Thursday, September 26, 2013

The early Christian belief in the ascension?

In a recent episode of The Bible Geek podcast, a listener asked about passages in the NT which don't appear to have been in the earliest manuscripts, but appear to have been added some centuries later. The most famous of these is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But there are others.

What I had never previously realised is that all the ascension stories in the gospels are late additions. 

Of course, there is no explicit ascension in Matthew or John, but Mark and Luke have it, don't they? Well, I had never really thought about the fact that the ascension in Mark is part of the last bit of chapter 16, which isn't in the earliest manuscripts. But Luke at least has the ascension, doesn't he?

Well, no. It appears not. The single verse (and I had never before noticed that it is only a single verse) in Luke that refers to the ascension doesn't appear in any manuscript until the 3rd or 4th century. So it very much looks like none of the gospels originally had the ascension.


None of the four stories of the life and deeds of Jesus mentioned the ascension, at all? That wasn't a thing worth mentioning? I think if that was the way that Jesus's earthly ministry had actually ended, then one out of the four of them might have mentioned it!

Surely this observation is sufficient to deduce that the original stories about Jesus actually didn't feature the ascension. Which suggests that if there was a real Jesus, then he didn't ascend as most Christians today believe he did.

So if he didn't ascend, then where did he go?

That is an important question. If there was a real Jesus, who died and rose again, but didn't then ascend, i.e. didn't physically leave, then where was he in the years that followed, and where is he now? Given that I've got no good answer to that question, then I have to consider the premise of the question. What if some of the details in the story of Jesus in the NT are not true? Well, maybe that explains the lack of ascension. Here's the options as I see them:
  1. Jesus died and rose, but his resurrection was to a spiritual body, and was directly into heaven. Thus all the post-resurrection appearances were really just visions (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15 - Paul makes no distinction between the vision he saw and the appearances to the other apostles - maybe they were all the same, just visions). The need to invent an ascension at a later date, must have followed the shift to make the resurrection a physical thing, also at a later date.
  2. Jesus died but did not rise. However, his disciples believed that he was raised directly to heaven. And so on, as above. There is no way at this late stage to decide between these two options, there is no evidence either way. I guess it is a matter of faith.
  3. There was no Jesus. I don't really want to get into this in this post, but it should still be an option on the table.
So it doesn't matter which way you slice it, no ascension pretty much destroys contemporary Christian belief. But there are two other things to consider.

What about Acts 1?

Well the lack of ascension in Luke actually solves one of the classic biblical contradictions - Luke says the ascension was pretty much immediately after the resurrection, Acts says it was 40 days later. And yet these are supposedly the work of the same author? No ascension in Luke solves that problem. No contradiction.

But the ascension is still in Acts, so it clearly was part of early Christian belief, right? Well, yes, but how early is early? The book of Acts is not independently attested until the late 2nd century. A number of critical scholars believe it was composed in the 2nd century, possibly as part of a response to Marcionites (see, for example, Joseph Tyson) and possibly also as an attempt to unite rival 'Petrine' and 'Pauline' factions in the nascent church (Robert Price certainly thinks this). David Trobisch claims that Acts was composed by Polycarp in the mid 2nd century. If any of this is the case, then the stories of the ascension came into play about a hundred years after the alleged event. That's far too late to have any historical weight, especially since the earlier gospels all fail to mention it.

What about John 20v17?

But is there an oblique reference to the ascension in John's gospel? It says
"Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”" 
So it looks like the author of the 4th gospel was anticipating the ascension, even if he doesn't describe it explicitly. Well, yes, it looks like that in English, but I had a peek at the Greek and discovered that the word translated 'ascended' here is actually a pretty common word, which is usually translated 'went up'. As in "Jesus went up to Jerusalem" or "Jesus went up to Galilee". The word seems to convey physical elevation in some way, but clearly was used to mean simply travelling from one place to another. So here Jesus says he is going or travelling to the Father, and it is only the turn of phrase that suggests elevation. Maybe he just meant he was leaving, but didn't mean anything about flying through the air.

So where does this leave us? With an earth-bound Jesus, or a non-physical Jesus, but not with the one who most Christians believe in today.

1 comment:

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