How many Ascensions of Jesus were there,
and when did it (or they) occur?
By George Desnoyers
The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus on a Thursday. This is because of Acts 1:3, and the fact that if you count Easter Sunday as day number 1, day number 40 falls on a Thursday.
However, early Christians believed the Ascension of Jesus was on Sunday. This may have been true in many places up to at least the fifth century. In fact, the forty-third decree of one of the early church’s most important provincial synods, the Council of Elvira [early fourth century], may have actually condemned the celebration of a feast on the fortieth day. There were some good reasons for early Christians to belief that the Ascension of Jesus was on Sunday. I’ll outline them below.
First, however, lets deal with that “forty days” of Acts 1:3. That number was not taken as a precise number by those in the early church who were aware of it. Some think it may be a symbolic number, but approximately correct, because it does fit pretty well with what is written about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
My own belief is that the “forty” is not symbolic, but is a round number. The best Catholic Bible dictionary I know of is “Dictionary of the Bible” by John L. McKenzie, S.J. It was published in 1965 by the Macmillan Publishing Co. But my current copy is the 1995 Simon & Schuster Touchstone edition. It has a wonderful article on the Ascension(s). Regarding the forty days, it says, “The 40 days are very probably a round number.”
Now, still largely quoting from that same Catholic source, here are the reasons why the early church believed the Ascension of Jesus was on a Sunday.
(1) The entire chapter 24 of Luke ends with an ascension. Reading that chapter from beginning to end gives the strong impression that the ascension had occurred on the same day as the resurrection. Here is the quote from page 59 of McKenzie’s: “Lk 24 in its entirety is composed so as to suggest that all the events from the resurrection to the ascension occur on the same day.”
(2) The second reason the early Christians might have believed it was on a Sunday was John 20:17. Here is a quote from McKenzie’s: “The Johanine conception of the ascension is suggested in Jn 20:17…for the ascension in Jn is conceived as it is in Lk as occurring on the day of the resurrection.” This takes a little explanation. The verse says, “Jesus saith unto her, ‘Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father…’”
There is some debate over the meaning of Jesus’ words, “touch me not.” Some folk think the meaning is, “Don’t cling to me” (a translation which would seem to imply that Jesus was in a hurry to go somewhere and couldn’t be delayed). It is a difficult choice. The best literal translation MAY be “Don’t be touching me” (possibly implying ongoing or lasting touching). Maybe, both “touch” and “cling” are inferior translations, for the Greek word used is known to be translated into the Aramaic word meaning “approach.” But here’s my point: whether it is “touch,” “cling to,” or “approach” doesn’t matter. Lk 24 tells much about Jesus later on resurrection day. First, Jesus encouraged some of his disciples to touch him (Lk 24:39). Secondly, Jesus spent a very considerable time period with the disciples that day in a rather leisurely way. Why would Jesus be so much in a hurry in Jn 20:17 that He did not want Mary to touch, cling to, or approach Him, while He was in no such hurry the rest of the day (Lk 24). According to some, the likely answer suggested is that Jesus DID ascend to the Father on resurrection day very shortly after His encounter with Mary (Jn 20:17).
(3) The third reason early Christians associated the ascension with Sunday is because they usually treated it conceptually. Here is a quote from McKenzie: “The (post-resurrection) Christophanies are therefore conceived as returns of the Risen Christ. It must be noticed that this is the conception implicit in almost all the NT allusions to the exaltation of Christ, which treat the resurrection and exaltation as a single event which completes the victory and earthly career of Jesus and marks the climax of the process of salvation.” Again, I stress, this is from a Roman Catholic book, and the Catholic Church now celebrates the Ascension on a Thursday. I have seen similar comments in other non-Catholic reference books. The fact is, early Christians conceptually treated the resurrection and ascension together, almost as a single event. It was the combination of those two events that was seen as the ratification and acceptance by God of all that Jesus had taught and done. And early Christians associated the two events with Sunday.
(4) Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists would not agree with this fourth reason. This is a quote from Abingdon’s “The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible.” The following quote is from page 706, a section on Luke 24:50-53: “An ascension soon after the death of Jesus seems historically probable, as the promise to the penitent thief implies (Lk 23:43).”
Modern Sabbath-keepers, such as Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists, get around the promise to the penitent thief by charging that most Bibles have a misplaced comma. They believe that Jesus said, "I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise,” and NOT, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
However, there is a rule of interpreting that tells us which it was that Jesus said. Normally, interpretations in which all the words have meaning are preferred over interpretations that make one or more words superfluous. If the meaning were, "I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise," the word "today" would be superfluous (Of course Jesus was telling the thief "today." Both Jesus and the thief were already well aware of that.), and the construction would be unique among the recorded sayings of Jesus.
Conclusion: The four reasons enumerated above, along with the taking of the “forty days” of Acts 1:3 as a round number, appear to have been the reason the early Church associated Jesus’ Ascension with Sunday. Of course, scripture cannot be said to rule out the possibility that there were two Ascensions of Jesus, one on resurrection Sunday and another one on the fortieth day. In support of this last idea, it is often pointed out that Luke 24 and Acts 1:3 were written by the same author and that therefore two Ascensions are far more probable than an inconsistency in the two accounts.