Luke 24:13-53, in its larger contours, is in dialog with several episodes from the Odyssey. The Lukan author draws on two of that poem’s favorite contexts, theoxeny and recognition scenes, knowing that their distinctive use of irony serves his own purposes in this episode.
See Also: Greek Myth and the Bible (Routledge, 2018).
By Bruce Louden
Department of Languages and Linguistics
University of Texas at El Paso
Recent studies of the Gospels argue that their authors likely started with collections of the sayings of Jesus (Q, for instance), and then generated contexts in which he would have uttered these teachings. While they would have had recourse to a variety of suitable contexts readily available from a variety of sources, Homeric epic is rarely consulted as a possible resource, although, as Sandes demonstrates, it never ceased being at the core of the Greco-Roman education system. Much more than the authors of Mark and Matthew, the Lukan author aims his narrative at a broader, more Hellenic audience, as Bonz notes (93),
the author of Luke has consciously shaped his narrative to reflect larger engagement of the contemporary Greco-Roman world . . . the Lukan author maps Jesus onto additional cultural nodes of larger Greco-Roman culture, to make it easier for his audience to follow.
Bonz asserts overlap with epic poetry in particular (190), “Luke’s narrative has . . . incorporated with evident skill . . . a number of the stylistic and dramatic devices characteristic of Greco-Roman epic in general.” Early Christian writings demonstrate that Christians themselves saw parallels between their own sacred narratives and Greek myths - Acts 17, Paul’s appearance in Athens, is premised upon such resemblances. Accordingly, I argue that Luke 24:13-53, in its larger contours, is in dialog with several episodes from the Odyssey. The Lukan author draws on two of that poem’s favorite contexts, theoxeny and recognition scenes, knowing that their distinctive use of irony serves his own purposes in this episode.
The tradition as to post-resurrection appearances seems to have been exceptionally fluid. The earliest such account, for instance, Paul’s (1 Cor 13:5-8), features elements no longer present in any of the Gospels’ later treatments. Luke is further distinct, offering few correspondences with the other Gospels. A more disciple-centered account, which may reflect the author’s interaction with the larger traditions of Greek philosophy (White, 336-37, 340), it depicts Jesus like the founder of a philosophical school, showing continuity in his students and followers. But even in this respect Luke 24 is surprising: Cleopas - who has no existence in the New Testament outside of this episode - has the largest role. Instantiating a common dynamic among the disciples, Cleopas here misunderstands Jesus’ teachings and needs to be corrected. But in Luke’s version the teacher correcting his student is also the unrecognized divine guest correcting someone on divine matters in a theoxeny, as Athena in Odyssey 3 in particular (as Yahweh also in Genesis 18).
Theoxeny, the genre of myth that features an unrecognized immortal taking the form of a stranger to test a host’s hospitality, and therefore, morality and piety, naturally falls into two subtypes. In negative theoxeny guests misbehave and provoke a god’s wrath and apocalyptic destruction (Odyssey 1, 17-22; Genesis 19), whereas in a positive theoxeny all correctly observe the sanctity of hospitality. Our model for positive theoxeny will be that in Odyssey book 3, when Nestor and his family graciously receive the disguised Athena, and the scene shortly before, at 2.260-97, when the daughter of Zeus first comes to Telemachos in the form of Mentor, as he prays by the seashore (the type is also present at Genesis 18). Before proceeding, however, we should note two ways in which Luke 24 differs from other instances of theoxeny. The account does not say that Jesus has altered or changed his appearance, or taken the form of someone else, which the immortal always does in other theoxenies. Rather, Luke 24:16 specifies that the disciples are unable to identify him (literally, “But their eyes were unable to recognize him”).” Second, theoxeny, as a subset of hospitality myth, normally begins with a guest’s entrance into a host’s dwelling. However, as we will see, Luke’s sequence parallels the series of events that conclude Odyssey 2 and continue into book 3.
Telemachos, after his unsuccessful assembly dissolves, realizing that his guest the previous day, Mentes, was a god, prays to him/her. In response, Athena, now taking the form of Mentor, approaches the prince, quickly offering to accompany him on his quest to receive reports about his father, providing him with a ship and crew (2.260-434). When they reach Pylos, Nestor, though performing a hecatomb to Poseidon, a gracious host, he immediately welcomes them. A positive theoxeny has begun. Unexpectedly, Nestor asks his unknown guest, “Mentor,” to say the prayer to the god – a god, not a mortal, utters the prayer.
The elaborate sacrifice finished, Nestor converses with his guests. Theoxenies employ considerable irony in the discrepancy between the external audience’s awareness of the guest’s actual divine nature and the other characters’ limited perception, prompted by the stranger’s seemingly mortal form. Learning Telemachos’ identity, he advises him that since Athena frequtnly aided his father during the war, it is likely the goddess will help him as well (3.211-24). Nestor does not recognize that Mentor is in fact Athena, but his piety enables him to perceive that she would aid Odysseus’ son. A skeptical Telemachos, however, replies that he does not believe the gods would help him (2.226-28). The goddess, however, unrecognized by his side, will not allow his erroneous assumption to stand. Correcting him, she puns on his name at the same time, “Telemachos, what sort of word has fled from the fence of your teeth? Easily a god, should he wish, can save a man - even from a distance.” When Athena says “Even from a distance,” she repeats the first element of Tele-machos’ name - literally, “fighter from a distance” - humorously correcting his seeming lack of piety.
Before turning to Luke 24, let us briefly consider another of the Odyssey’s favorite scenarios. Much of the poem partakes of the romance story type: the awaited return of a man who has been separated from family, trapped in an exotic land, climaxing in moving recognition scenes between him and family members who thought him dead. Such recognition scenes mark the final stages in his return. Even earlier, before Odysseus returns, the poem frequently depicts him among people who are prompted to think of Odysseus and his famous accomplishments, but unable to recognize him among them, prompting Aristotle’s famous observation on how central recognition is to the poem. Among the several different dynamics through which recognition scenes may unfold, the Odyssey prefers the specific subtype postponed recognition, in which Odysseus delays revealing his identity until he first tests those he encounters for loyalty.
Luke 24 makes central use of both positive theoxeny and postponed recognition. As Cleopas and another unnamed disciple now walk toward Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus joins them in mid-conversation. Unrecognized, he asks what they are discussing. When Cleopas answers that the stranger must be the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the events of the last few days (24:18), we quickly recognize the dynamics of the Odyssey episodes we have just discussed, and its favorite form of irony. The three characters behave as if a positive theoxeny is taking place: the other characters, without being able to recognize that he is present, are prompted to think of Jesus. There is remarkable irony in his assumption that his guest has limited knowledge of the events in which, in fact, he was the actual protagonist. When Jesus replies, playing along, in a sense, “what sort of events” (Ποῖα), he extends the irony into an almost comic modality.
So, who is this Cleopas? Attempts to find a historical basis for his character are misguided, I suggest. Instead, we might consider the clues his name provides. Basic misunderstanding of even this has hindered recognition of his larger narrative function. Cleopas is a truncated version of Cleopatras, a common Greek name. It occurs as early as the Iliad, but with the components reversed, for Achilles’ boon companion, Patroclos. Kleos, a key word in Homeric epic, can mean “fame, glory,” or “report,” added to the common term for father. Compound names of this sort are often possessive, making its likely meaning, “The Father’s Glory,” the particular meaning I propose here. As is typical of many characters in myth, Cleopas is a “speaking name, with other characters aware of its meaning, and assuming that the audience is as well. Kleos is probably already an archaic word – deliberate archaism often being characteristic of mythical narratives - in the Greek of the New Testament, occurring only at 1 Peter 2:20 (which may support the view that its author is not the disciple, but a well-educated Hellenist). Jesus himself will shortly use the New Testament’s preferred term for glory, δόξα (doxa), as we discuss below.
To his request for clarification, Cleopas replies that Jesus was a dynamic prophet, whom he’d hoped would ransom (λυτροῦσθαι) Israel, but had been betrayed and crucified. Though he knows others who claim to have seen Jesus since his death, he does not seem fully persuaded. All the dynamics present in Odyssey 3 are in evidence. As with Telemachos, Cleopas is skeptical of god’s power, and, as Athena corrects Telemachos, Jesus now corrects Cleopas. As Athena’s correction of Telemachos features a play on the literal meaning of his name, so now does Christ’s correction of Cleopas. The unrecognized Jesus emphasizes that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer before entering “into his glory” (τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ: 24:26), his doxa, the New Testament’s usual word in place of the more archaic kleos. All this, as with Athena’s “Well, Mr. Fighter from afar, a god can save a man even from afar,” is to say, “Yes, Mr. Glory of the Father, so the Christ could enter into his Glory.”
The divine guest correcting a naïve host occurs in the positive theoxeny in Genesis 18. When Sara overhears the stranger declare that, when he returns in a year, she will have born a son (18:10), she laughs, since she and her husband are both well past child-bearing age. But the divine guest, hearing her laugh, corrects her limited understanding of his power, wondering why she laughed, then asserting, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” The son that will be born to the unbelieving Sara will be named Isaac, which echoes the Hebrew word just used to describe her laughter, yishaq.” However, the Lukan author would only know this episode in the Septuagint’s version, which does not have the name pun on Isaac.
When Jesus emphasizes that the Christ had to suffer (edei pathein ton Christon: 24:26), he uses a phrase found in the Gospels in several variants (Dei ton Huion tou Anthropou polla pathein: Luke 9:22 = Mark 8:31; polla pathein: Mat 16:21). As Fitzmyer emphasizes, however (1985: 1565), discussing Luke 24:26, “that the Messiah must suffer . . . The notion of a suffering messiah is not found in the Old Testament or in any texts of pre-Christian Judaism”(italics mine).” The same basic formula is, however, used of Odysseus in the Odyssey, stated by Athena herself, in her postponed recognition with Odysseus in Odyssey 13. Here, after playfully testing him while she herself remains in disguise, she emphasizes that his next steps to regain his kingdom will be difficult; he will have to: siope / paschein algea polla: 13.309-10, “to suffer many pains in silence”).” Related phrases to articulate Odysseus’ central struggles are thematic in the poem, as highlighted in its very first line (polla . . . pathen algea). In both myths the phrase is uttered as a prophecy by the corresponding figures, Athena and Christ. By employing this quintessentially Odyssean formula the Lukan author affirms and strengthens his connections with central motifs and episodes in the Odyssey.
His point made, when Jesus and the two apostles arrive at Emmaus, they insist he stay with them. Confirming the episode as a theoxeny, the expected hospitality setting materializes. Jesus, the divine guest, as in so many theoxenies (Odyssey 1.139-43; 3.40, 65-57; Genesis 18:6-8; 19:3; Metamorphoses 8.641-88), is given food, and full hospitality. Moreover, the still unrecognized Jesus says the blessing, breaks the bread, and distributes it to them. His doing so, the divine guest saying the prayer and leading the group in ritual is another specific correspondence with Athena and Nestor in Odyssey 3, where the unrecognized Athena herself proclaims the prayer to Poseidon in the midst of Nestor’s lavish hecatomb (Odyssey 3.55-61).
Now, suddenly, they recognize their guest’s true identity. Luke offers no details, only, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” The text does not suggest Jesus has altered his form or appearance, perhaps implying the account is more about belief than appearance. In having Christ postpone revealing his true identity, even among the apostles, Luke employs the Odyssey’s very specific subtype of recognition scene, postponed recognition. In this type the protagonist refrains from revealing his identity, though in the presence of relatives or close associates, for quite some time. In the Odyssey, Athena commands Odysseus to proceed this way so he can first test the loyalty of all he encounters. Moving recognition scenes typically form the climax of the romance mythic type, as in the Odyssey, Euripides’ Ion and Alcestis, and Genesis’ account of Joseph in Egypt. Of the many ancient Romances that feature recognition scenes, only the Odyssey and Genesis’ account of Joseph in Egypt (37, 39-46), employ the specific subtype of postponed recognition. Thus, as the unrecognized Odysseus stands before Eumaios, Eurykleia, Penelope, or Laertes, each character is prompted to think of the long-lost, presumably absent hero, but remains unable to recognize him right beside them. But the Odyssey also has a broader rubric of postponed recognition throughout the poem. For example, when Odysseus is among the Phaiacians, their epic poet, Demodokos, sings songs about him and his heroic deeds, yet they cannot recognize him as he sits among them.
In almost the same moment that they recognize Jesus’ true identity, he disappears (24:31). The sudden disappearance again finds multiple parallels in Homeric theoxeny. When Athena as Mentes leaves Telemachos in Book 1 of the Odyssey, she vanishes just as suddenly and mysteriously (Odyssey 1.319-21, “having spoken the grey-eyed Athena flew away like a bird”). As commentators suggest, the audience is left to fill in the blanks: the goddess vanishes, and in her place Telemachos sees a bird fly overhead. Even closer to Luke 24, however, is the episode to which we keep returning, Athena and Telemachos in the positive theoxeny at Pylos. Athena vanishes in much the same manner (3.371-72), “having spoken the grey-eyed Athena, seeming like a vulture, flew away.” Nestor, who earlier deduced that Athena might aid Telemachos, as his father, recognizes that the bird was the daughter of Zeus, and vows to sacrifice a calf, its horns tipped in gold (3.375-84).
Perhaps unexpectedly for most audiences of our era, the Odyssey offers highly relevant contexts for analyzing Luke 24:13-53. Indeed, that epic’s characteristic dynamic of postponed recognition, its use of the romance story type to highlight Odysseus’ return from a seeming state of death, and its definitive use of theoxeny to structure much of its larger plot, all find close correspondences in Luke’s series of incidents. Though unique within a New Testament context, the Odyssean contours of Luke’s sequence are clear and pronounced. I have here made a case for his deriving some the broad outlines of the only episode in which Cleopas figures from Homeric epic – his lack of existence elsewhere in the New Testament may increase the likelihood that the Lukan author has drawn on an external source - in the several Odyssean contexts we have considered. Above all, Athena’s interactions with Telemachos and Nestor in Odyssey 2-3 repeatedly provide very specific correspondences to Luke 24, more so than any other texts, though Genesis 18 does feature a few of the same specific motifs. If our analysis is valid, the resultant mixture should, on the one hand, remind us of the larger tendencies of syncretism that were typically prevalent throughout the Roman Empire, and on the other, that the role of “author” was often quite distinct in the ancient world from modern understandings of and assumptions about that term.
Bonz, Marianne Palmer. 2000. The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Sandnes, Karl Olva. 2009. The Challenge of Homer: School, Pagan Poets and Early Christianity. London: T & T Clark International.
White, L. Michael. 2010. Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. New York: HarperOne.
Louden writes: "In the Odyssey, Athena commands Odysseus to proceed this way so he can first test the loyalty of all he encounters. Moving recognition scenes typically form the climax of the romance mythic type, as in the Odyssey, Euripides’ Ion and Alcestis, and Genesis’ account of Joseph in Egypt. Of the many ancient Romances that feature recognition scenes, only the Odyssey and Genesis’ account of Joseph in Egypt (37, 39-46), employ the specific subtype of postponed recognition. Thus, as the unrecognized Odysseus stands before Eumaios, Eurykleia, Penelope, or Laertes, each character is prompted to think of the long-lost, presumably absent hero, but remains unable to recognize him right beside them. "
The relationship between The New Testament and the Greeks is fascinating, especially with Dennis MacDonald's work in this area. I have written a brief, informal essay about the relationship between The New Testament and Plato/Euripides, and how Richard Carrier provides inroads here. The essay is published online here on my blog: http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/2018/03/examining-easter-peering-behi…