Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

The Ascent of Jesus & Visionary Ascents – One and the same?

Posted by NT Wrong on April 26, 2008

In many early Christian texts, there is a curiously close connection between the account of Christ’s crucifixion, death, ascent, and heavenly exaltation and the visionary ascension experiences of the authors who describe it. Are we dealing with one and the same phenomenon? Is the account of Jesus’ ascent to heaven derived from visionary ascents experienced by followers of the Jesus Movement?

For example, in Ascension of Isaiah 6, Isaiah induces a trance that results in the separation of his visionary soul from his stationary body. Richard Bauckham dates the Ascension of Isaiah as early as AD 70, and other interpreters date it to the late first or early second century. David Halperin describes the trance scene in Ascension of Isaiah 6 as a “vivid and realistic-sounding account of a shamanistic trance”, which most probably reflects the author’s actual visionary experience(s) (Faces of the Chariot 1988:66). In addition, there are a number of other indicators of early Jewish (and Christian) mysticism: requirement for passwords during descent, physical transformation of the visionary into an angelic form, and angelic opposition to human ascent. All of these factors reflect elements in early Jewish visionary experience.

What is more, the very form of the Ascension of Isaiah, which alternates the ascensions and transformations of the visionary ‘Isaiah’ with those of Christ betrays the influence of the visionary ascent experiences. Isaiah has a visionary ascent to heaven, in which he sees Jesus descend to earth and then ascend to heaven, after which Isaiah descends to earth again. The Ascension of Isaiah intimately connects visionary experiences of Christians with the ascent of Jesus.

A wide range of visionary ascent motifs is again present in the Odes of Solomon, where Christ’s descent to Hades and ascent to heaven is celebrated in hymns or odes. The Odes of Solomon is a Syrian collection which dates to this same late first or early second century priod. Again, there are a number of indicators of visionary experience. The visionary-odist experiences transformation into a heavenly figure, mystical union, ascension in a merkavah, avoidance of evils and dangers in ascent, and an angelus interpres figure. All of this strongly suggests that the description of Christ’s battle against evil powers and subsequent ascent to heaven were created from visionary experiences which themselves involved Christians attempting to overcome evil in an ascent to heaven.

Another book from this period is the Book of Revelation, which provides yet another mixture of visionary heavenly ascent with an account of Christ’s own ascent. In Revelation 4.1, John sees a “door opened in heaven”, and for the remainder of the book is “in the spirit”, experiencing a series of visions. John’s vision of his ascent to heaven involves a vision of Christ’s descent, defeat of Satan and ascent into heaven and exaltation (Rev 12.1-9). In Rev 1.13-18, John’s initial vision of the One like the Son of Man makes reference to his death providing freedom from Death and Hades and depicting him as being exalted in heaven.

Visionary experiences like those reported in the Ascension of Isaiah, the Odes of Solomon, and the Revelation of John arguably formed the basis of the resurrection accounts. They may even have occurred immediately following Jesus’ death when the period of trauma and grief was most intense. They may have been experienced by figures such as Peter or Mary Magdalene–both described in early Christianity as having visions. The vision reports they told would have provided the earliest accounts of Jesus’ ascent (to heaven). Thanks to the survival of works such as the Ascension of Isaiah, the Odes of Solomon, and the Revelation of John, we also have a good idea what those earliest vision reports of Jesus’ ascension might have looked like.



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