The Appearance on the Road to Emmaus
Luke 24: 13-35
Nicholas F. Mazza, PhD
An historical inquiry into the appearance of the risen Savior on the road to Emmaus
Introduction and Thesis Statement: The research goal of this paper is to (1) examine, (2) analyze and (3) seek to determine the historical authenticity of Luke the Evangelist’s post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to two disciples as they journeyed on a country road from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35). This recorded journey and appearance seemingly took place on the same day that it was announced that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty.
This study will investigate this entire pericope as presented including the clear statement by Luke of Emmaus’ location, the known and unknown individuals taking the journey, their conversations with Jesus and reactions among themselves during their travel, the meal described by Luke, the realization it was Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and finally, the reporting of the appearance to “the eleven and those with them” (Luke 24: 33) on that same day.
It will further analyze the research findings and present them in an orderly and logical manner. Finally, it will seek to determine the historical validity of this passage as it is recorded by Luke.
The specific question that this research attempts to examine and determine is: Did Luke vivify this episode of the post-resurrection appearance of the risen Lord to two disciples as they journeyed through the countryside outside of Jerusalem on the day the burial tomb was found empty? Is it possible that the post-resurrection appearance in the countryside could have taken place, but that the story-line of Luke’s Emmaus is more instructional than historical?
Background to the Emmaus episode: This thesis does not attempt to take a position as on the certainty of Jesus appearing to two disciples in the countryside and their reporting the appearance to the eleven at some point as likewise recorded in Mark16:12-13. This study seeks to determine the historical and factual account as presented by Luke solely to determine whether the information presented is historically correct despite the appearance or lack thereof. An explanation of the appearance, itself, will be conducted.
Certainly the similar account by Mark provides a degree of credibility to Luke’s episode. However, Mark does not record his episode in elaborate detail as Luke does by providing a geographic location, characters, a messianic message by Jesus, the inability to initially recognize Jesus, an impending sunset, a Eucharistic style meal or an inference that a long journey back to the eleven had to have occurred after sunset.
Similarly, in light of the limited episode describing this post-resurrection appearance in the Gospel of Mark, it should be stated that neither the Gospels of Matthew nor John report an appearance by Jesus in the countryside despite the fact that both evangelists report the post-resurrection appearances quite thoroughly. One would then have to ask if the Emmaus episode, specifically, is a lively creation by Luke.
The reported post-resurrection appearance of Jesus on the road to the village of Emmaus approximately seven miles from Jerusalem is a very specific statement recorded by Luke. This is true as well in Luke’s identification of Cleopas as one of the two disciples on this journey. Both the mentioning of the village of Emmaus and the disciple Cleopas provides very tangible information about its potential historical authenticity and this will be explored.
Certainly some logical conclusions can also be made about the real likely- hood that a journey back to Jerusalem from Emmaus that same day was improbable and this logical conclusion as well can add to the questioning of the episode’s historical authenticity. However, much harder to analyze are the facts surrounding other events in the episode, namely, Jesus’ encounter with the disciples and their failing to recognize him, their eventual recognition of the glorified messiah, the string of messianic prophesies reportedly mentioned by Jesus or not and the recognition of Jesus at the meal itself.
We do know that Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recorded an Emmaus in the “The Jewish War” and the village of Emmaus is likewise mentioned in the first book of Maccabees in 1 Mc 3: 40-57; 4: 3 and 1 Mc 9:50 . Some biblical scholars have studied the Luke Emmaus episode quite extensively. Certain known facts about the ancient Emmaus are available and these will be used in this research.
A variety of research has also been conducted about the identities of Luke’s two disciples, namely Cleopas and the unnamed disciple and these will be presented.
Finally, the lively discussions, prophesies, meals, manifestations of Jesus and reporting them afterwards will have to be viewed as potential theological at this juncture since historical evidence will be difficult to verify.
The Research Findings: From an analytical perspective, this entire pericope itself can be viewed in four key parts. This study attempts to present evidence from a wide variety of research in order to capture its historical richness, as well as an attempt to identify the theological message Luke intended to communicate and in his style of story-telling.
These four parts are: (1) Luke 24: 13-18 or the travel scene in which the two disciples are on their way to Emmaus discussing the events of the Passion when suddenly Jesus draws near and joins them, (2) Luke 24: 19-27 or the discussions along the journey, including reports of Jesus’ ministry, their messianic hopes, the statement on the empty tomb found by the women, Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples and his sermon on the messianic prophesy, (3) Luke 24: 28-32 or the invitation to dine, the breaking of bread and identification of Jesus and his disappearance, and finally (4) Luke 24: 33-35 or the return trip back to Jerusalem and the reporting of the appearance to the eleven and the others with them .
The first part of this pericope is the travel scene and it has three subparts which are Emmaus, Cleopas and the initial encounter with Jesus.
As stated earlier, Luke is very specific about the location of the village of Emmaus and its distance from Jerusalem. Some biblical scholars have examined the location of Emmaus closely and question its historical accuracy especially since the ancient village of Emmaus is known to be located well beyond the seven miles indicated by Luke.
As a result, a number of other locations have been suggested as the Emmaus Luke recorded. Among the various sites identified with Emmaus are these three: (1) Modern Amwas, the Emmaus of the first book of Maccabees. In the 4th century, this site was identified by the Greek name, Nicopolis, and later Imwas which eventually became an abandoned location. Early Christian tradition chose the ancient Emmaus site, and here an imposing Byzantine basilica was built . It is about 160 stradia from Jerusalem; this represents a good 5-hour walk – a considerable distance for the two disciples to retrace on their return the same evening to Jerusalem. (2) Modern el-Qubeibeh, where a large church commemorating the Easter event has been built by the Franciscans on the foundation of the structure dating from the time of the Crusades. It is about 60 stradia northwest of Jerusalem – about a 2-hour walk. Although the site was inhabited in Roman times, Christians did not identify it with the Emmaus of Luke until the 12th century. The author of the Cultural Atlas of the World indicates that he walked the distance of the seven miles with very athletic students and it took nearly three hours . (3) Modern Qalonieh, also about 60 stradia, directly west of Jerusalem. This site was inhabited at the time of Christ, but no Christian tradition has ever been attached to it . Finally (4) Modern Hebrew city of Motza is written Ammaous in the Greek and it is within easy walking distance from Jerusalem, a little over 6km or 3.7 miles. Flavius Josephus specifically identified a village named Emmaus in “The Jewish War” and indicated its distance from Jerusalem as thirty furlongs, which is approximately 3.7 miles .
In all, none of these explanations and references is in agreement with the clear statement by Luke that the journey was to the village in Emmaus seven miles from Jerusalem. A logical conclusion could, therefore, be made that this detail of the passage lacks historical authenticity.
Immediately following the Emmaus location problem is the second subpart which deals with the identity of Cleopas as the named disciple in Luke 24: 18. Although Luke identifies the disciple as Cleopas, bible scholars have suggested that this individual could likely be another disciple named Clopas, who is mentioned in John 19:25 and is the husband of one of the Marys’ present at the crucifixion. Additionally, Clopas in the Gospel of John could be the Cleopas mentioned in Luke 24. Perhaps Luke used Cleopas instead of Clopas because Luke’s readers would have been more familiar with the name Cleopas. The name Cleopas (renowned father) is a Greek name and could have been used as an equivalent name to Clopas. If these two named individuals are describing the same person, than this disciple is the father of Simeon who later was head of the church in Jerusalem. Further conjecture is that the unknown disciple was the James, the son of Alphaeus (one of the Twelve) because the Latin version of Alphaeus is Cleopas. However this is unlikely since the two disciples in Luke 24 returned to Jerusalem and met with the eleven, therefore, James the lesser would have been in Jerusalem and not on the road to Emmaus. As a side issue to the Cleopas/Clopas debate there is frequent mention that Mary, the wife of Cleopas/ Clopas is the unknown disciple . Additionally, more than one scholar including Jesuit Joseph Fitzmyer author of Luke the Theologian indicates that the unnamed disciple could be Luke, himself since Luke was a disciple at the time and this is why he mentions this passage so vividly .
At any rate, the more fundamental point here is that regardless of who the two disciples were their familiarity with Jesus during his life is evident and, therefore, they should have easily recognized him or he was unrecognizable for some unusual reason.
The third and final subpart is the discussion taking place between the two disciples as Jesus draws near to them. There are two areas of interest in this last section.
The first nuance is the mood of the discussion taking place between the two disciples. First, Tom Wright, in framing the Emmaus story as characteristic of the Lucan style, refers to the feelings of “anguish” shared by the two disciples as they discussed everything that had happened over the past three days. Second, Jesus then approaches and joins up with them; the Greek word “egggizo” is used and is translated as “draw near, approach” and then “but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (Luke 24: 16.) A consistent feature of the resurrection stories is that the risen Jesus was different and initially unrecognizable. Brown construes the disciples’ lack of recognition in the Emmaus story as a way to address spiritual difficulties that Luke was having with some of his followers in recognizing the risen Jesus in their lives. If this is correct, then the episode is instructional and not historically correct.
The next and second key stage in this pericope (Luke 24: 19-27) is concerned with the discussions along the journey to Emmaus which include a description of Jesus’ ministry, the messianic hopes of these disciples and their fellow disciples, the statement on the empty tomb found by the women, Jesus’ rebuke of the two disciples and his sermon on the messianic prophesy which he fulfills in his passion, death and resurrection.
These discussions have been researched by some biblical scholars in defining the historical authenticity of this narrative and in the redaction style of Luke to give credibility to other aspects in Jesus’ life through the art of his vivid story-telling. They are depicted in this second stage in the following manner: (1) McKnight refers to the “divine necessity” of Jesus’s suffering recorded in Luke 24: 26-27, in explaining Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ messianic role in the divine plan. (2) Dunn depicts the Lucan style as a way for the evangelist to verify other historical events in the life of Jesus and is benefited by Luke’s skill as a story-teller. Specifically, Dunn identifies the theme of Jesus as prophet in Luke 24: 19, Jesus’ crucifixion directly attributed to Jewish leadership in Luke 24: 20 as examples of the use of this Lucan style in the Emmaus story, fueling the possibility that this story is more catechetical than historical. , (3) Lane describes Luke as developing a sacramental encounter of the risen Jesus in the Eucharistic fellowship of the disciples’ encounter with Jesus in Luke 24: 13-25 , and finally, (4) Alsup indicates that Cleopas is positioned to address other events Luke intends to present in his story like the ministry of Jesus and the women’s report of the empty tomb. Even the rebuke by Jesus is Luke’s method of presenting the “passion of Jesus” to his audience. The thrust of scholarship appears to be strongly leaning to Lucan redaction and not historical fact.
The next and third key part of this pericope (Luke 24: 28-32) has likewise been explored by bible scholars and includes the invitation to dine, the breaking of bread together, the identification of Jesus and his disappearance. One scholar, Tom Wright creatively compares the discovery of Jesus in the breaking of bread (Luke 24:31) by the two disciples, to the first meal of Jesus in the new creation that brought life again to mankind, in contrast to the discovery by Adam and Eve of their sinfulness and nakedness before God after the first meal in the Garden of Paradise when they ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of life and brought death to mankind. Wright further suggests that the two disciples are Cleopas and Mary, his wife, providing a perfect theological parallel to Adam and Eve.
Fitzmyer , who describes Jesus’ vanishing from the sight of the disciples as “scarcely a normal mode of departure or withdrawal from someone in natural, terrestrial existence” and then indicates that since “Christ uses the past tense of the imperfect verb dei and refers to himself as having already entered his glory” one can conclude that the two disciples are experiencing the “glorified Jesus”, and can take some relief in Wrights’ further comment that Cleopas’ and Mary’s “hearts burning” (Luke 24: 32) within them at the discovery of Jesus could act as a model of heart burning joy when we first discover Jesus in our lives. Lane indicates that the Greek word (“ophthe” – “he appeared”) is difficult to translate into English. The best equivalent is “he was made manifest” or that a “revelatory experience” took place where Jesus is now seen in a new way.
Alsup indicates that this entire section of the story (Luke 24: 28-32) is the actual climax of this entire Emmaus episode and occurs when the guest becomes the housemaster host, breaks and blesses bread and passes it to these two disciples and at that moment their eyes are opened and they recognize him. The post-resurrection appearance of the risen Lord is manifested and, incredibly, at that moment he disappears. Finally and even more profanely, the appearance takes place during the meal and the breaking of the bread providing a lively Lucan presentation of the Eucharist “pointing forward” as the central symbolic action of Jesus’ people and, therefore, once again lacking historicity.
The fourth and final key section of this periscope is (Luke 24: 33-35) or the return trip back to Jerusalem and the reporting of the appearance to the eleven and the others with them. There are a few points of interest to be examined here.
First, could these two disciples possibly have been able to return seven miles back to Jerusalem after sunset after having just taken this trip to “Emmaus”? Secondly, the two disciples, arriving late at night and presumably exhausted, are told that the eleven acknowledge the truth that “The Lord” (Luke 24: 34) has risen and give credibility to the risen Savior as well to Jesus’ appearance to “Simon” (Luke 24: 34) earlier in the day.
However, why is Luke describing the eleven and referring specifically to Simon in this story and at this point in time? Some noted biblical scholars have examined both of these issues.
Essentially, Alsup once again dives deep into the story line and suggests that the original appearance story actually ended with the climatic appearance and disappearance scene during the meal and only later did Luke add verses 33-35 in order to communicate what has become known as the “kerygma tradition and the petrine appearance” storyline of Luke to his community. It would then seem likely that Luke was interested at some point in the future to add these last three verses as instruction to the Christian community of the importance of the gospel proclamation that Christ rose from the dead. Additionally the Luke gives acknowledgement to the eleven and especially Peter as receiving legitimate authority from Jesus to lead the Christian community in faith and this addition to the episode “fits in with the overall schema” of the storyline.
Conclusion: In summary, this historical inquiry of the appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus can be viewed by examining its four distinct (key) parts. I believe that tangible information has been presented in examining and explaining each key part within the paper itself. Initially, I approached this research study by viewing the Emmaus episode as a single unit and was anticipating presenting it as such. It was only as a result of extensive research and deeper investigation of some very knowledgeable biblical historians that I became more aware of the divisions within episodes. This realization helped me greatly in understanding what I was reading and researching as well being able to present it on paper for others to read more clearly.
As a result, I presented the four key parts as well as their subparts and further analyzed each of these. An example of this is the travel scene. In itself it is one of the four “key” parts of the episode. Within this key part (travel scene) there are three subparts, namely, Emmaus, Cleopas and the initial encounter with Jesus. This methodology was the framework for my analysis.
What have I learned in writing this paper? Actually, what have I learned during this course that provided a framework to do the research necessary to examine the various parts of this storyline and to provide a baseline for my work? As I stated in my introduction to my class presentation, I had initially shown interest in the glorified body of The Lord because of the connections I made to my body and my spirituality during a personal day of introspection at the Shrine of St. Joseph, Stirling, NJ.
The initial choice of this scripture passage was made in the early part of the course. The course provided me with another view of scripture and, as a result, forced me
to lean less on the appearance scene specifically and more to the whole storyline. For this reason, my focus changed and information like the location of Emmaus, the character Cleopas became more important to investigate because these issues had historical possibilities.
Basically, the course allowed me to progress from a student with a theological viewpoint to satisfy to a student with the ability to view the scriptures as researchable to acquire historical information. I believe that I employed these newly developed talents more so while researching the paper. In particular, I grew more fascinated by the depth of the scholarly information available and the talents of these theologians. I actually became envious of their skills and, at different points through my research paper would come across as very amateurish.
Finally, from a personal and spiritual experience, I learned that in my spiritual journeys, I do not recognize The Risen Lord either. Despite the many years of personal encounters with Jesus whether they be in my religious formation, in my ministries within the church community or in living out my life in family and work relationships, that I miss the real presence of Jesus before me. How foolish of me. I guess that I am no different than the anguished disciples and that after I get hit over the head with the true reality of Jesus in my life as well; some good sense can enter into me.
Alsup, John E, The Post-Resurrection Appearance Stories of the Gospel-Tradition, London: The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1975.
Brown, Raymond E, The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, New York: Paulist Press, 1973.
Dictionary of the Bible, 1st ed., s.v. “Emmaus,” John J. McKenzie. S.J.
Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered, vol. 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J. Luke the Theologian : Aspects of His Teachings. New York: Paulist Press,1989.
Lane, Dermot A. The Reality of Jesus: An essay in Christology. New York: Paulist Press, 1975.
McKnight, Scot. Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2005.
Thackeray, H. St. J. (English Translator). Josephus: The Jewish War., Book VII. London: Harvard University Press.
The Cultural Atlas of the World, The Bible, 6th ed., s.v. “Jerusalem as Jesus knew it,” John Rogerson.
The New American Bible, 2000-2001 ed., s.v. Luke 24:13-35.
Turpin, Joanne. Twelve Apostolic Women. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004.
Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2001