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Biblical-theological Reflections

Why Seek the Living among the Dead?

The Road to Emmaus appearance, based on Luke 2...

Joseph von Führich, “The Road to Emmaus appearance” (1837; Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Luke 24:1, αἱ γυναῖκες, αἵτινες ἦσαν συνεληλυθυῖαι ἐκ τῆς Γαλιλαίας αὐτῷ (Luke 23:55; the women who had come with him from Galilee; cf. Matt 28:1–8; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 8:2–3; 23:49; 24:10; John 20:1–13) go to Jesus’ tomb φέρουσαι ἃ ἡτοίμασαν ἀρώματα (Luke 24:1; carrying spices that they had prepared). Instead of finding Jesus, however, the women are met with an empty tomb and two shining figures (Luke 24:2–5a). To these women, the resplendent individuals then address the question τί ζητεῖτε τὸν ζῶντα μετὰ τῶν νεκρῶν; (Luke 24:5b; Why do you seek the living one among the dead?).

From the women’s perspective, of course, seeking someone who was alive among the dead was precisely not what they were doing. They had, after all, come φέρουσαι ἃ ἡτοίμασαν ἀρώματα (Luke 24:1; carrying spices that they had prepared), which they had not had with them previously when they were at the tomb (Luke 23:55–56). Among those who were dead, they were seeking one who was dead. The figures’ point is, then, not that the women were confused about where dead or living people might normally be found but that the individual the women were seeking had a different status than they had supposed. The object of their search was alive rather than dead—and those who sought him should have known better than to think otherwise (Luke 24:6–7).1

Although Peter at least goes to see the tomb for himself and comes away θαυμάζων τὸ γεγονός (Luke 24:12; marveling at what had happened), the apostles generally fare still worse. Even on hearing the women’s report, they think it nonsense (Luke 24:10–11).2 Cleopas and his fellow traveler also know the women’s report, but neither do they have any firm convictions about its veracity (Luke 24:13, 18–24).3 Meeting Jesus, whom they do not recognize, Cleopas and his original traveling companion are also told they should have known better (Luke 24:25–26).4 They should have known to have expected Jesus’ resurrection, but they didn’t. Apparently, the unrecognized Jesus spends the rest of the trip teaching the two other travelers. Yet, seemingly nowhere along the balance of this journey are Cleopas and his companion stopped in their tracks by the realization that, of course, Jesus must have risen from the dead (Luke 24:13–15, 25–28). Normal experience was quite to the contrary, hence the two travelers’ inability to fit their experiences into another mold besides that of unrealized hopes for Israel’s redemption (Luke 24:20–24).5 Then again, their own experience of Jesus was, self-confessedly, far from “normal” (Luke 24:19).

When confronted with the fact that they ought to have known better, the women at the tomb had at least ἐμνήσθησαν τῶν ῥημάτων αὐτοῦ (Luke 24:8; remembered his words; cf. Luke 24:6). Yet, even after having new words added to those they had already heard, Cleopas and his companion come only to “burning hearts” until ἐγνώσθη αὐτοῖς ἐν τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου (Luke 24:35; he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread; see Luke 24:28–34). To be sure, the group of disciples hears the reports of Jesus’ appearance to Simon and the two travelers, but they are still joyfully incredulous when Jesus appears among them (Luke 24:33–43).6

Respecting “normal” experience, there was nothing “natural” about Jesus’ resurrection. “Normally,” dead people stay dead. “Normally,” unless the grave is disturbed, a dead body will be in the same place a few days after that body is laid to rest, and spices can be brought back for the body at a later time if such needs to happen. On the other hand, respecting the creator God’s faithfulness to his promises to his people, nothing is more supremely “natural” than that the crucified messiah should be found alive three days after he had died (Luke 24:5–7; 25–27; 44–49; cf. Rom 4:17).7 In the end—not least, in the climax of all things—neither the grave, nor indeed death itself, is a very good container for such a person, in whom all the fullness of the creator’s mighty power and purposes for his people were seen to have been at work (cf. Luke 24:19, 21; Acts 2:24; Heb 7:15–16).

Hand place a bullet into a plain paper bag, and the bag will hold the bullet well enough. Shoot the bullet into the bag with a gun, and the bag hasn’t got a chance.


1. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 657.

2. Tertullian, Marc., 4.43 (ANF 3:422).

3. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 657.

4. Ibid., 650–51, 657.

5. Augustine, Enarrat. Ps., 64.15 (NPNF1 8:266); Augustine, Tract. ep. Jo., 2.1 (NPNF1 7:469–70); Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 651.

6. Augustine, Faust., 4.2 (NPNF1 4:161); Augustine, Serm., 66.3 (NPNF1 6:456); Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 657.

7. Augustine, Enarrat. Ps., 64.15 (NPNF1 8:266); C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 25–37; Tertullian, Marc., 4.43 (ANF 3:422); Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 649, 651–52.

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This site and its content are licensed by J. David Stark under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person(s) or institution(s).
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