This post continues my discussion of the Vision of Isaiah.
It will briefly consider some additional aspects of that writing that make it an attractive candidate as the source Simon/Paul’s gospel.
An Assembly of Prophets
The Vision of Isaiah gives a significant role not just to Isaiah himself but also to a group of unnamed fellow prophets. Isaiah’s arrival at King Hezekiah’s court is the occasion for a gathering of forty of them who “came that they might greet him, and that they might hear his words, and that he might lay his hands on them, and that they might prophesy and that he might hear their prophecy” (Asc. Is. 6:4-5).
With Isaiah seated in their midst and his higher ranking confreres on his right (an arrangement that matches the Vision’s description of the lower levels of heaven), they hear, together with the king, the door to the heavens opened and the voice of the Spirit (Asc. Is. 6:6). And afterwards they are part of the select group that is allowed to hear Isaiah relate what he saw:
And after Isaiah had seen this vision he recounted it to Hezekiah, and to Josab his [Isaiah’s] son, and to the other prophets who had come. But the officials, and the eunuchs, and the people did not hear, apart from Samnas the secretary, and Jehoiakim, and Asaph the recorder… but the people did not hear, for Micah and Josab his son had sent them out… (Asc. Is. 6:16-17)
The amount of attention and the role given to the prophets have led a number of scholars (Enrico Norelli, Robert G. Hall, Morton Smith, and Michael E. Stone) to surmise that the author was projecting his own community into the time of Isaiah. That is to say, the practices the author describes may well be the practices of his own community. Norelli, for instance, is of the opinion that
the Ascension of Isaiah reflects two phases in the history of a group of prophets who laid claim to a role of very high authority in the Christian community, a role much like the prophets who, gathered around Isaiah, are center stage in chapter 6. (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, p. 74, my translation).
Now if this is correct, and if the Vision was the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel, it could explain why in his communities too prophets played a prominent role, one second in importance only to that of apostles: “God has designated some in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets… (1 Cor. 12:28). Apostles who were also the recipients of revelations from the Lord were prophets too. But their apostolic ministry as itinerant preachers meant that those prophets who did not travel around were, in effect, the highest authorities on site in the various churches.
A striking feature of Paul’s letters is the fact that he rarely seems able to address people holding formally recognized positions of authority in his churches. We have already observed the absence of any indication of a distinct priestly office in the letters. Equally striking is the absence of any reference to “elders,” who do not appear in the Pauline corpus earlier than the Pastorals…. This is all the more astonishing when a church like that in Corinth was experiencing such disorder. The absence of appeal to or rebuke of established leaders is very hard to explain, were there such in Corinth. (James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 583-84)
It is clear from 1 Corinthians 12-14 that in Corinth at least there was a fairly well-defined circle of recognized prophets. We may deduce from this, from the references to regular prophecy in other churches, and from the key role Paul gives to prophecy in the building up of the church, that there were a number of prophets within each or most of the Pauline congregations… For Paul the authority of the prophet was essentially authority to prophesy under inspiration… Moreover, the inspiration of the individual prophets was subject to the evaluation of “the others” (1 Cor. 14:29), that is, here at any rate, the other prophets. That is to say, the authority of the prophets included authority to evaluate the oracle of another prophet. The expectation, in other words, seems to have been that those most experienced in the exercise of the charism of prophecy had a primary responsibility in evaluating prophecies within the assembly (pp. 580-81)
Of course Paul, as the apostle and founder of his churches, tried to retain ultimate control of them. He scolded anyone who attempted to judge him and he claimed the right to pass judgment on the prophecies emitted in his communities. Already in his Corinthian correspondence he begins to provide “regulations” for his prophets. Having given them their first rules, he makes clear that
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or a spiritual person, he should recognize that what I am writing to you is a commandment of the Lord. If anyone does not acknowledge this, he is not acknowledged. (1 Cor. 14:37-38)
A World of Envy, Strife, Darkness and Weakness
There are certain features too in the Vision’s description of the highest God and the spirit princes of the world that seem to jibe well with Simonian beliefs. The firmament of our world is described as being a place of envy and strife from the very beginning.
And we went up into the firmament, I and he, and there I saw Sammael and his hosts; and there was a great struggle in it, and the angels of Satan were envying one another. And as above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what (is) in the firmament is here on earth. And I said to the angel, “What is this envying?” And he said to me, “So it has been ever since this world existed until now, and this struggle (will last) until the one comes whom you are to see, and he will destroy him.” (Asc. Is. 7:9-12, Knibb translation, my bolding)
And again he [the Beloved] descended into the firmament where the prince of this world dwells, and he gave the password to those who (were) on the left, and his form was like theirs, and they did not praise him there; but in envy they were fighting with one another, for there is there a power of evil and envying about trifles (Asc. Is. 10:29).
As Isaiah ascends he becomes aware of how much “weakness” (Asc. Is. 7:26) and “darkness” (Asc. Is. 8:24) there is in his “world of flesh” (Asc. Is. 8:23), but he gives us no reason to think that it had ever been otherwise. Each time he ascends into the next level of heaven he is impressed by its greater glory, but that also makes him realize that the glory of the preceding heavens was not really so great after all. There was, for instance, “great glory in the second heaven” (Asc. Is. 7:20). But
Then, when I was in the sixth heaven, I thought that the light I had seen in the five heavens was darkness (Asc. Is. 8:21).
Now nowhere does the Vision say who made the lower heavens, the firmament and the earth. The highest God in the seventh heaven is never called the maker or creator of these. And nowhere are the “god of that world” (Asc. Is 9:14) and the other “princes and angels and the gods of that world” (Asc. Is. 10:12) presented as usurpers of an earth made by someone else or corruptors of a creation that was once good. They are reproached for their pride, but never for any action of theirs that caused a fall of our world.
It strikes me that such a presentation of the spirit world leaves itself open to a Simonian interpretation. All that is required is to identify the lowest angels as the makers of our world of darkness and weakness.
It is because of his lowly status that the glory of the dispensation he gave to the Jews was really not so glorious after all.
It is a place of envy and fighting because it was made by angels who were envious and bellicose from the beginning. And it would follow that the god of the Jews—since they themselves honored him as the maker of this visible world—was one of those angels. He was perhaps their chief, but he was not the supreme God of the Vision’s highest heaven. It is because of his lowly status that the glory of the dispensation he gave to the Jews was really not so glorious after all. In 2 Cor. 3:7-10 Paul says that the “glory” of the “dispensation of death,” the “dispensation of condemnation” put in place by Moses “has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it.” And he goes on to say that Moses veiled his face in order to hide from the Jews the weakness of that glory:
Therefore, since we have such hope, we act very boldly, and not like Moses who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the cessation of what was fading (2 Cor. 3:12-13).
In this scenario the one whom Paul calls the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) is the god of the Jews. He is the god who “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
A Simonian could support such an interpretation of the Vision by pointing out that nothing in its description of the highest God identifies him as the god of the Jews. Unlike in the Epistle to the Hebrews and Revelation , the supreme God’s habitation is not linked in any way with Jewish cult, whether of the Tent of Witness or the Temple.
The heaven of the Vision is a royal court and the righteous ones whom Isaiah sees there — Adam, Abel, Enoch and Seth (Asc. Is. 9:8-9; 9:28) — are all pre-Jewish figures. Moses is never mentioned in the Vision. What might seem to be just an innocent omission becomes suspicious when it is combined with the omission of his Torah from a list of inspired books in the Ascension interpolation:
Next, 4:21-22—unthinkably for a Jew—fails to mention the Torah in the list of inspired writings. The author mentions only the Prophets and Writings as witnesses for the Beloved One in what is evidently a repudiation of Mosaic authority (Jonathan Knight, Disciples of the Beloved One, p. 191).
One of the accusations that Belkira makes in the Martyrdom section of the book is that Isaiah contradicts Moses:
Moses said, “There is no man who can see the Lord and live.” But Isaiah has said. I have seen the Lord, and behold I am alive” (Asc. Is. 3:9)
The text never addresses the question of how this apparent contradiction should be resolved. The implication seems to be “that Moses was wrong and that Isaiah, who was (merely) a prophet, had spoken the truth when he claimed to see God” (Jonathan Knight, Disciples of the Beloved One, p. 192).
The Vision of Isaiah, then, looks like the kind of scripture that could have inspired Simon/Paul’s belief in a god higher than the “angels (plural) who made the world” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1, 23, 3), who were motivated by “envy” (1, 23, 2), who “misgoverned the world, because each of them desired the primacy” ( 1, 23, 3), and who tried by means of precepts “to lead men into slavery” (1, 23, 3). If so, they are the same enslaving spirits who are called “element” angels (stoicheia) in Galatians and Colossians. They are “the rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6:12) and it is Simon/Paul’s God “who has delivered us from the power of darkness and has transferred us to the kingdom of his Beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).
Simon’s belief in a world made by the lowest angels—one of whom was the god of the Jews—was passed on to Menander, his successor (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1, 23, 5) and to Menander’s pupils Satornilus and Basilides. Satornilus, according to Irenaeus, taught that
The world and everything in it came into being from seven angels, and man also was a creation of angels… The god of the Jews was one of the angels… Christ came for the destruction of the god of the Jews and the salvation of those who believe in him… (Against Heresies 1, 24, 1-2)
And in Irenaeus’ description of the teaching of Basilides we meet with the ongoing struggle for supremacy between the god of the Jews and the other world-ruling angels:
But those angels who possess the last heaven, which is the one seen by us, set up everything in the world, and divided between them the earth and the nations upon it. Their chief is the one known as the god of the Jews. Because he wished to subject the other nations to his own men, that is, to the Jews, all the other princes opposed him and worked against him. For this reason the other nations were alienated from his nation (Against Heresies 1, 24, 4).
The Discernment of Spirits
It might seem far-fetched to think that anyone would interpret a vision ascribed to Isaiah, a Jewish prophet, in a way that relegates the Jewish god to a subordinate position. But the earliest proto-orthodox heresy hunters say that Simon of Samaria assigned the inspiration of the books of the Old Testament to various spirits who were not the highest God. Epiphanius, for instance, says that for Simon the spirits who inspired the books of the Law and the Prophets were powers on the left:
He pretended that the Law was not from God, but from the power on the left, and that the prophetic books were not from the good God, but from this or the other power. And he lays it down for each of them as he pleases; the Law was of one, David of another, Isaiah of another, Ezekiel again of another, and ascribes each of the Prophets to some one dominion. And all of them were from the power on the left and outside the Fullness (Pleroma), and every one that believed in the Old Testament was subject to death. (Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 2,4).
The left hand reference recalls the description of the lower heavens in the Vision of Isaiah. In the firmament and in each of the five lower heavens—the ones in which the Beloved disguises himself when he traverses them—Isaiah notices that the angels are separated on either side of a central throne. The angels on the right surpass those on the left:
And the angels on the left were not like the angels who stood on the right, but those on the right had more glory (Asc. Is. 7:15).
Now it might appear that Simon’s belief that the Old Testament was in large part inspired by inferior spirits would rule out the Vision of Isaiah as the source of his gospel. For even if that writing was not considered an Old Testament scripture, its author and central character was an acknowledged Old Testament prophet. But I don’t think we can legitimately assume that a prophet was believed to always receive his prophecies from the same source. We see in the Pauline Corinthian correspondence that prophets needed to submit their prophecies to other prophets for evaluation. The spiritual gift of discernment of spirits (1 Cor. 12:10) was apparently needed to determine which spirit, if any, inspired a particular utterance. A prophet’s reception of inspiration from a “good” source on one occasion was not a guarantee that all his subsequent inspirations would be from the same source. It looks like a prophet’s work had to be submitted for evaluation on a prophecy-by-prophecy basis. And, as we have seen, Paul claimed the right in his churches to overrule the decisions of the prophets.
Paul also exercised his discernment of spirits in determining the source of the teaching that certain outsiders brought to his churches in Corinth and Galatia. Although there is no consensus about the nature of the opposition he faced, many find it plausible that his opponents were Christian Jews from Jerusalem. They boasted according to the flesh (2 Cor. 11:4 & 18; Gal.6:13) — a reference to their lineage as Hebrews, Israelites, and sons of Abraham (2 Cor. 11:22) — and they attempted to discredit Paul’s apostleship. Both groups, he says, were seeking to bring his flock into slavery (2 Cor. 11:20 and Gal. 2:4).
They apparently also claimed to be prophets, appealing to visions and revelations (2 Cor. 12:1). E. Earle Ellis sums up the situation this way:
The Pauline mission was an enterprise of pneumatics, persons who claimed special understanding of the Scripture and who experienced manifestations of inspired, ecstatic speech and of visions and revelations. The primary opposition to that mission arose from within a segment of the ritually strict Hebraioi in the Jerusalem church and with variations in nuance continued to pose, sometimes as a counter mission and sometimes as an infiltrating influence, a settled and persistent ‘other’ gospel. It also laid claim to pneumatic powers and experiences. Each group claimed to be the true voice of Jesus, each claimed to give the true gnosis of God and, on occasion, each made its appeal to higher apostolic status. It was, in a word, a battle of prophets, and the congregations were called upon to choose — Paul or his opposition. (Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity, p. 115)
Even though Paul’s opponents came to his community at Corinth armed with letters of commendation (2 Cor. 3:1), he called their version of Christianity “a different gospel” inspired by “different spirit” (2 Cor. 11:4). They claimed to be servants of Christ (2 Cor. 11:23) but, as he sees it, they were in fact servants of Satan “who masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). He accused them of leading his Corinthian converts astray “as the Serpent deceived Eve by his cunning” (2 Cor. 11:3). About roughly the same time he again used the phrase “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6) but on that occasion it described what certain outsiders were preaching to his Galatian communities. As in the Corinthian correspondence, he traces the false gospel back to someone other than God: “That enticement does not come from the one who called you” (Gal. 5:8). Paul’s reference to an “angel from heaven” (Gal. 1:8) who preached a gospel different from his was likely not just rhetoric. His Galatian opponents were basing their understanding of the gospel on the revelations of some angel of whom Paul did not approve. If Paul was Simon of Samaria, there is a good chance that the angel in question was the god of the Jews.
Going Up to Put On Heavenly Clothes
In the Pauline letters there are eschatologies that cannot be plausibly harmonized.
Finally, the eschatology of the Vision matches those Pauline passages that express an individualized and spiritualized eschatological expectation. Isaiah sees righteous ones in heaven “stripped of robes of flesh” and wearing their “robes of above” (Asc. Is. 9:9). And he himself is promised too, that when he leaves his body for good, there will be a robe waiting for him in heaven: “When from the body by the will of God you have come up here, then you will receive the robe which you see, and also other numbered robes placed (there) you will see, and then you will be equal to the angels who are in the seventh heaven” (Asc. Is. 8:15). The Vision is silent about any en masse resurrection of the saints from the dead on the last day. And it is silent too about any future earthly reign for the Son and participation therein by the saints. And silent about a universal Last Judgment.
Some Pauline passages have those same characteristics. Paul expects that when he dies he will leave his body behind and be immediately transferred to heaven where heavenly clothing awaits him.
My desire is to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you (Phil. 1:23-24).
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our heavenly house … so that what is mortal is swallowed up by life. (2 Cor. 5:1-4, my bolding).
There are, however, other Pauline passages that conflict with these. There is, for instance, Romans 8:18-21, about which Heikki Räisänen writes:
Rom. 8:18-21 confuses the picture. Here the old expectation of a transformed earth makes itself felt: a cosmic change will lead to paradisal harmony within the creation so that, in the vein of Isaiah 65, the wolf and the sheep will share the pasture, and the lion will convert to a vegetarian. At present the creation is ‘groaning’ in its ‘bondage to decay’, but it will ‘obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (no doubt in connection with the parousia which, however, is not mentioned). The commentators on this passage tend to be remarkably vague. They hesitate to state in so many words that eternal life is, according to this text, to be lived on the earth, though this is what the expressions used by them must imply. (“Did Paul Expect an Earthly Kingdom?” in Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World, Essays in Honour of Alexander J.M. Wedderburn, p. 17).
Räisänen rightly recognizes that in the Pauline letters there are eschatologies that cannot be plausibly harmonized. The solution he proposes to this problem is that Paul continued to pay lip service to an earlier Christian-Jewish resurrection faith that had an earthly component, but that the Apostle’s heart was not really in it.
It is these ‘earthly’ traditions that Paul has ‘made use of’, while his own emphasis lies elsewhere. Paul may not have questioned the belief in an earthly consummation (which was part of the Christian tradition received by him), and yet it seems to have played no significant part in his active thought. While I can (just about, hesitantly) push myself to imagine that Paul may still have shared this belief, I find it very hard to assume that he would have preached about it, or expanded on it in his oral teaching. And what would be the point of an earthly reign, if the world will still be dissolved anyway…? (pp. 18-19).
I think this may indeed be part of the solution to the problem, and that Paul did—at least for a time—pay lip service to the belief of Christian Jews that there will be a resurrection of the dead on earth and a reign of Christ here. But if, as I have proposed, Paul was Simon of Samaria, he at some point definitively abandoned that belief for a more spiritual one. I think it was here, in the realm of eschatology beliefs, that he backtracked:
Even if we also had a kata sarka knowledge of Christ, yet we now know (him thus) no longer. (2 Cor. 5:16)
Which I take to mean: If once we had a faulty knowledge of Christ, i.e., thinking that he will return as a warrior-king or cosmic judge to deliver Israel from her earthly enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth, we now know him thus no longer. Kata sarka (“according to the flesh”) knowledge is not true knowledge. Giving undue importance to the things of this world is what leads to such “knowledge.” Thus Paul in this section of 2 Corinthians is responding to those “who boast about externals” (2 Cor. 5:12), i.e., fleshly differences like Jewish lineage. He says that he no longer considers such worldly matters like Jewish lineage to be of any importance: “Therefore from now on we know no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16). And he will no longer give even lip service to any version of Christ—even a Christian-Jewish one—that makes the Lord interested in anything in this wretched world besides the deliverance of his own out of it: “Even if we also had a kata sarka knowledge of Christ, yet we now know (him thus) no longer” (2 Cor. 5:16).
As I see it, this interpretation meshes well with other characteristics of the Pauline letters.
Consistent with his spiritualization of eschatology, Paul does not seem overly concerned with problems of oppression or unjust government in this world. Redemption does not consist in being rescued from earthly enemies, but rather from inimical spirit powers, sin, transitoriness and death… Unlike the seer of Patmos, Paul—a middle-class cosmopolitan of sorts—apparently did not experience the Roman rule as something from which he specifically needed to be liberated. Like Philo, he may even have deliberately ‘defused’ or ‘neutralized’ Israel’s (earthly) messianic hope. No social unrest is desirable (Rom. 13!). No social or political alienation worth mentioning makes itself felt in his writings… Mundane concerns are overwhelmed by a spiritual perspective. (Heikki Räisänen, “Did Paul Expect an Earthly Kingdom?” in Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World, Essays in Honour of Alexander J.M. Wedderburn, p. 19)
But I think there was also another reason for the zigzagging Pauline eschatology. The proto-orthodox interpolator of the Pauline corpus of letters was at work here too neutralizing a doctrine that he viewed as unacceptable. Romans 8:19-23 was one of his “improvements.” But the most extensive of his corrections was to chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. A number of scholars have suspected that verses 3 to 11 of that chapter are an interpolation. My own opinion is that the interpolation goes beyond that. A very large part of the chapter is the interpolator’s correction to a key element of Simon/Paul’s gospel, namely that “flesh and blood cannot come into possession of the kingdom of God, nor does what is perishable come into possession of the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50).
The part of the chapter addressed to some at Corinth who denied the resurrection of the dead was not written by Simon/Paul. It was written by the interpolator. And in reality the denial he had in view was that of the original author of the letter—Simon/Paul—and his followers. It was Simonian eschatology which, in the eyes of the proto-orthodox, constituted a denial of the resurrection of the dead: “He (Simon) does not believe that the dead will be raised” (Pseudo-Clementine Homilies 2, 22). The redactor’s aim was to modify Simon’s teaching by forcing it to be interpreted in the light of his own accompanying interpolation. As if it was not enough of an indignity to make Simon/Paul profess a belief he did not hold, the interpolator tossed in a few insults for good measure, like when he addressed his opponent as, “You Fool!” (1 Cor. 15:36).
To adequately lay out this scenario for 1 Corinthians 15 will take more room than I have left in this post. I will devote my next one to it.