Are the Accounts of Jesus’s Ascension Contradictory?

Bart Ehrman says that the author of Luke can’t seem to get the story of the Ascension of Jesus right. In his Gospel, Luke says that Jesus ascended into heaven the day of his resurrection. In The Acts of the Apostles, Jesus hung around for 40 days before leaving his disciples. Dr. Ehrman writes in his blog: 

“In Luke 24 (you can read it for yourself and see) Jesus rises from the dead, on that day meets with his disciples, and then, again that day, he ascends to heaven from the town of Bethany. But when you read Acts 1, written by the same author, you find that Jesus did not ascend on that day or that place. Jesus instead spends forty days with his disciples proving to them that he had been raised from the dead (it’s not clear why he would have to prove it! Let alone do so for forty days!), and only then – forty days after his resurrection – does he ascend. And here he ascends not from Bethany but Jerusalem. Luke tells the same story twice, and in two radically different ways. Historical accuracy does not appear to be his major concern.” 

Luke and Telescoping

But there’s a problem here. Luke doesn’t say Jesus’ ascension took place on the same day as the resurrection. What Luke is doing is telescoping the events, which is a standard rhetorical method of the time. We often condense stories for brevity without altering the facts. It’s like summarizing a vacation. For instance, you might say, “We hiked, climbed a mountain, went whitewater rafting, and saw bears.” Does that mean you did all that in a day? No. Did you specify different days? No. Did they occur in the exact order you mentioned? Not necessarily. But that doesn’t make it untrue. Luke is doing a similar condensation in his narrative. This practice of telescoping events is common among ancient historians.

As philosopher Tim McGrew points out, other ancient historians have used this technique, including Sallust, Lucian, Cicero, and Quintillian. (HistoriaeVera Historia 56-57, De Orateore 3.27.104-105, Institutio Oratoria 8.4)

Luke uses this technique elsewhere. Paul tells us he went to Arabia for three years after his conversion. Let’s read Galatians 1:16-20:

“I was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)”

But if we read Acts 9:23-26 at face value, it seems like Paul goes directly into Jerusalem:

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.

But this isn’t a contradiction. Just how long of a period is ‘many days’? If we’re only reading Acts, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a 3-year period, although it certainly could be. (See 1 Kings 2:38-39) So what about the journey to Arabia? Luke doesn’t mention it, but that doesn’t necessarily contradict Paul’s story in Galatians. This trip may have happened within Luke’s ‘many days’ in Acts 9:23, and Luke omits it.

This is an example of Luke taking related events where he omits time as well as some of the details. If we aren’t reading carefully we can assume they’re totally complete.

Luke also leaves a 4-year gap between Acts 12 and 13, and he also omits Jesus’ family trip to Egypt that we find in Matthew. Luke isn’t claiming to give a total account of Jesus’ life.

Time indicators in Luke

Furthermore, at the end of Luke, there is some obvious rush happening and a lack of specifics about time. For starters, Luke 24:29 states that the men on the road to Emmaus pressed Jesus to stay with them for dinner because it was already evening and the day was “far spent.” We do not know what that means exactly, but it can hardly mean 3 pm. Jesus then goes inside with them, they take the time to make and eat dinner. That would certainly take some time.

They then recognize him as he breaks bread and disappears. They then immediately go back to Jerusalem, a distance of 60 stadia (Lk 24:13), which is about 6-7 miles. This walk would take more than an hour, if not two. They then talk with the disciples for a while and tell their story (Lk 24:35). Then Jesus appears and reveals himself and they give him some food to show that he’s not a spirit (Lk 24:42-43). Only after all of this does Jesus begin talking to them about the Scriptures, preaching to them a sermon about how his death was predicted in the Scriptures (Lk 24:45). How long did that take? Probably not 10 minutes.

Jesus then leads them out to Bethany, a mile or two walk (cf. Jn 11:18). If someone tries to put this all on the same evening, it would probably already be dark by that time, making it difficult for them even to witness the ascension into heaven (Luke 24:51). During that time of year, darkness falls around 7PM. So just going by Luke 24 alone, it doesn’t at all look like all of this happened in one day.

Either Luke is running out of scroll or in a hurry at this point, or he doesn’t appear to have full knowledge yet of exactly how long Jesus was on earth after the resurrection. Luke simply keeps it non-specific and then later clarifies in Acts 1.

But what about the location of the ascension? 

But Bart isn’t done. Remember that in the above quote, he also said Luke gets confused with the location of the ascension. But let’s look at the text for ourselves rather than accept Ehrman’s portrayal of it. 

Here’s Luke 24:50-51: 

“And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”

And here’s Acts 1:12:

“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.”

Let’s take a look at a map:

Bethany is on the southeastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. We know Bethany was one of Jesus’ favorite places as it was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The Book of Acts tells us that they returned from the Mount of Olives. Luke tells us the ascension happened in Bethany. Acts 1 doesn’t say that Jesus ascended from Jerusalem. It says they returned to Jerusalem.

Um…where exactly is the contradiction here? It at least feels like Dr. Ehrman is looking for trouble where there is none.

Does Luke contradict Matthew? Go to Galilee or stay in Jerusalem?

But Dr. Ehrman has one more parting shot. In his book, Jesus, Interrupted he says that Matthew and Luke disagree regarding the ascension.

In Matthew’s version, the disciples are told to go to Galilee to meet Jesus, and they immediately do so. He appears to them there and gives them their final instruction. But in Luke, the disciples are not told to go to Galilee. They are told that Jesus had foretold his resurrection while he was in Galilee (during his public ministry). And they never leave Jerusalem—in the southern part of Israel, a different region from Galilee, in the north. On the day of the resurrection Jesus appears to two disciples on the “road to Emmaus” (24:13–35); later that day these disciples tell the others what they have seen, and Jesus appears to all of them (24:36–49), and then Jesus takes them to Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem, gives them their instructions and ascends to heaven.

In Luke’s next volume, Acts, we’re told that the disciples are in fact explicitly told by Jesus after his resurrection not to leave Jerusalem (Acts 1:4), but to stay there until they receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover. After giving his instructions, Jesus then ascends to heaven. The disciples do stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes (Acts 2). And so the discrepancy: If Matthew is right, that the disciples immediately go to Galilee and see Jesus ascend from there, how can Luke be right that the disciples stay in Jerusalem the whole time, see Jesus ascend from there, and stay on until the day of Pentecost?

p. 49

The problem here is Matthew never says Jesus ascends right then and there. Read the text for yourself:

“Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:17-20

Bart simply assumes that the ascension happens here because this is where Matthew concludes his Gospel, but the ascension actually isn’t actually in the passage.

Furthermore, Dr. Ehrman also assumes that Jesus commanded his apostles to “stay in the city of Jerusalem until you have been clothed with power from on high” on the same day that he rose. We all know that commonly the four evangelists jumped around from story to story without always giving the actual time or precise order of when things were done or taught. Luke leaves out the post-resurrection appearances in Galilee mentioned by Matthew, but he never says Jesus remained only in Jerusalem from the day he rose until his ascension. Ehrman seems to think that every telling of every event should include every important detail about it. But why should we assume that?

It is entirely plausible that Jesus’ command to stay in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4) was said to the disciples after they had returned to the Jerusalem area from Galilee during the 40 days when Jesus remained on the earth, perhaps shortly or even immediately before the ascension. By all accounts, the ascension occurred from the region of the Mount of Olives near Bethany, so evidently, they went to Galilee and then came back.

Don’t doubt Luke. Doubt Bart.

Far from being a sloppy historian, Luke is simply telescoping the events and isn’t contradicting himself in the details. I think we should be far more skeptical of Bart’s representations of the text than Luke’s Gospel. 

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