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In Luke 24:16, in the use of the passive voice true to the Greek?

"Their eyes were kept from recognizing him." (NRSV)

Only one English translation (NLV) has it that God kept them from recognizing Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I'm wondering if the Greek really implies that it was God, or if it may have been their own limitations that kept their eyes from recognizing him.

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It is Passive

The verb is ἐκρατοῦντο (ekratounto), which is the imperfect passive indicative 3rd plural of the verb κρατέω (krateō), which in this context has the idea of "restrain."1

However, it is not that they did not "see" Jesus (v.15) in some respect, but that when they saw Him, they did not "know" (ἐπιγνῶναι; epignōnai) it was Him, hence the NRSV notation of a failure in "recognizing" Him. As ἐκρατοῦντο is imperfect tense, it has a continuous idea to it. So "their eyes were being restrained so as to not know him."

Nature of the "Blindness"

It may well be this restraint was "physical" in that Jesus was cloaked in some way to prevent seeing His face. However, there is strong evidence that their lack of recognition was also present with His voice and teaching (vv.17, 19, 25-27), which points to a "stronger" blindness to His identity than merely visual lack of recognition. Was it in part because of their unbelief (v.25)? Maybe, but it seems there must be more.

Not until His acts of taking, blessing, and breaking bread with them is He known to them (v.30-31). And at that point it is another passive verb when "their eyes were opened" (διηνοίχθησαν; diēnoichthēsan), this one aorist tense, not implying a continuous action, but simply stating the event of the opening occurred. Then they "knew" (ἐπέγνωσαν; epegnōsan) Him. In themselves, they had felt their "hearts burning within" (v.32) as Jesus spoke to them, but this hint of recognition from within themselves was not enough to break the restraint. That seems like evidence that the restraint is not because of "their own limitations" as you ask.

Conclusion

It is true that God is not explicitly stated as being the active agent in restraining the eyes and then opening them, but it is strongly implied. The context communicates that their inability to know it was Jesus was not just their limitation, but something more. I think it likely that Jesus wanted to convey the message He had for them without "distracting them" (so to speak) by His presence being revealed. God reveals knowledge to others in His time and His way, and here is an example of that.


NOTES

1 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. κρατέω, entry #5.

  • Please see my answer for links to a more nuanced view of the divine passive where it is not necessarily only God that is involved in their inability. Joseph's answer makes a strong case for human folly being a factor as well. – Ruminator Oct 9 '18 at 11:37
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The causal agent of the passive voice does not appear to be God, but unbelief. That is, there is compelling biblical evidence that the agent of the blindness in this context (in the passive voice) was "slowness of heart."

First we see that when Jesus had earlier spoken of his imminent death and resurrection, the disciples did not understand because at that time they did not believe the Scriptures.

John 2:19-22 (NASB)
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

It was not until after his resurrection that they believed. That is, unbelief blocked their understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. In the passive voice, the truth therefore became concealed or hidden from them.

Luke 9:43-45 (NASB)
43 But while everyone was marveling at all that He was doing, He said to His disciples, 44 “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this statement, and it was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this statement.

Luke 18:31-34 (NASB)
31 Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, 33 and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.” 34 But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.

It was not God as the primary cause, but unbelief that blocked their full understanding until Jesus identified himself after the resurrection. Notwithstanding that the resurrected body of Jesus still bore the scars of the crucifixion (compare John 20:20 with Revelation 5:6) and in this sense his glorified body was disfigured (please click here for more discussion, s.v., Argument from Disfiguration), the PRINCIPAL cause of their lack of recognition and discernment was their lack of faith, and so they were not looking for or expecting the resurrection of Jesus.

For example, when the risen Jesus was on the road to Emmaus, he chided his disillusioned disciples in this regard with the following words:

Luke 24:25-26 (NASB)
25 And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”

This statement was not rhetorical flourish, but an encouraging reprimand because of their lack of faith in the Scriptures. Again, the natural body of Jesus had undergone its physical transformation at resurrection (1 Cor 15:43-51), however it was still their internal bias --based on their lack of faith-- that caused the blindness of these disciples on the road to Emmaus to "see" Jesus. When they finally recognized Jesus, was it because they saw his "disfigured" hands with the nail marks as he broke the bread in front of them?

Finally, without casting moral aspersions on the weakness of faith among the disciples of Jesus (since we are no better than they), we see that an internal bias occurs when one does not accept the plain and normal reading of Scripture by faith. When we receive the Scriptures like children, the Lord reveals the wisdom of His word.

Luke 10:21 (NASB)
21 At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.

In conclusion, the bias from unbelief will result in "blindness," which filters out anything that contradicts that internal bias (to include the appearance of someone like Jesus who rises from the dead -- see Luke 16:31). In this sense, and in the passive voice, is the truth thus "concealed or hidden" from us so that we are "kept from seeing" and understanding the Word of God (who is Jesus). We must trust His word therefore like children.

  • I think you have done a great job of showing that their denseness was a factor but to the exclusion of the operation of God. As I understand it if that had been the case it would have been a middle voice and as presented it would have been both God and their dullness at work, no? – Ruminator Oct 9 '18 at 11:32
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The word in question is a passive form of κρατέω which does not suggest "inability" but rather relates to being "controlled". There is such a thing as self-control but in this case it is God that is doing the controlling, preventing them from recognizing him. The relevant entry from BDAG is this:

⑤ to control in such a way that someth. does not happen, hold back or restrain from, hinder in an action: w. acc. (so TestJob 35:1), foll. by ἵνα μή Rv 7:1. Pass. be prevented foll. by τοῦ μή and inf. (TestSol 10:43 C; B-D-F §400, 4; Rob. 1061; 1425) their eyes ἐκρατοῦντο τοῦ μὴ ἐπιγνῶναι Lk 24:16, prob. w. a suggestion of both physical and inward sight (cp. 4 Km 6:15–23; s. διανοίγω 1b).—Hold in one’s power (PTebt 61b, 229; POxy 237 VIII, 34; TestSol 6:3; Jos., C. Ap. 1, 84; Mel., P. 100, 769) pass. οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπʼ αὐτοῦ it was impossible for him (Christ) to be held in its (death’s) power Ac 2:24.

I believe that the lack of an explicit subject should be understood as indicating that God is the subject because of a well known feature of the scriptures that is usually referred to as the "divine passive":

A salient stylistic feature of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ use of a verbal construction known as the “divine passive” or “theological passive.” In these cases no subject is identified in the sentence. For example, in Matthew 5:4, Jesus declares, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” In this statement we learn that the mourners will be comforted, but we are not told who will do the comforting. Use of the divine passive makes the declaration ambiguous...

The article cited above and Mounce's comments here have some thoughts on a more nuanced understanding of the divine passive indicating that while God is the main player suggested it may also include involvement by Christ or plain human involvement as well.

So in summary, the passive is used as a "divine passive" aka "theological passive" to indicate that God was either completely or primarily responsible for the failure to recognize. Given the wider context where the disciples are "chewed out" for being "slow on the uptake" it appears that they were also responsible.

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    Nice and succinct +1 – Sola Gratia Oct 9 '18 at 14:58
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    Helpful invocation of BDAG. I'm generally suspicious of interpretation passing itself off as grammar (Mounce, to his credit, adds a note with something like this qualification). For the banter, here's an article you might find interesting: Smit & Renssen, "The passivum divinum: The Rise and Future Fall of an Imaginary Linguistic Phenomenon," Filología Neotestamentaria 27 (2014): 3-24. FWIW. – Dɑvïd Oct 9 '18 at 20:11
  • @Dɑvïd I read the first 12 pages (skipping the German) and the summary. It appears that what he objects to is the idea that the reason it is employed is to avoid using the divine name. He seems to recognize it as owing to other stylistic concerns rather than a circumlocution for the divine name or even divine activity. Is that how you understood it? If so it is a concern that doesn't particularly concern me though I might in the future make some comment about how the purpose of the divine passive is disputed but the usage is well documented. – Ruminator Oct 9 '18 at 20:32

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