In light of the church’s place in its Gospel Doctrine curriculum (1 – 2 Kings), I thought I’d share some of my findings/musings on ancient ascension traditions, given the attention the church gives to Elijah.
From a literary perspective, ascension motifs have been with us mostly since Greek and Roman times, with a few scattered tales of ascension from ancient Mesopotamia. Each of these different tales are unified by a singular thrust — removal. For the Romans, the removal of the emperor from the realm of humankind was the central piece of cultic life and living. Likewise, Jesus’ ascension in the New Testament is also viewed as a removal from this life and re-location, as it were, in a place not accessible to the common individual (Mark 16:19; Luke 9:51; Acts 1:2, 9, 11, 22; 1 Tim. 3:16).
The ascension traditions have common traits, despite their differences in time and location of origin. Using Elijah as a test-case (thanks to Houtman, “Elijah,” DDD), we see these common threads:
* removal from “human-ness,” or removal of a living (read: not dead) person.
* account related from the perspective of the narrator, not usually in first-person (logically, the transported person is now absent, and therefore unavailable for comment).
* the circumstances under which the ascension ocurred and the locale of the given ascension find a place of importance (2 Kgs 2:1-18; Luke 24:36-53; Acts 1:4-11).
* none of the ascension accounts in existence give any details regarding the journey, route, and destination of the person, save the person was taken “up” or “to heaven” (caveat: the word “heaven” is theologically loaded in post-biblical times, and I use the word here in the sense of “the sky”).
* No mortal remains are found on the earth (2 Kgs 2:16-18; Luke 24:1-11, 23-24). Elijah’s mantle would probably not be considered a mortal remain, as it is an article of clothing.
* God (or gods) is the agent of transportation (2 Kgs 2:1, 11; Luke 24:52-53).
* Fire or other meteorological phenomena accompany the given translation, often to whisk the person away or to cover up the event from human view (Judg. 13:20; 2 Kgs 2:11-12; Acts 1:9)
* The individual translated gains importance and (often) honor due to the event (Judg. 13:6, 8, 10-23)
* The removal demands belief (2 Kgs 2:16-18; Acts 1:10-11; Rev. 11:12).
* Only happens to extraordinary mortals
* The person in question continues to “live” despite being “dead” (a strong understanding of the underworld in the OT — sheol, or the realm of the dead is necessary here, but time and space do not permit a deeper exploration in this post).
* A return to earth is possible (Mal. 3:23-24; Acts 1:11; Rev. 1:7).
There are various other examples of these common motifs in the pseudepigraphic writings as well, especially in the Enochic traditions.
For Mormon studies, we find Elijah’s immanent return to earth in D&C 110 as direct fulfillment of the Malachi material. Various interpretations of this event have been spun, and Ed Snow produced an excellent post on how this relates to NT material here. Here Ed and others allow us to see some of the problems between Elias and Elijah in the text, and how they are utilized in (restoration) scripture.
Furthermore, Joseph Smith may have revived ancient understandings of the Elijah material, perhaps unknowingly. Scholars of the Deuteronomistic History (Deut. – 2 Kings, inclusive) understand the importance of Elijah in the narratives which feature him. He is portrayed as one of the most remarkable individuals in all of the Old Testament.
The NT authors also picked up on his importance, even to the point of asking whether Jesus was Elijah, or if John the Baptist was Elijah. But Elijah is mostly forgotten in most modern Christian circles. For Joseph Smith, he is equated with the restoration of the “sealing power” as conferred through the fulness of the priesthood anointing — definitely a high and holy calling to possess. Elijah’s translation, then, one might conclude was the proper exit and necessary closure to the history of one of the Bible’s most noble and honored figures.