Sunday, April 12, 2009

Legendary embellishment

Let’s compare two different accounts of the same event:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.


So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed 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 and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

What would be the standard liberal explanation for the differences between these two accounts? It would go something like this:

The first account represents a primitive Jesus tradition. The second account was written by a later author. He may have used the earlier account, but he heavily redacted the earlier account. He embellished the primitive Jesus tradition with a welter of fictitious details. Indeed, as we compare these two accounts, we can see the myth of the Ascension evolving before our very eyes! Pious imagination run amok!

But there’s just one little problem with that explanation. Both accounts were written by the same author. These are taken from Lk 24:50-53 and Acts 1:6-16, respectively.

Not only do they share common authorship, but they’re really two parts or two installments of a unified work. Luke already had the Book of Acts in mind when he was writing the Gospel of Luke. But there was only so much you could put on one scroll.

In the account for the Ascension recorded in Lk 24:50-53, Luke said less than he knew. He had more information at his fingertips. More he intended to write about.

He included a very brief account of the Ascension, partly to give his gospel a logical conclusion, and partly to foreshadow his history of the early church. The tail-end of the Gospel of Luke is a way of introducing the Book of Acts.

So even though Acts 1:6-16 contains a fuller account of the Ascension, it in no way represents a legendary expansion.

And that, in turn, should forewarn us that just because a writer is selective in what he reports, leaving out various details, this isn’t because he’s reporting all he knew.

Hence, the fact that one account may be more detailed than another, or contain different details, isn’t evidence of literary embellishment or discrepant reportage.

It just so happens that, in this case, we have two accounts by the same author, so we can compare them. In the case of Matthew, Mark, and John, we don’t have that frame of reference. So it’s easy for liberals to postulate legendary embellishment. But, as I just documented, that inference is clearly fallacious.


  1. "Well, our embellishment-theory might have problems, but it's more likely than anything supernatural"

  2. An excellent post.

    But one additional point. Note how the "liberal" explanation is simply speculation. They're sitting down and imagining something.

    This won't do. We need to know that two descriptions refer to the same event (and we don't, always); and then we need to know how the descriptions came to be written (which we never do).

    I really don't see the point of fabricating imaginary explanations; not just for the bible, but for any ancient text. Surely we need to avoid this like the plague?