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τὸ δὲ ἀνέβη τί ἐστιν εἰ μὴ ὅτι καὶ κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς; But the one who ascended, what does it mean except that he also descended into the inferior parts of the earth?
Paul asks a question in this sentence regarding Psalm 68:19, which he had just used. Psalm 68:19 was used to identify Jesus as the one who ascended, taking captive captivity, and also gave gifts to humans. Now he infers that Jesus descended into Hades since he ascended into Heaven.
There is a textual variant here. Some manuscripts (Papyrus 46 and the original hand of D) do not have μέρη, while a great majority of manuscripts (א, A, B, C, 33, and 1739) include it. However, the phrase εἰς τὰ κατώτερα τῆς γῆς is probably the most likely reading. The accusative plural noun κατώτερα implies “parts,” so that a scribe could come along and add μέρη for clarification purposes. Without μέρη, the phrase is much more difficult. We may include μέρη in our translation based on the extended implication from κατώτερα, but the original text did not include it most likely.
The phrase κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς could mean Hades or the incarnation. Traditionally, this phrase has been interpreted as “Hades”, but there is no reasonable indication in the text that should lead us to interpret it in this way. Rather, τῆς γῆς should be understood as a genitive in apposition to κατώτερα μέρη and should be translated in this way: “the lower parts, the earth”. The second phrase is identifying or clarifying the first phrase: “the lower parts, that is, the earth.” Paul is making the connection that Jesus came to earth first, he descended, in the incarnation, and then he ascended after his resurrection. The emphasis in this sentence is not on the incarnation, but rather, as the context demonstrates, it is on the ascension. It does not matter whether Paul meant that Jesus went down into Hades or that he came to earth from heaven, because the focus of the passage is on Jesus’ ascension into heaven from earth.
That he ascended, what does it mean except that he also descended into the lower regions, meaning, the earth?
It is important to remember that Jesus did not simply come from nowhere. He came from heaven. He left his divine position to be among humans. And it is precisely because he made this descent that he was able to live, die, rise from the dead, and then ascend back into heaven. Let us not forget that he descended in the incarnation, but at the same time, let our focus be on his resurrection and ascension. Plainly, Christmas is important, but Easter and Pentecost all the more. Christians still have claim to Christmas, although barely. But, sadly, they have lost claim to Christmas, and many Protestants have lost the importance of Pentecost. We should remember that Christ came, as is celebrated at Christmas, but we should also emphasize the fact that Christ died, which is what Easter is all about. Yet, we should focus as well on Christ’s ascension, something which Pentecost is able to help us with. Christ ascended, and his ascension has powerful ramifications and implications. Perhaps a renewed recognition in Pentecost will help us to realize the full meaning of Christ’s work.