Ascension of Isaiah as a mystic-visionary salvation myth

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

How reliable is text?

In previous posts I have looked at what a number of scholars have written about the dates of some of the component parts of this text, and outlined in overview something of the different manuscript by which it has come to us.

The complete text of the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, chapters 1 to 11, with its obvious Christian sections, comes to us from an Ethiopic text. Certain peculiarities in the text have led some scholars to think the original was in Hebrew.

I give here another simplified overview of the Ethiopic, Latin and Slavonic manuscript lines available to us for comparison. There are also Latin and Slavonic texts set out beside this Ethiopic text in a work by R. H. Charles in 1900 and accessible online here.

The Ethiopic manuscripts are dated as early as the fifteenth century and as late as the eighteenth century. Since Christianity came to Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in the fourth century, so we can conclude the Ethiopic script as the medium for the “complete” Ascension of Isaiah postdates that time.

The Slavonic text has been translated into another Latin manuscript. This Latin translation of a Russian manuscript of the Slavonic text is now considered “insufficiently precise”. (p. 145 of Knibb’s own introduction and translation in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.) Knibb adds comments in his translation where this particular Latin translation fails to agree with its Slavonic source.

The Latin translation “was first published by A. de Fantis in 1522 from a manuscript whose whereabouts are now unknown.” (p. 145) It was once argued that even this Latin translation was based on another Slavonic source text, but it is more widely accepted today that both the Latin and Slavonic versions (also translated into Latin) are based on an earlier Greek text. The possibility of the influence of Cathari and Bogomil doctrines has also been raised, though no longer widerly accepted.

This is enough to give some idea of how removed our current text is from its original composition.

Knibb cites two scholars (F. C. Burkitt and V. Burch) who alone have held that the Ascension is a unified text. While rejecting their arguments, Knibb does make the following observation:

Burkitt’s discussion does, nonetheless, have some importance inasmuch as it serves as a warning of the difficulties of recovering the text of the original Martyrdom [chapters 1-5]. It cannot simply be assumed that what we are left with after the removal of the Christian elements in the Ascension and the obvious editorial additions is the Jewish Martyrdom of Isaiah; the possibility of Christian reworking of what appears to be Jewish material needs to be kept in mind. (p. 148)

We are clearly dealing with a text that does not come with a guarantee of being a completely faithful rendition of its original parts. We can see how one of our Latin translations fails to accurately transmit the meaning of the Slavonic text where this is available to us. We have no way of knowing how accurately that Slavonic text preserved the meaning of its (Greek?) source, of course, and we have lost the source of the other Latin translation altogether. These sorts of uncertainties bedevil probably most manuscript lines, but they do appear to be more acute in this case since we are dealing with a transmission through multiple languages via institutions that would not have been favourably disposed to the idea of a scrupulously faithful rendering, as we can see from the obvious (more orthodox) Christian insertions along the way.

Isaiah’s mystical vision compared

As in other vision texts recently addressed here (including, one might argue, the vision Paul relates to the Corinthians), Isaiah is also transformed by his vision. This transformation into one of the angels is represented by Isaiah being clothed with the special robes in the seventh heaven.

you will receive the robe which you will 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. (8:14-15)

As in the other visionary ascent texts Isaiah encounters one who opposes him. Isaiah thus faces the customary danger at the point of entering the highest heaven. A higher authority, however, speaks, and allows him to advance.

And he led me into the air of the seventh heaven, and moreover I heard a voice saying, “How far is he who dwells among aliens to go up?” And I was afraid and was trembling. And he said to me when I was trembling, “Behold! From there another voice which was sent out has come, and it says, ‘The holy Isaiah is permitted to come up here, for his robe is here.’ ” And I asked the angel who (was) with me and said, “Who is the one who prevented me, and who is this one (who turned to me that I might go up)?'” And he said to me, “The one who prevented you, this is the one [who (is) in charge of] the praise of the sixth heaven. And the one (who turned to you}, this is your Lord . . . (9:1-5)

And when Isaiah sees the “Great Glory” with the “eyes of his spirit” he is given power that even flows out to give power to his accompanying angel:

And I saw the Great Glory while the eyes of my spirit were open, but I could not thereafter see, nor the angel who (was) with me, nor any of the angels whom I had seen worship my Lord. But I saw the righteous as they beheld with great power the glory of that one. And my Lord approached me, and the angel of the Spirit, and said, “See how it has been given to you to see the Lord, and (how) because of you power has been given to the angel who (is) with you.” And I saw how my Lord and the angel of the Holy Spirit worshiped and both together praised the Lord. And then all the righteous approached and worshiped, and the angels approached and worshiped, and all the angels sang praises. (9:37-42)

Isaiah is in his heavenly robe now. At the end of the vision he is told to return to his own robe, being a symbol of his fleshly body. The words of the vision were, as with Paul’s and others’, unable or forbidden to be uttered to other humans.

This angel said to me, “Isaiah, son of Amoz, [it is enough for you], for these (are) great things, for you have observed what no one born of flesh has observed. And you shall return into your robe until your days are complete; then you shall come here.” These things I saw. And Isaiah told (them) to all those who were standing before him, and they sang praises. And he spoke to Hezekiah the king and said, “These things I have spoken. And the end of this world and all this vision will be brought about in the last generation.” And Isaiah made him swear that he would not tell this to the people of Israel, and that he would not allow any man to copy these words. (11:34-39)

Christian interpolations

While Knibb translates from the Ethiopic, Latin and Slavonic (via another Latin translation) texts, he footnotes where the “original” Slavonic phrases do not support its Latin translation. Such sections are generally considered to be interpolations into the text. I have highlighted and italicized one such interpolation here:

And the angel who led me knew what I thought and said to me, “If you rejoice over this light, how much more (will you rejoice) in the seventh heaven when you see the light where the Lord is and his Beloved—from where I was sent—who is to be called in the world the Son! He who is to be in the corruptible world has not (yet) been revealed, nor the robes, nor the thrones, nor the crowns which are placed (there) for the righteous for those who believe in that Low who will descend in your form. (8:25-26 — the last line “for those. . . your form” is in the Ethiopic text only, and in neither the Latin nor Slavonic manuscripts.)

The most notable interpolation of all, and again missing from the Slavonic version, is all of 11:2-22, which narrates the nativity of Jesus. This narrative does not seem to rely on either of Matthew or Luke, but does have overlaps with the second century Infancy Gospel of James.

  1. The virgin Mary was of the line of David,
  2. and an old Joseph, a carpenter, also of the line of David, and who already has children, was chosen by lot to marry her;
  3. Joseph learned she was pregnant but an angel of the Spirit prevented him from divorcing her;
  4. after two months the baby suddenly appeared in front of Mary and her belly was normal size again;
  5. rumours flew around Bethlehem, no one knowing where the child came from;
  6. Joseph and Mary took Jesus with them to live in Nazareth;
  7. when Jesus grew up he performed all sorts of miracles throughout Israel and Jerusalem;
  8. the adversary stirred up the children of Israel who handed him over to the king who crucified him.
    • he descended to the angel in Sheol
    • In Jerusalem Isaiah sees him crucified on a tree
    • and how he arose after three days and remained there many days
    • and he sent out twelve disciples and ascended.

As with the Gospel of Luke there is here an interest in venerating Mary and her virginity. Here the reason for the move to Nazareth from Bethlehem appears to be to escape the rumours circulating about Jesus’ premature birth. As we read in Justin Martyr’s writings Jesus is said to perform miracles throughout Israel, and here Jerusalem is singled out. This stands in contrast to the synoptic gospels, of course. As in Justin and the Gospel of Peter the one responsible for the crucifixion is apparently a “king” (Knibb says the word here is normally translated “king”), suggesting Herod the king of the Jews.

Note also the confusion of sequence of the last events. It appears that an interloper was having some difficulty working with what was already there in the text. What that might have been we now have no idea.

Another set of interpolations (black, bold and italicized) and manuscript conflicts (bold and italics) is found in the following section:

12And he said to me, “They do not receive the crowns and thrones of glory—nevertheless, they do see and know whose (will be) the thrones and whose the crowns—until the Beloved descends in the form in which you will see him descend.

13The Lord will indeed descend into the world in the last days, (he) who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form, and they will think that he is flesh and a man.

14And the god of that world will stretch out [his hand against the Son], and they will lay their hands upon him and hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is.

15And thus his descent, as you will see, will be concealed even from the heavens so that it will not be known who he is.

16And when he has plundered the angel of death, he will rise on the third day and will remain in that world for five hundred and forty-five days. (9:12-16)

Charles, Sparks and Knibb explain that verses 12 and 13 difficult. Passages in verses 12 and 13 are “corrupt” and “corrupt and defective” (Charles, p. 120, who reverses the order of the verses with Knibb following as here); the Ethiopic, Latin and Slavonic manuscripts all “differ widely” and all are “difficult” (Sparks, p. 779); and verses 12 and 13 are “corrupt” in Latin and Slavonic (Knibb, p. 170).

The phrase “become like you in form” is not found in one Ethiopic manuscript (B) where the phrase “as you will see” is used instead (Sparks, p. 779). This phrase is found again in verse 15, indicating that it is part of the special revelation being given to Isaiah so that Isaiah is being privileged to understand and “see” what even the angels of the different heavens fail to understand.

An earthly stopover?

In the above passage the “god of this world” leads others into hanging the Lord on a tree to kill him, not knowing who he is at all. (Contrast the canonical Gospel narrative where the demons and Satan know who Jesus is from the outset, and this is the reason they want him dead.)

The descent of the Lord is hidden from the angels of the heavens and of the firmament between the earth and the heavens. It is this firmament where we learn that the angels are busy fighting one another.

9And we went up into the firmament, I and he, and there I saw Sammael [=Satan] and his hosts; and there was a great struggle in it, {and the words of Satan, and they were envying one another} 10And as above, so also on earth, for the likeness of what (is) in the firmament is here on earth. 11And I said to the angel, “What is this envying?” 12And 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.” (7:9-12)

This Lord is sent down to destroy the evil powers below the seventh heaven, and to rescue the righteous dead such as Abel and Enoch by bringing them back with him to receive their thrones and crowns in the seventh heaven. (In the following passage the references to “Christ” and “Jesus” are interpolations, Knibb believes.)

7And I heard the voice of the Most High, the Father of my Lord, as he said to my Lord Christ, who will be called Jesus, 8″Go out and descend through all the heavens. You shall descend through the firmament and through that world as far as the angel who (is) in Sheol, but you shall not go as far as Perdition.

9And you shall make your likeness like that of all who (are) in the five heavens, 10and you shall take care to make your form like that of the angels of the firmament and also (like that) of the angels who (are) in Sheol. 11And none of the angels of that world shall know that you (are) Lord with me of the seven heavens and of their angels.

And they shall not know that you (are) with me 12when with the voice of the heavens I summon you, and their angels and their lights, and when I lift up (my voice) to the sixth heaven, that you may judge and destroy the princes and the angels and the gods of that world, and the world which is ruled by them,

13for they have denied me and said, ‘We alone are, and there is no one besides us.’ 14And afterwards you shall ascend from the gods of death to your place, and you shall not be transformed in each of the heavens, but in glory you shall ascend and sit at my right hand, 15and then the princes and the powers of that world will worship you.(10:7-15)

There is a “messianic secret” here but it is not the kind we read about in the Gospel of Mark. In the canonical gospels it was the humans who failed to recognize Christ. Here it is the spirits powers in the various heavens, in the firmament below the heavens, and in the place of the dead, or Sheol.

Is it possible to wonder if the canonical gospel narrative itself originally drew on a plot outline such as we find here, and transferred it to an earthly setting? (I am aware of all the cards that must fall for that to be seriously pondered.)

As far as I can see in this text, the entire scope of activity of the Lord’s descent is within the spiritual sphere. The vision of Isaiah is into the world of heavenly powers and the conquest of those that lead humanity into strife and death. While I have disagreed with some of Earl Doherty’s specific arguments, I think he is right when he appeals to the Ascension of Isaiah as extra-canonical evidence of an early Christian belief in a saving act of the Lord (descent, death, conquest, re-ascent) occurred in a nonearthly setting.

The final victory verses are not dissimilar to certain New Testament ideas. The New Testament epistles depict this same scenario as applied to saving Christians rather than the likes of Abel and Enoch.

Colossians 2:15

Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.

Ephesians 1:18-21

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

In Philippians 2:6-11 we have the added theme of the name of Jesus itself being unknown as the name of the Saviour until bestowed and revealed at the moment of spiritual victory and crowning. (There are, likewise, suggestions throughout the Ascension of Isaiah that the name of the Lord is not to be known until the right time, but I am unclear how many of these are considered interpolations.)

Philippians passage is not the same as we read in the Ascension. Here Jesus takes on the appearance not of angels in the different layers of heavens but of a man. But it is the same motif. Jesus is only appearing to be like a man as he appeared to be like angels of lesser glory in the Ascension.

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even the death of the cross
(a line that breaks the poetic structure, so may be a Pauline addition?)

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • Evan
    2011-03-13 01:21:43 UTC - 01:21 | Permalink

    Neil, I had always thought that the Cathar and Bogomil heresies were synonymous. Are there differences?

    • 2011-03-13 07:27:24 UTC - 07:27 | Permalink

      Oh gosh, it’s years since I did medieval European history. But a quick consultation of Google seems to restore memories of Bogomils, tenth century Bulgaria, preceding the Cathari, twelfth century, southern France. According to the accounts of their enemies they were very similar, as you would of course know. I think it wss Knibb who used both terms in his discussion of the manuscripts and I followed that.

      • 2011-03-13 15:38:07 UTC - 15:38 | Permalink

        In the ninth century, the Greek church sent two missionaries, Cyril and Methodius, to teach Christianity to the Slavic nations. Cyril and Methodius developed a writing system (Old Church Slavonic) for the Slavic languages, and then the Greek church sponsored the translation of many Christian writings.

        Bright young people in the Slavic nations were selected to receive religious education in Greek religious institutions. There they learned to read Greek and to translate Greek writings into their own languages, using their new Slavonic writing system.

        Lots of various Greek writings — not only the Christian canon — were translated into Slavonic. Apparently, the Ascension of Isaiah existed as a Greek translation, and one of the Slavonic translators decided to translate or paraphrase all or some of it into Slavonic. The translator was not necessarily associated with any heretical movement.

  • Roger Parvus
    2011-03-13 02:21:06 UTC - 02:21 | Permalink

    Hi Neil,

    You wrote: “As far as I can see in this text, the entire scope of activity of the Lord’s descent is within the spiritual sphere. The vision of Isaiah is into the world of heavenly powers and the conquest of those that lead humanity into strife and death. While I have disagreed with some of Earl Doherty’s specific arguments, I think he is right when he appeals to the Ascension of Isaiah as extra-canonical evidence of an early Christian belief in a saving act of the Lord (descent, death, conquest, re-ascent) occurred in a nonearthly setting.”

    But to arrive at that conclusion requires more than viewing “and he will be in your likeness” (9:13) and “one like a son of man” (11:1) as textual corruptions. One must also ignore the fact that nowhere does the text say that the Son will “skip over” the earth on his way from the firmament to Sheol. It seems a fair assumption that the author would have situated earth somewhere between the firmament and Sheol. To me it seems unlikely that, if earth was skipped over, there would be no express mention of it or reason given for the skip. Notice how the author takes care to point out that the Son will not visit “Perdition” (10:8). But, if your theory is correct, he skipped over the very world that Isaiah was from without a single word of explanation. Do you think the original text did contain an explanation? And do you know of any similar early texts where a heavenly traveler’s route goes through all the heavens and down to Sheol but deliberately omits a stop in this world?

    And, if I understand correctly, you don’t have any textual objection to verse 10:12 that says the Son will “judge and destroy the princes and the angels and the gods of that world, AND THE WORLD WHICH IS RULED BY THEM” (my emphasis). But, according to your theory, the Son never set foot down on earth. So it would seem to follow that it was in absentia that Son judged “the world which is ruled by them.” Do you now of any other early texts where the Son judges the world without actually visiting it?

  • 2011-03-13 02:25:39 UTC - 02:25 | Permalink

    The Ascension of Isaiah specifies that Isaiah descended down from seventh to sixth to fifth to fourth to third to second to first level of Heaven and then to the Firmament. Then immediately is told the story of Joseph and Mary and the story of the birth and life of Jesus.

    There is no passage indicating a descent from the Firmament to the Earth. It seems that the Firmament contained places that were named Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, etc. and that were abstract counterparts to the places with the same names on Earth. Thus, the birth and life of Jesus took place on the Firmament, not on Earth.

    After Jesus rose from the dead, there was an ascension back up through the levels of Heaven, and this ascension took place not on Earth, but on the Firmament.


    After the third day I saw him rise again and remain for days. I saw when He sent out the Twelve Apostles and ascended. I saw Him, and He was in the Firmament, but He had not changed Himself into their form, and all the angels of the Firmament and the Satans saw Him and they worshipped. And there was much sorrow there [in the Firmament], while they said: “How did our Lord descend in our midst, and we perceived not the glory [which has been upon Him], which we see has been upon Him from the sixth heaven?”

    And He ascended into the second heaven , and He did not transform Himself, but all the angels … worshipped Him and praised Him and said: “How did our Lord escape us whilst descending, and we perceived not?”


    In other words, Isaiah saw Jesus send out the twelve apostles and then saw Jesus ascend into the first level of Heaven (not ascend up to the Firmament, because the ascension began from the Firmament — the ascension did not begin from the Earth). Then, after Jesus had ascended from the Firmament to the first level, then next Jesus ascended to the second level.

    Isaiah himself, watching from the Firmament, was able to perceive the ascension to the first level and then also the next ascension to the second level.

    Isaiah noticed that Jesus did not transform himself when he reached the first level. Isaiah was puzzled by Jesus’ failure to transform when Jesus reached the first level, so Isaiah watched further as Jesus ascended to the second level. At this point again, Isaiah perceived that Jesus did not transform.

    From this second observation, Isaiah deduced that Jesus would not transform before he reached the seventh level.

    • Roger Parvus
      2011-03-13 04:00:44 UTC - 04:00 | Permalink

      Hi Mike,

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Are you cutting out the descent to Sheol too? Or claiming that there was a Sheol counterpart in the firmament? Likewise, for the Son’ ascent with the righteous in Sheol (Enoch etc): Are you saying the righteous in Sheol had firmament counterparts? If so, why would the Son ascend with the firmament Enoch but leave the “real” Enoch in Sheol?

      I notice too that you prefer the “twelve apostles” of the Ethiopic version to the “He will send out preachers” of the Slavonic and Latin versions. Why do you consider “twelve apostles” to be more primitive than “preachers”?

      • 2011-03-13 15:14:04 UTC - 15:14 | Permalink

        The story says that Jesus descended to Sheol. Apparently, he could descend to Sheol without stopping on Earth.

        Paul wrote that there was a Jerusalem counter-part above Earth’s Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26). So, it is reasonable to deduce that there were similar counter-parts for Nazareth, Bethlehem, etc.

        I suppose that some people who experienced ascensions while they were alive eventually ended up in Sheol after they died, like most other people.

        With regard to your questions about “apostles”, I think that the inclusion of James into the religion’s leadership was followed by several important organizational changes: 1) new converts were no longer considered to experience valid mystical visions of Jesus Christ, 2) previous converts who were considered to be troublesome were downgraded or purged, 3) previous converts who were considered to be reliable and capable teachers were awarded the rank of “apostle” and thus authorized to travel and teach in places far beyond the leadership’s direct supervision.

        Thus the title “apostle” had nothing to do with any special relationship to Jesus Christ. None of the first Christians had any special relationship to Jesus Christ. For all of the first Christians, Jesus Christ was the main actor in a crucifixion-burial-resurrection drama that they perceived in a mystical experience.

        Rather, the title “apostle” indicated an organizational rank within the religion. A member who was an apostle was a member who was trusted and delegated by the religion’s leadership to teach in distant missions.

        There was a particular group called the “twelve apostles”. They were the religion’s first twelve converts. They were converted by Simon Peter. Jesus Christ appeared first to Simon Peter and then to another twelve. I speculate that these first 13 members climbed to the top of Mount Hermon and then experienced a mystical vision in which they visited the Firmament and saw the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These first members’ vision included an epilogue where Jesus Christ ascended from the Firmament.

        Since Simon Peter’s original recruitment of members was so slow (his first 12 recruitments might have happened over the course of many years), some improved method was approved, and so more than 500 new members were recruited more quickly during the subsequent period (perhaps also many years).

        After James was accepted into the leadership, validations of new mystical ended, and there was a purge of the membership, and the title “apostle” was awarded to some members. All the first 12 received the title of apostle and many of the subsequent 500 members also received that title.

        The Ascension of Isaiah seems to indicate that only the first 13 members (Simon Peter plus the 12) who actually climbed to the top of Mount Hermon and then mystically rose into the Firmament, perceived the ascension of Jesus Christ from the Firmament into the Heavens. (Apparently one of the first 13 did not eventually become an apostle.)

        The part of the mystical drama where Jesus Christ ascended from the Firmament into the Heavens was not part of the mystical experience of the next 500 members.

        The thirteen who did perceive the ascension were not “apostles” at the time of that mystical experience. They became “apostles” many years later, during the organizational reforms associated with James. One of those thirteen was not around any more when the “apostle” titles were awarded. Subtracting that one, there were twelve members who had 1) seen Jesus Christ ascend from the Firmament into the Heavens and 2) eventually received the title of apostle.

  • 2011-03-13 07:01:03 UTC - 07:01 | Permalink

    If we uncover evidence of a reference to a visit to Isaiah’s world then we would have grounds for accepting such a visit. But the text is specific about each place along the itinerary. I find it inconceivable that the place where the most dramatic act occurred would be not mentioned. The god of this world (Satan) lives in the firmament. From there Jesus goes to Sheol. Everything is in the spirit dimension.

    The narrative does not seem to have any relevance for earthly living people. Those saved are all in the spirit realm — the souls of those in Sheol. There is no salvation for anyone “on earth”, apart from an assurance given to Isaiah himself.

    If there is a “gospel” here it is for the salvation of the dead through the defeat of the powers that put them there.

    • Roger Parvus
      2011-03-13 08:14:35 UTC - 08:14 | Permalink

      Yes, all the extant texts are “specific about each place along the itinerary.” But you dismiss all the ones that refer to this world as textual corruptions, whether they occur in the Ethiopic, Latin or Slavonic versions. Of course, I can’t prove that they’re not. So we’re at an impasse.

      • 2011-03-13 09:09:51 UTC - 09:09 | Permalink

        No, it is not me who is dismissing them. It is mainstream scholarship that does so. I did not repeat here all the critical apparatus in the translations of Charles, Sparks and Knibb, since to do so would be too painstaking a task for very little benefit. I tried to hit what for me are some salient points for a blog post. I recommend a study of the scholarly reference works such as those of Charles, Sparks and Knibb to see the detailed arguments for textual corruptions and interpolations.

        I suggest there is significance in the fact that the manuscript and textual evidence indicates (according to mainstream scholarly studies of the Ascension, not me) that all the references to the earthly sojourn or stopover are from later insertions. By scribes working on accommodating the narrative to what turned out to be an emerging orthodoxy?

    • 2011-03-13 16:01:31 UTC - 16:01 | Permalink

      The narrative does not seem to have any relevance for earthly living people. Those saved are all in the spirit realm — the souls of those in Sheol. There is no salvation for anyone “on earth”, apart from an assurance given to Isaiah himself.

      Simon Peter compared the salvation of human beings from the imminent burning of the Universe to the salvation of human beings from the Flood. In the case of the Flood, the number of saved human beings totaled eight.

      Another comparison was the saving of Lot’s family from the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah. In that case too, the number of survivors was perhaps around eight.

      Simon Peter recruited twelve people into his religion, and perhaps he thought that number was more than sufficient. After all, God the Father would need, after the destruction of the Earth, only a few human beings to serve as priests in the one Temple on Heaven’s seventh level.

      There also was an idea that Jesus Christ would descend again to the Firmament in order to conduct a war, right before the destruction of the Universe. This war would include a surprise attack by a selected group of Christians, who would rise from the Earth into the Firmament, where they would fight on Jesus’ side against the evil beings on the Firmament. The Earth Christians who survived that war on the Firmament would ascend up to Heaven’s seventh level, and then the Universe (everything below the seventh level) would be burned up. In this scenario too, the number of survivors might be quite small.

      The original ideas were that the number of saved human beings would be tiny — on the order of eight to twelve. Gradually, the ideas evolved so that the number of saved human beings grew to a much larger number — but still only a tiny portion of Earth’s human beings.

      The idea that Jesus Christ would save a large portion of Earth’s human beings — would save every human being who satisfied some moral criteria — was a very late idea.

    • Roger Parvus
      2011-03-14 22:06:52 UTC - 22:06 | Permalink

      I would argue that the narrative was also intended to have relevance for earthly living people. Else why would its author say that the Son, after rising on the third day, “will send out preachers?” One doesn’t send out preachers to preach things that are irrelevant to one’s audience. (Or is it your position that the preachers were to be sent out in the firmament?) And how could the Son’s conquest of the prince of this world not be relevant to those who actually live in this world? And especially since the fulfillment of the prophecy signaled that the last generation had arrived (Isaiah says the whole of the vision will be accomplished in the last generation).

      So I have no problem seeing the Ascension of Isaiah as the gospel that Paul preached. I think that Paul, believing he had received a personal revelation of the risen Son commissioning him to preach that gospel, would have had no problem developing it further in the way we see in the Pauline letters. The telltale indicator of his source is 1 Cor. 2:7-9 (“But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden, which God ordained before the world unto our glory, which none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”) where, in support, the passage brings forward a quote that is word for word what we find in 11:34 of the Latin/Slavonic version of the Ascension of Isaiah: “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.”

      • 2011-03-14 23:05:00 UTC - 23:05 | Permalink

        I would argue that the narrative was also intended to have relevance for earthly living people. Else why would its author say that the Son, after rising on the third day, “will send out preachers?” One doesn’t send out preachers to preach things that are irrelevant to one’s audience. (Or is it your position that the preachers were to be sent out in the firmament?)

        I do not see that The Ascension of Isaiah story (or the Gospel story) explains clearly why God the Father sent his Son, Jesus Christ, down to the Firmament (or to Earth) in order to experience a crucifixion, burial and resurrection. The only reason that I see for such a wierd divine mission is that it reflects ancient Jewish practices of scapegoating, blood redemptions and animal sacrifices. Without some understanding of those ancient Jewish practices, the story wold not make any sense at all to modern people.

        So, the story in both versions (A of I and Gospel) includes an epilogue in which 12 disciples gather to see the resurrected Jesus Christ, who communicates a commissioning message to them, and then he ascends into the Heavens.

        If you read the commissioning statements in Matthew 28:18-20 and Luke 24:46-49, neither of them make much sense, in my opinion. They make sense only because elaborate doctrines have been concocted to try to make sense of them. The essence of the doctrines is that Jesus Christ was sent down to experience crucifixion, burial and resurrection because of beliefs that involved ancient Jewish practices of scapegoating, blood redemptions and animal sacrifices.

        If the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension originated as a mystical vision experienced similarily (but not identically) by a small number of people, then we should expect the reasoning in the story to be fuzzy. After all, it was a mystical vision. Of course, all the reasoning is fuzzy!

        And it was indeed because the story originated as a mystical vision with fuzzy reasoning that the story had to be retold as happening in reality on Earth and had to be explained with elaborate doctrines.

  • Roger Parvus
    2011-03-13 07:55:35 UTC - 07:55 | Permalink


    Another observation. You wrote: “The phrase ‘become like you in form’ is not found in one Ethiopic manuscript (B) where the phrase “as you will see” is used instead (Sparks, p. 779). This phrase is found again in verse 15, indicating that it is part of the special revelation being given to Isaiah so that Isaiah is being privileged to understand and ‘see’ what even the angels of the different heavens fail to understand.”

    The presence of the phrase “as you will see” in verse 15 would provide a plausible explanation of how it happened to get lodged in verse 13. It’s akin to the common scribal error called homoioteleuton, caused by the scribe’s eyes skipping from one word to the same word on a later line. Charles points out, in fact, that in manuscript B “there are frequent omissions through homoioteleuton” (p. xv). But even allowing, for the sake of argument, the substitute phrase, I still don’t see how it would support Earl’s theory. Manuscript B reads:

    “He will indeed descend into the world in the last days — the Lord who will be called Christ after he has descended AS YOU WILL SEE, and they will think he is flesh and a man.” How can this verse in any way be used to support your contention that the Ascension of Isaiah provides “extra-canonical evidence of an early Christian belief in a saving act of the Lord (descent, death, conquest, re-ascent) that occurred in a nonearthly setting.”

    So we are left with the fact that, with the exception of the “B” reading above, all the Ethiopic versions, the Latin version, and the Slavonic version clearly say that the Son will be “in your form.”

    • 2011-03-13 09:05:00 UTC - 09:05 | Permalink

      “Into the world” is not in the Latin or Slavonic manuscripts, as I indicated in the post. The notion that the Lord would appear in the form of Isaiah’s flesh (if that is what it refers to, though by this time he is robed and like the angels), is anomalous given the rest of the narrative, and is part of a couple of verses that are corrupted in all manuscripts. We have no clarity at all about how the phrase emerged here from an original Greek manuscript, or how it might have fitted in with an original sentence.

      To make a case on this phrase, especially one that does not sit with the general drift of the narrative, is precarious, even courageous, I would think.

      This is not in the same ball park as comparing Greek manuscripts of a scrap of New Testament for which we have a host of manuscripts. The uncertainties here are so much the greater for reasons I mentioned.

  • 2011-03-13 09:32:52 UTC - 09:32 | Permalink

    With respect to the textual corruptions, interpolations etc I can add that my personal bias is to find a way to justify the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah originally being a literary whole. all chapters 1 to 11, with but a few exceptions here and there. So I attempted to investigate one detailed discussion arguing for this, but found I could not accept its arguments. (One example to point to where I was coming from: T. L. Thompson, I think, suggests that our canonical Isaiah should be seen as a literary whole, and that the two halves normally assigned to different authors should be seen as the two sides of the same theological coin. But in the end I was forced to conclude that the evidence for major Christian interpolations were even stronger than for the longer ending of Mark being a late construct. Obviously I could be wrong, but I will need more than interpretations of a few words from what all scholars regard as corrupt texts before I am convinced.

    What adds to my doubts is that the words used to argue for an earthly stopover are righth where such a description, if it exists, would be of most interest to Christian trans-scribers. Why have they messed with it and given rise to incomprehensible passages for later copyists?

    • Roger Parvus
      2011-03-14 21:59:39 UTC - 21:59 | Permalink

      Neill, don’t get me wrong. I don’t deny that the text was messed with and that the messing around was done to accommodate the narrative to emerging orthodoxy. But that doesn’t mean that the original text had to have contained a crucifixion in the firmament. It could have contained a crucifixion in this world and yet still have been unacceptable to emerging orthodoxy.

      In the Ascension of Isaiah the descending Son’s main mission is to get himself mistakenly crucified by the prince of this world. How long of a stop on earth would be required for such a mission? No more than a few hours if, when he entered the world, the Romans were in the process of crucifying someone. He just had to transform himself to look like the guy getting crucified, switch places with him, and the mistaken crucifixion would soon be a done deal. Such a transfiguration deception would be completely in character for the Son who instantly transfigures himself when he enters each of the heavens in order to quickly pass unrecognized. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, the teaching of Basilides provides us with a very early claim regarding a similar transfiguration switcheroo: Jesus transforms himself and swaps places with Simon the Cyrenian.

      When evaluating the Ascension of Isaiah we have to avoid the temptation to think that any appearance of the Son on earth must have been of substantial duration; that it must have been at least close to what we see in the later gospels. It didn’t. He was basically sent to play a trick on the prince of this world. No need for the trick to take 33 years. When the Father sends the Son he gives no indication that the trick is going to take a lot of time. He doesn’t tell him to pack his bags, settle down in the world, get a job, preach to the people there, heal them, drive out the demons possessing them, work miracles, gather disciples etc, There’s none of that. His mission is to go and trick the prince of this world into crucifying him “not knowing who he is.”

      Obviously, a short appearance on earth for the Son would not have been acceptable later on when creative individuals starting writing the gospels that gave the Son a more substantial earthly existence. One way to fix the Ascension of Isaiah would have been to add a section like 11:2-22 (the solution in the Ethiopic versions). Another solution was to basically remove the offending material but not replace it with anything (the solution in the Latin/Slavonic versions). This latter solution kept the crucifixion on earth but definitely has a truncated look to it. And this is one reason scholars like RH Charles reject it: “We have already dealt above on the thorough inadequacy with which the earthly life and destinies of the Messiah are treated in S L2.” (p. xxiv of Charles book on the AoI). Yes, the human existence of the Son is thoroughly inadequate when you’re expecting something more along the lines of the later gospels. But is it thoroughly inadequate when you compare it to the meager information that the Paulines provide regarding the Son’s time on earth?

      The textual corruptions present in the Ascension of Isaiah prevent a clear case being made one way or the other regarding where the Son’s crucifixion supposedly took place. But I would caution against automatically interpreting them to mean that the crucifixion must have occurred in the firmament.

      • 2011-03-14 23:12:15 UTC - 23:12 | Permalink

        After Jesus Christ experienced his crucifixion, burial and resurrection on the Firmament, there was no reason why he had to descend to Earth in order that the necessary information be communicated to human beings. The whole point of the Ascension of Isaiah story is that there was a satisfactory method for the information to be communicated to human beings. The method was that a prophet could climb an Earth mountain underneath a gateway to the Firmament and then rise up through the gateway into the Firmament (or further into the Heavens) and experience a mystical vision that would give him all the information that God thought the prophet needed. Then the human prophet would return to Earth and communicate the information to his fellow human beings.

        There was no similar method for human beings in Sheol to receive the information. Human beings in Sheol were imprisoned forever, and none of them were able to climb an Earth mountain and then pass through the gateway into the Firmament and Heavens. Therefore, Jesus Christ had to descend into Sheol (he did not need to stop on Earth) in order to communicate the necessary information to human beings in Sheol.

      • 2011-03-15 09:30:01 UTC - 09:30 | Permalink

        As in my earlier post at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/jesus-crucified-by-demons-not-on-earth-the-ascension-of-isaiah-in-brief/ my reference is to lines such as 7:12 where it is stated that Satan, who lives and fights in the firmament, will be destroyed by the Beloved when he descends. That’s it. Everything else is reading something more into it, is it not?

        • Roger Parvus
          2011-03-15 10:12:28 UTC - 10:12 | Permalink

          Yes, if the references to “this world” and a Son “in your form” and “like a son of man” are in fact interpolations, as you claim. But not if those passages are the remnants of a crucifixion scene that was messed with because it was judged insufficiently orthodox on other grounds, correct?

          • 2011-03-15 11:09:57 UTC - 11:09 | Permalink

            The manuscript evidence leaves no doubt about “this world” not being original, being found only in the Ethiopic along with other obvious later Christian insertions. See http://www.tau.ac.il/~hacohen/AscJes/AscJesp%2038.html — This is also noted by Sparks and Knibb (whose translation is online, though without his footnotes).

            • Roger Parvus
              2011-03-15 12:38:16 UTC - 12:38 | Permalink

              We appear to be talking past each other. In the following passages from the Latin/Slavonic versions, how should “in mundo” be translated and understood:

              “Et vidi similem filii hominis, et cum hominibus habitare et IN MUNDO, et non cognoverunt eum” (11:2, 22 in the Latin/Slavonic).

              “Exi et descende de omnibus coelis et sis IN MUNDO et vade usque ad angelum qui est in infernum.” (10:8 in the Latin/Slavonic).

              • 2011-03-15 19:15:18 UTC - 19:15 | Permalink

                The passage I thought you were addressing, and that I have been addressing, is 9:13. That is where Knibb notes that “in the world” is missing from three major manuscripts and the texts I linked to show it is omitted from the Latin and Slavonic manuscripts used by Charles.

                11:2-22 is of course not part of the original, yet Knibb and Sparks explain the passage you refer to (11:2, 22) as part of a summary of that longer passage. If so, this only testifies to the complex history behind the various manuscripts we are trying to work with.

                Knibb on 10:8: “You shall descend through the firmament and through that world as far as the angel who is in Sheol.”

                Charles (rev. by Barton) on 10:8: The two British Library Ethiopic manuscripts, B and C, read “descend to the vault of the heaven of the world”; the Latin and Slavonic, “and you will be in the world”.

                The context suggests nothing happens in the world. The Beloved goes through the layers and is in each case transformed to be like an angel. So note 10:10

                “You shall take care to make your form like that of the angels of the firmament and also like that of the angels of the angels who are in Sheol.”

                No instruction to change into the form of flesh. It’s all acted out in the spirit world. Through the heavens, the firmament (of the world or through the world) and down into Sheol.

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