Hello and welcome back! Happy Half-Price Chocolate Bunny Day! Hope you’ve stocked up appropriately. Today, we travel a post-Easter road that I never saw as a Christian. And the scenery sure looks wild! Come join me on the Road to Emmaus. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a story I never knew while I was Christian.
(We’re off on the road to
Judea Emmaus! We certainly do get a-ROU-nnnd…)
The Great Jewish Zombie Uprising.
For all the love that Christians shower upon Easter, they avoid talking about quite a lot of the story. While I was Christian, I never once heard of the Great Jewish Zombie Uprising. It merits barely a blip in the Gospel of Matthew, 27:52-53, wedged as it is between Jesus’ death, the tearing of the temple curtain in half, an earthquake, and his burial:
When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He yielded up His spirit. At that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split. The tombs broke open, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection, when they had come out of the tombs, they entered the holy city and appeared to many people.
Other Gospels discuss some elements but not all. Or their writers add in other details. Thus, no Jewish zombies amble about in Luke and no earthquakes split any rocks, though Luke gives us the torn curtain and “the sun was darkened” for three hours. However, Luke places these events just before Jesus’ death, while Matthew places his own version of events immediately after. Mark, likely the first Gospel written, only features the torn curtain (right after Jesus’ death).
In John, likely the very last Gospel written, Jesus simply dies–and that’s that.
The Last Supper, as portrayed in History of the World, Part I.
A Most Peculiar Zombie Uprising.
Naturally, not a single writer alive at the time mentions any of this hubbub. The Jews who ran the temple wrote nothing of it. And neither did a single Jew or foreigner in Jerusalem. Literally nobody thought these events were noteworthy enough to commit to paper.
You’d think somebody in Jerusalem might have noticed their dead relatives shambling around town. That would have definitely have caught my attention. Maybe Jerusalem’s inhabitants were just the incurious sorts. But that lack of curiosity multiplies by a hundred at least when we consider how little time and attention modern Christian leaders tend to devote to the event. They’ll rabbit on for ages about one or two pet clobber verses.
However, the Great Jewish Zombie Uprising gets zilch from Christians. If pastors engage with the vignette at all, it is to make some rambling, obscure point about how it totally illustrates how people come to life with faith or something. Occasionally, they grapple with the Uprising on its own terms. The sheer contortions Christians go through at those times to make these two verses make any kind of sense amaze even me.
So, for a while, I thought the Great Jewish Zombie Uprising represented the weirdest part of the Easter story.
But what happens afterward might well win that prize.
The Road to Emmaus.
Proving that you can never keep a good god down, Jesus popped up almost immediately after his death.
So yeah, just like a Weeble.
Jesus works like a Weeble-Wobble: he wobbles, but he doesn’t fall down! (Mr. Captain: “Oh, so that’s why you were asking me about Weebles this morning.”)
And here, too, the Gospels don’t agree on much of anything about his posthumous appearances. Dan Barker outlines the various contradictions and problems presented in the Gospel accounts of the immediate resurrection. But we’re going to scoot a bit further past the immediate aftermath. Plenty of folks have talked about that.
Instead, we’re going to Emmaus.
But Are We Though?
As with the immediate post-Resurrection narrative, the Gospels offer wildly disparate and contradictory accounts of Jesus’ various activities.
In Matthew, Jesus appears to his followers in Galilee and saddles them with the so-called “Great Commission.” But this account comes off sounding like a later addition to the Gospel, which otherwise would simply end with the city’s Jewish leaders bribing the guards watching over Jesus’ tomb. The bribed guards tell everyone that Jesus’ followers stole his body so that Jews would reject him as the Messiah (as if they even needed that detail to reject him!). We never see what happens to Jesus after he’s finished giving his message.
In John, after Jesus’ death, his followers hole up in a locked house. They fear the city’s Jews. Jesus appears to them, proves his identity to Thomas, and performs some unnamed miracles. Later, he shows up by the Sea of Tiberias to do various miracles, forgive Peter, and indignantly defends the presence of what sure sounds like his gay lover (John 21:20-23). We don’t see him leave his followers at all.
In Mark 16:12, we see a little of the Road to Emmaus. Here, Jesus shows up to walk with two of his disciples “as they walked along in the country.” When the two tried to tell the other disciples about meeting Jesus on the road, nobody believed them. Later, when they were all eating together, Jesus shows up again to yell at the other nine for not believing the two who’d seen him. After his lecture, he makes some very wild promises about the miracles they’ll all do, then floats up into the sky.
In fact, the full story of the Road to Emmaus appears only in Luke.
Jesus–What a Card!
The story begins on Resurrection Sunday. While Peter investigates the wild stories of the women returning from Jesus’ borrowed tomb, two other disciples set out on a foot journey to Emmaus. The Gospels identify this village as being “about seven miles from Jerusalem.” It’d be a nice walk. We don’t know which of his followers they were; one is called Cleopas in the story, but he appears nowhere else in the canonical Bible. Also, there’s some argument about whether or not Emmaus existed and if so, where it existed.
Probably lots of Jews were coming and going from Jerusalem that weekend, so these two travelers probably weren’t too surprised to see a new guy join them in the walk. The Gospel writer tells us that this new guy was, in fact, the resurrected Jesus, someone they should have known quite well. But oh, our trickster godling has magically made himself unrecognizable somehow!
In turn, Jesus lectures the two disciples about the necessity of his death and suffering. Then, he feeds them Old Testament verses and stories supporting those events.
Oh, All Right. Twist My Arm.
When the two followers reach Emmaus, Jesus acts like he’s heading further on. They ask him to stay the night with them. It’s a nice bit of hospitality offered to a fellow traveler, and ordinarily I bet most travelers would have vastly appreciated the offer. Jesus accepts.
That night at dinner, he blesses the meal, breaks bread, and gives his hosts pieces of it. That’s when he finally allows them to recognize him as Jesus. But as soon as they recognize him, he vanishes.
Does this seriously sound like a god to anybody? Because it sounds absolutely bizarre to me.
At any rate, the followers can’t sit still. They freak out and leave immediately to return to Jerusalem.
There, they find the Eleven and tell them what happened. We aren’t told what the reaction of the Eleven is to this story, which they’d have found quite wild. But while the two are still giving the story, Jesus appears again among them! ZOMG! He shows off his hands and feet so they can see the injuries on them.
Hey, You Gonna Eat All That?
Then Jesus suddenly asks if they have anything to eat.
They do. I can only imagine how weird that demand must have sounded to them.
So they watch Jesus chow down on some broiled fish in front of them.
Seriously. Oh, to be a fly on that wall!
After eating, Jesus lectures them again about the Old Testament prophecies about him, saddles them with a sort of Great Commission, instructs them to stay in Jerusalem until further notice, and leads them to a town called Bethany (wait, isn’t that not being in Jerusalem?). There, he blesses everybody one last time and floats on up into the sky again. His followers return to Jerusalem.
A Long Tradition.
Of course, many (if not most) Christians assume that this story really happened. I don’t think it did. I think it’s purely mythmaking storytelling. In fact, that’s what makes it interesting to me. Whoever wrote Luke thought this story added something completely necessary to top off his book.
In that vein, Dennis MacDonald’s made a splendid case for Mark being a big ol’ riff on the epic poem The Odyssey. Since Matthew copies so much content from Mark, it makes sense that the Road to Emmaus might fit within that hypothesis somehow. Perhaps it functions as an element of the so-called Hero’s Journey (TVTropes Walkabout Warning!). It sure sounds like Luke might be borrowing from Odysseus’ return home in disguise to scope things out.
Also, Richard Carrier discusses an extremely similar legend about a traveler meeting the resurrected Romulus (yes, that Romulus). The founder of Rome had just been murdered and the city was in an uproar. After explaining some top-shelf mystic secrets to the traveler, Romulus flew up into the sky. Sound familiar?
What, did anybody think that Jesus was somehow totally unique? No, lots of godlings went through the same basic stuff Jesus supposedly did. He shared elements with many other divine and semi-divine beings.
For that matter, at the time Luke was being written–around 80-110 CE, with revisions coming well into the 2nd century–these beliefs were actively springing up around various recently-deceased heroes and villains. Nero was only one of the people who got that treatment; several men would arise years after his death to claim they were the reborn tyrant.
Spotting the Differences.
Since obviously these reborn men wouldn’t necessarily look like their former selves, it would make sense that people wouldn’t recognize them right away–not even people who’d known them well during their “first” lifetimes.
To me, it sounds like a picture-perfect opportunity for a conjob. Reading the account in Luke, knowing only what I do about the Bible’s earliest history and Christianity’s as well, this account makes this resurrected Jesus sound like a total scammer. With the exception of the incongruous lines about him vanishing or flying into the sky, he doesn’t actually do much we could describe as miraculous. He shows off his injuries, which could have happened to anybody, and he sponges off the followers for lodging, food, and attention before screwing off again.
I’d expect any halfway decent confidence artist to be able to pull off an act at least as convincing as this one clearly was. If anything, the story lends some credence to a sort of “germ of truth” position. With Luke being written when it was, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if various people expected Jesus to show up again.
And perhaps, were even waiting for it. That’s the mindset that opens the door to the henhouse.
I’m just amazed I never saw any of this stuff in the Bible when I was actually Christian. I think I’ve learned a billion times more about it than I ever knew while I was a believer. And every bit of new stuff I learn makes me that much more certain of my deconversion.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over the Jesus Goggles that keep Christians from clearly perceiving their own holy book.
NEXT UP: Many years ago, a prayer journal in a hospital chapel revealed some things about Christianity that I needed to know. Join me next time, when I’ll tell you all about it. See you soon!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.