Monday, May 21, 2007

Did Moses Ascend Into Heaven?

Given the fact that yesterday we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension, I decided to post something on Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. (Yes, I know it’s supposed to be Ascension Thursday, not Ascension Thursday-Sunday—an utter absurdity—but that’s the subject of another post.)

After reading Geza Vermes’ scathing (non-)review of Pope Benedict’s new book on Jesus (more to come on that anon), I picked up Geza Vermes’ first book on Jesus, Jesus the Jew (1973) off my shelf and was thumbing through it. My initial reason for looking at the book was that I’m currently working on my state-of-the-question chapter for my book on Jesus and the Last Supper and was cataloguing scholars who totally ignore the Last Supper in their reconstructions of Jesus’ life and mission (of which, Vermes is one). To my surprise—in another one of those providential take-the-random-book-off-the-shelf-and-find-something-cool-moments—I found an utterly fascinating excursus by Vermes on the significance of the “cloud” as a means of “heavenly transport” that shed some interesting Jewish light on the Ascension.
The long and short of it is that there was an ancient Jewish tradition that Moses was assumed into heaven at the end of his life, and that he—like Jesus—ascended into heaven on a cloud:
Moses ascended in the cloud, was hidden by the cloud, and was sanctified by the cloud. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4a)

When Moses was to ascend, a cloud descended and lay before him... And the cloud covered Moses and carried him up. (Pesikta Rabbati 20:4)
Apparently, this tradition goes back to the first century A.D., at least as far as the time of Josephus, who describes the end of Moses’ life as follows:
Now as soon as they [Moses, Joshua, Eleazar the high priest, and the seventy elders] were come to the mountain called Abarim, he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him on the sudden, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he died [cf. Deut 34:6-7], which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God (Josephus, Antiquities 4.325-26).
The typological and Christological significance of this fascinating tradition, is, of course, that it shows that Jesus acts as a New Moses not only during his life, but in his death, Resurrection, and Ascension. The entire “Paschal Mystery” is tied up in the inauguration of the new “exodus” that Jesus accomplishes in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). One could put this in a schema that might prove helpful, drawing on several New Testament texts (cf. Mark 14:22-26; 10:35-45; Luke 12:50-51; Acts 1:3, 9):

Moses / New Moses (Jesus)
Passover / Last Supper (Passover)
Crossing of Red Sea / Crucifixion (His "Baptism")
40 Years in Desert / 40 Days with Disciples (Acts 1)
Carried Up to Heaven in a Cloud / Ascension into Heaven in a Cloud

By the way, notice that Moses’ ascension takes place on the eve of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land, while Jesus’ ascension is focused entirely on his entry into Heaven. This provides a clue to the answer I am working up for David on the question regarding God’s promise of restoration to “the Land.” But more of that to come (I’m still unpacking boxes from moving, so it’s going slow around here.)

Happy feast of the Ascension!


Danny Garland Jr. said...

"in another one of those providential take-the-random-book-off-the-shelf-and-find-something-cool-moments"

Wow. I've really gotta start doing that. I wonder if I'll have the same providential luck?....

Anonymous said...

Hi Brant,

What canonical weight does the Babylonian Talmud (plus the confirmation of the tradition by Josephus)have on this issue? How much "consensus" does there need to be in the midrash before we can make a conclusion about the Tradition in regards to Moses "ascension"?



Paul Cat said...

Hey Dr. Brant,

I don’t know if you did it on purpose or for the sake of time/space. Also to add to you list of Moses/New Moses:

Moses/New Moses (Jesus)
-All male children are threatened / all male children are threatened
-Salvation via Egyptians / Salvation via Egypt (and the Egyptians)
-Frees the Jews so they can worship / Frees the world so that everyone can worship (las supper, crucifixion, etc…)
-Gives the Torah / Fulfills the Torah (but does not do away with it)
-Gets laws on Mountain / Preaches new Law from Mountain (sermon on the mount)
-Priesthood goes to the tribe of Levi / Restores priesthood to what it was before the Exodus

I am sure there are more but I am drawing a blank on the rest.

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Danny,

I accompany these random selections of books with a secret preliminary ritual which I am unable to reveal to you or anyone else. Disciplina arcana, you know.

Dear Mark,

The Babylonian Talmud has absolutely no "canonical" value at all. What it (and other ancient Jewish writings) does have is historical value as a source that can potentially illuminate otherwise mysterious or difficult elements of the New Testament.

With regard to the assumption of Moses, Sacred Scripture is very explicit that he died (Deut 34)--contra Josephus. However, the letter of Jude also relates a mysterious tradition that the archangel Michael fought with Satan over the body of Moses (Jude 9), and the Gospels bear witness to the fact that Moses accompanies Elijah--one of two people explicitly declared to have been taken up into heaven (cf. Gen 5; 2 Kgs 2)-- at the Transfiguration (Luke 9; Mark 9). This suggests a strong parallel between Elijah and Moses, which is confirmed by the presence of the two witnesses in Revelation 11--one of whom shuts the sky (like Elijah) and the other who turns rivers to blood (like Moses), and both of whom, after being killed "went up to heaven IN A CLOUD" (Rev 11:12). When all of this evidence is combined with the ancient Jewish traditions of Moses' ascension, they suggest that the canonical Scriptures may presuppose knowledge of a tradition that Moses was assumed into heaven in a cloud after his mysterious death.
Hope this helps!

Dear Paul,

Those are all great parallels. Keep up the good work!

Taylor Marshall said...

I like it.

Perhaps your Moses/New Moses schema could be seen on another level with the "forty years" after the Pascha of Christ culminating in the destruction of the Temple with the "Son of Man coming on the clouds."

This event allowed the Church to "enter into the Promised Land" that extended to the ends of the earth.

Brant Pitre said...


I'm currently working on the very issue you've mentioned: the link between the Ascension, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds, and the destruction of the Temple forty years after the Crucifixion.

I sometimes find it a little stuffy when authors say "read my work"--but in the most non-stuffy way--if you're really interested in this connection between the coming of the Son of Man and the ingathering of the exiles from "end of the earth," check out my section on that very topic in Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile (pp. 330-48). I realize I don't fully address there the question of fulfillment, but I will explain more in the book I'm currently writing on Jesus and the Last Supper.

Thanks for reading, and I checked out your blog, and it looks great!


Taylor Marshall said...

I'm about finished with a book on a similar subject concerning the destruction of the Temple.

I'd love to talk to you about some things touching on this subject.

Please send me an email at:


bill bannon said...

One must look too for that which argues against a novel theory. Moses was being punished for striking the rock twice rather than once and his death and burial was part of his not entering the promised land...the punishment. It does not seem apropo in such a context of punishment that he would ascend which is a glory of sorts.
Further the theory forces God to lie in Joshua:
Jos 1:1 ¶ Now after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD it came to pass, that the LORD spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' minister, saying,
Jos 1:2 Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, [even] to the children of Israel.

The fight over the body of Moses is itself a phrase that bespeaks lifelessness and may have been occasioned by the angel being ordered by God to preserve it for a revivication of sorts for the Transfiguration event.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dr. Pitre,

I was happy to see a post from you--it's very interesting and good. I wish we had been able to talk more about this in class, but it's good to see you expand on it here. (Short semesters are good for the boring classes but not for the fun ones!)

I hope your move continues to go well.


Brant Pitre said...

Dear Taylor,

I'll definitely be in touch soon!

Dear Bill,
Thanks for the critique, but I think you may have misunderstood my point when you say that the theory forces God to lie to Joshua. Unlike Josephus, I was NOT saying that Moses did not die (Sorry --I don't mean the caps in a mean way, I just can't figure out these HTML "tags" for italics). The Bible is very explicit that he did die: I cited Deut 34 and you have very helpfully added Joshua 1.

What I DID suggest was that the Scriptures seem to reflect the Jewish tradition that after he died, Moses may have been somehow "revivified" (to use your term) and assumed into heaven (see response above). To follow your argument, if it's possible to envision Moses' body being preserved for "revivification" before the Transfiguration, why isn't the same true immediately after his death?

(To draw on an analogous situation; in Catholic circles, there is debate over whether the Virgin Mary died or not before she was assumed into Heaven at the end of her life. The former is debatable; the latter is revealed dogma. They are related but distinct issues.)

Also, your initial objection, that Moses' death was a punishment, is a good one. But Moses was not only a sinner; he was also the greatest of the prophets, like no one else, who spoke to God "Face to face" (Deut 34), who had endured a rebellious people for 40 yrs. While death was a just punishment for his sin, revivification and assumption would also be fitting reward for his service.

Just some thoughts,

Always a pleasure to hear your voice--I mean, see your writing? (That doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?)

Anonymous said...

Thanks! No, that doesn't have quite the same ring.


Taylor Marshall said...

One could point to the Tranfiguration for a suggestion that Moses was assumed - in that he and Elijah were present with the transfigured Christ. The fact that Peter wanted to build "tabernacles" seems to indicated that this was "bodily Moses" and "bodily Elijah."

The Bible is clear that "Moses died." But the Bible is also clear that something unique happened to that body:

"when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, disputed about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a reviling judgment upon him, but said, "The Lord rebuke you." (Jude 1:9)

Stuart said...

How do we delineate carefully between our Moses typologies and our Joshua typologies? It is Joshua that leads Israel across the Jordan, out of the wilderness, and into the promised land, whereas Moses is a suffering servant of the Lord repatedly rejected by his people (who offers to atone for their sins by dying himself, but is not permitted to do so, for Aaron, as high priest must do so, though ultimately even his cultic atonement is insufficient), Joshua is a triumphant servant of the Lord raised up to take Moses place, and leads Israel into the promised land, and the cities of the nations fall before him, starting with Jericho.

In his life Jesus is like Moses, suffering and spurned by his people, and, like Moses, he dies, having seemingly failed to enter the promised land, sharing the curse on the faithless generation. But with his resurrection and ascension he is like Joshua, triumphantly leading Israel into the promised land of the world to come, and the cities of the nations crumble before him, beginning with rebellious Jerusalem herself.

Anonymous said...

Jesus = Yeshua = Joshua
Could we be on to somethig?

Steven Carr said...

'What I DID suggest was that the Scriptures seem to reflect the Jewish tradition that after he died, Moses may have been somehow "revivified" (to use your term) and assumed into heaven (see response above).'

There was a first century Jewish tradition that somebody died, came back to life, never died again, and ascended into Heaven?

Why doesn't the Bishop of Durham, NT Wright know about this?

Anonymous said...

More on Transfiguration and Moses and Exodus: Moses in the Transfiguration told Peter, James, and John about the Exodus that Jesus was about to undergo.

To think that it has to do with the earthly Temple and merely earthly things is to be, uh, Jewish.

Not forty years to Temple Destruction, but rebuilding the Temple in three days, as promised, and forty days of "wandering" (Resurrected Jesus, pre-Ascension), then entering into the Promised Land. Heaven.

That promised land is for all eternity--much more important than any land issues during our brief stay on earth. There is no greater promise than for us to behold God face to face.

Another parallel--with a prophet mixed in. God gave the Law on stone tablets through Moses on Mt. Sinai...but then later promised through the prophets that the law would be written on our fleshy hearts and we would know God. Laws on stone led to hearts of stone; law in flesh (God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us) leads to fleshy hearts. That is done by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which is the ingathering of Israel and the Feast of the giving of the Law at Sinai. Jesus gives the New Law via the New Covenant...himself.

We sometimes forget how Jesus made God lovable--and yes, approachable, even tender and vulnerable--a baby! Lovable beyond words, gazing at his body on the Cross. I am reminded of this anew from others who were faithful Jews who became fulfilled Jews--believing in Jesus.

We can't even imagine what the human heart was like before we were given fleshy hearts. That was an entirely different reality. What was it like to be in a world of stonehearted people?


Edward T. Babinski said...

I would like to hear from any Preterists on this issue.

I think the very real "clouds," coupled with "going to heaven" might put a damper on the Preterist interpretation of the ascension story in Acts, because Peterists don't want Jesus's "exit" to be just like his "return," i.e., literally and visibly with real clouds in the sky overhead. They want to reinterpret that prophecy in Acts to be able to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and a totally invisible "coming again." Anyone with any further information concerning "questions to ask Preterists," feel free to contact me, Please!

Edward T. Babinski