Below I have summarized the conclusions of the far more detailed discussion of the Emmaus road narrative. It offers an explanation for some of the problems with this narrative by seeing it in the context of the art of popular story telling. Having lost appreciation for this context of the original gospel, subsequent literal and historical approaches have failed to understand the nature and intent of the episode. And it has been this far “too serious” approach that has raised the interpretative and textual problems. Those problems largely disappear when the ending is read as being constructed with the tools of ancient popular fiction.
The final author of our canonical Luke-Acts knew how to please an audience and hold them in suspense. Acts in particular is one long series of adventures and narrow escapes. The conclusion of Luke demonstrates a mastery of popular technique resolving the narrative plot with a suspenseful graduated series of recognition scenes. The author has primed his audience to anticipate a resolution that involves not only the resurrection of Jesus but in particular a resolution with Simon Peter.
This is a plot development that is new and original to this gospel. His audience knew of the earlier gospel stories where the hoped for meeting between the resurrected Jesus and Peter either never happened or was blurred out by his being included unnamed in the ranks of the rest of the apostles. The author of Luke-Acts also wanted to wrap narrative flesh around the doctrinal “fact” that the very first appearance of the resurrected Jesus was to Peter (1 Cor.15:5).
Yet simply fabricating a dramatic scene at this point of the Christian community’s growth, one that no-one had ever heard before, would scarcely win easy acceptance. The story had to be low key enough to explain why it had not been common public knowledge before. At the same time it had to be rich enough in associations and meaning to be worthy of a genuine appearance to the leader of the Twelve. Embedding in the narrative the motifs of travel, evening hospitality towards unrecognized divine messengers, and the place identified as where Jacob was visited by God, achieved this. (Jewish legends further added elaborated the significance of the rock Jacob used for his pillow, possibly further playing with word associations and their relation to the names of Cephas and Peter.)
The author found the solution to both problems by turning one part of the classic recognition scenes into a double dialogue with his audience: at the same time he was taking them through the suspense of how the characters came to recognize the resurrected Jesus, he was playing with them to give them a chance to recognize for themselves how Simon Peter became the first to see the resurrected Jesus. He repeated his known trick of saving the key identity of the character until the critical point in the narrative.
The final resolution of the status of Simon Peter, as well as that of the mystery of the anonymity and strange new name in the Emmaus road narrative, comes when the pair announce to the audience even more than to the eleven that Jesus has just appeared to Simon!
The nature of this revelation, as mysterious and ephemeral but nonetheless as real as the recognition scene in the story of how Manoah and his wife belatedly recognized the heavenly nature of their guest, and it’s immediate overshadowing by Jesus’ dramatic open appearance in the midst of them all, complete with his proofs that he was real, facilitated the noncontroversial introduction of the new narrative of how Jesus appeared first to Peter.
Unfortunately for later more literal minded audiences and for subsequent ecclesiastical mythmakers who began to create a genealogy and entirely new identity for Cleophas, an understanding of the playfulness and novelistic art of the author was lost, along with the true meaning of the narrative.
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