Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ascension Deficit Disorder, part 2

In yesterday’s blog entry, I told a lie. Well, it’s only a little lie, but it’s not the whole truth of the matter, that’s for sure. I was saying that the ascension of Jesus seems to be an important event and, “the gospel writers tell the story so well.” That quote right there- as generally believed as it may be- is not quite true. The gospel writers don’t really tell the story all that well. In fact, John never mentions it and Matthew ends with a very different idea altogether saying, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In fact, if we only had the gospels of Matthew and John, we’d get to “Ascension Sunday” on the church’s liturgical calendar and look at one another all day asking, “So, what exactly are we supposed to be celebrating today?”

But wait, we say, what about the other gospel writers? Great question. What does Mark have to say about the ascension? Well, that depends on how you read the gospel of Mark. Most of the oldest reliable manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end the last chapter with verse 8. It is not a happy ending. In fact, it is the kind of ending that is just begging for someone to come along and fix it. And, there are folks who have tried. One ending adds a closing statement to v.8 that wraps the story up nicely. Another ending adds verses 9-21, which includes v.19: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” I really like the idea of Jesus finally having a chance to take a load off and put his feet up for a spell, but most biblical scholars will tell you that this ending is highly doubtful as part of the original gospel of Mark. So, at best we can say that someone who amended Mark’s gospel included an ascension story, saying that Jesus “was taken up into heaven.”

And that leaves Luke. Luke, in fact, unequivocally includes the ascension story, first at the end of the Gospel of Luke (24:50-53) and then again at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (1:9-11). The two accounts are told somewhat differently, but Luke is known for re-telling stories with slight differences (see his accounts of Saul’s conversion to Paul as examples.) I would say that, in the main, Luke’s accounts are alike and that the differences show that Luke is more concerned about being “in the moment” than being entirely accurate about every little detail of a story.

Put it all together and the ascension story fares about like the birth narrative of Jesus among the four gospels. Let’s sketch it out:

Birth Narrative
Matthew: Yes, but with Magi and not shepherds.
Mark: No.
Luke: Yes, lots of pageant-worthy details.
John: No.

Ascension Story
Matthew: No.
Mark: Not originally, but added later.
Luke: Yes, with lots of pageant-worthy details.
John: No.

So, what can we conclude from this comparison? Two things.

1. John is no fun at all.
2. If I ever have a gospel writer tell my life story, I’m calling up Luke and working the book deal to include movie rights as well.

More importantly, however, this comparison shows that there was not enormous agreement among the story-tellers in the early church over the importance of the ascension as part of Jesus’ story. For Matthew and John, either the ascension didn’t happen; or it did happen and nobody told them about it; or it did happen and somebody did tell them about it but they didn’t consider it necessary or worthy to be put into their gospel story. Hmm….

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