I was slightly irritated by the imprecision of the question, like that time a pollster on the phone asked me if I believed that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. Yes. I believe that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. So there I am in a poll somewhere, recorded as one of the weirdos who think that Bush planned the whole thing, when in fact I doubt very much that the former President had the intellectual acuity to plan a BBQ.
“Do you, as an historian, believe in Jesus?” My response was that I believed that one Yeshua of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi, executed by the Romans, whose immediate followers established a rather significant sect within Judaism, certainly existed. I braced myself for what I knew was coming. “But as a historian do you believe He was God?” My initial inclination was to throw myself out the window. But I considered that, actually, it was a perfectly fair question and deserving of a fair answer. I said that I considered the evidence insufficient to establish the validity of that hypothesis, but observed that this wasn’t necessarily my belief “as an historian”, because I know better historians, more accomplished and smarter than me, who think otherwise. I did, however, observe that modern history is an empirical discipline: we deal in what’s probable, and that miracles are highly improbable by definition: if people went around resurrecting all the time there wouldn’t be any particular reason to get all excited about it. And so I felt that history, as a profession, might be mute where such things are concerned, for the same reason that the field of geography doesn’t have much to say about musical appreciation.
I had the feeling that the student felt this was a cop-out, but it really wasn’t intended to be. In the historio-critical tradition that is the dominant mode of investigating and understanding scripture in academe, and indeed in most mainline protestant and Catholic seminaries these days, scripture is understood as a testament of faith and theology, never intended – not even by its anonymous authors – to be understood as “history” in the way we understand history today.
But there’s a problem. There are indeed some denominations that regard scripture as a literal and inerrant account of the past. And polls show that, in the United States in particular, such people aren’t a small minority. There are tens of millions who think like that, although polls also show that such people usually know very little about what’s actually in scripture. But to such people, let me pose a question of my own, in the form of an extended observation.
For Christians, the Ascension is an important milestone in the life of Jesus, the moment when He, in the presence of His apostles, was taken up into Heaven.
I’ll leave aside the fact that I remain mute on whether or not this actually occurred as an historical event (i.e.: an historical event in the way that, say, Lincoln delivered a speech at Gettysburg) because I don’t understand what “Ascension” means. I literally have no idea what is meant by “taken up into Heaven” so I can hardly be expected to decide whether or not it actually happened. But I do want to point out something interesting.
The Ascension is described in the Acts of the Apostles and in two of the four canonical Gospels. It’s in Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:50-53.
Well, sort of. Today there is a virtual consensus of scholars in the field of exegesis that verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were later additions to the original and rather dark ending of Mark in verse 8, where the “Three Marys” open Jesus’ tomb, find it empty, and run away afraid. Some scholars therefore regard 9-20, with its accounts of the resurrected Jesus and His Ascension to be “inauthentic”, and you can find Bibles where it is relegated to a footnote. As for Luke 24:50-53, have a look at the photo, top left. What don’t you notice? Ascension. I own three Bibles, which is pretty good for a guy like me. And my Revised Standard Version King James doesn’t mention the Ascension in 50-53, although it includes the following footnote: “Other ancient authorities add and was carried up into Heaven” after verse 51. By contrast, my Oxford Annotated RSV includes the phrase but with an opposite footnote: “Other ancient authorities omit and was carried up into Heaven.”
Now, look. There are some atheists out there who make great sport out of this sort of thing, but I have little patience for those kinds of narrow strawman attacks. But I do have a question for those of you who regard the Bible as literally true and inerrant: which Bible?