Saturday, April 26, 2014

On Which Road Again?

This week’s lesson in a popular evangelical Sunday school guide[1] focuses on Luke 24:13-25, the encounter on the road to Emmaus. I find it wholly unsatisfying in that it provokes no real inquiry into the dilemma faced by followers of Jesus, then or now, seeking to reconcile his supposed status as anointed (Christ, Messiah) with his failure to restore Israel.[2] Rather, the writer skims the surface of the narrative, recounting the “proofs” of Jesus’ identity as Messiah in certain ancient Hebrew writings. I’ll not discuss the most obvious problem with this approach, other than to repeat what many scholars have suggested – that the Jesus narratives were tailor made to fit the Hebrew scriptures, a much more likely scenario than the popular notion among Christians that the Hebrew authors unwittingly wrote history hundreds of years in advance.

The Emmaus incident is unique among canonical accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances in that it does not involve Mary Magdalene or any of the twelve apostles and that the persons to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him until the moment he disappears. Only one of the two disciples, Cleopas, is named. Cleopas is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament – unless he is the husband of the aunt of Jesus named in John 19:25[3]. Either way, the principles in the story are a faceless name and his nameless companion.

In his sermon, “Undercover Jesus” Clay Nelson suggests that Luke names only one of the two on the road to Emmaus because he is inviting the reader to be the companion of Cleopas, to embrace the cognitive dissonance between the hope that God had sent Israel a savior in the person of Jesus and the ignominious death he suffered. I like this approach because it draws the reader out of any presumed historical context into the realm of personal experience. Also, the fact that Luke cites none of the scriptural proofs Jesus offered the companions invites the reader to search the text for her or himself.

Emmaus or Oulammaus?

A little research on Emmaus reveals an interesting fact: Luke may not have mentioned Emmaus at all. One of the oldest extant manuscripts of the gospel, the Codex Bezae, has the companions walking to Oulammaus, not Emmaus. Oulammaus, it seems, is a nonexistent location, but Luke would not have known that, because the version of the Hebrew scriptures to which he had access, contained an error in its translation of Genesis 28:19.
 [Jacob] named that sacred place Bethel, though Luz was the city's original name.[4]

The Septuagint (LXX) to which Luke had access translated Luz as Oulammaus, an error that would not be corrected until 100 CE; some years after Luke had written his gospel. This suggests that Luke was linking the disciples’ experience of the risen Jesus with Jacob’s encounter with YHWH[5] at Bethel:

Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. He reached a certain place and spent the night there. When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. Then he lay down there. He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God's messengers were ascending and descending on it. Suddenly YHWH was standing on it and saying, "I am YHWH, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you." When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, YHWH is definitely in this place, but I didn't know it. He was terrified and thought, This sacred place is awesome. It's none other than God's house and the entrance to heaven. After Jacob got up early in the morning, he took the stone that he had put near his head, set it up as a sacred pillar, and poured oil on the top of it. He named that sacred place Bethel, though Luz/Oulammaus was the city's original name. Jacob made a solemn promise: "If God is with me and protects me on this trip I'm taking, and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return safely to my father's household, then YHWH will be my God. This stone that I've set up as a sacred pillar will be God's house, and of everything you give me I will give a tenth back to you."[6]

Jacob was fleeing his home after having defrauded his brother Esau of his birthright. In a dream, he sees a passage between earth and heaven and his father’s god, YHWH, reiterates the promise made to Abraham, making Jacob, not Esau, the recipient of that promise. Though Jacob had claimed what was not his and had to flee for his life, his god committed to bringing his scheme to fruition in ways Jacob could not have foreseen. Likewise, Jesus had claimed to be the anointed instrument of a restored Israel, but had lost his life without realizing his goal. His disciples, however, in searching the scriptures, envisioned a restoration that far surpassed what they had understood to be their master’s plan.

If Luke indeed had his companions walking to Oulammaus, not Emmaus, then it would have been the work of a post-100 CE scribe to change the text to make some sense of a story based in a mistranslation of Genesis. Why would a scribe have substituted Emmaus, other than the identical endings of the two names? Is Emmaus mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures?

It is not, but the Christians of the early 2nd century did not read the bible in Hebrew. They read it in Greek and the LXX , which was their Greek bible, contained writings that did not exist in Hebrew. Among them were accounts of the Hasmonean revolt led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers. First Maccabees records a battle at Emmaus in 166 BCE:

Lysias selected Ptolemy…, as well as Nicanor and Gorgias…. He sent them with forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry to go into Judah and destroy it, as the king had commanded. So they headed out with their whole force. When they arrived, they set up camp in the plain near Emmaus. When traders in the region heard about their plan, they took a great amount of silver and gold, together with shackles, and went to the camp intending to obtain some Israelites for slaves….

Judas and his brothers saw that the situation was becoming increasingly difficult, as the military forces were encamped in their territory. They learned also that the king had commanded their complete destruction. But they spoke to each other, "Let's restore our people after all they've suffered, and fight for our people and the sanctuary.” So the congregation gathered to prepare for battle, and to pray and ask for mercy and compassion.

Jerusalem was deserted
like a wilderness.
None of her children moved around.
The sanctuary was trampled,
and strangers held the elevated fortress.
Gentiles lodged there.
Joy was taken from Jacob.
The flute and the harp
were no longer heard….

They fasted for a day and put on mourning clothes, sprinkled ashes on their heads, and tore their garments. In addition, they opened up the Law scroll to find answers to the kinds of questions Gentiles would ask of their idols…. They stirred up nazirites, who had completed the duration of their solemn promises. Then they cried aloud to heaven:

"What should we do with these people?
Where should we take them?
Your sanctuary is trampled and degraded.
Your priests mourn in humiliation.
The Gentiles are gathered here against us,
planning to destroy us.
You know what they are plotting.
How will we be able to withstand them
if you don't help us?"

Then they blew the trumpets and gave a loud shout… Then the army went on the march and camped south of Emmaus.

Judas said: "Arm yourselves and be fearless. Be ready early in the morning to fight these Gentiles who have gathered here against us to destroy us and our sanctuary. It would be better for us to die fighting than to see the misfortunes of our nation and the sanctuary. Whatever may be heaven's will, that's what the heavenly one will do."

Gorgias took five thousand infantry and one thousand select cavalry, and this division moved out secretly at night…. But Judas heard about it, and he and his warriors moved out to attack the king's forces in Emmaus while the division was absent from the camp. So when Gorgias entered Judas' camp during the night, there was no one there. He started looking for them in the hills, because he said, "These men are running away from us."

At daybreak, Judas appeared in the plain with three thousand men…. Judas said to those who were with him: "Don't fear their numbers or be afraid when they charge. Remember how our ancestors were saved at the Red Sea, when Pharaoh was pursuing them with his forces. So let's cry to heaven to see if the heavenly one will favor us and remember his covenant with our ancestors and crush this army in front of us today. Then all the Gentiles will know that there is someone who redeems and saves Israel."

The foreigners looked up and saw the Israelites coming against them. They went out from their camp to engage them in battle. The men with Judas blew their trumpets, and the battle began. The Gentiles were crushed and fled into the plain. All those who were in the rear were killed by the sword…. Three thousand Gentiles died. Judas and his forces stopped pursuing them. He said to everyone: "Don't be greedy to plunder, for there is still a battle ahead of us…. Stand now against our enemies and fight them. Then afterward boldly seize the spoils."

...So Judas went back to plunder the camp. His army took a great amount of gold and silver, cloth that was dyed blue and purple, and great riches. As they returned, they sang hymns and songs of praise to heaven: "God is good, because his mercy endures forever." That day Israel had a great deliverance.[7]

There is no direct correlation between this narrative and the passion/resurrection narratives in Luke’s gospel, but that is to be expected if Emmaus was chosen as a substitute reference for the original Oulammaus, which some alert scribe realized no longer fit the Genesis 28 back story. The reader is now asked to see her/himself, not as Jacob witnessing a break in the veil between heaven and earth through the experience of the risen Jesus, but rather as one of a spiritual army under the leadership of a heavenly Jesus who, like Judah Maccabee, leads the faithful against the forces of darkness – not in the flesh, but in the spirit. Christ’s apparent defeat is in fact a victory, but only the faithful can perceive it as they open up the scriptures to “find answers to the kinds of questions Gentiles would ask of their idols.”[8]

The lesson I think we must take from this is that our understanding of scripture cannot be static. As our knowledge increases, as our life situations change, we must either discard scripture as no longer relevant, or we must reconfigure and reinterpret its meaning for ourselves. This is not news to those familiar with rabbinic thought, but many Christians would do well to open their imaginations.

[1] Publishing, Standard. Standard Lesson Commentary 2013-2014 New International Version. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Pub, 2013. Print.
[2] Lk. 24:21
[3] Clopas
[4] Common English Bible with Apocrypha - ePub Edition. Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition. Slight modifications by aek.
[5] YHWH is the English transliteration of the sacred name of God in Hebrew, possibly pronounced Yahweh, but traditionally read aloud as Adonai (lord) and rendered as the LORD in most English translations.
[6] Gn. 28:10-22. Common English Bible with Apocrypha - ePub Edition. Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[7] 1Mac. 3:38-4:25. Common English Bible with Apocrypha - ePub Edition. Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[8] Cf. 1Mac. 3:48.

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