May 16, 2010

The Kingdom of the Skies

That's been my personal translation for ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν for many years. Here's why.

First of all, the only justification for translating 'heavens' (let alone the singular, 'heaven') is if you throw in a note like "Well, when they said 'heavens', they meant the sky and space above it." Okay, fine. But when we say 'the night sky', we include space too. Right? Thus, "sky" still fits perfectly.

Now, the reason I like "Kingdom of the Skies" is because it brings out the utter ridiculousness of the original. Translating "heaven" is a cop out, because English speakers all have a cultural/religious idea of what that means, and it isn't what 'ouranos' meant. But "Kingdom of the Skies"? What the heck does that mean, Jesus?

I mention this today because James McGrath and I have been quibbling today over what the "cosmological framework" of first century Jews "would have led them to understand" about Acts 1:9-11, in which Jesus ascends into τὸν οὐρανόν ('the sky'). James seems to think the first century understanding would necessarily infer from Luke that Jesus passed through the stratosphere, mesosphere and ionosphere, icing up from sub-zero temperatures before finally entering airless space. (Incidentally, that'd be quite some escape velocity Jesus attained, wouldn't it?) Read his post and tell me if I misunderstand.

In contrast, I myself must suppose that any ancient cosmology which talked of God's entire Kingdom being in "the skies" would also understand such a place was invisible. Thus, after Jesus had flown up oh, so high, he'd also have turned invisible. Or, to put that another way, that after he'd ascended into the skies, he'd also have transported himself into that OTHER PLACE, which was up there.

So what of it? James and I both agree that we can't impose modern understandings of science on ancient writers or readers. But we seem to apply this differently. I maintain this: since the text says he flew, I'll believe that he flew. The text does not say how high. There's just one question left:

Where did the first readers of Acts think that Jesus wound up? With God. With the same God who inhabits Eternity, whose voice can inhabit a bush, and whose dining room once linked itself to Mount Sinai in Arabia. First century Jews must have known rudimentary physics. They also knew that God was beyond all such things.

So James, I'll gladly agree the ascension is harder to buy than the resurrection. In fact, some might say my interpretation of the ascension is even more unreal than yours. In the end, I suspect mine is more first century. But thanks for the fun! :-)

For everyone else, here's a challenge: search Acts (or better yet, Luke-Acts) for 'heaven' and tell me: where did they think such-a-place actually WAS? Was it just beyond Jupiter? Or was it SOMEPLACE ELSE?

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