James Tabor on Various Understandings of Ascension
This article was originally published on Dr. James Tabor’s popular Taborblog, a site that discusses and reports on “‘All things biblical’ from the Hebrew Bible to Early Christianity in the Roman World and Beyond.” Bible History Daily republished the article with consent of the author.
I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, on “Paul’s Ascent to Paradise” under Jonathan Z. Smith, Robert M. Grant, and Bernard McGinn. Its focus was the celebrated passage where Paul reports his extraordinary experience, as a “man in Christ” who was taken to the “third heaven,” and then into Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). I completed the degree in 1982 and published the dissertation as a book, Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in its Greco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Contexts (Brown University Studies in Judaism) in 1986. It is long ago out of print but I plan to make an e-book or PDF edition available soon for free downloading.
Paul is not the only one in antiquity reported to have experienced such a “heavenly journey.” In my latest book, Paul and Jesus I discuss the implications of these claims of Paul to extraordinary revelations and how they created both conflict and controversy in what I call the “battle of the apostles.” What few readers of the New Testament might not realize is that the phenomenon of the “heavenly journey” is a rather common one in Paul’s time, and stretching back several hundreds years before him. What follows here is a rather thorough study and analysis of the various reports we have of figures, both legendary and historical, who are said to have ascended to heaven. As you will see, there are several types of such journeys, each with its own specific meaning, context, and implications. Paul’s report fits into a certain genre which helps us to understand the implications of the claims he is making.
The motif of the journey to heaven is a vitally important phenomenon of ancient Mediterranean religions. There are five figures in the Bible who, according to standard Jewish and Christian interpretation, are reported to have ascended to heaven: Enoch (Gen 5:24); Elijah (2 Kgs 2:1-12); Jesus (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9); Paul (2 Cor 12:2-4); and John (Rev 4:1). There are also four related accounts in which individuals behold the throne, or heavenly court, of Yahweh: Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-11); Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:19-23); Isaiah (Isa 6:1-13); and Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10). Finally, there is the scene in which an otherwise unidentified “son of man” comes before the throne of God in an apocalyptic vision of Daniel (Dan 7:11-14). This notion, that mortals enter into, or behold, the realm of the immortal God (or gods) undergoes various complicated developments from the Ancient Near Eastern into the Hellenistic period. It is closely related to a number of other topics such as the descent or journey to the underworld of the dead, the heavenly destiny of the immortal soul, the apotheosis or divinization of selected mortals (rulers, philosophers, divine men), and aspects of Greco-Roman, Jewish and Christian mysticism. Sorting through this complex conceptual web, and trying to understand these Biblical texts with their contexts and complicated traditional development, has occupied historians of ancient religions for the past 150 years (Bousset 1901; Segal 1980).
The various types of the heavenly journeys we have reports about can be divided into four basic categories, based upon the fundamental purpose or outcome of the ascent as reported in a given text. Generally speaking, the first two categories are more characteristic of the Ancient Near Eastern, or archaic period, which would include most texts of the Hebrew Bible (OT). The latter two categories are more typical of the Hellenistic period, which reflects the perspective of the NT.
In the cosmology reflected throughout most of the Hebrew Bible mortal humankind belongs on earth, not in heaven, and at death descends below to the nether world known as Sheol. Ps 115 expresses this succinctly:
The heaven’s are the LORD’S heavens,
but the earth he has given to the
sons of men.
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any that go down into silence.
But we will bless the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.
Generally speaking, just as there is no coming back from the dead, there is no idea or expectation that humans can go to heaven, a place reserved for God and his angelic attendants. This means that any report of a human being ascending to heaven would be seen as not only extraordinary, but often even as an intrusion or invasion of the divine realm. In an Akkadian text, Adapa, the son of Ea, attempts to ascend to heaven to obtain eternal life but is cast back down to earth (Pritchard 1969:101-3). A somewhat similar story is told of Etana, one of the legendary rulers of the Sumerian dynasty of Kish (Pritchard 1969: 114-18). A direct protest against such an ascent is found in Isa 14:12-20 (compare Ezk 28:11-19). There the prideful King of Babylon, who wants to ascend to heaven and become like God, is cast down to the nether world of worms and maggots (v 11). The ironic language of Prov 30:2-4 (compare Job 26; 38:1-42:6), though not a tale of ascent, emphasizes the contrast between the human and divine realms. A similar idea lies behind Deut 29:29 and 30:11-14. There is no need for one to ascend to heaven to learn the “secret things” which belong to God (compare Sir 3:21-22). Lucian’s tale, Icaromenippus, though from the Roman imperial period, typifies this understanding of ascent to heaven as an invasion of the realm of the gods.
The accounts of Enoch and Elijah are best understood in this context. First and foremost, they are extraordinary. The normal fate, even of great heroes of the Hebrew Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and David, is death or “rest” in Sheol (Gen 25:7-9; Deut 34:6; 1 Kgs 2:10, cf Acts 2:29-34). Furthermore, both texts, particularly the one about Enoch, are ambiguous. Genesis 5:24, from the P source, in lieu of recording Enoch’s death, simply says “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” Where he was taken, the text does not say. Though the bulk of later Jewish and Christian tradition understood this text as ascent to heaven (Charlesworth 1983: 1: 3-315; Tabor 1989), this was not universally the case (compare Heb 11:5, 13-16). The author might have had in mind a journey “Beyond,” to some special region on this earth (e.g. “Isles of the Blessed”), as in the cases of Gilgamesh’s Utnapishtim or Menelaus in Homer. Such might also be the case with Elijah. Though he is clearly taken from the earthly scene in a chariot of fire that rises to heaven like a whirlwind, the author might well have had in mind his removal or “retirement” to some remote area. If so, “heaven” in this text is equivalent to “sky,” and the author does not intend to imply that Elijah joined Yahweh as an immortal in the heavenly court. This appears to be the understanding of the Chronicler who reports that much later, Jehoram, king of Judah, receives a letter written by Elijah (2 Chr 21:12-15).
This type of ascent involves a “round trip” from earth to heaven and back again, or some visionary experience of the heavenly court from which one returns to normal experience (ascent/descent). In contrast to the previous type, the journey or experience is appraised most positively. The earth, not heaven, is still understood as the proper human place, so that the ascent remains a “visit,” though not an intrusion, into the divine realm.
The complex literary traditions surrounding the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai, now found in Exodus 24, though not explicitly referring to a journey to heaven, are closely related to this category. Moses (or alternatively Moses, Aaron and the seventy elders), in ascending the mountain, enter the presence of God, the realm of the divine. He is given revelation in the form of heavenly tablets, then descends back to the mortal realm. Though he is not explicitly deified or enthroned, he becomes a semi-divine figure, eating and drinking in the divine presence and returning from the mountain with his face transformed like an immortal (Exod 24:11; 34:29-30). In later interpretation this was understood as full deification (see Philo, De vita Mosis 2.290-91; De virt. 73-75; Ezekiel the Tragedian 668-82). The prophetic call of Isaiah is a further example of this same pattern (Isa 6:1-3). Since there is no specific reference to Isaiah being “taken up,” this is a “visionary ascent,” though the distinction between the two types is not always clear (see 2 Cor 12:2-4). He sees “The LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up . . . .” (v 1). He is then given a message with a corresponding prophetic commission. As a mortal, he is out of place in the divine realm; he cries out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v 5). The throne visions of Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10) should be compared here, as well as the scene before the throne of the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:14 where a “son of man” is given cosmic rulership over all nations. Micaiah’s vision of the heavenly court also belongs under this category (1 Kgs 22:19-23). In all of these texts the ascent or vision of the heavenly throne serves as a way of claiming the highest and most direct heavenly authority for the message. Such experiences are clearly evaluated as more noteworthy than the epiphany of an angelic messenger or receipt of a prophetic “word of the LORD.” Widengren (1950) has traced this motif of royal or prophetic enthronement (ascent, initiation into heavenly secrets, receipt of a divine commission) into later Jewish traditions involving kingship, prophetic commissions and the revelation of secret heavenly lore. This understanding of ascent dominates one of the oldest sections of 1 Enoch, the Book of the Watchers (chaps. 1-36). The legendary figure Enoch is taken through the heavenly realms and shown cosmic secrets, even appearing before God’s lofty throne. The Greek version of the Testament of Levi (2nd century B.C.E.) draws upon the ascent motif in a similar way, as does the Latin Life of Adam and Eve (1st century C.E.) and the Apocalypse of Abraham. In each of these texts the ascent to heaven functions as a vehicle of revelation, offering divine authority to the cosmological and eschatological lore the authors were expounding.
The closest non-Jewish, or Greek, parallel to this notion of ascent is probably Parmenides’ prooemium, which survives in only a few fragments (Taran 1965). He tells of being taken in a chariot through the gate leading to daylight, where he is received and addressed by a goddess. On the whole, for Greeks in the archaic period, revelations came through epiphanies, oracles, dreams, omens, and signs of various sorts, not by being taken before the throne of Zeus. The fair number of Jewish (and Jewish-Christian) texts which make use of ascent to heaven as a means of legitimating rival claims of revelation and authority is likely due to the polemics and party politics that characterized the Second Temple period. It became a characteristic way, in the Hellenistic period, of claiming “archaic” authority of the highest order, equal to a Enoch or Moses, for ones vision of things.
This type of ascent to heaven is final or “one way:” a mortal obtains immortality, or release from mortal conditions, thorough a permanent ascent to the heavenly realms. Broadly, there are two overlapping ideas involved here, both of which have been extensively investigated. First, that a hero, ruler, or extraordinary individual has obtained immortal heavenly existence (Farnell 1921; Guthrie 1950; Bieler 1935-36; M. Smith 1971; Gallagher 1982). Second, the more general idea that the souls of humankind, bound by mortal conditions, can obtain release to immortal heavenly life (Rhode 1925; Bousset 1901; Burkert 1985). The second is not merely a later democratization of the first, rather, the two exist side by side throughout the Hellenistic period. While they are distinct from one another, both are related to a fundamental shift in the perception of the proper human place. Increasingly in this period one encounters the notion that humans actually belong in heaven, with life on earth seen as either a “fall” or temporary subjection to mortal powers (Nilsson 1969: 96-185; J. Z. Smith 1975).
The only candidates for such immortalization in the Hebrew Bible are Enoch and Elijah, though, as noted above, both texts are ambiguous. As early as the Maccabean period (2nd century B.C.E.) Daniel speaks of the righteous dead being resurrected and “shining like the stars forever and ever,” having obtained immortality (12:3). A similar notion is found in the Wisdom of Solomon, where the “souls of the righteous” are promised immortal life (3:1-9). Gradually, in Jewish and Christian texts of the Hellenistic period, the older idea of the dead reposing in Sheol forever is replaced with either a notion of the resurrection of the dead or the immortality of the soul or some combination of the two (Nickelsburg 1972). Both ideas involve the notion of a final ascent to heaven.
The NT reflects this Hellenistic perspective in which mortals can obtain heavenly immortality. Matthew 13:43, reflecting the language and influence of Daniel, asserts that “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Eternal life is promised to the righteous throughout the NT corpus (Mark 9:42-48; Q [Matt 10:32-33=Luke 12:8]; Matt 25:46; Acts 13:48; John 3:16; 14:1-3; Rom 6:23; Col 3:1-4; 1 Tim 1:16; Heb 12:22-23; Jas 1:12; 1 Pet 1:4; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 John 5:11; Jude 21; Rev 20). In most cases this involves ascent to heaven and life before the throne of God (1 Thess 4:13-18; Rev 7:9-17). According to the NT, the righteous of the OT, such as Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, are included in this promised resurrection to immortal heavenly life (Heb 11). In the NT the ascent of Jesus to heaven is the paradigm for all those righteous mortals who follow. Just as he was raised from the dead, made immortal, and ascended to the Father, so will followers experience the same at his return (John 14: 1-3; 1 Cor 15: 20-28; Rom 8:29-30). The state of the the righteous souls who have died prior to the time of the end and the resurrection and ascent to heaven is not always clear. Paul seems to prefer the metaphor of “sleep,” which parallels the Hebrew Bible notion of Sheol (1 Thess 4:13; 5:10; 1 Cor 15:18-20). But in two places he might imply that these “souls” or “spirits” depart immediately at death and ascend to the presence of Christ in heaven (Phil 1: 21-24; 2 Cor 5:1-10). In Revelation the “souls of the martyrs” are pictured as under the altar, presumably in heaven, longing for their time of vindication (6:9-11). In distinction to both of these views, the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, unique to Luke, pictures the Hadean world of the dead, which is below not above, as a place in which rewards and punishments are already being experienced prior to the final resurrection and judgment (Luke 16:19-31). This latter text is more in concert with other Jewish materials of the period which see the “dead” as conscious, but in the Hadean world below, awaiting the resurrection and last judgment (cf. Rev 20:11-15). There is no uniform NT view of this subject of the “state of the dead.”
Surprisingly, an actual narrative account of the ascent of Jesus to heaven occurs only in Luke (24:51, but see textual variants; Acts 1:9). It is assumed in Matthew and Mark and spoken of in John (20:17) and Paul (Rom 8:34). A similar resurrection from the dead followed by bodily ascension to heaven is prophesied for the “two witnesses” in the book of Revelation (11:7-12). They are God’s final prophets before the return of Christ and the last judgment. The contrast between the NT and the Hebrew Bible regarding this expectation of ascent to heaven could not be more striking. Other than the doubtful examples of Enoch and Elijah, it is not until the book of Daniel, which is perhaps the latest text in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, that one finds any reference to mortals ascending to heavenly life (some would include Isa 26:19; Job 14:14-16 is a longing, not an affirmation). The NT is fully a part of the process of Hellenization in which notions of resurrection from the dead, immortality of the soul, and ascent to heaven were the norm rather than the exception.
This type of ascent involves a journey or “visit” to heaven which functions as a foretaste or anticipation of a final or permanent ascent to heavenly life. Though related to the second category, ascent to receive revelation, it is fundamentally different. For example, when Isaiah is taken before God’s throne, though he receives a commission and experiences the glories of the heavenly world, there is no idea that he will return to that realm. He remains a mortal who dies and descends to Sheol with all the other dead.
The earliest example of this notion of ascent is in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), probably dating from the 1st century B.C.E. In chapter 39 Enoch relates how he was taken to heaven. The experience transforms him (39:14) and he is told that he will later ascend to heaven permanently and receive glory and immortal heavenly life (chaps. 70-71). 2 (Slavonic) Enoch also reflects a similar pattern. Enoch’s journey through the seven heavens, which lasts 60 days (chaps. 1-20), is followed by a return to earth. The experience transforms him and functions in anticipation of his final translation to heaven. Christians later took up and elaborated this understanding of ascent from such Jewish models, as seen in texts such as the Ascension of Isaiah. In the NT we have the striking firsthand account of Paul’s own experience of ascent to Paradise (2 Cor 12:2-4). This text provides evidence for the actual “practice” of ascent to heaven in Jewish-Christian circles during this period, in contrast to a purely literary motif adopted to lend heavenly authority to a text. Obviously, Paul’s experience functions as a highly privileged foretaste of the heavenly glorification which he expected at the return of Christ (Tabor 1986).
There are definite links between the language and ideas of these Jewish texts from Second Temples times, the testimony of Paul, and the Tannaitic and Amoraic Merkabah (and later Hekhalot) traditions (Scholem 1960; Gruenwald 1980; Halperin 1980).
There are also examples of this type of ascent to heaven in non-Jewish/Christian materials. Perhaps the clearest is Cicero’s report of the “Dream of Scipio Africanus” in his Republic (6. 9-26). The text was highly influential and functions as a kind of universal declaration of the gospel of astral immortality (Luck 1956). Scipio travels to the heavenly world above and returns with a revelation that all humans are immortal souls, trapped in mortal bodies, but potentially destined for heavenly life above. The gnostic text Poimandres, found in the Corpus Hermeticum also fits this category of ascent. There is also an important text in the Greek Magical Papyri, mistakenly called the “Mithras Liturgy,” (PGM 4. 624-750). It provides the initiate who desires to ascend to heaven with an actual guide for making the journey with all its dangers and potentials. There are Jewish texts such as Hekhalot Rabbati which have strong parallels with such magical materials, showing that we are dealing here with an international phenomenon of late antiquity (M. Smith 1963). It is also likely that the rites of initiation into certain of the so-called “mystery religions,” such as that of Isis, involved such proleptic experiences of ascent to heaven (see Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11 and discussion of Tabor 1986: 89-92).
It is noteworthy that Paul’s testimony in 2 Cor 12:2-4 remains our only firsthand autobiographical account of such an experience from the Second Temple period.
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