Friday, May 04, 2012

After the resurrection?

A thought just occurred to me. Its unlikely to be an original thought to me, but I decided to put it on the blog anyway. It is this:

What did the early Christians, who hadn't seen or heard the stories in Luke-Acts, think happened to Jesus after the resurrection?

Only Luke (24v51) and Acts (1v9) describe the ascension. John 20 knows of the ascension (here Jesus says he has 'not yet ascended') and the end of Mark 16 alludes to it (but this is part of the section that almost everyone agrees is not original to the gospel). If we assume (as is common) that John was a much later writer than Luke, and that Mark did not write the very end of Mark 16, then we have no record of the ascension until Luke writes, which was - by his own admission - later than several other gospels in circulation.

None of the earliest Christian writings - the Pauline epistles - speak of the ascension. The first two (at least) gospels to be written know nothing of it either. So what did the early believers think happened to Jesus? 

They believed he died, they believed he was raised, but without the ascension, the question they must have been asking was "Where is he?"

Or, at least, that is the question they must have been asking if (and only if) their understanding of resurrection was the same as our contemporary understanding of it. What if they had an entirely different understanding of things? What if the early Christians believed (as has been proposed by a number of NT critics and scholars) that Christ was raised directly to the right hand of the Father. That is, the resurrection and ascension were the same event. Any post resurrection appearances (such as those in Matthew 28) were viewed as simply being earthly manifestations of the heavenly Jesus. Even Luke and Acts which have the ascension make it clear that what the disciples experienced following the resurrection was a string of appearances. It is clear from the wording that Jesus did not live with the disciples, he merely appeared to them occasionally. 

Where was he between appearances? The gospels do not tell, but it seems to me that the appearances are quite consistent with the idea of earthly manifestations of a heavenly Jesus, and are less consistent with the idea that he was living somewhere on earth in between appearances. John tells us that some of the appearances were eight days apart.

Everything in Paul's writings is consistent with the idea that Jesus was raised directly to heaven. Indeed, Paul (in the famous 1 Cor 15 passage) makes no distinction in form between the appearances to Peter, the twelve, the 500 and himself. Yet Acts tells us that Paul's vision was after the ascension, and should therefore have been categorically different. It seems as if, as far as Paul is concerned, all the post resurrection appearances are visions from heaven, even if the visions have a physical manifestation. 

So what was Luke doing? What I'm wondering is whether Luke (or his source) invented the ascension story to explain why it is that you - the reader of his gospel, many years after the resurrection - do not get to have visible and tangible manifestations of Jesus on an occasional basis, although the early disciples apparently did. By fixing a definite 'end point' to the manifestations, Luke is providing a way to explain why things for us now are different from things in the stories. And also providing a way to dismiss any apparent visions of Christ (with associated revelations) which anyone might continue to have. The message of the ascension is this: Direct access to Christ has ended, there will be no new revelations from him, the stories in the bible are good enough for all your needs.

If this wild speculation is anywhere near the mark, it is fully consistent with the theory of David Trobisch, that Polycarp compiled the canon of the NT, composed Luke-Acts, and redacted John. In other words, the new canon contains all the revelation, anything else is heretical.

So what do you think? Was the ascension an invention to clamp down on ongoing claims of revelation from Jesus?


Anonymous said...

Borg's view seems to be (which I find fairly compelling) that there was no earthly/bodily resurrection at all at when people talk about seeing Jesus they basically mean some born-again spiritual experience where they suddenly understand his importance.

Ricky Carvel said...

Its a long time since I read any Borg, but I do remember this basic belief.

The thing is, when I was a good conservative evangelical and read Borg's writings, I thought, basically, that a non-physical resurrection was pretty much the same as admitting that there was no resurrection. If there was no physical resurrection, then Christian faith really is based on 'visions' of a bunch of recently bereaved blokes, which isn't really much to build anything on.

Now you're suggesting that these 'visions' of Christ were actually simply the 'born-again' experience. This becomes almost totally disconnected from the historical pre-crucifixion Jesus.

Religious experience happens in almost all religions and is therefore nothing upon which to base any truth claims - all religious groups use the experience to support their own belief structures.

What I'm saying, is that this kind of 'resurrection experience' means nothing if there was no real, physical Jesus to go with it.

But back to the ascension. Maybe 'Luke' realised the necessity for a physical resurrection and invented the stories to support his views...

Anonymous said...

I think Borg and Crossan (and perhaps I, I'm not sure yet) would agree with you there. That's why these guys as well as the other liberals who care/write about "The Historical Jesus" seem to care far more about Jesus' teachings than current or past church doctrine. Even if Jesus was not resurrected what he said was and is countercultural and important.