Important Preface: The ultimate objective of this article is to stimulate increasing expressions of compassion by everyone – all types of Christians and others, religious or not. Deeper understanding of the development of Christian faith can serve this end, particularly among Christians (or “Jesus followers”), wherever within the sphere of specific theologies a person stands.
The Process of Story Creation
You may wonder, “How can he link ‘evidences’ and ‘myth-making’ together in that title”? Aren’t they opposites?
Actually, they are pretty closely linked. In this article, I’ll use the New Testament story of the ascension of Jesus as a case in point. With Easter coming soon, there will be a lot of attention on The Resurrection. There is no question of its historical importance to the origins of Christianity… at least the centrality of claims of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, three days after his crucifixion. Actually, we cannot be sure just when claims of bodily resurrection arose in the early years of Jesus-following.
Some brief context for what will follow as discussion of both Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension: First, I am a Christian of “progressive” type… basically a follower of Jesus but not of all doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, in any of its three major branches. I will not here explain my reasons, but a bit of my thinking will be apparent in this post and much further in other posts, particularly on my blog at www.NaturalSpirituality.Wordpress.com, covering a dozen years of articles.
Second, as I have spent much of my formal education and free time over decades in both orthodox and progressive study contexts, I accept many of the tentative conclusions of “historical critical” scholarship on the Bible and Christian faith development from the last two to three centuries. One such conclusion, even agreed upon by most pertinent atheistic or agnostic scholars, is that Jesus of Nazareth did exist, teach and minister, and was crucified by the Romans around 30 CE (AD). In other words, his life and death are not a “myth”. A few other general facts about Jesus are well attested historically, apart from “articles of faith”, including at least the general tenor and points of his teaching.
However, it is also clear that what is in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the few other early (through the first century or so) documents referring to Jesus contains much more that cannot be taken as historically validated (nor need it be to have value). The stories and claims are varied, supporting a given author’s purpose, and are sometimes contradictory or impossible to both (or all) be true… the result of creative storytelling outside our ability to historically validate. Much of this is clearly of the nature of “Christian evidences”, or apologetics (defense of the faith), even as specific belief content was being formed.
Coming to the purported ascension specifically, we see evidences for faith openly appealed to by Luke, the traditionally-named author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts. In Acts, Luke says Jesus “… showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the Kingdom of God” (1:3, NIV). Now, this short statement is packed with things we cannot here take time to fully explore, but will focus on a couple aspects relative to “evidences for faith” and story-creation or “myth-making”. (The latter two not meaning untruths but principles or “truths” in story or symbolic form not to be taken literally or factually …. Ancient oral tradition as well as written stories of how the world and the role of God/gods were seen did, strangely from our vantage point, often mix historical and fictive information, in the service of supporting a given religion or cult within one, and seeking to explain the inexplicable.)
Just How Did Jesus Appear to his Followers after his Crucifixion?
Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles” is the only historical (or quasi-historical) account of early Christianity composed for nearly three centuries beyond Jesus’ time, written around 60 to 90 years after the crucifixion.
This makes Acts extremely influential.
In it, Luke casts his “history” as though Jesus was present bodily over a 40-day period, speaking about “the Kingdom of God” (indeed his major theme in life, per the Gospels; something quite apropos for the activity of Jesus between resurrection and ascension). Thus, Christians should give thought to squaring this claim with a reading of the Gospels/Acts as referring to the Resurrection as story-form symbolism of victory over death, of new life. Further, since the Resurrection is generally taken as a foundational point (to many, the pivotal one) in launching Christianity, should we not understand as much as possible about the nature of it? About potential historical evidences for it, along with Jesus’ ascension, tied together as they are?
Claims about the apparently physical, visible departure of Jesus (“ascension”) are part of the broader Resurrection concepts, intimately tied to the later development of “orthodoxy”.
Many, many entire books have been written on the subject of Jesus’ resurrection. There is no point to reviewing or even summarizing the issues or arguments here. As a less-considered part of the full Jesus story of the New Testament, I will here, and in Part 2, mainly relate Resurrection stories to Luke’s description of ascension day facts (or story elements later taken as facts by Christians for many centuries, including perhaps a majority of us today).
One thing important to mention as to the Resurrection is my considered opinion that the human Jesus probably did appear, in some manner, to a number of his disciples and to the Apostle Paul (at least a few years later than the rest), though not raised bodily. I take Paul’s testimony (especially in I Cor. 15) about his own visionary experience of Jesus as representative of others’. He implies strong similarity between his experience and what he’d heard directly (perhaps also indirectly) from disciples like Peter and John.
That is, he seems to be saying, “We all had powerful visions of Jesus as alive, mine being perhaps the last one”.
I don’t see historical evidence to put his description of a visionary/auditory “altered state” experience in a distinct category from others’ “risen-Messiah” experiences spoken about in the Gospels. The implications of Paul’s writing actually goes against two types of “appearances”. (If you do see historical evidence, please share, but not just citation of certain verses, all of which I’ve read multiple times, though not necessarily with proper interpretation.)
None of the resurrection appearances are recounted directly by the experiencers (although some would contend that John, being the possible author of the gospel later attributed to him, speaks for himself, in third person). Religious or other visionary experiences are not uncommon, in ancient or modern times, and can certainly be life-transforming as those potentially experienced by several disciples appear to have been.
This does not mean they were hallucinations (unreal), but rather leaves open the possibility of being glimpses into the spiritual realm in a particularly vivid though not infallible way. And not genuinely authoritative for others. One possibility: that Jesus was signaling his continuation of life “beyond” and pouring out encouragement to continue the building of “The Kingdom of God” in ways he’d instructed. A great many people currently believe they have been “contacted”, subtly or quite unmistakably, by loved ones, particularly soon after their passing. Generally, it is a highly comforting, even sometimes a guiding experience.
Did Jesus’ Disciples Believe he was God?
It is extremely difficult for us modern readers to take things from the Bible as they were meant or would likely have been understood by their original audiences… that is, in their cultural, religious and historical context. One of the most difficult and confusing such issues is whether Jesus’ followers, even after potential encounters of some powerful kind with him after his death, believed him to be God… distinct from the “Father” he often spoke of, but equal in nature. This question of their beliefs about Jesus is a very important theological issue, and one which has more availability to historical analysis than first meets the eye.
Suffice it for present purposes to say that Paul’s letters, as the earliest Christian writings we have, give some clues. And a close comparison of them with overlapping or pertinent situations described in Acts yields some surprising insights. Basically, that’s to the effect that Jesus’ original disciples and the Apostles in Jerusalem (which didn’t include Paul), probably accepted Jesus as their Jewish Messiah in the typically understood sense of a divinely anointed man with God’s special empowerment, but in no way God himself. In a tiny nutshell, this is evidenced numerous places, though mostly indirectly, in Acts. It is also implied of the Jerusalem believers by Paul. It shows up via their ongoing worship in the Temple, keeping of The Law (Torah), and their general acceptance (despite brief persecution of some of them) as a legitimate messianic sect within broad Judaism, which was prone to many variations for centuries.
If Jesus’ initial followers kept to the Jewish ideas of who their Messiah would be and did not shift to believing Jesus was God, it leaves us with three prominent possibilities:
- Jesus did not actually rise physically and leave an empty tomb
- Jesus did rise but later died (again) of natural or other causes (with no such indication in the New Testament)
- Jesus, as human, was raised by God and later taken away supernaturally (similarly to the “taking” of Enoch or Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures — Elijah seen departing by Elisha, his protege [2 Kings 2:11-12], perhaps a telling precedent for Jesus’ visible departure)
So, what may the story of Jesus’ ascension tell us that is of importance… whether one takes it as literal or as a fictional element brought in for theological or faith-building reasons?
We will look into this question further in Part 2 (so follow this site for notifications). We’ll examine how it is related to biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, and why it is mentioned only by the author Luke among four gospel writers.
What thoughts or questions come up for you? Please share in the comment section.