April 4: John 20:17

John 20:17

Yeshua says to her: “You must not attach yourself to me, for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father. But you must travel toward my brothers, and say to them, ‘I step up toward my Father and your Father, and (toward) my God and your God’.”

Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene in 20:17 represent perhaps the most challenging (and controversial) detail of the Johannine resurrection narrative. Much attention has been paid to the precise meaning of the prohibition “you must not attach yourself [a%ptou] to me…”, but this tends to ignore the reason given by Jesus in the words immediately following: “…for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father”. The verb a)nabai/nw (lit. “step up”), is common enough, frequently used in narrative in a general sense (i.e. “go up” {to a place}); however, in the Gospel of John, it has a special theological (and Christological) meaning, along with the related verb katabai/nw (“step down”). In the account of Jesus’ baptism, katabai/nw is used to describe the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (1:32-33, cf. Mk 1:10); similarly, in the visionary scene of Jesus’ saying in 1:51, katabai/nw and a)nabai/nw are used together (i.e. Angels descending and ascending upon the Son of Man).

In the Johannine Discourses, katabai/nw refers to the descent of the Son of God to earth as a human being, especially in the Bread of Life discourse (6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58). In descending from heaven, the Son comes to earth from the Father, and is ultimately to ascend back to Him. This is the context of a)nabai/nw in 6:62, and also in 3:13, where the two verbs are paired together. The Son’s ascension (return) to the Father occurs with the completion of his earthly mission—that is, his sacrificial death. In early Christian thought, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus were closely connected, almost to the point of being considered part of a single event (Acts 2:32-33; 1 Pet 3:21-22, etc). This tends to run contrary to the thinking of later Christians, where the “ascension” of Jesus is fixed in terms of the narrative in Luke-Acts (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:1-3ff, 9-11), as a separate event occurring at least forty days after the resurrection, following a number of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples. I have discussed this at length in an earlier set of articles.

The references in the Gospel of John to Jesus’ ascension (“stepping up”) to the Father are complicated, because they function on two different levels:

    • Jesus ascends to the Father, then returns to the disciples, and they receive the Spirit
    • Jesus ascends (departs) to the Father, only to return at a future (end) time, and believers receive the Spirit

The first level involves the traditional narrative, and the historical traditions regarding the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples. At the second level, the same dynamic of the historical tradition is repeated again for all future believers. Jesus’ words to Mary refer to the first level (i.e. the first ascension); that is to say, after his resurrection, Jesus ascends (“steps up”) to the Father, and is then able to give to his disciples the Spirit when he appears to them (vv. 19-23).

Why does Jesus give the prohibitive command to Mary (“You must not attach yourself to me”)? The Johannine understanding of the resurrection (outlined above) fits uneasily in this narrative framework. It would have made much more sense for Jesus to ascend immediately after his resurrection, without the initial appearance to Mary. However, this would have been impossible, from the standpoint of the Gospel narrative; the historical tradition of a post-resurrection appearance to certain women (and Mary, specifically) was so well-established that it had to be included. In the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus appears to a group of women that included Mary (Mk 16:1ff par), while in John, it is to Mary alone. It is not entirely clear whether this difference is specific to the Johannine Tradition, or whether it reflects an intentional simplification of the scene, for literary and dramatic effect. In any case, the Johannine interpretation of the resurrection takes place within the historical-traditional context of the appearance to Mary.

Beyond this, the exchange between Jesus and Mary does have genuine theological significance, and it is important to the Johannine narrative. It establishes a contrast between the disciples (believers), relating to Jesus in terms of his earthly human life, rather than through the presence and power of the Spirit. As Jesus notes in his famous saying in 6:63: “The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. giving] life, the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)…”. Mary was seeking to unite with Jesus again at the level of the flesh (i.e. human friendship/discipleship), whereas the true and proper union of the believer with Jesus can only take place through the Spirit; and, the Spirit cannot be given until Jesus ascends to the Father.

That is the very point Jesus makes to his disciples in the Last Discourse, in 16:7:

“But I relate to you the truth: it bears together (well) for you that I should go away. For if I should not go away, the (One) called alongside [para/klhto$] will not come toward you; but if I travel (away), I will send him toward you.”

For the disciples, this was fulfilled in the Passion and Resurrection, with the sending of the Spirit, narrated briefly, but pictorially, in 20:22. This serves as the type-pattern for all future believers, who receive the Spirit, though no longer in the visible presence of Jesus on earth (cf. 20:29ff and 17:20-23). Until Jesus goes away (ascends, “steps up”) to the Father, he does not send the Spirit.

The relationship between the Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus is often ignored or neglected by Christians. One main reason for this, I think, is the overriding influence of the narrative in Acts 1-2, which effectively separates the coming/sending of the Spirit from the Resurrection. The Spirit is recognized in commemoration of Pentecost, not Easter/Resurrection Sunday. The situation would be different, however, if we focused instead on the narrative in the Gospel of John. Not only does the sending of the Spirit function clearly as the climactic moment of the resurrection narrative in chapter 20, but Jesus’ teaching regarding the coming of the Spirit/Paraclete is central to the Last Discourse that precedes his Passion. I will discuss this further in the next daily note, for the second day of Easter (Easter Monday), when we turn to Paul’s famous discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Pt 1)

In this next portion of the series Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament I will be exploring the early Christian preaching as recorded in the book of Acts. Upon a casual reading, it would appear that eschatology is not very important in the book, since the author himself does not emphasize it explicitly in the narratives, and, even in the various sermon-speeches, statements regarding the ‘end times’ are relatively slight. However, when one considers the two-volume work of the Gospel and Acts together, it is abundantly clear that the context of the entire volume of the ‘Acts’ of the Apostles is, in fact, eschatological. Before proceeding to examine individual passages, it will be important to isolate several of the principal themes of Luke-Acts, and how they relate to the eschatological worldview of early Christians. There are three themes, in particular:

    1. A period of missionary activity by the followers of Jesus, and the persecution they will endure; the eschatological basis for this is established in the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus (21:5-36 in Luke)
    2. The mission to the Gentiles—a Messianic/eschatological context by way of a number of key passages in the Prophets, as interpreted by early Christians
    3. The coming and work of the Holy Spirit—a sign that the early Christians were living in the “last days”

Beyond this, we must deal with the central fact that the very belief that Jesus is the Anointed One (‘Messiah’), according to whichever Messianic figure-types are in view, is fundamentally eschatological. This is discussed in an earlier article of this series, as well as all throughout the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The uniquely Christian adaptation of Messianic thought also affects the eschatological outlook of early believers, and may be summarized as follows, under two points:

    • Jesus is identified with all of the main Messianic figure-types attested at the time; the appearance of these figures was generally understood to coincide with end of the current Age and the beginning of the Age-to-Come. Thus, it meant that believers in Christ were living in the “last days”—the time just prior to the divine Judgment that marks the end of the (current) Age.
    • At the same time, Jesus, in his lifetime, did not fulfill all of the end-time actions expected of these Messianic figures—esp. the Davidic ruler figure-type, but also the “Son of Man” heavenly-deliverer type. The complete fulfillment of these Messianic roles would not—indeed, could not—take place until the return of Jesus, at an indeterminate time in the (near) future.

We will see both of these points clearly enough as we proceed through all the remaining eschatological/prophetic passages in the New Testament, but they could already be glimpsed in the way that the traditional material—sayings and parables of Jesus, along with the “Eschatological Discourse”—was handled by the three Synoptic Gospel writers, which we studied in detail in the prior articles. It is important to keep them in mind in this study of the early Christian eschatology in the book of Acts. As it happens, the three eschatological themes outlined above, are all present, combined, in the keystone passage at the beginning of the Acts—the transitional episode (1:6-11) between the introduction and the Pentecost narrative(s).

Acts 1:6-11

I have already examined this passage in some detail in earlier notes (cf. the 4-part series “The Sending of the Spirit”). It may be summarized as Jesus’ farewell to his disciples, and outlined as follows:

    • Question by the disciples (v. 6)
    • Jesus’ answer—commission to the disciples (vv. 7-8)
    • Jesus’ departure from earth (v. 9)
    • Angelic announcement to the disciples (vv. 10-11)

There is eschatological significance to each of these elements, which must be briefly considered.

Verse 6

ku/rie, ei) e)n tw=| xronw=| tou/tw| a)pokaqista/nei$ th\n basilei/an tw=|  )Israh/l;
“Lord, (if) in this time will you set down again the kingdom to Israel?”

A more literal rendering of a)pokaqisth/nai would indicate setting the Kingdom down from (a)po/) where it is currently, back to its former condition; conventionally, we could translate “reconstitute” or “restore”. The eschatological significance of this verb likely stems from its use in Malachi 3:23 LXX.

This question by the disciples reflects aspects of Messianic (and eschatological) thought shared by many Jews of the first centuries B.C./A.D.—of the restoration of Israel which would occur at the end of the current Age. This was associated, in particular, with the Davidic ruler figure-type—an anointed Ruler from the line of David who, it was believed, will subdue the wicked nations and deliver the people of Israel, establishing a Kingdom even greater than that ruled by David and Solomon centuries before. Whether this Messianic Age (and Kingdom) coincides with the Age to Come, or represents a period preceding it, there can be no doubt that the idea and expectation is fundamentally eschatological. On this Messianic figure-type, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with the separate article (Part 5) on the “Kingdom of God”; for more on the Kingdom concept, see also the 2-part article “…the things about the Kingdom of God”. Given the importance of the Kingdom concept in Jesus’ preaching from the very beginning (cf. the earlier article on Mark 1:15 par), and its definite eschatological aspects, it was reasonable that his followers, still operating under the traditional Jewish understanding of the time, would expect that the Messiah (Jesus) would fulfill his role as Davidic Ruler and establish the end-time Kingdom of God on earth. This idea runs through the Gospels and is evident in various ways, especially within the Gospel of Luke; on this traditional Messianic expectation, see, for example, Lk 1:67-75; 2:1-14, 25-26, 38; 17:20; 19:11, 38; 23:51. Such a Kingdom was not established by Jesus prior to his death, even when it might have been expected (19:11, 38); now, surely, after his resurrection from the dead, this would occur.

Verses 7-8

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

“It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own e)cousi/a

e)cousi/a (from e&cestin), almost impossible to translate literally, has the sense of “ability” or “authority” to do something. Jesus effectively dispenses with their question, without necessarily denying its validity—however, the brusque response may suggest a misunderstanding on their part. Earlier it is stated that Jesus, during the days following his resurrection, related to his disciples “the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Almost certainly this involved more than the sort of eschatological Messianic kingdom common in popular religious thought. Yet this is what they ask about here. If the first part of Jesus’ reply does away with their question, the second part, in some sense re-establishes it:

“But you shall receive (the) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you, and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Jerusalem, and [in] all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.”

The focus is not on the traditional Messianic expectation, but on the unique mission, which they—his followers—were to carry out in his name. It is fair to understand this mission as the way the (Messianic) Kingdom would be realized on earth—through the proclamation of the Gospel and the work of the Spirit. In this regard, it is important to note the interesting variant in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer (11:2)—instead of the majority reading “may your Kingdom come” (e)lqe/tw h( basilei/a sou), two minuscule manuscripts (162, 700) have “may your holy Spirit come [upon us] and cleanse us” (e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion [e)f’ h(ma=$] kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$). Such a reading was also known by Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century (followed by Maximus Confessor), and traces of it are found earlier in Tertullian’s work Against Marcion (4:26). The context of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke specifically relates prayer to a request by believers for the Holy Spirit (11:13), and helps to establish the basic connection of the Kingdom of God with the coming of the Spirit, as we see here in Acts 1:7-8ff. Moreover, the early Christian mission itself, summarized here by Jesus’ words, “and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Yerushalaim {Jerusalem}, and [in] all of Yehudah {Judea} and Shimron {Samaria}, and unto the end of the earth”, within the Acts narrative structure, is closely connected to the idea of the restoration of Israel, as I have discussed previously. This may be summarized as follows:

    • The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
      • The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
        • Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
      • They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
    • The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

Verse 9

“And having said these (thing)s, (with) their looking at (him), he was lifted upon (the air) and a cloud took him under, (away) from their eyes.”

This verse narrates Jesus’ departure from earth, i.e. his ascension into the heavens. In the Gospel of John, this is described theologically, in terms of his return back to the Father; here, we have the traditional visual idea of being raised up to Heaven (where God the Father dwells). Two specific details are mentioned in relation to this “ascension”: (a) being taken into a cloud, and (b) that he was no longer seen by them (lit. “[taken] away from their eyes”). This first is important quite apart from the obvious association of the cloud with divine manifestation (theophany, Lk 3:21-22; 9:34-35 par), due to the eschatological-Messianic image (from Daniel 7:13-14) of the Son of Man “coming in/on (the) clouds”. This represents the final, climactic moment of the “Eschatological Discourse” (Lk 21:27-28 par), marking the end of the current Age, and is also mentioned as the climactic point in the Synoptic scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:62; par Lk 22:69). The second detail relates to the uniquely Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah, as noted above. The fact that he is no longer to be seen on earth by his disciples, means that he is now in heaven, having been exalted to the right hand of God the Father—a central element of the earliest Gospel proclamation and understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God. There are two key aspects of his presence in heaven (and not on earth) which are essential to the early Christian preaching, and its eschatology, as recorded in the book of Acts:

    • It is this exaltation to God’s right hand which makes Jesus fundamentally different from the traditional idea of the Messiah (as David Ruler, etc)—he has a divine/heavenly status which informs his (Messianic) identity as “Son of God”, but also identifies him with the Danielic (7:13-14, etc) deliverer figure known by the title “Son of Man”
    • It is from this exalted position in Heaven that Jesus will come (back) down to earth to usher in the Last Judgment, and to deliver the faithful ones of God’s people (i.e. believers) at the end-time. While the idea that a Messianic figure would appear from heaven is not unknown in Jewish tradition of the time, rarely (if ever) is it so clear and specific as the early Christian view was.

Verses 10-11

This brings us to the final element of the passage, the announcement of the two heavenly/angelic men in white to the disciples. Their message, echoing the scene of the ascension itself, emphasizes three important details:

    • The focus on the heavenly location from which Jesus will appear—i.e. Jesus as the heavenly deliverer (“Son of Man”) at the end-time
    • That he will come again in the same manner he departed implies an appearance “coming in the clouds” which also identifies him as the “Son of Man” figure (of Dan 7:13-14 etc)
    • It is effectively a promise that Jesus (the Anointed One) will soon return, completing his Messianic role on earth—i.e. realizing the Kingdom of God, delivering the faithful, and ushering in God’s Judgment

Having examined this first passage, it is now necessary to consider the eschatological elements and details in the various sermon-speeches of Acts. It continues to be a point of debate among New Testament scholars and commentators as to whether, or to what extent, these sermon-speeches reflect authentic preaching by the earliest believers, or are the (literary) product of the author. I discuss this question in some detail in my series on the Speeches of Acts, and will not go into it further here, except to point out that, in my view, it is possible to discern enough peculiar features, atypical of Lukan vocabulary and style, which suggest that, in fact, portions of genuine early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) are recorded and preserved in the speeches. This also implies that elements of the earliest Christian eschatology, insofar as they are present in the kerygma, are also preserved for us in the speeches. As I will demonstrate, the language and wording in which these elements are expressed is distinct enough to indicate that they are authentically part of the early preaching.

Generally, the eschatological details are included in the closing exhortation portion, except when there is a key Scripture citation earlier in the speech which, as interpreted by early Christians, has definite eschatological significance. This is certainly the case in the great Pentecost Speech by Peter, part of the Pentecost narrative of chapters 1-2, where the prophecy from Joel 2:28-32 is cited.

Acts 2:16-21

Peter’s Pentecost speech (2:14-36ff), opening as it does with the famous quotation from Joel 2:28-32 (in vv. 16-21), must be understood in the context of the narrative of Acts, with its eschatological implications:

    • The final words of Jesus and his departure to heaven (on the eschatological aspects, cf. above)—1:6-11
    • The reconstitution of the Twelve Apostles, symbolic of the (end-time) restoration of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all gathered together (as one) in Jerusalem—1:12-26
    • The coming of the Spirit upon the believers, symbolizing the coming/establishment of the Kingdom (cf. above)—2:1-4
    • Jews from all the surrounding nations present in Jerusalem to hear the word of God (the Gospel first proclaimed), symbolic of both: (a) the gathering of Jews from the nations, and (b) the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship God, both end-time motifs—2:5-13

Thus, it can as no surprise that Peter’s great speech opens with a profound eschatological message: what the prophet (Joel) said would happen “in the last days” is happening now, at this very moment, among the first believers in Jerusalem (“this is the [thing] spoken through the Foreteller…”)! I have discussed this previously in the article on Peter’s speech (Part 2 in the series “The Speeches of Acts”); here I will repeat parts of that discussion, emphasizing, in particular, the details and features as they relate to early Christian eschatology.

Verse 16

“But this is the (thing) spoken through the Foreteller Yo’el”

The demonstrative pronoun tou=to (“this”) refers back to the manifestations of the Spirit in verses 4ff, specifically the miraculous speaking in other languages (“tongues”) so that the first proclamation of the Gospel could be instantly understood by people (Jews) from the surrounding nations (vv. 5-13). How this relates to the original oracle of Joel is interesting, especially when considered within the context of the Acts narrative (cf. above).

Consider the place of this prophecy in the book of Joel:

    • Joel 1:2-20: A lamentation for the land which has been desolated by a locust invasion (probably symbolic of a enemy military invasion)
    • Joel 2:1-11: Announcement to Judah/Jerusalem of an impending enemy invasion, with eschatological characteristics—it is God’s own judgment on the land, signifying the “day of YHWH” (verse 11)
      • Joel 2:12-17: A call to repentance for all the people in the land
    • Joel 2:18-27: A declaration that God will restore the fertility and bounty of the land, bringing blessing back to the people (described in material terms, as recovery from the locust attack)
    • Joel 2:28-32 [3:1-5 Heb]: A promise of spiritual blessing (i.e. the pouring out of God’s own Spirit) upon the all the people in the land—this will follow after the material blessing and restoration mentioned previously, and relates specifically to the survivors (i.e. the remnant) of the judgment (v. 32 [3:5]).
    • Joel 3:1-16 [4:1-16 Heb]: Announcement of God’s judgment on the Nations (following the restoration of Judah/Jerusalem, v. 1)—again this signifies the eschatological “day of YHWH” (v. 14, cf. 2:11).
      • Joel 3:17-21 [4:17-21 Heb]: The future fates of Judah/Jerusalem and the Nations are contrasted.

It could also be outlined more simply as:

    • 1:20-2:11—Judgment on Judah/Jerusalem (“day of YHWH”)
    • 2:18-32—Restoration and blessing (material and spiritual) for the survivors in Judah/Jerusalem
    • 3:1-16—Judgment on the Nations (“day of YHWH”), contrasted with the fate of (the restored) Judah/Jerusalem

Even though the context implies that the restoration indicated in 2:18-32 will be reasonably soon (not left for the indefinite future), it is not specified precisely when it will occur. Even today, there is a considerable divergence of views among commentators as to how such passages should be interpreted. Regardless, in Acts, it is clearly the spiritual side of Israel’s future restoration that is emphasized, being applied to believers in Christ—a theme which is found throughout the early chapters of the book.

Verses 17-18

“And it will be, in the last days, God declares, ‘I will pour out from my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will foretell [i.e. prophesy], and your young (one)s will look gazing (at visio)ns, and your old (one)s will see (vision)s in (their) sleep; and even upon my (male) slaves and upon my (female) slaves in those days will I pour out from my Spirit, and they will foretell.”

This is the first portion of the actual citation (Joel 2:28-29). There are several differences from the Hebrew; most notably, the generic expression /k@-yr@j&a^, i.e. “after this, following these (things)”, Grk. meta\ tau=ta (LXX), has been changed to “in the last days” (e)n tai=$ e)sxa/tai$ h(me/rai$). This clearly makes it an eschatological interpretation, referring to future events of the end time. Such an interpretation of the passage may be original to the early Christians, but there is also the possibility that it was understood as such by Jews at that time. In particular, the expression /k@-yr@j&a^ (“after this”) could easily have blended with the similar expression <ym!Y`h^ tyr!j&a^, “(the time) after the days”, which occurs at Gen 49:1 and Num 24:14—two passages influential on Messianic/eschatological thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D. That same expression is also found in Deut 4:30; 31:29, and originally meant simply “in days/time to come, in the future”, but came to take on eschatological significance through its use by the later Prophets (e.g., Jer 23:20; 30:24; 31:33; 48:47; 49:39; Ezek 38:16; cf. also Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1); in Daniel 10:14, an eschatological framework is clearly in view, as also with its occurrences (around 30) in the Qumran texts.

Interestingly, even though the phenomenon of miraculous speaking in other languages (“tongues”) is at play in the Pentecost episode of Acts 2, the oracle cited by Peter specifically mentions prophecy—indeed, it is especially emphasized by the repetition of “and they will foretell/prophesy” at the end of Joel 2:29, a detail that is not part of the Hebrew text, but which accords well with early Christian priorities. It would seem that prophecy serves here to represent the presence and work of the Spirit among believers, epitomizing all such phenomena. Early Christians regarded prophecy—not simply foretelling the future, but an inspired speaking of the word and will of God before others—as the central and most important such manifestation (or “gift”) of the Spirit, as Paul makes clear at several points in his letters (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1-25ff). This work of the Spirit in and among believers was seen as something new, marking the coming of a New Age, and thus carried eschatological significance even apart from the specific declaration in 2:17a. The fact that the Spirit was manifesting itself in all believers—men and women, young and old, regardless of social and economic circumstances (“even…slaves”)—was a sign that the phenomenon was truly new and momentous. The early Christian acceptance of inspired female prophets, however slight the surviving evidence for it in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:2-16), finds support in the citation of Joel 2:28-29.

Verses 19-20

“‘And I will give (out) wonders in the heaven above and signs upon the earth below—blood and fire and blowing of smoke—the sun will be turned over into darkness and the moon into blood, before (the) coming of the day of the Lord th(at is) great and shining (forth) upon (all)!'”

It is still YHWH speaking through the Prophet (Joel 2:30-31), announcing what is to come in the future—the “Day of YHWH” (hw`hy+ <oy). Originally this expression referred to the time when YHWH acts to bring (destructive) judgment on the wicked, whether for the surrounding nations or His own people Israel. As such, it was oriented more or less to the immediate future—i.e., God was about to act in Judgment—but without any eschatological significance per se. However, eventually, through the influence of the oracles of the Prophets as a whole, it came to be understood and used in an eschatological sense, and that is certainly the case in Peter’s Pentecost speech. The “Day of the Lord” (h(me/ran kuri/ou) means the end-time Judgment God was to bring upon the earth and all humankind. Early Christians believed that Jesus, as God’s Anointed (Messiah), on his return to earth, would usher in and oversee the Judgment. This reflects the specific Messianic figure-type indicated by Jesus’ use of the expression “Son of Man” (inspired by Dan 7:13-14); for the eschatological Son of Man sayings of Jesus, see the earlier article in this series.

In Jewish and early Christian eschatology, as well as in much eschatological thought worldwide, the end of the current Age would be marked by terrible upheavals in the natural order, resulting in both destructive natural disasters and supernatural phenomena. This is abundantly clear from the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, especially in the climactic section of Mark 13:24-27 par. Just prior to the appearance of the “Son of Man”, there will be extraordinary and destructive cosmic phenomena, signifying God’s Judgment and the dissolution of the current order of things, the present Age. This summary description in Mk 13:24-25 par echoes Joel 2:30-31, as well as other passages from the Prophets (Isa 13:10; 14:12; 34:4; Joel 2:10; 3:15; Ezek 32:7). The sixth seal-vision in Revelation 6:12-14ff describes similar cosmic phenomena, but without culminating in the appearance of the Son of Man.

A superficial reading of Acts 2:16-20 would suggest that Peter is claiming that such cosmic phenomena are occurring at the present moment, with the coming of the Spirit. What is more important to realize is that, even though the natural wonders of Joel 2:30-31 are not technically being fulfilled at the time of Peter’s speech, they clearly signify that, in the mind of Peter (and, to some extent, the author of Acts), the end-times are definitely at hand. The reference to these upheavals in the natural order simply reflects the essential belief that early believers were living in the “last days”, and that God’s end-time Judgment was soon to come upon the world. We may set this in context by comparing the citation of Joel 2:28-32 with a (partial) outline of the Eschatological Discourse:

    • A period of missionary work by Jesus’ disciples (Mk 13:9-13 par) =
      The Spirit-inspired preaching, etc, of the first believers (Acts 2:17-18)
    • The cosmic phenomena marking the end-time Judgment (Mk 13:24-25) =
      The same sorts of phenomena, identifying this Judgment with the “Day of the Lord” (Acts 2:19-20)
    • The deliverance of the Elect (believers) at the appearance of the Son of Man (Mk 13:26-27) =
      The salvation of all who trust in Jesus prior to the End (Acts 2:21)

Verse 21

“And it shall be (that) all who would call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

This citation includes only the first portion of Joel 2:32, omitting the remainder:

“…so that in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be the (one) being saved, according to that (which) the Lord said, and they are (ones) being given the good message [eu)aggelizo/menoi], (those) whom the Lord has called toward (Himself)”
(translating from the LXX; eu)aggelizo/menoi is a misreading of the Hebrew <yd!yr!c=b^ [“among the survivors”])

In its original context, of course, it refers to calling upon the name of God (YHWH) for salvation, etc; however, in an early Christian context, it takes on a new meaning in reference to the risen/exalted Jesus as Lord [ku/rio$, cf. Acts 2:36, etc]. In this regard, note the key kerygmatic statement in Acts 4:12. Early Christian eschatology is not as immediately evident in this declaration, so basic to the thought and life of believers in all times and places. However, it is important to realize that, for the earliest Christians, the principal context of salvation was not being saved from the effects of sin, nor saved from ‘hell’ after death, but rather of being saved from the end-time Judgment (“anger/wrath”) of God that was about to come upon humankind. This is clear enough from the earliest Gospel tradition (Mk 1:4f, 15 par; Luke 3:7ff par, etc), and runs through to the latest portions of the New Testament (cf. the detailed exposition in the book of Revelation). Thus declarations such as Acts 2:21 in the early Christian preaching refer, not to a generic salvation from sin, but to the more concrete salvation/rescue from the coming Judgment.

This last point must be kept in mind, since it relates to the eschatological elements in the other sermon-speeches of Acts, occurring as they do, for the most part, in the closing exhortation/warning sections of the speech. In the second part of this article, we will examine briefly these passages, as well as several other references in the remainder of the book which may be considered to have eschatological significance.

“…Spirit and Life”: John 10:10, 28; 12:25

Not long ago (May 21, 2020) we celebrated the ascension of Jesus—i.e. 40 days after Easter, based on the information in Acts 1:3ff. The “ascension” of Jesus is referred to differently in the Gospels and Acts, and can be understood several ways, based upon the particular narrative under consideration. Most Christians have the scene in Acts 1:9-11 in mind, but there are other references to Jesus’ ascension/departure from the disciples in Luke 24:50-51 [MT] and the “long ending” of Mark (16:19), and, because of the differences in the narrative location and setting, it is not entirely clear if these passages are supposed to refer to the same event as Acts 1:9-11. The situation is further complicated by mention of an ‘ascension’ by Jesus in John 20:17. I have discussed these matters in a prior article.

The earliest Christians, in their preaching and proclamation of the Gospel, did not refer to specifically to the Ascension as such, but rather, the resurrection of Jesus was connected closely to his exaltation by the Father, to a place in Heaven at the Father’s right hand. The emphasis is not so much on Jesus’ actual departure from earth, as to his position in glory in Heaven following the resurrection. The Gospel of John preserves this early view, but it is expanded and developed in the discourses of Jesus in several ways:

    1. The motif of the Son’s ascent is set parallel to his descent—i.e. his coming to earth (as a human being). This ascent/descent theme appears numerous times throughout the Gospel and is related to the dualistic imagery of above/below, etc. The motif is expressed primarily through use of the related verbs a)nabai/nw (“step up”) and katabai/nw (“step down”)—Jesus (the Son) has stepped down (descended) from heaven, and again steps up (ascends) back to the Father in heaven.
    2. There is a strong emphasis on the Son’s return to the Father—he was sent (into the world) by the Father, and returns back to Him.
    3. In the Last Discourse (chaps. 14-17), the theme of Jesus’ departure becomes prominent, though it had been introduced earlier in the Gospel as well (6:62; 7:33-34; 8:21-22ff). It has a two-fold meaning, referring to: (1) Jesus’ death, and (2) his ultimate return to the Father.

Of all the New Testament writings, it is in John that the death, resurrection and ‘ascension’ of Jesus are most thoroughly combined—and by Jesus himself, in the great discourses which make up the core of the Gospel. One of the ways this is expressed is by the verb u(yo/w (“raise/lift high”). In 3:14 and 8:28, Jesus refers to himself being “lifting high”, with the title “Son of Man”; while in 12:32, he makes the same essential declaration, but with the personal pronoun:

“And I, if I am lifted high out of the earth, I will drag all (person)s toward myself”

In 3:14, it is the death of Jesus (i.e. lifted up on the cross) which is most clearly in view, as also in 8:28; however, the same verb in 12:32 seems rather to refer to Jesus’ exaltation. He speaks of being “lifted high out of the earth“. This can refer concretely to being raised out of the tomb, but also, more properly, in the sense of his departure from earth. Just as the Father sent him into the world, so also he will be going out of it. Both aspects are likely in view here in this reference.

This series of notes is dealing with the themes of Life (zwh/) and the Spirit (pneu=ma). The theme of life in connection with resurrection features prominently in the Lazarus episode of chapter 11, especially the dialogue between Jesus and Martha in vv. 20-27. However, I have discussed these verses at length in an earlier series, and so will not be addressing them here. Instead, I wish to consider briefly three verses from the surrounding chapters (10 and 12) where Jesus makes use of the word zwh/ (“life”).

John 10:10

This is part of the “Good Shepherd” parable-discourse in chapter 10. It is here in this discourse that the sacrificial death of Jesus comes more clearly into view. The structure generally follows the Johannine discourse format and may be outlined simply as follows:

    • Saying (parable) of Jesus (vv. 1-5)
    • Reaction by the people indicating a lack of understanding (v. 6)
    • Exposition by Jesus, which may be divided into three parts (each beginning with an “I am” declaration):
      • Jesus as the door/gate of the sheepfold (vv. 7-10): “I am…”
      • Jesus as the herdsman of the sheep (vv. 11-13): “I am…”
      • What Jesus as herdsman does for the sheep (vv. 14-18): “I am…”
    • Narrative conclusion [reaction by the people] (vv. 19-21)

Verse 10 concludes the first expository section (on Jesus as the door or entrance [qu/ra] to the sheepfold). It is only the shepherd, with charge over the sheep, who opens and closes this door; thus this verse provides the transition to the next section, in which Jesus is no longer the door, but the shepherd. Only the shepherd is able to open/close the door, and, when it is closed, any other person who enters presumably does so only to steal or harm the sheep. This effectively distinguishes the shepherd from all other persons. Jesus makes this contrast clear in verse 10:

“The (one) stealing does not come if not [i.e. except] that he might steal and slaughter and bring to ruin; (but) I came that they [i.e. the sheep] might hold life, and might hold (it) over (and) above (all else)”

This involves the familiar expression “hold life”, using the verb e&xw (“hold”); elsewhere in the Gospel, as we have seen, this life is often specified as “the Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life). The role of herdsman is to protect the sheep (from harm) and to guide them where they can find life-giving sustenance. In both respects he is saving/preserving their lives—the sheep have/hold life under his care.

John 10:28

This verse is from the second half of chapter 10 (vv. 22-39), which comprises a second discourse, but one which shares important themes with vv. 1-21, and it is possible to read the passages in tandem as part of a single discourse-scene. Verses 25-30 reprise the “Good Shepherd” illustration—but here there is a more definite contrast between those sheep who belong to the shepherd and those who do not. For the religious leaders and others who are unable (or refuse) to accept Jesus, he designates them as those who are not part of his flock (vv. 25-26). By contrast, those who do trust in him are part of the flock:

“My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them (the) Life of the Age, and no, they should not (ever) come to ruin into the Age, and no one will seize them out of my hand.” (vv. 27-28)

This motif, of Jesus giving to believers the “Life of the Age” (i.e. eternal life), occurred in the earlier discourses, as has been discussed in prior notes. In the context of the Johannine discourses, this Life which Jesus gives is to be identified primarily with the Spirit (cf. 3:34-35; 4:10ff, 24; 6:27ff, 63; 7:37-39). This is an important theological development of the traditional expression “life of the Age”, as we have discussed. That this Life is connected with the very presence and power of God is clear from vv. 28f, where God (the Father) is the ultimate source of this life (and its preservation/protection) for believers:

“My Father, who has given (them) to me, is greater than all, and no one is able [i.e. has power] to seize (anything) out of the Father’s hand.” (v. 29)

For the chain of relationship between Father and Son, see especially 3:34-35 and 5:26. This will become a central theme in the Last Discourse, in particular the great prayer-discourse of chapter 17.

John 12:25

The theme of Jesus’ sacrificial death, so central to the Good Shepherd discourse (10:11-18)—the laying down of his soul/life and taking it up again—takes on even greater significance as we approach the start of the Passion narrative. In the Gospel of John, the (triumphal) entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is narrated in 12:12-19; Jerusalem is the setting, from verse 20 on, into the beginning of the Passion (chap. 13). There is an interesting parallel here between 12:20-36a (set in Jerusalem) and the Synoptic tradition at the transition point between the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem. Consider the following points of similarity:

Indeed, the saying of Jesus in 12:25 is close in thought to the Synoptic saying in Mk 8:35 par:

“For whoever would wish to save his soul will bring it to ruin, but whoever will bring his soul to ruin for my sake and (for) the good message [i.e. Gospel] will save it.” (Mk)
“The one loving his soul brings it to ruin, and the one hating his soul in this world will watch/guard it into (the) Life of the Age.” (Jn)

However one would explain the development of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel tradition (on this, cf. my recent series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”), there can be no doubt that the Johannine version of this traditional saying—this particular form of it—has certain elements which are distinctive to the Fourth Gospel. We may note the use of the articular participle, so frequent in John, to describe the disciple (believer)—”the (one) …ing”—as well as his opposite. Even more important are the qualifying expressions which enhance the point of contrast:

    • “in this world”—with the use of ko/smo$ (“world-order, world”)
    • “into the Life of the Age”—for this expression, cf. the previous notes of this series

The believer is one who “hates” his soul [i.e. his human life] insofar as it is in the world—that is, in the current age and world-order dominated by sin and darkness. The non-believer, by contrast, loves the darkness (3:19), and thus loves his life in the darkness. The contrast to the world and its darkness is the Life and Light of God found in the person of Jesus. This aspect of (eternal) Life will be discussed further in the next daily note, on 12:50.

The Sending of the Spirit, Part 1: Book of Acts (1)

There are two accounts of the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Disciples—in the Gospel of John (20:19-23) and Luke-Acts (Acts 2:1-4ff). Commentators continue to debate the relationship between these two passages, whether to harmonize them (the traditional-conservative view) or to regard them as separate traditions (the critical view). I will address these issues briefly in Part 3 when discussing the account in John. Here I will be looking at the (Pentecost) narrative in Acts.

It should be pointed out that the Holy Spirit has a special emphasis in Luke-Acts. One can see this already in the early chapters:

a. The Infancy Narrative(s): Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27
b. The Baptism of Jesus: Luke 3:21-22. Compare the description in v. 22 with the parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark (key difference in italics):

Mark 1:10

kai\ eu)qu\$ a)nabai/nwn e)k tou= u%dato$ ei@den sxizo/meno$ tou\$ ou)ranou\$ kai\ to pneu=ma w($ peristera\n katabai=non ei)$ au)to\n
“…and right away stepping up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down into him”

Matthew 3:16

eu)qu\$ a)ne/bh a)po\ tou= u%dato$: kai\ i)dou\ h)new/|xqhsan [au)tw=|] oi( ou)ranoi kai\ ei@den [to\] pneu=ma [tou=] qeou= katabai=non w(sei peristera\n [kai\] e)rxo/menon e)p’ au)to\n
“…right away he stepped up from the water, and see—the heavens opened for him and he saw [the] Spirit of God stepping down as if a dove [and] coming upon him”

Luke 3:21b-22
(the passage cannot properly be translated without including all of vv. 21-22, the sequence e)ge/nto + infinitives and acc. being difficult to render into English):

e)ge/neto de\ e)n tw=| baptisqh=nai a%panta to\n lao\n kai\  )Ihsou= baptisqe/nto$ kai\ proseuxome/nou a)new|xqh=nai to\n ou)rano\n kai\ katabh=nai to\ pneu=ma to\ a%gion swmatikw=| ei&dei w($ peristera\n e)p’ au)to\n, kai\ fwnw\n e)c ou)ranou= gene/sqai: su\ ei@ o( ui(o\$ mou
“And it came to be, in the dipping of all the people—and Jesus (also) being dipped and praying—the opening (passive) of heaven and stepping down (active) of the Holy Spirit in a bodily sight [i.e. shape/form] as a dove upon him and a voice out of heaven coming to be: ‘You are my Son…'”

The accounts in Mark and Matthew could be understood as a private vision to Jesus; Luke’s language, on the other hand, seems to imply a tangible manifestation visible to everyone.

c. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry (before and after the Temptation): Luke 4:1, 14, 18. Note especially: Mark 1:12 says that the Spirit “cast/drove out” (e)kba/lei) Jesus into the desert, Matthew 4:1 that Jesus was “brought up by [lit. under]” (a)nh/xqhu(po\) the Spirit; while Luke 4:1 states that Jesus was “led in”  (h&geto e)n) the Spirit, being “full of the Holy Spirit” (plh/rh$ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou).

In addition, Luke on numerous occasions speaks of the Holy Spirit “coming upon” individuals (1:35; 2:25; 4:18), as well as persons being “filled with” the Spirit (1:15, 41, 61; 4:1) or “in the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1; 10:21), language which is really not found in the other Gospels, and which will reoccur frequently in the book of Acts. Also, while there are a few instances of the promise of the Spirit to believers in the wider Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:8; 13:11 and par.), only Luke speaks of the “sending” of the Spirit (24:49, “the promise of my Father”), which foreshadows the narrative in Acts (cf. Acts 1:8). There are similar parallels in John (14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13, etc), which, of course, also has an account of the sending of the Spirit (20:19-23).

Turning to the Pentecost narrative in Acts, it is most useful to keep in mind the context and structure of the early chapters, which I outline as follows:

  1. Lukan Introduction (1:1-5)—a long, complex and difficult sentence (cf. Luke 1:1-4), which turns into an historical summary (vv. 2-4a) and concludes with a direct address of Jesus to his disciples (vv. 4b-5).
  2. The Ascension (1:6-11), comprising:
    (a) the question regarding the Kingdom and Jesus’ reply to his disciples(vv. 6-8),
    (b) the visible ascension with theophanic/apocalyptic imagery (v. 9),
    (c) appearance of the (Heavenly) men and their address to the disciples
  3. A summary narrative (1:12-14) recording the return of the disciples to Jerusalem, and their united presence in the Upper Room (the Twelve [minus Judas Iscariot], some women, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers). This summary parallels Luke 24:52-53, and is an important bridge between the Ascension and the following narrative.
  4. The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26)—two key parts, both of which act as seminal motifs for the remainder of the book:
    a) Peter’s speech (vv. 15-22)—the first of many such speeches in Acts, centering on quotation/interpretation of Scripture (a tradition regarding Judas Iscariot has been inserted parenthetically, vv. 18-19)
    b) The selection/commission of a disciple (Matthias) for (apostolic) ministry (vv. 23-26)
  5. The Pentecost Narrative (chapter 2)
    5a. Narrative of the coming of the Spirit (2:1-13: a detailed outline will be given in Part 2)
    5b. Peter’s Speech (2:14-40), again centered on quotation/interpretation of Scripture.
    5c. Historical/editorial summary (2:41-47).

This same structure will be carried out through much of Acts; for example, in the next two chapters:

  • Main historical narrative, including notable ministry work, miracles, etc. (“Acts”) of the Apostles (3:1-11; 4:1-22)
  • Speech (or intercourse), centered on a passage (or passages) of Scripture, and containing early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) (3:12-26; 4:23-30)
  • Historical/editorial summary (none in ch. 3; 4:31)

Each of sections 1-4 (which make up Acts 1) is important thematically for an understanding of the Pentecost Narrative. Here I summarize some key notes:

Section 1: Lukan Introduction (Acts 1:1-5):

  • The historical summary (vv. 2-4a) has, at its heart the double phrase:
    oi!$ kai\ pare/sthsen e(auto\n zw=nta meta\ to\ paqei=n au)to\n e)n polloi=$ tekmhri/oi$,
    di’ h(merw=n tessera/konta o)ptano/meno$ au)toi=$ kai\ le/gwn ta\ peri\ th=$ basilei/a$ tou= qeou=
    “…and to whom [i.e. the disciples] he stood himself alongside [i.e. presented himself] alive after his suffering in many fixed marks [i.e. signs/proofs],
    through forty days being seen by them and recounting/relating the (things) about the kingdom of God”
    We can break down chiastically the elements of this phrase:

Living presence of God/Christ in his disciples
[to whom he stood himself alongside alive…]
—   Demonstration that He is the Messiah and Son of the Living God
[…after his suffering in many fixed marks/signs]
—   Ministry and proclamation
[through days being seen by them and recounting/relating…]
The Kingdom of God
[…the things about the Kingdom of God]

These are all seminal themes and motifs of the Book of Acts, and, one might say, form the core of the Gospel message.

  • The narration continues in v. 4a and blends into an address (in direct speech) of Jesus to his disciples. Again note the key elements:

a. Stay in (do not depart from) Jerusalem (see Luke 24:52; Acts 1:12)
b. Remain about (i.e. wait) for the promise of the Father (Luke 24:49)
which you have heard from me (see Acts 1:13-14, also Luke 24:53)
c. Reprise of John’s testimony:
“(On the one hand), John dipped/dunked in/with water,
but (on the other hand), you will be dipped/dunked in the Holy Spirit
after not many (of) these days”

Section 2: The Ascension (Acts 1:6-11):

Note again how one can break this passage down chiastically:

    • Question regarding the Kingdom of God with Jesus’ reply, including a reiteration of the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-8)
      • The Ascension of Jesus (v. 9)
        —At their seeing/looking
        —      He was raised up(on)
        —      A cloud took him under
        —Away from their eyes
    • Angelic appearance and eschatological announcement about Christ’s return (vv. 10-11)

The theme of the Kingdom—shorthand for “Kingdom of God (or Heaven)”—is most significant; I will be discussing it later this week in more detail. One can, I think, outline four principal ways of understanding the phrase:

    1. As the Eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
    2. As an eschatological (Messianic) Kingdom, on earth, the establishment of which will involve: (a) judgment/defeat of the nations and enemies of God, and (b) restoration of the Davidic inheritance to Israel.
    3. In the person and work of Jesus—the miracles, teaching, foundation of the church, atoning death and resurrection, etc.
    4. As the (spiritual) presence and power of God in the heart, mind, and lives of believers.

Other interpretations are possible, but they likely will end up being a variation on one of the above. These four meanings can be found in the New Testament—even, I think, in Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom—but probably #1 and 4 are most common. The thorniest question scholars raise is to what extent #2 is part of Jesus’ teaching. It is likely that his proclamation “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 par.) would have been understood in this manner—of eschatological/Messianic expectation—by his contemporaries; and this certainly seems to be what the disciples have in mind here at Acts 1:6.

Let us briefly examine the disciples’ question:

ku/rie, ei) e)n tw=| xronw=| tou/tw| a)pokaqista/nei$ th\n basilei/an tw=|  )Israh/l;
“Lord, (if) in this time will you set down again the kingdom to Israel?”

A more literal rendering of a)pokaqisth/nai would indicate setting the Kingdom down from (a)po/) where it is currently, back to its former condition; conventionally, we could translate “reconstitute” or “restore”.

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

“It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own e)cousi/a

e)cousi/a (from e&cestin), almost impossible to translate literally, has the sense of “ability” or “authority” to do something. Jesus effectively dispenses with their question, without necessarily denying its validity—however, the brusque response may suggest a misunderstanding on their part. Earlier it is stated that Jesus, during the days following his resurrection, related to his disciples “the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Almost certainly this involved more than the sort of eschatological Messianic kingdom (meaning #2 above) common in popular religious thought. Yet this is what they ask about here. If the first part of Jesus’ reply does away with their question, the second part, in some sense re-establishes it:

“But you shall receive (the) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you, and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Jerusalem, and [in] all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.”

Indeed, I would maintain that the idea of the “restoration of the kingdom”, or, one may say, the “restoration of Israel” is an important idea both in Jesus’ teaching and in the book of Acts.

Section 3: Summary narrative (1:12-14):

I have already mentioned a couple of themes found in this short passage; but, to reiterate, in light of the above comments:

  • The disciples “return (or turn back) into Jerusalem”, v. 12. On the surface this is a simple description; however, consider the language in light of the implied motif of the “restoration” of Israel:
    a) The dispersed Israelites will return to the land, and to Jerusalem
    b) The restoration of Israel is often tied to repentance (turning back)
  • The Twelve disciples are gathered together in one place (upper room), v. 13. If the Twelve represent Israel (see below), then here we also have an image of the twelve tribes gathered together again.
  • The initial words of v. 14 contain a number of related, seminal motifs:
    • ou!toi (“these”—the twelve, along with the other disciples)
    • pa/nte$ (“all”—that is, all of them, together)
    • h@san proskarterou=nte$ (“were being strong” [sense of “endurance”, “patience”] “toward” their purpose/goal)
    • o(moqumado\n (“with one impulse”—a key phrase that occurs throughout Acts, cf. 2:46; 4:24, et al. qumo/$ is often translated as “soul”, “mind” [“with one mind”], but also as “passion”, “desire”; the primal sense of the word was something like a “[violent] stirring”)
    • th=| proseuxh=| (“in prayer”)

Does this not seem a beautiful, concise image of what one might call the “kingdom of God” on earth?

Section 4: The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26):

Here it is important to emphasis again the theme of the Twelve. On purely objective grounds, the Twelve represent one of the earliest Christian traditions—a fixed tradition and symbol, separate, it would seem, from much of the actual historical detail. This appears clearly enough from passages such as 1 Cor. 15:5 and Matthew 19:28, where “the Twelve” are mentioned, even though only eleven disciples could be involved (Judas being dead or disqualified). Also, note the variant lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-14; Mark 3:14-19; and Luke 6:13-16 / Acts 1:13). Most likely the Twelve were chosen (by Jesus) in part to represent the tribes of Israel. This is not stated directly, but note Matthew 19:28 (and the Lukan parallel 22:30) and the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10:5f. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist). In the book of Revelation 21:12-14, the twelve apostles are also identified in terms of the twelve tribes.

So here, in Acts, the choosing of a twelfth apostle, to take the place of Judas Iscariot, takes on great significance. According to the logic of the narrative, Israel (the Twelve tribes) cannot be restored until the Twelve are reconstituted. This may seem strange to modern thinking, but the symbolism was powerful indeed to early Christians, for whom Israel and “the Church” were closely connected.

This sets the stage for the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-14ff) which I will discuss in Part 2.

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.