Where Did Jesus Go? – Critical Notes on the Ascension, Pt 3

In the first two parts (Pt 1 & 2)of this article, I discussed the main passages dealing with the Ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-11). Here I will briefly explore several additional New Testament passages, followed by a treatment of some key critical questions related to the Ascension.

Mark 16:19

This is the most straightforward account of the Ascension, presented in traditional, credal terms:

o( me\n ou@n ku/rio$  )Ihsou=$ meta\ to\ lalh=sai au)toi=$ a)nelh/mfqh ei)$ to\n ou)rano\n kai\ e)ka/qisen e)k deciw=n tou= qeou=
“therefore the Lord Jesus, after speaking to them, was taken up into the heaven and sat out of the ‘right-hand’ of God”

decio/$ is literally the hand/side “that takes” (or gives), the favored or auspicious side. The “right hand” (/ym!y`) of God occurs frequently in the Old Testament (Exodus 15:6, 12; Psalm 16:11; 17:7, etc; Isaiah 41:10; 48:13; 62:8; and others), usually as a symbol of God’s faithfulness and power. It is also the most common image of Jesus’ exaltation in the New Testament (Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; Luke 20:42; 22:69; Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22)—all of these passages seem to have been influenced by Psalm 110:1 (many are direct citations). Even though this account in Mark is probably not original to the Gospel (part of the so-called “long ending”, 16:9-20), it no doubt here preserves an ancient tradition.

There is another reference to the ascension/exaltation of Jesus, in an unusual variant, earlier in the chapter. In verse 4, the Old Latin MS k begins: “but suddenly at the third hour of the day there was darkness over the whole circle of the earth, and angels descended from the heavens, and as he [the Lord] was rising [surgente eo] in the glory of the living God, at the same time they ascended with him; and immediately it was light. Then the women went to the tomb…” (translation from Meztger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, pp. 101-102). This represents a description of the actual resurrection of Jesus, similar to that found in the Gospel of Peter §35-40. However, it also reflects the principal manner in which the “Ascension” was understood in the early Church—that is, as an extension of the resurrection (on this, see below).

John 20:17

The only specific reference in John to anything like the traditional “Ascension” in Luke-Acts, occurs during the first resurrection appearance (to Mary Magdalene). Here Jesus says to her: mh/ mou a%ptou, ou&pw ga\r a)nabe/bhka pro\$ to\n pate/ra, “do not touch me, for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father”; and, following the instruction to go to the other disciples (“my brothers”), tells her to say to them, a)nabai/nw pro\$ to\n pate/ra mou kai\ pate/ra u(mw=n kai\ qeo/n mou kai\ qeo\n u(mw=n (“I step up toward my Father and your [pl.] Father, and [toward] my God and your [pl.] God”). The chronology of this statement is difficult, for it does not seem to fit with the wider record of resurrection appearances in the Gospel tradition, nor with the ‘older’ view of an ascension as an immediate climax of the resurrection/exaltation. It is complicated even further by John’s highly symbolic use (primarily as presented in the Discourses of Jesus) of going/lifting up. For other similar uses of a)nabai/nw: John 3:13; 6:62; 1:51 (also the references of “going up” to the feast may involve an intentional wordplay); for u(yo/w (“lift high”) see John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34. Throughout the last discourses (John 13-17), Jesus also makes numerous references to going/returning to the Father (John 13:3, 33; 14:2, 4, 13, 28; 16:5, 7, 10, 17, 28). Since these are generally made in context of the coming/sending of the paraclete (lit. “one called alongside”, identified with the Holy Spirit [14:26]), it is almost certainly Jesus’ ‘final’ departure that is in view; however, other references to his return (14:18-20; 16:16-23) seem to fit better an immediate post-resurrection appearance.

I have discussed some of the symbolic and theological nuances of the appearance to Mary in a previous post. With regard to the authentic tradition that underlies this narrative, it is perhaps best to distinguish clearly between: (a) Jesus’ exaltation to the right-hand of the Father (as part of the resurrection), and (b) his final (earthly) departure from the disciples. Since “ascension” language can be used to describe both of these, one must be careful not to confuse them (on this, see in more detail below).

Ephesians 4:8-10

Here Paul (or the author of the epistle) cites Psalm 68:18a [MT 19a], which, early on in Christian tradition, seems to have been understood as referring to the ascension and exaltation of Christ. It quickly became embedded as part of the liturgy celebrating the ascension. However, as is often the case with scriptural citations in the New Testament, both the original text and context have been altered:

Hebrew (MT)

<d*a*B* tonT*m^ T*j=q^l* yb!V# t*yb!v* <orM*l^ t*yl!u*

“You have gone up to the heights, you have led captive captivity, you have taken gifts by man”

LXX (67:19a)

a)ne/bh$ ei)$ u%yo$ h)|xmalw/teusa$ ai)xmalwsi/an e&labe$ do/mata e)n a)nqrw/pw|

“You have stepped up into (the) height, you have led captive captivity, you have taken/received gifts among man”

Ephesians 4:8

a)naba\$ ei)$ u%yo$ h)|xmalw/eusen ai)xmalwsi/an e&dwken do/mata toi=$ a)nqrw/poi$

“Stepping up into (the) height, he led captive captivity, he gave gifts to men”

The LXX is a faithful rendering of the Hebrew. However, the citation in Ephesians differs markedly:

    • The first verb (a)naba\$) is a participle, which is not all that significant; this also occurs as a variant (MS B) in the LXX
    • The verbs have all been changed from 2nd person to 3rd person, which is a natural adaptation to the context in Ephesians (from a hymn addressing God, to a description of the work of Christ).
    • The collective “man” (<dah) has been changed to the plural “men”
    • The last verb has been changed from “take/receive” (jql, lamba/nw) to “give” (di/dwmi)

This last is most notable, for it entirely alters the sense of the passage. In the original Psalm, the justice and power of God are celebrated. Yahweh has gone out before His people, leading them in power and glory (vv. 7-18, also 21-23)—kings and armies flee before His might (v. 12, 14). He is depicted as going up into His mountain, leading captives from battle, and taking/receiving gifts (even from the rebellious [the ones who have “turned aside”], v. 18b). Verses 24-31 present the liturgical picture of peoples offering gifts to God. While all of this, of course, could fit the image of Christ being exalted to the right-hand of God, Ephesians has turned the image inside out: now God/Christ is the one offering gifts to believers.

*  *  *  *  *  *

It now remains to address several key questions related to the Ascension:

    1. Where did it occur?
    2. When did it occur?
    3. What is its exact nature?

1. Where Did the Ascension Occur?

This is part of a larger question related to the provenance of the resurrection appearances. If one takes all the Gospel narratives as they currently stand, it is actually quite difficult to harmonize them in detail, though of course many have attempted to do so. There are two fundamental differences in the accounts:

(a) In one line of tradition, the Messenger tells the women at the tomb to relate to the disciples (and Peter) that “he leads (the way) before you into Galilee; there you will see him, even as he said to you” (Mark 16:7, par. Matthew 28:7). The implication is that Jesus is going ahead to Galilee, and it is there that the disciples (including Peter) will (first) see him. This is confirmed even more clearly by Jesus in Matthew 28:10, declaring that the disciples “should go from (here) into Galilee”. There is no suggestion that they should remain in Jerusalem; in fact, that could be said to contradict Jesus’ command. In Matthew, the subsequent appearance in Galilee (vv. 16-17), however brief, gives every indication that this is the first appearance to the disciples (note their “wavering” in v. 17, indications of doubt common to the other appearances in Luke and John).

By all accounts, the original ending of Mark has been lost (this is not certain, but I think it remains the best explanation); the so-called “long ending” (16:9-20), though added relatively early (it is known by the mid-2nd century), seems very much to be a secondary (scribal?) addition. While doubtless containing ancient/authentic traditions, I think it possible that an attempt has also been made to harmonize with the account in Luke. In any event, the resurrection appearance (and ascension, v. 19) seems to take place in Jerusalem (though this is not specified), which would be ‘contrary’ to the message in v. 7.

(b) The second line of tradition (preserved in Luke 24 and John 20) clearly has the resurrection appearances occurring in and around Jerusalem. In the Lukan account, Jesus actually commands the disciples to remain (kaqi/sate, “sit” or “dwell”) in the city (presumably Jerusalem) “until the (moment) in which you should be set in power out of (the) height” (24:49). The implication is that they should stay in Jerusalem for the approx. fifty days until Pentecost (when the Spirit comes upon them). There is no mention of going to Galilee; in fact, similar to the (opposite) situation in Matthew-Mark, that would contradict Jesus’ explicit command. It is interesting that, if Luke has made use of Mark (as scholars commonly believe), then he has quite altered the angelic announcement: in Luke 24:6 the two messengers still mention Galilee (cf. Mark 16:7), but in a very different context.

In John, too they are apparently in Jerusalem when Jesus appears and they receive the Spirit from him (20:19-23); similarly the appearance to Thomas eight days later (vv. 26-29) would presumably still be in Jerusalem. John 21 complicates the picture: for there (in verses 1-14 at least) we have a resurrection appearance in Galilee. However, since this chapter follows what seems to be the conclusion to the Gospel (20:30-31), many scholars would view it as a kind of “appendix”, possibly composed/included by a different author (though this is much disputed). Its exact origins and relation to the events recorded in chapter 20 are also uncertain, with a wide range of opinions on all sides.

Of course, according to Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:50-53 (assuming the longer reading), the Ascension of Jesus—that is, his final departure from the disciples—clearly takes place on the Mount of Olives, about 2000 cubits (or just over 1000 yards) east of Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). If the reference in Luke 24:50 is meant to be specific, then the Ascension might have occurred on the eastern slope somewhere near Bethany.

2. When Did the Ascension Occur?

This question, in relation to the seemingly divergent chronologies in Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-11, has been dealt with to some extent in the first two parts of this article. The basic question is, did it take place on Easter day as is (apparently) indicated in Luke 24 and the Markan “long ending”, or did it take place between 40 and  50 days later as narrated in Acts? My view is that the “separate” accounts in Luke-Acts probably describe the same event, but that in the Gospel the narrative has been greatly compressed, so that events which may have occurred days apart seem to take place on the same day. The same could perhaps be said of the Markan “long ending”, especially since everything seems to wrap up quickly in the last two verses.

However, a proper answer to the question also must address exactly what one means by the “Ascension”.

3. What Is the Nature of the Ascension?

As indicated above, there seem to be two separate traditions at work:

a) The first describes the “Ascension” in terms of Jesus’ resurrection—his being raised and glorified to the “right hand” of the Father.

b) The second relates it in terms of Jesus’ final (earthly) departure from his disciples.

One must be careful, I think, not to confuse or conflate the two traditions—for, both doctrinally, and even historically, they can be said to have quite different meanings. However, if one wishes to systematize or harmonize the scriptural details, it could possibly be done as follows:

    • Jesus’ being raised from the dead (evidence of the empty tomb and the angelic announcement[s])
    • His ascension to the Father is part of the resurrection/exaltation, which climaxes with his presence at the right hand of God (where also he receives the Spirit to give to his disciples)
    • From a temporal point of view, Jesus’ appearance to the women (cf. Matthew 28:9-10; [Mark 16:9]; John 20:11-18) could perhaps be seen as taking place prior to this ascent to the Father (John 20:17-18)—but that is not entirely clear.
    • Resurrection appearances of the glorified Christ, during which he instructed and commissioned the disciples (in John [20:22] he gives them the Spirit as well)
    • His final departure, recorded only in Luke-Acts, described as a visible Ascension
    • Mark 16:19 may represent a conflation of the two traditions (in a credal formula?), indicated above

Where Did Jesus Go? – Critical Notes on the Ascension, Pt 2

In the first part of this article, I discussed the critical passage which closes the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:50-53), comparing the “longer” reading (Majority text) which narrates the Ascension, with the “shorter” reading (Western text, but significantly also a*) which omits reference to his being “carried up into heaven”. Assuming for the moment that the longer reading is original, it does seem to conflict with the situation in Acts: for Luke 24:50-53 suggests that the Ascension took place late on Easter day, while Acts 1:2-11 records it occurring at least 40 days after the Resurrection. By scholarly consent, the same author (traditionally Luke, physician and companion of Paul) wrote both the Gospel and Acts—why would he create such an apparent discrepancy? A number of solutions have been offered to explain this:

    1. The Gospel and Acts record different events—an ‘intermediate’ ascension followed by a final departure into heaven 40 days later. I would regard this has highly unlikely. There is nothing to suggest that the ascension in Luke 24:51-52 is any other than Jesus’ ‘final’ departure from his disciples. A better solution in this regard would be to adopt the shorter reading—then separate events (but not separate ascensions) could be involved.
    2. After composing the Gospel, the author discovered the “correct” chronology (Ascension after 40 days), which he recorded in Acts, without altering the Gospel narrative.
    3. The author of Luke-Acts records separate traditions, without necessarily attempting to harmonize them. Admittedly, ancient (and/or traditional) authors may have been less bothered by apparent inconsistencies than modern readers and commentators; however, it is hard to gloss over such a glaring difference, in such relatively close proximity, within the same 2-volume work. Luke’s statement in the prologue of the Gospel (1:1-4) shows he was conscious of the need to narrate the traditions “accurately” (a)kribw=$) and in order (a)nata/casqai, v. 1; kaqech=$, v. 3), though we should not read too much into this. Prior to Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels (III.25.77ff), there seems to be little (if any) comment on the apparent discrepancy by early Christian writers.
    4. The same event is consciously set in two different chronological contexts, without necessarily a regard for establishing which one is historically “correct”. This is a variation of #3, though with greater emphasis on the creative freedom of the author in setting the inherited tradition. In other words, while early tradition clearly believed in the exaltation/ascension of Jesus into heaven, specific details on location, timing, etc. may have differed as the story was told.
    5. In the Gospel, Luke has compressed the narrative so that events which may have occurred days apart are recorded as taking place at the same time. In my view, this is by far the best explanation. Many examples could be cited of this phenomenon in biblical (and other ancient) literature. Narrative episodes and sayings of Jesus are often connected together in the Gospels for many different reasons; one should not always read it as a simple historical/chronological sequence without further ado.

Acts 1:1-11

This is the opening section (1:1-11) of the book of Acts; some would extend it to include verses 12-14, but I believe these are best treated as transitional to what follows (the first days of the Church). In order to see how the Ascension fits into the structure of this passage, I provide a detailed outline below. Verses 1-5 can, and I think should, be read as a single long sentence: beginning with an address to Theophilus, shifting into a rather awkward (and textually difficult) narrative summary, and ending with direct discourse of Jesus to his disciples. Already here we see signs of the textual problems related to the “Western” text of Acts, which is different enough to be regarded as a separate recension of the book. I will likely be discussing possible solutions and explanations for this peculiar textual situation in an upcoming post.

Outline of Acts 1:1-11

Opening sentence: Verses 1-5

A. Verse 1: (secondary) Address to Theophilus (cf. Luke 1:1-4), referencing the “first account” (prw=ton lo/gon), i.e., the Gospel, about all (peri\ pa/ntwn)

Content of the Gospel: “Jesus began to do (poiei=n) and also to teach (dida/skein)”

B. Chronological summary (verse 2):
a&xri h!$ h(mera/$ “until which day…”

e)nteila/meno$ toi=$ a)posto/loi$ “having commanded the apostles

dia\ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou “through the holy Spirit

ou^$ e)cele/catowhom he had chosen [lit. gathered out]”

a)nelh/mfqh “…he was taken up”

C. Historical summary (verses 3-4)—backward glance, beginning with the resurrection:
To whom (the Apostles, referent in verse 2) he “stood himself beside” (pare/sthsen) them “living” (zw=nta)

meta/ to\ paqei=n au)to/n “after his suffering”

e)n polloi=$ tekmhri/oi$ “in many fixed marks [or sure signs]”

di’ h(merw=n tessera/konta “through/during forty days” [i.e. an important symbolic period]
Events of “forty days” (marked by participles):

being seen (o)ptano/meno$) by them” and
recounting [i.e. speaking of] (le/gwn) the (things) about the kingdom of God” and
staying together (suna[u]lizo/meno$) with (them) he passed along a message to them”

Content of the message (transition into direct discourse):

a)po\  (Ierosolu/mwn “From Jerusalem”

mh\ xwri/zesqai “not to separate themselves” [i.e. depart]
a)lla\ perime/nein “but to remain around (for)”

th\n e)paggeli/an tou= patro/$ “the announcement [lit. message upon (you)] of/from the Father
–     h^n h)kou/sate mou/ “which you have heard of/from me

D. Statement of Jesus (direct discourse) to his disciples (verse 5)—tying together, in a different way, the beginning and end of his ministry (theme of the section)

o%ti “For…” indication of the (past) citation referring to John the Baptist (prior to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry)

“(me\n – on the one hand) John dipped/baptized in water
“(de\ – on the other hand) you shall be dipped/baptized (by God) in the Holy Spirit

ou) meta\ polla\$ tau/ta$ h(me/ra$ “after these few [lit. not many] days” (in 10 days, following the end of his earthly ministry)

Question regarding the Kingdom, and Jesus’ concluding statement: Verses 6-8

A. Disciples’ question regarding the Kingdom of God: “Lord, in this time do you set back down [i.e. restore] the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6)

B. Jesus’ answer: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set in his own authority” (v. 7)

C. Jesus’ concluding statement (v. 8), in two parts:

1) “But you shall receive (lh/myesqe) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you”

2) “and you shall be (e&sesqe) for me witnesses”

e)n te  )Ierousalh\m “in Jerusalem” (particle te governs what follows: “both in Jerusalem and…”)
–    kai\ [e)n] pa/sh| th=|  )Ioudai/a| “and [in] all Judea”
–    kai\ Samarei/a| “and Samaria”
–    kai\ e(w\$ e)sxa/tou th=$ gh=$ “and unto the end(s) of the earth”

The Ascension of Jesus: Verses 9-11

A. The Ascension narrated (v. 9)—compare with Luke 24:51:

kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n kai\ a)nafe/reto ei)s to\n ou)ranon
“And it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood apart [i.e. parted] from them and was carried up into the heaven”

Acts 1:9: kai\ tau=ta ei)pw\n blepo/ntwn au)tw=n e)ph/rqh kai\ nefe/lh u(pe/laben au)to/n a)po\ tw=n o)fqalmw=n au)tw=n
“And having said these (things), in their seeing, he was lifted upon (the air) and a cloud took him under, (away) from their eyes”

B. The Appearance and message of the Two Men (vv. 10-11)

(Discussed below)

There are three aspects of the Ascension narrative (vv. 9-11) which are especially noteworthy:

    1. Apocalyptic imagery (esp. in verse 9)
    2. Parallel to the Lukan Resurrection scene (v. 10-11a)
    3. Eschatological image (v. 11)

1. Apocalyptic imagery. This refers to images and symbols associated with so-called Apocalyptic literature (a)pokalu/ptw is literally to “take the cover [away] from”)—works which record purported visions and revelations regarding the heavenly realms and/or future events. Here the imagery is simple and concise:

a) “Seeing” (blepo/ntwn au)tw=n, “[at/in] their seeing”)

b) “he was lifted up(on)” (e)ph/rqh)

b´) “a cloud took him under” (nefe/lh u(pe/laben au)to\n)

a´) “Not-seeing” (a)po\ tw=n o)fqalmw=n au)tw=n, “[away] from their eyes”)

The cloud, especially, typically symbolizes a heavenly manifestation and/or the Divine presence (Exodus 13:21 etc; 24:15-18; 40:34 etc; Leviticus 16:2; 1 Kings 8:10-12; Psalm 18:9-12; 68:4; Isaiah 19:1; Ezekiel 1:4; 10:3-4; Daniel 7:13; Revelation 10:1, 7; 14:14-16, and so forth). Jesus applies the early apocalyptic imagery from Daniel 7 to the (eschatological) appearance of the Son of Man (generally understood as Jesus’ own return): Luke 21:27 (par. Mark 13:24-27; Matthew 24:29-31); Mark 14:62 (par. Matthew 26:64). In addition, Luke seems to draw on the theophany at Sinai (Exodus 19:9, 16, etc) in his record of the Transfiguration scene (Luke 9:34-35; par. Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5).

2. Parallels with the Lukan Resurrection scene. It is worth comparing the Ascension scene in Acts 1:9-11 with the initial Easter message at the empty tomb in Luke 24:1-8f:

Acts 1:10-12

  • Disciples gazing (into empty space)
  • Appearance of two men in white clothes
  • “(For) what have you stood looking into the heaven?”
  • “This Jesus, the one taken up from you into the heaven…”
  • …”(he shall come [again] just as you saw him go)”
  • They returned from the Mount
  • The disciples were all together in the room above

Luke 24:4-9

    • Women wondering (at the empty tomb)
    • Appearance of two men in flashing clothing
    • “(For) what do you seek the living with the dead?”
    • “He is not here, but he has been raised…”
    • …”(just as Jesus spoke to you while living)”
    • They returned from the tomb…
    • …to where the disciples were

3. Eschatological message. The conclusion of the message of the two men (verse 11b) is eschatological: “thus he shall come by the turning which [i.e. in the same manner] you perceived him traveling into the heaven”. It is a proclamation and promise of Jesus’ future return. The phrase o^n tro/pon (“by which turning”) has the sense of “in the same way/manner”, but is somewhat vague in context. Traditionally, however, there are two specific details involved:

a) Just as Jesus was taken up under the (heavenly) cloud, so he will return with the cloud(s) of heaven (cf. Daniel 7:13; Luke 21:27; Mark 14:62 and par.). This is more than an ordinary meteorological phenomenon—the cloud principally represents the presence of God.

b) So Jesus will also return to the Mount of Olives. This is not certain; admittedly, the author nowhere emphasizes it, but I believe it likely represents a common tradition in the early Church. There are two Old Testament references to the Mount of Olives which helped shape early Gospel tradition:

i. David’s departure from Jerusalem (following Absalom’s revolt), 2 Samuel 15:30. There seem to be echoes of this in the Synoptic narrative of Jesus’ passion and arrest.

ii. The eschatological appearance of Yahweh (day of YHWH) in Zechariah 14. He will appear to battle the nations and restore Jerusalem (vv. 1-3); His feet will stand on the Mount of the Olives, and the mount will be split into a great valley (v. 4, 5). This is part of the concluding visions of Zechariah 9-14—these difficult and highly evocative chapters exerted a profound influence on early Christian thought.

If the first of these references depicts the humiliation and suffering of Christ, the second portrays his exaltation and coming as Divine King.

Where Did Jesus Go? – Critical Notes on the Ascension, Pt 1

This post is an extended “Note of the Day” following the celebration of the Ascension of Jesus, traditionally commemorated 40 days after Easter (cf. Acts 1:3ff). There are surprisingly few direct references to the “Ascension”, either in the New Testament or in early Christian literature. More commonly, reference is made to Christ’s exaltation (usually involving either the verb u(yo/w, “to raise high” or adjective u(yhlo/$, “high”; cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3; 7:26, etc), or to his being in heaven at the “right (hand)” (decio/$, that is, the giving/receiving hand) of God (cf. Mark 14:62 par.; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22).

Only in Luke-Acts is an ascension described as a distinct event, perceivable in space and time. However, since there are numerous difficult text-critical (and interpretative) issues related to these passages, these will need to be discussed in some detail.

Luke 24:50-53

Luke’s Gospel concludes with a scene (apparently still on Easter day) which, in the “oldest and best” manuscripts (Ë75 a B C* L 1 33 579 etc), reads as follows:

50  )Ech/gagen de\ au)tou\$ [e&cw] e%w$ pro\$ Bhqani/an kai\ e)pa/ra$ ta\$ xei=ra$ au)tou= eu)lo/ghsen au)tou/$. 51 kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n kai\ a)nefe/reto ei)$ to\n ou)rano/n.
“And he brought/led them out[side] until toward Bethany, and lifting over (them) his hands he spoke well to them [i.e. blessed them]; and it came to be, in his speaking well to them [i.e. blessing them], he stood (apart) from them and was carried up into the heaven.”
52 Kai\ au)toi\ proskunh/sante$ au)to\n u(pe/streyan ei)$  )Ierousalh\m meta/ xara=$ mega/lh$ 53 kai\ h@san dia/ panto\$ e)n tw=| i(erw=| eu)logou=nte$ to\n qeo/n.
“And they, kissing toward him [i.e. worshiping him], turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy, and they were through all [i.e. continually] in the sacred place [i.e. temple] speaking well to [i.e. blessing] God.”

(The Majority text differs slightly, primarily in reading ei)$ Bhqani/an instead of pro\$ Bhqani/an in v. 50, and adding kai\ ai)nou=nte$ or ai)nou=nte$ kai\ [“blessing and praising God”] in v. 53.)

There are, however, two major variants (omissions) in the key Western MSS (D, Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac):

    1. Verse 51 reads: kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kai\ a)nefe/reto ei)$ to\n ou)rano/n “and he was carried up into the heaven”). In other words, it relates that Jesus simply “parted” from them, without any reference to an ascension into heaven.
    2. Verse 52 continues: kai\ au)toi\ u(pe/streyan ei)$  )Ierousalh\m meta/ xara=$ mega/lh$ “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskunh/sante$ au)ton “worshiping him”).
      See how this shorter version of vv. 50-53 reads, in context, in conventional translation:
      “And he led them out toward Bethany, and raising his hands over (them) he blessed them; and it came to be, in his blessing them, (that) he parted from them; and they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, blessing God.”

These are both so-called Western “Non-Interpolations”, i.e. instances where the shorter reading of the (usually longer and more expansive) Western text has been thought (by some scholars) to preserve the original reading in the face of superior manuscript evidence (I have discussed the other seven key “Non-Interpolations” in a previous post). The first of these two (in v. 51) is far more significant, especially since, in addition to the Western MSS, the shorter reading is also found in the Georgian version (group 1) and the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (a*).

How is one to explain this variant? As indicated above, the vast majority of MSS, including all the early/best Greek MSS (Ë75, a [corrected], A, B, C, K, L, W, X, D, etc.) contain the words kai a)nefe/reto ei)$ ton ou)rano/n. The manuscript evidence would seem to be decidedly in favor of the longer reading, but internal considerations make it a bit less certain. In which direction did the change occur? There are a number of possibilities:

Reasons for Omission (in support of the longer text):

  1. To avoid contradiction with the chronology in Acts. It is certainly possible that scribes, noticing the apparent discrepancy between v. 51 and Luke’s own account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11, deleted the words. In the Gospel, it would seem that the Ascension takes place on the same night as the Resurrection, whereas in Acts (v. 3) it occurs 40 days later. This is probably the most popular explanation.
  2. A scribal mistake. A scribe may have skipped from a)p’ au)twn kai in v. 51 to ou)ranon kai au)toi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai). However, this would require that (the precursors of) a and D both made the same mistake, which is rather unlikely.
  3. Theological reasons. Some scholars have thought that the so-called “Non-Interpolations” (involving the Resurrection appearances and “Ascension”) exhibit a purposeful tendency in the Western text (in Luke-Acts) to eliminate concrete references to the resurrection body of Jesus, and physical nature of the Ascension, etc. With regard to the Ascension in particular, see especially Eldon J. Epp’s article “The Ascension in the Textual Tradition of Luke-Acts”, in New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis. Essays in Honor of Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981, pp. 131-145.
  4. The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (a&xri h!$ h(me/ra$a)nelh/mfqh, “until which day…he was taken up”). Assuming this is the case, it could be (rightly) argued that the author would not say he described an event which he in fact did not record. It should be noted that several Western witnesses (gig, quotations in Augustine and Vigilius) also omit reference to the ascension (a)nelh/mfqh) in this verse.

Reasons for Addition (in support of the shorter text):

  1. Literary or Theological reasons. Although Luke-Acts may have been published together as a ‘two-volume’ work, by the mid-second century (at the latest), the Gospel of Luke was being copied and distributed bound together (in codex form) with the other Gospels; meaning that, as in nearly all printed New Testament editions today, it was separated from the book of Acts. The shorter reading, if original, would close the Gospel with the suggestion that Jesus simply “parted” from the disciples—a rather unexciting and possibly misleading conclusion. The scribal tendency was always to add Christological details, rather than remove them; it would have been natural to add the few extra words (both in v. 51 and 52), in order to exalt the portrait of Christ.
  2. The shorter text removes the chronological difficulty with Acts. This argument cuts both ways (see above), for the longer text could be said to be the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior potior). However, since Luke explicitly records the Ascension taking place at least 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3ff), would he (the same author of Luke-Acts, by general consensus) have created the confusion by recording the Ascension (apparently) taking place on the day of the Resurrection (Luke 24:50-53)?
  3. Additional support from Acts. It is possible that the phrase a&xri h!$ h(me/ra$a)nelh/mfqh (“until which day…he was taken up”) in Acts 1:2 should not be taken to imply that the Ascension was narrated in the Gospel, but only events which took place prior to that day. In this regard, to note the reference (v. 22) in Peter’s subsequent address (Acts 1:15-22), where nearly similar language is used. Could the author of Acts simply be reproducing the phrasing from v. 22, as part of his “prologue”, without specific reference to details in the Gospel?
  4. Evidence from the Church Fathers. The Ascension is referred to numerous times in writings of the 1st-3rd centuries, for example: Epistle of Barnabas 15; JUSTIN: 1 Apology 26, Dialogue with Trypho 82, 87, On the Resurrection ch. 9; IRENAEUS: Against Heresies I.10, III.17, IV.33.13, 34.3, V.31, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 41, 84; CLEMENT: Stromateis VI. ch. 15; ORIGEN: On First Principles Pref §1, II.6.1, 7.2, On Prayer §23, Against Celsus VII.8; TERTULLIAN: Against Marcion V.8, Against Praxeas 25, 30, Prescription Against Heretics 13, On the Resurrection 51; The Muratorian Canon; Epistle of the Apostles 18; Cyprian On the Lord’s Prayer §8, etc. (by no means an exhaustive list). Most of these references are to the narrative in Acts 1:9ff; Ephesians 4:9-10, or to the belief generally; however, I have not been able to find a single clear reference to the long text of Luke 24:51-52 cited in any writing up through the third century (outside of the Diatessaron [§55], a work with a singularly difficult textual history). Moreover, in Tertullian’s fourth book Against Marcion, in which he goes over many details of Luke’s Gospel, up through the Resurrection appearances (chapter 43), he does not cite the long text of v. 51 or 52, and makes no reference to the Ascension (cf. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 257-8).
  5. The Western Non-Interpolations. Despite protests from scholars on both sides of the argument, it is hard to avoid the notion that the 9 key “non-interpolations”, eight of which are all found together in the same set of MSS (D a b d e ff2 l), stand or fall together—most likely, they are all original, or they are not. If one accepts the shorter text in the previous 7 Lukan instances, then one really ought to do so here as well.

Clearly, intrinsic/transcriptional arguments can be made for sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence. If the longer reading is, in fact, original, I suspect that the apparent discrepancy (with Acts) may be the result of Luke compressing/conflating the narrative, thereby giving the impression that it all happened on one night. This sort of handling of historical narrative was quite common with ancient writers, as unsatisfying as it might be to our modern sensibilities. On the other hand, the clear scribal tendency was to add significant Christological details to the Gospel narrative, rather than omit them (even when there are apparent discrepancies involved); it seems to have been much more acceptable to modify (instead of deleting) difficult words in the text. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the Bodmer Papyrus (Ë75, c. 200) have turned the tide decisively; however, I am by no means so certain the shorter reading(s) can be dismissed as easily as many commentators do today.