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Jesus' ascension to Heaven

Location and timing of Jesus' ascension

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Location of the ascension:

The Mount of Olives (a.k.a. Olivet and Mount Olivet) is on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount and the rest of the city of Jerusalem. The mount is in the form of a two mile (3 km) ridge which has three summits.

In biblical times, people believed that the Earth was relatively flat suspended by columns above "the abyss." Over the earth was a rigid firmament that separated Heaven from the Earth. It was a natural assumption that one is physically closest to God when one is at the top of a mountain or hill. This is seen in the story of Mount Sinai, the Tower of Babel. The Hebrew Scriptures contain many references to "high places" as the location of worship. So it was natural that the early Christian church would assume that when Jesus ascended to Heaven, he would have left from the summit of a hill or mountain.

When it came to recognizing the location of the ascension, the Church ignored the story in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus ascended from the town of Bethany. As the "Bible Places" website states:

"Scripture indicates that the Jesus ascended into heaven in the vicinity of Bethany.  This village is down the east slope of the Mt. of Olives about 1.5 miles (2 km).  In this case, none of the traditional locations for the ascension are correct."

They zeroed in on the three summits of the Mount of Olives. Today there is a religious structure on each of the three summits. Information on the Internet is somewhat scrambled and confusing. This is our best try at deciphering it:

bulletThe original Chapel of the Holy Ascension was built in 392 CE, destroyed by the Persians during their invasion of Jerusalem in 614, was subsequently rebuilt by Crusaders, and later captured by Salah al-Din in the year 1187 CE. According to the Mount of Olives Hotel website:

"As a gesture of compromise and goodwill, Saladin ordered the construction of a second mosque and mihrab two years later next door to the Chapel for Muslim worship while Christians continued to visit the main Chapel." 1

Bible Places' web site states:

"It contains what is traditionally the last footprint of Jesus on earth before he ascended into heaven." 2

The Venerable Bede wrote of the Mount of Olives in the 8th century CE:

"On the very top of it, where our Lord ascended into heaven, is a large round church, having round about it three chapels with vaulted roofs. For the inner building could not be vaulted and roofed, by reason of the passage of our Lordís Body; but it has an altar on the east side, sheltered by a narrow roof. In the midst of it are to be seen the last Footprints of our Lord, the place where He ascended being open to the sky; and though the earth is daily carried away by believers, yet still it remains, and retains the same appearance, being marked by the impression of the Feet. Round about these lies a brazen wheel, as high as a manís neck, having an entrance from the west, with a great lamp hanging above it on a pulley and burning night and day. In the western part of the same church are eight windows; and as many lamps, hanging opposite to them by cords, shine through the glass as far as Jerusalem; and the light thereof is said to thrill the hearts of the beholders with a certain zeal and compunction. Every year, on the day of the Ascension of our Lord, when Mass is ended, a strong blast of wind is wont to come down, and to cast to the ground all that are in the church."

bulletIn the fourth century, CE, Helena, the mother of Constantine, visited the Holy Land and selected locations associated with various events mentioned in the Bible. She selected one of the summits of the Mount of Olives as the ascension location. Today the Paternoster Church is built above Helena's structure.
bulletThe Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension was built in 1870. It has a bell tower about 200 feet in height (64 meters). The Mount of Olives Convent of the Ascension of Our Lord is at this location. According to the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem:

"The convent's area is 54,000 square meters, surrounded by a wall, a kilometer and half in length. It has a large olive grove which supplies the sisters with olives and oil. Today, 46 sisters live at Mount of Olives. Among them are Russians, Arabs, Romanians, Estonians, Australians and Germans." 3

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Timing of the ascension:

As noted above, the author of Luke has Jesus ascending to Heaven on a Monday, one day after his resurrection on Sunday. But the same author, while writing Acts, says that 40 days passed between his resurrection and ascension. The liberal theologian Marcus Borg has written about this apparent contradiction:

"The number 40 often has a non-literal meaning in the Bible. It is a number that means a relatively long period of time, just as "three" is a number signifying a relatively short period of time. ..."

"What is going on here? Is the author unaware of the contradiction of '40 days'? Or is this an indicator that the author does not intend this story to be understood literally? ... The author of Luke-Acts was very sophisticated, and my hunch is that he or she intended some stories to be understood non-literally." 4

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The Chapel of Ascension," at: http://www.mtolives.com/
  2. "Mount of Olives," Bible Places, at: http://www.bibleplaces.com/
  3. "Convent of the Ascension," Russian Mission, at: http://www.jerusalem-mission.org/
  4. Marcus Borg, "The Ascension of Jesus," Beliefnet, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Latest update: 2007-MAR-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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