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I found this article to be very interesting and thought-provoking.

James Tabor is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he has taught since 1989.  The article itself is found under the subject heading of Hellenistic/Roman Religion & Philosophy. I believe that we should eat up all the information we can get in regards to this “going to Heaven” motif and by understanding the way that these other religions viewed it we can further understand where Christianity departed from the Kingdom message and what kind of influences went into this departing. The author doesn’t give any of his own assumptions in regards to whether we do or do not go to heaven when we die, it seems he intended for this just to be an informational piece.

Here is an excerpt from the article. The whole of the article can be found here (http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/jdtabor/heavenlyascent.html)  

In the cosmology reflected throughout most of the Hebrew Bible mortal humankind belongs on earth, not in heaven [emphasis mine], and at death descends below to the nether world known as Sheol. Ps 115 expresses this succinctly:

The heaven’s are the LORD’S heavens,
but the earth he has given to the
sons of men.
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any that go down into silence.
But we will bless the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.
Generally speaking, just as there is no coming back from the dead, there is no idea or expectation that humans can go to heaven, a place reserved for God and his angelic attendants. This means that any report of a human being ascending to heaven would be seen as not only extraordinary, but often even as an intrusion or invasion of the divine realm. In an Akkadian text, Adapa, the son of Ea, attempts to ascend to heaven to obtain eternal life but is cast back down to earth (Pritchard 1969:101-3). A somewhat similar story is told of Etana, one of the legendary rulers of the Sumerian dynasty of Kish (Pritchard 1969: 114-18). A direct protest against such an ascent is found in Isa 14:12-20 (compare Ezk 28:11-19). There the prideful King of Babylon, who wants to ascend to heaven and become like God, is cast down to the nether world of worms and maggots (v 11). The ironic language of Prov 30:2-4 (compare Job 26; 38:1-42:6), though not a tale of ascent, emphasizes the contrast between the human and divine realms. A similar idea lies behind Deut 29:29 and 30:11-14. There is no need for one to ascend to heaven to learn the “secret things” which belong to God (compare Sir 3:21-22). Lucian’s tale, Icaromenippus, though from the Roman imperial period, typifies this understanding of ascent to heaven as an invasion of the realm of the gods…


7 Responses to “James Tabor on Jewish and Roman thought in regard to ascension to Heaven”

  1. on 11 Apr 2008 at 11:34 amDustin Smith

    This would followup by saying that in John 3:13 “Noone has ever ascended into heaven, but the Son of Man” should be interpreted as “noone has attained the secrets of God, but Jesus has.”

    It has nothing to do with heaven at death or preexistance, but rather entering into the mind of God.


  2. on 11 Apr 2008 at 11:35 amJohnO

    That echos the psalm passage 139.8, which Paul tells us is about the mind of God in Rom 10.6

  3. on 11 Apr 2008 at 9:56 pmSteve


    I always thought Rom 10:6-8 was a quotation of Deuteronomy 30:12-14. There are three references to the Deuteronomy text in these 3 verses.

    But Psalm 139 raises the interesting matter of God being in sheol. That would hardly fit with the common understanding of hell as a place away from the presence of God.

    I think Tabor raises some fascinating points which are worth further consideration. Thanks for posting that article Kyle.

  4. on 13 Apr 2008 at 10:12 amWolfgang

    in the article excerpt above, the professor is writing after the reference to the words of the Psalmist

    Generally speaking, just as there is no coming back from the dead, ….

    Is this really so? or does the Bible make clear that there is a coming back from the dead which is commonly referred to in the Scriptures as “RESURRECTION from the dead”?

    To me, the excerpt of the article shows several points which I would consider not in harmony with the Scroptures


  5. on 13 Apr 2008 at 10:16 amWolfgang

    Hi Dustin,

    I would say Joh 3:13 and the reference to the Son of man and him ascending to heaven is about what actually happened 40 days after the Son of man’s resurrection from the dead …it is NOT speaking about “entering the mind of God”, but about being received up into the spiritual sphere where God dwells.

    Btw, often Joh 3:13 is printed in Bibles in red as if it belonged still to the words which Jesus himself spoke to Nicodemus … I would say that this is a publisher mistake, as Joh 3:13 is a statement from the viewpoint of the evangelist at the time of the writing of the gospel, when the ascension of the Son of man had already been a reality.


  6. on 14 Apr 2008 at 4:40 pmDustin Smith

    Hi Wolfgang.

    Your interpretation does not due justice to the context (v12). Many modern, critical commentaries propose what I said about “entering into the mind of God.” Deut. 30 and Prov. 30:3-4 make this the most elegant interpretation.

    Having Jesus (or the Evangelist) speak about his future ascension would be a strange leaping of contexts, if the passage is read honestly.


  7. on 14 Apr 2008 at 5:23 pmWolfgang

    Hello Dustin,

    how does my understanding not do justice to the context?

    Jesus’ words to Nicodemus end with verse 12. Verses 13ff are written from the viewpoint of the evangelist. When you observe the context, you will notice how the direct speech with the “I” finishes with v. 12, and from v. 13 onward we read about “he, him” when reference is made to Jesus.

    It seems to me rather than many modern, critical commentaries do not recognize that change from “I” to “he” and continue to understand the words from v. 13 – 21 as part of Jesus’ words … and then they try and find a solution for the apparent difficulty with what is stated in v.13, and they do so, by interpreting “ascending to heaven” etc figuratively as “entering the mind of God”.



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