Part of a series on What Early Christians Believed.
Traditionally, Paul's letters have been interpreted in light of the later Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. The story goes that Jesus was physically resurrected to the earth and after 40 days he ascended to heaven - Acts 1:1-10. Rather than assuming this anachronistic approach to reconstructing history I will attempt to recover the earliest passages which refer to how Christ went to heaven.
Phil 2:8-9 - "And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:"
Notice how this passage goes straight from Jesus’ death on the cross to his exaltation in heaven. There is no mention of the resurrection nor is there even a distinction made between resurrection and exaltation. This hymn is very early and can be interpreted as a simultaneous resurrection/exaltation to heaven.
In Romans 8:34 it says he was “raised to life - is at the Right Hand of God.”
Eph. 1:20 – “he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,”
In each one of these, the logical sequence is Jesus died——> raised/exalted——> to heaven. In the Pauline literature we are never told of the sequence that Jesus was raised to the earth first and only later went to heaven.
The author of Hebrews indicates a similar view.
Hebrews 1:3 – “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
Hebrews 10:12-13 – “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.” – cf. Psalm 110.
Hebrews 12:2 – “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
So all of these can be interpreted as a direct exaltation to heaven without any intermediate time on the earth. Without prematurely reading in our knowledge of the later gospel appearances and Ascension in Luke/Acts, we would have no reason to interpret “raised” otherwise.
“The important point is that, in the primitive preaching, resurrection and exaltation belong together as two sides of one coin and that it implies a geographical transfer from earth to heaven (hence it is possible to say that in the primitive kerygma resurrection is ‘resurrection to heaven’).” – Arie Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, pg. 127
“If in the earliest stage of tradition resurrection and exaltation were regarded as one event, an uninterrupted movement from grave to glory, we may infer that the appearances were ipso facto manifestations of the already exalted Lord, hence: appearances ‘from heaven’ (granted the the act of exaltation/enthronement took place in heaven). Paul seems to have shared this view. He regarded his experience on the road to Damascus as a revelation of God’s son in/to him (Gal 1:16), that is, as an encounter with the exalted Lord. He defended his apostleship with the assertion he had ‘seen the Lord’ (1 Cor 9:1) and did not hesitate to put his experience on equal footing with the apostolic Christophanies (1 Cor 15:8).” ibid pg. 129
“the general conviction in the earliest Christian preaching is that, as of the day of his resurrection, Jesus was in heaven, seated at the right hand of God. Resurrection and exaltation were regarded as two sides of one coin…” – ibid, pg. 130 https://books.google.com/books?id=QIW7JywiBhIC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA127#v=onepage&q&f=false
I think the belief that Jesus went straight to heaven makes more sense when you think about it because what would be the point in being resurrected to the earth in which you're merely brought back to boring earthly life again? It makes much more sense to think that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was vindicated for his death and exalted straight to heaven to be at the Right Hand of God! That was his reward and the whole point of an exaltation i.e. the highest honor. Coming back to boring earthly life again would have been superfluous. Thoughts?
Awesome post. It also is unusual for Jesus to be made of material that disciples can touch and see (reflect light) that can process food and dispose of waste but also walk through walls and that can raise itself off the ground and elevate without any energy/force applied to it and disappear into another realm without being destroyed due to the temperature difference and pressure difference at that elevation (maybe it wasn't that far). That's a very interesting material Jesus was resurrected from. These events would be several nature-changing miracles at once. It would make a little more sense to me if he was resurrected in heaven. I recall a moment when a man asks if he can be born again and Jesus implied that he couldn't, only born in spirit again. Something to that effect.
(I also wonder what it means to be seated at the right hand of God. Is that allegorical or is he really sitting next to God? What would it matter if he was sitting at his right hand rather than his left? )
They got the idea of sitting at God's Right Hand from Psalm 110.
Paul and Hebrews indicate that Jesus lived and died in the lower heavens.
Because Jesus is the same Jesus from the LXX version of Zechariah.
Jesus was never on the Earth.
You ignore the Gospels, which state that Jesus was raised bodily. Jesus says it himself. He eats, he has wounds on his body, and he says he has not yet ascended.
6 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
John 20:17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Luke 24:40 0 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.
The reason I “ignored the gospels” is because I went with earliest sources. I explicitly mentioned this in my OP but since you brought it up allow me to demonstrate that the physical resurrection of Jesus is a legend that grew over time.
Scholarly consensus dating places the documents as follows:
Paul c. 50 CE - is the only firsthand report. He says the Risen Jesus "appeared" ὤφθη and was experienced through "visions" and "revelations" - 2 Cor 12:1. The appearance to Paul was a vision/revelation - Gal. 1:12-16, Acts 26:19 (not a physical encounter with a revived corpse) and he makes no distinction between what he "saw" and what the others "saw" in 1 Cor 15:5-8. He had a chance to mention the empty tomb in 1 Cor 15 when it would have greatly helped his argument but doesn't. Paul's order of appearances: Peter, the twelve, the 500, James, all the apostles, Paul. No location is mentioned.
Mark c. 70 CE - introduces the empty tomb but has no appearance report. Predicts Jesus will be "seen" in Galilee. The original ends at 16:8 where the women leave and tell no one. Mark's order of appearances: Not applicable.
Matthew c. 80 CE - has the women tell the disciples, contradicting Mark's ending, has some women grab Jesus' feet, then has an appearance in Galilee which "some doubt" - Mt. 28:17. Matthew also adds a descending angel, great earthquake, and a zombie apocalypse to spice things up. If these things actually happened then it's hard to believe the other gospel authors left them out, let alone any other contemporary source from the time period. Matthew's order of appearances: Two women, eleven disciples. The appearance to the women takes place near the tomb in Jerusalem while the appearance to the disciples happens on a mountain in Galilee.
Luke 85-95 CE - has the women immediately tell the disciples, contradicting Mark. Jesus appears in Jerusalem, not Galilee, contradicting Matthew's depiction and Mark's prediction. He appears to two people on the Emmaus Road who don't recognize him at first. Jesus then vanishes and suddenly appears to the disciples. This time Jesus is "not a spirit" but a "flesh and bone" body that gets inspected, eats fish, then floats to heaven while all the disciples watch - conspicuously missing from all the earlier reports. Luke's order of appearances: Two on the Emmaus Road, Peter, rest of the eleven disciples. All appearances happen in Jerusalem.
John 90-110 CE - Jesus can now walk through walls and has the Doubting Thomas story where Jesus gets poked. Jesus is also basically God in this gospel which represents another astonishing development. John's order of appearances: Mary Magdalene, eleven disciples, the disciples again plus Thomas, then to seven disciples. In John 20 the appearances happen in Jerusalem and in John 21 they happen near the Sea of Galilee on a fishing trip.
As you can see, these reports are inconsistent with one another and represent growth that's better explained as legendary accretion rather than actual history. If these were actual historical reports that were based on eyewitness testimony then we would expect more consistency than we actually get. None of the resurrection reports in the gospels even match Paul's appearance chronology in 1 Cor 15:5-8 and the later sources have amazing stories that are drastically different from and nowhere even mentioned in the earliest reports. The story evolves from Paul's spiritual/mystical Christ all the way up to literally touching a resurrected corpse that flies to heaven! So upon critically examining the evidence we can see the clear linear development that Christianity started with spiritual visionary experiences and evolved to the ever-changing physical encounters in the gospels. The Resurrection is a legend that grew over time.
The time frame is too short for legendary accretion to have occurred. People who witnessed the events in the Gospels would have still been alive. ' A.N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.' A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, NY: Oxford University, 1963), 186, entire discussion pg. 186-193.
Also, the idea that legendary accretion could have occurred is not evidence that it did occur. You would need evidence to support that.