Philip F. Esler
In one of the most distinctive incidents in his Gospel, Luke relates how two disciples who had met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, although without recognizing him, invited him to stay with them overnight and discovered their evening meal took an unexpected course:
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’
(Luke 24:30-32; RSV)
Since the time of Aristotle, literary theorists have referred to an incident such as this as a ‘recognition’ (anagnorisis), meaning a change from ignorance to knowledge, in this case leading not to tragedy (as when Oedipus discovers that he has killed his father and married his mother) but to good fortune and enlightenment. 1 There are parallels to this account in Graeco-Roman literature, as in Plutarch’s description of how Romulus, after his death, appeared to a friend on a road outside Rome, told him he was the god Quirinus and vanished. 2 Yet to appreciate how Luke has employed this literary topos and to establish the bearing which the Emmaus incident has upon the nature of New Testament interpretation, we need to consider its setting within the entirety of Luke 24:13-35.
The evangelist has developed his narrative through a series of four possible moments during which the recognition might occur: first, in the initial meeting on the road, when he expressly says that the disciples did not recognize Jesus; secondly, while one of the two disciples, in answer to Jesus’ question, ‘What matters are you discussing as you walk along?’, describes what has just happened in Jerusalem; thirdly, when Jesus rebukes them for their dejection and explains from scriptures why it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and enter his glory; and, fourthly, during the meal. The disciples observe later that their