Defending the Faith: A 40-day gap in the New Testament

Published: Thursday, May 29 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Today is Ascension Day, or Holy Thursday. It commemorates the physical ascension of the resurrected Jesus Christ into heaven as recorded in the New Testament:

“And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53; compare Mark 16:19).

Although no documentary evidence for the observance of the Feast of the Ascension (as it is also known) exists from prior to the fourth century, it was celebrated almost universally in the Christian church thereafter, along with Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost. St. Augustine attributed its origin to the apostles themselves; plainly its observance had become widespread long before his time.

Ascension Day is traditionally (though not always) celebrated on a Thursday, 40 days after Easter. Its date is derived from the first few verses of the book of Acts, the second part of Luke’s account of the formative events of Christianity. Referring to his earlier gospel, Luke writes:

“The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:1-3).

But, after three years of public preaching, what remained to be said? The apostles had been with Jesus almost constantly during that time, walking the long, dusty roads of Palestine, conversing with him. What did Jesus still have to teach them for nearly six weeks between his resurrection and his ascension?

Luke himself tells us virtually nothing about what was done and said during those 40 days. The final chapter of his gospel focuses on Easter Sunday itself. In Acts, Luke says that Jesus taught his apostles “the things pertaining to the kingdom of God,” but he doesn’t say what they were. A few items are mentioned very briefly in Matthew 28, Mark 16 and John 20-21.

(For an important article on this topic, originally published in the scholarly journal Vigiliae Christianae, and then reprinted by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, see Hugh Nibley, “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum: The Forty-day Mission of Christ — The Forgotten Heritage.”

Did Jesus merely repeat the teachings of his mortal ministry?

Plainly, no. Still unrecognized, walking with two deeply disappointed and distraught disciples on the road to Emmaus, the newly risen Savior saw that they had failed to understand his mission. So, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

However, the four gospels contain nothing remotely resembling a systematic exposition of the Old Testament by the Savior. It would be priceless, but we don’t have it anywhere.

The plain fact is that only some of the teaching of Jesus is preserved in the New Testament. As the fourth gospel testifies, “there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25).

The New Testament offers clear hints that other sayings and teachings of the Savior went unrecorded. For instance, Paul exhorts the Saints at Ephesus “to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). However, no such admonition occurs in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Plainly, Paul and his audience were aware of oral traditions or written documents of which we know basically nothing.

“Wherefore,” says the Lord in the Book of Mormon, “because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written” (2 Nephi 29:10).

Some Christians insist that the Bible as we now have it is all there ever was and all that we should ever want. It seems, though, that the Bible disagrees.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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