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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(1997)


 

Part II

EARLIEST TRADITIONS ABOUT JESUS' FATE AND HIS PERSON

 

Chapter 7

TRADITION OF JESUS' ASCENSION

 

The view that Jesus was executed by some authority in Palestine was only one way in which the disappearance of Jesus was explained. Another explanation was that Jesus was taken up into heaven. This explanation particularly appealed to those who knew facts about Jesus' last days that did not fit with the hypothesis of his execution; those, for example, who saw him in Galilee after his escape from Jerusalem and found no evidence of any move by Herod against him. Some of these may have had other explanations such as that Jesus went into exile. But in view of their love for him and their amazement at his healing miracles most inclined to the view of his ascension.

A number of writers have noted that the traditions of exaltation or ascension are independent of resurrection. One cannot be deduced from the other. Resurrection is not a necessary prelude to ascension, so that it is possible to speak of Jesus' return to the Father without resurrection language. (See, e.g., Pheme Perkin, Resurrection, 1984, pp. 20-21; R. E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, E. Schillebeeckx, Jesus, 533-38.) But if the tradition of Jesus' ascension was independent of the tradition of resurrection, then it could also be independent of the tradition of his death.

In this chapter I review the tradition of Jesus' ascension and show that originally this tradition was independent of the tradition of Jesus' death, thus supporting the view presented above, namely that the death and the ascension were two alternative ways of explaining the generally unknown fate of Jesus.

The tradition of Jesus' ascension is extremely early and has a stronger attestation than the tradition of Jesus' execution. For, all the extant documents that mention the execution also mention the resurrection which assumes some form of ascension, since these documents do not present the risen Jesus to be living somewhere on earth. But the reverse is not true, for, there are some documents such as the Gospel of Thomas which do not mention the execution but assume Jesus to be living and hence ascended.

Explicit references to the ascension are abundant. Paul refers to it in Ephes 4:8-10 and in 1 Thess 1:10 he waits for the Son from heaven. Luke-Acts actually describes the ascension (24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11) and John refers to it in clear terms (3:13, 20:17 etc).

Just as traditions of Jesus' execution started with brief speculations like "he was crucified by Pilate", "the Jews killed him" or "Herod slew him," so also traditions of Jesus' translation to heaven (without death) started with brief statements like "God raised him up,""he was lifted up,""he was received up into heaven." And just as the brief statements about execution were developed into passion narratives, so also the short formulas about Jesus' ascension were developed into accounts of ascension, although commonplace knowledge about executions provided much more extensive material for the narrators of the passion than did the legends of ascensions of earlier figures out of which the narrators of ascension had to weave their accounts. And finally, just as we find various narratives of Jesus' execution, so also we find various accounts of Jesus' ascension. We now proceed to examine to examine these accounts.

 

Ascension from Jerusalem

It is convenient to begin with those accounts which have the earliest attestation, although, as it will be seen below, these are not the earliest accounts. The accounts with the earliest attestation are found in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of Peter and they all place the ascension in Jerusalem, albeit at different locations.

According to the conclusion of Luke, Jesus ascended to heaven from Bethany presumably on the same day he appeared to the disciples:

And he led them as far as Bethany: and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:50-52). [Some ancient authorities omit the words "and, he was carried up into heaven". But at this point in Luke the most natural way of understanding Jesus' departure is his ascension.]

A different account of the ascension is found in the beginning of Acts. Jesus is seen after his resurrection for a period of forty years. Then they assemble at some unspecified place, where Jesus discourses with them. Then:

After he had said these things, while they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud caught him up from their vision. And as they were gazing into the sky while he was on his way, also, look! two men in white garments stood alongside them, and they said: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus who was received up from you into the sky will come thus in the same manner as you have beheld him going into the sky."

Then they returned to Jerusalem from a mountain called the Mount of Olives ... (1:9-12).

Here Jesus is being lifted up to heaven in full view of the apostles with the same body that he had during his life and with which he rose from the dead. The cloud does not serve the purpose of making Jesus' ascension mysterious possibly hiding his transformation into a divine form. The cloud hides Jesus only when he had risen sufficiently high, so that it was only the later part of the journey to heaven that the apostles could not see.

When in Acts 1:6 Luke talks of the assembling of Jesus and the disciples he does not tell where they assembled but in 1:12 he presents the disciples returning from the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem implying that the assembly and the ascension took place on the Mount of Olive. This rather conniving way of telling us about the place of ascension together with the form of address, "Men of Galilee," used by the two men in white garments suggests that the tradition Luke is using placed the ascension away from Jerusalem, probably in Galilee, although in placing the ascension in Jerusalem Luke may not be inventing tradition but using an already existing tradition.

The tradition that Jesus ascended from Mount of Olives and that he ascended from Bethany may not be irreconcilable, at least in the mind of Luke, since Bethany was situated on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives and ascension from one may be described as ascension from the other. However, originally the two traditions seem to be independent. Jesus frequented both Mount of Olives and Bethany (Mark 11:1,11, 12, 14:3, 26, Luke 22:39, John 12:1, 18:1-2 etc). In Jerusalem, therefore, these two places would be the most natural to be connected with the ascension. But there may be more to the two traditions. It is possible that after his last supper Jesus actually went to Bethany via the Mount of Olives and it was from Bethany that he secretly left Jerusalem. Therefore, in the knowledge of some persons Jesus disappeared from Bethany, which meant that he ascended to heaven from there. The venue then moves to the Mount of Olives because a mountain is a proper place for ascension, especially since Mount of Olives had religious significance and earlier traditions of ascension from Galilee also placed the ascension from a mountain (see below).

A third and completely different account of the ascension from Jerusalem is given in the Gospel of Peter (written somewhere between 70-150 C.E.):

Now ... there rang out a loud voice in heaven, and they saw the heavens opened and two men come down from there in great brightness and draw nigh to the sepulchre. That stone which had been laid against the entrance to the sepulchre started of itself to roll and give way to the side, and the sepulchre was opened, and both the young men entered in. And whilst [the soldiers] were relating what they had seen, they saw again three men come out from the sepulchre, and two of them sustaining the other and a cross following them, and the heads of the two reaching to heaven, but that of him who was led of them by the hand overpassing the heavens. And they heard a voice out of the heavens crying, "You have preached to them that sleep?" and from the cross there was heard the answer, "Yea" (9:35-10:42).

That the Gospel of Peter is talking about ascension is shown by two statements. First, the heads of the two men and Jesus reach to heaven and beyond. This may be reference to huge height of the three men, which is often used to depict the importance and stature of heavenly beings. But it more strongly suggests an ascending trio, especially since the size of the two men is not depicted as huge during their descent. Second, the women who later come to the tomb are told: "He is not here. For he is risen and gone thither whence he was sent" (13:57).

The following interpolation into Mark 16:4 in a codex (Codex Bobiensis or k, connected with the monastery of Bobbio in northern Italy and dated in the fourth century) gives a similar account which is much more clearly an account of the ascension:

But suddenly at the third hour of the day [about 9:00 a.m.] there was darkness over the whole circle of the earth, and angels descended from the heavens, and as they were rising in the glory of the living God, at the same time they ascended with him, and immediately it was light. Then the women went to the tomb ... [Metzger (quoted in Crossan, The Cross That Spoke, p. 344) corrects "they were rising" to "he [the Lord] was rising." Others suggest that "they" in "they were rising" alludes to the two men and Jesus in the ascension tradition.]

The two accounts in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of Peter/Codex Bobiensis correspond to two different ways in which the ascension was seen in relation to the appearances. In Luke-Acts Jesus appears to the disciples after a bodily resurrection and then ascends to heaven. In the Gospel of Peter/Codex Bobiensis Jesus ascends to heaven from the tomb and then appears to the disciples in some form. That the ascension of Jesus can move to or from the tomb is the first indication that ascension was at one point independent of the death. Another indication is provided by the tradition of Jesus' transfiguration.

 

Ascension from Galilee

The accounts of Jesus' ascension from Galilee seem to have existed before those from Jerusalem. This is not only supported by indications that the account of ascension in Acts is dependent on an account of ascension from Galilee but also by strong evidence that the story of the transfiguration of Jesus, found in all the synoptic gospels (Mark 9:2-8=Matt 17:1-8=Luke 9:28-36, cf. 2 Pet 1:16-18, John 12:28) as a Galilean story, was originally an account of ascension. The appearance of Moses and Elijah who are among the men believed to have been taken to heaven itself suggests ascension. But there are also many links of the story of the transfiguration with stories of ascension. Thus in the account of Jesus' ascension from the tomb in the Gospel of Peter (see above) the two men appearing in great brightness and a voice from heaven establish a connection with the transfiguration story. Likewise the presence of a "cloud," "two men" ("in glory" or "in white garments,") and a "mountain" link the transfiguration story with the account of ascension in Acts. In Luke's version of the transfiguration it is explicitly stated that "they entered into the cloud" recalling Acts 1:9: "a cloud caught him up". "They" who entered into the cloud in Luke's account of the transfiguration are almost certainly Moses, Elijah and Jesus, although Luke's statement is not explicit. However, the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter (first half of the second century) is explicit:

And there came a great and exceeding white cloud over our heads and bore away our Lord and Moses and Elias. And I trembled and was afraid, and we looked up and the heavens opened and we saw men in the flesh, and they came and greeted our Lord and Moses and Elias and went into the second heaven (v.17, quoted from NTA, II, 682-683).

This passage is linked with the transfiguration not only by the reference to the cloud, Moses and Elijah, but also by the statement that Peter, who is the purported author, trembled and was afraid; this statement recalls Mark 9:6, where the disciples are "terrified" after witnessing the transfiguration.

There are also other accounts of ascension which have connections with the transfiguration story. Thus in the Acts of Pilate (whose earliest version may come from the first half of the second century) three Jews from Galilee testify one after the other:

As he sat on the mountain Mamilch and taught his disciples, we saw that a cloud overshadowed him and his disciples. And the cloud carried him up to heaven, and his disciples lay on their faces on the ground (XVI.5, NTA, p. 468).

Compare the underlined words with the words in Luke's version of the transfiguration: "a cloud came and overshadowed them" (9:34).

The Epistula Apostolorum (second century) concludes the story of Jesus with the following account of the ascension:

And after he had said this and ended the discourse with us, he said again to us, "Look! After three days and three hours he who sent me will come that I may go with him." And as he spoke there was thunder and lightning and an earthquake, and the heavens divided and a bright cloud came and took him away. And we heard the voice of many angels as they rejoiced and praised and said, "Assemble us, O priest, in the light of glory." And when he (or, they, according to other manuscripts) had come near to the firmament of the heaven, we heard him say, "Go in peace" (ch. 51).

Earlier in the Epistula (ch. 13) we were told that Jesus performed the function of a priest before his descent to this world. He entrusted this function to the archangels until he should return to the Father. In the above passage the voice of the angels that the disciples hear welcomes Jesus back to his priestly function. The combination of cloud and voice provides a clear link between this account of ascension and the transfiguration story.

The fact that the transfiguration story has connections with accounts of ascension found in many different documents from the first two centuries is a strong indication that transfiguration was originally an ascension story. However, other interpretations have been proposed by some scholars. Thus it has been suggested by some that the transfiguration was originally a resurrection-appearance story. But this is unlikely since the connections between the two types of stories are very weak. In a resurrection-appearance story there is never a cloud or a voice or two men (except in some versions of the empty tomb story which is a completely different type of story). Another suggestion is that the transfiguration is a pre-figuration of the parousia. This suggestion has some basis in the fact that the synoptic gospels refer to the coming of the kingdom of God (Matthew: Son of Man) within the lifetime of Jesus' generation just before the transfiguration story (Mark 9:1=Matt 16:28=Luke 9:27). But this reference could simply mean that before his ascension Jesus one last time looks forward to the imminent coming of the kingdom (cf. Acts 1:10-11, where two angels talk of Jesus' return as he ascends to heaven). Another basis for the suggestion that the transfiguration is a pre-figuration of the parousia is that some features of the story have an apocalyptic coloring, e.g. clouds, raiment of light worn by the angels but these features are not at all unique to apocalyptic visions and expectations. And in any case, Jesus' ascension, in so far as it establishes him as the Son of Man/Messiah who is to return soon, could well acquire apocalyptic features.

Now if the transfiguration was originally the ascension, as is highly probable, then this leads to two conclusions. First, the tradition of ascension from Galilee is earlier than the tradition of ascension from Jerusalem, since the transfiguration, which invariably takes place from Galilee, is mentioned in our earliest gospel. Second, the tradition of Jesus' ascension is independent of the tradition of Jesus' death. For, the transfiguration takes place before the death of Jesus while the ascension takes place after the death, so that if the transfiguration was originally the ascension, then this shows that the ascension could move before or after the death, implying that the two events originally were not tied together in any fixed sequence and therefore were independent.

The original identity of the transfiguration and the ascension raises two questions: First, why did an account of the ascension end up in the ministry of Jesus? Second, how did ascension become transfiguration? The model developed in Ch. 5 enables us to answer the first question: the ascension was originally a part of the tradition concerning Jesus' brief stay in Galilee after his escape from Jerusalem. This tradition was variously combined with the tradition of Jesus' execution in Jerusalem. The way followed in the Markan tradition is that the stories related to the stay in Galilee were moved before the death. In this way the ascension moved into the ministry. The second question may be answered as follows: Once ascension moved into the ministry, it could only be interpreted as the kind of ascent to heaven after which a person returns to the earth and continues to live as before, sometimes gaining a sort of quasi-deification. We know of such an experience of ascent from different sources. It is mentioned by Paul in 2 Cor 12:2-4, it is described in one of the recently published Qumran texts (4Q491), already quoted in Ch. 1, and it is found in Papyri Graecae Magicae (PGM). Morton Smith has suggested that Jesus practiced a secret, nocturnal baptism by water which, among other things united the disciple with him and caused him to ascend into the heavens along with Jesus and thus into the kingdom of God. There is not enough evidence to attribute such a practice to Jesus, but we can assume that Christians were generally aware of the experience of visionary ascent to heaven and some of them claimed to have actually experienced such an ascent, as is clear from the passage from Paul (2 Cor 12:2-4). It is also likely that the ascent was interpreted as entering the kingdom of God or of Christ. When Jesus' ascension moves into the ministry it becomes this type of visionary ascent to heaven whose experience is shared by the disciples and is interpreted as an experience of the coming kingdom of Christ with all its glory.

 

Ascension and passion traditions

Yet another indication that ascension tradition was originally independent of the tradition of the death is provided by close parallels between the two traditions which suggest that they were originally two different versions of how the ministry of Jesus ended. In Ch. 20 we shall see a remarkable series of striking parallels between the transfiguration and the synoptic tradition concerning what happened just before Jesus' death at Gethsemaine on the Mount of Olives. Here we note some parallels between an account of the ascension in Pistis Sophia and the passion of Jesus in the gospels. In the Gnostic Pistis Sophia we read:

Now it came to pass that the disciples were sitting together on the Mount of Olives, ..., while Jesus sat a little apart from them. But it came to pass on the 15th of the moon in the month Tybi [January], which is the day on which the moon becomes full, on that day now, when the sun was come out upon its path, there came behind it a great power of light, gleaming very bright ... But that power of light descended upon Jesus and surrounded him entirely, while he sat apart from his disciples, and he shone exceedingly, and the light that was upon him was beyond measure...Jesus rose up or flew into the heights ... And the disciples followed him with their eyes, and none of them spoke, until he reached the heaven, but they were all in great silence. This now came to pass on the 15th of the moon, on the day on which it becomes full in the month Tybi. Now it came to pass, when Jesus went up into the heaven, after three hours, all the powers of the heaven were troubled, and they all trembled together ... and the whole earth moved, and all that dwell upon it. And all men in the world were troubled, and the disciples also, and all thought: Perhaps the world will be rolled up. And all the powers that are in the heaven ceased not from their agitation, they and the whole world, and they were moved one against the other from the third hour of the 15th of the moon <in the month> Tybi until the ninth hour of the following day. But the disciples sat together, in fear, and they were exceedingly troubled; but they were afraid because of the great earthquake which took place, and wept with one another, saying: What then will happen? Perhaps the Savior will destroy all places. While they now said this and wept to one another, then the heavens opened, about the ninth hour of the following day, and they saw Jesus descend, shining very bright, and the light in which he was beyond measure... But it came to pass, when the disciples saw this, they were exceedingly afraid, and were troubled. Jesus ... spoke to them, saying: Be of good cheer; it is I, be not afraid. Now it came to pass, when the disciples heard these words, they said: O Lord, if it be thou, draw to thyself thy glorious light, that we may be able to stand, else our eyes are darkened and we are troubled, and also the whole world is troubled because of the great light that is in thee. Then Jesus drew to himself the splendor of his light; and when this had come to pass all the disciples took courage, stood before Jesus, and all fell down together and worshipped him, rejoicing with great joy; they said to him: Rabbi, whither didst thou go ... Then spoke Jesus, the merciful, to them: Rejoice and be glad from this hour on, for I went to the places out of which I came. From henceforth will I speak with you openly (Greek: parrhesia)..., and I will speak to you face to face without parable (Greek:parabole) ... (c.2-6; NTA, I, 253-256).

This passage has a number of parallels with the passion tradition, which can be summarized as follows:

ASCENSION/APPEARANCE IN PISTIS SOPHIA

CANONICAL PASSION

1) Place: Action begins on Mount of Olives, where Jesus and disciples are assembled, Jesus sitting apart from them.

Action begins on Mount of Olives, where Olives, where Jesus and the disciples are the assembled, Jesus going a little farther from them and praying (Mark 14: 26, 35).

2) Date:15th of the moon (in the month of January)

15th of the moon [Passover night, 15th Nisan] (Mark 14:12, 17)

3) Time and events: Jesus ascends to heaven at 6 a.m. (daybreak) Cosmic upheavals, including an earthquake, begin at 9 a.m. (3rd hour) The world is troubled Upheavals end at 3 p.m. the following day; Jesus descends and appears to the disciples

Jesus brought before Pilate at 6 a.m. (morning) (Mark 15:1) Jesus crucified at 9 a.m. (3rd hour) (Mark 15:25) Universal upheavals. Shaking of the whole earth (Recognitions 1:41:2-3, Matt 27:51) The world suffers (Recognitions 1:41:3) The sun darkens at noon (6th hour) (Mark 15:33) By about 3 p.m. (9th hour) the same day the darkness ends, Jesus dies, the curtain of the temple is torn (Mark 15:33-38) the earth shakes, rocks split and many dead are revived (Matt. 27:51-52). Two days later Jesus appears to his disciples (Mark 16:1)  

These parallels are too close to be dismissed. It is also unlikely that one of the two traditions has grown out of the other. The most plausible explanation of the parallels is that here we have two completely different versions of events during the last days of Jesus' ministry, with each version influencing the other at some stage after the formation of the two versions.

Behind the canonical passion narratives there is, of course, the tradition that Jesus was arrested somewhere on or near the Mount of Olives, executed and buried and then rose again on the third day to appear to the disciples. It is possible that the mountain of ascension is identified with the Mount of Olives in order to reject this canonical tradition: after the last supper Jesus ascended to heaven instead of getting arrested there and being killed later and then rising again on the third day. In some documents this mistaken identification of the mountain of ascension with the Mount of Olives is found alongside with the earliest tradition of ascension from Galilee and the Mount of Olives is placed in Galilee! (see the quotation from the Sophia Jesu Christi in NTA, p. 246, ).

The month of January is perhaps connected with the fact that the Feast of Christ's Baptism was celebrated by the church as his epiphany on January 6, which was also held to be the date of the miracle at Cana in John 2:1-12. The date becomes 15th of the moon because the last supper and the subsequent trip to the Mount of Olives took place on the 15th of the month of the lunar month Nisan. Perhaps connected with this is the fact that according to Clement of Alexandria some of the Basilidian gnostics celebrated annually the baptism of Jesus on the 15th of January (Strom I, 21:146:2; NTA, I, p. 253) and that some of these Gnostics also denied the crucifixion of Jesus (see Ch. 12).

In the canonical account of the death of Jesus on the cross the various portents are not understandable in a natural way. It is not clear, for example, why the darkness should cover the land only from the 6th hour (noon) when Jesus was crucified on the 3rd hour (9 a.m.) and why it should end at the 9th hour (3 p.m.), about the time when Jesus died. Similarly, it is strange that in Matthew the tombs are opened and many dead are revived but they come out of their graves only after Jesus' resurrection.

In contrast, in the ascension tradition behind the Pistis Sophia the cosmic upheavals are far more understandable. The ascension was followed by the appointment of Jesus as the Christ which signified the new cosmic order that was about to come. It was natural that this should be followed by some upheavals in the existing order (cf. Rev., where earthquakes, flashes of lightning, peals of thunder etc accompany events in heaven manifesting a move towards the establishment of the kingdom of God; see, e.g., 11:13, where a great earthquake takes place at the moment the two witnesses ascend to heaven; also, 11:15, 19.)

There are also noteworthy parallels between the canonical account of Jesus' walk on water (Mark 6:45-52, Matt 14:22-23, John 6:16-21) and Jesus' post-ascensional appearance in Pistis Sophia. In all three canonical gospels that report the walk on water it is stated that Jesus went up a mountain by himself. Mark and Matthew say that Jesus wanted to pray while John says that he wanted to escape the crowd who were about to make him a king by force. The disciples meanwhile took a boat (according to Mark and Matthew, at the instruction of Jesus) and rowed towards Bethsaida (Mark) or Capernaum (John). Early next morning (lit. in the fourth watch in the night according to Mark and Matthew but John is less clear about the time) the disciples saw Jesus coming towards them, walking on the water. At this point very close parallels begin with the account of Jesus' post-ascensional appearance in Pistis Sophia. In both accounts, the disciples are terrified and Jesus tells them: "Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid" (John omits "Be of good cheer"). In Pistis Sophia, the disciples say: "O, Lord, if it be thou, draw to thyself thy glorious light." In Matthew, Peter says: "Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water." In both Pistis Sophia and Matthew, the disciples then worship Jesus.

In the canonical gospels it is not clear what function Jesus' trip to the mountain plays. The story in Pistis Sophia suggests the link: Jesus went up to the mountain with the disciples, was taken to heaven from there; the disciples then take a boat to go to their homes when on the way Jesus appears to them. The canonical version has suppressed the ascension. Note that in the canonical story Jesus' appearance to the disciples takes place the day after his trip to the mountain, just as his appearance to the disciples takes place in Pistis Sophia the day following his ascension from the Mount of Olives.

The canonical version seems to be more original in putting the scene in Galilee. When the scene shifts to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem the lake and the boat disappear. In Pistis Sophia the appearance of Jesus also becomes a luminous appearance of the type favored by gnosticism.

Thus both the canonical gospels and Pistis Sophia are ultimately dependent on a primitive tradition according to which Jesus ascended to heaven as he and his disciples were assembled together on a mountain in Galilee and then appeared to them about a day later.

The passage from Pistis Sophia also has striking parallels with the farewell discourses in John. Indeed, we can say with some justification that what is promised in the farewell discourses, is fulfilled in Pistis Sophia. Thus in John Jesus says:

Do not let your hearts be troubled... In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again ...(John 14:1-3)

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you." (14:27-28).

A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me (16:16).

In Pistis Sophia Jesus does exactly he says in the above verses from John. He first disappears, going to the places from where he came, and then a little while later he reappears.

In John Jesus tells the disciples:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy (16:20).

In Pistis Sophia the disciples are troubled, afraid and weep, but when they see Jesus again they rejoice with great joy. However, in Pistis Sophia the world is also troubled.

In John Jesus says in the context of his being lifted up:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out (John 12:31).

In Pistis Sophia the cosmic upheavals mentioned after Jesus is lifted up to heaven look like a judgment of the world and its rulers. This also explains why in Pistis Sophia the world is troubled at Jesus' ascension.

Finally, in John Jesus says:

The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly (Greek: parrhesia) of the Father (16:25).

In Pistis Sophia the time of plain talk actually comes.

In view of the above parallels it seems reasonable to assume that in an earlier Johannine tradition the farewell discourses were followed by an account of the ascension and a subsequent appearance, similar to the above account in Pistis Sophia. This account fulfilled what the discourses promised. In the present edition of John, this account of the ascension and appearance has been replaced by the narratives of passion and resurrection. This view is consistent with the fact that in contrast to Mark, in John the "figurative" references by Jesus to his disappearance are interpreted in the "plain" talk of the ascension (see Ch. 5). Also, the farewell discourses in John, especially John 14, which represents the earliest version of the discourses, have the closest parallels in the Mandaean texts, where the redeemer speaks to the believers he has gathered together before his ascension. The following are some of the parallels between John 14 and the Mandaean texts (see Bultmann, John, p. 598, n. 6; p. 603, n.5; p. 606, n.3; p. 610, n. 4; p. 623, n. 4)).

1) John 14:1-3 is strikingly similar to:

Ginza 259.33ff, where Manda dHaije says before his ascension: "I will go to assign a place to Hibil in the new abode, and then I will come quickly to you. Do not be afraid of the sword of the palnets, and let there be no fear or anxiety among you. Afterwards, certainly, I come to you. The eye of life is directed to you. I covered you with the garment of life, which it had lent you. Truly, I am with you. Every time that you seek me, you will find me; every time that you call me, I will answer you. I am not far from you."

Ginza 261.15ff., where Manda dHaije speaks to Anos: "Do not be afraid or anxious, and do not say: they have left me behind in this world of evil. For I am coming to you soon" (cp. 264.4f).

Ginza 268.4ff., where he says: "Behold, I am going to the house of life now, then I will come and will free you from the evils and sins of this world .. I will lead you up on the way on which Hibil the righteous and Sitil and Manda dHaije are ascending, away from this world of evils".

Mand. Lit. 138, where a prayer to Manda dHaije says: "Thou art he who builds up, and brings out from the midst of nations ... everyone who is called, desired and invited. To everyone whose lot is full, thou art a helper, guide and leader to the great place of light and to the brilliant dwelling".

2) John 14:4-7 is best understood in the light of the fact that the knowledge of the way, along which the soul which is separating from the body has to go to enter the world of light, and the knowledge of the leader who knows the way, can be described as a corner-stone of Gnosticism ... Cp. Mand. Lit. 38:"Thou hast shown us the way, along which thou hast come out of the house of life. Along it we want to make the journey of true, believing men, so that our spirit and our soul abide in the Skina of life ...". 134f.: "Thou camest, hast opened the door, made level the way, trodden out the path . Thou wast a helper, guide and leader to the race of life. Thou hast ... brought it out to the great place of light, and to the shining dwelling." Further, ... Ginza 95, 15; 247, 16ff.; 271,26f.; 395,3ff....". Also, the combination of the concepts "way", "truth" (interchangeable with "gnosis") and "life" is typically Gnostic. Cp. Mand. Lit. 77: "Thou hast brought us out of death. Thou hast shown us the way of life, and made us walk the path of truth and faith." In Ginza 271, 26 ff. the Kusta is addressed "Thou art the way of the perfect, the path that ascends to the place of light. Thou art the life from eternity ...Thou art the truth without error."

3) John 14:12 has a parallel in Ginza 319,3f., the messenger says to the "men of tested righteousness": "I brought them secret discourses so that they show their miraculous powers to the ill-disposed."

4) As in John 14:13, so also in Mandaean writings the departing messenger gives his own the promise that their prayer will be heard: e.g. Mand. Lit. 140: "You will call, and soon I will answer. You will pray with your hand, and I will not reject it with my hand."

5) The promise in John 14:23 has a striking similarity to the one in such Mandaean texts as Mand. Lit. 198:

"(Behold) the house of my acquaintance, who know of me, that among them I dwell, In the heart of my friends, in the mind of my disciples.

Ginza 389.23ff., where to the soul "comes" her "helper" and says:

"Thou shalt dwell with me, and in thy heart will we find a place"

And Ginza 271.29f., where the Kusta is praised:

"Thou art the life from eternity, thou who wentest in, and found a place in (every) steadfast heart."

6) Although the figure of the Paraclete (Counselor or Helper) mentioned in John 14:26 probably originated from the Qumran people or some other closely related Jewish group (Shafaat, "Geber of the Qumran Scrolls and the Spirit-Paraclete of the Gospel of John"), Mandaean texts also frequently talk of the redeemer as Helper (=Jawar).

The above parallels suggest that the farewell discourses originally represented words spoken by Jesus as he ascends to the Father just like the Gnostic revealer. This means that the narratives of Jesus' death and resurrection found in John 18-20 were added later.

 

Some explicit references to Jesus' ascension without death

The independence of the ascension tradition from the tradition of the death is also supported by some more explicit references to Jesus' ascension in which the death is denied or ignored.

Most brands of Christianity had by the beginning of the second century incorporated the tradition of Jesus' execution within their belief systems and therefore it is remarkable that the following tradition has survived:

Lastly in the days of King Herod Baruch is again sent down as an emissary of Elohim. When he came to Nazareth, he found Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, as a twelve-year-old boy tending sheep, and told him from the beginning everything which had happened from the time of Edem and Elohim, and what was to happen in the future, and said: "All the prophets before you allowed themselves to be seized. Take heed, Jesus, son of man, that you do not allow yourself to be seized, but proclaim this word to men, and tell them what concerns God and the good, and ascend to the good and seat yourself there by the side of Elohim, the father of us all." And Jesus obeyed the angel and said: "Lord, all this will I do," and he preached. (Hippolytus, Philos. v.26; quoted from NTA, p. 402).

The tradition is quoted by Hyppolytus in connection with his description of the system of the Gnostic Justin. Here Jesus promises to ascend to heaven without being seized, that is, without arrest, execution or death. We have here a very early Gnostic tradition. This is shown by the fact that Jesus is presented as completely human by the mention of his father and mother and his hometown. He is himself not the heavenly messenger but a servant of such a messenger.

Related with the above passage perhaps is the following passage from "The Two Books of Jeu:"

Jesus, the living one, answered and said to his apostles: "Blessed is he who has crucified the world, and has not allowed the world to crucify him... (NTA, p.261).

Another reference to Jesus' ascension without going through death may be present in Revelation 12, which talks of the vision of a pregnant woman clothed with the sun and a great red dragon. The "dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron. But her son was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness ..." where she is subsequently persecuted by the dragon (12:4-6). Here, apparently, Jesus ascends to heaven without suffering.

 

Jewish and pagan background

Our final argument in favor of the original independence of the traditions of Jesus' death and ascension is provided by other traditions of ascension of Jewish and pagan figures. For most of these figures the ascension takes place without death. This is certainly the case in those instances which are closest to Jesus. From this it appears probable that Jesus' ascension originally did not assume the death of Jesus.

The cases of ascensions of extraordinary figures in the Jewish and pagan traditions can be divided into two categories: 1) a person ascends to heaven and then returns to assume an earthly existence; 2) he ascends to heaven and then continues a heavenly existence, only to appear now and then to some people or to return at some future time. Only cases of type 2 are relevant here.

Sometimes it is not clear in particular instances, whether or not they represent cases of ascension. But in order to relate the tradition of Jesus' ascension to its background, we need to examine all types of cases of figures who depart from this world, assuming some kind of extraordinary life in another world. Thus in the pagan tradition, there are examples of gods who die but then assume some type of potent existence which may not be described as ascension, since this existence may not be in a heavenly world but in the underworld. These also need to be considered, especially since such gods have sometimes been used to explain the belief in Jesus' death and resurrection/ascension.

 

ASCENSION IN THE JEWISH TRADITION

In the Jewish writings there exist explicit or implicit traditions of ascensions into heaven of great saints, patriarchs, kings and prophets of old such as Enoch, Melchizedek, Elijah, Moses, Job's children and Abraham. However, before reviewing traditions about these figures we discuss the ascension of a Sumerian figure which may have provided the very idea of ascension of a human figure.

ZIUSUDRA. The earliest account of the ascension of a human figure is found in a six-column Sumerian tablet, of which the lower third has survived (Kramer, From the Tablets of Sumer, 179-181, 218-219). The tablet talks of a king, Ziusudra, who survives an overpowering flood by embarking a huge baot that he built after being informed about the coming flood by a deity. Becuase Ziusudra served the gods both before and after the flood, he was admitted among the gods in the paradise of Dilmun as an immortal. The relevant part of the tablet reads:

Ziusudra, the king,
Prostrated himself before [the sky-god] An and [the air-god] Enlil.
An and Enlil cherished Ziusudra,
Life like a god they gave him:
Breath eternal like a god they bring down for him.
Then, Ziusudra the king,
The preserver of the name of vegetation and of the seed of mankind,
In the land of crossing, the land of Dilmun, the place where the sun rises,
They caused to dwell.

In the story of Ziusudra, there is no ascension in the strict sense, since the paradise of Dilmun is situated on earth, as we learn from other tablets. But ascension never simply means to rise upward. It primarily means a journey towards the divine, to a place where God or gods dwell, and to assume an immortal existence. In this latter sense, Ziusudra's translation to Dilmun can be viewed as an ascension.

The story of Ziusudra was later retold with some variations in the Babylonian "Epic of Gilgamesh," where Ziusudra is Utnapishtim (also called Atrahasis, "exceeding wise"). From the Babylonians or some other Semitic people, the story reached the Hebrews. Somewhere along the way the two parts of the story -- surviving a great flood in a boat and admittance into the paradise of the gods as an immortal -- seem to have been separated, the first part giving rise to the Biblical story of Noah's flood and the second to traditions about some figures ascending to heaven such as Enoch and Melchizedek.

ENOCH. In Gen 5:1-32 the descendants of Adam before Noah are listed. The reference to each descendant is concluded with the note "and he died" except in case of Enoch. It is said about him: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him." Subsequent tradition about Enoch also makes no mention of his death. In the second century B. C. E. the belief that Enoch had ascended to heaven finds expression in the Book of Sirach:

Enoch pleased the Lord and was taken up, an example of repentance to all generations (44:16).

Later, in the Christian era the belief becomes part of the New Testament through the following passage in Hebrews:

By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and "he was not found, because God had taken him" (11:5).

MELCHIZEDEK. This is the priest-king of Salem (=Jerusalem) who according to Gen 14:17-20 blesses Abraham. He is mentioned again in Psalm 110:4, where David is declared by God as "a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek". In the Dead Sea Scrolls he is the subject of a fragmentary text which makes Melchizedek the eschatological judge. He is called elohim and to him the following passage from Psalms is applied:

Elohim has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment (Psalms 82:1).

It is probable that in Psalms 110:4 and the Dead Sea Scrolls Melchizedek is believed to be alive in heaven. The following passage from Hebrews is therefore expressing a belief that existed in the time of Jesus:

Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, [Melchizedek] remains a priest forever (7:3).

In some ways Melchizedek resembles the Sumerian Ziusudra. Both are righteous kings. Melchizedek means "king of righteousness" and Ziusudra is also described in the Sumerian tablets as a pious king devoted to the gods. Both are said to be dwelling in the midst of the gods.

ABRAHAM. In the Testament of Abraham it is related that when the appointed time of Abraham's death came, God sends his messenger Michael to inform him of his approaching death. When after finding it hart to carry his mission Michael finally does give the news to the patriarch, he requests that he be first granted a bodily ascension to heaven so that he can learn about death, judgement and eternity. The wish is granted and Abraham is taken on a journey to heaven, after which he is returned to earth to meet his death. Even now it is only after some struggle that he gives in to the angel of death. His soul is taken up to heaven and his body is buried.

ELIJAH. The ascension of Elijah is described in 2 Kings 2:1-18. We are told there that Elijah miraculously parted the river Jordan and then "a chariot of fire and horses of fire" separated him from Elisha and "Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven." Elisha watched all this and so did the prophets at Jericho on the other side of the river. The ascension appears to be beyond any ambiguity. Yet the story takes an unexpected turn. The prophets say to Elisha: "See now, we have fifty strong men among your servants; please let them go and seek your master; it may be that the spirit of the Lord has caught him up and thrown him down on some mountain or into some valley." Elisha agrees reluctantly for he knows the futility of the exercise. The fifty men searched for three days without finding anything. This turn in the story shows that the tradition of Elijah's ascension was not as simple as it may appear from a superficial reading of the surviving references. The tradition grew out of extensive speculations about Elijah's fate. The underlying fact seems to be that Elijah disappeared or his fate was unknown. Lack of information about Elijah's fate gave rise to the view that he was taken up into heaven. At first there was no account of the actual ascension. The ascension was established by the search for three days. Then the ascension was proved by an actual account witnessed by some prophets. In 2 Kings 2 we may have an attempt to combine both types of proofs of the ascension. Another possibility is that the ascension of Elijah was challenged by the view that he got lost in a mountain or a valley where he often wandered (1 Kings 17:4-6, 18:12). The purpose of the story is then to dispel such doubts.

Apparently, some rabbis found the account in 2 Kings 2 ambiguous enough to deny the ascension of Elijah. Thus Rabbi Yose ben Halafta is reported to have said (around 150 C.E.): "Never did Shekina descend on earth, nor did Moses and Elijah ascend on high" (Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel, p. 97). This denial, of course, comes from theological reasons and not on the basis of any superior knowledge about the fate of Elijah. The theological reason seems to be that ascension to heaven opened the door, used by many, to exalt men too close to God. Perhaps this is the reason that the high priest in the trial of Jesus and the people in the case of the trial of Stephen find it offensive when a reference is made to the Son of Man being seated or standing by the right hand of God.

JOB'S CHILDREN. It is related in T. Job 39 that Job's house collapsed killing and burying his children under the debris. His wife wants to dig out the remains of the children, but Job refuses, insisting that no bones can be found, since the children were taken up into heaven. When bystanders mock, Job asks God to intervene. God responds to the prayer by providing a vision of the children crowned in heaven. Yet when Job's wife dies, she chooses to be buried near the house where her children died.

In this story, Job is able to affirm the ascension of the dead children in order to console his wife because their dead bodies could not be seen or even easily recovered. Such an affirmation would be almost inconceivable in Jewish thought if a child died by a disease and his body was seen and handled by the parents. For the bystanders, of course, the mere fact that the dead bodies cannot be seen is not enough to believe in the ascension of the children. For them the ascension is established by a posthumous appearance in heaven. Note that this appearance presumes a bodily resurrection and is considered completely equivalent to an empty "tomb" since no need is felt after it for checking whether the bones of the dead children are missing from under the debris. In this story the appearance is a proof of the empty "tomb" and hence of resurrection/ascension.

MOSES. For the compilers of the Pentateuch there was little doubt that Moses died; they knew nothing of his ascension. But the Pentateuch leaves one ambiguity about the fate of Moses: Nobody knew his grave. Thus in its concluding chapter, the Book of Deuteronomy tells us:

Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab at the Lord's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day (Deut 34:5-6).

The knowledge of Moses' grave got lost among the Israelites over the centuries that passed between Moses and the writing of the Pentateuch. During this time a great deal of speculation seems to have taken place about where and by whom he was buried. The above passage gives what was generally agreed upon at the time of the final compilation of the Pentateuch. But reflections on the grave of Moses did not cease and older ones did not completely die after the writing of the above passage, although this passage played a decisive part in shaping them.

The words "he was buried" in the above passage can also be read as "he, that is, the Lord buried" Moses. The LXX reads "they buried him" which probably meant the same thing as "he was buried" but by the first century "they" were interpreted as "God and the angels." The view that God buried Moses is taken for granted in an incomplete sixth century Latin manuscript of a book about Moses, possibly identical with the much older Testament of Moses known from earlier lists of apocryphal works. In the book Joshua laments the prospect of Moses' death and asks, "What place will receive you or where will be the marker of your sepulchre? Or who as a [mere] man will dare to move your body from place to place? For all who die according to their age there are sepulchres in their lands, but your sepulchre is from the rising to the setting of the sun, from the south to the limits of the north: the whole world is your sepulchre." That is, as the people of Israel will continue to move from place to place after Moses, they need not move Moses' body with them, since the whole earth is his grave. For the same reason no one place needs to be marked as his grave.

The above is one way in which lack of knowledge about Moses' grave was explained. Another is that Moses' grave was unknown so that idolatrous use should not be made of it. The New Testament letter of Jude (verse 9) attests to the existence in the first century C.E. of the story of a contest between the Devil and the angel Michael to possess the body of Moses. Forms of this story are found in subsequent sources. In one form, upon Moses' death, Sama'el=Devil tried to take the body to the people so that they may worship it. The angel Michael comes and fights with Sama'el and after defeating him took Moses' body and buried it in a secret place. In another form of the story the contest is not a physical fight but a legal battle in the court of God. This is probably a special application to Moses of the idea that the Devil and Michael both desire to possess the souls of those who die. In the legal dispute the Devil gives various arguments why he should possess the body of Moses:

1) Moses murdered an Egyptian.

2) "The body is mine because I am the Master of matter".

3) God lied in that he brought Moses at the transfiguration of Jesus while he swore that he will not enter Palestine.

(See Bauckham (Jude and His Relatives, pp. 252, 258) who refers to Palaea Historica, a Byzantine collection of biblical legends some of which are derived from ancient apocryphal works, Severus of Antioch, Life of Moses (Slavonic) (15th century), and "A scholion on Jude 9".)

But tradition's lack of knowledge about Moses' grave admits of another explanation: the grave was not known because it never existed, that is, Moses never died. This explanation probably did exist and gave rise to the belief in Moses' ascension before the Pentateuch tradition was accepted by all Jews. The view seems to have continued to exist for a long time after the writing of the Pentateuch. Thus Acts of Pilate (second-century) seems to view the ascension of Moses as comparable to that of Enoch with his death understood as simply a departure from this world. Thus in XVI.6 the testimony of three creditable teachers of the law concerning the ascension of Jesus from mount Mamilch in Galilee is under examination by a council in the synagogue. One member of the council says, quoting Gen 5:24, "It is written in the law: Enoch walked with God, and was not, for God took him." Another says, alluding to Deut 34:5f., "Also we have heard of the death of the holy Moses, and we do not know how he died. For it is written in the law of the Lord: And Moses died as the mouth of the Lord determined, and no man knew of his sepulchre to this day." Yet another teacher refers to Exod 23:20f, a text that was understood to refer to the Elijah-type eschatological messenger (see Ch. 9). The comparison between Enoch and Moses becomes even closer in the statement by Annas and Caiaphas: "You have rightly said what is written in the law of Moses, that no one knows the death of Enoch and no one has named the death of Moses." Here there is nothing of the categoricity with which the Deuteronomy passage affirms the death of Moses.

Most Jews, however, probably took the affirmation of Moses' death more seriously than did the author of the Acts of Pilate. They, therefore, either denied Moses' ascension is either denied or reconciled it with the death and burial of Moses mentioned in the Pentateuch. Josephus (Ant 4:326) and some rabbis (see above) denied the ascension of Moses but there were others who reconciled it with the tradition of Moses' death and burial. This was done in two ways.

Origen knows of "a certain book" in which "it is related that two Moses's were seen, one alive in the spirit, the other dead in the body." Another writer quotes a work as saying that "it came through the power of the body that there was one body which was committed to the earth and another which was joined with angels as its companions" (Bauckham, Jude and His Relatives, p. 263) (Cf. the Paul McCartney rumor mentioned in Ch. 4).

Philo has the following much more complex way of reconciling the ascension of Moses with the account of his death and burial in the Pentateuch, purportedly written by Moses himself:

After a long time, when he was about to be sent to the other colony in Heaven and, abandoning mortal life, to be immortalized, having been called back by the Father, with his dual being of body and soul finally transmuted into a single nature, wholly and completely transformed into a pure sun-bright mind, at this point Moses was again carried away by the Spirit and no longer uttered general oracles to the whole nation but spoke to one tribe after the other, foretelling the things about to happen ... (These oracles) are marvelous enough but especially marvelous is the conclusion of the holy writings [Deut 34:5-8] ... For when he was already rising up into the air and standing as it were at the starting line in order that he might fly straight up the race course to Heaven, Moses was inspired and possessed by God so that while still living he prophesied shrewdly concerning his own death ... Such was the life and such also the death of the King and Lawgiver and High Priest and Prophet Moses, as commemorated in the sacred writings.

Here the death and ascension are viewed as a single event which transformed Moses into a luminous, pure mind that rose to heaven. The reference to the transmutation of "the dual being of body and soul" suggests that the body of Moses was also transformed and therefore did not stay in the grave, but Philo provides no other indication of that when he refers to the death and burial of Moses. Elsewhere in his writings there is no mention of bodily resurrection. He interprets Biblical passages on resurrection (Isa 26:19, Dan 12:2, 2 Macc 7) as references to the immortality of the soul. He regards the body as "wicked and a plotter against the soul". At death the soul departs from the body "leaving it bereft of life" and "we will hasten to rebirth, to be with the unbodied (i.e. the angels, the powers of God)" (Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, pp. 41-42). It seems that Philo devised the idea of the transmutation of the body and soul into luminous mind specially for Moses to reconcile the tradition of his ascension with that of his death and burial.

APPLICATION TO THE JESUS TRADITION. Note that in all but the case of Abraham the ascension takes place both in body and soul, with body possibly transformed into another form. Even in case of Abraham it was felt important that he tastes ascension in both body and soul before the ascension of the soul at the death. In four cases (Ziusudra, Enoch, Melchidedek and Elijah) the ascension takes place without death, while in two cases it takes place after death and burial (Job's children and Moses). Only in one case (Elijah) is the ascension actually described and witnessed by some people and in this case there is no death. When the ascension takes place after death, it is not actually witnessed by anyone and is therefore not described. Instead the ground for the belief in the ascension is provided by the empty or unknown tomb (Moses) and/or appearances after the death (Job's children) and not by a witness to the actual ascension. Also, in case of figures who die it is difficult for the belief in the ascension to get established. The story of the ascension of Job's children is one of the peripheral traditions in Judaism, which was perhaps sometimes used to console grieving mothers. Likewise, the ascension of Moses, nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament, is far from being an established belief in Judaism. In contrast, the tradition of ascension is much more firmly established in case of figures who are not said to die in the tradition such as Ziusudra, Enoch, Melchizedek and Elijah.

The above observations make it probable that originally the ascension of Jesus took place without death. This is because: a) The only two cases of ascension firmly believed by the Jews are those of Enoch and Elijah and in both cases the ascension takes place without death. b) The two ways of harmonizing Moses' ascension with his death and burial adopted by Jewish writers and the fact that the belief in his ascension could not get establish show how difficult it would have been for the Jewish Jesus followers to affirm his ascension in the face of a knowledge of his death and burial. c) Our examples show that for the tradition of ascension of a figure to be formed either the whereabouts of the person or his dead body should be unknown. The Jesus tradition does refer to the empty tomb, but, as is widely recognized, the empty tomb is not the ground of the belief in Jesus' ascension in the earliest traditions. Hence the ground for the belief in Jesus' ascension was a lack of knowledge about his whereabouts, i.e., his disappearance. d) There are early accounts describing the ascension of Jesus in the presence of witnesses. Such an account is found only in one case in the Jewish tradition and in that case there is no death involved. Indeed, the eyewitness accounts of ascension and empty tomb are two alternative ways of establishing the ascension. It is therefore most unlikely that those who created the eyewitness accounts of the ascension were thinking of the empty tomb.

 

ASCENSION IN THE PAGAN TRADITION

In the pagan tradition the ascensions of extraordinary men is found at least as frequently as in the Jewish tradition.

ARISTAEUS. Herodotus in his Histories (IV. 14) records an oral tradition about the Greek hero Aristaeus who was originally probably a priest of Apollo. One day Aristaeus had entered into a fuller's shop, when he suddenly dropped down dead. The fuller shut up his shop and went to inform the kindred of the deceased. The report of the death had just spread through the town, when a traveler contradicted it, affirming that he had met Aristaeus on the road and conversed with him. The relations, however, proceeded to the fuller's shop to carry the body for funeral. But when the shop was opened, no Aristaeus was found. Seven years later he appeared again and wrote the poem "The Arimaspeia", after which he disappeared a second time.

In this story it is not explicitly stated that Aristaeus ascended to heaven. But in Greek religion even the greatest gods lived not in heaven (i.e., the place where the stars and the sun and the moon are or a place beyond the stars) but on a mountain. Note that the "ascension" of Aristaeus follows the resurrection and is concluded on the basis of an appearance of the deceased hero but is fully established on the basis of the disappearance of the body ("empty tomb").

ROMULUS. The ancient story of the translation to heaven of Romulus, the legendary cofounder of Rome, is found in several versions:

Gliding through the air, [Mars] came to land on the top of the wooded Palatine hill. There Romulus was giving his friendly laws to the citizens, and Mars caught Ila's son [Romulus] up. His mortal body became thin, dissolving in the air, as a lead pellet shot by a broad sling will melt away in the sky. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 14:805-851)

There is a place, called by the old ones the marsh of Caprea. By chance, Romulus, you were there giving laws. The sun disappeared, and rising clouds obscured the sky, and a heavy rain shower fell. Then it thundered, the air was torn by flames. The people fled, and the king (Romulus) flew to the stars on his father's (Mar's) horses. There was grieving, and certian senators were falsely charged with murder, and that belief might have stuck in the people's mind. But Proculus Julius was coming from the Alba Longa ... Beautiful and more than human and clothed in a sacred robe, Romulus was seen, standing in the middle of the road. ... He gave the order and he vanished to the upper world from Julius' eyes. (Ovid, Fasti 2:481-509)

(When Romulus) was holding a maneuver in order to review the army at the field near the marsh of Caprea, suddenly a storm arose, with great lightning and thunder, and it veiled the king in such a dense cloud that his form was hidden from the troops; from that time Romulus was not on earth. ... I believe there were some even then who argued secretly that the king had been torn apart by the hands of the senators. [But Julius Proculus said:] "Romulus, O Quirites, the father of this city, at the first light of this day, descended from the sky and clearly showed himself to me ..." (Livy, Book 1:16)

(The people, the nobles and Romulus were gathered together outside Rome when suddenly) strange and unaccountable disorders with incredible changes filled the air: the light of the sun failed, and night came upon them, not with peace and quiet, but with the awful peals of thunder and furious blasts driving rain from every quarter, during which the multitude dispersed and fled, but the nobles gathered closely together; and when the storm ceased and the sun shone out, and the multitude, now gathered together again in the same place as before, anxiously sought for their king, the nobles would not suffer the people to inquire into his disappearance nor busy themselves about it, but exhorted them all to honour and revere Romulus, since he had been caught up into heaven, and was to be a benevolent god for them instead of a good king. [This is followed by suspicion of murder and appearance of Romulus to Julius Proculus] (Plutarch, Lives I, 27:7).

Here the death of Romulus is mentioned and then denied as a rumor. Ascension is thus affirmed as translation to heaven when Romulus was alive. Romulus makes one appearance after ascension but the appearance does not start the belief in ascension but simply provides further confirmation of it. Moreover, the appearance is here meant to prove that Romulus did not die, since it is used to counter the rumor that he was murdered by the senators.

It is possible that the rumor that the senators killed Romulus and presumably disposed of his body was true and that this rumor was countered by the senators by a rumor of their own: Romulus was taken up into heaven. This latter rumor turned out to be the more appealing as it fitted with the tendency to glorify Romulus. If so, then this would be similar to the case of the fire in Rome in the time of Nero. The rumor said that Nero himself was responsible for the fire, which Nero countered by starting another rumor that the hated Christians set the ancient city on fire.

HERAKLES. The story of Herakles' ascension is told in Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 4:37-38. He was accidentally poisoned by his wife and fell sick with an increasingly worsening condition. At last he sent for an oracle from Delphi where Apollo commanded that Herakles be brought to Oite and a great funeral pyre be constructed near him. The rest was to be left to Herakles and Zeus. When this was done by Iolaos, seeing the funeral pyre, Herakles lost hope, climbed onto the pyre and upon his request the pyre was lit.

Immediately, a lightning bolt fell from heavens; the pyre was completely consumed. After this, those who were with Iolaos came to the bone-gathering, but they found not one bone anywhere. They supposed that Herakles, as the oracle had proclaimed, had crossed over from human circumstances to that of the Gods.

Herakles goes to the pyre while still alive and probably rises from it alive. The fire seems to serve the same purpose as the clouds under which Romulus ascends to heaven: hiding the ascending hero from the onlookers. (Fire is also connected in 2 Kings 2:11 with the ascension of Elijah, though in a different way.) As in the case of Romulus, the ascension of Herakles involved a process of transformation of the physical body, since his bones were nowhere to be found. Another tradition, however, seems to assume Herakles' spiritual ascension after his death. Herakles declares from heaven: "my fathers' [divine] part has been given to heaven, yours [mortal part] to the flames."

ALCMENE, the mother of Herakles. "It is said also that the body of Alcmene disappeared, as they were carrying her forth for burial, and stone was seen lying on the bier instead" (Plutarch, Lives I, 28:6).

CLEOMEDES OF ASTYPALEIA. During a boxing match, Cleomedes kills his opponent and as a result denied the prize. In rage he pulls down the pillar of supporting the roof of a school housing some 60 children. When the parents want to stone him, he takes refuge in the sanctuary of Athena, where he enters a chest and closes the lid on top. The angry parents try to open the chest but cannot. Finally, they break it open, but Cleomedes is not found there; he has disappeared. Envoys are sent to Delphi to find out what this means. The reply said: "Last of heroes is Cleomedes of Astypaleia. Honor him with sacrifices as being no longer a mortal." From that time on, Cleomedes was honored as a hero by the Astypaleians (Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece, III, 9:6-8).

APOLLONIUS. This miracle-working sage who lived in the second half of the first century C.E has an extensive biography written by Philostratus around 218 C.E. Philostratus says that Apollonius was tried before Domitian for not wearing clothes made from animal skin or wool, for being considered equal with the gods, being a sorcerer and plotting to overthrow the emperor. After hearing the defendant, Domitian acquits him but the defendant does not need such acquittal. For, not being a mortal man, he cannot be harmed. To demonstrate this Apollonius vanishes from the court room. Philostratus later relates traditions about the "death" of his hero:

Some say he died in Ephesus while being served by two slave women ... But others say he died in Lindos; that is, they say he entered the temple of Athena and just disappeared once he got inside. But those who live in Crete say he died in a more remarkable way than the way the people of Lindos tell. For they say that Apollonius lived in Crete, an object of greater veneration than ever before and that one day he came to the temple of Dictynna (Artemis) at a deserted hour. Dogs are kept there as a guard for the temple, keeping watch over the riches inside it and the Cretans consider them as fierce as bears or other wild beasts. But when he comes up, they do not bark but come up to him wagging their tails, something they would not do even to those very familiar to them. The temple attendants thereupon arrest and bind Apollonius on the grounds of being a wizard (goes) and a thief, claiming he had thrown the dogs something to soothe them. But around the middle of the night he freed himself and after calling to the men who had tied him up so as not to be unobserved he ran up the gates of the temple, which immediately opened by some unseen power, and when he had gone inside, the gates closed together again as they were shut originally. Then the voices of young women singing came forth from inside the temple and the song was: "Come from earth, come to Heaven, come."

By the time the temple attendants get the locked door open again, Apollonius has disappeared, that is, gone to heaven.

Philostratus says that no grave could ever be located for Apollonius and therefore he gives some guarded credence to the reports of his "ascension" or translation to another world without death. But there are some strong indications in the writing of Philostratus that the earlier tradition accepted the death of Apollonius and affirmed the immortality of his soul like that of the soul of any other human being, except that his soul achieved a divine status.

a) According to the first of the traditions quoted above, "some say he died in Ephesus while being served by two slave women."

b) During his trial, Apollonius addresses Domitian and tells him:

"Give me my freedom, if you will, but if not, then send someone to imprison my body, for it is impossible to imprison my soul! Indeed, you will not even take my body, for you cannot kill me since I am not a mortal man," and, saying this, he vanished from the courtroom ....

The underlined words suggest a contrast between body and soul made by a courageous sage: Domitian can imprison his body but not the soul. However, subsequently, even the body is said to be safe from the tyrant. It seems likely that the underlined words represent the earlier point of view.

c) To prove that Apollonius is not dead, Philostratus finishes his biography with a story of a young doubting disciple who does not believe that the soul is immortal and therefore that Apollonius is still alive. One day the youth was sitting in the company of other youth when he suddenly falls asleep and sees Apollonius appear to him. The youth wakes up, shouting, "I believe you." No one else sees or hears anything. This story seems to assume the death of Apollonius and only a spiritual existence after death.

Later traditions used by Philostratus, however, wanted to present the departure of Apollonius in a more remarkable light and were not content with affirming only a spiritual existence of Apollonius after death. Therefore the death of Apollonius is effectively denied by reinterpreting it as disappearance or ascension in both body and soul.

ANTINOUS. This handsome young man was a favorite of the emperor Hadrian, which was either a misfortune because he died young or a great piece of luck because he became a god. We read about him in several sources. The most reliable account is given by Dio Cassius, Roman History 69:11:2:

Antinous was [Hadrian's] darling boy and died in Egypt; he either fell into the Nile, as Hadrian writes, or, what seems to be the truth, he was offered as a sacrifice. ... Thus he gave divine honors to Antinous, either because of his love for him or because he died voluntarily (it apparently was necessary for a life to be freely offered to accomplish what Hadrian wanted). ... Finally, Hadrian said he had seen a certain star which, it seemed to him, was that of Antinous and he welcomed mythical stories of his friends, namely, that the star really was created from Antinous' soul and had just then appeared.

It is clearly admitted that only the soul of Antinous was raised to be a star among the stars which in pagan thought meant to be a god among gods. It is therefore not surprising that Clement of Alexandria says:

But now there is a grave for Hadrian's lover, as well as a temple and a city of Antinous, for graves are held in awe by the Egyptians like shrines; pyramids and mausoleums and labyrinths and other shrines of the dead -- as if they were the graves of their Gods. (Protrepticus 4).

APPLICATION TO THE JESUS TRADITION. The ascension stories in paganism are in many essential ways similar to those in the Jewish tradition. Thus in some of the pagan stories considered above, the ascension occurs without death (Romulus, Apollonius, Cleomedes, and possibly, Herakles). In others it occurs after death and resurrection and there is an equivalent of an empty tomb (Aristaeus, Alcmene, and, possibly, Herakles). Only in one case, the ascension takes place in the spiritual sense only (Antinous). It thus seems that the tradition of ascension, as a rule, assume that either the person or his (dead) body should be missing.

What direction the tradition takes seems to depend on how strong is the tradition of the death of the hero and how far some people have reasons to perpetuate it. Antinous was officially known to be dead and was buried with honors bestowed by the highest authority in the land: the emperor himself. Therefore the tradition found it difficult to not deny or reinterpret the death or otherwise affirm ascension in body by an empty-tomb story. It could only talk either in terms of a spiritual ascension or a posthumous existence of the type imagined in Egyptian mythology, as in the case of Osiris, who was sometimes identified with Antinous. And even this type of ascension or posthumous existence required imperial backing. Romulus, in contrast, might have been killed by the senators, of course, in great secrecy, so that the circumstances of his death were not generally known. As a result his death could be denied and his ascension, in both body and soul, could be not only affirmed but also actually described. Similarly, in case of Apollonius the circumstances of his death seem to be ambiguous enough or there were no people who were interested in insisting on his death, so that the death could be denied. The case of Aristaeus is somewhere between the cases of Antinous and Romulus. The tradition of his death seems to be strong enough to oblige later believers to take it into account and make the ascension follow death and resurrection. Thus the tendency clearly is to affirm ascension without death whenever the development of tradition allows it.

Occasionally ascension is followed by an appearance or two of the ascended person, but appearances are generally not the ground for belief in the ascension but only a further confirmation of it. There is a tendency to shy away from describing the actual ascension. As in the case of the Jewish tradition, so also in the pagan tradition, the actual ascension is described only in one case (Romulus), in this one case the death of the hero is not affirmed; indeed, the death is expressly denied.

One may assume on the basis of the example of Apollonius that in all cases the tradition of ascension of a hero starts as an ascension of his soul and it only gradually includes his body as well. But the above review does not support this. In case of Antinous, the spiritual ascension never becomes bodily ascension. And we have no evidence that the ascensions of Aristaeus and Romulus were at one time understood only in a spiritual sense.

The ascension of Jesus is more similar to that of Romulus than of other figures. In both cases the ascension is actually described. Like Romulus Jesus is also caught up in clouds as he ascends. At the ascension of both there are extraordinary events. Jesus' ascension is most unlike that of Antinous. We have no evidence that his ascension was affirmed only in a spiritual sense in the beginning. As in case of Romulus and Apollonius, the death of Jesus was denied or reinterpreted as an illusion by some people, e.g., the gnostics. But in case of Jesus there were people from the beginning who had found a use for the tradition of Jesus' death and therefore a motivation to continue it. Consequently, the case of Jesus is also like that of Aristaeus in that there also developed the idea of the ascension after resurrection from the dead. Had there existed among the people a firm knowledge of the death of Jesus, we should expect that the development of the traditions of his ascension would have taken place over a longer period and with much greater hesitation, if at all. But the fact is that a strong and confident tradition of Jesus' ascension is very early. This makes it probable that Jesus' ascension originally did not assume his death.

 

THE "DYING AND RISING" GODS

The following outline of the myths about dying gods who live after their death is largely based on Samuel Noah Kramer, From the Tablets of Sumer, Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, Jocelyn Godwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World, Yves Bonnefoy, Mythologies, Mary Allen Snodgrass, Voyages in Classical Mythology, and Anthony S. Mercantate, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legends.

DUMUZI and INANNA. The earliest extant record of gods who die and then somehow continue to have a potent existence is found in the Sumerian tablets in a story about a goddess Inanna and her husband, the shepherd-god Dumuzi. This story runs as follows:

Though already the queen of heaven, Inanna desires to rule also the nether world. Consequently, "from the 'great above' she sets her mind toward the 'great below'." Fearing death at the hands of the queen of the nether world, who is none other than her own older sister and bitter enemy Ereshkigal, Inanna gives to her vizier Ninshubur a list of gods whom he is to contact one after the other in case she fails to return after a period of three days. Then, abandoning heaven and earth and her lordship over them, she adorns herself in her queenly robes and jewels and descends into the nether world with the "seven divine laws."

At the gate of the palace of the nether world, she asked by the gatekeeper, "Who, pray, are you?" "I am the queen of heaven, the place where the sun rises," Inanna replies. But what is the queen of heaven doing in this "land of no return"? Inanna replies by a lie: she wants to participate in the funeral rites of her older sister's husband. The gatekeeper goes to Ereshkigal to seek permission. Angry, the older sister grants permission but instructs the gatekeeper to strip Inanna of her robes and jewels piece by piece as she enters the seven gates of the palace one after the other. When the gatekeeper carries these instructions, Inanna protests but she is told to be silent and to submit to the "just laws" of the world into which she has come. After entering the seventh gate, she is brought before Ereshkigal and her seven fearsome judges. Inanna is condemned and Ereshkigal by her fastened "eye of death," "word of wrath," and "cry of guilt" turns her sister into a corpse which is then hung from a nail.

Three days and three nights pass when her faithful vizier Ninshubur starts to act on her instructions and seeks help from the gods. Just as Inanna expected, none of the gods responds except the last one to be contacted, Enki, the god of wisdom. This god sends two sexless creatures with the "food of life" and the "water of life" to be sprinkled on Inanna's impaled corpse. When the sprinkling is done, Inanna revives. But she is allowed to leave the nether world subject to the law that those who leave must send a substitute. To make sure that Inanna complies, heartless demons are sent with her as she ascends to the world above.

Being a goddess, her substitute must be a deity. The first two gods she encounters when she comes above are spared because they prostrate themselves before her. Her husband Dumuzi, however, does not prostrate before her and for this lack of proper respect she hands him over to the demons to be taken to the nether world as her substitute. Dumuzi weeps, his face turning green, lifts his hand toward heaven and begs the sun-god Utu to free him from the clutches of the demons.

Unfortunately, the tablet comes to an end in the middle of Dumuzi's prayer to Utu. But since Dumuzi is known to be an underworld deity from various sources, including the Old Testament, where in the Book of Ezekiel mourning for him is denounced as an abomination, it is very probable that his pleadings were rejected by Utu and he was carried by the demons to the nether world as an unwilling substitute of his wife.

PERSEPHONE or Kore ("Maiden"). She is known to be worshipped between 1200 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. as the daughter of the grain goddess Demeter by Zeus. According to myth, she is carried off to the underworld by Hades, the god of death (Pluto), while she was gathering flowers. Her mother searches for her in vain and in grief caused a famine. This forced Zeus into action who persuaded Hades to let Persephone go. But she had eaten the seed of pomegranate which had the effect of binding her to Hades. So a compromise was reached: she should spend two-thirds of every year with her mother and the other heavenly gods and descend in the underworld for the rest of the year to be with Hades. This is clearly connected with the vegetation cycle in Greece: presence of vegetation during most of the year and its disappearance during winter. It was in Eleusis, since 600 B.C.E a seaside suburb of Athens, that Demeter and her once-lost daughter met. So the Athenians celebrated the great festival, the Mysteria, during which they went in a procession from Athens to Eleusis culminating in mystery rites. There was also a lesser festival in spring. While the mystery rites were held only in Eleusis, the worship of Demeter and Persephone was also done elsewhere, more notably in Sicily and Italy.

Although, Hades is the god of death and underworld is the place where the dead are to be found, a journey to the underworld does not necessarily imply death. Thus Dionysus goes to Hades to bring back his mother Semele from the dead while Orpheus does the same to bring back his wife. There is no suggestion that Dionysus and Orpheus died as they descended into Hades. Thus in Persephone we have a goddess who periodically "rises" but never really dies.

ADONIS. He is a Greek form of the Sumerian Dumuzi (semitic Tammuz) whom semitic people addressed as Adonai (my Lord) which in Greek became Adonis. According to one legend, Aphrodite inspired Smyrna (Myrrha), the daughter of the Syrian king Theias, with love for her father. She deceived the king about her identity and conceived by him Adonis. When Theias found out, he wanted to kill her but gods turned her into a tree of the same name. Ten months later, the tree burst open and Adonis was born. Aphrodite gave the beautiful child to the care of Persephone who refused to give him back to Aphrodite when the latter wanted him. The dispute was settled by Zeus who decided that the Adonis should divide each year in three parts, one for Persephone, one for Aphrodite and one for himself. In this myth there is no suggestion of the death of Adonis.

According to another legend, Adonis was killed by a boar and Aphrodite mourned him. In this version there is no suggestion of any resurrection; indeed, Aphrodite commemorates Adonis in a flower. Even when the two versions are combined it is not always clear whether the alteration of Adonis between the upper and lower worlds precedes his death or follows it. Annual festivals called Adonia were held in his honor from fifth century B.C.E. at different places in Greece and later at Babylus and Alexandria. At Babylus, the waters of the "river of Adonis" were tinted with blood in memory of the mortal wound inflicted on Adonis by the boar. There were lamentations and a funeral sacrifice followed by a procession to escort the living Adonis to the open air. Lucian in the second century C.E. says that on the third day of the festival a statue of Adonis is "brought into the light" and addressed "as if alive". But he then says that women cut their hair as a sign of mourning. At Alexandria there was also mourning followed by joy, according to Christian Cyril of Alexandria. But Theocritus tells that the festival began with rejoicing at the union between Adonis and Aphrodite and this was followed by lamentation and mourning, although Theocritus ends his poem with a reference to the alteration of Adonis between upper and lower world. Thus the two traditions about Adonis, one which does not talk about his death and the other which talks about his being killed by a boar do not get combined in a clear way. We can say with confidence only that Adonis was capable of being simultaneously mourned as a corpse and worshipped as a guest in a feast. It is only in Christian writers that we find a clear sequence: death followed by resurrection. Thus commenting on Ezekiel 8:14, where Ezekiel is brought in a vision to the Northern entrance of the temple and shown women sitting and mourning for Tammuz, Origen says: "The god that the Greeks call Adonis is called Thammuz among the Jews and Syrians. It appears that certain sacred ceremonies are held each year; first he is mourned as if he had ceased to live, and then he is a cause for rejoicing, as if he had been brought back to life. But those who pride themselves on the interpretation of Greek mythology and what is called mythical theology say that Adonis is the symbol of the fruits of the earth, which are mourned when they are planted but through their growth bring joy to the farmers." It is not clear whether the words "first he is mourned as if he had ceased to live, and then he is a cause for rejoicing, as if he had been brought back to life" is a Christian interpretation of the pagan myths or they reflect the fact that by the Christian era the belief in the death and resurrection of the god had already become more explicit than seems to be the case in pagan sources. In any case, it is clear that the belief in the death and resurrection of Adonis is the result of a combination of two traditions, one talking about his death and the other having no reference to the death.

ATTIS. He is known to be worshipped between 500 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. He is said in some texts to be a shepherd. Most texts identify his mother as Nana, a virgin who conceived him by putting a ripe almond or pomegranate in her bosom.

According to one of several legends, he was a descendent of Agdistis, a hermaphrodite who sprung from the earth by the seed of Zeus. Agdistis was enamoured of Attis who was exceptionally beautiful and youthful. When Attis wanted to marry, Agdistis struck him with frenzy and as a result Attis castrated himself and bled to death. In remorse, Agdistis prevailed upon Zeus that the body of the youth should never decay or waste. In a variant, Attis kills himself under a pine tree, at the foot of which violets sprang from his blood. The Great Mother Goddess and Agdistis carry the pine tree to her cave, where they lament the death of the youth. Zeus not only prevents his body from decay and waste but allows his hair to grow and his little finger, symbolizing penis, to move. This is as close as Attis comes to being resurrected.

According to another legend, in Ovid's Fasti, it was the Great Mother Goddess Cybele herself (brought to Rome from Anatolia in 204 B.C.E.) who was in love with Attis, her son. Attis fell in love with a nymph, thus incurring the wrath of Cybele who caused him to become insane. In his insanity, Attis castrated himself and bled to death. Sometimes Attis is castrated by someone else. Cybele and Attis are worshipped together, with Attis always occupying a secondary position. In her native Orient some devotees followed the example of Attis; they emasculated themselves, and totally devoted themselves to the goddess.

The above legends represent the old Phrygian tradition. In the old Lydian version, Attis was killed by a boar. Another series of later traditions deny his death by wounds, but do not tell of his death otherwise. Post-Christian reflections suggest that he was reborn and united with Cybele.

From Claudius onward, the festival of Cybele and Attis included the following spring-related rites: On 15 March there took place the entry of the 'reed-bearers', whose exact significance is uncertain, and the sacrifice of a six-year-old bull. A week later, at equinox proper, a procession carried a tree, the evergreen pine under which Attis died. The tree, decked with funeral purple, was laid to rest in the temple of the Mother as in a sepulchre. March 24 was a day of mourning, fasting and sexual abstinence. The priests would whip themselves and neophytes would mutilate themselves, some carried away by ecstasy, would completely follow Attis and kill themselves. The Roman poet Catallus in his Carmina tells of a priest who was possessed with such religious frenzy that he castrated himself. He later lamented at his action. Rituals practiced on March 24 often also included taurobolium which refers to the slaughter of a bull over a perforated platform, through which the blood rained over the initiate standing in a pit below. With the dawn of 25 March all mourning came to an end and there was rejoicing. This rejoicing is not said explicitly to commemorate Attis' resurrection. The next day (March 26) was a day of rest which was followed by a final day of worship and rejoicing.

Once again we find that there are traditions which do not talk of the god's death and there are those that do talk of his death but do not talk of his resurrection. If finally the belief in the death and resurrection did develop, it probably did so in order to harmonize the two types of traditions.

OSIRIS (Egyptian Asar, Ausar or Ser), was originally an Egyptian king and was only later deified. He was worshipped between 3000 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. as the counterpart in death of the sungod Re. His sister, Isis, and brother, Seth, play a central part in the myths about him found in both Plutarch (early second century C.E.) and in much earlier Egyptian texts. According to these myths, Seth persuaded Osiris to enter in a tightly fitting sarcophagus during a drunken party. The coffin was nailed and thrown into Nile. It washed ashore at Babylos in Lebanon, where it became encased in the trunk of a tree. The trunk was eventually cut and used as a pillar in the palace of the local ruler. After years of searching, Isis found the body of her brother and brought it home, revivifying it. According to the Egyptian Hymn to Osiris Horus was conceived by Isis when she impregnated herself with the semen of Osiris after she had revivified him. However, according to Plutarch Horus was born to Isis and Osiris before the latter's death at the hands of his brother. In any case, Seth found the body of Osiris and cut it into fourteen pieces which he scattered along the Nile valley. Isis again searched for her brother-husband and succeeded in finding all the pieces except the penis and buried them at the sight of various sanctuaries. She restored the penis with a replica which became a focus of the cult of Isis and Osiris.

To the extent the dead Osiris is revivified by Isis it is possible to speak of the god's resurrection. But revivification was not always an integral part of the myth. A version of the myth used in Anthony S. Mercantate, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legends, does not speak of Osiris' revivification. In this version it is the dead body that is found by Seth and cut in different 14 pieces. Isis finds 13 of these pieces and buries them in different places. Later it is Osiris' spirit that appears to Horus and urges him to avenge his murder. Horus battles his uncle but Isis saves him from final destruction at the hands of Horus. This angers Horus who cuts the head of his mother, which Thoth replaces by the head of a cow.

In any case, Osiris' revivification only means a temporary return to life above the earth. His final fate according to all versions is certainly that of existence in the realm of the dead. This is why each Egyptian king was regarded as the divine embodiment of Horus in life, but became Osiris in death. The repeated formula: "Rise up, you have not died," whether applied to Osiris or to an Egyptian citizen, referred only to a new kind of life in the underworld. In other words the myths and rituals connected with Osiris stress continued life for the dead but not resurrection of the dead.

DIONYSUS is known to be worshipped between 1500 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. as the god of wine and ecstasy. He originated probably in Phrygia or Lydia, then was worshipped throughout Greece, and later, under the name Bacchus, throughout the Roman empire and beyond, surviving well into the Christian era. The mysteries centered around his worship were the most widely spread and also among the oldest, appearing in the documentation not long after the sixth century B.C.E. The name may mean "son of God".

According to one legend Dionysus was born of the union between Zeus and Semele ("earth"). Hera, the wife of Zeus who punished his paramours and their children, beguiled Semele and enticed her to view the mighty god in his primal form and when he obliged she was annihilated by the epiphany. But Zeus or Hermes saved the infant. Zeus secured him in a slit in his thigh until he reached maturity and was thus born a second time. Hera attacked Dionysus through the Titans who dismembered him and stewed him in a great pot. From his blood grew a pomegranate tree. Rhea, his grandmother gathered up his remains, reformed him, and placed him in the care of Persephone, who located worthy foster parents for him in North Africa, away from Hera. Later, after spreading his worship throughout the world, Dionysus descends in the underworld to bring his mother back.

This outline clearly contains the idea of the death of Dionysus and his subsequent return to life or resurrection. This outline, however, represents only one possible way of selecting individual mythical stories. In another version, there is no mention of any killing by the Titans on behalf of Hera. Hera simply causes Dionysus to become mad, sending him wandering around the world. Rhea restores his senses. In other stories, Dionysus, as the god of vine, is connected with the vegetation cycles: he is said to sleep or to be bound during winter and to wake up or be untied in spring. Delphians could even think of Dionysus as a "dead" god like Osiris and believe that his remains lied buried near the oracle (Nilsson, The Dionysiac Mysteries, p. 39). Sometimes he was regarded also as a god of the dead, being identified with Plutos-Pluton, the god of the underground precious metals, who in turn was identified with Hades, the god of the dead.

Killing of Dionysus by the Titans seems to have been an independent myth. In another form of this myth, Dionysus is identified with "Zagreus" the son of Zeus by his daughter Persephone. Zeus designated this Dionysus as his heir. But Titans who reigned the world were jealous; they lured him when he was still a child and then dismembered him and cooked and ate all the pieces except the heart which was rescued and preserved by Athena. Zeus burned the Titans in anger and created mankind out of their ashes. This is sometimes combined with the birth from Semele by the story that after his murder by the Titans the heart of Dionysus Zagreus was saved by Athena or by Zeus and used in a potion taken by Zeus himself or Semele which resulted in the birth of Dionysus. Sometimes Dionysus is called "twice-born" in the sense that he was once born of Persephone and then of Semele, rather than in the sense that he was once born of Semele and then of Zeus (the thigh-birth). (See Ch. 10 for more about Dionysus.)

APPLICATION TO THE JESUS TRADITION. The question that we now consider after reviewing the main myths about the so-called dying and rising gods is: Do these gods enable us to understand the tradition of Jesus' ascension in the face of a firm knowledge about his execution? In Chapter 10 it would be argued that paganism generally and the dying gods who somehow live after their death provided a background in which the belief in Jesus as the dying and rising Christ could grow and which at some stage even influenced Christianity outside Palestine in some important ways. But paganism does not seem to have played any decisive role in the origin of the concept of the dying and rising Messiah. In particular, for the following reasons it is highly unlikely that these gods could have created or even facilitated the creation of the tradition of Jesus' ascension in the face of a firm knowledge of his execution:

a) The belief in Jesus' ascension originated in Palestine. While Palestinian Jews were not immune to Gentile influences, especially in Galilee, it is still difficult to imagine that Jesus followers who were by all indications practicing Jews would apply stories about pagan idols to their teacher.

b) When Jesus' ministry ended, he was still considered only a man. His disciples addressed him as "Rabbi!" while people generally thought of him as a prophet like John the Baptist. It is one thing to find gods dying and rising in myths that originally explained the vegetation cycles and quite another to find a story about a real human being like Jesus ascending to heaven after having been known to be executed. Stories of Aristaeus, Romulus, Herakles, Apollonius and Antinous related earlier show that even pagans did not imagine their heros to have risen from the dead and then ascended to heaven. As a rule, they either denied their death or spoke of the ascension of their divine part only. Out of the five figures, only Aristaeus comes close to being a figure who starts his carrier as a human being and about whom it is said that he died and then rose again to ascend to heaven and in his case we do not know how many years it took for the tradition to arrive at that scenario. Moreover, in case of gods the motivation to talk about the death and resurrection would be to explain some aspects of Nature and Man but what would be the purpose of declaring the ascension of a man such as Jesus if he was executed? And why was this particular man the only one who was declared in Palestine to have ascended to heaven after his death under the influence of the myths?

c) Our review of the myths about the so-called dying and rising gods shows that these gods either do not "rise" or do not "die". When some idea of both death and resurrection can be found, it in most cases becomes explicit only in post-Christian documents and mostly in Christian writers and seems to be the result of a combining of two originally independent myths, those that talked about the god's death and those that did not. The most clear case of a deity who is executed and then rises again is that of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. But there is no evidence that her story was alive around the time the Jesus tradition originated and took shape. It should also be noted that the idea of the death and resurrection/ascension of a god was by no means natural to paganism, as can be seen from the response to the doctrine of Euhemerus (fourth-third century B.C.E.) by the poet Callimachus (third century B.C.E.). Euhemerus taught that all gods were men who were deified after their death in recognition of outstanding services they did for mankind. In this connection, he narrates the death of Zeus in Crete, the funerary rites performed by his sons the Curetes, and theplacing of the body in the sepulchre in Cnossos. Callimachus rejects this tradition in his Hymn to Zeus, saying: "Cretans are always liars; for Cretans even built your tomb, O king [Zeus], but you did not die, for you exist forever." Neither Euhemerus nor Callimachus seem to consider the possibility that Zeus could have died and then risen from the dead. In case of gods whose death is recognized, the death and life are not viewed as two irreconcilable conditions but, under Egyptian influence, as conditions that can exist simultaneously, so that the god can be both mourned and worshipped. Still, some Greek writers found this combination of mourning and worship to be irrational and objectionable. Thus Aristotle and Plutarch both agreed with the view of Xenophanes of Colophon that those who are mourned should not be worshipped. Aristotle says: "To the people of Eleus who asked whether or not they should offer a sacrifice to Leucothea and mourn her death, Xenophanes counselled that if they thought her a goddess, they should not mourn her, but, if they thought her a woman, they should not sacrifice to her." And Plutarch says: "Xenophanes of Colophon was thus right to judge that the Egyptians, if they believed in the gods, should not mourn their death, but that if they mourned them, they should not believe them to be gods." Christians used this saying in their fight against paganism. Thus Clement of Alexandria (150?-220?) says to the pagans: "If you believe they are gods, do not lament them, nor beat your breast; but if you mourn for them, stop thinking that they are gods (Protrepticus 2.24.3). Christians, of course, themselves ceremonially "remembered" (1 Cor 11:23-26) the death of Christ and some of them also worshipped him. But for them the resurrection of Christ justified his veneration while his earlier death deserved remembrance. Not so for the pagan gods who die but do not really rise. This seems to have been recognized even by Celsus in the second century C.E. When he responds to the Christian criticism of paganism in which gods are both mourned and worshipped, he attributes it to a Christian misunderstanding of paganism but does not use the Christian idea of death and resurrection to respond to the criticism. ("The Euhemerism of the Christian Authors," in Yves Bonnefoy, Mythologies).

The above observations, together with those in Ch. 10, show that if pagans were presented with an existing belief about an executed miracle worker who rose from the dead to ascend to heaven, many of them would find it acceptable and would be attracted to the worship of such a man as a supernatural being. But it was by no means natural to them -- much less to the Jews under their influence -- to create such a belief, despite their familiarity with gods who die and then continue to have some type of potent existence afterwards.

In summary, the belief in Jesus' ascension was originally independent of his belief in his execution. The two beliefs were two alternative ways of explaining the disappearance of Jesus under mysterious circumstances.

The ascension of Jesus was in the beginning affirmed in short formulas like "God raised Jesus" or "Jesus ascended to heaven" or "he was lifted up". These formulas then developed into accounts of the ascension. The earliest account of the ascension was probably this: Jesus and some of his disciples are assembled on a mountain in Galilee. Suddenly a cloud appears and carries Jesus to heaven. Sometimes a voice from heaven was added to the story to express some understanding of Jesus. (See Ch. 9).

The account of the ascension was related variously with the other material belonging to the brief stay in Galilee after Jesus' return there from Jerusalem. Sometimes the ascension concluded the story of Jesus and sometimes it was followed by an appearance of Jesus. The story of the walk on water with which the story of the stilling of the storm has been combined originated in this way as a story of post-ascensional appearance.

At a later stage the ascension is sometimes moved to Jerusalem. This is done under two different motivations. First was to deny the crucifixion: Jesus was taken to heaven on the night of the last supper either from the Mount of Olives or Bethany. Everything that is said to have happened afterwards such as the arrest, execution, resurrection, is either denied or considered as only apparent and not real. Second was to do the opposite: to affirm the death and resurrection of Jesus. For this purpose the place of ascension becomes the tomb.

The tradition of Jesus' ascension also developed in another completely different direction. In this approach the primitive formulas such as "God raised Jesus" or "Jesus ascended to heaven" were not developed into an account of the ascension but into the story of the empty tomb. The empty tomb established the ascension and also combined the ascension with the execution. The two approaches meet in the Gospel of Peter and Luke-Acts. The former first describes Jesus' ascension from the tomb and then relate the empty-tomb story while the latter first gives the empty-tomb story and then describes the ascension, not from the tomb but from Bethany or the Mount of Olives.

Thus the development of tradition may be outlined as follows:

1) Jesus' disappearance;

2) Emergence of two alternative explanations of the disappearance: execution and ascension.

3) Creation of eyewitness accounts of the ascension from a Galilean mountain under the influence of the Elijah and/or Romulus tradition; creation of primitive passion stories;

4) Reconciliation of the execution and the ascension by the empty-tomb story.

5) Movement of the ascension from Galilee to Jerusalem and from the mountain to the tomb.

An alternative to our proposal is that the ascension of Jesus was first affirmed in spiritual terms and then later became more and more physical, creating the empty-tomb story, stories of physical appearances of the risen Jesus and accounts of ascension. But in both Jewish and Gentile traditions the belief in the ascension of a figure, as a rule, requires either lack of knowledge of the fate of a person or of the whereabouts of his body and the ascension involves either the translation of the body to heaven or its transformation into a new form. In Jewish thought, especially, a sharp distinction between body and soul is not made, except, generally under Hellenist influence as in case of Philo and Paul. And, as we saw above, even Philo's description of the ascension of Moses involves both body and soul. The same is true of Paul's understanding of the resurrection/ascension of Jesus (1 Cor 15:42-43, 51-54). Moreover, this alternative proposal is not supported by our sources. The accounts of ascension and the empty tomb, which imply a physical ascension, are very early and we do not possess any earlier traditions that speak of a spiritual ascension only.

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