We easily imagine that Christ’s ascension into heaven occurred shortly after his resurrection. The New Testament account, however, suggests otherwise. The intriguing first verses of the “Acts of the Apostles” read as follows:
“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).
The New Testament books of Luke and Acts both address an otherwise unidentified reader called “Theophilus.” This could easily represent the actual name of an individual person. However, since it means something like “friend of God,” “beloved of God” or “loving God,” “Theophilus” might have been some person’s honorific title or perhaps even an indicator that Luke was addressing anybody who fit that description.
Both books were written by the evangelist Luke on the basis of eyewitness testimony — the original Greek of Acts 1:1-4 is much clearer on this point than is the King James translation — and scholars often refer to them as a composite work they call “Luke-Acts.”
So what about the somewhat mysterious Acts 1:1-3?
First, it indicates that Christ’s ascension occurred fully 40 days after Easter. In other words, he was on earth, at least intermittently, for substantially more than a month. Was it precisely 40 days? That’s difficult to know. In Noah’s time, “the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights” (Genesis 7:12). Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2). Traditionally, in the Middle East, “forty” is a large but rounded and imprecise number. (Think of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”)
What was Jesus doing during this extended period? Luke says that he demonstrated to his followers that he was alive “by many infallible proofs” — or, as some translations have it, via “convincing proofs” or “in convincing ways.” But this can’t have required 40 days. He also taught his disciples about the kingdom of God. But what was he teaching? Did he merely repeat what he had already taught them? If so, why? Strikingly, not a single obvious quotation from those forty days of instruction appears in the New Testament. Luke tells us nothing of their content.
It has been estimated that every word of Jesus in the four gospels — covering three years of mortal ministry — could be read aloud in approximately four hours. Plainly, the New Testament doesn’t contain everything Jesus did and taught. Things are missing, but we don’t know how many or how much. In Acts 20:35, the apostle Paul quotes Jesus as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” But no such statement occurs in either Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
For devout Christians, even a day’s worth of new teaching from the Savior, let alone 40 days’ worth, would be a treasure beyond price. Yet, curiously, many Christians seem passionately committed to the notion that the Bible contains all there was, is, or ever will be:
“And because my words shall hiss forth — many of the Gentiles shall say: A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible. …
"Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever. Wherefore, 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 29:3, 8-10).
The late Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley wrote a classic article on the enigmatic “forty-day ministry”: His “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum: The Forty-day Mission of Christ — The Forgotten Heritage” originally appeared in 1966 in the academic journal “Vigiliae Christianae.” Reprinted several times since, it is accessible online at publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1104&index=3.