Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Suggestions on the Historicity of the Ascension?

Over the last year I've spent a lot of time and energy reading books and articles on the "historicity" of the resurrection of Jesus, and it's been a largely positive experience—I am slightly less certain than I was before that the resurrection never actually occurred as a historical event.

However, something that has continued to be problematic for me, particularly when it comes to historical studies, is how the resurrection and ascension are often sort of lumped together both historically and literarily. The ascension of Jesus is only mentioned explicitly in Luke/Acts, and implicitly in John (20:17), so it appears that the ascension is part of a much later Jesus tradition. It also relies upon an ancient understanding of the cosmos (i.e. Where did Jesus physically go, anyway? Mars?). My personal belief is that while I can accept the historicity of the resurrection, the ascension is most likely a theological embellishment intended to paint Jesus as greater than Elijah, or—even more probably—to figure out what to do with the character of the resurrected Jesus after he was raised from the dead.

So I'm curious as to whether anyone knows of any good books that argue both sides of the debate on the historicity of the ascension? Do you have any particular thoughts on the ability to accept either the resurrection or the ascension, or both, as historical events? Furthermore, if one argues for the historicity of the ascension of Jesus, are they not then obligated to consider the historicity of the ascension of Elijah in his fiery chariot, or even the historicity of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad?


  1. Well, see, the whole traditional "taken up into the sky" seems a little strange... Because, well, in the Amplified version (which strives to be as complete in the nuances of translation as possible) says this in Acts 1:9

    9 And when He had said this, even as they were looking [at Him], He was caught up, and a cloud received and carried Him away out of their sight.

    So, to say someone is caught up doesn't necessarily mean the direction of "up"... and a cloud receiving someone doesn't necessarily mean that the cloud was directionally "up" either.

    Now, verse 10 has them looking into heaven... but then, what would our reaction be. "Wow, where did Jesus go? Up there? You see him? I don't see him..."

    So...how much of the language of Luke and Acts on the ascension are the attempt of the humans who observed it trying to describe what they saw.

    "Yeah, Luke... I mean, we were standing there and then this cloud kinda like came and took him away."

    "Did he actually go up into the sky?"

    "I dunno. I guess. I mean, that's where heaven is, right?"

    "So, you didn't actually see him go up?"

    "Well, know... but it's the only thing that makes sense, ya know?"

    The directionality of the ascension may be a 1st century construction to describe something that they just don't have the experience to describe, ya know? So, it may still be an "ascension" theology... but not an "ascension" directionally... ya get me?

    Now... can I point you to a book on this? No... this is just me trying to anaswer the same questions you are...

  2. There's a Wikipedia article on the subject. Isn't that good enough? The following is copied from the section titled "Critical Analysis."

    New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann writes, " The cosmology of the N.T. is essentially mythical in character, The world is viewed as a three-storied structure, with the Earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings- angels....No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven. "

    The Jesus Seminar considers the New Testament accounts of Jesus' ascension as inventions of the Christian community in the Apostolic Age. They describe the Ascension as a convenient device to discredit ongoing appearance claims within the Christian community.

  3. Very interesting, Clif. I may be wrong, but I think both Bultumann and the majority of the scholars in the Jesus Seminar also think that the resurrection itself was mythical in nature. I'm curious to see if any other arguments have been made that accept the historicity of the resurrection while rejecting the historicity of the ascension?

    As far as the Jesus Seminar's explanation of the ascension goes, I would be more inclined to believe that the ascension as a literary device helps corroborate the absence of a body; there's nothing wrong exactly with saying that Jesus returned from the grave, but it becomes theologically problematic if you are going to claim that Jesus "defeated death" but then eventually died again.