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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Origin of the Martyrdom, Chapters 1-5

There are conflicting indicators in these chapters:

  1. evidence of a Jewish origin (e.g. the statement in 2.2 that Balchira was a Samaritan) sits beside other evidence of Christian origin (e.g. 1.7 and 3.13-20);
  2. there is confusion over whether the reason Hezekiah summoned his son Manasseh was to give him “command” (1.6; 2.1) or to deliver to him the written accounts of his own vision and of Isaiah’s subsequent vision (1.2-6);
  3. the narrative flow between 3.12 andn 5.1 is “very awkwardly interrupted by the details of another vision of Isaiah, in which are discussed the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the earthly history of the Church, the events leading up to the End, and the Last Judgement.” (p. 780)

The generally agreed solution to these difficulties is that the basis of i-v is a document recounting Isaiah’s martyrdom, probably Jewish in origin, into which a Christian editor has inserted a Christian apocalypse (iii.13–iv.22) and made also a number of other additions and adaptations. (p. 780)

Did the same Christian editor at the same time add the chapters v–xi to these first five chapters? No way of knowing. But i.5 does look forward to some of the details of the vision in chapters 5 to 11, so at least the verse i.5 can be said not to have been part of the original chapter 1.

Origin of the Vision/Ascension, Chapters 6 to 11

The Ethiopic version consists of all chapters 1 to 11, with a natural division at the beginning of the fifth chapter: this takes us back to the 20th year of Hezekiah’s reign and the titular-sounding: “The vision which Isaiah the Amoz saw”. A Latin and Slavonic manuscripts “are not fragments, but versions of the vision and no more (i.e. of vi–xi only); and they also have the title at the beginning . . . ” So we can accept that these chapters originally circulated independently of the first four chapters.

These last six chapters “show clear signs of Christian authorship”. A. K. Helmbold see reasons to think the Christians involved were from Gnostic circles. (‘Gnostic Elements in the “Ascension of Isaiah” ‘ in NTS xviii (Jan. 1972), pp. 222-227.

Finding a Date

Sahidic fragments dated around 350 to 375 preserve two leaves from opposite ends of a single codex, assuring us that the Ascension from chapters 1 to 11 was known at this time.

If we are prepared to allow a reasonable margin for the circulation of the work in Sahidic before our particular MS was copied, for its translation into Sahidic from Greek, and for its circulation in Greek after final editing, we are taken back to AD 350 as the latest possible date.

Sparks continues:

And the actual date is in all probability very much earlier. Indeed Charles committed himself to a date in ‘the latter half of the second century’ and went on to claim that the three ‘constituents . . . circulated independently as early as the first century’.

Charles may very well be right. (pp. 780-1)

Qualifications (see the previous post for the source citations of Origen etc’s references):

Origen refers to “Isaiah’s apocryphon” to the accusation against Isaiah found in the Ascension 3.6-10 (that Isaiah was blaspheming Moses and the Law), and Sparks cautions that this may only mean that Origen knew the first half (chapters 1 to 5). One thought I would throw in here at Spark’s comment, however, is that that same section seems to me to include a pointer to the vision chapters (6 to 11). Isaiah is condemned for claiming to have seen God while Moses said no man could see God and live.

Epiphanius and Jerome refer explicitly to “The Ascension of Isaiah” as the source of their quotations from chapters 9 and 11, “but this is no clear proof that they knew the book in its final form”. It is possible, says Sparks, that The Ascension of Isaiah was the name of chapters 6 to 11. But Sparks also adds:

This last possibility is, however, unlikely. Whatever Origen’s ‘apocryphon’ may have contained, the likelihood (especially in view of the evidence of the Sahidic fragments) is that ‘The Ascension’ known to Didymus, Epiphanius, and Jerome, was the Ascension as we know it to-day. (p. 781)

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Neil Godfrey

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