"And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and
they believed them not." – Luke 24.11.
Of the dozen or so post-death appearances
claimed for Jesus Christ, the "most detailed" (a
whole 20 verses) is the one reported solely by Luke, "on
the road to Emmaus." Alarmingly,
from the perspective of historical proof, the two primary witnesses
for the "risen Christ" in this incident are unknown – one
named but nowhere else mentioned, the other not even named. Adding
further to the suspicion that what we are dealing with is not history
but pious fabrication is a curious uncertainty surrounding the supposed
location. Faith, we are told, rests upon the historical testimony
of those who "saw and bore witness". But what if that testimony is
itself merely a fiction inspired by faith?
Of such fluff is
the central drama, the cardinal belief of Christianity made.
Rise and Shine – "The best attested event in history"
The Emmaus appearance of the "risen Christ" is
unique to Luke. At the point where the other gospels have more
to say about "the women", the author of Luke introduces
new characters. The "risen
Christ" appears to two disciples, walks and talks with them,
joins them for dinner and yet throughout remains unrecognised. JC remains unrecognised even
at close quarters. Only in an instant, when he breaks bread and disappears, do the
two disciples realise it was the Lord.
Is this history? The tale begins after the women have made
an astonishing report that the body is missing and an angel has
said the "Son of Man" is alive. They are not believed.
Unlike in Mark, Mary Magdalen does NOT report an early
morning encounter with JC. Thus Luke is about to reveal
"first" and most detailed appearance of the risen Christ:
"And, behold, two of them went
that same day to a village called Emmaus,
which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.
And they talked together of all these things which had happened.
And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus
himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes
were holden that they should not know him." –
Why was it important that the risen Christ be unrecognised?
The motif appears elsewhere (as when Mary Magdalen thinks he's
the "gardener" in John). The reason is liturgical. "JC
is ever-present at the sacraments. Be warned! You
may not recognize him."
A familiar source
Luke's "authentic detail" of naming the
village to which the two walked raises an obvious question, Where
Although no fewer than nine sites have been proposed for
the village, nothing in archaeology or literature confirms any
particular location. Only one other ancient writer besides Luke refers
to the "village" of Emmaus – Josephus (surprise,
In War 7.6 Josephus writes:
"Caesar ... gave order that all Judea
should be exposed to sale for he did not found any city there,
but reserved the country for himself. However, he assigned
a place for eight hundred men only, whom he had dismissed from
his army, which he gave them for their habitation; it is called
Emmaus, and is distant from Jerusalem threescore stadia."
Josephus names both the town and
its distance – just as we read in Luke!
But Josephus overestimated the distance – 30 stadia (or 3.7
miles) would be nearer the mark – and Luke copied
Josephus, complete with the error! The Lucan "Emmaus" is
a literary phantom.
It should be noted that the classic 18th century
Whiston translation of Josephus is here used. The Penguin edition
of G. Williamson substitutes a "correct" three and
a half miles. The Zondervan, Grand Rapids, edition of Gaalya
Cornfields tidies things up further with "thirty furlongs".
The site near Jerusalem where Vespasian settled
his eight hundred veterans was named by the Romans (quite logically) Colonia.
But it seems this small community faded away in the 2nd century
with the development of "victory city" – Nicopolis – a
few miles further up the road to Joppa. For two years prior to
the war Nicopolis had been the base of the 5th Legion and over
the next century it developed all the normal features of a Roman
Colonia may have been a casualty of the
second war of the Jews led by Bar Kosiba (130-135) when many small
settlements were destroyed. Certainly, with its "Roman" population, Colonia held
no place in Christian folklore. When, in the 4th century, Constantine's
mother Helena started a scramble to sanctify Jesus venues all across
the "Holy Land", it was not Colonia but Nicopolis which
was chosen to be Emmaus and was renamed accordingly. To
preserve inerrancy, copyists arbitrarily changed Luke's 60
stadia (as found in the oldest manuscripts –
P75, Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Vaticanus, etc.) to 160
Unfortunately at a distance of 19.3 miles this change
made a nonsense of Luke's yarn of the two disciples walking
back to Jerusalem (uphill and after dark!) and finding
the other disciples still awake.
Adding to the fun, copies of Luke that followed
the "old Latin" Codex Palatinus (a silver on
purple creation of 5th century Italy) had
the evangelist place Emmaus at a distance of seven
Luke names just one of the two walkers, Cleopas (Cleophas)
a disciple found nowhere else in the Bible* but perhaps a variant
on Clopas (husband of the "other Mary"), and puts into
his mouth words which in a curious way anticipate the so-called Testimonium
added into the work of Josephus.
"And he said unto them, What manner of communications
are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?
And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas,
answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem,
and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in
these days? And he said unto them, What things? And they said
unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty
in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief
priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death,
and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which
should have redeemed Israel." - Luke 24.17,21.
In the Markan summary of the Lukan tale (see below) it is the "eleven" who are
upbraided by the risen Christ for hardness
of heart and not believing
the "two" who had seen him. But in Luke it is the "two" who have
the hardness of heart and get the upbraiding for not
believing the prophets:
"Then he said unto them, O
fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have
spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and
to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the
prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the
things concerning himself. " – Luke 24.25,27.
In these bizarre verses we have the risen Christ
using the prophets and "scriptures" to prove his own existence!
In other words, rather than demonstrate his divinity by any sort
of gesture, he prototypes the patter of countless generations of
priests yet to come by using holy books to "prove" it all
must be so.
The journey and the day progress yet remarkably
the two disciples remain clueless as to the identity of the sagacious
stranger. When JC performs his vanishing trick over dinner it is
not his disappearance that elicits comment (!) but instead his
endorsement of the scriptures!
"And they drew nigh unto the
village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have
gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us:
for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.
And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he
sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake,
and gave to them. And their eyes were opened,
and they knew him; and he vanished out of their
sight. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within
us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he
opened to us the scriptures?" – Luke 24.28,32.
If there is a point to JC's quixotic appearance to
unknown witnesses it is his words which direct the faithful
towards the "heart-burning" value
of holy writ and the ritual of breaking bread. The priests will be
A mobile legend
With the passing centuries,
the legend of Emmaus not only grew – it moved house!
In the early
Byzantine period, the scheming Eusebius of Caesarea championed
the claims of Nicopolis, a town that happened to be within his
own diocese. Seriously peeved that Jerusalem had proclaimed
so many lucrative "holy places", the bishop was only
too happy to affirm that the one disciple named in the incident
(Cleopas) had actually lived in the town.
A shrine was born. Jerome, who moved into the area when exiled
from Italy, contributed the embellishment that JC
had indeed consecrated the Cleopas house as a church! (Letters,
108.8). Salminius Sozomen, a fifth century Christian historian,
vouched for a "miraculous
water source" at Nicopolis where JC had
washed his feet (and
of course pilgrims could procure a healing!). Even into the
Islamic period, the visiting Willibald of Eichstaett in 723 had
been certain that the disused church of Nicopolis stood on the
ruins of Cleopas' house.
But religion is ever the hand-maiden of profane ambition.
When "Latin" knights
arrived from western Christendom in the 12th century, the crusaders
neither knew nor cared for the Greek "traditions". Using
their own unedited Luke, they measured off 60
the walls of Jerusalem and selected Abu Ghosh as
the true "Emmaus". As it happened, at this location
in the 2nd century the 10th Legion had built a reservoir which
9th century Arabs had modified into a caravanserai – visible
proof for the pious Christian warriors that this had been the very
spot that the Risen Lord had "broken bread"!
After two centuries, following the battle of Hattin
(1187), the western invaders were expelled and the fabled
another hiatus. Franciscan monks (would-be custodians of the "Holy
a result of papal Bulls) re-entered the area in the 16th
century and again measured off 60 stadia but this time round on
a different road. Now it was the turn of El Qubeibeh to
play the role of "Emmaus". And wouldn't you just
know it – an ancient wall was
identified as part of the house of Cleopas and a church
built around it!
Father Bellarmino Bagatti conducted encouraging
investigations at this "Emmaus" during the 1940s – and of course he
was the excavator of the no less phantasmic "1st
Off to tell the others
In the second part of Luke's Emmaus fantasy, the
"two" rush back to Jerusalem (whatever
the time or distance) to
tell the good news to the rest of the gang, who apparently had
"fled" but evidently are all together. Curiously, it
is the "eleven
gathered together" who speak first, telling the two who have
dashed back from Emmaus that "The Lord has appeared
"And they rose up the
same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found
the eleven gathered together, and them that were
with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed,
appeared to Simon. – Luke
What we have interjected awkwardly here is
a prior purported resurrection
appearance to the hero of the Roman church, Simon Peter! Not a shred
of detail is offered, even as a fairy tale. This patent Catholic
interpolation secures "first place" in sightings of the
risen Lord for the "first of the apostles", a priority
as befits Peter's status. "Peter" is even made to sermonise
on his privileged sighting later in Acts (10.41), though
again without giving any detail.
The yarn is as elegant as a one-legged cow. Only
after the Simon revelation do the two roadies tell their own "breaking
"And they told what things
were done in the way, and how he was known
of them in breaking of bread." – Luke 24.35.
But their testimony is redundant as
"witnesses of a risen Christ": the words haven't even left their
mouth when the godman himself reappears: "as
they spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them"!
There is every evidence here of a story continuously
re-written to cram in additional "good
ideas". Mark's own sacerdotal point –
in the single verse "dinner with the unbelieving eleven" (Mark
16.14) – had been "believe others who have seen". Luke has
a new didactic point to make, clarifying the nature of what is
seen. Luke's target is a certain type of Christian who
follows a "Pauline" doctrine of a spiritual saviour.
Luke has the godman himself answer the "questionings of the troubled" by
demonstrating that the risen Christ is no mere "spirit" but flesh
Christ, let's be clear, has real hands
and feet and eats fish.
"As they were saying this, Jesus himself
stood among them ... But they were startled and frightened,
that they saw a spirit. And he said to them,
'Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my
hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a
spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.'
... And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, "Have
you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and
he took it and ate before them." – Luke 24.36,43
Later versions of the text introduce a "honeycomb"
to go with the fish to match the practice in the early church of
giving "milk and honey" to the newly baptised!
Luke's "risen Christ" finally
delivers a liturgical commission to his disciples to evangelise "among
all the nations",
leads the merry men out to Bethany (near
Jerusalem) and before their very eyes is carried up to heaven.
The "ascension" here (and in Mark) occurs the
same day. But Luke quite forgets himself
when he writes the sequel in Acts, for here we're told
himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being
seen of them forty days"!
And in Matthew the
story is not at all like this. The "eleven" follow
the instructions delivered by the two Marys from a stone-moving
angel (AND from the "risen Lord" himself,
just to make sure – you can't rely on those women!)
to gather on a mountain
in Galilee. In this re-make of "Moses,
delivering the commandments from a mountainside", JC
delivers his commission to "teach all the nations",
promises to be with them always – and the story ends limply
(Matthew 28.16,20). Even
the living and speaking presence of a resurrected Jesus leaves
some of them "doubting" – what hope is there
for the rest of us! The point, no doubt, is to mock the
skeptical, for whom no evidence will be good enough.
John's offering is different again, rehashing
pre-crucifixion fishy story from Luke into
a post-mortem fishy story set 75 miles
away from Jerusalem on the Sea of Galilee (Gennesaret
/ Sea of Tiberias).
"He stood by the lake of Gennesaret ... he said unto
Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught
... Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have
toiled all the night, and have taken nothing ... nevertheless at
thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done,
they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake."
– Luke 5.1,11.
"Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples
at the sea of Tiberias ... Simon Peter saith unto them, I go
a fishing ... and that night they caught nothing ... He said
unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and
ye shall find ... They cast therefore, and now they were not
able to draw it for the multitude of fishes." – John
Here we have plagiarism that is also counterfeit
– chapter 21 is a so-called "appendix" to John which
in its earlier editions ended with the concluding words of 20.30!
John also describes
the Galilean appearance as the "third" (21.14) when in
fact John has
already detailed three other appearances, the first to Mary Magdalen
(20.4), the second to the disciples sans Thomas (20.19),
the third eight days later to the disciples with Thomas
Clearly the appearance to Mary didn't really count!
Theology creates its own "evidence"
"And many other signs truly did Jesus in
the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this
book. These are written, that ye might believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God." – John 20.30,31.
It is easy to see the unfolding theological
purposes of the whole Emmaus story. It's an instructional yarn
of faith and conviction not historical authenticity. The Emmaus
incident largely eliminates the role of women found in the gospels
Mark and Matthew.
It gives the rising star Peter, in passing, an honourable
mention. But primarily the tale clarifies the liturgical imperatives
of the early church.
Believe but don't expect
to physically see the resurrected Christ (that privilege has
Remember, the risen Lord
will be ever-present at
the breaking of bread, the eucharist, now instituted
as a "thanksgiving" sacrament of the church.
rebirth" of the
Gnostics, our Lord promises a genuine rebirth in a
only the "hard
hearted" refuse to
believe in the "risen Lord" from the evidence
And that's the only evidence you are going to
The Emmaus story is unique to Luke, but it appears in truncated form in the addendum to Mark, chapter 16. Here,
there is no suggestion that JC was unrecognized:
"After that he
appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked,
and went into the country. And they went and told
it unto the residue: neither believed they them.
Afterward he appeared
unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided
their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed
not them which had seen him after he was risen."' – Mark 16.12-14.
Note that Mark gives no identification of either disciple, no indication of where
they were walking, not even a reference to a breaking of bread by the risen Jesus. When "the
two" tell "the
eleven" they are
But if the Lukan Emmaus story doesn't derive from Mark but merely is summarized therein, the tale has its source somewhere – and probably not the fertile imagination of the author of Luke.
The French writer Jean Magne has argued for inspiration in Genesis and a link between Emmaus and Eden, where the two disciples on the road correspond to Adam and Eve of the original garden. In Luke's re-write, Jesus corresponds to the instructive serpent of Genesis – an idea familiarly encountered in Gnostic texts which would have been available to the author of Luke. In both stories, there is a "revelation of knowledge from a former state of ignorance". Whereas Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and recognize their nudity, Luke's disciples eat bread and realize the truth.
Well, why waste a good yarn?
The Holy Land (OUP, 1986)
Robert Price, Jeffery Lowder, The Empty Tomb (Prometheus, 2005)
E. Hoskyns,, N. Davey, The Riddle of the New
Testament (Faber, 1947)
Carsten Peter Thiede, The Emmaus Mystery (Continuum, 2005)
Barbara Thiering, Jesus the Man (Doubleday,1992)
John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (Clark, 1991)
Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History (Monarch, 1990)
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Copyright © 2007
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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