According to the Bible, after his resurrection Jesus appeared to various groups of followers. In one story, found only in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appears to two of his disciples as they journeyed to the town of Emmaus. They have a discussion and share a meal with Jesus and it’s only when Jesus breaks the bread that “their eyes were opened” and they recognize him for who he is. The story is part of the most significant event in Christian history, a major inspiration to Caravaggio and other Renaissance artists.
The only problem is that scholars cannot agree about where Emmaus was. This week archaeologists announced that they may have unearthed the first evidence of its location—and they weren’t even looking for it.
Historically, there has been considerable debate about where, exactly, Emmaus was situated. For Christians, places associated with the life of Jesus are important pilgrimage destinations. From the ancient world to the modern one, religious tourists want to retrace the footsteps of Jesus. This is especially true of places associated with Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection.
The earliest known attempt to pinpoint Emmaus’ location was that of the fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who identified the city of Nicopolis as the biblical Emmaus. The theologian and translator Jerome agrees, and implies in a letter that there was a church in Nicopolis constructed over the house where Jesus and his followers broke bread. From the fourth century onwards, Christians seem to have readily identified Nicopolis with Emmaus.
The problem with this argument is that Nicopolis is much further away from Jerusalem than we would expect. Luke says Emmaus was about 60 stadia (7-11 km) from Jerusalem, but Nicopolis is 160 stadia from Jerusalem. Over the years, a number of scholars have suggested no fewer than five alternative sites to Nicopolis and there is no general agreement about which is the most likely.
Now, things may have changed. In 2017, a joint French and Israeli group of archaeologists began excavation work at Kiriath-Jearim, a hill several kilometers to the west of Jerusalem. Due to its proximity to Jerusalem and its elevated position, the fort was a strategically important military site. It essentially controlled access to Jerusalem from the coast.
The archaeologists involved in the excavation were initially interested in two sets of questions: the relationship of the site to events and places mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and the history of the site during the Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C.. In the Bible, Kiriath-Jearim is best known as the place that the Ark of the Covenant was supposedly held before King David moved it to Jerusalem. The Maccabean revolt, which is partially described in the books of the Maccabees, is largely remembered for Judah the Maccabee’s triumph over Seleucid oppressors and reconquest of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.. It’s the miraculous event that took place at this time that is celebrated during Hannukah.
During the 2019 excavation season researchers at Kiriath-Jearim uncovered evidence of later phases of use of the site. Their most significant discovery was a set of fortifications that were built over the city walls during the first half of the second century B.C.. These walls are roughly three meters thick. Excavators at the dig also uncovered what is tentatively described as the remains of a tower.
Additional evidence—Roman tiles, coins, and the kind of nails used in the sandals of Roman soldiers—shows that these walls were repaired sometime in the first century A.D.. Inscriptions from Kiriath Yearim and the nearby village of Abu Ghosh reveal that the town had hosted part of the 10th Roman legion after the Jewish war in A.D. 66-73. The very fact that the city had been repeatedly refortified is further evidence of the military and strategic significance of the site.
In a forthcoming article in New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region, professor Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist based at Tel Aviv University and Thomas Römer, a professor of biblical studies at the College de France, argue that the Hellenistic era walls date to the period of conflict between the Maccabees and the Seleucids.
During the revolt, Bacchides, the leader of the Seleucid army, ordered the construction of a ring of fortresses around Jerusalem that would guard and secure the various approaches to the city. Bacchides’ construction efforts are, according to Römer, the only known large-scale fortification efforts during this period of history.
Both 1 Maccabees 9:50 and the first century CE Jewish historian Josephus provide us with lists of the towns around Jerusalem that Bacchides had fortified. Most of those locations are identifiable sites to the north, south, and east of Jerusalem, many of which have been excavated. Neither list refers to Kiriath-Jearim, but, instead, both mention the name of another town: Emmaus.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Emmaus was 60 stadia (7-11 kilometers) from Jerusalem. This is roughly equivalent of the 11 kilometers that lie between Jerusalem and the area that encompasses the hill of Kiriath-Jearim and town of Abu Ghosh. Given the absence of any other known Hellenistic-era fortified cities to the west of the city, Finkelstein and Römer argue that Kiriath-Jearim and the neighboring town of Abu Ghosh are actually Emmaus. This would mean that, in addition to identifying a strategically important military center, they may also have uncovered the location of an important episode from the story of the life of Jesus.
Finkelstein and Römer have support from an unlikely source. During the 12th century, crusaders (more precisely, the Knights Hospitaller) built the Church of the Resurrection at Abu Ghosh beneath the hill of Kiriath-Jearim and called the place Castellum Emmaus.
Of course, it’s difficult to speak with certainty about the identification. Finkelstein and Römer’s article uses archaeology, historical texts, and ancient and modern geography to make a strong case, but ultimately without the discovery of something decisive (say, an inscription) that can positively identify the site as Emmaus the theory remains a theory, albeit a compelling one.