Elijah and Ancient Ascension Traditions

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.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Elijah and Ancient Ascension Traditions

  1. Mogget

    I’m interested in a little more on two themes:

    1) Why were these guys translated? Too good for the present situation? As a reward? Needed elsewhere?

    2) How the idea developed that the ascended one would return.

    I haven’t read Ed’s work but I’ll get to it tonight.

  2. Mark Butler

    “Translated bodies are designed for future missions” (TPJS, 191)

    And the Lord said unto me: John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you.

    And I said unto him: Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.

    And the Lord said unto me: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people.
    (D&C 7:1-3)

    Many have supposed that the doctrine of translation was a doctrine whereby men were taken immediately into the presence of God, and into an eternal fullness, but this is a mistaken idea. Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets, and who as yet have not entered into so great a fullness as those who are resurrected from the dead
    (TPJS, 179)

    See also 3 Ne 28.

  3. I guess I would part ways with JS on that one because the “terrestrial order” was totally unknown to the biblical authors. One of the points in the post is to illustrate that since all people go to the underworld when they die (also called sheol in the Hebrew), the idea of an individual becoming transported UNTO GOD (read: not sheol) is alarming, unprecedented, and down right serious business, especially while he is alive. Also, most ancient Israelites did not have a (post-mortum) “salvation” doctrine like we do now, so naturally the way the author decided to “exalt” or “save” Elijah was to just send him up to God while living. We see evidence of the lack of a post-mortem salvation doctrine at the end of the book of Job, where the author has Job quickly retrieve his net worth (and then some!) just before death in order to “compensate” him for his faithfulness. The reward didn’t come after Job’s death, like it does to the Christian, but before it (because after death, it’s too late), and it’s all done in great haste (the author is at pains to make it quick). This idea also permeates early resurrection doctrines (pre-Christian ideas about it) — to stand upon the earth while in the flesh to view the restoration of God’s kingdom to its proper order… I’ll post more on OT resurrection later.

    Mogget, my guess is that translation was sort of a way for the author to say “it doesn’t get any better than ______ (fill in name of translated individual here).” It seems to me that it’s all about the contrast between what is below vs. what is above. Or what is godly and what is not.

  4. Mark Butler

    What does what the biblical authors did or did not know have to do with where Enoch, or Moses, or Elijah actually went?

  5. Mogget

    David J. knows from shared experience that when I ask questions such as those I posed, I’m asking what the biblical record reveals via historical-critical methods.

    It really has nothing to do with what those OT worthies are “really” doing or where they “really” are, or what may appear in other parts of the canon. When I want to know about that sort of thing, I deliberately frame the question to capture those sources.

  6. Good stuff David, in the post and your response. You mentioned this already, but do regular Christians really not have Elijah theology? Seems a bit odd.

    BTW, did you get my email?

  7. do regular Christians really not have Elijah theology?

    “Regular” Christians — so, does that make Mormons “diet Christians”? 😉

    So, from what I’ve experienced, they do have Elijah theology, but it’s confined to what is mentioned about him in Malachi and its subsequent usage (and fulfillment?) in the NT. For them, the Elijah stuff in the NT is all they need, and rightly so. Consequently, there is not a whole lot of discussion regarding Elijah, since his “return,” as promised in Malachi, is viewed as ocurring (and therefore over and done) in the NT.

    JS differs somewhat in his take on the Elijah/Elias thing, which Ed Snow beautifully illustrated over at BCC (see link above).

  8. J, no, I didn’t get an email from you. Try it again (I’m reluctant to post my address on the blog). In fact, I’ll shoot you a note so you have me in your address book.

  9. there is not a whole lot of discussion regarding Elijah, since his “return,” as promised in Malachi, is viewed as ocurring (and therefore over and done) in the NT.

    And that’s an interesting point. The NT does suggest Elijah has returned, but how is the “turning of the hearts” expressed in the NT?

  10. No clue. I do know this: the Mormon concept of “the fathers” needs some adjustment. Most Mormons think it refers to general antecedents or ancestral predecessors of some sort. Well, I think, based on my OT studies, that “the fathers” is a terminus tecnicus for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sure enough, the patriarchs (see the linguistic connection there?) received big time promises, and are mostly referenced throughout the post-Pentateuch material as “the fathers” (ie, the patriarchs). If this is indeed the case, and this is what is at play here in Malachi, then “the fathers” is a realization of the patriarchal promises to the people of Israel. What Malachi is saying from a sociological perspective is that the mainline “Israel” or Judah of his time was not worthy of the patriarchal promises, that Malachi and the other “prophetic schools” awaited some sort of cataclysmic cleansing of the infidels (Persian or Hellenistic sympathizers?), and that such a cleansing could only take place if the whole earth was smitten. Similar to JS’s take on the verses, only without the Christian theological understanding of eschaton, parousia, priesthood, temples, etc.

    So, with a correct understanding of “the fathers,” perhaps we can begin to see how the “turning” is fulfilled in the NT. I don’t have Bibleworks in front of me, but I’d be interested to see how the LXX verb for “turning” in Malachi is used in the NT material when it takes on a more theologically nuanced usage. Does that make sense?

  11. Mogget

    OK, I preened the AB volume on Malachi on my way out of the lieberry. The general take is that The Baptist’s call for repentance is a call for the young and evil generation to be reconciled to their utterly righteous fathers. Missing the A, I, J thing. It’s worth more time, but after I finish the Other Thing.