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

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by Neil Godfrey

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).

Date of the Martyrdom chapters 1 to 5

Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 120:5) and Tertullian (De Patientia 14) know the tradition that Isaiah was sawn in half. The same tradition “was probably in the mind of the author of Hebrews 11:37.” Knibb therefore concludes:

If this last point is correct, it suggests that the Martyrdom was composed not later than the first century A.D. (p. 149)

But what of the narrative itself? Knibb suggests it was not the ex nihilo invention of the author, but

like the stories of the martyrdom of Eleazar and the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother (1Mac 6:18–7:42), is probably much older than this and goes back ultimately to the period of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167–164 B.C.

Date of the “Testament of Hezekiah” 3:13–4:22

Knibb next looks at the section R. H. Charles called the Testament of Hezekiah: 3:13–4:22. (This, Knibb says, is clearly a Christian insertion into a Jewish narrative from chapters 1 to 5.)

There are a number of indications which point to the view that 3:13–4:22 was composed at about the end of the first century A.D. (p. 149)

  • Since 4:2b–4a refers to the expectation that Nero would return as the Antichrist, this section must be written after the death of Nero in A.D. 68
    • Knibb thinks that since some time would have been needed for this belief to develop, a time toward the end of the first century is suggested
  • The section 3:21-31 addresses corruption in the Church in a way that invites comparison with descriptions of the Church in 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, and 1 Clement 3, thus indicating that 3:21–4:22 was composed around the end of the first century
  • 4 Baruch 9:18, 20 (a work attributed to the second century) knows of “chapters 1-5 of the Ascension in their Christian form and may even have known the complete book:
    • 9:18 appears to be a loose quotation of 3:17 of the Ascension
  • The Gospel of Peter (dated from middle of the second century) contains a description (39f) of the emergence of Jesus from the tomb that is also similar to 3:17 of the Ascension (Jesus sitting on he shoulders of two angels as he leaves the tomb)

Taken together, these indications suggest a date for the composition of 3:13–4:22 at about the end of the first century. (p. 149)

Date of the Vision of Isaiah (the Ascension) chapters 6 to 11

Jerome refers to 11:34

Epiphanius quotes 9:35f

Hence “this part of the Ascension was in existence, at the latest, by the end of the third century A.D. But it is probably much older than the third century.” (p. 150)

Acts of Peter 24 (dated to second half of second century) appears to quote Ascension 11:14.

Protoevangelium of James (dated around A.D. 150) contains similarities to the narrative of the miraculous birth in the Ascension 11:2-16.

It thus seems likely that the Vision comes from the second century A.D.

So Knibb sets this part of the Ascension later than Charles (and Sparks), with this explanation that centres around Ignatius:

The date of composition was carried back even earlier (to the close of the first century) by Charles, because he believed that 11:16 was quoted in Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 19, “And hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord.” But it is not at all clear that Ignatius really is quoting from the Ascension. (p. 150)

I would interject there to point out that Charles had another reason for resisting the mid second century date here, and that was what he considered the unlikelihood of Christians seeking to make use of a Jewish text in a time of strong hostility against Jews and things Jewish. (See the first post in this series.)

Further, in commenting on the “Testament of Hezekiah” portion (3:13–4:22) — the Christian section Knibb also discusses (as above) and dates to the end of the first century — Sparks (as per the post previous to this one) notes that it is impossible to say whether the editor who added 3:13–4:22 also added 6 to 11.

So it looks to me that a date around the turn of the century/end of the first century cannot be discounted.

The Date of the Combined Ascension, chapters 6 to 11

The following are the earliest evidence presupposing the existence of the complete work:

  1. The Greek fragment (2:4–4:4, but its text alludes to the contents of 6-11) from the 5th to 6th century
  2. The palimpsest giving the text of the fragments of the first Latin translation, also from 5th to 6th century
  3. The Ethiopic translation made some time during 4th to 6th centuries

But the character of the mistakes in the Greek fragment and the Latin palimpsest suggests that the complete work had already been in existence for some time when these manuscripts were copied. It thus seems likely that the three sections of the Ascension were brought together in the third or fourth century A.D. and this is confirmed by the fact that Jerome seems to have known the complete book. It is possible that there were two stages in this process, first the combination of 3:13–4:22 with the Martyrdom, and second the combination of the enlarged Martyrdom with the Vision. (p. 150)

This is later than Charles and Sparks suggest for the compilation of the unified work we have today.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Date of Ascension of Isaiah (3: M.A. Knibb)”

  1. I haven’t paid any attention to this work before, but what sticks out about it now to me is the reference to the plant (Jesus?) that the apostles planted -makes me think of the Root of Planting in CD. And the refernces to Belia(l) -something mentioned frequently in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other literature from the NT time period (including the NT). That the Letter to the Hebrews might know of this work is also interesting. It strikes me as somewhat Qumranic, even if it hasn’t been found there. I can easily picture (some of?) this thing being from the first century.

    1. This is an area I hope to find time to explore — to examine the “primitiveness” or otherwise of the theological imagery. Unfortunately I can’t see I will ever be able to do much more than a superficial read — but if I post on it others may be able to find opportunity to bring their own knowledge to bear on this angle.

    2. Robin Griffith-Jones in his book The Gospel According to Paul points out (page 24) that there was a series of second-century stories called “Four Rabbis in Paradise”, which explained a saying:

      “Four rabbis entered a garden. One looked and died. One looked and was struck. One looked and cut the plants. One entered in peace and came out in peace.”

      The idea was that three-fourths of rabbis fail to respond to the concept of paradise correctly. The stories explain the three kinds of mistaken teaching.

      One explanation (page 27) given for the phrase “cut the plants” was that the plants represented children. The idea is that the third rabbi goofed up by teaching children about paradise in a mistaken manner.

      The Ascension of Isaiah mentions the persecution of a “plant which the twelve apostles of The Beloved have planted.” Perhaps that is a mistranslation and the word should be plural “plants”.

      In any case, the Four Rabbis stories also seem to combine the concepts of paradise and the cutting (persecution) of plants, which perhaps refers to spiritual children.

  2. “So it looks to me that a date around the turn of the century/end of the first century cannot be discounted.”

    Neil, I’m just wondering whether you are being as critical with the dating of this text as you are with the Gospels. You doubt that Justin Martyr knows the Gospel of Matthew and seem to be trying to push back the dates of the Gospels as far as you can. I’m getting the impression that you find similarities between the Ascension of Isaiah and other 2nd century texts much more compelling than the agreements between the Gospels and 2nd century texts even though the agreements are clearly much stronger in the latter.

    1. Hi Bill, my posts on the date(s) of the Ascension of Isaiah are attempts to point out what some of the prominent commentators themselves have said. Where I have injected my own opinion it has been to address some divergences among those commentators.

      I have not studied the Ascension itself for dating purposes, but only addressed the commentaries.

      This is a new field for me.

      I’m not sure what impression I have conveyed to you about my views on the dating of the gospels. I certainly do think they are second century compositions, though I am willing for the sake of argument to concede post 70 first century dates.

      As for Justin Martyr’s knowledge of Matthew, I have attempted to justify my doubts by pointing to discrepencies between Matthew’s and Justin’s nativity narratives. It could well be that Justin simply has a plethora of nativity gospel narratives to pick and choose details from, but at the same time I think many of Justin’s details are more primitive than what we find in the canonical gospels. He is justifying his nativity details by appeal to the OT Prophets as if he himself is learning them from those sources.

      My studies on the Ascension are still inchoate. I’m not sure I have grasped what you seem to see is my inconsistency, so happy for you to clarify.

      1. Thanks for clarifying your purpose with these posts Neil. I thought the line “So it looks to me that a date around the turn of the century/end of the first century cannot be discounted.” referred to your own opinion. I simply could not imagine you saying something like that regarding the Gospels 🙂 Perhaps you were quoting one of the commentators.

        I don’t think we can read too much into the fact that Justin Martyr uses the OT prophets in that way. Should we expect this method of using the OT prophets to stop as soon as a couple of the Gospels are written?

  3. My line about not discounting that date is part of an attempt to see what we can ascertain as an earliest date range according to the evidence and reasons cited by Charles/Sharp and Knibb. I don’t mean that we can conclusively state that that was when the Ascension’s parts came together, only that it is a reasonable possibility. But there are clearly later additional elements in the document as well.

    As for my thoughts on Matthew, I think we have a possibility range for our canonical version between, say, late 70s and 150s. But if I’m asked for my best guess (based on my amateur knowledge of the evidence) I would suggest around about the same time as Justin Martyr.

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