My father’s sister lived most of her married life in Lyndhurst, Ohio. In the early 1950s, my father drove my mother and me via a rather roundabout route to visit my aunt at her home in this Cleveland suburb.
While traveling through West Virginia, we stayed at a guest house in Parkersburg where the host turned out to be a Jehovah Witness. When he found out we were Roman Catholics, he fired a barrage of biblical questions at my parents clearly designed to unsettle the unsuspecting believer. He asked why Catholics still call their priests “Father” when Jesus clearly instructed his followers to “call no man father.” He questioned the virginity of Mary since the Scriptures refer to her “firstborn son,” implying that Mary had other children. He made a big deal as well over the “brothers and sisters of the Lord” often mentioned in the Gospel. But the remark that exasperated my father most of all was the host’s allegation that Jesus Christ did not die on the cross. My father’s incredulity was met by a quote from St. Peter who indeed did say that Jesus Christ was “hanged on a tree.”
It is a well known tactic of some lesser sects to quote the Bible randomly in order to confound the unwary faithful as well as the weary traveler. The Scriptures do report some curious items that might confuse the easy going believer who has never read the Bible with a critical eye (or never read the Bible at all for that matter). For example, as much as Catholics might associate the three wise men with the Christmas story, nowhere is the number three mentioned and St. Matthew clearly states that the Magi found Christ when entering “the house.” The stable or manger scene is not associated with these visitors from the East. No one’s eternal salvation hinges on these quotes but these and similar citations can be unsettling. If the Church, the priests, the Catholic school teachers have misled believers on these small items, how much other misinformation has been handed on by Church authorities? Doubts are easily placed in the mind of naïve Catholics by some of the more predatory sects.
The most confusing biblical texts are those associated with the ascension of Christ into heaven after his resurrection. St. John actually has Jesus ascend into heaven on Easter Day itself. “Do not cling to me,” Jesus advises Mary Magdalene early in the morning, “for I have not yet ascend to the Father.” But then in the evening, he is back dispensing the Holy Spirit to his loyal disciples. The Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost all take place in one day according to St. John. St. Luke has Jesus ascend into heaven from the village of Bethany, about two miles outside Jerusalem in the heart of Judea. This fits well into St. Luke’s geographical theme in which Jesus’ life begins with Mary conceiving up north in Nazareth and ends with Jesus dying down south in Jerusalem. To have Christ ascend from Galilee in the north would be backtracking to St. Luke’s mind. For St. Luke, Jesus’ life was one of inevitable progress toward Jerusalem where salvation would be accomplished. There was no retreating for Christ.
Sts. Mark and Matthew, however, clearly have Jesus ascend into heaven from a mountain in Galilee. “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them,” St. Matthew writes plainly. St. Mark also definitely locates Jesus in Galilee but Christ is last pictured with his eleven disciples “at table” where he rebukes them for their temerity and then commissions them to preach the Gospel to every creature. Then he is “taken up into heaven” and takes “his seat at the right hand of God.” So the first and second Gospel accounts agree on Galilee. But did Jesus take his leave from a mountain or from a meal?
The Ascension is indeed a dogma of our faith. But the practical details of Jesus’ leave-taking are lost to history. This is a clear illustration of why the Bible must be read in community, in the midst of the believing assembly, respectful of the deeply believed but unwritten traditions that constitute our faith. With all due respect to Jehovah Witnesses in West Virginia and elsewhere, the teaching of the Church is the final arbiter of our faith. Biblical questions regarding the Ascension (Galilee or Bethany? Easter day or 40 days after?; from a meal or from a mountain) as well as all scriptural interpretation must defer to the teaching authority of the Church. Written contradictions notwithstanding, believers must trust the teaching authority of the Church as their standard and their norm.