When does something begin? How will it end?
T.S. Eliot famously began his poem East Coker with, “In my beginning is my end.” The conclusion declared, “In my end is my beginning.”
Ascension Sunday – for June 5, 2011
“In the first book Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning…” (Acts 1:1)
As a child cheerfully attending Sunday school each week, I wasn’t told the same person wrote Luke and Acts. Until seminary, probably during a bleary-eyed moment in a New Testament class, I didn’t realize Luke’s end transitioned into Acts’ beginning. Luke highlighted Jesus’ life and work. Acts revealed what followed for his disciples and their post-resurrection ministry. Part 1. Part 2. Jesus’ birth “in the east” was bookended by Paul’s preaching “in the west.”
Then why doesn’t Luke’s end and Acts’ beginning match? Both depict Jesus’ final moments with the disciples and yet contain oddly different versions. Writing the last words of a first book to parallel the opening words of the follow-up seem a simple task. Perhaps I’m influenced by the silly “reality shows” I spend too much time viewing. In programs like THE BIGGEST LOSER I weary of the hype about a contestant’s weight loss or gain that’s interrupted by endless commercials. When the show returns, the last scene is repeated. Grrrr! There’s no need—in spite of the mindless, endless ads—for a rehash. Just show me the weight loss!
But Luke’s finish and Acts’ start, with only the Gospel of John and no commercials between them, are not in agreement.
I understand why agreement can be difficult because choices are always being made by scholars to decide—based on the available manuscripts—which words should be included or excluded. A perfect example comes from the end of Luke in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Bible given as a birthday present forty-five years ago by my parents. I still occasionally use it. In the RSV, Luke 24:51-53 reads:
(51) While he blessed them, he parted from them. (52) And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, (53) and were continually in the temple blessing God.
In my updated, more modern New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)—the Bible I currently use for personal study—Luke concludes . . .
(51) While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. (52) And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; (53) and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
Well! The NRSV’s italicized words are different! In my birthday present Bible, the RSV has footnotes explaining, “other ancient authorities ADD” the italicized words. In the NRSV, those italicized words are footnoted with, “other ancient authorities LACK” these words. And that’s merely Luke’s add & lack ending, from only two different translations of the Bible. Reading the Good Word ain’t for the fainthearted, or those who like “easy” beginnings or endings!
In my NRSV, the supposedly identical scene of Jesus’ departure in Luke also does not have the Nazarene riding a cloud to heaven or men in white robes addressing the disciples. But Acts’ beginning does. Jesus also “says” different things in Luke’s end versus Acts’ beginning.
By now, you may be rolling your eyes and muttering, “So what?” Or perhaps you’re angrily seething and ready to shout, “So what!” For some, my thoughts merely support what’s already known: the Bible contains contradictions. For others, any questioning of the literal nature of the Bible is tantamount to sin.
Before you’re too bored or offended, let’s return to my original question: when does something begin, or end?
I write these words as another birthday looms and I’ve wondered: when was the last time I played basketball, tennis or baseball? Each were played during childhood and continued into my adult years. With four minor knee surgeries since 1999, my activities have become limited. At some point, there was a final rebound, a final ball skimming over a net and a final catch in centerfield after a long run. All were trivial moments, none were accompanied by a soundtrack or cheering crowd.
There are more serious things. While I could find the legal dates for my first marriage and divorce, when was the real beginning of that relationship’s end? Or the end of the beginning? I could painfully or humbly muse on other central, unmarked but remarkable events…the last real chat with my father before his dementia claimed him, or how I felt when I baptized my first church member.
Luke and Acts don’t agree. How can this be? How can the same person write both and be “wrong?” But then I remember. I am a writer. Even more, I am a reviser. The essence of writing is re-writing. Add, subtract, but from first draft to published document, strive to improve.
Did the writer of Luke and Acts choose to revise, to strive to improve? I linger over the inclusion of those two men in white. Absent in Luke, they appeared in Acts at the beginning of the new story, at the end of the old story. They asked, “Why are you standing, looking at heaven?” I’m glad Luke added the question. Do we know when some things end and others begin? Not always! But I believe we are always called to get to work, to stop only feeling loss or sadness and to begin again with a faithful step forward.