Tag Archives: Ascension of Isaiah

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 13: Simon/Paul and the Law of Moses

For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity

Previous post in this series:  Part 12: A Different Perspective on the Corinthian Controversy (conclusion)

We finally come to the question of how my Simonian hypothesis would deal with the inconsistent Pauline position regarding the Mosaic Law.  Like resurrection, the Law was a subject about which Simon of Samaria’s teaching differed significantly from that of the proto-orthodox. So if the Paul who authored the original letters was Simon, we can expect to find in the canonical versions signs of proto-orthodox intervention aimed at the correction of his errors on that issue.

Most of what the Apostle wrote about the Law was in the context of its relationship to sin and justification. It is thought that Gal. 2:16 is the earliest mention in the letters of justification/righteousness/rectification (dikaioō; dikaiosynē) by faith apart from works of the Law. Teachers— again, apparently connected to the Jerusalem church—were pushing his Galatian faithful to receive circumcision and observe at least some parts of the Law. The teachers were likely preaching a justification that was in some way connected with the Law. The Apostle responded with a letter that put a different twist on this.

 

Justification and Law in the Apostle’s gospel 

quote_begin Justification becomes easier to understand if God’s beef was with the sinfully proud spirits who ruled the world. quote_end

Regarding justification by faith William Wrede long ago pointed out that:

The Reformation has accustomed us to look upon this as the central point of Pauline doctrine, but it is not so. In fact the whole Pauline religion can be expounded without a word being said about this doctrine, unless it be in the part devoted to the Law. It would be extraordinary if what was intended to be the chief doctrine were referred to only in a minority of the epistles. That is the case with this doctrine: it only appears where Paul is dealing with the strife against Judaism. And this fact indicates the real significance of the doctrine. It is the polemical doctrine of Paul, is only made intelligible by the struggle of his life, his controversy with Judaism and Jewish Christianity, and is only intended for this. (Paul, p. 123)

laurenceAscensioIsaiaeVatisBut if justification by faith was not at the center of the Apostle’s gospel, he did see it as at least a nonnegotiable implication. And this makes sense if, as I proposed in posts 7 through 9, the written source of his gospel message was the Vision of Isaiah. For the Vision foretells that preachers will be sent out into the whole world (Ascension of Isaiah 9:17, in the L2 and S versions), but does not say that the Law or Law observance will be part of what they preach. The Law is not mentioned at all in the Vision nor does it say anything about a distinction of Jews from Gentiles. It condemns the spirit rulers of this world and offers a life in heaven to their subjects, but gives no special prerogatives to the Jewish ones. The idea that the message must first be offered to Jews and only afterwards to Gentiles is absent.

One could easily conclude that if the Vision doesn’t require circumcision or Law observance as conditions for liberation from the rulers, it is wrong for preachers of the gospel to require such. Apparently all that is required to benefit from the preached message is to believe it and, while waiting for the imminent destruction of this world, to conduct oneself in a way pleasing to the God who graciously initiated the rescue.

Moreover, in the Vision the sinfulness that is spotlighted is that of the rulers of this world. It is their pride that God forcefully condemns. He sends his Son to

judge and destroy the princes and angels and gods of that world, and the world that is dominated by them. For they have denied me and said: “We alone are and there is none beside us.” (Ascension of Isaiah 10:12-13).

In the Vision men come across not as the guilty, but as the victims. Their plight is to live in a dark world run by rulers whose “envy of one another and fighting…” make it a place where “there is a power of evil and envying about trifles” (Ascension of Isaiah 10:29). The “angels of death” (10:14) keep those who have died locked in Sheol until the Son comes to free them.

In Galatians a similar emphasis has been noted by some scholars:

The redemption is, according to Paul, in a phrase which is brief and yet exact, release from the misery of this whole present world (Gal. 1:4). Every other conception of it, even release from sin, would be too narrow. The character of this present world is determined by the fact that men are here under the domination of dark and evil powers. The chief of these are the flesh, sin, the Law and death. (William Wrede, Paul, p. 92)

For Paul, the problem that needs to be addressed is not so much ‘sins,’ transgressions of divinely given commandments, as Sin, a malevolent enslaving and godlike power under which all human beings are held captive. (Martinus C. de Boer, Galatians: A Commentary, p. 35)

So it may be that the Vision of Isaiah holds the key to a correct grasp of what Paul meant by “justification.” Scholars have always had a hard time explaining that doctrine. A big part of their problem may be their belief that God and men were the parties at odds. Justification becomes easier to understand if God’s beef was with the sinfully proud spirits who ruled the world. In this case the Son’s intervention in the world not only vindicates God vis-à-vis these pretentious rulers, it also vindicates men in regard to them. God, by initiating the destruction of the world and its rulers, has in effect acquitted their subjects. His condemnation of the rulers has freed those they heavy-handedly ruled. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 10: A Different Perspective on the Corinthian Controversy

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When I finished the previous post of the series, I expected to go on to a discussion of the eschatology in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. But while working on that, I quickly realized that chapters 1 through 4 of the letter should be examined first. They provide some necessary background on the situation in the church at Corinth.

So this post will consider these earlier chapters from the perspective of my hypotheses that the Paul who wrote the Corinthian letters was Simon of Samaria, his gospel was based on the Vision of Isaiah, and his letters were subsequently interpolated (as late as 130 CE) by a proto-orthodox Christian.

I have already discussed 1 Cor. 2:6-9 in part 7 of the series. My interpretation of that passage will be incorporated here into a view of the Corinthian controversy as a whole.

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Disruptive Wisdom in the Church at Corinth

1 Corinthians begins with four chapters in which the Apostle expresses concern about some kind of wisdom that, in his absence, was being put forward by certain Christians at Corinth and was giving rise to factions in the church there. The nature of the troublesome wisdom is unclear but, from a consideration of the entire Corinthian correspondence, it seems to me most likely that it was the product of people laying claim to the gift of prophecy. Its proponents likely believed that their wisdom, like the Apostle’s own (1 Cor. 2:6-9), was revealed by God.

ellisAs we saw above, in the Pauline letters, and especially in 1 Corinthians (2, 12-14), certain believers have gifts of inspired speech and discernment. They are called pneumatics and, broadly speaking, they exercise the role of prophets. Among other manifestations they are said to speak ‘wisdom of God’ (2,7,13) or to be ‘wise’ (3,18; 6,5; cf. 14,29 diakrinein) or to have a ‘word of wisdom’ (12,8) and to speak ‘in knowledge’ or to ‘have knowledge’ or ‘a word of knowledge’ (8,10; 12,8; 14,6). The terms wisdom and knowledge are used of pneumatic gifts in other parts of the Pauline literature and occasionally they appear in tandem, both in Paul and elsewhere. (E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity, p. 50)

The Apostle refers to the purveyors of the wisdom as fellow workers, but it becomes clear in the course of his presentation that he views at least some of them as competitors and has serious reservations about whether their teaching is in harmony with the gospel.

That gospel, as I proposed in parts 7 through 9, was likely derived from the Vision of Isaiah, and for the Apostle its truth was confirmed by the divine revelation that he himself had received. He has no comparable assurance for the suspect wisdom. Those pushing it apparently accepted, at least initially, the Apostle’s gospel beliefs, for without that minimal commonality it is hard to see how he could have allowed them to operate at all in his community. And he does say that they were building on the foundation— Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11, 1:23 and 2:2)—that he himself “as a wise master builder” (1 Cor. 3:10) had laid down in Corinth. He makes clear that use of that foundation is non-negotiable:  “No man can lay a foundation other than the one that is there” (1 Cor. 3:11).  To try to substitute another would in effect destroy the edifice, and “if any man destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that man; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Cor. 3:17). But building on the right foundation is not enough. What is built on it must be able to survive the coming conflagration and the Apostle seems to doubt that the materials being used by his competitors at Corinth will pass that test.

quote_begin Thus we are apparently dealing with wisdoms inspired by different spirits and, according to Simon/Paul, only one of them—his—certainly comes from God. quote_end

The Apostle’s repeated belittlement of mere “wisdom of word” and “wisdom of man” and “wisdom of the world” seems to be an indirect putdown of what his competitors are teaching. His wisdom is from God. He is not so sure about the source of theirs.

Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not in wisdom of word, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:17)

We have not received the spirit of the world but the spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by the wisdom of man, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms. (1 Cor. 2:12-13)

We speak wisdom among the perfect, but wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought. But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, that hidden wisdom which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this world understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.’  (1Cor. 2:6-9)

The “wisdom of man,” as the Apostle uses the expression, is an inferior wisdom whose source is merely “the spirit of man that is in him” (1 Cor. 2:11). And the source of the “wisdom of this world” is “the spirit of the world” (1 Cor. 2:12), i.e., the ignorant angel who together with his spirit underlings are the “rulers of this world” (1 Cor. 2:6). Later, as the situation further deteriorates at Corinth and the Apostle comes to view the competing wisdom as “a different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4), he supplies the name of the angel. He is “Satan” who “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). Thus we are apparently dealing with wisdoms inspired by different spirits and, according to Simon/Paul, only one of them—his—certainly comes from God.

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The Eschatological Theme of the Wisdom of this World

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A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 9: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (conclusion)

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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.

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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)

. . . it could explain why in Paul’s communities prophets played a prominent role, one second in importance only to that of apostles

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. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 8: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (continued)

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In the previous post of the series I proposed that the Vision of Isaiah was the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel.

This post will look at the place in the Vision that contains the major difference between the two branches of its textual tradition. Obviously, at least one of the readings is not authentic. But, as I will show, there are good reasons to think that neither reading was part of the original.

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Refer to the previous post for brief discussion of the various Latin and Greek, Ethiopic and Slavonic manuscript versions of the Ascension.

Refer to the previous post for brief discussion of the various Latin and Greek, Ethiopic and Slavonic manuscript versions of the Ascension.

The passages in question are located in chapter 11 of the Vision. In the L2 and S versions the Lord’s mission in the world is presented by a single sentence:

2… And I saw one like a son of man, and he dwelt with men in the world, and they did not recognize him.

In place of this the Ethiopic versions have 21 verses, 17 of which are devoted to a miraculous birth story:

2 And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. 3 And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. 4 But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. 5 And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. 6 And he did not live with her for two months.

7 And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone, 8 it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. 9 And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived. 10 And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, “What has made you astounded?” his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord, because the Lord had come in his lot.

11 And a voice came to them, “Do not tell this vision to anyone.” 12 But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem.

13 Some said, “The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months.” 14 But many said, “She did not give birth; the midwife did not go up (to her), and we did not hear (any) cries of pain.” And they were all blinded concerning him; they all knew about him, but they did not know from where he was.

15 And they took him and went to Nazareth in Galilee. 16 And I saw, O Hezekiah and Josab my son, and say to the other prophets also who are standing by, that it was hidden from all the heavens and all the princes and every god of this world. 17 And I saw (that) in Nazareth he sucked the breast like an infant, as was customary, that he might not be recognized.

18 And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and (in) Jerusalem.

19 And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel, who did not know who he was, against him. And they handed him to the ruler, and crucified him, and he descended to the angel who (is) in Sheol. 20 In Jerusalem, indeed, I saw how they crucified him on a tree, 21 and likewise (how) after the third day he and remained (many) days. 22 And the angel who led me said to me, “Understand, Isaiah.” And I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended.

(M. A. Knibb, “Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, pp. 174-75.)

One Substitution or Two?

Most scholars think the L2 and S version of the Lord’s earthly mission is far too brief to be original. The foreshadowing in the Vision expects some emphasis on the Beloved assuming human form as well as some story of crucifixion” (p. 483, n. 56). But instead L2 and S give us what looks like some kind of Johannine-inspired one-line summary: “he dwelt with men in the world” (cf. Jn. 1:14). Those who think the Ethiopic reading represents the original see the L2 and S verse as a terse substitution inserted by someone who considered the original to be insufficiently orthodox.

But from the recognition that 11:2 of the L2/S branch is a sanitized substitute, it does not necessarily follow that 11:2-22 in the Ethiopic versions is authentic. That passage too is rejected by some (e.g., R. Laurence, F.C. Burkitt). And although most are inclined to accept it as original, they base that inclination on the primitive character of its birth narrative. Thus, for example, Knibb says “the primitive character of the narrative of the birth of Jesus suggests very strongly that the Eth[iopic version] has preserved the original form of the text” (“Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, p. 150)

Robert G. Hall

Robert G. Hall

It is true that the Vision’s birth narrative, when compared to those in GMatthew and GLuke, looks primitive. But there are good grounds for thinking that the original Vision did not have a birth narrative at all. A later substitution is still a later substitution even if it is a birth narrative that is inserted and its character is primitive compared to subsequent nativity stories. Robert G. Hall sensed this and in a footnote wrote:

Could the virgin birth story have been added after the composition of the Ascension of Isaiah? Even if we conclude that this virgin birth story was added later, the pattern of repetition in the Vision probably implies that the omission of 11:1-22 in L2 and Slav is secondary. The foreshadowing expects some emphasis on the Beloved assuming human form as well as some story of crucifixion. Could the story original to the text have offended both the scribe behind L2 Slav and the scribe behind the rest of the witnesses? The scribe behind the Ethiopic would then have inserted the virgin birth story and the scribe behind L2 Slav would have omitted the whole account. The virgin birth story is, however, very old and perhaps it is best not to speculate. (“Isaiah’s Ascent to See the Beloved: An Ancient Jewish Source for the Ascension of Isaiah?,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 113/3, 1994, n. 56, p. 483, my bolding)

I agree that both the E and L2/S readings at 11:2 could be replacement passages, but I think Hall’s advice not to speculate should be disregarded, for it is his very observations about the Vision that provide some good reasons to suspect that 11:2-22 did not belong to the original text. It is he who points out that foreshadowing and repetition characterize the Vision—except when it comes to the birth story! read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 7: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel

Introduction

I’ll begin this post by acknowledging my debt to Earl Doherty. It was he who convinced me that the gospel Paul believed and preached was derived only from scripture and visions/revelations, and that it did not include a Son of God who lived a human life on earth. Doherty’s demonstration of those points in his The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man is, in my opinion, quite persuasive. And since some of his arguments for those contentions are available on Vridar (See part 19 of: Earl Doherty’s response to Bart Ehrman’s ‘Did Jesus Exist?’), I see no need to argue them further here. For this post I take as my point of departure that Paul did not believe in a Son of God who had wandered about Galilee and Judaea teaching and preaching, exorcizing demons, working miracles, and gathering disciples.

What the Son did do, according to Paul, was descend from heaven, get crucified by the rulers of the world (1 Cor. 2:8), and then rise back to his celestial home. But where did he believe the Son’s crucifixion had occurred? And what was his belief regarding how that event procured salvation for the faithful? And was there a particular scripture that led him to his core beliefs about the Son?

quote_begin

But where did he believe the Son’s crucifixion had occurred?

And what was his belief regarding how that event procured salvation for the faithful?

And was there a particular scripture that led him to his core beliefs about the Son?

quote_end

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abraham-and-the-three-angels

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo — Abraham and the Three Angels

My answers to these three questions are different from Doherty’s. He proposes that the crucifixion was believed to have taken place in “an unspecified spiritual dimension,” in a “dimension beyond earth,” or perhaps somewhere above the earth but below the moon (Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p. 112). But I think it was believed to have taken place in Judaea. I see the Son’s descent for crucifixion as being a limited particular task like those performed by disguised divine personages and angels who descended to earth in other Old Testament and intertestamental literature, e.g., the incognito visit by heavenly figures to Abraham and Lot; the angel Raphael’s incognito mission in Tobit.

In regard to Paul’s soteriology, Doherty holds that at least the seven so-called undisputed Pauline letters were largely the work of one man, and so he apparently finds ways to explain to his own satisfaction the presence of varying soteriological teaching in them. I, on the other hand, have a serious problem with their inconsistences and think, as I have explained in posts two through six, that they have been heavily interpolated. And so in the letters I would disentangle the rescue and redemption soteriology of Simon/Paul from the sacrifice and atonement soteriology of a proto-orthodox interpolator.

Finally, Doherty, as a prominent part of his argument for locating the Son’s crucifixion in a sublunary heaven, has recourse to the Vision of Isaiah, i.e., chapters 6 – 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah (see pp. 119 – 126 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man). I too think the Vision of Isaiah is key for understanding Christian origins. In fact, I go further and argue that it—in its original version—was already in existence by 30 CE and was—more than any other writing—the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel. But I am not convinced that it located the Son’s crucifixion somewhere other than Judaea.

In this post and the next I am going to discuss the possibility that Simon/Paul derived his gospel initially from the Vision of Isaiah and that in its original form it possessed a Son of God who descended to Judaea for only a few hours.I suspect the Vision depicted a Son who, having repeatedly transfigured himself to descend undetected through the lower heavens, transfigured himself again upon arrival on earth so as to look like a man. Then, by means of yet another transfiguration, he surreptitiously switched places with a Jewish rebel who was being led away for crucifixion. All this was done by the Son in order to trick the rulers of this world into wrongfully killing him.

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Preliminaries

The Ascension of Isaiah is a composite work made up of at least two parts.

  • The first, which consists of chapters 1-5, is usually referred to as the Martyrdom of Isaiah.
  • The second, the Vision of Isaiah, consists of the remaining chapters and is known to have circulated independently.

The Martyrdom section itself is, in the opinion of many scholars, a composite work. It is thought that its oldest element (the story of Isaiah’s murder) is Jewish and that 3:13-4:22 is a Christian addition to it. Whoever made the insertion, however, did so with an awareness of the Vision, for “3:13 clearly alludes to chapters 6-11, and there are also a number of other links between 3:13-4:22 and the Vision” (M.A. Knibb, “Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, p. 148). Finally, besides these three larger sections there are some short passages that may be the redactional work of the final editor who put the Ascension together.

ascisaiah2

Chronologically the Jewish source of the Martyrdom would be the earliest component of the Ascension, and may go back “ultimately to the period of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167-164 BC.” (Knibb. P. 149).

The latest component would be the 3:13-4:22 interpolation and, if it is also the work of the final redactor, probably dates sometime from the end of first century CE to the first decades of the second.

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Carrier-Goodacre (part 2) on the Historicity of Jesus

Continuing from the previous post: The Carrier-Goodacre Exchange (Part 1) on the Historicity of Jesus.

I have typed out the gist of the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus as argued by Richard Carrier (RC) and Mark Goodacre (MG) on Unbelievable, a program hosted by Justin Brierley (JB) on Premier Christian Radio. My own comments are in side boxes.

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JB: The main sticking point so far — for MG, the references in Paul cannot be attributed to him believing in an entirely celestial being in a heavenly realm. So many (even throw-away) references in Paul seem to reference historical people who knew Jesus. But RC is adamant that all these references can be seen through the mythicist lens as references to a purely spiritual, heavenly Jesus.

RC: Yes. Paul, for example, never says Peter met Jesus. Peter came first. That was the problem. The other apostles had prior authority to Paul.

* This point was never developed: given the wider usages and context of this phrase it informs us that Paul’s knowledge of the death and resurrection comes from the scriptures. Revelation followed this scriptural instruction — not historical acquaintance with Jesus.

Peter was thus the first, but the first what? He was the first to receive a revelation. 1 Corinthians 15 thus says Jesus according to the scriptures* died and rose again and he was THEN seen by Peter and the others. There is no reference to them seeing him before he died. No reference to them being with him, chosen by him, etc. (The issue of Peter seeing and knowing Jesus personally never surfaces in their debates.)

MG: But Paul is talking about resurrection there, so of course he’s not talking about other things. “But what we have to do as historians is to look at what people give away in passing. And what he gives away in passing there is his knowledge of an early Christian movement focused on someone who died.” And then there are the other characters who appear elsewhere in Paul’s epistles whom Paul has personal conversations with in Jerusalem.

RC: Yes, these are the first apostles. These are the first to receive the revelations of the Jesus according to the myth theory.

There is no clear case where Paul gives the answer either way – - -

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JB: If I was reading Paul without ever having read the Gospels, would I come away thinking Paul was talking of a heavenly Jesus? It strikes JB that there was enough to make one think there was something that happened in real life. read more »

Concluding my response to Dr McGrath’s “review” (sic) of chapter 10 part 2

Dr McGrath’s “reviews” (sic) of Earl Doherty’s book are what you get when a reviewer has made up his mind beforehand that he is going to read nothing but nonsense — except for any tidbits that happen to be repeats of mainstream scholarly views anyway — written by an ignorant charlatan whom he (the reviewer) is convinced has never engaged with the scholarship, is poorly read and only ever uses scholarly works tendentiously and dishonestly.

Approaching a book with this conviction will make it impossible to read the book on its own terms. One will be expecting to find rubbish and this expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will lead the reviewer to jump scornfully on sentences here and half paragraphs there and scoff before he has even taken the time to grasp what anyone else without “attitude” would read.

I know. I have done the same myself.

When I was beginning to leave a religious cult I picked up a book on how cults psychologically manipulate their members. I was still sensitive enough to be offended by such a suggestion and I read the book with hostile intent and wrote all sorts of objections in the margin. Years later I picked up the book again, with my pride having mellowed, and shook my head in amazement at how my notes betrayed a mind that was completely shut to what the author was really saying. My notes were testimony to my closed mind, not to any inadequacies in the book at all.

I list here McGrath’s objections to Doherty’s work with quotations from Doherty’s book that belie anything McGrath thinks he sees in it.

A year ago I posted the Ascension of Isaiah and highlighted the passages that demonstrate the thrust of Earl Doherty’s argument that this text is an example of the sorts of beliefs we find in Paul’s letters about Christ not being crucified on earth. Interested readers of this post will find that earlier post of some benefit in understanding the argument that follows. It is a complex subject and it is good to have some clear overview of the basics before one takes on the opposing arguments.

One man’s picture-frame is another man’s scaffold

McGrath begins by misinforming readers that the Ascension of Isaiah is “central” to Doherty’s argument that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in a dimension beyond earth and history.

Also central to Doherty’s argument is a work known as The Ascension of Isaiah . . . .

This brings us to the crux of Doherty’s views. Doherty’s entire argument for mythicism can be viewed as an attempt to regard some parts of the Ascension of Isaiah as both the key to understanding the New Testament, and the fountainhead of what eventually became Christianity.

Wow, now that makes the Ascension of Isaiah really critical. Surely sounds like if the AoI goes so does Doherty’s entire argument.

But read what Doherty’ himself says about the place of the Ascension of Isaiah for his argument and wonder how McGrath could so fundamentally misrepresent his use of this text. read more »

Dr McGrath: Doherty was right after all about the date for the Ascension of Isaiah

In my previous post that began to address Dr McGrath’s “review” of a small section of Earl Doherty’s 10th chapter. I focussed on Dr McGrath’s opening assertion that the Ascension of Isaiah in its Christian version dates from the latter half of the second century and criticizing Doherty for failing to address this “conclusion” or justify his own disagreement with it:

The Christian version is dated by scholars to the second half of the second century at the earliest, and Doherty does not even address that conclusion or show awareness of it, much less present anything that might justify disagreeing with it.

It’s pretty hard to show any awareness of a date that is fabricated entirely in Dr McGrath’s imagination.

McGrath’s claim about the dating of the Christian version by scholars is misleading. I quoted a raft of experts and commentators on the AoI in my previous post, mostly from sources Dr McGrath himself linked, demonstrating that they all place the various Christian parts of the AoI much earlier and it is only the final compilation of these that was accomplished in the later second century. McGrath’s date for the assembling of the parts is irrelevant to a discussion that is about the thought-world of parts that most scholars are agreed dates between the late first and early second centuries.

I asked McGrath through a mediator (since McGrath says he won’t address me) for the source for his assertion that the AoI should be dated to the late second century. Dr McGrath is not a fool and he knew he had overstated or mis-stated his case (perhaps as a result of my previous response to his “review”?) so he opted to answer another question: to cite an article in which scholars date the Christian portions of the AoI to the second century (not late in that century). Dr McGrath has explained that his source was an article, from 1990, by Robert G. Hall. In that article Hall concludes that the AoI dates from the end of the first century or beginning of the second, thus flatly contradicting Dr McGrath’s initial claim in his “review” of Doherty’s argument for a late second century date. This is surely a tacit admission that Doherty’s date for the AoI is consistent after all with scholarly views:

We have also suggested that the Ascension of Isaiah belongs among writings which reflect prophetic conflict and which date from the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. (Hall, Robert G.. (1990). The Ascension of Isaiah: Community Situation, Date, and Place in Early Christianity. Journal of Biblical Literature. 109 (2), p.306. — my emphasis)

Here is another paragraph from the same article explaining other scholar’s views of the date of the AoI: read more »

Response #1 to the good doctor’s “review” (sic) of a bit of Earl Doherty’s chapter ten

Scene from the first (Jewish) part of the Ascension of Isaiah. (Imagine Dr McGrath sitting on the side watching that mythicist being sawn in half ;-)

(belatedly — about 50 mins after original posting — added quotation from ‘The Origin of the Samaritans’ concerning the date of AoI)

Coming hard on the heels of Dr McGrath’s public display of professional incompetence over his failure to understand the elementary principles of the Documentary Hypothesis, this is a double embarrassment for the professor. He demonstrates total confusion about the date of the composition of the various parts of the Ascension of Isaiah and in the end resorts entirely to the one passage many commentators are agreed is a late Christian interpolation and that has no relevance at all as a rebuttal to Earl Doherty’s arguments about the earlier portions of the text. For good measure he concludes with a swipe at Doherty’s use of the word “midrash” (yes, again) despite the fact that his use is in complete accord with what Jewish scholars of midrash themselves, not to mention a raft of his own New Testament colleagues, say about the Gospels.

Dr McGrath misleadingly titles his post Review of Earl Doherty’s Jesus: Neither God Nor Man chapter 10 part two. It is not a review of the second part of the chapter by any means, and Dr McGrath effectively admits this. He left off the review of the first part of this chapter after covering the first 12 pages. But now he skips across the next ten pages to focus on the last 7.

I’ve finally found some time to post my second blog entry about  chapter 10 of Earl Doherty’s book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man – The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Here’s a link to my first post about this chapter. Ironically, even though I have written far more already on the first 1/6 of the book than one would ever find written about an entire book in a printed review, some mythicists have still complained that there are details in the book that I have not addressed.

To paraphrase an expression Dr McGrath has himself used often enough himself: Just writing lots of tirades against a book chapter by chapter does not mean that one has addressed anything more than one or two points per chapter. I have in past posts demonstrated with a comparison of Dr McGrath’s “reviews” and Doherty’s own words that McGrath has chosen to entirely overlook the central arguments and key points of chapters, and even baldly claim that Doherty does not say or reference things that he most certainly does say and reference. The fact is, the complaints against Dr McGrath’s reviews have focussed on the intellectual dishonesty that runs through them all in that they regularly accuse Doherty of not saying or addressing things he clearly does say and address, and of creating completely misleading ideas of Doherty’s arguments by omitting entire arguments that belie McGrath’s false allegations.

Since those complaints are a smokescreen trying to distract from the fact that the book’s shortcomings are so bad that they undermine anything positive that could be said about the book, presumably there is no point in trying any longer to be as comprehensive as possible.

One has to ask for whose benefit Dr McGrath has been writing these reviews. He says here the complaints “of a few mythicists” have led him to change his approach. Was he really doing these reviews all along primarily for the benefit “of a few mythicists”? I doubt it. I suspect McGrath has finally tired of attempting to maintain the appearance of comprehensive chapter by chapter reviews — efforts that were regularly rewarded with prompt exposures of his incompetence (one dare not suggest dishonesty) with each review — and now is going to select bits here and there in the book he feels he can use as a springboard to attack mythicism.

In other words, if readers of his reviews were given a completely false impression of Doherty’s book till now, from now on they will not be given any overview of the chapters at all.

I don’t know how such an exercise can possibly be called “a review”.

What good points there have been in the book thus far have typically been things that one can find in other books which consistently use a scholarly approach. And so from this point onward readers of this blog can expect me to focus entirely on the book’s many shortcomings, and can look elsewhere for other information.

Dr McGrath appears here to be saying that there is absolutely nothing Doherty has written that is “good” that is not found in other authors. Everything original Doherty has written is “bad”.

I have always thought it a truism that when you start to find nothing good or nothing bad in another then that is a sure warning signal that you are letting prejudice dictate your outlook. One is reminded of book-burning rationales. Anything bad in the book deserves to be burnt; anything good is redundant so the book should be burnt anyway.

This chapter at long last brings into the foreground something that is central to Doherty’s book: the question of where Jesus was believed to have been crucified (on earth vs. in a celestial realm). Also central to Doherty’s argument is a work known as The Ascension of Isaiah, which some have regarded as originally having been a Jewish text which Christian redactors made additions and changes to in order to adapt it to a Christian viewpoint, while others would say that the work is better viewed as resulting from the combination of Jewish and Christian works originally composed separately.

Dr McGrath appears to be confused here. There is no either-or of which I am aware. Scholars are agreed that the first 5 chapters are primarily an early Jewish text; subsequently Christian texts were written of the Vision and later still other Christians combined these and interpolated additional Christian passages into both halves.

That is, the first 5 chapters are virtually unanimously believed to be a first century Jewish text about the martyrdom of Isaiah. The remaining chapters are a compilation of later Christian additions. They speak mainly of the Vision of Isaiah. When these Christian and Jewish texts appear to have been combined into a single work a Christian redactor interpolated a sprinkling of verses throughout the Jewish section and added a large section, chapters 11:2-22, to the earlier Christian account of Isaiah’s vision. That is a very simplified but essentially correct overview. McGrath himself later says the textual history is very complex, but actually Doherty does address and explain the complexity very well — a pity Dr McGrath did not take the time to learn from him.

It is easy to overlook Dr McGrath’s apparent confusion at this stage of the post but later on we will see that it should be taken as a warning indicator that there is much more to come. Dr McGrath clearly has never seriously studied the AoI before and there is much evidence he is struggling to make a coherent argument. (It took me quite some time and re-reading many commentaries before I could be sure I could grasp the many references to the various manuscripts in the different languages, of the AoI, but the basics are not difficult to follow.) In the end Dr McGrath will rely for his own “rebuttal” of Doherty entirely on the one passage all scholars declare to be a very late second century forgery that is completely irrelevant to Earl Doherty’s argument.

He continues: read more »

The (Literary) Servant in Isaiah and (the Literary) Jesus in the Gospels

Some thoughts that occurred to me after reading Ulrich Berges’ article that I outlined in the previous post – - -

One sees in Isaiah an overlap between the Servant as Israel and the Servant who is the personal prophet, or more strictly the personification representing a prophetic community.

Such a literary technique — constructing or attributing to a literary persona the issues and experiences being grappled with by the authorial community — is not unique to Isaiah. It is found in relation to David, Jeremiah, Judith, Daniel, Ezra, the mourner in Lamentations.

One sees an overlap between Jesus as an epitome of Israel at the opening of the Gospel of Mark (going along with the majority view of this Gospel being the first written of the canonical Gospels) and Jesus as a unique person, too. read more »

Ascension of Isaiah as a mystic-visionary salvation myth

Jesus Christ saving the souls of the damned.

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This post continues a series I have been doing on the Ascension of Isaiah: the full set of posts are archived here.

The Ascension of Isaiah describes a vision in which Isaiah

  • is taken up through the firmament above the earth
  • and then through seven heavens until he sees the Great Glory on his throne,
  • and from where he sees the Beloved of God descending through those heavens
  • to be crucified by Satan,
  • plummeting further down to Sheol, before
  • returning glorified to his former place in the highest heaven,
  • having rescued the souls of the righteous in the process.

This vision or ascent belongs to chapters 6 to 11 of the longer text; the first five chapters are sometimes referred to as the Martyrdom of Isaiah, and are widely considered to have had an independent existence before various later Christian or “proto-Christian” additions.

Earl Doherty has brought this text of the Ascension (chapters 6 to 11) to some prominence with his argument that early Christianity (or even “proto-Christianity”) began with the idea of Christ as an entirely heavenly entity, with the idea of him living a life as a human on earth being a later development of the myth. Whether one accepts Doherty’s arguments or not, the text is nonetheless of interest as an indicator of ideas among early Christians and their Jewish thought-world. The idea of a visionary ascent through the heavens to see the glory of God, and thereby be transformed and be graced with salvation, was, as I have shown in recent posts, known among certain Jewish and Christian groups around the time (and either side) of the first and second centuries. I compare the details of this vision with those others in this post. read more »

Qumran and Paul: Echoes of Mystical-Vision Salvation

One of the reasons I have been looking at the visionary ascent experiences of Jewish and Christian devotees is to expand my understanding of the nature and place of the vision of Isaiah’s ascent and all that he saw and heard in the Ascension of Isaiah. I began to look at the Ascension of Isaiah in some detail a little while back because of the use made of it by Earl Doherty in his own case for the idea of a pre-gospel Christ being entirely a spirit entity whose saving act occurred within the spirit realm and not on earth. (Paul-Louis Couchoud argued for a similar conclusion.) Before returning to the Ascension — which describes another ascent, transformation and vision, as well as a descent of a Beloved of God to be crucified by Satan — I complete here the texts I have been looking at that help flesh out the context of such visionary ideas. I conclude with similar thoughts expressed in Paul’s letters, indicating that some of the teachings found there owe something to this form of religious experience as a way to salvation. Both the Qumran and Pauline references are from April DeConick‘s Voices of the Mystics. read more »

Date of Ascension of Isaiah (3: M.A. Knibb)

This post looks at M. A. Knibb’s discussion of the date of the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah. It is taken from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (v.2) edited by James H. Charlesworth, published 1985.

I will skip here Knibb’s discussion of the various component parts that are generally thought to have been stitched together to make the whole document of eleven chapters. The main sections were discussed by R. H. Charles, and Knibb does refine some of Charles’ conclusions about these, but this can be bypassed for purposes of the discussion on dating the Ascension.

As with my previous post, the links to the Ascension, and copies of some of the singled out parts of the document, are found in the first post in this series: The Date of the Ascension of Isaiah (1). read more »

Date of the Ascension of Isaiah (2: H.F.D. Sparks)

Hezekiah with the prophet Isaiah. The Imperial...

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I am not happy with my previous post. I had intended it to cover the arguments for dating by R.H. Charles, but the post only covered those particular paragraphs (and related references from other pages) that explicitly discussed the possible dates of the parts and whole of the (Martyrdom and) Ascension of Isaiah. But there is much more that I did not touch on yet that necessarily comes into play when making assessments about dates. The “primitiveness” or otherwise of specific titles, terms and theological ideas is also of significance. These must also be considered as part of any assessment in arriving of a likely period of composition, and the observations made of these details are important alongside other discussions explicitly addressing a date.

Maybe, if I can keep up with this personal commitment I have set myself, I will be able in another post address some of these aspects as well.

But till then, I will continue with the original plan to post various scholarly views on the date of the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah and its respective parts.

This post outlines the arguments found in The Apocryphal Old Testament edited by H. F. D. Sparks and published 1984. In his preface Sparks discusses the challenges of how this work came to be in part a successor publication to the two volumes by R. H. Charles. Sparks uses the same translation of the Ascension by R. H. Charles, but revised by J. M. T. Barton.

See the previous posts for links to the text and copies of independent sections within the text. read more »