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Friday, February 11, 2011

Those Who Have Not Died

Having finished Plutarch's Lycurgus, I have moved on to his work about Numa Pompilius. That work opens with a discussion of another famous Roman, Romulus. The end of Romulus's time on Earth is described as follows:
It was the thirty-seventh year, counted from the foundation of Rome, when Romulus, then reigning, did, on the fifth day of the month of July, called the Caprotine Nones, offer a public sacrifice at the Goat's Marsh, in presence of the senate and people of Rome. Suddenly the sky was darkened, a thick cloud of storm and rain settled on the earth; the common people fled in affright, and were dispersed; and in this whirlwind Romulus disappeared, his body being never found either living or dead. A foul suspicion presently attached to the patricians, and rumours were current among the people as if that they, weary of kingly government, and exasperated of late by the imperious deportment of Romulus towards them, had plotted against his life and made him away, that so they might assume the authority and government into their own hands. This suspicion they sought to turn aside by decreeing divine honours to Romulus, as to one not dead but translated to a higher condition. And Proculus, a man of note, took oath that he saw Romulus caught up into heaven in his arms and vestments, and heard him, as he ascended, cry out that they should hereafter style him by the name of Quirinus.
Being the good church boy that I am, I immediately thought of Enoch, Elijah and Jesus. (This, I believe, is the only cause anyone ever has for thinking of Enoch.) Their ascensions, in order of appearance, are cited below:
When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

* * *

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.

* * *

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
From Genesis, 2 Kings, and Luke. What to make of all this ascending directly into heaven? I noticed that both Elijah and Romulus call back to their chief disciple on the way up. Well, I don't think Romulus ascended directly into heaven. I am not convinced Plutarch thinks he ascended into heaven as Plutarch could be merely demonstrating to his readers that early Roman's held Romulus in high regard. But, even if Plutarch believes it I don't. I will leave the analysis of the other ascension stories as a exercise for the reader.

2 comments:

Bob Howard said...

The ascension of Jesus is distinct in a number of respects, all of them intended to affect the community of faithful followers: Jesus' ascension was not simply physical ascent, but clearly set up to make a theological statement about this particular representative of God, and so of God's intention for humanity, and about the nature of God's own self. Other ascents, both within the trajectory of Judaism and beyond, depict living people who are raised to "heaven" (in Romulus's case it is the Roman equivalent). In the case of Jesus, he died by execution, was raised to a new sort of life, and then his ascent is an exaltation to a position of glory closely tied to his message and fate. It is the Crucified One who is exalted, which came off as either nonsense, if not rankly offensive. So the ascension of Jesus is an exaltation to being Lord (Paul's view of the movement in Philippians 2), precisely as the one who allowed himself to be crucified. So, as Lord who now operates by means of the Spirit animating (and, in Acts, shoving!) the church, his agenda has not changed. He is still out to transform human life in this world, be it religious or political. For example, only the ascended Lord is Lord -- not Rome, or any other political power. So we hold our first allegiance not to a triumphalist flag, but to a Cross. So, it is the one who was murdered by human hands that was raised, and now is Lord, who operates with a way different scale of values than ordinary human political societies.
So the physical up-in-the-air movement may be similar, but the meaning is waaaay different.

JimII said...

Other ascents, both within the trajectory of Judaism and beyond, depict living people who are raised to "heaven" (in Romulus's case it is the Roman equivalent).

I thought it was curious that both my translation of Plutarch and the online version actually described Romulus's destination as heaven.

In the case of Jesus, he died by execution, was raised to a new sort of life, and then his ascent is an exaltation to a position of glory closely tied to his message and fate.

I agree that Elijah doesn't have a resurrection story, but it sure seems to me that Elijah's ascension was related to his position of glory closely tied to his message.

For example, only the ascended Lord is Lord -- not Rome, or any other political power.

But wasn't Elijah also one who stood up against an oppressive regime? Also, didn't (and don't I suppose) the Jewish people wait for the return of Elijah as indicated by the Elijah seat at Passover?

So the physical up-in-the-air movement may be similar, but the meaning is waaaay different.

I guess I will have to turn this over a bit. I agree that both Jesus is different from Elijah and that the Gospel writers were indicating that Jesus was more than a return of Elijah. Still, I guess I don't get that from the ascension story.

I suppose the transfiguration is more about Jesus=Moses & Elijah.