Ascension: Luke and the Ascension of Jesus

Continuing from yesterday…

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The other two places the Ascension is recounted as a story and not simply assumed as the backdrop to a discussion about something else is in Luke and its companion volume, Acts.  It is worth noting the distinction between how Luke tells the same story in those two books, so we can get a sense of how biblical writers handle the information in their possession depending on what purposes they have for it.

In Luke’s gospel, the evangelist compresses his entire Resurrection narrative into the events of a single day.  If he had not also written Acts, we would never have known from his gospel that Jesus did not ascend into Heaven on Easter Sunday.  In Luke 24:

  • the women go to the tomb
  • report to the disciples that Jesus’ body is missing
  • Peter runs to the tomb and finds it empty
  • the disciples on the Emmaus Road encounter the risen Christ
  • they return to Jerusalem that same day and find out from the Eleven that Jesus has appeared to Peter
  • Jesus appears to them all
  • Jesus then leads them out to Bethany, across the Kidron Valley east of Jerusalem, and is “parted from them” (Luke 24:51). 

Notably, not all manuscripts include the words “and was carried up into heaven.” That means the only definite place we can discover from Luke a description of the Ascension of Jesus is from his book of Acts. And in that book, he suddenly pours out a flood of detail about the events after Easter Sunday that show us he greatly telescoped the narrative of his gospel to give us the gist, not a blow-by-blow account of the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Indeed, it is from Acts alone in the entire New Testament that we possess everything we know about the Ascension as a historic event beyond the bare bones statement that it happened:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:1-11)

Suddenly, we discover that Luke knew the Resurrection appearances lasted forty days. If we had only his gospel and the gospel of John to go on, somebody might easily have complained of a supposed “discrepancy” between them, with Luke narrating Easter appearances lasting one day and John narrating appearances that took place multiple times over several weeks. The moral of the story is that the evangelists are not writing modern biography or history, but are dipping into a trove of information about Jesus and relating such pieces as they deem necessary to getting across the essential facts. They are interested in giving us facts about real events, but those facts are given first in the service of revelation and only secondarily, if at all, in the interest of such mundanities as chronology or geography. Luke, as much as John, could well have written, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

More on Monday…

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3 Responses

  1. “The moral of the story is that the evangelists are not writing modern biography or history, but are dipping into a trove of information about Jesus and relating such pieces as they deem necessary to getting across the essential facts”

    This is key. Modern history writing as we know it, that is, academic source-based history constructed form primary and secondary sources, complete with footnotes and bibliography and all the rest–is a late modern creation. And its’ a useful one! But the evangelists weren’t aware of it–obviously, because they lived 1,900 years prior.

    Really, the argument that the gospels are their own distinct genre, that there’s really nothing else in literature quite like them, always rang true with me. They’re part ancient Greek-style laudatory biography, part theological document, part (folk, not modern academic style) history, part Hellenistic philosophical tract (John’s gospel is straight up Platonic for large stretches!), part epic poem.

    With respect to Acts, it certainly fits into the style of Greek epic, Luke is clearly imitating the style of The Odyssey (and of course he is–he’s an educated Greek gentile!) And why Paul’s ultimate fate isn’t related in Acts–it’s assumed the person reading it would be aware of his martyrdom already, and as you said the point here isn’t biography.

    This is way higher criticism of the Barth Ehrman style is of limited utility, or why trying to divine what Jesus “really” said and what were traditions of the Early Church a la the Jesus Seminar just straight up misses the point completely. You have to turn off modern style thinking when reading the New Testament to really get at its core meaning, which is difficult to do for most (yours truly included).

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