Archaeologists have uncovered the massive walls of a 2,200-year-old Hellenistic fortification that may have been built by the Seleucid general who defeated Judah the Maccabee, the famed Jewish leader at the center of the Hanukkah story. In an unexpected twist, the discovery could also help identify the location of the biblical town of Emmaus, where the Gospels say Jesus made his first appearance after being crucified and resurrected.
Since 2017, a Franco-Israeli expedition has been digging at Kiriath Yearim, a hill overlooking the approach to Jerusalem a few kilometers west of the city, next door to the town of Abu Ghosh. The site is mainly known for being the spot where the Ark of the Covenant was kept for 20 years before being taken to Jerusalem by King David, according to the Bible.
Indeed, much attention at the dig has focused on finds from the biblical period, namely a large earth platform surrounded by massive containment walls, which may have housed an Israelite cultic or administration center in the 8th-7th centuries B.C.E. But over the 2019 summer’s excavation, researchers uncovered evidence of at least two later phases at the site.
One is a second set of imposing fortifications, built over or next to the original walls. These military installations can be dated to the first half of the second century B.C.E. – the late Hellenistic period. These walls were then repaired and restored during Roman times, in the first century C.E., says Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein.
The dating is based on pottery and other archaeological finds, as well as a dating technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence, which can tell researchers when certain materials were last exposed to sunlight.
“The importance of this site, its dominant position over Jerusalem, was felt again and again through time: in the eighth century B.C.E., and then again in the Hellenistic period and then again after the First Jewish Revolt and the sack of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.,” Finkelstein tells Haaretz.
Whoever controlled the narrow approaches to Jerusalem from the coast essentially controlled the city, by deciding who and what was allowed in and out. This was true in antiquity as it was during Israel’s 1948 Independence War, when the area saw heavy fighting between Jewish forces and the Arab militias that besieged Jerusalem by blockading the road.
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The massive walls of the newly discovered fortifications are up to three meters thick and in some areas still stand two meters tall. During the last weeks, the team of the Shmunis Family Excavations from Tel Aviv University and the College de France has also unearthed what appear to be the remains of a tower.
More than 200 years after the Hellenistic stronghold was built, the citadel was restored and garrisoned by the Romans, as attested by the discovery of Roman tiles, coins from that era and nails of the type used in legionnaires’ sandals. Previously, archaeologists had found four inscriptions on the hill of Kiriath Yearim and in the adjacent village of Abu Ghosh that show that the town housed a detachment of the 10th Roman legion after the end of the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 C.E.).
But who was living in the area back in Hellenistic times? In an upcoming study, the researchers have reached a stunning conclusion that has broader implications for biblical archaeology and Christian history. Their paper will be published October 24 in the journal “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region” and presented at a conference of the same name in Jerusalem.
The death of Judah the Maccabee
During the second century B.C.E., Judea was ravaged by the conflict between the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire and the rebel Jewish forces led by Judah the Maccabee and his brothers. Most people remember Judah’s triumph over the Greeks and his reconquest of Jerusalem and the Temple in 164 B.C.E. – which is celebrated during the feast of Hanukkah.
But the full story is that the war dragged on long after that and it took many decades of conflict and politicking until the Jews regained a semblance of independence under Judah’s successors, the Hasmonean dynasty.
Judah himself was defeated and killed in 160 B.C.E. at the Battle of Elasa by a Seleucid army led by Bacchides, a general dispatched to Judea to quash the rebellion. Bacchides retook Jerusalem and, according to both the first book of the Maccabees and the Jewish Roman historian Josephus Flavius, he built a ring of fortresses guarding the approaches to the capital. Bacchides also reinforced the Akra, the Seleucid stronghold in the city whose ruins were discovered in 2015.
Bacchides’ building spree is the only known case of large-scale fortification construction in Judea during this period, explains Thomas Römer, a professor of biblical studies at the College de France who co-authored the study with Finkelstein. So could the Hellenistic walls at Kiriath Yearim be one of the forts built by Bacchides?
Josephus’ Antiquities as well as 1 Maccabees 9 give lists of the towns that the general fortified, including Bethel, Jericho, Gezer, Bet Horon and other locations. Most of these places can be identified as sites located north, south and east of Jerusalem, and at some of them archaeologists have indeed found remains of Hellenistic fortifications.
Kiriath Yearim doesn’t appear in these lists – at least not under this name. But the lists do include one unidentified location that is known to lie somewhere west of Jerusalem – on the strategic road connecting the city to Jaffa and the Mediterranean coast – and this place was known to Josephus and to the author of 1 Maccabees as Emmaus.
Given that there are no other known major Hellenistic strongholds west of Jerusalem, Finkelstein and Römer suggest that the hill of Kiriath Yearim and the adjacent town of Abu Ghosh should be identified as the Emmaus that was fortified by Bacchides.
Of course, a village of this name also plays an outsize role in Christian history because, according to the Gospels, it was on the road to Emmaus that Jesus first appeared to two of his disciples following his crucifixion and resurrection. In the story told in Luke 24:13-35, the two followers did not immediately recognize Jesus, but once they reached Emmaus and broke bread with him over supper “their eyes were opened and they knew Him.”
This seminal scene has been depicted countless times by Western artists, from Caravaggio to Rembrandt.
But can we pinpoint the location where the miracle supposedly occurred? And was it the same town that Bacchides had fortified a couple of centuries earlier?
Usefully, Luke tells us that the village of Emmaus was 60 stadia from Jerusalem, a measure that translates well to the 11 kilometers (7 miles) that separate the city from the hill of Kiriath Yearim and Abu Ghosh.
Still, we cannot be sure that Luke and other early Christians believed that this was indeed the spot where the Messiah made his miraculous post-mortem appearance. “Finkelstein and Römer have a good case archaeologically, geographically, and topographically,” says Benjamin Isaac, emeritus professor of ancient history from Tel Aviv University. “However, it is a hypothesis and remains a hypothesis.”
Isaac, who did not take part in the study, said there is not enough hard evidence to conclusively link Emmaus to Kiriath Yearim and there are at least two other sites nearby that have a strong claim to the name.
One, two, three Emmaus?
The name Emmaus was likely a Greek version of the Hebrew word hammah, or hot spring, and there may simply have been multiple sites sharing the name, Römer suggests.
Traditionally, most scholars have identified the Emmaus of Jesus’ time with what later became the Byzantine town called Emmaus Nicopolis, located in the Ayalon Valley near the modern-day Latrun junction.
The 2nd-3rd century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea identified Emmaus Nicopolis as the Emmaus of the Gospel of Luke, explains Römer. Unlike the case of Kiriath Yearim/Abu Ghosh, the memory of the name Emmaus was preserved in that of a Palestinian village that arose there called Imwas. The village was destroyed by Israeli forces after the 1967 Six-Day War and the ruins from the site’s many phases are now part of a national park.
On the plus side, Emmaus Nicopolis fits the description mentioned in 1 Maccabees 4 as the location of the Battle of Emmaus, where Judah the Maccabee crushed the Seleucid forces a few years before his fatal encounter with Bacchides, Römer notes.
On the minus side, Emmaus Nicopolis is 25 kilometers from Jerusalem, more than double the distance given by Luke – so it is far from a perfect match.
The second candidate favored by some scholars is the modern-day village of Motza, between Kiriath Yearim and Jerusalem. The idea comes from the fact that Josephus, in his book on the Jewish War, mentions an Emmaus where the Emperor Vespasian allowed 800 veterans of his army to settle down and found a colony – colonia in Latin.
This event may have been reflected in the name of Qalunya, an Arab village next to Motza that was destroyed in Israel’s 1948 Independence War.
On the other hand, the Qalunya/Motza area is too close to Jerusalem to fit the distance given in the Gospel of Luke.
There are also ancient traditions that link Kiriath Yearim and Abu Ghosh to Emmaus, Römer points out. At least some Christians in past centuries did not agree with Eusebius and believed that Jesus’ apparition happened there rather than at Emmaus Nicopolis. That is why the Crusaders, back in the 12th century, built the magnificently frescoed Church of the Resurrection in Abu Ghosh.
“Geographically I think that the distance to Jerusalem fits well, so I do think that Kiriath Yearim could have been the Emmaus of the New Testament,” Römer concludes.
Obviously, researchers cannot say whether a miraculous apparition really happened there, but biblical archaeology – on the Old or New Testament – can provide some insight into the historical context of religious texts and their level of accuracy in describing places that are held sacred by millions of people around the world.