Skip to content

Certainty about Uncertain Dates: Thomas Sheehan Rides Again

skepticAs mentioned in my previous post, I have been listening to a Stanford University Continuing Education course on The Historical Jesus presented by Thomas Sheehan. While I would not expect a Stanford professor to take a high view of the Bible’s validity, I would expect this man to take a high view of truth. Unfortunately, he does not do that. Our case for today is the claim, repeated several times, that Luke did not know when the ascension of Jesus took place.

Let’s review. The ascension takes place in Luke 24 and in Acts 1, a sort of “Previously on the Jesus Story” bridge betwen these two books. In Luke 24: 50-53, we read this:

And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy,and were continually in the temple praising God.

In Acts 1:3-11, the story is considerably more developed, although I have omitted several verses for brevity:

To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. . . . And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”


Why does that mean, in the mental universe of Prof. Sheehan, that Luke is uncertain about when this event took place? He notes that while in Acts, the date is placed forty days after the resurrection, in Luke it is, according to his reading, on the very day of the resurrection. Of course, Luke 24 does not say that Jesus ascended on the very day of the resurrection, but Sheehan’s reading is possible. But is it correct?

For Sheehan to be correct, then the placement of the ascension on resurrection day must not only be possible but must be the only plausible reading. In order to evaluate this claim, we need to determine why Sheehan and others believe that Luke 24 dates the ascension in such a manner.

Reading through Luke 24, we encounter a series of events. First, we have the women going to the tomb followed by Peter going there. Then we encounter the long “Road to Emmaus” passage, which would certainly be dated to that auspicious Sunday (unless these were particularly ill-informed disciples).  Next, as the Emmaus-bound disciples report their experience to the eleven, Jesus makes an appearance, speaking and eating. Finally, we have the verses quoted above in which Jesus led the group out to Bethany and made his departure.

Certainly this sequence could be read as the events of a single day, but then maybe such a reading is not as plausible as it might seem. The Road to Emmaus sequence terminates after the disciples implore their unknown fellow traveler (Jesus) to stay with them since “the day is nearly over.” Over an evening meal, Jesus reveals himself, leading the disciples to book it back to Jerusalem, some six miles distant. Surely this can’t place them back in the city before 9 or 10pm. Then Jesus appears and speaks and eats. So are we to believe that the ascension took place in the middle of the night? That would have to be Sheehan’s assumption, or perhaps it came early the next morning.

Of course, the real question is whether the apparently continuous sequence of events in Luke 24 are indeed to be read as a single day. It certainly sounds as if it could be, and since Luke is usually quite free with time markers, it seems reasonable to believe that the absence of a time marker–e..g., “and then forty days later”–the adjacent events are immediately after one another. But is that conclusion warranted.

The word at the head of verse 50 does not indicate time with any precision. Although it is translated “then” in Sheehan’s favored NRSV, other translations reasonably render it as “and.” For sake of fairness, however, let’s use “then.” Does the word “then,” in this case, indicate that the event begun in verse 50 takes place immediately after that in verse 49?

Let’s consider the case in English. If I say, “I earned my master’s degree. Then I took my doctorate,” does it indicate that I immediately processed from the M.A. program into the Ph.D.? Certainly not. At times, the English word “then” indicates immediate sequence, but many other times it simply indicates a general chronology. “We’ll finish school and then get married” does not suggest that the wedding needs to be held on the evening of graduation day.

Of course, Luke did not write in English. Are there cases in the gospel in which a “then” indicates something other than an immediate sequence of events? Interestingly there are. My first two examples are rather flippant, both coming from Luke 2. In both 2:40 and 2:52, we learn of Jesus growing and maturing. Amazingly, according to Sheehan’s logic, that growth must have taken place on the same day as what came before. Granted, that’s a rather unconvincing argument.

But look at the top of Luke 9. “Then Jesus called the Twelve together.” The word rendered “Then” is the same Greek word that we find in 24:50. Would Sheehan insist that this event must take place on the same day as the miracle recounted in Luke 8? Certainly it could be the same day, but must it be? Might as many as 40 days have intervened?

Reading on through the chapter we learn that Jesus sent out the Twelve, admonishing them not to take any money with them. In 9:7-9, we discover that while the Twelve were out doing their missionary project, Herod sought out Jesus. That sequence begins with that same Greek word, translated as “Now” in the NRSV. Apparently, Jesus sent the Twelve out to do their project and Herod happened to seek Jesus on that very day.

Later in the chapter, we learn that the disciples returned, apparently on the same day since Luke does not give any indication of time passing. The spiritual boldness of going on a missionary trip without money is undermined when we find that the trip lasted less than a day. And then the very same day, with his tired disciples around him, Jesus fed 5,000. What a day!

In the next chapter, Jesus again sends out emissaries, seventy-two of them this time, only to have them return on the very same day. How do we know it was the same day? According to the Sheehan Axiom of Chronology, if no indication of time passing is given, then the events must have happened on the same day.

Two examples may not seem like much, but it has already been noted that Luke uses a good many time markers. The inventory of unclear time markers is limited in Luke’s gospel. Also, many times when he uses a less-than-specific conjunction–e.g., and, then, now–it really does not matter if the events happened in immediate sequence or simply in that order. For example, in Luke 8, Jesus delivers and then explains the Parable of the Sower. Did he explain the parable on the same day he taught it? Probably, but would it change things if the disciples didn’t ask him about it until the next day? And did Jesus’ mother and brothers show up (8:19) on that very day or perhaps a few days later? The exact chronology is not important, although the sequence seems to be important.

Do these two significant examples prove that forty days transpired before those final verses of Luke 24? Obviously they do not, but they certainly put the lie to the smug certainty with which Sheehan asserts Luke’s confusion, uncertainty, or apathy regarding relative dates. The problem with this stripe of interpreter comes when he assumes that he knows the truth and then sloppily compiles evidence to support that supposed truth and then weighs all other evidence in the light of the supposedly verified “truth.”

Humility has never been the hallmark of the typical academic. All too often it is not the hallmark of Christians, which is a shame.

Posted in Biblical Literature.

Tagged with , , , , , , .

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

You must be logged in to post a comment.