2007-11-18

The Emmaus narrative and the techniques of popular story-telling

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by Neil Godfrey

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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Neil Godfrey

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5 Comments

  • Geoff Hudson
    2007-11-18 08:51:43 GMT+0000 - 08:51 | Permalink

    You will find Simon in Luke 1.16. I suggest that in 1.16, the prophet (to my mind Judas) was, as a priest, walking quite legitimately beside the altar in the temple, not ‘beside Sea of Galilee’ according to our later romancer and storyteller. The prophet saw Simon, his son, not ‘and his brother Andrew’ (Andrew was simply dissimulation), casting a sacrifice into the fire, not ‘casting a net into the lake’.

    In 1.17, the request of the prophet was: come, obey the Spirit, and he will make you clean, not ‘come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ – yet more romantic nonsense from the storyteller. In 1.18, Simon at once left his sacrifice and obeyed the Spirit, not ‘they left their nets and followed him’.

    The prophet was persuading priests, including his own sons Simon and James, to reject the cleansing for sins by animal sacrifices and to seek cleansing of their spirits by the Spirit, who was to be Lord, as distinct from obedience of law, as interpreted by the priests (see the Community Rule). Thus Simon was the first to ‘see’ the Lord – an idea taken-up by the editor in his resurrection story.

    The second to obey the Spirit was the prophet’s son James, who in 1.19, was preparing his sacrifice (for a burnt offering), not ‘preparing their nets’ (Zebedee, and John are yet more dissimulation by the editor). James left his sacrifice with the priests (the hired men, 1.20) and thus obeyed the Spirit, not ‘followed him’.

    In the writings attributed to Josephus, Simon and James, the sons of Judas, are conveniently disposed of without any explanation by Josephus’ editor (apart from the statement that they were the sons of Judas of Galilee – ‘that Judas who caused the people to revolt’, as another storyteller would have it of course.)

    You will find Simon in Luke 1.16. I suggest that in 1.16, the prophet (to my mind Judas) was, as a priest, walking quite legitimately beside the altar in the temple, not ‘beside Sea of Galilee’ according to our later romancer. The prophet saw Simon, his son, not ‘and his brother Andrew’ (Andrew was simply dissimulation), casting a sacrifice into the fire, not ‘casting a net into the lake’.

    In 1.17, the request of the prophet was: come, obey the Spirit, and he will make you clean, not ‘come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ – yet more romantic nonsense from the storyteller. In 1.18, Simon at once left his sacrifice and obeyed the Spirit, not ‘they left their nets and followed him’.

    The prophet was persuading other priests, including his own sons Simon and James, to reject the cleansing for sins by of animal sacrifices and to seek cleansing of the spirit by the Spirit, who was to be Lord, as distinct from obedience of law, as interpreted by the priests. Thus Simon was the first to ‘see’ the Lord – an idea taken-up by the editor in his resurrection story.

    The second to obey the Spirit was the prophet’s son James, who in 1.19, was preparing his sacrifice (for a burnt offering), not ‘preparing their nets’ (Zebedee, and John are yet more dissimulation by the editor). James left his sacrifice with the priests (the hired men, 1.20) and thus obeyed the Spirit, not ‘followed him’.

    In the writings attributed to Josephus, Simon and James, the sons of Judas, are conveniently disposed of without any explanation by Josephus’ editor (apart from the statement that they were the sons of Judas of Galilee – ‘that Judas who caused the people to revolt’, as another storyteller would have it of course.)

  • Geoff Hudson
    2007-11-19 09:29:29 GMT+0000 - 09:29 | Permalink

    My references above are to Mark, not Luke.

  • George Hamelin
    2008-09-07 12:32:02 GMT+0000 - 12:32 | Permalink

    I’ve come to expect the early Christian writings to be chock full of references playing off the various beliefs and traditions of contemporary Judaism. I wouldn’t assume that it renders them wholly unoriginal just because Father John was mean to me in parochial school.

    But….. I always assumed that it was the Eleven that said to the two travellers “Great, but Peter saw him first”. Apostolic authority does seem to consistently underline the post resurrection narratives.
    Maybe I’ve been readin too much Crossan 🙂

  • 2008-09-07 21:06:11 GMT+0000 - 21:06 | Permalink

    A recent discussion that included some debate about who said what here (you may already know it) is in iidb’s thread (saved here as a pdf) Simon or back to Emmaus. Not saying it’s necessarily the best discussion, just a recent one I know of.

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