Acts 1:12 mentions that the distance traveled by the disciples from the place of the Ascension to Jerusalem was about “a Sabbath day’s journey.” How far was this?
The setting of Acts 1:12 has the disciples returning to Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus. Although Jesus and the disciples had been in or near Bethany (Luke 24:50), which is about a mile and a half east of Jerusalem, the Ascension appears to have taken place somewhere on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12).
There is no reference to a “Sabbath day’s journey” in the Hebrew Bible, nor is the distance ever defined. However, the Mosaic law forbids work on the Sabbath, which begs the question of how far one could travel before it became work. A “sabbath day’s journey” was set by rabbinic tradition at 2,000 cubits. A cubit is about 18 inches, making this distance about 3,000 feet, or roughly 3/4 of a mile (more exact calculations are a matter of debate). In typical pharisaical fashion, they derived this not from any direct statement in scripture, but by a logical construction.
Exodus 16:29 – “See, the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”
Where is “his place”? His tent? His chair? His tribe? The pharisees decided it was logically his city (even though there was no city in Exodus 16; the Israelites were living in the wilderness at that time). So what if he lived out in a village that was tiny, or was traveling? So the distance of “his place,” i.e. his city, needed to be established. For this, they went to the description of the pastureland assigned to the Levites, which extended 2,000 cubits outside each Levitical city.
Numbers 35:4-5 – “The pasture lands of the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits around. You shall also measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, with the city in the center. This shall become theirs as pasture lands for the cities.”
As a humorous aside, even this precise rule could be circumvented, legally. According to Louis Jacobs (Encyclopedia Judaica), “The rabbis placed no restrictions on freedom of movement within one’s town, but they prohibited any walking outside the town beyond a distance of 2,000 cubits . . . This boundary is known as teḥum shabbat (Sabbath limit). It is, however, permitted to place, before the Sabbath, sufficient food for two meals at the limits of the 2,000 cubits; then, by a legal fiction known as eruv, this place becomes one’s ‘abode’ for the duration of the Sabbath, so that the 2,000 cubits may then be walked from there.”
For the purposes of Acts 1:12, this distance included the crest of the Mount of Olives (depending, of course, on where in the city of Jerusalem one begins). This view from Google Earth includes the boundaries of the city at the time of Jesus and a circle that marks the approximate boundary of 2,000 cubits from the walls of 1st century AD.
Map with a circle 2,000 cubits from the walls of Jerusalem.
If the Ascension took place 40 days after Resurrection Sunday, as Luke seems to indicate (Acts 1:3), then the Ascension happened on a Thursday (for a calendar, see here). If this is correct, there was no need for the disciples to limit their travel on that day, and Luke merely mentions the distance in passing in a way that his audience would have readily understood.
This passing reference by Luke illustrates the kind of rules constructed by the Pharisees, and the heavy burden it imposed on ordinary Jews. This brings new meaning to Jesus’s statement, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30). Also the statement of Peter in response to believing Pharisees who wanted Gentiles in the church to be circumcised—”Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).