Fr. Julián Herrojo - Holy Sepulchre

A short verse taken from the gospel of St. John (11:54), tells us that Jesus, after the decision taken by the Sanhedrin to give him up for death soon after the resurrection of Lazarus, “already he no self to desert places, to a city called Ephraim, and there he stayed with his disciples”. The location of this city which gave cover and hospitality to Jesus and his disciples in the days before his passion, is fortunately well testified from the earliest times of the conquest of the promised Land up to now, in spite of the many name changes of this city, starting from the most primitive one Afra until the present one et-Taybeh, and the many difficulties which arise when trying to identify exactly any place that has survived for more than three millenniums.


In the allotment of territory corresponding to each tribe that makes Joshua around the year 1200 B.C., there appears a village called Afra (LXX Ofra) amongst those villages given to Benjamin’s tribe (Jos. 19,23), just like Jericho, Rama, Gabaon or Bethel, all located in the region now surrounding Taybeh. Samuel’s first book (13,17) when narrating about the wars of Saul against the philistines, in the beginning of his reign (1030-1010 B.C.), says that the philistines, being in Guibea of Benjamin, came out “in three columns: a column took the direction of Ofra (Vul: Efra, LXX: Gofera) in the district of Sual, the other one took the direction of Bet-Horon and the third took a high up route which dominates the valley of the Seboim towards the desert”. >From the geographical description of the place it seems clear that we are dealing with the same Afra of Joshua. During the reign of David (1010-970 B.C.) we read in Samuel’s second book of the shame which was brought about by the rape of Tamar, the sister of Absalon, by her half-brother Ammon. Absalom intended to retaliate to this shameful incident by putting his step-brother to death “two years later, (when) Absalom had the sheepshearers at Baal-Hazor, which is near Ephraim” (2 Sam 13,23). This Ephraim which is a homonym of the neighbouring tribe, is without a doubt the same town Ofra as before mentioned. Now some events which happened about 80 years later, after the division of the kingdom of David into two states (931 B.C.), again mention the village of Ephraim, but this time with another name. The king of Judah, Abbiyyam or Abijah (931-911 B.C.), grandson of Solomon, had frequent disputes over border issues (931-910 B.C.) with Jeroboam, who was the first king of the Northern Kingdom or Israel. In one of these confrontations we read “son the sons of Israel were humbled on that occasion, and the sons of Judah reassured since they had relied on Yahweh, the God of their ancestors. Abijah pursued Jeroboam and captured certain towns form him: Bethel with its outlying villages, Jeshanah with its outlying villages and Ephron with its outlying villages” (2 Chron 13,18-19). This time the Greek of the LXX and the Latin of the Vulgate of St. Jerome coincide in using the same toponym Efron. Despite the variation of the name we can consider that this town is the same as the one which was named Afra or Ofra and Ephraim, once again for the same geographical environment herein described. However, it is not clear if it refers to the town of Ephraim or to the homonymous tribe in the passage of the same book, which talks about the religious reformation wrought by King Asa (911-870 B.C.) son of Abijah, against idolatry being practised by the people, he “abolished the foreign altars and the high places, broke the pillars, cut down the sacred poles, and urged the Judaeans to look to Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, and to observe law and commandment” (2 Chron 14,2-3) even “Maacah herself, the mother of the King Asa, was deprived by him of the dignity of queen mother for making an obscenity for Asherah; Asa cut down her obscenity and burnt it in the wadi Kidron” (2Chron. 15,16) after he “removed all the abominable idols throughout the land of Judah and Benjamin, and in the towns he had captured in the highlands of Ephraim” (2Chron. 15,8). This mountain of Ephraim might well refer to the hilly territory of the tribe or to the mountain near Ofra-Ephraim called Baal-Hazor, name that points to an idolatrous cult practised there. However, from Bible texts we find no clear evidence that these cults took place therein, unless the name is there solely and strongly to suggest that they did. We find a new mention of Ephraim, this time the name being transformed into Aphairema. It is found in the first book of Maccabees. Here the passage talks of Jonathan (160-143 B.C.) who became Judas’ successor as high priest, Judas being his brother, “claimed that the King [seleucid Demetrius II] should exempt Judaea form tribute, with the three Samaritan provinces, promising him three hundred talents in return” (1 Mac 11,28). The king consented to this succession and he was confirmed in the year 145 B.C. “in their possession of the territory of Judaea and three districts of Aphairema, Lydda and Ramathaim”(1 Mac 11,34). Lydda is the Greek name of the old city of Lod, where Peter would in the future heal Aeneas, the paralytic who spent eight years in bed (Act. 9,33ff). Ramathaim is the old Rama, the birth and death place of the prophet Samuel (even though his tomb place is venerated today at the Nebi Samuil or Mons Gaudii, 7 km. south-west of Rama, the present village of Er-Ram). It is also one of the possible locations of the birth place of Joseph of Arimathea, though no one knows for certain if this is different to the one recorded as Rama of Benjamin. Aphairema, made into the capital for one of the toparchies for the Seleucid administration, is now the Greek name used to designate Ophra-Ephraim-Ephron-Aphra.


These violent and deathful episodes that are related in the O.T. do not leave very happy recollections of the ancient times in Ephraim-Taybeh. Yet, on the other hand, Taybeh was privileged to have our Lord make his final retreat there. His presence graced the streets of this town with his peaceful prayerful presence. If we accept as the most probable date of Jesus’ death in our calendar that of April 8 in the year 30, this date corresponds to the Jewish Friday 14th. of Nisan. This is the day he was crucified. We can perhaps then surmise that he would have gone up to Jerusalem with his disciples for the feast of the Dedication in December of the year 29. “It was winter... and the Jews gathered round him and said:.. If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (Joh 10,22-24). “The Jews fetched stones to stone him... Jesus went back again to the far side of the Jordan to stay in the district where John had once been baptising” (Bethany of Transjordan) (10,31-40). Then the sisters of Lazarus (if we want to give a chronological continuity to John’s account) “sent this message to Jesus: -Lord, the man you love is ill” (11,3). Whereby Jesus decided to return to Judaea probably in January or February of the year 30, despite his disciples warning against it “it is not long since the Jews wanted to stone you” (11,8). Once in Bethany Jesus work a miracle in front of his disciples and friends an even “the Jews who had come to the house of Mary”, he wrought the prodigious miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. “But some of them went to the Pharisees what Jesus had done. Then the chied priests and Pharisees called a meeting: -Here is this man working all these signs’ they said and what action are we taking? If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy the Holy Place and our nation” (11,46ff). At his moment Joseph, called Caiaphas, the high priest of 18-36 A.D. intervened with the prophetic words, whose truth he himself ignored: “You don’t seem to have grasped the situation at all; you fail to see that is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed” (11,50). The resolution was taken by the Sanhedrin: “From that day they were determined to kill him. So Jesus no longer went about openly among the Jews, but left the district for a town called Ephraim [Vulg: Efrem] in the country bordering on the desert, and stayed there with his disciples” (11,53ff). Ephraim was effectively within the same limits of the desert region of the valley of the Jordan, although situated in the mountains of Samaria. Because of its bordering situation for a while it was described as Samarian territory and from 145 B.C. it was annexed to Judaea. The historian Josephus Flavius (37-100 A.D.), when relating the Jewish revolts against the Romans, tells us that Vespasian, in his expedition toward Jerusalem in 69 A.D., left the city of Caesarea with the decision: “to dominate what he was missing in Judaea, and thus began to occupy the toparchies of Gofnitide and Acrabatena, took possession of the villages of Bethel and Ephrem, where he left a garrison and then advanced toward Jerusalem”. If Jesus chose this village in hope of freeing himself from the intrigues and plotting of the Sanhedrin, it would have been because at that time the village was outside their jurisdiction and thus he could feel safe there, for “his hour had not yet come”, and also because he had good friends among the Samaritans of Ephraim. Thus his stay would not have been brief, as the verb ??????? indicates (was residing, was abiding). This then could probably have happened in the months of February or March of year 30 A.D. We can contemplate from Ephraim-Taybeh a truly extraordinary panorama. From this place and from no other we can see the Holy Land in its full splendor: the impressing Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley, the country side of Gilead, Ammon and heights of Moab, which is currently in Jordan. We can see the mountains of Samaria and, looking to the south, the mountainous desert of Judaea an Jerusalem, this last spectacularly crowned by the Mount of Olives. For this reason we pin point that Taybeh is on the very slope of the Jebel Asur, the old Baal-Hazor whose name should not be confused with the famous Canaanite city of Hazor, which was in close proximity to the dried out lake Huleh; this city of Hazor was destroyed by Joshua and then rebuilt and fortified by Solomon. The Jebel Asur is the highest mountain in Judaea and Samaria, measuring 1.016 m. At Taybeh it reaches the altitude of 869 m (31º 57’ N; 35º 18’ E; MR 178151), this then means there is a difference in altitude of more than 1.100 m from Taybeh to Jericho. In order to go down to Jericho, it is necessary to descend for 20 km. on a winding, snake like road almost always deserted, until it reaches the Syro-African fault, the biggest one in the world, referred to in the Bible as the Arava.


The sojourn of Our Blessed Lord in the Samaritan region is attested by two thousand years of constant tradition maintained steadily until present day. In fact it is due to this so clear a tradition that Taybeh is presently the only place and parish in the Holy Land that is entirely Christian. This continuity is the main reason why this village has been able to conserve with pride a memory which is recorded in the Gospel. Unlike other towns like Cana of Galilee or Emmaus which upon loosing their native population also lost their exact whereabouts, Taybeh never did. The authority of Eusebius of Caesarea, in his book entitled Onomasticon, records this place. It was written in 290 A.D. and mentions twice Ephraim as being the one mentioned in the book of Joshua and in the Gospel: “Ephraim is next to the desert, it is the city where Our Blessed Lord and his disciples stayed and we referred to as Ephron”. In this same passage he goes on to say: “Ephron is of the tribe of Judah, it is a great town and today is called Ephraea, 20 miles north of Aelia [Jerusalem]”. The fact that Ephraim is included in the tribe of Judah and that it also mentions Aphra, in the tribe of Benjamin, which is five miles to the east of Bethel, has introduced doubt whether Eusebius and St. Jerome who has translated him, are speaking as though it were two different places; but the two indications both in orientation and distance coincide in pointing to the same village of Taybeh. W. Albrigth admits to this aforementioned possibility. He suggest that the Ephraim of the Gospel could be well identified with the current ruins of Ain-Samieh or Kh. Ein-Samiyye (MR 181154), which is 4,5 km. to the north-east of Taybeh; firstly for the reason of the altitude (429 m.a.s.l.) and because of its more pleasant climate, which would have allowed Jesus not only to free himself from the February winter cold in Jerusalem, but also to free himself from the intrigues of the Sanhedrin. Secondly, there have been discovered the remains of a church in the village and a Christian inscription dated to the year 557 A.D. It is certain therefore, that Ain Samieh had a Christian population in the Byzantine period and also at the time of it’s demise which came to pass at the beginning of the XIX century. However, the reasons pointed out do not in any way subtract credibility to the fact that the locality of the Taybeh of today be the one of the Gospel. It is equally true that neither Ain Samieh nor Taybeh maintain the etymology of the Ephraim of the Gospel. Yet, the arab name of et-Taybeh has an explanation rooted in that of Ephraim. R. Hartmann (1911) says that he found that at least 7 towns in regions as distant as Arabia, Libya, Transjordan and Palestine took the root of their name from the word afrit (as in Ephraim and Aphra) which in Arabic means: demon. At some point the village changed its original name from the one which meant demon to the present name of Taybeh, which in Arabic means “the good name” or “kindness”. This euphemism came into use at some point after Saladin conquered Jerusalem in 1187 and the final fall of the Latin Kingdom of Acre in 1291. Along with the testimonies of Eusebius and St. Jerome we should mention also the very important one from the mosaic of Madaba (VI c.A.D.). This mosaic of a map is conserved partially in the Orthodox church of St. George of Madaba (Jordan) and it is the oldest in existence of the Holy Land. It represents Jerusalem in magnificent detail. Near Jericho, next to the line that separates the desert from the mountain surrounded by Bethel, Rimmon and Gofna, we find the legend: “Ephron (that) is Ephraim where the Lord went to” . Certainly, this map does not give any drawing of a church, but the reason for its absence well may be that space on the mosaic is very limited as there is so much writing. It is possible that at that time there already existed a church in Ephraim, whose remains may still be seen today, behind the Greek-catholic parish church (Melkite Rite) next to the cemetery. It was a great three vault construction, or rather a cross-planned foundation, with two lateral chapels, an entrance portico and stairways, a whole complex probably being 28x25 m. It is hoped a pending archaeological study will bring more exact information on the dating of these important remains which undoubtedly belong to the Byzantine period (IV-VII c.A.D.). This is demonstrated in the beautiful cruciform baptistery equal in form and dimensions to the well preserved in the church of the Multiplication of Bread at Tabgha and other sites in Israel. The crusaders in their praiseworthy and fruitful attempt to preserve any evangelical record or memory, rebuilt this church in the XII century. We are not sure exactly to whom this church was dedicated, even though the suggested dedication has arrived up until our own day with the tittle of the Khader. The tittle used is a mythical name generally applied to the prophet Elijah and to St. George of Lydda. They believed Elijah visited Taybeh and lived in a grotto near the Khader. This same place is linked by local tradition and certainty as the very place where our Lord was with his disciples. The very French name of the village, one of the 80 where Francs or Latins lived together with the native population, makes a reference to that tradition, for it was known as the “Home Compound of St. Elijah, called of old, Ephron”. The crusaders also built a castle on the top of a central hill of Taybeh. This castle was given to the Count of Monferrat by King Baldwin IV in 1185, the remains of which can be seen today and form part of the Orthodox parish church of St. George and the surrounding living quarters. After the march of the crusaders in 1187, the only concise mention of Taybeh is to be found in a tax register maintained by Soliman the Magnificent (1459), when a census is taken of 315 Muslims and 115 Christians in that locality.


By the XIX century there are only Greek-orthodox Christians in Taybeh. However, there was always present over the years, a large group of them who continued to ask and even petition the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem for a priest, as they were willing to belong fully to the Catholic Church. They were finally accepted and received into the Church in 1860, when D. Philippe Uhlenbrock was appointed as first parish priest to the 130 Catholics living in Taybeh. A first provisional chapel paved the way for the construction of a church and school in 1863. At about the same time, along with the Latins, a small Melkite parish community was established, which has been growing up to now. Their new church, large and beautiful, next to the Khader and dedicated to St George, was consecrated in 1966. In 1889 Charles de Foucauld made his first visit to Taybeh as a simple pilgrim. He came again in 1898 to make a retreat in the way of the “hidden humble life of the Holy Family of Nazareth”. During his sojourn at the rectory in Taybeh he wrote 46 pages which he entitled: “Eight days in Ephraim. Retreat of 1898”. The present rectory house retains parts of the old house that Charles de Foucauld first visited, as well as parts of the primitive chapel. The house preserves interesting mementos recording the retreat that De Foucauld spent there to imitate his Master Jesus; they are in the so called “Memorial of Charles de Foucauld” that was inaugurated in 1982. Besides the Memorial and the rectory house, the parish centre includes a convent for religious sisters, a building for secondary school, also the local Caritas centre with a medical dispensary for the sick, a pilgrim hostel and Palestinian House with great ethnological value. The one time primitive parochial school has grown into a large, modern secondary school of more than 400 pupils, many of them Muslims of the area. The Greek Orthodox community also has a school of about 150 pupils. One could easily be taken aback at the signs of vitality and the amount af activity that take place in this small town with a population of 1.200, 700 of whom are Roman Catholics (580 Latins and 120 Greek-catholic Melkites) and 500 Greek-orthodox. Sadly before the Six Day War the total population numbered 3.000. The resplendent new Latin church was inaugurated in 1971, and provided a wonderful substitute for the old one. This came to pass through the great generosity of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, who also help in many other parish projects. The church is dedicated to “The Last Retreat of Jesus” as it should be expected. This theme is magnificently depicted in a great mosaic at the centre of the church, 24 square meters in size. It is the work of Rivetta who has also managed to include in it a well realised presentation of Fr. De Foucauld. The Rosary Sisters who have been in Taybeh for 90 years and the Sisters of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem (both congregations born in Palestine) offer their generous service to the parish and run the Pilgrim Hostel which was built in 1986 with a 40 bed capacity and is also used to hold conferences, meetings and other services. Of great interest is the ancient Palestinian Old House, arranged and adorned in 1974. It contains objects of great ethnographic and catechetical valve. The House is also known as “The House of the Parables”. One can find objects which are no longer used today yet were common in the time of Our Lord, showing the local agricultural scene of that day. For example one can see a Roman plough, old wine skins made of leather, lamps and the wooden seed measures. The house consists of the two levels which were common in those days, one on the ground for the animals and the upper level for the family to live in, enables us to call to mind many descriptions that are given in the gospels, domestic and rural scenes that help us to better understand the parables of Our Lord Jesus. We can even picture that the stable wherein Our Lord was born would have been somewhat like this house, not necessarily a completely separate grotto, which is what we find in Bethlehem today. In such a humble setting as we see here in Taybeh, Christ Our Lord and Saviour was born unto the world.


MEDEBIELLE: Ephrem-Taybeh et son histoire chrétienne. Jerusalem 1993. - BAGATTI: Antichi Villaggi Cristiani di Samaria, 31-36. - HARTMANN: Zum Ortsnam at Taybeh. ZDMG 56 (1911) 532-538. - GUERIN: Description de la Palestine. Judée, III, 45-51; Samarie, I, 206-207. - DALMAN: Les Itinéraires de Jésus, 285-290 - ALBRIGHT: Ophrah and Ephraim, AASOR 4 (1922-23) 142-133; The Ephraim of the Old and New Testament. JPOS (1923) 36-40. - SCHWANK: Efraim in Joh 11,54, BETL 44 (1977) 377-383. - PEÑA: Taibe-Efrem. Tierra Santa 642 (1983) 137-147. - EUSEBIUS: Onomasticon, 24,3; 28,4; 86,1; 90,18; 142,2 - St. JEROME: PL 23,918.940. – JOSEPH FLAVIUS: GJ IV,9,9 (551); AJ XIII,4,9 (127). - St. EPIPHANIUS: Adversus Haereses 30,9 (PG 41,421).