Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Political Significance of Jesus' Ascension

On this Ascension Day, N. T. Wright reminds us of the political significance of Jesus' ascension:

"The ascension is not a mere solution to a problem about what happens to a body of this new sort [i.e., Jesus' resurrected body]. It is, for Luke as much as for Paul, the vindication of Jesus as Israel’s representative, and the divine giving of judgment, at least implicitly, in his favour and against the pagan nations who have oppressed Israel and the current rulers who have corrupted her. … This is how the kingdom is being restored to Israel: by its representative Messiah being enthroned as the world’s true lord. … In fact, to any Roman reader of the time, and to plenty of others in the wider pagan world, the story of Jesus’ ascension would have had an immediate counter-imperial impact, cognate with what a devout Jew might have picked up from the implicit echoes of Daniel 7. [For] by Paul’s day the custom was well established of emperors being declared to be divine after their death, with the evidence produced consisting of one or two witnesses who had glimpsed the soul of the dead emperor ascending towards the heavens. Augustus heralded a convenient comet as the soul of his adopted father Julius Caesar; at Titus’ funeral, an eagle was released from the pyre to fly aloft. The parallel with the Christian story is not exact, because the point was then that the new emperor was to be hailed as ‘son of god’ on the basis of the divinization of his predecessor, whereas the early Christians reserved that title for Jesus, now himself raised and exalted. The Christian ascension stories cannot be derived from the pagan ones; but they would certainly have been heard, in the second half of the first century, as counter-imperial. Jesus was lord, and Caesar was not" [The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 655-656].

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