Counting the Ways

Counting the Ways April 25, 2022

The evangelist Luke tells us about a couple who were en route to Emmaus, when they met the Risen Jesus, who expounds the meaning of all those recent events. After he reveals himself to them, one says, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24.32, NIV, my emphasis), or alternatively, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (KJV) Both translations are perfectly fine as far as they go, but both quite unintentionally fail to emphasize one crucial part of the story that would assuredly have struck the original listeners very forcefully, and that is the reference to being on the road, or on the way (en te hodo). Recently, I talked about the seemingly innocent word “Way” as it appeared in the Easter narrative. Let me stress just how important that word is in understanding early Christianity. And indeed for how we are meant to read the New Testament, including the whole Emmaus story.

Early Christians referred to their movement as The Way, Hodos. No later than the early second century AD, the converts’ manual that we call the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, began by declaring that “There are two Ways [Hodoi], one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways.” That whole thought-world, and the associated language, harks back to the Qumran sect. Texts like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (second or first century BC) present the idea of the competing two spirits, which led a person to good or evil. In every human soul and mind, there were two paths, two ways. God’s messengers would protect his elect and those who chose the right direction. In his supposed Testament, the ancient Asher declares that:

Two ways has God given to the sons of men, and two minds, and two doings, and two places, and two ends. Therefore all things are by twos, one corresponding to the other. There are two ways of good and evil, with which are the two minds in our breasts distinguishing them. Therefore if the soul take pleasure in good, all its actions are in righteousness; and though it sin, it straightway repents.

See my 2017 book Crucible of Faith for the cultural and religious background.

Codex Alexandrinus: Public Domain Image

References to the Way occur throughout the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels and Acts, but even the best English translations tend to pass over these references, usually by using multiple words – path, road, journey, and so on. See how the NIV uses “road”in the Emmaus passage. I suggested how extensive, and how subtle, were the uses of “Way” in Mark’s Gospel. Other writers were just as enthusiastic.

Of the 101 uses of the term in the New Testament, the vast majority – over 80 percent – occur in the gospels and Acts:

Matthew         22

Mark               16

Luke                20

John                4

Acts                20

Total                82       

As Luke and Acts constitute a two volume series, we note that this one author accounts for forty percent of uses. Occurrences are correspondingly rare in the epistles and Revelation.

I honestly don’t know why we find this imbalance, but it does have interesting implications for the emphases at work in different parts of the New Testament. I’m speculating, but might this reflect the particular function of the gospels/Acts, which were intended as introductory materials for new Christians who needed to be led into the Way, so to speak? Other texts, like the epistles, were intended for consumption by the already instructed. Or maybe the gospels/Acts were intended for more public reading, and that was a message the authors wanted to present to a general public?

Or might it mean that the term “the Way” enjoyed a vogue in particular times and places, which is where and when the gospels/Acts were written? It is interesting that Paul seems to know or care so little about the term. Might we suggest that “Way”-talk was not common in Jesus movement circles in the 40s-50s, but became popular and indeed standard from the 60s onwards, for whatever reason? As I say, I put no great weight on Paul’s silence, but it’s a thought.

Partly, we owe “Way”-talk to Mark himself, who used the concept repeatedly. People discuss weighty theological issues as they go along the Way (Mark 8.27, 9.33-34). That might just mean that they chat to pass the time on a journey. Or perhaps, believers discuss those issues of meaning as they progress in the Way, through the years. Or both?

“Way” uses proliferate in Matthew and Luke, who incorporated most of Mark’s text. Beyond using Mark, both Matthew and Luke added their own meanings. Matthew quotes Jesus as warning his listeners that “the gate is wide and the way [hodos] is easy that leads to destruction … for the gate is narrow and the road [hodos] is hard that leads to life.” This is exactly the parallel of dual ways that we have already seen in the Didache, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs before that.

Luke deployed the term extensively, to a degree that is only apparent when read in Greek. Jesus meets the travelers along the road to Emmaus, but they do not recognize him until they break bread together. That is to say, believers know Jesus through belonging to his movement, as they travel his Way. As you walk along the Way, through the years, Jesus opens the scriptures. Ultimately, at the end of the Way, they recognize him fully in the breaking of bread.

Sometimes, we really don’t know whether Luke meant the word solely as “road” in an uncomplicated literal sense, or if we are meant to have other implications in our minds. In the story of the Good Samaritan, we hear of the priest passing him by. The text actually reports that “a priest was going down that road [hodos] and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.” Is the reader meant to think that the priest was going down the wrong Way, rather than the one Jesus was advocating?

Way-talk reaches its culmination in Acts, where Luke plays repeatedly with the idea. In Acts 9, Saul/Paul travels to Damascus to seek out and arrest those of the Way, Jesus-followers. Blinded by his vision, he is healed in Damascus by a Christian who tells him of Lord Jesus, “who appeared to you on your way [hodos] here.” In Jerusalem, Barnabas tells the apostles how Saul had been converted along the way. We usually talk of the Road to Damascus, but it’s better to refer to it as a way. Paul began on the wrong way, but found the right one.

The word, and the implications, recur frequently. Later in his career, Paul faced trouble in Ephesus, where “no small difficulty had broken out concerning the Way.” In Jerusalem, the Jews plot to kill him “along the way.” Possibly the passage just states where they plan the ambush, but perhaps there is an additional level of meaning: they plan to kill him as he pursues his mission.

Sometimes roads are just roads; other times, they are not.

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