In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn 3:13). Yet this assertion seems to contradict earlier biblical accounts of certain people going to the heavenly realm. For instance, Elijah is said to have been whisked from our world and ancient Jewish tradition held that God snatched Enoch from the earth. Did Yeshua forget his history? Not at all. But to make sense of his statement, readers must know the original Greek of both the Septuagint and the Gospel.
According to the book of Second Kings, the prophet Elijah does not taste death; instead, the Lord sends heavenly vehicles to lift him to the heavens. The Greek translation of this event states, “Behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire [appeared]… and Elijah was taken up (ἀνελήμφθη; anelémphthe) as in a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kgs 2:11 LXX). In this case, God sends the divine chariot to gather Elijah from the earth—the prophet himself is a passive passenger with the benefit of theophanic transportation.
Likewise, the Septuagint says that Enoch lived a life walking with God and then “was not found, because God transferred him (μετέθηκεν αὐτὸν; metétheken autòn)” (Gen 5:24 LXX). Commenting on this verse, the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria says of Enoch, “He was ‘transferred,’ that is, he changed his abode and journeyed as an immigrant from the mortal life to the immortal” (Names 38). The Greek term for “transferred” is μετατίθημι (metatíthemi), literally meaning to be “transposed” or “transported” from one place to another. Genesis is clear that it is God who does the transferring; Enoch does not ascend to heaven on his own.
Returning to the statement in John, Jesus says of himself that “no one has ascended (ἀναβέβηκεν; anabébeken) into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn 3:13). The word for “ascend” (ἀναβαίνω) comes from two Greek terms: ἀνά (aná), meaning “up,” and βαίνω (baíno), which means “to walk.” Literally, then, Jesus claims that no one apart from him has ever “walked up” to heaven. Elijah and Enoch were taken to heaven, but the Son of Man ascends and descends on his own accord. In this assertion, Jesus alludes to his identity as the heavenly “Word” (λόγος; logos) made flesh (Jn 1:14). Long before Jesus’ arrival on earth, the ancient Israelites knew that God “sends out his command to earth [and] his word (λόγος; logos) runs swiftly” (Psalm 147:4 LXX [147:15 in English translations]). Unlike the prophets and patriarchs, the incarnate Word of God can descend from heaven and walk back up again. The Johannine statement does not conflict with previous passages that describe people going to heaven; rather, as the divine Word in flesh, Jesus distinguishes himself as the only human being in history with the unique power to come down from the Father and return to God’s realm.
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