The Emmaus Road: a Chiasm in Luke
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien was originally titled "There and back again" and recounts Bilbo Baggins' journey to the Lonely Mountain, what happened when he got "there" with a relatively swift journey "back again" to his home in The Shire where his adventure began.
"There and back again" would be a fitting title for the story of the travellers on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. Though it uses fewer words, it is no less profound and powerful in its content. In fact the events on the road to Emmaus lie at the heart of Christian belief, the hope and joy that is found in Christ's victory over death and his subsequent resurrection.
And then there is that annoyingly opaque reference to Jesus explaining to the travellers what the events of Easter actually mean "starting with Moses and the prophets…". We would all wish to have listened in on that conversation but the inference is clear; this was part of a plan that was initiated at the dawn of history and has been recorded throughout the years in the Jewish scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.
The road to Emmaus is one of the most preached passages in the Bible and there is no end of content on the internet expounding its meaning. I would venture that this Easter sermon given by Eddie Larkman at Corsham Baptist Church is as good as any sermon you would hear on the Emmaus story but there are many others.
What you will rarely hear, though, is that the road to Emmaus is written in a literary style known as a chiasm. And I'm often left wondering whether this is because bible teachers don't know about chiastic structures, they do know but don't think it's worth mentioning, or because it raises the potential for difficult questions.
A chiasm is a way of layering the text so that it is symmetrical around a central verse which is the key message of the passage with events and themes leading up to the key verse being mirrored almost phrase for phrase after the key verse.
Chiasms are used frequently throughout the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation but many get lost in modern translations. Open up the road to Emmaus passage though - in any Bible translation - and you will see that it has the following chiastic structure:
The journey from Jerusalem
Jesus appears, obstructed eyes, lack of recognition
Eating and drinking
The travellers explain what has happened
The women find the empty tomb
Jesus is alive!
The men confirm the empty tomb
Jesus explains what has happened
Eating and drinking
Opened eyes, recognition, Jesus disappears
Return to Jerusalem
Here the central and key verse in the passage is that Jesus is alive; the tomb has been found empty. But the events before and after this key verse are virtually identical - but in reverse. So the travellers start out from Jerusalem and end up travelling back to Jerusalem. Jesus appears to them on the road but their eyes are obstructed and they do not recognise him; prior to their return their eyes are uncovered and they do recognise Jesus, only for him to disappear again. The bread and wine they share on the road is mirrored by the meal they share at their destination. And the traveller's explanation of the events they have witnessed is reflected in Jesus' explanation about what they mean. There and back again.
In fact the road to Emmaus passage in Luke is actually a carefully constructed double chiasm as this YouTube video demonstrates.
Even a cursory study of the Emmaus story reveals the intricacy and care that has been woven into the passage's construction. Luke did not simply jot down the events as they were relayed to him but instead chose to create a story that was as beautiful in its literary form as it was powerful in its message.
This, of course, could raise questions about whether the events actually happened exactly as set out. After all, the characters in the story would not deliberately and consciously act out a chiasm. Have the events been embellished to make the chiastic structure work, or was the passage fabricated completely to round off the resurrection story?
It is likely that some poetic license has been applied. But whatever the answer, certainly to the ears of Luke's contemporaries this story would have supported their oral tradition; chiasms are easier to remember.
And Luke, it turns out, is not just a physician but has a way with words that would have given Shakespeare a run for his money...