Luke 24: The Risen Jesus
From Jesus missing, to Jesus present, to Jesus gone.
How the Risen Jesus prepared his perplexed followers to be the charismatic church after his departure.
This essay was begun as the Easter Season of the Christian year was ending. It studies the accounts of the Risen Jesus as given in Luke 24. It is this Gospel and Acts (both written by “Luke”) that structure the Church’s sacred time from Easter to Pentecost. None of the other Gospels gives us such dates or durations.
All of Luke 24 is included in the Revised Common Lectionary readings over the three-year cycle. Verses 1-12 (the Empty Tomb) are read on Easter Sunday of Year C; verses 13-35 (the Emmaus story) are read on the Third Sunday of Easter of Year A; verses 36b-48 (Jesus’ appearance to the Eleven) are read on the Third Sunday of Easter in Year B; and verses 44-53 (the Ascension) are sometimes read on the Seventh Sunday of Easter of Year B.
This long chapter is the most diverse presentation in the Gospels of the Risen Jesus, and its contents and manner of presentation show us where the believing communities were by the late second generation of the Jesus Movement. Each of the four Gospels has a version of the Empty Tomb account, but only the Gospel of John shares other material with Luke 24 -- the physical body of Jesus.
Big Issues in Luke 24
Big Issues in Luke 24
· The Fluid Text of Luke 24.
· Fragmentary Character of the Episodes (except Emmaus).
· The Empty Tomb – and afterwards.
· Emphasis on Hearing Scripture about Jesus.
· Importance of Jesus’ Physical Body.
· Ascension to Heaven – Departure of the Risen Jesus.
In the Gospels of Luke (chapter 24) and John (chapter 20), all the activities after the crucifixion take place in or near
. In those Gospels, the disciples do not desert
Jesus at the time of the arrest, and the eleven (excluding Judas) are still
around on the evening of the Empty Tomb (Luke 24:36-43 and John 20:19-20). In Luke, the Risen Jesus himself makes a point
of telling them to remain in Jerusalem
until Pentecost (Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4).
In the Gospels of Luke (chapter 24) and John (chapter 20), all the activities after the crucifixion take place in or near
This is in complete contrast to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. There, before his arrest, Jesus tells the disciples that he will “go before” them to
where they will see him after his resurrection:
“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee”
(Mark , repeated in Matthew 26:32).
These words of Jesus are reinforced by the heavenly messenger at the empty tomb: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7, repeated in Matthew 28:7, and 10). In Mark this message is never delivered (“…and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). Matthew, however, has a one-verse appearance of Jesus to the women at the tomb, where Jesus simply repeats what the heavenly messenger said about going to
Galilee. Matthew also reports a climactic appearance
to “the eleven” in Galilee, where the Risen Jesus gives
the great Commission to baptize believers in all the nations (Matthew 28:9 and
orientation of the entire Jesus story is embodied in Mark’s Gospel.
there is only the place of death. It was
necessary for Jesus to go there because of the many prophecies about Jerusalem
as the location of God’s final judgment, as well as the prophecies of God’s
Suffering Servant. But it was at Jerusalem
that Jesus was rejected by his own people.
The main body of Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ work in Jerusalem Galilee,
where the truth about God’s kingdom was revealed. Matthew added extensively to Mark’s work but
maintained as the place
of rejection and death and Jerusalem Galilee as the place of the
revelation of the . Kingdom of Heaven
After the middle of the second century CE, when the Christians decided they really had four Gospels, it became necessary to keep both orientations together somehow, and Luke’s view of God’s plan to expand the gospel from
to Jerusalem became the orthodox view of
later Christianity. It is clear,
however, that in the early days of the Jesus movement there were (at least) two
different views of how the disciples re-focused after the crucifixion. Rome
Luke clearly presents a
orientation. The Jesus movement will
expand to the nations, “beginning from Jerusalem ”
(Luke 24:47). Jerusalem
II. The Fluid Text of Luke 24.
All parts of the Gospels have a certain number of textual variants, words and phrases that are different in some manuscripts from the readings in other manuscripts. In Luke 24, however, there are more variant readings than usual. Not only are there the usual variations of grammar and spelling, there are in fact two different versions of the chapter systematically carried out. The two versions are found in what text scholars have long called the “Alexandrian” and the “Western” text traditions.
The “Western” text. The most important witness to the “Western” text is codex “Bezae.” This is a bilingual codex with the Greek text on the left side and a Latin translation on the right. This copy was produced in the fifth century CE, though the main readings were fixed by the end of the second century. (There is a photo in Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 3rd ed.,
1992. Plate V). Oxford
|Codex Bezae, in Metzger, Text, Plate V|
In Luke 24, this “Bezae” codex has a series of “omissions,” or more correctly “shorter texts,” compared to the mainline “Alexandrian” manuscripts followed in most printed Greek New Testaments. These “omissions” are also missing from most manuscripts of the Old Latin translations of the Gospels that began to be made in
by the end of the second century. It was
not a strictly regional textual tradition, however, because the oldest Syriac
translations, produced in the east, often agree with Bezae and the Old Latin in
Luke 24. Italy
(On the “Western” text in general, see the discussions in Leon Vaganay and Christian-Bernard Amphoux, An Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism, tr. Jenny Heimerdinger, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 109-111 and 169.)
It is clear that Luke 24 had a somewhat distinctive text at the time that the Gospels were being translated into Latin. Latin began to be the usual language of the Christian communities of
North Africa ( )
around 200 CE. The Bezae and Old Latin
readings reflect a version of Luke 24 at that time. During the same period, the Greek texts used
in Italy Alexandria
were a little fuller and were being standardized by scholars like Clement and
Origen, as reflected in the oldest large papyrus manuscript of Luke 24, P75,
copied around 200 in Egypt . Egypt
Early in the 20th century, New Testament scholars favored the shorter texts of Bezae and its allies in many places in Luke 24. The first edition of the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament (1946) followed many of the Bezae readings and put the longer readings of the Alexandrian tradition in the margins. As the 20th century progressed, New Testament textual scholars became more conservative (the Aland era of the Greek text) and argued that the Alexandrian readings were more “original.” The second edition of the RSV (1971) restored a couple of the longer readings to the main text of Luke 24, and the New Revised Standard Version of 1989 restored most of the longer texts to the main text, with notes in the margin about the divided testimony.
The Shorter Texts in Luke 24. (The first narrative unit here actually begins at Luke , where the Galilean women become the actors, but I will continue to speak simply of “Luke 24.”) The following are the places in Luke 24 where the Alexandrian tradition has phrases, and even complete verses, that are absent from the Bezae codex and its allies. (The translation of Luke 24 here is the Revised Standard Version as printed in 1952.)
- Luke – Bezae reads “saw the tomb,” omitting and how the body was laid.
- Luke – Bezae reads “On the sabbath they rested,” omitting according to the commandment.
- Luke 24:1 – Bezae reads “taking what they had prepared,” omitting spices.
- Luke 24:3 – Bezae reads “they did not find the body,” omitting of the Lord Jesus. Put in the margin of RSV 1946.
- Luke 24:6 – Bezae omits from the messengers’ speech, He is not here, but has risen. Put in the margin of RSV 1946.
- Luke 24:7 – Bezae reads “delivered into the hands of men,” omitting sinful (men).
- Luke 24:9 – Bezae reads “and returning, they told all this…”, omitting (returning) from the tomb.
- Luke 24:12. Bezae omits the entire verse: But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home wondering at what had happened. Put in the margin of RSV 1946.
- Luke 24:17 – Bezae reads “and they looked sad,” omitting (they) stood still.
- Luke 24:19 – Bezae reads simply “What things?” omitting And he said to them…
- Luke 24:22 – Bezae reads “some women amazed us,” omitting of our company.
- Luke 24:30 – Bezae reads simply “When he was at table,” omitting with them.
- Luke 24:31 – An addition! Bezae reads “As they were taking the bread from him their eyes were opened…” (italics = Bezae addition).
- Luke 24:32 – Bezae reads “Did not our hearts burn while he talked,” omitting (burn) within us.
- Luke 24:36 – Bezae reads “Jesus himself stood among them,” omitting the following and said to them, “Peace to you!” Put in the margin of RSV 1946.
- Luke 24:40 – Bezae omits the entire verse: And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Put in the margin of RSV 1946.
- Luke 24:46 – Bezae reads “and on the third day rise,” omitting from the dead.
- Luke 24:49 – Bezae reads “I send my promise upon you,” instead of the promise of my Father upon you.
- Luke 24:51 – Bezae reads “he parted from them,” omitting the following and was carried up into heaven. Put in the margin of RSV 1946.
- Luke 24:52 – Bezae reads simply “And they returned to
,” omitting (they) worshipped him, and. Put in the margin of RSV 1946. Jerusalem
Prior to chapter 24, there are some famous passages in which Luke’s Gospel was expanded by devotional enhancements, well into the second century. See, for example, Luke 22:19b-20 (the Lord’s Supper); Luke 22:43-44 (angel and agony in the garden); and Luke (“Father forgive them…”). It is relatively clear that down until almost 200 CE (when the four Gospels began to be written in a single large codex), the texts of the Gospel according to Luke were somewhat fluid as copies were reproduced in various regions to which the Jesus movement expanded. After that date, the texts were relatively more stable, but the Alexandrian and Western text traditions maintained themselves for several centuries.
(Such enhancements of the text for devotional purposes should not be called “corruptions,” as does Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture; they were the natural development of the charismatic recitations of the communities’ lore. The texts were fluid in their constant service of the devotion and proclamation of developing churches. The concept of an “original” text that could be “corrupted” is not really historical.)
III. The Fragmentary Character of the Episodes.
We turn now to the literary character of Luke 24, to the manner of presentation of the narrative episodes.
In the entire chapter there is only one smooth and polished narrative – the Emmaus story (verses 13-33). That narrative is one of the greatest literary achievements of the entire Gospel, in the same class as the Annunciation to the Virgin, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Peter’s Denial of Jesus. By comparison, the rest of the chapter is choppy and fragmentary.
The chapter has five episodes:
- The Empty Tomb, .
- The Emmaus story, 24:13-33+35.
- The Appearance to the Eleven, 24:36-43.
- Jesus’ Final Instructions to the Eleven, 24:44-49.
- Jesus’ Blessing and Departure, 24:50-53.
The Empty Tomb, .
(The translation is the NRSV. The longer texts of the Alexandrian tradition, the so-called “Western omissions,” are put in square brackets.)
55 The women who had come with him from
Galilee followed, and they saw his tomb
[and how the body was laid]. 56
Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested [according to the
commandment]. 1 But on the
first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking what
[spices] they had prepared. 2
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went
in, they did not find the body [of the Lord Jesus – put in margin by NRSV]. 4 While they were perplexed about
this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 They [NRSV reads “The women”]
were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but they [NRSV reads “the
men”] said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? [He is not here, but has risen. NRSV keeps this in the main text; the RSV
had put it in the margin.] 6
Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man
must be handed over to men [NRSV, following the Alexandrian text, reads
“sinners”], and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9
and returning [from the tomb], they told all this to the eleven and to all the
rest. 10 [Now it was] Mary
Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who
told this to the apostles. 11
But these words seemed to them an idle tale [“nonsense”], and they did not
believe them. 12 [But Peter
got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by
themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.]
There is a core narrative here in to 24:9. It is told in fairly simple terms with no embellishment (such as Matthew gave the angel rolling away the stone!). It is not an entirely self-contained story, at least in the Alexandrian text tradition; the “stone” before the tomb is not mentioned in Luke’s account of the burial (-54), and knowledge of it (verse 2) is assumed from other sources. (The stone is prominent in Mark’s and Matthew’s versions of the Empty Tomb, and the Bezae text has inserted a statement about the stone before the tomb at 23:53, one of its harmonizing additions, made after all four Gospels began to be written in one large codex.)
It is obvious from the women’s response that the “two men” are heavenly messengers (“angels”); this is a “hierophany,” an appearance of the divine to humans. The function of these divine figures is to certify what the empty tomb means: you are seeking Jesus, but you will not find him here, because this is the place of the dead. The major point of the messengers’ speech, however, is to remind the women that Jesus himself had long before predicted both his death and – now – his resurrection. That is the message. This is not new stuff! It was told before hand. (More about that later.)
The women receive no instructions about spreading the good news, but they do hurry off and tell the “Eleven” – and “all the rest” (verse 9).
But this is where the narrative begins to get ragged. In verses 10 through 12 we have little add-ons, not integral parts of the narrative. These are comments narrators later included as the core account got recited over time in the believers’ assemblies (churches).
Verse 10 is an afterthought, with text variants about how it begins. The narrator has been talking about these women who came from
since , and we’ve now heard
their experience at the tomb. But who
were they? They have had no names
(since 8:2-3). Now we get three
names, two Maries and a Joanna. And for
good measure, we get a vague reference to “and the other women with them,”
allowing room for claims by others that they were there too!
Verse 11 is a bit of a surprise, if the hearer doesn’t know any of the other stories about the Empty Tomb. The women hasten to tell their story to the Eleven and others – but they are not believed! Their story seemed to the apostles “an idle tale.” (This is the delightful Greek word lēros, “nonsense!” – used only here in the New Testament.) This theory that the women were not believed is important for the larger picture of Luke’s narrative, leading up to Pentecost. After Pentecost the believers understand everything. Here, however, it is only a surprising afterthought in Luke’s version of the Empty Tomb.
And with verse 12 we have what is also most likely an afterthought. This verse is a bare-bones report of Peter running across town to see the empty tomb, and the burial garments lying in it. This is a report, not a narrative. There is no drama in it. (More on this distinction later). The verse is missing entirely from the Western text tradition, but attested in all the Alexandrian witnesses. What is Peter doing (or not doing) in relation to the empty tomb? (More later.)
The Emmaus Story, 24:13-33+35.
This is the NRSV translation, with only a few modifications. (The “Western omissions,” additions in the Alexandrian text tradition, are in square brackets. Not nearly as many here as in the Empty Tomb episode.)
13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from
, 14 and talking with
each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they
were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16
but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to
them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?"
They [stood still and] looked sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name
was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that
have taken place there in these days?" 19 [He asked them,]
"What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of
Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the
people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to
be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he
was the one to redeem Jerusalem . Yes, and besides all this, it is [now]
the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women
[of our group] astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23
and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they
had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24
Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women
had said; but they did not see him." 25 Then he said to them,
"Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart [to believe] (concerning)
all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that
the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" 27
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the
things about himself in [all] the scriptures.
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he
walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly,
saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now
nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was
at the table [with them], he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to
them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and
he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Were
not our hearts burning [within us] while he was talking to us on the road,
while he was opening the scriptures to us?" 33 That same hour
they got up and returned to Israel ; and they found the eleven and
their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, "The
Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then
they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them
in the breaking of the bread. Jerusalem
What makes the Emmaus story such good narrative art?
1. For starters: length. This is a long narrative, as narrative episodes in Luke go.
Here are a few data concerning the length of narrative episodes in Luke. In a sample of 40 narrative episodes between Jesus’ rejection at
(-30) and Jesus’ examination by Herod
Antipas (23:6-12), there is a total of 372 verses. That means the average length of each episode is 9.3 verses. (The sample includes
only narratives and narrative parables; blocks of teaching and episodes that
only introduce teaching are excluded. Chapter
24 is not included.) Nazareth
The five episodes of Luke 24 are (1) the Empty Tomb, 14 verses; (2) Emmaus, 22 verses; (3) Appearance to the Eleven, 8 verses; (4) Jesus’ final speech, 6 verses; and (5) the blessing and ascension, 4 verses. Or, if one combines the Appearance and the final speech, they form one episode of 14 verses.
Here are some comparisons:
22 verses long, only Emmaus (24:13-35) and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (-32).
17 verses long, just one, the Parable of the Pounds/minas (-27).
15 verses long, Rejection at
(-30) and the Forgiven Woman
anointing Jesus (-50). Nazareth
There are 5 episodes that are 13 or 14 verses, but there are 15 that are 4 to 7 verses long.
Part of the effectiveness of Emmaus as a narrative is because the narrator took enough time to make the story interesting!
2. The narrator used this larger time to include circumstantial details. Emmaus is “about seven miles” (sixty stadia) from
(verse 13); the men “looked sad” (verse 17); one was named Cleopas (verse 18);
some of their group visited the tomb (verse 24); Jesus acted as if he was going
further (verse 28); they reminded themselves how their “hearts burned” as they
listened to him on the road (verse 32). Jerusalem
None of these details is essential to the basic narrative. The core story could have been told in seven or nine verses – and commentators frequently summarize it in such shorter and duller prose!
3. Another feature that makes the narrative forceful is the use of direct speech. You hear the characters speak. The curiosity, surprise, disappointment, even semi-reproach come across in their own utterances – both those of the two disciples and of Jesus. Eleven of the twenty-two verses contain direct speech. The narrator has used the fuller time to bring the hearer into the lively conversation along the road.
4. Some of the power of the narrative is the use of an omniscient narrator. There are no secrets from the hearer. You hear immediately that it is Jesus who joins them, but you are also told that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (verse 16). The hearer is in on the inside story from the beginning.
5. The difference between a narrative and a report is tension. Some kind of uncertainty or crisis is introduced in a narrative, and that tension is resolved at the climax. The tension in the Emmaus narrative is the hearer’s knowledge that this is Jesus on the road, but the excitement is how the two disciples are going to discover that!
One of the special interests behind the narrative is revealed by the manner of the “discovery.” Jesus begins to talk very authoritatively about the scriptures while they are still on the road, but that does not reveal to them who he is. Only afterwards do they realize that he was giving them “burning” teachings out there. The true discovery (it is a discovery story) is when Jesus breaks the bread at the table. At that point “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (verse 31). At exactly that point, of course, Jesus vanishes from their sight, sealing any doubt about who he was – i.e., the Risen Lord. Behind the narrative, we understand, the message is that the Risen Jesus is encountered in the breaking of the bread around his table.
The end of the story – and verse 34. However, the end of the story has been damaged – in order to tie this originally independent episode to the next one. The Emmaus travelers return to Jerusalem, and – if verse 34 is kept here – they are themselves told, totally out of the blue, that Jesus is risen indeed and has appeared to Simon (not Peter). Then, in a whopping anticlimax, the Emmaus couple tell their story about the encounter on the road.
Verse 35 follows verse 33 very naturally and smoothly. “That same hour they got up and returned to
and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. Then they told what had happened on the road,
and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Jerusalem
It seems clear that verse 34 has been inserted at the end of the Emmaus narrative to tie that episode to the Appearance story that follows. The final compiler or narrator wanted to link the powerful story of Emmaus with the more prosaic account of the appearance to the Eleven, in
However, the statement in verse 34 is hardly prosaic! “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
The first clause – The Lord is Risen indeed! -- has become the exultant cultic cry of the Christian Easter, what Joseph Fitzmyer loves to site as the praeconium paschale, the Easter Proclamation (Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible, 1985, pp. 1534-35.) This cultic cry went on to have a life of its own, apart from its place in Luke.
The second clause is equally independent, and has no foundation in anything reported in Luke. If Luke had truly had an account of a Jesus appearance to Simon Peter, he could have developed it into a major account, as happened with the Emmaus story. Clearly, Luke had no such Peter revelation story. Most likely, someone who knew the tradition reported by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-6 has stuck in a notice here to harmonize with other rumors about such an event. (It may also be that later reciters/writers did not want some non-apostles to be the first to encounter the risen Jesus, so they stuck in the comment that Jesus had already appeared to Simon.)
There were indeed rumors about Jesus appearing to Simon Peter, but they included no details – and there is no narrative of Peter (alone) meeting the Risen Jesus anywhere in the New Testament!
There were indeed rumors about Jesus appearing to Simon Peter, but they included no details – and there is no narrative of Peter (alone) meeting the Risen Jesus anywhere in the New Testament!
The Appearance to the Eleven, 24:36-43.
We are still focusing on the literary character of the episodes in Luke 24. For discussion purposes, I will separate Jesus’ appearance to the Eleven from his final speech, though these are often treated as a single unit. (Texts in square brackets are Alexandrian additions, compared to the Bezae text tradition – see the text discussion above.)
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them [and said to them, "Peace be with you"]. 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." [40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. ] 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
What is reported here is pretty clear and straightforward, but it is extremely minimalist. It has no circumstantial details – for example, that they were in a locked room for fear of the Judeans, as given in John’s version of this story (John 20:19). There is no dialogue; we hear no one speak except Jesus. Why do we not hear the eleven exclaim something about their fear or their doubts, which Jesus attributes to them? This is not an interesting story; it is only a set of bare bones statements.
Other than the fearfulness that accompanies all heavenly appearances, everything is focused on one thing: Jesus’ actual physical body, which has flesh and bones and which eats food like normal humans. The episode is a doctrinal affirmation, not an interesting occurrence in the lives of people. Why the physical body of Jesus was so important will be discussed below.
Jesus’ Final Instructions to the Eleven, 24:44-49.
This is a speech, with only one narrative moment, the “opening of the minds” of the eleven. (Square brackets show differences of the shorter Bezae text tradition from the Alexandrian.)
44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise [from the dead] on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from
. 48 You are witnesses of
these things. 49And see, I am
sending upon you what [my Father] promised [Bezae
reads “what I promised”]; so stay here in the city until you have been
clothed with power from on high." Jerusalem
This speech undoubtedly is intended to play an organizing function: it shows the hearer/reader where we have been and where we are going. It sums up the Gospel, and prepares for Acts.
Presumably Jesus “opened the minds” of the Eleven by teaching them to read the scriptures correctly. Teaching the followers to read the scriptures correctly is the major function of the Risen Jesus in Luke 24. (More on this below.)
Apparently included in what the scriptures show is that repentance and forgiveness will be proclaimed to all nations – and that proclamation will “begin from
.” The Eleven (who will become Twelve in Acts 1)
will serve as “witnesses” of the divine action in Jesus and will themselves be
“clothed with power from on high,” that is, transformed by the power of the
Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). Jerusalem
We hear these as the words of Jesus – but they are the mind of Luke (and his referent communities), shaping how later centuries of Christians will understand the sacred story of their Savior.
Jesus’ Blessing and Departure, 24:50-53.
The Gospel ends with a rather colossal event, but presented in very minimalist terms. We have only simple blunt statements, which nevertheless evoke awe because of the astonishing event they present. (It may be pertinent that this is the end of the very longest scroll in the New Testament. The scribe may have had no more space in this cumbersome papyrus roll.)
The square bracketed clauses are Alexandrian additions to the shorter text form preserved in the Bezae codex and its allies (see text discussion above).
50 Then he led them out as far as
, and, lifting up his hands, he
blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them [and
was carried up into heaven]. 52 And they [worshiped him, and]
returned to Bethany with great joy; 53 and
they were continually in the temple blessing [Bezae reads “praising”] God.
Here we have neither circumstantial details (crossing from the city to the village two miles away; time of night or day; only the Eleven or a larger group, etc., etc.) nor dialogue. We do not even hear Jesus’ “blessing,” nor any gasped exclamations from the onlookers as Jesus “withdrew from them.” Some details and dialogues of this kind will be presented at the beginning of Acts, but the ending of the Gospel is remarkably blunt and awkward, to be presenting such awesome events.
The business of the Ascension will be discussed briefly later.
IV. The Empty Tomb – and afterwards.
The preceding sections have dealt with the textual and literary features of Luke 24. What remain are the historical issues posed by the chapter. (It may be noted that, as a historian, I do not seek to explain the events; I seek to explain the narratives of the events.)
The primary question is, How and Why were these presentations of the Risen Jesus important to the early Christians. What was going on among the first and second generations of the Jesus followers that made these episodes the proper way to tell the story of God’s work in Jesus, the proper way to present to themselves and the world the story of the Risen Jesus?
The Empty Tomb – an inconclusive event. Only the four Gospels narrate the discovery of the empty tomb. It is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. The four Gospel accounts (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18) have a few core points in common, but often are quite different in details. A full comparison is not necessary here, but I will summarize a few basic points that are mostly recognized by historians.
Mark’s version is the earliest (Mark 16:1-8). It has the women wondering about the “stone,” discovering it is removed, and inside the tomb they find “a young man dressed in white,” whom they recognize as a heavenly messenger. The messenger tells them Jesus has been raised and he shows them “the place they laid him” (verse 6). He instructs them to tell the good news to the “disciples and Peter,” and that he (Jesus) is going before them to
where they will see him. Mark, with
Matthew later reinforcing him, prepares for an appearance of Jesus to the
disciples in Galilee.
The amazing thing about Mark’s Empty Tomb story is its ending: The women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (verse 8). “They said nothing to anyone...” Commentators do not often recognize that this conclusion gives a clear explanation for why the empty tomb was not known in early times.
Mark, it seems clear, understands that people were not talking about the empty tomb in the earliest days of the Jesus movement, because the only people who had seen it never told anyone. The later Gospels drop this feature of Mark’s report, and have the women tell someone. Luke, however, gets the same effect as Mark. In Luke the women tell – but they are not believed! (24:11). In Luke, even when Simon Peter goes to the tomb and verifies the women’s story, he simply goes home “amazed at what had happened” (Luke 24:12).
By the second generation of the Jesus Movement (when the Gospels began to be written), the story of the Empty Tomb was believed and reported, but the Empty Tomb alone was not sufficient. What really settled things was not the tomb, but the appearances of the Risen Jesus.
In Matthew, the disciples have to go back to
Galilee, where some still doubted, in order
to get final authority from the Risen Jesus himself, Matthew 28:16-20. Similarly, in John, the two disciples run and
find the tomb empty – but it doesn’t settle things for them, John 20:9-10. It is Jesus’ own appearance to the disciples,
still in , that is
decisive (John -23). The same is true for Luke, except that in his
case, true belief leading to evangelical action doesn’t come until after
Pentecost (Acts 2). Jerusalem
Origin of the Story. As Dominick Crossan and others have pointed out, the historical probabilities are strongly against the Empty Tomb story. (Crossan discusses the burial in The Birth of Christianity, Harper/SanFrancisco, 1998, pp. 550-555, where he argues that the burial story about Joseph of Arimathea was Mark’s invention.)
Following their usual practice, the Romans would have left the body hanging on the cross until birds and animals had mutilated it (crucifixion was a public deterrent to rebellion), and the carcass would have been dumped in a common grave and covered with lime. That some pious Judean might have gotten the body removed before night fall is theoretically possible, but “as the tradition developed, Jesus’ burial moved from enemies to friends and from an inadequate and hurried entombment to one of regal magnificence" (Crossan, Birth, p. 555).
The later Christians of Jerusalem, where James the brother of Jesus presided after about 41 CE, would have fastened on speculations about the burial, Pilate’s release of the body, and an expensive tomb near the death site. They knew about other famous tomb-sites around the city – for example, that of David (Acts ).
The story of the empty tomb probably originated with Mary Magdalene. She is the central figure in all versions of the story, the only person who is. It was her charismatic break-through! If Simon Peter, James the Brother, and Saul/Paul can have encounters with the Risen Jesus (I Corinthians 15:3-8), she can experience an empty tomb with heavenly messengers – and share the vision with other charismatic women companions prominent in the Movement.
All of which happened before Mark’s Gospel made the burial and the Empty Tomb its only post-crucifixion episodes.
V. Emphasis on Hearing Scripture about Jesus.
The Risen Jesus does two things in Luke 24 (apart from the ascension): He teaches the followers how to read the scriptures, and he exhibits his very physical body. The reading-the-scriptures topic has two parts.
The Necessity of the Passion. Where in Mark and Matthew the message from the heavenly messenger to the women is that the Risen Jesus will meet the disciples in
Galilee, in Luke that message is not instructions for
the future but a reminder of Jesus’
own passion prophecy. “Remember how he
told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed
over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again”
(24:6-7). From Jesus himself, the
followers must understand that the death (and resurrection) was part of God’s
To the couple on the Emmaus road, Jesus also taught that the “prophets” declared the “necessity” for the Messiah to suffer before entering into his glory (24:25-26).
And finally, in his last speech, opening their minds to understand the scriptures, he said, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day...” (24:46).
One of the major goals of Luke 24 was to drive home, as a totally divine teaching, that the Passion of Jesus was a divine necessity. Jesus’ death was not a fluke, an accident of history; it was the working out of their own salvation! That was a high priority for the second generation of Jesus followers.
It may be commented that modern scholars are hard pressed to identify what scriptures these early Christians had in mind. The portrayal of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) is perhaps the clearest case, but there are not many clear references to that prophecy in the New Testament (though Luke has one in Acts 8:26-40). The “third day” prediction seems to hang mainly on Hosea 6:2. Luke has Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, cite Psalm 16 as testimony of God delivering Jesus from death, and the Palm Sunday psalm, 118, presents a royal figure who triumphs after severe suffering from enemies.
Finding prophecies and psalms that portray a suffering savior is feasible; finding predictions of the Messiah’s suffering in the Torah is a much more difficult task!
The Whole Judean Scriptures Teach about Jesus. This is, again, the central teaching of Jesus’ discourse on the Emmaus road and in his final speech.
“Then beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27). “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44). (This last statement, incidentally, excludes the scripture traditions of Sadducees and Samaritans, who accepted only the Torah, not the prophets, as true scripture.)
These statements make it very clear that a major task of Jesus followers in the second generation was to study the scriptures! Jesus has not returned during the first generation, making it necessary to seek further guidance about the on-going life and work of his followers!
When one goes through the many New Testament quotations of scripture that are taken to refer to Jesus and his followers, many are very pertinent to the basic message, but many are also very far-fetched (for example, the prophecies allegedly referring to Judas in Acts 1:20). Long and extensive searching of the scriptures had become a very important task for those who sought new insights and revelations about the meaning of Jesus and the life he created for them. Our Gospels are now filled with the results of this heavy scriptural work.
VI. The Importance of Jesus’ physical body.
Concentration on the physical body of the Risen Jesus is mostly found in the Gospels of Luke and John. Matthew has one brief moment of touching the body of the Risen Lord: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:10). This is only a passing comment, however, and nothing is otherwise made of the physicality of the Risen Jesus in Mark and Matthew. (The only appearance of the Risen Jesus in Mark is the Transfiguration episode, Mark 9:2-8.)
That the Risen Jesus had an actual flesh and bone body, which could also eat food has clearly become a very important point in Luke 24, John 20, and perhaps in the appendix to John’s Gospel, John 21:1-14.
There is a certain development, or at least differentiation, between the Luke and the John treatments of this topic. The (somewhat abbreviated) Lukan view is confined to Jesus telling them to see and touch his body, determining that it is flesh and bone (24:39). (The Alexandrian text tradition reinforces this by saying that he did indeed show them his hands and feet, 24:40.) Only “hands and feet” are mentioned, reflecting indeed a crucifixion, but nothing more specific. A second proof is provided by having Jesus request food, being given a piece of broiled fish (unlike Emmaus, not eucharistic bread!), which he “ate in their presence” (24:41-43).
The John treatment of this topic is more extensive and detailed (John -29). The appearance is inside a locked room, because the disciples feared the Judeans; Jesus showed them “his hands and his side” (to conform to the spear-in-the-side event told only in John’s passion, 19:34); the scene includes Jesus breathing the Spirit on the disciples, giving them power to forgive, or not forgive, sins (verses 22-23); and the scene concludes with the episode of Doubting Thomas (verses 24-29)!
John clearly has wrapped up a bundle of finishing topics in this passage, but it begins with the business about proving that the Risen Jesus had a see-and-touch body!
These are by all counts the latest treatments of the Risen Jesus in the New Testament. This preoccupation with the body is, without doubt, a second generation development.
Just why this had become so important to the later Jesus followers is a matter of speculation among scholars. Most likely, the second generation had encountered claims from unbelievers that the visions of the Risen Jesus were spiritual, visionary, even hallucinatory – in any event, not real worldly phenomena.
VII. Ascension to heaven – Departure of the Risen
The Ascension, as a specific event, is a special Lukan topic. It is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament (except very briefly in the second-century addition to Mark’s Gospel, Mark , which was derived from Luke).
Having been at some pains to show that the Risen Jesus had a real physical body, the Lukan tradition now had to get rid of it! The Risen Jesus has to be gotten off the scene – so the main story can go on with Pentecost!
It is possible that reports of dialogues that Jesus held with disciples and others after his resurrection were already beginning to circulate by the time Luke wrote. Such dialogues, about the cosmos, secrets not revealed in the Gospels, corrections to things in the Gospels, and other spiritual truths, were passed on for three centuries, as revealed by the Gnostic documents in Coptic translation found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi,
. Those documents were composed – and
translated – well before the 360s CE, when they were buried. (See The
Nag Hammadi Library, gen. ed. James M. Robinson, 3rd ed., Harper & Row,
1988, and note, for example, The
Apocryphon of James. pp. 30-37, The
Dialogue of the Savior, pp. 246-255, and the fragmentary The Gospel of Mary, pp. 524-527.) Egypt
For Luke, the ascension as an event puts an end to post-resurrection dialogues and channels everything into the work of Peter and Paul in the post-Pentecost charismatic communities.
The Ascension in Luke 24 is tantalizingly brief. “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them.” The Alexandrian text adds, “and was carried up into heaven” (24:51).
It is likely that Luke planned that this topic would receive fuller treatment at the beginning of his second scroll.
Time sequence. This is the place to comment on the extremely overcrowded
presented in Luke 24. The Empty Tomb
episode starts “on the first day of the week, at early dawn” (verse 1). The Emmaus story begins “on that same day,”
and extends until time for the evening meal (verses 13 and 29). The Emmaus couple leave for
“that same hour,” and their arrival is immediately followed by Jesus’
appearance to show his physical body (verse 36). After Jesus’ final speech, “then he led them
out as far as Jerusalem ...” (verse
50) – with no indication of a different time or day. In other words, everything in Luke 24 happens in a single day. Bethany
It is just possible that the events from the empty tomb to Jesus’ appearance in
could have occurred in one day – if you use Roman days ending at instead of Judean days ending at
dark. The ascension, however, could not
have been in the middle of the night (clouds, looking into heaven, etc.). Jerusalem
Luke has ignored the issue of time sequence at the end of the Gospel. There was a group of episodes that people thought happened on “Easter” day, and all of them have been included, without concern about the time sequence. Luke would straighten that out in the beginning of his second scroll, Acts 1.
The fuller treatment of the Ascension is, of course, given in Acts 1:9-11:
9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This Acts version makes clear (what is undoubtedly assumed elsewhere) that the controlling imagery of ascension lore comes (at least ultimately) from Daniel 7:9-14.
9 As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne...
10b The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being [a son of man]
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed. (NRSV translation.)
In Daniel’s vision, the “one like a son of man” is the Human who will replace the four non-human Beasts that have been progressively ruining the world for Four Ages (7:2-8). The Human One comes – not down from heaven, but – up to the heavenly court where the Most High is arranging for the judgment of the world. In that court, the Human One is given all authority to carry out God’s judgment on the earth. The cloud that carries the Human One up will subsequently carry Him back to earth, where he will execute that judgment. That Human One is, of course, that “Son of Man” who will come on the clouds at the parousia (Luke ).
From the very beginning of the Jesus Movement, the followers believed that the resurrection had exalted Jesus to heaven, to the right hand of God. He would there assume his true rule as God’s Man for the final judgment. Luke’s Ascension is simply a later, more literalistic conception of Jesus on his way to that exaltation. Again, in that view, as the two heavenly messengers said, he “will come in the same way” when God’s plan for all the nations is accomplished.
Side comment: Explaining the Ascension as an actual historical event, as our literalist friends must attempt, is a daunting task. Among many embarrassments and confusions, I find Karl Barth’s effort worth repeating.
“There is no sense in trying to visualize the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations. But of course this is no reason why they should be used to make the whole thing ridiculous. The point of the story is not that when Jesus left His disciples He visibly embarked upon a wonderful journey into space, but that when He left them He entered the side of the created world which was provisionally inaccessible and incomprehensible, that before their eyes He ceased to be before their eyes.”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Vol.
The Doctrine of Creation, Part 2, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance ( : T&T Clark), pp. 453-454. Edinburgh
A nice comment to end discussion of the Ascension: “Before their eyes He ceased to be before their eyes!” Very Lukan, in its way.
Luke 24 concludes the Gospel. The crucifixion – even the burial – was not the end. The empty tomb, even with the heavenly messengers, was not the end. The Risen Jesus made himself present to the followers who kept looking for him but were confused by what they found. Jesus did not leave them with only rumors, with doubts about spirits or hallucinations. Though it may have been to people whose eyes were not opened at first, or to followers gathered in secrecy, the Risen Jesus gave assurance of his concrete reality to the followers who sought him.
The Risen Jesus made certain his followers knew he was real – then he departed.
But Jesus departed only after assuring those followers of two things:
- (The past.) The Judean scriptures – Torah, Prophets, Psalms – would confirm for them who he had been and that God had sent him to suffer for the sins of both Judeans and the peoples of the nations.
- (The future.)
The power of God would shortly come upon them to empower them to
carry the gospel of forgiveness and salvation to all peoples – “beginning
The Spirit of the Risen Jesus would accompany them as they shared in the reign of the heavenly Son of Man given power at the right hand of God. They are to “bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, ...to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
The Risen Jesus has lived on as Christians have found the power of his calling inspiring their work. I want to conclude with a personal recollection of such a person who was empowered by the Risen Jesus.
One of my pastors and a very close friend at
in University Church two decades ago was
Donald Coleman. We shared many Bible
study classes and Don preached periodically.
Don had been involved in major social justice causes all of his adult
years. Among other things he served some
prison time for demonstrating against the School of the Chicago
in Fort Benning
Don’s preaching was fairly ordinary as our preaching went, and most of what he said about Jesus was fairly conventional. However, I have a vivid memory of one sermon late in Don’s ministry. We have a sanctuary-in-the-round arrangement, and Don would stroll around the open space as he spoke. I was sitting in the front row of one of the side pews and was often quite close to him. As I watched him escalate his intensity, he spoke passionately about Jesus as the Prophet of Justice. This Jesus opposed injustice and declared the
to be Justice – unqualified,
uncompromised, and universal. For Don,
the Prophetic Jesus is the Real Jesus! Kingdom
I knew at the time I was hearing the power of the Risen Jesus – in our time.
Thanks be to those second generation Christians who had visions, heard messages, and prepared their communities for the extended rule of the Risen Jesus through his enspirited churches!