Does the Ascension of Isaiah have any potential relevance for the study of origins of the Christ myth?

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by Neil Godfrey

They say there is none so deaf as he who will not hear, and when it comes to Christ myth arguments there are biblical scholars who, despite their public protestations otherwise, regularly demonstrate an apparent inability to engage seriously with mythicist arguments.

Once again a biblical scholar who has been informed on his blog why he is mistaken for assuming (he has apparently never read Doherty’s most comprehensive book) that Doherty is fallaciously taking a late second-century text and using it as evidence for the matrix of emerging Christian thought in the first century. Despite being informed of his error, he continues to repeat his claim that the Ascension of Isaiah is a late document and therefore without the relevance that Earl Doherty ascribes to it.

I am a little surprised that even a doctor and professor should repeatedly publicly advertize his ignorance of the facts and the scholarship surrounding the Ascension of Isaiah.

I would like to recommend Doherty’s book as containing an excellent introduction to the Ascension of Isaiah in a 4000 plus word section from pages 119 to 126. Of course much of this is a detailed examination of the earliest layer of the text (first century), but there is also an examination of the history, origins and rescensions of the various manuscripts and layers of text within each.

This section will inform readers that the Ascension of Isaiah document we have today has come to us in three main manuscript lines, Latin, Ethiopic and Slavonic. Readers will learn something of the variations among these lines, the backgrounds to their various redactions etc.

They will also learn that the earliest document was probably a Jewish sectarian tract that was later the subject of redactions by later Christians.

They may further be interested to be informed of Michael Knibb’s case (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, v.2, p. 143-176) for the earlier Jewish work behind the Ascension being dated to the end of the first century — given the time needed for the Nero redivivus myth to gain traction.

The ignorance and oversimplification of a biblical scholar’s denigration of mythicism and mythicists can be contrasted with the nuances of Dohery’s own conclusion that belie the good scholar’s ignorant assertions:

From the documentary record both Jewish and pagan (and there is more to survey), it is clear that much variation existed in the concept of the layered heavens and what went on in them, just as there were many variations in the nature of the saviour and how he conferred salvation. We should not be looking for exact correspondences between Paul’s Christ and Jewish sectarian systems, or between the features of the early Christian savior and those of Hellenistic mysteries. We can set aside the oversimplification of a direct and conscious copycatting between the Christ cult and its predecessors and contemporaries. But the obvious commonality of ideas both general and specific found across the ancient Mediterranean world is enough to allow us to recognize the Christian version of salvation as one more expression of the philosophical and religious thinking of the time, one more case of drawing on common ‘in the air’ ideas. . . . (p. 126)

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6 thoughts on “Does the Ascension of Isaiah have any potential relevance for the study of origins of the Christ myth?”

  1. As I see it the Latin version (the one labeled L2 in RH Charles’ book on the Ascension of Isaiah) is very relevant for figuring out Christian origins. In fact, I think a case can be made that Simon of Samaria and the author of the Pauline letters (one and the same?) believed in the L2 Son of God, not the Son of God of the canonical gospels. L2 must be early. It doesn’t have the Christian interpolations that the Ethiopic version has. But it does contain the meager, bare-bones storyline that is in the earliest descriptions of Simon’s teaching and in the parts of the Pauline epistles that seem free from interpolation. Isaiah calls the Son of God “Lord” and is told that He will descend to the world passing through the lower five heavens unrecognized, get crucified by the princes of that world “not knowing who he is,” go to the underworld to fetch the righteous dead there, and ascend back to the seventh heaven, receiving glory as he passes through each heavenly layer. And then Isaiah is told that the revelation granted him is something “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered the heart of man what great things God has prepared for all that love him.” Now compare that with 1 Cor. 2, 7-9:

    “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery… which none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, ‘Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love him.”

    When we turn to Simon of Samaria’s claims we find the same bare-bones items. He claimed to be a reincarnation of “the Son who suffered in Judaea.” Notice he didn’t claim to be ‘Jesus’ reincarnate. This too corresponds with the L2 version where the name ‘Jesus’ never appears. And his claim is about being the Son of God who “suffered.” In the accounts of Simon, he never claims to be the Son who was born of Mary… or who preached… or worked miracles… or exorcised demons… or left 12 apostles in charge etc. And there is nothing about his suffering having occurred under Pontius Pilate.

    Simon did claim that he descended as Son because “the angels ruled the world ill, each one of them coveting the principal power for himself..” And that when he descended he was “transfigured and made similar in appearance to powers and principalities and angels, so that he might appear among men to be a man, while yet he was not a man…” (the “Against Heresies” of Irenaeus). These are items which are prominent in the L2 storyline but are absent from the canonical gospels. In the Ascension of Isaiah the Son is told: “You will judge the prince of that world and his angels and the rulers of the world because they denied me and said ‘We alone are and there is none beside us’” (10:12). And it gives a lot of attention to the transfigurations of the descending Son. The Son is told that when he passes through the five lower heavens “You will transfigure yourself into their likeness” (10:9). And when he enters the world,it is as “one like a son of man.” So Simon may have believed that the L2 prophecy had been fulfilled and that he was a new incarnation of the L2 Son of God.

    There is one apparent discrepancy between the Ascension of Isaiah and the beliefs of Simon and Paul. In the Ascension there are seven heavens, and in the lower five of them the Son feels the need to transfigure himself so as to be unrecognized by their inhabitants. Simon of Samaria and the author of the Pauline letters, on the other hand, seem to have believed in three heavens. In Simon’s “Apophasis Megale” there is a layer of powers, then one of aeons, and then the lowest one which contains the unruly angels who created the visible world and held Simon’s First Thought, Helena, captive. The author of the Pauline epistles speaks of going to a third heaven which is apparently friendly territory for he hears there unutterable words. If I am correct that Simon at some point came to believe in the L2 prophecy, he must have come up with some way to rationalize how its 5 lower and unfriendly heavenly layers correspond to the lowest layer of his Apophasis Megale system.

    In any case, in light of the many common elements shared by the storylines of the Ascension, the Pauline letters and the claims of Simon – and their countless shared omissions when compared with the storyline in the canonical gospels – the Ascension should be considered relevant for the study of Christian origins.

    1. Interesting. Another possibility, I suppose, is that what eventually matured as the “Christ myth” was being “tested” or finding its way through other other characters, one of whom many have eventually coalesced as Simon of Samaria (whoever he was). I want to spend more time on the Ascension in future posts, and will come back to your inputs here. Thanks.

      1. Great. I look forward to that. I want to also to add one clarification of my first post: In claiming that the L2 version was relevant for figuring out the origin of Christianity I did not mean to give the impression that the original language of the Ascension of Isaiah was Latin. There is quite general agreement that the original language was Greek. But since the original is not extant there is disagreement about which of the early translations is most faithful to it. My vote is for the Latin version designated L2 by RH Charles. Note that L2 also agrees with the Slavonic version designated ‘S’ by Charles.

        Charles himself held that the Ethiopic version reflected better the archetype. He was put off by “the thorough inadequacy with which the earthly life and destinies of the Messiah are treated in S L2” (p. xxiv of his book). The Ethiopic version, on the other hand, contained a least a few familiar items. For a start it contained the name ‘Jesus’ in a couple of places. And in 11:2 – 22 it had Mary and Joseph, the virgin birth, Bethlehem and Nazareth, mention of the great signs and wonders Jesus worked in Israel and Jerusalem, and his sending out of the twelve apostles. But Charles did not seem to notice – or at least did not address – the greater problem: If the Ethiopic translation better reflects the original, why did the Christian translators of L2 and S cut out most of the biographical material on Jesus? And why did they even remove his very name from the text?

  2. Do you have any ideas when the text is externally attested to? what is the latest possible date? The folks at Early Christian Writings have it as contemporary with Justin Martyr, but don’t give any indication of when we KNOW it existed. If it is from that period, how much reliance do you put on text of that era to comprehend the ideas of Christians 100 years earlier (again using ECW’s dates for the earliest extant Christian text)?

    1. Which text are you asking about? The martyrdom portion? The account of Isaiah’s vision (3:13-4:22)? Or the later Christian addition (6-11)?

      If you are wanting to understand the arguments behind Doherty’s discussion and dates of the respective texts more I recommend Michael Knibb’s discussion in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, v.2, p. 143-176.

      Or you can find several excerpts from Knibb’s discussion online at http://www.textexcavation.com/ascensionisaiah.html

      This online discussion contains several sections with lengthy quotations from Knibb. It includes external citations for different parts of the text that were eventually combined into the one document. Also includes links to other online discussions.

    2. A verse from the Ascension of Isaiah (11:34 of the Latin and Slavonic versions) is quoted in 1 Corinthians 2:9. Modern scholars ignore this and claim instead that Paul just mangled a quote from Isaiah 64:4. The early biblical scholar Jerome, however, is explicit that Paul’s quote is from the Ascension of Isaiah. In both 1 Cor. 2:9 and the Ascension of Isaiah 11:34 the quote reads the same word for word:

      “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it arisen in the heart of man what great things God has prepared for those who love him.”

      Isaiah 64:4, on the other hand, goes like this:

      “No one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.”

      Notice that this last quotes clearly differs in several ways:

      1. Hearing is mentioned before seeing.
      2. The part about “arising in the heart of man” is totally missing.
      3. The object is God himself, not the great things he has prepared.
      4. Those who “wait” for God – in place of those who “love” him – are the recipients.

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