This Saturday I am interrupting the current series of discussions centered on passages in the Gospel of John to explore the Ascension of Jesus. This past Thursday (May 30) was the traditional day commemorating the Ascension (40 days after the Resurrection, according to Acts 1:3), and the Sunday following (tomorrow) is sometimes referred to as “Ascension Sunday”. It so happens that the Ascension narratives (in Luke-Acts) are extremely instructive for those wishing to learn more about Biblical (New Testament) criticism. I have dealt with the critical questions in some detail in an earlier 3-part article (“Where Did Jesus Go…?“), which I recommend if you wish to dig deeper into the matter. Here I introduce the discussion in terms of three essential aspects of Scriptural study:
- Textual criticism—what is the most likely original reading, and how or why was it modified?
- Historical criticism—what is the historical-traditional background; how was it developed and how do the literary and historical “levels” relate?
- Theological factors and interpretation—we might call this “doctrinal criticism”, i.e. how do our beliefs about Jesus and the nature of the Scriptures relate to the text?
1. Textual Criticism (Lk 24:50-53)
The textual-critical question primarily involves the text of Luke 24:50-53. If you are reading in a standard English translation, or have a reliable critical edition of the Greek (such as the UBS/Nestle-Aland edition), your version of Luke 24:50-53 likely reflects the so-called Majority text (MT)—that is, the reading of the majority of manuscripts and other textual witnesses. However, if you examine, for example, the footnotes in your Bible, you will find mention that certain “Western” manuscripts (Codex Bezae [D], Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac) omit or do not include portions found in the MT of verses 51 and 52. There are two variation units where this occurs:
- Verse 51 reads: kai egéneto en tœ¡ eulogeín autón autoús diést¢ ap’ autœ¡n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kai anephéreto eis ton ouranón “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.
- Verse 52 continues: kai autoi hypéstrepsan eis Ierousal¢¡m metá charás megál¢s “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskyn¢¡santes auton “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 witness, including all the early/best Greek manuscripts, contain the words “and he was carried up into the heaven”. 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):
- 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.
- A scribal mistake. A scribe may have skipped from ap’ autœn kai in v. 51 to ouranon kai autoi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai).
- 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.
- The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (“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 also omit reference to the ascension in this verse.
Reasons for Addition (in support of the shorter text):
- 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. This means 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 and have the Gospel close with a reference to the Ascension.
- 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)?
- Additional support from Acts. It is possible that the phrase áchri h¢¡s h¢méras … anel¢¡mphth¢ (“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, 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?
- Evidence from the Church Fathers. The Ascension is referred to numerous times in writings of the 1st-3rd centuries (see my earlier article for a list of these). 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).
- 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 manuscripts (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, sound arguments can be made for both sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence in favor of the Majority text (i.e., the longer reading). 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 difficult words in the text, rather than deleting them. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the early Bodmer Papyri (Ë75, c. 200 A.D.) has turned the tide decisively for most scholars.
2. Historical Criticism (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11, etc)
If we regarding the longer (Majority) text of Luke 24:50-53 to be original, there are still a number of important historical-critical questions to be considered. In particular, there would seem to be a discrepancy between Lk 24:51-52 and Acts 1:3ff—in the former, the ascension apparently takes place on the night of the Resurrection (that evening), whereas in the Acts narrative (1:9-11) it is set at least 40 days later. Most scholars believe that 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:
- The Gospel and Acts record different events—an ‘intermediate’ ascension followed by a final departure into heaven 40 days later. I would regard this as 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.
- After composing the Gospel, the author discovered the “correct” chronology (Ascension after 40 days), which he recorded in Acts, without altering the Gospel narrative.
- 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” (akribœ¡s) and in order (anatáxasthai, v. 1; kathex¢¡s, 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.
- The same event is consciously set in two different chronological contexts, without necessarily any 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.
- 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.
The historical-critical question is complicated by the Synoptic tradition, in Mark (through 16:8) and Matthew, of Jesus’ final(?) appearance to the disciples in Galilee, where, one might assume, his departure (ascension) would have taken place. This contrasts with the traditions in Luke-Acts and John where Jesus appears to his disciples in Jerusalem—in Luke-Acts they specifically remain in Jerusalem, with no reference at all to an appearance in Galilee. For those seeking to harmonize all the New Testament passages, this is made even more difficult by the Gospel of John, in which, while it contains no narration of an ascension, records Jesus stating that he is about to “step up” to the Father (20:17)—an event which apparently would take place prior to his appearance to the disciples (rather than after, as in Luke-Acts), though this is not entirely clear. The so-called “Long Ending” of Mark (16:9-20) makes passing reference to the ascension in v. 19, generally following the tradition in Acts.
3. Theological Factors and Interpretation
A proper method of Biblical criticism would have textual and historical criticism precede any subsequent theological or doctrinal interpretation. That is to say, one should seek to establish the text, along with an understanding of its historical (and traditional) background, before attempting any interpretation on theological grounds. The temptation, of course, will always be present to “read in” one’s theological/doctrinal beliefs, into the text, whether or not it is supported by the text itself.
The problem with the Ascension of Jesus is that there are very few direct references to it, either in the New Testament or in early Christian literature, which makes theological interpretation difficult. Apart from the main passages mentioned above, only Ephesians 4:8-10 could be cited as referring to the Ascension (see Part 3 of the aforementioned article). More commonly, reference is made to Christ’s exaltation (usually involving either the verb hypsóœ, “to raise high” or adjective hyps¢lós, “high”; see Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3; 7:26, etc), or to his being in heaven at the “right (hand)” (dexiós, that is, the giving/receiving hand) of God (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). This is true even in the book of Acts itself, where the Ascension, as such, is narrated in rather cursory fashion (1:9-11, note the obvious parallels to the Resurrection narrative). By contrast, in the early Christian preaching and related episodes, the idea of Jesus’ exaltation and presence at the right-hand of God is much more prominent.
If we look carefully at the references to the Ascension in the narrative of Luke-Acts, we see that it is closely tied to the coming of the Spirit. Both in Luke 24:44-53 [MT] and Acts 1:2-11, the Ascension follows soon after a directive to the disciples that they should remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes down upon them from the Father (Lk 24:48-49; Acts 1:4-5, 8). Furthermore, though it is narrated quite differently, drawing upon separate lines of tradition, in both the Gospels of Luke and John, the coming of the Spirit to the disciples follows close upon a reference to Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9-11; 2:1-44ff; John 20:17, 22-23). For more on the subject of the sending of the Spirit in Luke-Acts and John, respectively, see my earlier article. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes the point that, unless he departs from the disciples (back to the Father), the Spirit will not come (16:7). Thus, the association with the Spirit is the first theological point, or theme, which we may draw from the text.
Second, I would emphasize the thematic connection with the Resurrection itself. The reference in Lk 24:51-52 MT is part of the Lukan Resurrection narrative, and Acts 1:9-11 is written to bring out the similarities with Lk 24:1-8. On this aspect of the Ascension, see Part 2 of the previously mentioned article (“Where Did Jesus Go…?”). In terms of the development of early tradition, the Ascension in Luke-Acts serves as the historical/narrative transition between the Resurrection and the Exaltation of Jesus (see above). The former is the subject of Luke 24, while the latter features in the preaching, etc, recorded in Acts 2-7ff. In between, we have the Ascension and the Coming of the Spirit (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:2-2:4ff).
Third, the Ascension is connected to the presence of Jesus in heaven, at the right hand of God. For early Christians, this was a central tenet of their preaching, and was related to the idea of Jesus’ return to earth at the time of the great Judgment. This is abundantly clear from the language and tone of the early Gospel proclamation (Acts 2:33-40; 3:19-21; 10:40-42; 13:32-41; 17:31, etc). Stephen’s vision of Jesus in 7:55-56 is obviously related to the Gospel tradition in Mark 14:62 par, which referrs to the appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14) at the end-time Judgment (see also Mk 8:38; 13:24-27 par, etc). This same eschatological emphasis is found in the Ascension narrative itself in Acts 1:9-11.
These are just three fundamental theological points which can be drawn out of the text, to which others could be added, though with caution. One of the most interesting developments of the ascension-motif is found in the Gospel of John, where certain keywords, used in association with the Ascension, are given special meaning in the context of the Gospel. Two of these are the verbs anabaínœ (“step up”) and hypsóœ (“raise/lift high”). The first verb appears often (16 times), along with the related katabaínœ (“step down”), part of a descent/ascent motif that is central to the Christology of the Fourth Gospel. For the second verb (hypsóœ) it occurs 5 times, in three important passages (3:14 [twice]; 8:28; 12:32, 34). I will be discussing the 8:28 reference, especially, in next week’s post.
If you have not already done so, I would ask that you read and study chapters 7-8 of the Gospel most carefully, noting the complex structure (with or without 7:53-8:11), along with the various themes, motifs and keywords from the earlier discourses, and they way they are developed. Consider how 8:28 fits into this structure—especially its place in 8:12-59. And I will see you next Saturday.