On the Historicity of the Ascension

Kate Edwards has had a couple of goes at this matter, and today I posted a response on her second post. For the benefit of all here on SCE, I thought I would repost my comments here for your edification.

Kate’s posts are here:
Question: Did Our Lord ‘literally’ Ascend? Heresy alert!

Perhaps we should also bring back the old Octave of the Ascension?

My comment is posted on her second post, and is reproduced here below:

Having Ascension on the actual day specified in Scripture, rather than moved to the nearest Sunday, would surely help counter this kind of error!

Dear Kate,

I am fully supportive of the push to encourage our bishops to return the festival of the Ascension to the Thursday in the 6th Week of Easter. I will post on my own blog at some stage further considerations of this.

But for now, I just want to query your assertion that this date – 40 days after Easter – is “the actual day specified in Scripture” for the Ascension. In doing so, I no more question the “historicity” of the Ascension than I would question the “historicity” of the Resurrection. I’m with you on that. And on the “literal” bodily ascension too, just to be quite sure (which follows from the “literal” bodily resurrection as night follows day).

But to my point:

Our liturgical calendar for the events of the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost follows the timeline in the book of Acts. But we should be aware that there are other “timelines” in Scripture, and in Luke’s own Gospel.

To the latter first then. If you closely read Luke 24, you find that he places both the Resurrection and the Ascension (and the appearance of Jesus to Peter and the disciples on the way to Emmaus and to the Eleven) ALL ON THE SAME DAY! Now, I know that rather pushes the “timeline” a bit – as it would require a lot of running around AFTER nightfall (indicated by the Emmaus story), but that is what Luke does. Although he states in his second book that 40 days elapsed between the Resurrection and the Ascension, nevertheless for his own purposes, he closely associates the Ascension with the Resurrection in his Gospel by using this “concertina-ed” timeline. If you like, you could say that he “transferred” the Feast of the Ascension back onto the Feast of the Resurreciton.

Now, if we turn to John’s Gospel, we see something similar happening. Of course, we know that John does not include an account of the Ascension – probably because for him the Paschal Event is itself Jesus’ “glorification” and “going to the Father”. However, he does do something similar to Luke, in that he places a kind of “Pentecost” on the eve of the day of the Resurrection, when Jesus “breathes” upon the Apostles and gives them the Holy Spirit. Of course, if you want to do some kind of “harmony” between the Gospels, you can make a distinction between this outpouring on the apostles and a later outpouring on all the people, but John himself didn’t seem to think that such a distinction was necessary. For him, the giving of the Spirit (which Luke says in Acts took place during the Jewish feast of Pentecost – making his own theological point connecting it to the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai) is inextricably linked to the Feast of the Resurrection. For us that would translate into a tight link between baptism and confirmation.

Now to Matthew, whose Gospel we read yesterday. He obviously knows the Lukan tradition of the Ascension, as he describes what we take to be his account of the “Ascension” in terms very similar to Luke (only he uses a completely different geographical location – Galillee instead of the Mt of Olives – note, however, that there is a slight difference even in the Lukan accounts: Luke’s Gospel says they went “as far as Bethany”, which is a little bit further on from the Mount of Olives as Luke describes in Acts).

Anyway, Matthew obviously knows the tradition of the Ascension (possibly even knows Luke’s account) and plays on the reader’s expectation that at the end of this account he expects Matthew to recount Jesus’ departure into heaven. BUT – and this is the amazing thing – Matthew choses to end on Jesus’ promise “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age”. In other words, Jesus DOESN’T leave his disciples at all, but remains with them.

Now, I am not saying that Matthew’s text can be used against the assertion that the Ascension actually happened as Luke described it. In fact, Matthew’s account would pack a whole lot less punch if this were the case. He is obviously saying that even though Jesus has ascended into heaven, nevertheless this does not mean that he has left his disciples as “orphans” (as in John’s Gospel Jesus says he will not do) but remains really present with them always.

I just offer these reflections as a bit of a caution not to canonise Luke’s account in Acts over against the accounts of the other Gospels, including Luke’s own Gospel. None of this mitigates against the assertion of the historicity of the Ascension – but there isn’t any single “timeline” for the Ascension in Scripture.

And we should not overlook the fact that Luke even recounts (in three separate narratives) the occurance of at least one post-resurrection appearance of Jesus AFTER his Ascension…

I will add just one comment to what I have written here. Someone I read once, probably Raymond Brown, described the relationship of the ascension to the resurrection in the witness of the Gospels and Acts as a “gradual withdrawal”. By this, he meant that if we take the scriptural witness as a whole, what we see is a number of appearances of the resurrected Lord, gradually diminishing in frequency until the final appearance to St Paul. In the midst of that we have witness to both the “withdrawal” (ie. the Ascension) of Jesus and to his promise of a continued “spiritual” presence, most clearly demonstrated in Luke’s description of Pentecost (which seems to be prepared for most thoroughly by the farewell discourses of John’s Gospel).

Be that as it may, when we apply to word “historical” to something like the Resurrection or Ascension of Jesus, we are obviously using the word in a sense a little different from, for instance, the “historicity” of the assasination of Julius Caesar or John F. Kennedy. In this instance, the word “historical” means it definitely happened “in this time and space”, but the very nature of the spiritual events described mean that the events also transcend the “merely” historical. In other words, it isn’t that the Resurrection and Ascension are NOT historical (they are in fact firmly anchored in time and space), it is that they are MORE than just historical.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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One Response to On the Historicity of the Ascension

  1. Vincent Sully says:

    Dear David

    You obviously accept the historicity of the Ascension. Recently I heard a claim that, as the bodily Ascension of Jesus is only described in one Gospel, it suggests that it may not have been an actual historical event. Are there commentaries by any of the Popes or sources of information other than the scriptures themselves which support the historicity of the Ascension.

    Regards

    Vincent.

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