Centuries of preaching and art have led us to assume without a thought that the two disciples who traveled from Jerusalem to Emmaus the Sunday after the Crucifixion, and dined there with the resurrected Christ, were men. Surely one of them was: the Bible tells us his name was Cleopas (Luke 24:18). But it leaves his companion unnamed.
Some Bible scholars have suggested that Cleopas’s fellow traveler was his wife, Mary. (N. T. Wright, James Montgomery Boice, and Jim Cole-Rous, to name just three, believe this to be the most reasonable interpretation, and many others, such as Wayne Grudem, consider it a possibility.)
Their case is built by conflating the identities of “Mary, mother of James” (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40, 16:1; Luke 24:10), present at the Crucifixion and a witness of the empty tomb, and “Mary, wife of Clopas” (John 19:25), also present at the Crucifixion, and then recognizing “Clopas” as a variant spelling of “Cleopas.” Alphaeus—identified in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13 as the father of James—is thought to be the Aramaic form of the name. These connections are well supported by church tradition, dating as far back as the second century.
If Cleopas’s wife, Mary, was in Jerusalem for Passover, it makes sense that she would have traveled back home to Emmaus (or stopped overnight in Emmaus en route to home) with her husband afterward. It wouldn’t have been unusual for a married couple, in this relatively private context, to converse with each other along the way about what they had experienced—the rabbi they had been following, dead, and rumored to have risen—and what it might mean.
Mary had seen the empty tomb with her own eyes and even encountered an angel who affirmed, “Christ is not here! He is risen!” But when she told the other disciples, they dismissed her account as too fantastic, perhaps instilling in her a new skepticism; she hadn’t, after all, seen the body. Or maybe her faith remained fortified, and her trip home was spent trying to convince her husband that Jesus was indeed alive.
Whatever the precise content of their discussion, a “stranger” sidled up alongside them, giving his own interpretation of the weekend’s events. They did not notice it was Jesus because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It wasn’t until they arrived home with their newly invited guest in tow, put dinner on the table, and saw him bless the meal that “their eyes were opened.”
Although artistic portrayals of the Emmaus episode overwhelmingly cast a male as the second disciple, there are a few I’ve found that turn that presupposition on its head by casting a female, presumably Mary.
The first one, which I found thanks to blogger Theresa Doyle-Nelson, is a contemporary icon by Sister Marie-Paul Farran, who lives at the Monastére des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers (Benedictine Monastery on the Mount of Olives) in Jerusalem. Born in Egypt of Palestinian and Italian descent, she has been painting for decades in the Byzantine style with the help of other nuns from her community, who prepare the wood panels and apply the gold leaf. One of the monastery’s main sources of income is the sale of Sr. Marie-Paul’s icons, both originals and reproductions, the latter of which can be bought through the Printery House, an online store run by Conception Abbey in Missouri.
Following the icons tradition, Christ’s cross-halo is inscribed with the Greek letters ώ Ό Ν (omega, omicron, nu), which mean “He who is” (see Exod. 3:14).
Barry Motes’s approach is much less austere, more comic. His Supper at Yummaus takes place at a rest-stop food court, and Christ’s blessing is pronounced over KFC combos. The painting is part of Motes’s Sacred Stories series, which translates biblical narratives into contemporary settings, using friends, family, and students as models.
The Spanish-born Maximino (“Mino”) Cerezo Barredo, CMF, is a Claretian priest and liberation theologian, as well as an artist known for his murals. He has traveled extensively throughout Latin America, living for extended periods in Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Panama. In a 2012 interview he said, “What I want to convey through painting is God’s way of being that is embodied in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. He’s not a distant, absent God, but a God who became human in Jesus.” He also wants to convey “the paschal situation of the Latin American people—between life and death. A death that leads to the Resurrection.”
Cerezo has painted this subject multiple times, often with a female disciple. I think these are the only art images I’ve ever seen where Jesus’s nail wounds are placed on the wrists rather than on the palms! (This is one theory of where the nails were driven, or where they exited, so as to support the weight of an adult body on a cross.)
Father John Giuliani is also a Catholic artist and priest, who in 1977 founded the Benedictine Grange, a religious center in West Redding, Connecticut. The son of Italian immigrants, he paints sacred figures from the Christian tradition with Native American faces. “In my work I try to celebrate a union of a common spiritual understanding,” he says, “to show how a single mystery can be approached through diverse cultures.” The painting below shows an Andean Cleopas, Mary (right), and Christ.
Jyoti Sahi is one of my artist friends from India, and he recently showed me this older painting of his that depicts the revelation of Jesus at Emmaus to a man and a woman. The three sit on the floor of a small roadside dwelling and share a plate of chapati. It is in the breaking of this flatbread that the two pilgrims realize that the man they’ve been conversing with is none other than the resurrected Christ, ablaze with glory. His flame-engulfed form evokes his earlier revelations as I AM in the burning bush before Moses (Exod. 3) and to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration, when “his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). No wonder, the astonished pilgrims remark, that their “hearts burn[ed] within” them (Luke 24:32) all the way down the road as he exposited the scriptures.
Jyoti told me that the figure in the doorway can be seen as the narrator of this episode, a sort of oral storyteller or proto-proclaimer of the kerygma that will follow in the book of Acts.
And lastly, there’s a mosaic in the crypt of Washington National Cathedral, part of a Stations of the Resurrection cycle, that shows the risen Christ conversing with Mary (wife of Cleopas) in the bottom half of the work, then revealing his identity to her in the upper half. The design was itself a collaboration between husband and wife.
In addition to these examples, I’ve come across several artistic representations in which the gender of the unnamed traveling companion is ambiguous—that is, while one is bearded and obviously male, the other is smooth-faced and has softer features, but the clothes are not form-fitting or distinct enough to determine whether it’s a he or a she. Such is the case with a stencil print by Sadao Watanabe; an early twentieth-century relief sculpture on the tympanum of St. Cleopas Church in Jerusalem’s West Bank; a stained glass window in First United Methodist Church in Galena, Illinois (see also this unidentified window); and a painting in St. Mary’s Church in Fredericksburg, Texas, among others. I have to imagine this was deliberate.
Maybe this ambiguity was intentional on the part of Luke as well. Religious studies professor John Gillman writes that Luke’s failure to identify the traveler by either name or gender may well be a strategy of inviting the reader to identify implicitly with that person and thus to make the journey as Cleopas’s companion.
Ultimately, we just don’t know who was with Cleopas that day, and we need not dizzy ourselves trying to figure it out. But I do think we should be careful with our gender assumptions. I’m thankful for the aforementioned artists, who by reimagining a traditionally male-dominated scene celebrate the legacy of “the other Mary,” recipient of divine revelation, preacher of the resurrection.
Note: The photo and description of Jyoti Sahi’s painting on the subject was added to this essay post-publication, on March 19, 2020. So were the final three images by Maximino Cerezo Barredo.