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.

Video Clip: Randall Buth on “A Hebraic Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus”

In this video, excerpted from his talk entitled “A Hebraic Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus” from the 2006 Jerusalem Perspective Conference, “Insights into Jesus of Nazareth: His Words, His Wisdom, His World,” Randall Buth discusses the Hebrew background to the resurrection narratives in the Synoptic Gospels.

The 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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A Different Way to Reckon a Day

In Luke 24:7 two men in dazzling apparel reminded the women that “the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” To people living in Europe or North America, rising on the third day could be interpreted that Jesus remained in the tomb over 48 hours. In light of the way ancient Jews calculated time, however, Jesus was in the tomb for a shorter period.[1]

Among the fragments of an ancient rabbinic commentary on Leviticus is a midrashic comment on the phrase “in the third year” from 1 Kings 18:1. Rabbi Yohanan, who lived about 220 C.E. in the Galilee, once remarked, “one month in the first year, one month in the last year, and twelve months in the middle.” According to R. Yohanan’s method of counting, 14 months constituted three years.

Recognizing that sunset marks the beginning of a Jewish day and applying the same logic used by R. Yohanan, one could interpret “on the third day” to mean that Jesus was buried late Friday afternoon and rose anytime after nightfall Saturday. Reckoning time in this way means that Jesus was placed in the tomb on Friday just before the Sabbath commenced, as Luke 23:54 suggests, remained there at least 24 hours until nightfall Saturday and rose from the dead by sunrise Sunday. Thus, Jesus may have been confined to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb for a period of time no longer than about 26 hours.

The phrase “on the third day” is one of numerous examples from the synoptic tradition of the gospels which can be used to demonstrate that social, historical and cultural experience colors the way one reads scripture. Jesus’ social, historical and cultural context was that of late Second Temple Judaism in the land of Israel. Though foreign to us, Jesus’ world may be approached and glimpsed through careful comparative study of the Greek synoptic gospels with the earliest texts from rabbinic literature and other ancient Jewish sources.[2]

Book Review: Robert L. Lindsey’s Jesus, Rabbi and Lord

This is an unusual book, at once intriguing, illuminating, provocative, even frustrating. It is written in a popular style with no footnotes or lengthy academic discussions, and at times the book seems directed to anyone interested in the life of Jesus. However there is a sophistication in the analysis that requires an extensive technical background in order to evaluate or appreciate the suggestions.

The picture of Jesus should be attractive to an evangelical audience, though perhaps a little unnerving. Some readers may find it difficult to accept the literary analyses employed.

The book begins with personal glimpses into Lindsey’s “pilgrimage” to the land of Israel and his life-long study of the Synoptic Gospels. Lindsey’s research led him to a friendship with Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University.

The two of them, meeting regularly for many years, came to conclusions that chart a different path from most New Testament scholarship. They believe that there is a written Hebrew Gospel “buried” beneath the written Greek sources of the Synoptic Gospels. Their methodology is to clear away Grecisms and interpret the material within a first-century cultural milieu.

Two distinct innovations have arisen, in addition to a Lukan priority model of synoptic relationships. One innovation is the suggestion that some of the isolated teachings, parables and stories still extant in the canonical Gospels were once connected in a pre-synoptic document. Lindsey suggests that there was a literary pattern of “incident-teaching-parable-parable.” For example, he contends that the discourse on “worry” in Matthew 6:25-34 followed the incident with Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, and was followed by the parables in Luke 12:16-21, “The Rich Fool,” and Luke 16:19-31, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Lindsey mentions finding some twenty literary reconstructions of this sort.[1]

The second major methodological innovation is the claim that many of the sayings of Jesus scattered throughout the Gospels come from the period of forty days after the resurrection. A classic example for Lindsey is Luke 21:12-17 and Matthew 10:16-18. According to him, Luke has put these post-resurrection warnings of persecution in the midst of two different prophecies, while Matthew has placed them in the “Sending Out of the Twelve.”

An example of the methodology in Lindsey’s book, its potential usefulness and also its potential frustration for scholars, can be found in sections dealing with Matthew 5:10-12.[2] Lindsey explains “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” as having originally been “those with a zeal for righteousness.” This is an interesting interpretation, but most of the intervening steps and evidence for the analysis are unstated.[3]

There are many unique proposals in the book which deserve serious consideration. It would be good, of course, if this material could also be written up for an academic audience. The scholarly community might enjoy hearing about “rabbinic-resurrection criticism” [my term] and the resultant view of Jesus as the divine Messiah-Rabbi.

Note: Jesus Rabbi & Lord, out of print for years, has been replaced by an eBook: Jesus, Rabbi and Lord: A Lifetime’s Search for the Meaning of Jesus’ Words.

How Long Was Jesus in the Tomb?

Revised: 22-Dec-2012

We are not told on what night of the week Jesus ate the Passover lamb with his disciples. However, the Gospels make it clear that Jesus died and was buried on a Friday.[1] According to Luke, the women who had come with Jesus from the Galilee witnessed the crucifixion (Luke 23:49). After also witnessing Joseph of Arimathea’s interment of Jesus (Luke 23:55), the women went to their lodgings and hurriedly prepared spices before the onset of Sabbath (Luke 23:56).[2] When the Sabbath ended, they returned to the tomb carrying the spices (Luke 24:1).

Jesus prophesied that he would rise from the dead on the third day after his death. The Son of Man, Jesus said, would be turned over to the Gentiles, who would put him to death, but on the third day he would rise from the dead (Luke 18:31-33).[3] Likewise, Peter proclaimed, “God raised him from the dead on the third day” (Acts 10:40).[4]

If Jesus was buried late Friday afternoon, how long would he have had to remain in the tomb to fulfill his prophecy about his resurrection? To answer this question, we need to know something about the Jewish way of reckoning time. We also must examine two interesting Hebrew idioms.

The Jewish Day

Many moderns think of a day as divided into two parts: a period of light followed by a period of darkness. Jews of the first century, however, thought of a day as divided into a period of darkness followed by a period of light.

The Jewish day had always begun with the night. This is borne out by Genesis 1:5, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” Nightfall was defined as the moment when the stars become visible in the heavens (Neh. 4:21; Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 2b), around 7:00 p.m. at Passover season.

Light for Night

Matthew 28:1 may reflect two Hebrew idioms. These idioms provide clues to the time of the resurrection. The King James Version reads: “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week….” This is confusing since, according to the Jewish way of reckoning time, the end of the Sabbath would be roughly eleven hours before dawn on Sunday. The Greek text of Matthew 28:1 reads, ὀψὲ δὲ σαββάτων τῇ ἐπιφωσκούσῃ εἰς μίαν σαββάτων… (opse de sabbatōn tē epiphōskousē eis mian sabbatōn…, “late [of] sabbath, in the lightening to one of sabbath”), a description that makes little sense in Greek, but perfect sense in Hebrew.

According to Jehoshua M. Grintz, “late of sabbath” is a Hellenized form of the Hebrew expression, במוצאי שבת (bemōtza’ē shabāt, “at the exiting of Sabbath”), which means the hours immediately after the end of the Sabbath. The enigmatic “in the lightening to one of sabbath” derives from the beautiful Hebrew idiom, אור לאחד בשבת (or le’eḥad bashabāt, “light to [day] one of the week”).[5] In Hebrew, שַׁבָּת (shabāt, “Sabbath,” “sabbath”) can mean either “Saturday” or “week.”[6]

In this usage, אוֹר (’ōr, “light”) serves, surprisingly, as a synonym for “night,” that is, the night before the next day.[7] (In Hebrew, “light” can be used euphemistically to mean something almost the opposite of its literal meaning.) When a Hebrew speaker employed the idiom “light to,” he or she was not thinking of light in a literal sense any more than today’s English speaker thinks of literal light when he or she says, “I see the light.” On the contrary, the Hebrew speaker had in mind those hours of darkness preceding the coming day.[8]

Rabbinic Examples

Two examples from rabbinic literature will illustrate the idiomatic use of the Hebrew word for “light” in the expression “light to.” The first example appears in a halachah (ruling) preserved in the Mishnah:

אור לארבעה עשר בודקין את החמץ לאור הנר

Light to the fourteenth [of Nisan] one must carry out a search for leaven by the light of a lamp. (m. Pesahim 1:1)

In other words, according to rabbinic halachah, the search for leaven commanded in Exodus 12:15 was to be conducted after dark on the evening before the day preceding Passover, that is, on what many moderns would consider the evening of the thirteenth of Nisan, the evening of the second day before Passover. The second example also is found in the Mishnah, in a halachah of Rabbi Yehudah:

בודקין אור לארבעה עשר ובארבעה עשר בשחרית ובשעת הביעור

One may carry out the search [for leaven] light to the fourteenth [of Nisan], or on the morning of the fourteenth, or at the time of its [the leaven’s] removal [at noon on the fourteenth]. (m. Pesahim 1:3)

A Hebraic Understanding

Apparently, assuming the above suggested Hebraic understanding of Matthew 28:1, the Galilean women returned to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body shortly after dark on Saturday evening. It was then that they found the tomb already empty. Jesus, therefore, may have remained entombed only slightly more than twenty-four hours, being raised from the dead on Saturday evening rather than on Sunday morning.[9] By the method of reckoning time in Jesus’ society, such a short period, scarcely more than a day—a part of Friday, all of Saturday, and a part of Sunday—would have fulfilled his prophecy that he would be raised from the dead on the third day after his death.[10]

A Saturday-evening resurrection agrees with Luke’s report that on Friday afternoon the women, despite the imminent approach of the Sabbath and the urgency of Sabbath preparations, took time to prepare burial spices (Luke 23:56). Apparently, their intention was to wash and anoint Jesus’ body as soon as possible after the Sabbath ended. If they had intended to perform this deed of love late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, they could easily have waited until the Sabbath was over to prepare the spices.

This rolling stone seals the entrance for a tomb that some believe was used by the family of King Herod. Photograph by Kim Guess. Photo © BiblePlaces.com
This rolling stone was used to seal the entrance of a tomb that some believe was used by the family of King Herod. Photograph by Kim Guess. Photo © BiblePlaces.com

Many readers will question the suggestion that Jesus’ resurrection occurred on Saturday evening. They will recall Jesus’ statement: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:39-40; NIV). Jesus’ declaration appears to contradict a Saturday-evening resurrection. How, readers may reason, could Jesus have stayed in the tomb only until Saturday evening if he prophesied that he would remain there for seventy-two hours?

The Sign of Jonah

Jesus made it clear that the only sign he would give to his generation would be his Jonah-like preaching of repentance. He declared: “No sign will be given it [this generation] except the sign of Jonah.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, “sign of Jonah”[11] appears to be the three days and three nights that Jonah spent in the belly of a whale (Matt. 12:40). If we accept that interpretation of “sign of Jonah,” then the suggestion that Jesus was raised from the dead less than thirty-six hours after his death—after only one full night (Friday night), one full day (Saturday), a part of a day (Friday afternoon) and a part of a night (the early part of Saturday night)—cannot be maintained.[12] Significantly, the Lukan version of Jesus’ words does not mention the whale’s belly: “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30; NIV).[13]

The continuation of Jesus’ words—in Luke and Matthew—helps confirm that the “sign of Jonah” was Jesus’ preaching, and not “three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.” In twenty-four identical Matthean-Lukan Greek words Jesus explained: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41; Luke 11:32; NIV). As Luke 11:30 makes clear, just as Jonah, by his preaching of repentance, had been a sign to his generation, so Jesus, by his preaching, would be a sign to his generation.[14]

When the author of Matthew repeats the “sign of Jonah” saying (Matt. 16:4), he does not add the explanation, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale….”[15] Athough not conclusive, this omission is an indication that Matthew 12:40 is explanatory.[16]

Commentators suggest that Matthew 12:40, with its reference to Jesus’ death and burial, and its implied reference to his resurrection, is an editorial replacement, and that Luke’s Gospel preserves the earliest form of Jesus’ saying. For example, Albright and Mann comment on Matthew 12:40 as follows: “It is best to describe this verse as editorial, whether from the hands of the evangelist, or from someone puzzled by vs. 39. What is being discussed is the sign of proclamation.”[17]

If commentators are correct that, historically, Jesus did not mention the belly of the whale, then Matthew 12:40 is not a contradiction to the suggestion that Jesus was raised from the dead early Saturday night. It is possible that Jesus was in the tomb less than thirty hours—from sometime after 3:00 p.m. on Friday until early Saturday night (perhaps around 9:00 p.m.) when the women returned to the tomb intending to anoint Jesus’ body. Since they found the tomb empty, Jesus must have come out of the tomb earlier, perhaps having remained in it only about twenty-seven hours.

A Sunday-morning Resurrection?

In Mark’s account of the women’s visit to the tomb, the author clearly refers to the light of day: “And when the Sabbath was past…very early [λίαν πρωΐ, lian prōi] on [day] one of the sabbath [i.e., week]…when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:1-2). Matthew, on the other hand, has, “Late [of] Sabbath, in the lightening to one of sabbath…,” that is, “Immediately after the end of the Sabbath, the night before the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1). Luke 24:1 reads, “On [day] one of the sabbath [i.e., week], very early deep [ὄρθρου βαθέως, orthrou batheōs]….” (Compare the English expression, “depth of night.”) John has, “On [day] one of the sabbath [i.e., week]…while it was still early darkness [πρωῒ σκοτίας, prōi skotias]….” (John 20:1). In ancient Greek πρωΐ (prōi) often referred to the fourth watch of the night (3:00-6:00 a.m.)[18] ; however, by the addition of skotias (darkness) to prōi, John, too, may have preserved the hint of an early Saturday-night resurrection.

The Greek text of Matthew points to a Hebrew parallelism: במוצאי שבת אור לאחד בשבת (bemōtza’ē shabāt, or le’eḥad bashabāt, “at the exiting of Sabbath, light to [day] one in the sabbath [i.e., week]”). Apparently, once these very idiomatic Hebrew words were translated to Greek and began to be transmitted in Greek, they were not completely understood by Greek copyists and biographers. Mark drifted the farthest from the original intent. Because of a Hebrew euphemism for darkness—’ōr (“light”)—he, or one of his sources, added the explanatory “when the sun had risen,” indicating that the women visited the tomb during daylight hours.[19]

It also was Mark who wrote that the women purchased the spices after the Sabbath had ended (Mark 16:1). However, according to Luke, before the Sabbath began, after making certain they knew where Jesus’ body was placed, the women went back to where they were staying, and there prepared spices and ointments (Luke 23:55-56). When the Sabbath was over, they went to the tomb taking the spices they had prepared on Friday, before the onset of the Sabbath (Luke 24:1).[20]

Summing Up

It appears that the reference to Jonah in Matthew’s source, and the desire to emphasize Jesus’ resurrection, caused Matthew, or a later copyist of his Gospel, to revise verse 12:40.[21] At this point in Jesus’ biography (Matt. 12:40; Luke 11:30), Luke has preserved the earliest version of Jesus’ words.

One should note that in this teaching Jesus linked repentance to the sign that would be given to the people of his generation. His contemporaries, he said, would be condemned if they did not repent. In addition, as usual at the end of one of his teaching sessions, Jesus made a subtle—or, as here, not so subtle—claim to be God’s Messiah. Similar to his stupendous claim that he was “lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; Luke 6:5), Jesus claimed to be greater than Jonah, and greater than Solomon” (Matt. 12:41-42; Luke 11:31-32), nothing less than the greatest of Israel’s prophets and kings.

  • [1] The Greek word παρασκευή (paraskevē; preparation, day of preparation) appears in the New Testament six times (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42), always referring to the “day of preparation,” that is, the day before the Sabbath, as Mark explains (Mark 15:42). In Jesus’ time, the “Day of Preparation” was a technical term for “Friday,” the day on which Sabbath preparations had to be made (see Josephus, Ant. 16:163; Didache 8:1).
  • [2] Mark reports that the women purchased the spices, and this they did only “when the Sabbath was over” (Mark 16:1).
  • [3] Compare John 2:19, 21-22: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days’… But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said” (NIV).
  • [4] Paul’s proclamation was identical: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3-4; NIV).
  • [5] Jehoshua M. Grintz, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79 [1960]: 32-47.
  • [6] Almost the same expression that is found in Matthew 28:1 (“one of sabbath”) also appears in Acts 20:7 and John 20:1 (“one of the sabbath”). In Acts 20:7, “the first day of the week” refers to Saturday evening, not Sunday evening. Note that Paul “prolonged his speech until midnight” (RSV). According to Jewish halachah, Paul could not set out on his journey on the Sabbath, nor did he probably want to begin his journey after dark on Saturday night; therefore, he utilized Saturday evening to exhort the believers in Troas.
  • [7] Grintz was not the first to suggest that -ְאוֹר ל (’ōr le-) can refer to the night before the next day. For references to the works of others who have made this suggestion, see entry ἐπιφώσκω (epiphōskō) in BDAG (3d ed., 1999), 304; James Hope Moulton, Wilbert Francis Howard and Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (4 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1908-1976), 2:471; and Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (3d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 136, n. 1.
  • [8] Randall Buth has expressed to me his feeling that one should take into account Luke 23:54: “It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin” (NIV). It is possible that in the verb ἐπέφωσκεν (epephōsken, “was shining,” “dawning”), we have, for a second time in Luke’s narrative, the “light to” idiom. Buth suggests that the account of Jesus’ life once had two similar idioms: ’ōr le’eḥad bashabāt (“light to [day] one of the sabbath”) and ’ōr leshabāt (“light to sabbath”). The idiom ’ōr leshabāt could have been lost when the narrative was telescoped. In such a case, one could suppose the following scenario: the women indeed went to the tomb on Saturday evening, but, because they were paralyzed by fear, they did not run to tell the disciples until the next morning (cf. Mark 16:8 and Matt. 28:8-10).
  • [9] The Greek Orthodox may have preserved an ancient tradition that reflects the time of Jesus’ resurrection. After ringing their church bells, at exactly 12:00 midnight on the eve of Easter (Saturday night), Greek Orthodox priests loudly proclaim, Xριστός ἀνέστη (Christos anestē!, “Christ has risen!”). The congregation responds, “Indeed, he has risen! Risen, just as he promised.”
  • [10] It was common practice among ancient Jews to refer to part of a day as one day, or part of a night as one night (compare, for example, Gen. 42:17-18; 1 Sam. 30:1, 12-13; 1 Kgs. 20:29; 2 Chron. 10:5, 12; Esth. 4:16-5:1). Fractional parts of years were treated in the same way: “In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years” (1 Kgs. 16:29; NIV); “Jehoshaphat son of Asa became king of Judah in the fourth year of Ahab king of Israel” (1 Kgs. 22:41; NIV); “Ahaziah son of Ahab became king of Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah…” (1 Kgs. 22:51; NIV). See Joseph Frankovic’s “A Different Way to Reckon a Day.” According to Frankovic, “Among the fragments of an ancient Rabbinic commentary on Leviticus is a midrashic comment on the phrase ‘in the third year’ from 1 Kings 18:1. Rabbi Yohanan, who lived about 220 C.E. in the Galilee, once remarked, ‘one month in the first year, one month in the last year, and twelve months in the middle.’ According to R. Yohanan’s method of counting, 14 months constituted three years.”
  • [11] In the New Testament, the phrase “sign of Jonah” occurs only in Matt. 12:39 and Luke 11:29, in each Gospel’s version of the “Against Seeking for Signs” story unit (Matt. 12:38-42; Luke 11:29-32). Therefore, “sign of Jonah” is found in only one of Jesus’ canonical teachings. Matthew, or a later copyist, may have added the words “the prophet” in the phrase “the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Matt. 12:39). Luke’s parallel lacks this addition.
  • [12] On the other hand, a Sunday-morning-resurrection scenario also will not eliminate the difficulty. A literal seventy-two-hour interpretation of “three days and three nights” would require Jesus’ resurrection to have taken place on the fourth day. Jesus prophesied that he would be raised τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ (tē tritē hēmera, “on the third day”; Luke 9:22; 18:33; cf. Luke 24:7, 46). Even assuming parts of days and nights for Matt. 12:40’s “three days and three nights,” Jesus could not have been resurrected before Sunday night (Monday according to Jewish reckoning of time)—part of Friday afternoon, all of Friday night, all day Saturday, all of Saturday night, all the daylight hours of Sunday, and part of Sunday night. This problem has been discussed at length in the scholarly literature, and readers should refer to standard commentaries. Mark replaces the Semitic “on the third day” with its Greek equivalent, μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας (meta treis hēmeras, “after three days”; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; see David Flusser, Jesus [3d ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2001], 256, n. 7). “After three days” also appears once in Matthew (27:63), in a unique Matthean pericope.
  • [13] I assume that Matthew, rather than Luke, preserved the correct order of Jesus’ two illustrations: “the men of Nineveh…the queen of South (Matt. 12:41-42; Luke 11:31-32) because ”the men of Nineveh” had been mentioned in Luke’s preceding verse (Luke 11:30).
  • [14] In Mark’s 8:12 parallel, Jesus declares that no sign will be given. This change to the text of his source is typical of Mark’s midrashic style. Of the four versions of this saying, Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29; Mark 8:12—five versions, if we include John’s rough parallel in 2:18-22—only Mark has Jesus refusing to give a sign.
  • [15] Nor does he add the words “the prophet,” as in Matt. 12:39.
  • [16] The “three days and three nights” statement in Matthew appears to be a late insertion and was probably not in the earliest version of Jesus’ biography. Compare the Markan parallel to Matt. 16:4, Mark 8:12, where also there is no addition of the “three days” verse. In redacting the synoptic accounts, John’s author (in John 2:18-22) combines “sign” (based on Matt. 12:38-39; 16:1, 4; Mark 8:11-12; Luke 11:16, 29); destruction of the Temple (based on Matt. 26:61; 27:40; Mark 14:58; 15:29); “three days” (based on Matt. 12:40; 26:61; 27:40, 63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 24:7, 46); and Jesus’ resurrection (based on Matt. 27:63; Mark 14:58 [implied]). Luke’s Gospel does not have the expressions “three nights” and “three days and three nights,” and only once does the expression “three days” occur in it: “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46; RSV).
  • [17] William Foxwell Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (AB 26; Garden City: Doubleday, 1971), 159. Donald A. Hagner agrees: “An allusion such as this to Jesus’ death, burial, and (implied) resurrection would not have made much sense to the Pharisees (nor even the disciples) at this juncture, but in retrospect the words would have been filled with meaning…. The analogy with Jonah may well have originally concerned only the preaching of Jesus and Jonah (as in Luke 11:30; cf. Luz) and then later have been elaborated by the post-resurrection Church to refer to the burial (and resurrection) of Jesus” (Matthew [WBC 33A-33B; Dallas: Word Books, 1993-1995], 354). David Flusser wrote: “Luke 11:29-30 represents the ipsissima verba of Jesus much more accurately than the Matthean parallel [Matt. 12:39-40]” (Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988), 526. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., state: “Matthew has… added redactional vocabulary (ὥσπερ*,  γάρ*,  γῆ*) [in Matt. 12:40]” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew [3 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988-1997], 2:356). Perhaps also arguing against Matthew’s version (12:40) of Jesus’ saying is the word-for-word quotation of part of the Septuagint’s translation of Jonah 1:17. Scholars have pointed out that Matthew, or a later editor of his Gospel, copied ἦν Ιωνας ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ τοῦ κήτους τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας (ēn Iōnas en tē koilia tou kētous tries hēmeras kai treis nūktas, “was Jonah in the belly of the whale three days and three nights”) from the Septuagint’s translation of Jonah 2:1 (Jon. 1:17 in English translations). So Davies and Allison: “Matthew…has assimilated to LXX Jon 2:1….” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:356.) The identity with the Septuagint is assumed to be proof that, at this point in his account, Matthew rewrote his source copying from the Greek Bible he used. True, the twelve Greek words are exactly like the Septuagint, including its word order; however, the Septuagint’s translation is word-for-word with the Masoretic text. Therefore, Matthew’s text might represent an earlier Hebrew stage of the tradition. Without Luke’s parallel (Luke 11:29-32), which lacks the insertion, one would not be able to identify Matt. 12:40 as secondary.
  • [18] See BDAG, 732.
  • [19] Matthew Black wrote: “A Jewish reader of Mt. xxviii.1 would certainly understand τῇ ἐπιφωσκούσῃ [tē epiphōskousē] of the ‘drawing on’ of the first day of the week on the late evening of the Sabbath…. If this is the meaning of the verb in Mt. xxviii.1, how are we to reconcile it with Mark’s quite unambiguous ἀνατείλαντος τοῦ ἡλίου [anateilantos tou hēliou, “when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2)]?…. We should…assume that Matthew is here independent of Mark, drawing on the original tradition which Mark, perhaps through a misunderstanding, is seeking to ‘improve’…. The order of events might then be: Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, which fell that year on a Sabbath; He was buried in the late afternoon or early evening of the same day, before sunset. A full day later, late on the Sabbath in our reckoning but early on the first day of the week, i.e. late Saturday afternoon or evening, in the Jewish, Mary Magdalene and the disciples went to the Tomb: Mary had waited till the Sabbath was officially over, then without delay, on the Saturday evening, made her way to the Garden” (An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 137-8).
  • [20] According to the synoptic Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea, after receiving Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ body, wrapped it in a linen shroud, placed it in a tomb and sealed the tomb—before the Sabbath began. Apparently, Joseph did not anoint the body. However, according to the Gospel of John, the corpse was anointed by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (who is not mentioned in the synoptic accounts), before it was entombed (John 19:38-40).
  • [21] What motivated Matthew to write his replacement for a text like Luke 11:30? One can speculate that Matthew retold the “Against Seeking for Signs” story in this way so that his readers wouldn’t miss the secondary connection that the sign of Jonah had with the resurrection. “Matthew’s text seems to make explicit what is implicit in the speeches in Acts, namely, that the resurrection is God’s one great sign to Israel (cf. Acts 2.24, 32, 36; 3.15; etc.)” (Davies and Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 2:355).