Authorial Note: After hearing a sermon in which Jesus was an astronaut because he ascended into heaven, I finally decided to tackle in an academic way, the best that I could, the ascension narrative of the Acts of Apostles. For one such as myself, it is this narrative, and not the resurrection and other miracles even, that is the moment of apparent embarrassment when it comes to the ‘primitive’ views of ancient peoples found in the New Testament. Were we really expected to believe that a man flew in the sky past the clouds? It be firmly honest, I still have not reconciled this narrative in its entirety to my own reason, but the following is an attempt to understand the function of the narrative better, though the historical puzzle will perhaps never leave my side.
The Lukan narrative of the ascension of Jesus at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:6-11) posed a challenge of alternative authority within the setting of the Graeco-Roman world of 1st century C.E. to the wider dominion of the Roman Empire. Often questions surrounding such a narrative inevitably get bound up with questions concerning cosmology, the place and location of heaven, and how exactly the story of the ascension of Jesus functioned not only within the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles but how it may have been heard by hearers within both Graeco-Roman and Jewish milieux. We may lament, along with Mikeal Carl Parsons that, “Too often the question ‘How did the event happen?’ grinds discussion to a halt, so that the larger question ‘How does the narrative function?’ remains untouched…” (Parsons 1987, 14–15; likewise Sleeman 2009, 37). But, while addressing how the narrative functioned, we will find that the question of ancient cosmology cannot so easily be evaded. Douglas B. Farrow, rightly reflecting upon our present inquiry, says, “From Homer to Stephen Hawking the word ‘god’ is liberally sprinkled on the pages of human reflection about the universe, indicating that the ancient bond between theology and cosmology is not easily snapped…” (Farrow 1999, 165).
It is with sensitivity both to the narrative function of the ascension story and to its cosmological background that we will compare the narrative of Jesus’ ascension with four similar narrative-traditions within the same period; two from the Jewish milieu, those of Enoch (Gen. 5:24; 1 Enoch 12; 2 Enoch 67:1-3;Jub. 4:16-26) and Moses (Philo, Life of Moses, 2.288-292; Ezekiel the Tragedian, Exagoge, 67-89), and two from the Graeco-Roman milieu, those of Apollonius of Tyana (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 8:29-30) and Romulus (Plutarch, Romulus, 27.4-28.3; Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1.16). As part of our comparison we will be looking at how these four narrative-traditions functioned with respect to their central figure and how the assumed cosmology of such narratives reflects the function of the narrative itself. In addition, while it will be important to keep in mind the form-critical distinction made by G. Lohfink between ascension stories of a heavenly journey of the soul (Himmelsreise der Seele), and ascension stories involving a full rapture of body and soul (Entrückung) (with the Lukan narrative being categorized in the latter; Zwiep 1997, 21-22), this distinction will not be invested in too heavily, for in fact it will be argued that heaven (οὐρανος) cannot be a sphere/realm/place too easily separated from earth in our narratives. The cosmologies of the narratives will be shown to have immediate implications for the function of such narratives, and it will be argued that the Lukan ascension story is much closer both in cosmological assumptions and in function to the stories of political figures such as Romulus and Moses, than to the stories of holy-sagacious men like Enoch and Apollonius.
The Lukan narrative of the ascension of Jesus has a number of interesting features, all of which are appropriate in considering when analyzing its cosmological assumptions and functional role. Contrary to much of popular belief about ancient cosmology within the Graeco-Roman period, the assumed cosmology of many was not as simple as a three-tiered universe structure. As J.B. Davies elaborates,
…it has to be admitted that the Hebrew regarded the universe as a three-storeyed construction of which heaven was the first and earth the ground floor with Sheol as the basement. Yet it would be a mistake to regard this as in any sense a systematized conception. Heaven itself had been created by God, but the Hebrew never asked where God was before this act of creation took place. Again, it was recognized that “the heaven of heavens cannot contain” Him, and so God could not be said to be confined in space, although one might also affirm that heaven was His throne. (Davies 1958, 57)
In fact, it was noted by E. Haenchen that, in comparison to apocryphal narratives of the ascension story, such as found in the Gospel of Peter, the Lukan narrative “…ist unsentimental und von fast befremdender Nüchternheit’…” (quoted in; Zwiep 1997, 13) for the story does not divulge into long descriptions about what heaven looks like or how many layers it has such as later Enochic traditions do. Rather, heaven appears to function in the Lukan narrative not as another place that could be described, but instead as a realm or “significant setting” in the narrative that serves to “critique these other spatial perspectives” (Sleeman 2009, 146:9, 75). Contrary to Bishop John Spong and Richard Holloway’s assertion that a local transition narrative like a ascension would presume a mythological cosmos, the Lukan narrative does not present a cosmology where Jesus’ ascension is akin to a “space voyage” (Dawson 2004, 31; 39; 34), but rather presumes a relational notion of space. Thomas F. Torrance most adequately differentiated between a receptacle notion of space and a relational notion of space when he spoke of a relational notion as defining space “…in accordance with the nature of the force that gives… [it its]… field of determination”, so that earth would be humanity’s space because of the activity of human beings and in the same way heaven would be God’s space because of the activity of God (Torrance 1976, 130–131). We will find in our further comparison that receptacle notions of space and relational notions of space are found throughout our other four narrative-traditions .
In addition to the presumed relational cosmology of the Lukan narrative, we also find that the role of the narrative is neither for preservation of a body for a further eschatological role (contra Zwiep 1997, 78–79) nor is it simply ascension terminology being used for the ascent of the soul to heaven, for then the resurrection narrative would be left purposeless (noting the unique structure of the Jesus narrative; Farrow 2011, 2). The purpose of the Lukan narrative is made quite clear by the speech reported of Peter in Acts 2:22-36, in which, by quoting from Psalms 16:1-8 and 110:1, he points out that for many early Christian communities the ascension narrative served to show that where other Davidic kings had died, Jesus fulfilled the role as the proper Messianic king of the Jewish people. Furthermore, this kingly/political role of the narrative is further accentuated by the fact that, as Matthew Sleeman as pointed out in relation to the geographical conceptual framework provided by Ed Soja, ‘heaven’ in the Lukan narrative serves as a ‘thirdspace’ whose “…impact on earthly spaces within Acts challenges and reshapes both (firstspace) material locations and (secondspace) ideational projections, crafting constructions of places incorporating and exceeding conventional binary oppositions” (Sleeman 2009, 146:46). One can see this immediately in the preceding words of the Lukan Jesus before his ascension in Acts 1:7-8, where Jesus begins to dismantle not only the disciples’ presumptions about the temporal aspects of the eschaton but also their spatial presumptions found in 1:6. As Sleeman notes, by introducing the three firstspace locations of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria in order firstly to reconceptualise their notions of what firstspace Israel is, he then separates Israel as a whole from their secondspace conceptual framework for the eschaton, by introducing his secondspace of the ‘ends of the earth’, thus effectively “…Jesus does far more than predict the witnesses’ future schedule: he (re)defines their space, and with them, that of the wider world” (Sleeman 2009, 146:72). As we will see, this redefining of firstspaces and secondspaces, by the thirdspace of heaven as the place of the ‘right hand’ of God, is a function of politically shaped ascension narratives focused on relational notions of space, as opposed to ascension narratives shaped by the role of holy/sagacious men and receptacle notions of space.
Beginning with looking at the narrative traditions of the ascensions of Enoch and Apollonius of Tyana, we will look at both their cosmological assumptions and their functional role for their narratives main figures. The narrative tradition of the ascension of Enoch begins quite humbly with a vague reference in Gen. 5:24 of God ‘taking’ (לקח) Enoch, presumably from the LXX translation for his piety (εὐηρέστησεν τῷ θεῷ). From here however his position is elevated to having a role as a eschatological prophet as witnessed by his being referenced even in early Christian literature (Jude 14-15). Much of the Enochic tradition as witnessed by 1 Enoch 12 is concerned with Enoch’s role in having a separate space to be “hidden” (1 Enoch 12:2), which is defined as the space of the Watchers, so that he may record the misdeeds of these fallen angels. What we clearly see in 1 Enoch 12 is a receptacle notion of space, with heaven (presumably) as a separate space to put Enoch alongside of the Watchers, for while even the space is functionally a place for Enoch’s activity, it is not defined by Enoch’s activity. It is also clear what Enoch’s role is, for Enoch’s ascension into heaven does not redefine any geography nor is it to assume any authoritative role, it is so that he may perform his role as a “scribe of righteousness” (1 Enoch 12:4). We do later however see a remarkable mutation of Enoch’s ascension story in 2 Enoch 67:1-3, where we see a remarkable resemble to the Lukan narrative of the ascension of Jesus. The common elements between them are: the conversational setting, the ascension actually being described, the role of eyewitnesses, the attempt at an explanation for such a ascension, the worship of God as a response, and the return of the eyewitnesses to their original starting point (all noted in Zwiep 1997, 50). However, even in this case we must remember Arie W. Zwiep’s own caution that, “Similarities of language and form do not necessarily imply ideological correspondence…” (Zwiep 1997, 39–40). It is with this caution that we must ironically disagree with Zwiep’s own conclusion that the ascension of Enoch in 2 Enoch 67:1-3 exemplifies the basic formulaic structure for the Lukan narrative and that therefore they have the same function, that (in Zwiep’s estimation) of the preservation of a figure for an eschatological role.
It is quite clear that later in the narrative of 2 Enoch the function of the narrative of Enoch’s ascension is precisely to confer authority upon someone else, namely Mefusalom, as Enoch’s son to be priest over the people (2 Enoch 69:1-7). In addition to the function of the narrative as conferring authority upon someone else, because now Enoch serves in a priestly role before God, the cosmological assumption of the narrative is still a receptacle notion of heaven, with no hint as to the relational aspects of how heaven interacts with earth or any other space. Lastly in our consideration then of the Enochic narrative-tradition of Enoch’s ascension we will look at the account in the Book of Jubilees. Here we find the most interesting mutation of the narrative, for here the ascension of Enoch, while transferring him to another location, precisely does not take him to heaven but instead to the Garden of Eden, so that he may perform both the priestly role assigned to him in 2 Enoch and the scribal role assigned to him in 1 Enoch (Jub. 4:23-26). It is interesting that here, while obviously there is a receptacle view of space in this cosmos, the receptacle is not heaven but Eden, for God in this narrative has four special places on earth: the Garden of Eden, the Mount of the East, Mount Sinai, and Mount Zion (Jub 4:26). So while we do get a quasi-redefinition of secondspace notions about God’s residing place, this is not caused by a thirdspace to which Enoch is brought, but simply by the recognition of a larger secondspace than first imagined of where God’s residing place is on earth, the firstspace. On the whole, then, the Enochic narrative-tradition neither has the same cosmological assumptions, nor does it have the same role as the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ ascension.
From our example of a Jewish holy/sagacious figure who is raptured, we move on to analyze the smaller and yet still popular Graeco-Roman narrative-tradition of the ascension of Apollonius of Tyana. Philostratus in his narrative notes that the Damis memoir he has been using does not include a death story and that there were a variety of traditions concerning Apollonius’ death and/or ascension. The ascension tradition we have of Apollonius is small but significant, for in the account of his death in Lindus he simply disappears within the temple of Athene, but in the account of his ascension in Crete it is said that he escaped from his imprisonment and was welcomed by a choir of angels to be brought up to heaven (Life of Apollonius, 8:29-30). In comparing the cosmological assumptions of this narrative with those of the Lukan narrative, at first their mutual lack of description of heaven might lend itself to think that Philostratus’ narrative has a relational notion of space, but as is quite clear from the story, heaven is a receptacle space of refuge to receive the fleeing Apollonius. Now while it is important to note that the gateway to heaven is found within the temple of Dictynna, suggesting that Dictynna is thought of as an important secondspace construction, it is nevertheless not expounded upon exactly how or in what manner the space of heaven defines either the firstspace of Crete nor the secondspace of the temple of Dictynna. As for the function of the narrative, this appears to be two-fold. The first is the aforementioned explanation of Apollonius’ escape from the guards. The second function of the narrative, however, appears to be so that in his immortal state he can continue to visit his disciples to teach them about the immortality of the soul (Life of Apollonius, 8:31). Of note here, then, is how both Apollonius and Enoch are still serving very much sage-like roles even after their ascension, answering inquiries and delivering messages concerning the heavens and the deep mysteries. It is of interest to point out this explicit function of the ascension stories of Enoch and Apollonius because it is precisely not what we find throughout much of the New Testament and, most pertinent to our study, especially not the Acts of the Apostles. After the ascension story the apostles are left on their own to cast lots for the new disciple (Acts 1:26), they are given the Holy Spirit for communication and as a sign of the ‘Day of the Lord’ (Acts 2:1-20), and in the dispute concerning the gentiles they must rely on the judgment of James (Acts 15). In fact the only thing the post-ascension Jesus appears to do in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles is commission Paul (Acts 9:1-19). Present in the narrative-traditions of both Apollonius and Enoch then, are the cosmological assumptions of a receptacle view of space and the functional role of their ascensions to be for the deliverance of holy/sagacious men to a place safe from danger so that they may give their post-ascension wisdom/revelations/instructions. It may be safe to argue that neither of their narrative-traditions is well suited to understand the Jesus ascension narrative.
The Lukan narrative presumes both a relational notion of space, where heaven is a thirdspace, and the functional role of the ascension as the enthronement of their main figure for political authority. It is with this in mind then that we’ll explore the narrative-traditions of two political figures with ascension, namely Moses, and Romulus. The narrative-tradition of Moses’ ascension and all its components is too immense to cover fully, but what can be gleaned from both Philo’s account and Ezekiel the Tragedian’s record of a dream confirm quite well that kingship/royalty/politics was a key factor in understanding Moses’ ascension to heaven. Beginning with Deuteronomy 34:4-8, it would seem quite odd, given this clear description of his death and burial that there should be a ascension tradition about Moses, and yet it appears that because of the unknown location of the burial (v.6), speculation grew. The tradition appeared, as evidenced by 2 Baruch 59:9-11 and Jub. 1:1-4, 26, firstly to unfold from the notion that Moses’ ascent up Sinai to receive the law in Exodus 24, was not merely an ascent up a mountain but into heaven itself. In fact, the furthest expansion upon this idea appears in Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagoge, in which Moses has a dream of ascending Sinai and finding a heavenly throne. The one seated upon the throne, who in this case we can only presume to be God, remarkably gets up from his throne and gives all the royal accessories to Moses. Jethro, Moses’ father in-law interprets the dream as a sign that Moses shall lead a great people and shall raise up a “mighty throne” (Exagoge, 67-89). As John J. Collins, has rightly pointed out, is that “What is implied in the vision, then, is the virtual apotheosis of Moses” (J. J. Collins 1995, 51). Moses, like Enoch, in this dream is allowed to see all times and place, even with the stars underneath his feet (Exagoge, 77-89). However, as rightly pointed out by Zwiep, this scene and the traditions before it, do not quite represent an entire full-body rapture as the conclusion of the figure’s life (Zwiep 1997, 65–66; so also Collins 1995, 51).
From this point, however, we have both the accounts of Philo and of Josephus that appear to narrate or imply a rapture story. In Philo’s Life of Moses we get a similar tradition to 2 Baruch and the Book of Jubilees, where Moses is given the world as his possession in sharing God’s own possession, allowed to see the inner mysteries of the heavens, and is declared both “god and king of the whole nation” (Life of Moses, 1.155-159). While the source of Moses being called ‘god’ may be made clear by Exodus 7:1, the tradition of Moses being a ‘king’ comes from Rabbinic Midrash from R. Tanhuma, who in interpreting Numbers 10:1-2 brings together Moses being declared ‘god’ with the implication that Moses shared in God’s kingship (Meeks 1968, 355–357). However, at the end of the account of the Life of Moses, we get an account- which while arguably, alongside of the Assumption of Moses and the ‘duplex Moses tradition’, describes the ascent of the soul to heaven (Life of Moses, 2.288-292)- is grouped with both Enoch and Elijah and uses vivid ascension terminology (Zwiep 1997, 66n2). Lastly with regard to the narrative tradition of Moses’ ascension, we have the account from Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, IV 8.48), in which Moses is said to have “gone back to the divinity” (πρὸς τὸ θεῖον ἀναχωρῆσαι). The phrase “gone back to the divinity” is a technical phrase used in Josephus, otherwise only used with reference to Enoch, and furthermore much else of the terminology in the narrative such as verb ἀφανίζομαι is used with reference to both Elijah and Enoch (Zwiep 1997, 67; so too Tabor 1989, 227). In fact, the account of Moses’ ascension in Josephus is so vivid that James D. Tabor is forced to argue that Josephus wanted to both describe the ascension of Moses as like the ascension of Philo’s Moses or Dionysius’ Aeneas and Romulus, and yet have it not so (Tabor 1989, 237–238)! In agreement with Zwiep however, we must find Tabor’s argument unpersuasive, for it appears that Josephus intends to record that “…Moses, knowing in advance of his coming rapture (like Elijah!), apparently wanted to avoid any notion of merit on his own part” and thus wrote his own burial account (Zwiep 1997, 69). Furthermore, this was not done on Josephus’ part as “…a conscious resistance…” to such traditions about other figures (as in Tabor 1989, 237) but rather to explain the discrepancy of why there were both accounts of Moses’ ascension to heaven and of his burial. What we have then in the narrative-tradition of the ascension of Moses as a whole, while not necessarily a full bodily rapture such as our Lukan narrative, is both the cosmological presumption of a relational view of space and the function of the narratives to confer political authority on their main figure.
The heaven of this narrative-tradition, while serving quite secondarily as a receptacle space to explain the disappearance of the body of Moses, is also clearly a thirdspace that defines the secondspace of Moses’ ruler-ship as the whole world. The function of the narrative-tradition appears solely to be that of conferring political authority upon a national figure, and not upon any existing institution such as the Hasmonean kings (Meeks 1968, 366). Having looked at one national figure, we shall move to our last narrative-tradition for comparison, that of Romulus. In Plutarch’s account of Romulus’ ascension we have, first, the oddity of the disappearance of the body, then the conjecture that the senators had indeed murdered him in the temple of Vulcan, then finally the story that a dark cloud had descended upon Romulus in a public assembly meeting, taking up him to heaven to be not merely a god but a king. At first many accused the senators of themselves fabricating the story to trick the people, but then upon the testimony of Julius Proculus having seen a heavenly vision of Romulus, the people began to worship Romulus as the god Quirinus (Romulus, 27.4-28.3). Livy’s account of this apotheosis is quite similar to Plutarch’s in that it too has the disappearance of the body, the rumour that the senators themselves had killed Romulus, the public assembly setting for the thick cloud that hid Romulus from the sight of the public to take him up to heaven, and the worship of Romulus by the people as a god (Ab urbe condita, 1.16). In addition, however, Livy’s account of Proculus Julius’ account of his heavenly visitation of Romulus gives not only a clearer indication of a relational view of space, but also of the specific function for the post-ascension Romulus. Plutarch’s account does indicate the pre-existence of the deity of Romulus and instructions for the Roman people so that they may be at the height of humanity (Romulus, 28.2), but Livy’s account contains a fuller account of the function of Romulus’ ascension.
In Livy’s account we have the post-ascension Romulus declaring it to be “…the will of heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world; so let them cherish the art of war, and let them know and teach their children that no human strength can resist Roman arms” (Ab urbe condita, 1.16.7). Quite clearly, then, we can see the relational notion of space in view here, for heaven acts as a thirdspace in order to redefine the secondspace of the capital city of the firstspace, the world. It is true that the receptacle notion of space is also in view, so that heaven is the space where the mysterious disappearance of the body of Romulus is explained, but beyond this it is clear that the establishment of Rome is achieved by Romulus’ having authority in heaven, the thirdspace. Furthermore, this scene, as Adela Yarbro Collins rightly points out, is very similar to the commissioning scenes in the Gospels of Luke and John, and most especially, the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20 (A. Y. Collins 2009, 30). In this light we may see Acts 1:8 as a commissioning scene in and of itself, where the disciples, like the Roman people, receive their power from ‘on high’ and are commanded to go out to be witnesses to the power of the post-ascension figure.
As we have seen then, the Lukan ascension story is much closer both in cosmological assumptions and in function to the stories of political figures such as Moses and Romulus, than to the stories of holy-sagacious men like Enoch and Apollonius. With Enoch and Apollonius, it was clear that in their narrative-traditions the emphasis was upon a receptacle view of space, for whom ‘heaven’ was a receptacle in which to receive their body but in no way had any relational aspect with earth. We also found with both of these figures that the function of their narratives was both for the escape of the figure and for their post-ascension instruction of their disciples, but it was not connected in any way to political authority. In contrast to them, we have found that while the narrative traditions of both Moses and Romulus do have a receptacle notion of space, so that heaven is a space for which to put their mysteriously missing bodies, this notion was strongly overshadowed by their relational notion of space. For these narrative-traditions, ‘heaven’ served as a thirdspace, much like it did in the Lukan narrative, which, after the entrance of their main figure redefined secondspace conceptions. In addition, we saw how with Moses and Romulus, their ascension narrative-traditions served to confer upon them a distinct unique political authority, much like our Lukan narrative as we saw from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:22-36. Aside from characteristic features and specific terminology of our narrative traditions, we have seen how in both cosmological assumption concerning space and in the function of their narratives, the Lukan ascension narrative concerning Jesus is much closer in resemblance to the political figures of Moses and Romulus, than to the sagacious figures of Enoch and Apollonius. Lastly, we may even see this political dimension in the response of the angels in the Lukan ascension narrative to the disciples (Acts 1:10-11), in which it appears that “…Idly gazing into heaven is an inappropriate reaction to Jesus’ ascension…Implicit in the angels’ words, of course, is that the disciples ought to busy themselves in light of and because of Jesus’ absence” (Parsons 1987, 182).
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 For our purposes we will not be considering the identification of Enoch as the Son of Man in 1 Enoch 70-71, for not only its notorious textual problems but also because the dating of that narrative is quite the matter of dispute (Zwiep 1997, 51–58).
 Admittedly the sample of stories upon which we are drawing from the Graeco-Roman world and Jewish milieu is quite small in comparison with the vast literary tradition of such figures that include Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-18), Baruch (2 Baruch 76:1-5), Phinehas (Ps-Philo, Liber Antiquitatum, 48:1), and Heracles (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca II 7, 7; DiodS, Hist IV 38, 5; Euripides, Heraclidae 910; Lysias 2, 11; Lucian, Cynicus 13; Hermotimus 7; Cicero, Tusculanae I 14, 32), and many more besides, but for sake of brevity we must. (All these examples are discussed in; Zwiep 1997, 38; 58–63; 71–76)
 The translation for this passage come from: Tabor, 1989
 It does seem clear however that neither Plutarch or Livy actually believe this account to be true, but the importance of their reporting of a narrative-tradition is no less important for that.
 On which, “The ascension of Jesus in Acts more closely resembles the Greco-Roman literature in terms of characteristic features- clouds, angels, and mountains seem to play a more significant role in the pagan texts than in the Jewish literature. The Lukan terminology, on the other hand, is much closer to the Jewish literature, particularly the Elijah texts” (Parsons 1987, 40). In addition however, the argument here gets beyond the impasse of Graeco-Roman vs. Jewish influence debate, for the argument does not emphasize the Jewish nature of the story as in contrast with the Graeco-Roman nature of it or vice-versa.