Why you only know the name of one guy on the Emmaus Road

Ever wonder why you know the names of certain characters in the gospels? I don’t mean the biggies like Peter and Paul, but the littlies like Simon the Cyrene, or Bartimaeus the blind beggar, or Jairus, or Cleopas, the guy on the Emmaus Road. Lots of people don’t get named in gospel stories, such as the rich young man, or the demoniac from whom Jesus drove a Legion of demons. But sometimes people do get names. Or more interestingly, they don’t get named in earlier gospels but they do get named in later ones. Why? What’s going on?

The answer, according to a fascinating book called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham, the reason is, in essence that ancient word processors did not have a footnote function. So the way you made clear the source of your story about Jesus was to mention his name in the account.

So, for instance, when Mark mentions Simon of Cyrene, he also mentions (to his Roman audience) that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). And when Paul writes to that same community, he greets Rufus (Romans 16:13). Are they certainly the same person? No. But the odds are pretty high. There is, after all, no other reason for Mark to include that note to his readers except that Alexander and Rufus are well-know figures to them. And the implication is rather clear therefore that Simon and his sons became believers who stories were told by them again and again in the early church and incorporated in the passion narrative by the evangelists.

Same with the other figure, including Cleopas. And that is particularly unsurprising, given Cleopas’s relationship to some of the most important figures in the early Church. For Cleopas (aka “Clopas”) was the husband of “the other Mary” who stood at the foot of the cross (John 19:25). And she is describe by John as the “sister” of the Blessed Virgin.

Now it could be that the Virgin’s parent were massively unimaginative and named all their daughters “Mary”. But far more likely is the tradition Mary the wife of Clopas was a cousin of the Blessed Virgin. And this Mary is repeatedly named as the mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1; Luke 24:10). Which James? James the younger. Not the son of Zebedee. This James and his brother Joseph (aka “Joses”) are also obviously well known to the Christian community. Why?

Because this James is “the brother of the Lord”. In other lists (which he always heads) the names are “James, Joses, Judas (or Jude) and Simon”. In short, he is the first bishop of Jerusalem. His brother Simon will succeed him after he is martyred, according to Eusebius.

All of which means that when you are listening to the narratives of the Passion and Resurrection, especially one last Sunday, you are hearing, in no small part, the story of the family of James’ personal experience. James’ mother stood at the cross and was part of the party of women who went to the empty tomb. James’ father was the guy on the Emmaus Road. And James himself seems to have been favored with an appearance of the Risen Christ that Paul knows about, but which is not recorded in the gospel narratives (1 Corinthians 15:7).

I think that’s fascinating because it brings the resurrection narratives into much sharper focus as the clear memories of eyewitnesses who have been personally interviewed by people like Luke.

One other interesting point: the omission of names. Notice something about the stories of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet: she is unnamed in the synoptics. But in John’s gospel she is not only named, but her reputation is so famous for this act that John identifies her solely from this act in John 11:2, but does not get around to narrating that story until John 12. Moreover, the act is so singular and remarkable that Jesus declares that “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mt 26:13; Mark 14:9). In short, there are not dozens of women running around anointing Jesus’ feet. There’s just one. But the synoptics don’t name her while John not only names her but makes clear he knows his whole audience knows her by that act.

Why? Because she is dead and it is now safe to name her, while it was not safe to name her while she was still living, nor was it prudent to pin her past life a sinful woman to her name.

Also, interesting, by the way is the fact that in the entire length and breadth of Jesus parables, there is only one parable in which Jesus bothers to assign a name to the character in the story. Everywhere else it just “a certain man”, etc. But in a parable dealing entirely with a poor man who died, and the suggestion that coming back from the dead would be a clincher that would change people’s hearts and minds, Jesus names the hero of that story “Lazarus”: the name of the brother of Mary whom he raised from the dead. I think it’s quite obvious that the Church is recalling an extremely pointed story Jesus told, in part as a lampoon of the hostility the raising of Lazarus generated among the Temple elite: “They have Moses and the prophets. If they will not believe them, they will not believe though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16:31). And indeed, the only instinct of the Temple elite was to try to figure out a way to kill not only Lazarus, but Jesus too.

Just some interesting stuff to think about as we ponder the Sunday Readings.

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  • Jim & Heather Kontoes

    Blessed Mary of Agreda, in her “City of God”, makes it clear that the other person is St. Luke, himself. I always thought that was pretty cool. 🙂

    • Michaelus

      I think she is right. Rather like St. John not naming himself in his writings – the last thing these men wanted to do was focus the attention on themselves rather than on Christ.

    • Sally Wilkins

      Hmm. That would make St. Luke one of the “company,” while the evidence is that he was a disciple of Paul, and there is no ancient witness or tradition of his having been an eyewitness to the Lord.

      • Jim & Heather Kontoes

        All I can say is read Bl. Mary of Agreda. Her writing is entirely sound and approved. There’s really no reason he couldn’t be a disciple of Jesus, then Paul. Once you begin reading “City of God”, you won’t be able to put it down. Awesome. 🙂

  • Sally Wilkins

    I have seen the case made that the unnamed disciple on the Emmaus road was in fact Mary, the wife of Cleopas. . . .

    • Mark.

      Dorothy L. Sayers liked the idea and in her series of radio plays about the life of Jesus, The Man Born To Be King, used it. She also had St. Dismas humoring Jesus, thinking him a madman but being kind even as they were both being crucified, only to be enlightened when Jesus told him “this day you will be with me in Paradise.” Both seemed to fit the story, she explained.

  • Mike

    It’s fascinating the links and familial connections and minor details that are there but that are not obvious.

  • Rosemarie


    I like this. More evidence of the historicity and accuracy of the Gospels.

    As an aside, when you start to dig into the (small-t) traditions and folklore of Christianity, you discover many interesting speculations on the identities of certain Gospel figures. For instance, St. Veronica was sometimes identified by the woman with a flow of blood that Jesus healed. Some say that the rich young man who left when Jesus told him to sell all his belongings was actually St. Barnabas. Later on he received the grace to do as Christ had said and became one of the first Christians.

    These are not authoritative facts, of course, but they’re interesting nonetheless. It would be nice to think that the rich young ruler came around eventually.

  • tj.nelson

    Some of the characters are known in hagiography, listed in the old martyrology and in the Orthodox Church their feast days are still observed. St. Photina comes to mind – the Samaritan woman at the well. I forgot who the young man who ran away naked after Jesus was arrested turned out be – but he has an ancient ‘cult’ as well. For some reason I always think he is St. Antipas – but my memory isn’t what it used to be.

    • wlinden

      And St. Claudia, “Pilate’s wife”.

    • Marthe Lépine

      I am not sure my memory is correct about this, or if I misunderstood, but I seem to recall someone (maybe in a homily during a Mass I attended) that the young man who ran away naked after Jesus was arrested could have been Paul. Does anyone else know something about this?

      • sez

        No – couldn’t have been Paul. He was still a devout Pharisee at that time. Mark 14:51 says the fleeing young man had been following Jesus.

        Many have claimed that it was St. Mark, himself, who fled naked.

        • tj.nelson

          I googled it – you are right – it is believed to have been Mark

          • sez

            Whatever would we do without Mr. Google?? 😉

  • PalaceGuard

    What did happen to Lazarus (before he eventually died again)?

  • wardiea

    Thank you Mark. As soon as I saw this topic heading on the New Advent web, i knew it was about Bauckham’s book. I just finished reading it last month. A great read. The reason for named and unnamed characters in the Gospels was one of two things I learned from Bauckham’s book. The other is that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony either by the writer himself as in the Gospel of John or by an eyewitness who gave his or her first hand testimony to the Gospel writer. Bauckham does an excellent job of proving this by using the writings of Papias on the eyewitnesses.