Home > New Testament, Scripture > The Road to Emmaus

The Road to Emmaus

Emmaus is mentioned only a single time in the gospels, though this reference occurs very prominently in Luke 24.13, in the “Road to Emmaus” story. Luke tells the story of two disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed person, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. They are discussing early reports that Jesus has risen when Jesus Himself meets them, though they are unable to recognize Him. After lamenting how, “we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (24.21), Jesus explains through the scriptures how the crucifixion was a necessary fulfillment of Israel’s story. The three arrive in the evening at Emmaus and have dinner together. Suddenly the disciples recognize Jesus and He instantly disappears. The two return to Jerusalem to share their story.

Last week I turned in a paper on Emmaus for my M.Div. course on the gospels. I got an A on it which I’m pretty happy about. I am posting the results of my study in hope that someone somewhere will find my brilliant argument useful in some other endeavor, perhaps another paper. If you happen to use any of my argument in your own paper, please cite this page and drop me a comment.

Emmaus (modern Khirbet Imwas) is located about 20 miles Northwest of ancient Jerusalem. It is described in the Palestinian Talmud (Shevi’it 8, 9, 38d; Abodah Zarah 85, 44d) as the most important walled city[1] in the Shephelah, the lowland between the Mediterranean cost of ancient Philistia and the mountainous region of inland Israel. Yet Luke describes Emmaus as a village (κώμη), a small group of houses that are typically unwalled,[2] and its location being seven miles (60 stadia) from Jerusalem, not 20 miles. Within the context of Luke’s narrative, it is unlikely that the disciples would have been able to travel 40-miles round-trip on foot in a single day.[3] Because Emmaus was a relatively common name, scholars have speculated that Luke may have been referring to another Emmaus in the vicinity of Jerusalem. At least three candidates have been proposed along one of two routes from Jerusalem to the traditional Emmaus:
1. Mozah (modern Qoloniyeh/Colonia) located along the southern route to the traditional site. Mozah may be a Hebrew transliteration of Amassa (Latin) or Ammaous (Greek)[4], which are linguistically close to Emmaus. It is located only 35 stadia from Jerusalem, which may be explainable if Luke was estimating the distance, especially from the Southern side of Jerusalem where the disciples had probably taken the Last Supper.
2. Kiriath-jarim (modern Abu Ghosh) is located on the same southern route, about 83 stadia from Jerusalem. It had once housed the Ark of the Covenant for twenty years (1 Sam 7.2) before David brought it back to Jerusalem. The only thing to commend this site as the actual site is it’s relative proximity to Jerusalem, though it is still over 20 stadia farther than Luke records.
3. Castellum Emmaus (modern el-Qubeibeh) is located along the northern route to the traditional site. It was identified by the Crusaders as the Biblical Emmaus because (a) it was originally the site of a Roman fort named Castellum Emmaus, and (b) it is located 60 stadia from ancient Jerusalem. The difficulty remains, however, that this site had never been a village and likely took its name because of it’s proximity to the city of the same name.

Despite scholarly debate, it is highly likely that Luke’s Emmaus is the traditional city on the border of the Shephelah. First, there is a minority, though reliable, textual variant[5] that locates Emmaus 160 rather than 60 stadia away, the distance of the traditional site. It is conceivable that this was the original reading, and may have been changed by scribes because they could not imagine a 40-mile round-trip being taken in a single day and changed it to reflect the distance of the Roman fort (site 3). If, on the other hand, scribes changed the reading from 60 to 160, they likely did so in an effort to make the text conform to the actual distance, which shows that Luke’s Emmaus was associated with the traditional Emmaus from early on, if not immediately.[6] The closeness between 60 and 160 (rather than, say, 25 and 90) makes it much more plausible that one of these scenarios is true rather than the explanation depending on simple coincidence.

Secondly, a distance of 160 stadia actually makes better sense of the Lukan story than a shorter distance. It makes sense of the disciples comment in verse 29, urging Jesus to stay with them at Emmaus for a meal, “for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” Luke is emphatic that the disciples returned in the evening, (“They got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem,” v.33), which would have only been mildly notable if they were a two-hour walk from the city, but an entirely fitting (and dangerous) response to a life changing event like a resurrection appearance, forcing them to travel through the night.

Third, the repetition of the name Emmaus at such a close location becomes absurd for sites 1 and 2. By comparison, it is not surprising that there are Deerfields in both Illinois and Wisconsin, but it would be quite bizarre for there to be a second Deerfield located just fifteen miles from the current Illinois Deerfield.

Fourth, 1 Maccabees 4 records one of Judas Maccabaeus’ most decisive victories over the Syrian army. The battle was fought at Emmaus, and there is no debate that this Emmaus is the same as the traditional Emmaus. In fact, the very name of the city would have evoked a feeling of patriotic faith in first century freedom fighters. To make another modern comparison, Emmaus probably evoked a similar reaction to that of a modern American at the mention of Gettysburg. Luke could hardly have told a story about Emmaus without expecting many of his readers to hear an echo of Judas Maccabaeus.[7]

For these reasons, we may identify Luke’s Emmaus with the traditional site of Emmaus with a very high degree of certainty. There are, however, two additional events which were important in the history of Emmaus, and thus for an understanding of the Lukan passage. In the first century B.C., the Roman general Cassius asserted his might in Israel by sacking Emmaus and selling its inhabitants into slavery.[8] Then in 4 B.C., a shepherd named Anthronges from Emmaus led an uprising in the spirit of the Maccabees to retaliate against the Romans. In contrast to the Maccabees, however, Anthronges was defeated and killed, and the Roman proconsul, Varus, had the city burned to the ground.[9] This would explain why Luke could call it a village rather than a city, and would have actually emphasized the fact that Israel had not been able to expel the Romans the way they had done with the Syrians.

Then, in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, Emmaus was captured by the Roman general, Vespasian, where he stationed the entire Fifth Legion.[10] He later gave land from the city in reward to his veterans.[11] Though this event occurred nearly thirty years after Luke’s narrative, it would have been a recent event for Theophilus and Luke’s initial audience when the book was written.

In this context, the initial disappointment of the disciples takes on a fuller meaning. In Luke 24.21, the disciples explain, “we were hoping that it was he [Jesus] who was going to redeem Israel.” In other words, we had been hoping he would be like Judas Maccabaeus and deliver us, but instead he was executed the same as Anthronges. They had not been anticipating that Jesus would have gotten crucified, and had not even remotely considered that he would be resurrected in three days any more than anyone considered that Anthronges would be resurrected to finish what he had started. Jesus’ response shows that His messiahship must be understood in light of God’s purposes for Israel (and the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham that they would be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth) rather than the story of national military resistance.

[1] Excavations have discovered city walls over two-feet thick. Avi-Yonah, “Emmaus” in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (NEAEHL), 386.
[2] BDAG, 580.
[3] Strange, J.F., “Emmaus” in Anchar Bible Dictionary (ABD), 497.
[4] Ibid, 498.
[5] In the Codex Sinaiticus. This variant is also found in Jerome’s quotation of the passage.
[6] It is conceivable that the mistake between Emmaus and the Castellum Emmaus goes back to Luke himself, though this is not a tenable solution for those who hold to a version of Inerrancy as represented in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. We must then posit that the change occurred very early in the manuscript tradition. If we hold to inerrancy, it is far easier to take the minority reading as the original based on the weight of the rest of the argument.
[7] Safrai, The Jewish People in the First Century, 86. Even if my argument for the traditional site fails, the name alone would have still induced a powerful comparison.
[8] Josephus, War i.9.
[9] Josephus, Antiquities xvii.10.7-9. This event happened subsequent to Varus’ destruction of Sephoris to the North, whose inhabitants he had sold into slavery. This compelled the residents of Emmaus to desert the city before he got there.
[10] Josephus, War of the Jews iv.8.1. The discovery of Roman Army tombstones from this period confirms Josephus’ account. (Avi-Yonah, 385).
[11] Shürer, et. al., The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 512.

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