|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.
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)
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!
As a proper understanding of the goal and narrative structure of the Vision tie the work together, so do a number of stylistic and rhetorical devices. The author uses repetition to unify the work, yet introduces variations in patterns to reduce the monotony. The effect is analogous to that in the musical form known as “variations on a theme.” The variations often foreshadow later discussions. This anticipation, together with the events anticipated, contributes in turn to the author’s scheme of repetition, with the result that hardly anything of importance in the vision is not mentioned at least twice… [I]n every case what the angel announces Isaiah will see, Isaiah sees. The pattern of repetition is so complete that I think it is safe to say that there is nothing in the Vision that is not mentioned at least twice. (“Isaiah’s Ascent to See the Beloved: An Ancient Jewish Source for the Ascension of Isaiah?,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 113/3, 1994, pp. 480 and 481, my bolding)
Except, that is, the miraculous birth story:
Although I see no major aberrations in this carefully structured work, one minor interruption in the pattern does occur. Although the angel foreshadows that the Beloved transforms “until he resembles your appearance and your likeness” (8:10; cf. 9:13), nothing prepares for the virgin birth story in 11:1-16. Given the pattern of repetition in the work, some explanation of the transformation of the Beloved into human form is necessary, but I find it surprising that virgin birth should be elaborated at such length without anticipation. (pp. 482-3, my bolding)
Hall guesses that perhaps the author wanted to emphasize the transformation “by introducing his first and only surprise” (p. 483). But that guess does not really solve the problem. For it is not just the nativity’s presence in the Vision that stands out as an anomaly; its absence from the rest of the Ascension as a whole is hard to explain. The chronologically later parts of the Ascension that allude to the Vision make no mention of it. Thus the summary of the Vision situated at the beginning of the 3:13 – 4: 22 interpolation says nothing about a miraculous birth or the Lord’s transformation into a baby:
For Beliar was very angry with Isaiah because of the vision, and because of the exposure with which he had exposed Sammael, and that through him there had been revealed the coming of the Beloved from the seventh heaven and his transformation, and his descent, and the form into which he must be transformed, (namely) the form of a man, and the persecution with which he would be persecuted, and the torments with which the children of Israel must torment him… (Asc. Is. 3: 3a, my bolding)
Nor does the birth show up in the redactional summary of the Vision at the beginning of the Ascension:
And he (Hezekiah) handed to him (Manasseh) the written words which Samnas the secretary had written out, and also those which Isaiah the son of Amoz had given to him and to the prophets also, that they might write out and store up with him what he (Isaiah) had seen in the house of the king concerning the judgment of the angels, and concerning the destruction of this world, and concerning the robes of the saints and their going out, and concerning their transformation and the persecution and ascension of the Beloved. (Asc. Is. 1:5b).
Hall puts it this way:
In composing the Ascension of Isaiah, the author alludes to doctrines behind most of the Vision of Isaiah… Lists of appropriate revelations allude to most of the elements in the vision. (“Isaiah’s Ascent to See the Beloved: An Ancient Jewish Source for the Ascension of Isaiah?,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 113/3, 1994, p. 474).
But, notes Hall:
I can think of only two major exceptions: nowhere does the author mention the proof that what is done on earth is known in heaven (7:25-27; 9:19-23) and nowhere does the author allude to the virgin birth story (11:1-16)[n. 46, p. 474, my bolding].
The total omission of any reference to the Lord’s miraculous birth is puzzling for, as Hall points out, the birth is “elaborated at such length” (16 verses) in the Vision. How did it apparently escape the radar of the author of the Ascension when he alludes to so many other elements of the Vision? The answer, I suspect, is that the nativity wasn’t in the Vision when the Ascension incorporated it. Something else was.
A Speculative Proposal
Since a birth account is totally missing from the L2 and S branch of the textual tradition, and since the birth account that is in the Ethiopic branch constitutes both an interruption to the pattern of the Vision and an exception to the lists of revelations that appear elsewhere in the Ascension, I think it is justifiable to speculate that originally there was a different passage present at 11:2-22.
I would like to propose one whose contents
- take into account the foreshadowing and transformations in the Vision, and
- combine this with an early Basilidean teaching about a double transformation that occurred on the road to Golgotha.
I suspect that the Vision had the Lord enter the world not as a baby at Bethlehem, but as an adult just outside the city of Jerusalem. And that via another transformation he proceeded without delay to his goal: crucifixion by the rulers of the world. The passage I envision for the 11:2-22 slot went something like this:
I saw the Lord descend into the world, transforming himself and becoming like a son of man. And the rulers of this world did not know who he was. And as he was coming into Jerusalem from the country, soldiers were leading a rebel out to crucify him. The children of Israel had risen up against the man and handed him over to the ruler. The soldiers compelled the Lord to carry the man’s cross and brought him to the place of crucifixion. And transforming himself the Lord took on the appearance of the other and, in turn, made the man look like himself. And the transformations were hidden from the rulers of this world.
Then I saw that they crucified the Lord. It was the third hour on the day before the Sabbath when they crucified him. They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it. They crucified him and divided his garments, casting lots on them, what each should take. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” With him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads and saying, “Save yourself, if you are the son of God, and come down from the cross.” Likewise the chief priests, with the scribes, mocked him among themselves and said, “He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” And those too who were crucified with him insulted him.
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour he cried out with a loud voice and breathed his last. When the centurion who stood facing him saw how he breathed his last he said, “Truly this man was a son of God!” When it was evening he was taken down from the cross and buried. And I saw him transform himself and descend to Sheol and plunder there the angel of death. On the third day he rose bringing many of the righteous with him.
The proposed passage takes into account
- that, as noted by Hall, “The foreshadowing expects some emphasis on the Beloved assuming human form as well as some story of crucifixion” (“Isaiah’s Ascent to See the Beloved: An Ancient Jewish Source for the Ascension of Isaiah?,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 113/3, 1994, p. 483, n. 56).
The foreshadowing in the Vision also anticipates
- that the ruler of this world will fail to recognize the Lord he crucifies (9:14).
My proposal duly emphasizes these items.
It also can account for
- how the Lord came to be called “Jesus” and “Christ” in the world. The emergence of those names for him is apparently foreshadowed too in the Vision, for he is the one “who is to be called in the world Jesus” (9:5); “who is to be called Christ after he has descended” (9:13).
Although those are sometimes viewed as secondary insertions, it may be that they were part of the original Vision. The idea would be that the heavenly Lord—the true Savior and King—acquired those appellatives as the ironic result of his surreptitious switch of places with a would-be earthly savior (“Jesus”) and anointed one (“Christ”).
Irenaeus describes the double transformation thus:
Wherefore also he did not suffer, but a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, was compelled to carry his cross for him; and this one was crucified through ignorance and error, having been transformed by him, so that he was thought to be Jesus himself. Jesus, however, took on the form of Simon, and stood by laughing at them… Therefore those who know these things have been set free from the rulers who made the world. (Against Heresies 1, 23, 4)
Now it is true that, as Irenaeus describes it, the transformations in question resulted in the Lord’s escape from crucifixion. But Irenaeus has almost certainly mixed up the parties involved. Why would anyone think the crucifixion of a merely human passer-by would be salvific? Surely Basilides was aware that wrongful executions had happened before and will happen again. And what kind of monster would his Lord be if he was laughing while an innocent was getting crucified in his place?
No, it is much more likely that the two transformations were viewed as the means whereby the rulers of this world were tricked into crucifying the Lord. The one who “was crucified through ignorance and error” was the Lord of glory, as in 1 Corinthians 2:8. The one who escaped crucifixion was the insurgent. And if we put ourselves in Irenaeus’ shoes, we can see how it was almost inevitable that he would misunderstand the double transformation. For he was writing towards the end of the second century when all the gospels—gnostic and orthodox alike—possessed a Jesus who had engaged in a public ministry on earth. And in them the Lord, having completed his public ministry, was arrested and led out for crucifixion. So from the perspective of Irenaeus, if Basilides taught that some kind of double transformation occurred on the road to Golgotha, the Lord had to have been the escapee. I think Irenaeus was mistaken and that his mistake was induced by the development (i.e., a public ministry for the Lord) that the initial gospel had undergone about fifty years before his time.
The Markan Connection
Now scholars have noticed that there is a careless use of pronouns at the point in the Markan passion account that deals with the passer-by. As a result of the negligence, the Markan account “could be read in a way that appears to give some support for Basilides’ assertion that not Jesus but Simon of Cyrene was crucified” (Jesus, Gnosis and Dogma, Riemer Roukema, p. 109).
After Simon of Cyrene was introduced there, it is written that they brought ‘him’ to Golgotha and crucified ‘him’ there (Mark 15:21-24). Read in context, it becomes clear that ‘him’ refers to Jesus, because previously it is written, ‘Then they led him out to crucify him’ (Mark 15:20), and this is unmistakably about Jesus. In the transition from Mark 15:21 to Mark 15:22, the evangelist has neglected to indicate, however, that he did not mean Simon, but Jesus who was brought to Golgotha. In this way, this gnostic exegesis could be invented. (Jesus, Gnosis and Dogma, Riemer Roukema, pp. 109-10, my bolding).
Thus, it is argued, the context of the pronoun ‘him’ in Mk. 15:21 makes it clear that the one who was crucified was the one who is the subject of Mark’s Gospel, for “the story is mainly about Jesus, and it is clear that Jesus is the one being taken to Golgotha to be crucified” (Mark—A Commentary, Adela Yarbro Collins, p. 734). But many scholars also acknowledge that the author of GMark adapted a pre-Markan passion narrative. So the question becomes: What was the original context of that narrative? Was it the Vision of Isaiah? It may be that, as the Pauline letters seem to indicate, its crucified Lord did not spend a lifetime on earth and did not have a public ministry. If the earthly phase of the Lord’s mission in the original gospel consisted only of his incognito entry into the world for crucifixion, the double transformation on the way to Golgotha would make sense as his entry point to that goal. The loose Markan pronouns and the teaching attributed to Basilides may be surviving traces of that original entry point.
Assuming that the original Vision had the Lord enter the world in the way I have proposed, a natural question is: Why did someone later substitute an entry via miraculous birth?
My tentative thought is that in time the original passage may have come to be viewed as too sympathetic to the Jewish zealot cause. After all, in it the Lord does swap places with someone who tried, presumably by violent means, to set himself up as king of the Jews. I very much doubt that the author of the Vision condoned violent measures. If that was one of his purposes, I think it would have been reflected in the later parts of the Ascension of Isaiah, especially in the interpolation where Nero’s rule over the world is described (Asc. Is. 4:1-13). Even there the text issues no call to take up arms in resistance. Nevertheless, since the switching incident could easily be interpreted as sympathetic to Jewish rebels, it may have later been deemed unacceptable.
In my proposal for the 11:2-22 slot the Lord swaps places with a rebel who is scorned by the Jerusalem Jews, including their chief priests and scribes. They make fun of the rebel’s claims to be an anointed one (a Christ), a king, a son of God who would save them. Their lack of sympathy for their would-be savior is reminiscent of the people’s animus against the many Jews who laid claim to kingship after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE:
And now Judaea was full of robberies; and, as the several companies of the seditious lighted upon anyone to head them, he was created a king immediately, in order to do mischief to the public. They were in some small measure indeed, and in small matters, hurtful to the Romans, but the murders they committed upon their own people lasted a long while (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17, 10, 8, my bolding).
The parallel in The Wars of the Jews reads:
At this time there were great disturbances in the country, and that in many places; and the opportunity that now offered itself induced a great many to set up the kings… (Wars 2, 4, 1, my bolding)
When Varus came from Syria and lifted the rebel siege of Jerusalem, the citizens of the city made clear that they “were on the side of the Romans” (Antiquities 17, 11, 9) and were themselves very much victims of the rebels. Varus agreed and sent his army out into the country to apprehend those behind the rebellion. Great numbers of them were caught. Varus put the least culpable in custody, but the most guilty he crucified, “in number about 2000” (Wars 2, 5, 2), with the apparent approval of the citizens of Jerusalem.
To me it seems plausible that the Vision of Isaiah was written in the aftermath of that tumultuous period. The author had no particular would-be king in mind, and no particular love for any of them. The situation merely provided him with a mechanism for getting the Lord crucified by the rulers of this world. But in time that mechanism may have become an embarrassment to some. It is one thing to have the Lord falsely accused of being a lestes (as in the later canonical gospels) and another to have him actually trade places with a guerilla leader, getting the would-be king off the hook in the process.
In the account that is currently lodged in the Ethiopic versions there is little trace of rebellion. The Lord enters the world as a baby. And when the time comes for his crucifixion it is simply said that: “after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel, who did not know who he was, against him” (11:19). There are no taunts that he claimed to be a king of the Jews or to save them. Neither the Romans in general, nor any Roman in particular is mentioned. No particular grounds for the crucifixion are provided.
Transformation and Crucifixion
In the references that the Pauline letters make to the earthly phase of the Lord’s mission the stress, as acknowledged by all, is clearly on the crucifixion. Apart from that, attention is given in the Philippians hymn to the Lord’s change of form, but there too the transformation is brought into immediate connection with his death: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Phil. 2:8). The hymn apparently has the Lord take on the form of a man, not to teach, work miracles, or gather disciples, but to die. And it is apparently the same transformation that is behind the failure of the rulers of this world, as related by 1 Cor. 2:8, to recognize the Lord of glory when they crucified him. Transformation and crucifixion, then, are almost exclusively the elements of the Lord’s visit to earth that can be found in the uncontroversial parts of the Pauline letters.
And it is not just that there is no public ministry. As Earl Doherty pointed out in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, pretty much the rest of the passion narrative as found in the canonical gospels is missing too. No scourging or crowning with thorns, no betrayal by Judas, or denials by Peter, or abandonment by the disciples, or preference of Barabbas over Jesus. Besides the crucifixion, arguably the only other reference to a passion incident is the mention of “insults” in Rom. 15:3.
My speculative proposal can explain this situation. Those in Rom. 15:3 who insulted him (oneidizō) are the same who insulted him on the cross: “Those who were crucified with him also insulted (oneidizō) him” (Mk. 15:32). The names Christ and Jesus—which have practically become personal names by the time the first Pauline letters were written—were originally ascribed to the Lord because of his surreptitious swapping of appearance with a would-be Christ and Jesus (Savior) who was being led out of Jerusalem for crucifixion. That transformation was immediately followed by the Lord’s crucifixion. The reason that transformation and crucifixion are practically the only elements of the Lord’s visit to earth that can be found in Paul’s letters is because one immediately followed the other in the source of his gospel: the Vision of Isaiah.
I have left out of my speculative proposal parts of GMark that are arguably later redactional additions, including the cast of named characters: Simon the Cyrenian who is the father of Alexander and Rufus, Mary the Magdalene, Salome, Mary the mother of Joses and James the Small. In a subsequent post I will argue that these were Simonian additions to the original passion narrative. They Simonized it. And I will also argue that the incidents that immediately precede the passer-by in GMark—the Last Supper, betrayal by Judas, denials by Peter, abandonment by the disciples, and preference of Barabbas over Jesus—are allegorical portrayals of events from the last trip of Simon/Paul to Jerusalem. The release of Jesus Barabbas—the son of the father— by Pilate is an allegorical portrayal of the release of Simon/Paul by Felix. The release of Barabbas would function as the seam that separated the allegory about Simon/Paul from the earlier story of the Son’s crucifixion. If this is correct, the only transitional verses that join the allegory to the crucifixion are Mk. 15:16-20 i.e., the crowning with thorns of the king of the Jews and the mockery of him by the soldiers. This transitional material may have been taken from Philo’s account of the mockery of Carabbas (In Flaccum, 6, 36-9).
But before coming to Mark’s Gospel I will devote one more post to the Vision of Isaiah.
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