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Jesus’ “Ascension”

May 17, 2012

Well, another dreadful “thought for today” on Radio 4 this a.m., this one ostensibly taking as its pre-text (and I use the word advisedly) that today is Ascension Day, and opining that Jesus’ Ascension (portrayed solely in Luke-Acts in the NT) means that Jesus has deaked out and we’re on our own!  So, children, the moral lesson is that we should just face up to it and learn to cope.  Hmm. Well, just goes to show you what the exegetical equivalent of a drive-by-shooting can produce!

For seriously interested people, I’ll recommend a fine study by Arie Zwiep:  The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, NovTSup, no. 87 (Leiden: Brill, 1997).  Zwiep reviews prior scholarly work and offers his own intelligent and careful engagement with the textual data.

He notes that in Luke-Acts the author seems to distinguish between Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation on the one hand and the ascension on the other.  He also rightly observes that the likely background for the idea of ascension is in OT/Jewish ideas of biblical figures being taken up into heaven (e.g., Elijah).  Zwiep proposes that the point of the ascension-story in Luke-Acts was to encourage readers to cope with parousia delay by thinking in terms of a Jesus returning at an undefined future time.

Clearly, Luke-Acts does not portray an inactive Jesus, who has abandoned his disciples to their own devices.  The exalted Jesus is pictured as dispensing Holy Spirit, directing apostles, revealing himself (esp. to Saul/Paul), etc.   But, certainly, in Luke-Acts “the ascension marks the transition from the period of Jesus to the period of the church” (196).  But it is also connected with the emphasis on Jesus’ return (Greek: “parousia”), framing the period between Jesus’ exaltation and that event.

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  1. John Moles permalink

    The point about the ‘Ascension’ is that Christians have to be able to give some sort of account of it which takes account of the scientific knowledge which first-century people didn’t have. So ‘Ascension’ is ‘per definitionem’ untenable. In these areas, Tom Wright or the present Pope (purely for example) are absolutely useless. One has to read serious, scientifically informed Christians such as Keith Ward.

    • One also has to take account of the ancient literary tropes and devices. Narratives may not always have been intended to be taken as is they were photographic accounts.

      • John Moles permalink

        Indeed one does. But one has also to be able to give some sort of account of Jesus ‘disappearance’ after the resurrection which will satisfy some sort of scientific rationales. So I repeat: in these areas Tom Wright is absolutely useless, because he cannot bring himself to say of ‘the zombie pericope’ in ‘Matthew’ that it didn’t actually happen.

      • Uh, well, the account in Matthew of the graves being opened and the dead appearing in Jerusalem is a peculiar item, and does rather seem very difficult to take as anything other than some kind of legendary or highly symbolic account, not at all the same sort of event that the early Christians claim comprised Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is portrayed as having been uniquely glorified by God, catapulted into eschatological existence.

  2. How should one imagine this ‘ascension’? Jesus flying up into the sky, through the clouds and then … ? What happens? I’m honestly wondering.

    • Jerome, once again one must distinguish several questions: (1) What does an ancient author (in this case the Acts author) seem to portray? (2) What kind of narrative is the text? (3) How does one take the narrative: as purporting to be a camera-description or a more imaginative one, or . . . ? If the question is what the author of Acts portrays, it seems that he portrays an ascent that is in some way visual (and so “upward” into the heavens) and yet also whose meaning is that Jesus ascends to heavenly status.

      • Thank you for answering, Mr Hurtado. But either the ‘physically risen Christ’ did or did not ‘ascend upward’, right? If he did then that means he kind of went up into the sky like a rocket (that’s how it’s described) and then this raises the question: how high up did he go? Did he fly to the ‘end of the universe’? Or did he simply jump to another dimension at some point when people couldn’t see him anymore? I mean, those are questions that arise naturally when one argues that events like these literally happened … And that’s what Christians believe, no? They take those post-resurrection stories literally?

      • “That’s what Christians believe, no?!” Depends on the Christian. “Christians” have ever (from the first) comprised a diversity, and still do. All traditional forms of Christianity take the narratives of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances seriously, but that doesn’t require taking them “literally” (at least as you seem to understand the word). Given that the NT makes Jesus’ resurrection a transformation of the person of Jesus into a new (“eschatological”) form of personal existence (for which mortal existence offers no sure analogy), it’s dodgy to press things too woodenly.

  3. Dear Larry (and others),

    thanks for this fine recommendation 🙂

    As to the ‘absentee christology’ that I’m sometimes supposed to be supporting (e.g. Matthew Sleeman): as always, it is more nuanced than that ! In my view, Luke’s viewpoint is that “Jesus is absent but not inactive”. See my Christ, the Spirit and the Community of God (2010) pp.65-67 for a reply. Already in The Ascension of the Messiah (1997) I concluded: “The inherent weakness of a rapture christology, the suggestion that Jesus is not more than Enoch or Elijah [ and I would now add: that Jesus is absent or ‘has deaked out’ 🙂 ] is sufficiently counterbalanced by Luke’s firm belief in Jesus’ present Lordship by virtue of his resurrection-exaltation. This implies an active though distant rulership in hte present …” (p.198) …

  4. Is ‘deaked’ a Canadianism? I think I understand it from the context. This view, of course, was Conzelmann’s reading of the ascension…

    • Steve, sorry for the colloquialism (“deaked out” = depart, leaving others). Yes, the idea that Acts offers a “christology of absence” has had its supporters, to be fair. But . . . really?

  5. Patrick permalink

    I think Jesus informed the 12 in the upper room it was to their benefit for Him to ascend to The Father so He could send them “The Paraclete” and He told the 12 they would do greater things than He had accomplished because “I go to The Father”.

    Doesn’t leave me with the impression He left them “high and dry”.

    That’s an interesting allusion, the ascensions of Enoch and Elijah as types of Christ’s ascension. That “type” hadn’t occurred to me.

    • Patrick, for purposes of scholarly discussion we need to distinguish things: (1) We have a text (GJohn 14-16) in which Jesus is depicted as teaching about the “Paraclete”; and (2) there is the question of what Jesus did or didn’t actually do/say. The one may well be indication of, or relevant to, the other, but you can’t take it for granted. And we can’t simply cite a text like GJohn as in itself a hard basis for making historical statements about Jesus’ own actual words/deeds. That’s not to fall into total skepticism, simply to note the historical procedures and questions involved.
      But to address what Acts depicts, I agree that it doesn’t seem to offer a Jesus who left his disciples simply to fend for themselves.

  6. Joseph Stephen King permalink

    Thank you, Larry; I too heard it and was disappointed.
    Joe King

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