from Caesar, when he had put so many to death before receiving it?” (War 2.34).

Of course, there are differences between the story of Archelaus and the nobleman of Jesus’ parable. That is to be expected. The rabbinical storyteller had the freedom to take these stories and parables and reshape them to suit his particular message. Yet, the similarities between the two stories seem more than mere coincidence.

Traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem one passes within view of the winter palaces. Among the pilgrims of the first century, these buildings must have surely been a cause for derisive reminiscence concerning Herod’s cruel son. What I find intriguing is the possibility that Jesus may have alluded to this well-known journey by Archelaus to “a far country to receive a kingdom,” precisely as Jesus and his entourage were passing the palace. The royal residences would have belonged to Archelaus, if he had succeeded in his quest. In good rabbinical pedagogical style, Jesus used his physical surroundings to strengthen his message. Thus, we may not only have the historical background to Jesus’ opening to the parable, but even indications as to where (and why) he alluded to the failed attempt by Herod’s son “to receive a kingdom.”