ACTS 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The author of the Acts of the Apostles (or Acts) is the same person who wrote the Gospel according to Luke, comprising a two-volume account of the Christian movement. Tradition attributes authorship to an attending physician who traveled briefly with the apostle Paul (which might explain the “we” references in Acts). Whoever he was, the author was Christianity’s first “court mythographer” – the one who composes the empire’s official history.

Because of his reported association with Paul, who was the Church’s key strategist for outreach and expansion, Luke’s story of Jesus and his movement were likely influenced by the apostle himself – even heavily influenced. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that Luke was written at least thirty years after Paul, which leaves a lot of time for sifting, spinning, and further development.

Luke is to be thanked for the dramatic plot design that introduces Jesus through the divine portal of a virgin’s womb, tracks him through the miracles and teachings of his ministry, relates with omniscience his anguished prayer in the Garden and his private audience with Pilate and Herod, bears witness to the quiet conversation between Jesus and the rebels hanging with him, observes the risen Jesus on Sunday and eavesdrops on two disciples on their way to Emmaus …

And finally this: Jesus rising vertically into the air and disappearing on a magic carpet of clouds. “What are you looking for?” ask two angels suddenly appearing. “He’ll be coming back, just as you watched him leave.”

There you have it – the Great Story we all know and love.

                                                                                                

We are fairly certain that Luke was written not long after Matthew. Both of them used the plot of Mark’s Gospel (up to the empty tomb) and laced it with teaching material likely taken from a hypothetical source named “Q” for Quelle (meaning “source”). For this reason, the three Gospels of Mark (70 CE), Matthew (80 CE) and Luke (90 CE) are called the Synoptic Gospels, since they share (or “see”) so much in common.

A close comparison of Luke to Matthew strongly suggests that our author had Matthew’s account in front of him as he wrote. Having a better grasp of Hebrew (or maybe he was just more educated), Luke corrects some mistranslations in Matthew that almost border on the ridiculous.

For instance, where Mark’s original introduces us to a blind beggar by the name of “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus,” Matthew, not realizing that “Bartimaeus” translates as “son of Timaeus” in Hebrew, turns Mark’s single beggar into two blind men. Luke later caught the error and restored the original in his retelling.

And again, when Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, Mark tells us that he rode in on a colt to the cheers of his fans. As Matthew picks up the story, he finds an Old Testament passage (Zechariah 9:9) to use as prophecy of the event:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Matthew misreads (or inserts) an “and” before the reference to a colt, now making it necessary for Jesus to ride on two animals at once! Luke corrects the problem and reverts the story from a veritable circus act to a paradoxical victory parade on the back of a donkey.

But this might be the most fateful change that Luke made to Matthew’s text. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is standing on a mountain with his disciples. He confirms his supreme authority and then commissions his followers to spread the word and make more disciples. “And remember,” he says to them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Close curtain. In other words, Matthew leaves us with the intriguing assurance that Jesus is still somehow present with the disciple community as it carries on in the world.

And what does Luke do? By making Jesus ascend into heaven – presumably so he can come back again – he leaves the disciple community spiritually bereft, as it were. Jesus is not “with you always,” but is rather absent from the scene until his return. Even if Luke fervently believed that the Second Coming was about to happen, this modification of the Christian myth would take Christianity still farther from the original gospel of Jesus – about as far away as one can get!

In transferring Jesus to heaven and later on, Luke thereby initiated the Age of the Church. Now, while Jesus is away and the priests are in charge, you’d better fall in line.

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