Ascension of Isaiah: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition

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by Neil Godfrey

Hi Neil,

I have a copy of Norelli’s Ascension d’Isaïe and I consulted it when I wrote parts 7 through 9 of my blog series on a Simonian origin for Christianity. In part 7 of the series I noted in passing that Norelli put the date of composition for the Vision of Isaiah at the end of the first century. And in post 8, as part of my Jan. 30, 2014 response to George Hall, I quoted from page 52-53 of Norelli’s book.

However, just judging from this one book of Norelli’s, I’m skeptical that his work will prove to be, as Bauckham says, “definitive.” And I don’t see that Bauckham himself really considers it all that definitive either for, as I recall, Bauckham argues that Norelli is wrong about assigning a different author to each of the two parts of the Asc. Isa. and about Norelli’s dating of the second part (theVision of Isaiah) earlier than the first (chapters 1-5).

In regard to the Asc. Isa.’s chapter 11 “pocket gospel:” I explain in post 8 my reasons for questioning whether it was part of the original Vision. As you know, I share Carrier’s and Doherty’s suspicions that it was not, but we have different guesses about what was originally there. I proposed that some kind of early passion narrative like the one now found in gMark would fit in better with the rest of the Vision.

Roger Parvus

Continuing from A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah . . . 

Roger Parvus has thankfully reminded me that he addressed aspects of Enrico Norelli’s book on the Ascension of Isaiah in his earlier posts. See his comment on my previous post (in side-box) for links to these and for his more general response to Norelli’s work.

This post overviews the contents of the Asc. Isa., a little of how we came to possess it, and what I understand to be Norelli’s argument for a fresh approach to the study of the text.

Ascension of Isaiah: Contents

The Asc. Isa. was most likely originally composed as a Greek text but its most complete version today is in the Ge’ez or classical Ethiopic script. This has come down to us as part of the Ethiopian Old Testament that has preserved a number of books rejected from the canons of Jews and Christians (such as Enoch and Jubilees).

In its present form the Asc. Isa. consists of two parts.

The first part (chapters 1-5) borrowed the Jewish tradition of the death of Isaiah who was sawn in two by King Manasseh.

King Hezekiah, the father of Manasseh, summoned his son to hear Isaiah recount his vision — the one that we will read about in part 2. But Isaiah informed Hezekiah privately that Manasseh would lead Israel astray from the true faith and that he would kill the prophet.

After Manasseh became king he was influenced by the false Samaritan prophet Belchira to capture Isaiah and saw him in half. We also learn that the real power behind these two men inspiring them to murder Isaiah was the devil, named Beliar.

Beliar was incensed against Isaiah because the prophet had exposed the his scheme to deceive and be worshiped by humanity.

Isaiah’s vision that had so enraged the devil is summed up in between the arrest of Isaiah and his martyrdom. In this section we read additional material that is not found in the later account of the vision (3:13-4:18):

  • after the resurrection and ascension of Christ the church will flourish uncorrupted for a time

  • a time will come when sinful pastors and elders who reject the Holy Spirit and the prophecies (including Isaiah’s prophecy) will lead the church astray

  • the future coming of the Beliar, the devil, in the form of the Antichrist who will persecute the true believers

  • the second coming of the Christ who puts an end to the work of the Antichrist.

The second part (chapters 6 to 11, except for 11:41-43) brings us to the vision so often referred to in the first half. This vision, therefore, is a flashback to the twentieth year of Hezekiah’s reign and the vision of Isaiah that angered the devil.

Chapter 6 begins with Isaiah leading the prophets in worship in the king’s house in Jerusalem. Isaiah falls into a trance and is transported in vision through the seven heavens up to the presence of God (7:2-9:26). There he witnesses heavenly worship in progress, this one led by Christ (who had not yet visited earth) and the Holy Spirit (9:27-10:6).

Isaiah is then shown God’s plan of salvation:

  • In obedience to God’s command Christ descends through the heavens (10:7-15).

  • So as not to be recognized he takes on the appearance of the angels who occupy each of the heavens (10:16-31).

  • When he reaches earth he takes on the appearance of a man, being “born” at Bethlehem in order to hide his identity from the devil.

  • But thinking he is one of the prophets the devil has the Israelites put him to death (11:1-21).

  • Christ then descends into hell and by revealing his glory that he had kept hidden up till that moment he destroys the angel of death and rescues the righteous from their captivity.

  • He returns to earth and as he soars through the heavens the powers who had once defied God by proclaiming themselves the rulers of the world are forced to worship him.

  • He thus restores the universe and is able to sit on the right hand of God (11:22-33).

Isaiah is then sent back to earth by the Holy Spirit, tells his vision to a small circle of the king and the prophets and commands them to keep it secret until the coming of Christ (11:34-40).

Manuscripts and Editions

The first manuscript of the Asc. Isa. that came to the attention of a modern Westerner was purchased by the English scholar Richard Laurence from a dealer near London. He published it in 1819.

Two other important editions have since appeared:

  • one via August Dillmann, published in Leipzig in 1877;

  • one by Robert Henry Charles published in London in 1900.

Robert Henry Charles
Robert Henry Charles

Dillmann and Charles used the following sources for their versions of the Asc. Isa.:

  • Three Ethiopian manuscripts
  • Two Latin fragments published in 1828 by Cardinal Angelo Mai (from a palimpsest of the Vatican Library, Vat. lat. 5750, where they appear in an anthology of Arian texts
  • A Latin version of chapters 6-11 which no longer has a manuscript but only survives in the edition published in Venice in 1522 by Antoine de Fantis and that was forgotten until it was reissued in 1832.
  • Charles also made use of an Old Slavic version of the second part of the Asc. Isa. — which was translated into Latin by G.N. Bonwetsch.
  • The Latin version and the Old Slavic version testify to the second part (chapters 6-11) having an independent circulation in a reworked form. We know it was read by the Cathars in the Middle Ages.
  • Finally, Charles uses a Greek summary of the Asc. Isa.  contained in a Byzantine liturgical collection and edited in 1878 by Oscar von Gebhardt.
  • Fragments of two Coptic versions were found only after Charles published his edition. They have been published between 1938 and 1946 and will appear in the Series Apocryphorum.

Norelli acknowledges the translation work Eugene Tisserant (published in Paris in 1909) which is the most cited version, and refers to the new critical edition of all known texts with translation and commentary to appear in the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum. Handwritten editions of the Ethiopic text and the Old Slavonic will also be significantly increased in this series.

The book that I’m reading (Ascension du prophète Isaïea summary of Norelli’s work)  relies for most part on the Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic) version.

The Question of Its Composition

Norelli next discusses how the text has been composed. He points out that the analysis that has dominated up to the present is that of R. H. Charles who set out his views in his 1900 edition. Charles saw the Asc. Isa. as a merger of three originally autonomous works:

  1. The Vision, a Christian work, chapters 6-11;
  2. A Jewish text about the martyrdom of Isaiah, chapters 1-5;
  3. Charles also identified a third earlier text, the ecclesiological and eschatological vision of 3.13 to 4.18 (or 4.22), which would have been originally a Vision of Hezekiah.

A Christian editor was believed to have combined these three writings into our present Asc. Isa..

Norelli argues that most scholars since Charles have failed to investigate the intentions that guided this final editor responsible for stitching these pieces together.

As a result we have piecemeal interpretations of subsections of the Asc. Isa.. The section from 3:13 to 4:18 has generally been taken as a Christian insertion into a Jewish writing. This section was originally composed to encourage Christians facing Roman persecution.

That chapters 1-5 originated as an early Jewish narrative has been the virtual consensus. There has even been a proposal that it was produced by the Qumran community and that the persecution theme was inspired by the treatment of that community’s Teacher of Righteousness.

Norelli tells us that today historians are much more attentive to the context in which texts are produced and to understanding the needs that generate them. R.G. Hall and A. Acerbi are two scholars who have more recently attempted to reconstruct the environment and situation that led to the Asc. Isa. With different nuances they each situate the Asc. Isa. in a prophecy-focussed form of early Christianity. This view had been proposed before but Norelli believes that the methods of analysis applied by these two scholars are lacking. He cannot accept their views of the structure of the text and its purposes. (He cites Studi in margine all’Ascensione di Isaia, Genova 1993, pp. 50-59, for a summary of their views along with his and his colleagues’ critical remarks.) 

sawedmartyr2-905x1024Norelli finds a humorous remark by an English scholar aptly sums up this scholarship: scholars trying to dissect the Asc. Isa. seem to be possessed by that same power of Beliar who sawed the unfortunate prophet in half. Such dissection is not forbidden in principle, but it does not really explain what the Ascension of Isaiah is about, says Norelli.

According to Norelli the problems of interpretation and scholarly approaches can partly be explained by their apocryphal status. Since studies began on the apocryphal literature in the eighteenth century scholars have tended to consider them as secondary texts in comparison with the canonical literature, marginal compared to the patristic tradition, inspired by fantasy and the desire to teach or entertain.

In recent decades this view has been changing: it is becoming increasingly clear that behind these texts we find not only authors concerned with producing literature, but also Christian communities and theological trends which differ from those of the New Testament and the Patristic texts. We see more and more clearly that the term of “apocryphal” applied to these writings served to marginalize them and exclude the groups responsible for them from the main Church. This means that today the study of an apocryphal text cannot avoid the question of its roots in the history of early Christianity, and that has relevance for the question of its structure and composition.

Norelli steps back to address the theoretical underpinnings of what we need to understand. A text is the linguistic part of a communication event, which takes place between a transmitter and a receiver in a given situation. The transmitter is communicating with a particular purpose in mind. This transmitter comes equipped with a wealth of knowledge, beliefs, traditions, expectations that he shares with his receivers. He chooses themes, organizes them, puts them in perspective, and creates expectations that he modifies or contradicts afterwards. In short, he implements a stylistic strategy in order to lead his target audience into his own world. The meaning of a text is therefore conveyed through a stylistic strategy; understanding a text requires a competence in understanding the way such a strategy from a particular heritage works.

These considerations need to be part of the historian’s study. To situate a text historically, it is not enough to point to a few references or details in it; one must try to grasp the overall strategy and understand the situation to which it was responding.

In the case of the Asc. Isa. Ascension the methodological problem is difficult. If we start from the currently prevailing literary analysis of Charles we move into the consensus which actually prevents us from grasping the overall meaning of the text, or at least the meanings of its parts if we conclude that it is a patchwork of disparate sources.

Conversely, if we impose an artificial synthesis to try to describe the themes of the book as a whole then we risk losing sight of the differences and the eventual divisions that could inform us about the history of the composition of the text.

So Norelli tells us that he will therefore study the Asc. Isa.‘s form and content in order to establish if it must be regarded as having been composed as a single book or whether we must understand it as coming about through several phases of composition.


This sounds to me very cogent theoretically but a question in the back of my mind is wanting to be heard: How can we be sure our final interpretation of the text is not the result of circular reasoning?

I suspect I’ll never get a chance to read the new commentary (presumably in Italian) or the 600 page additional volume of explanatory essays by Norelli in order to answer that question for myself.

Further, it’s no doubt a step in the right direction to lift works such as the Asc. Isa. from their prejudicial “apocryphal” status, but aren’t the scholars dedicated to its study still all from the same ideological cloth with evident presuppositions and assumptions concerning Christian origins that that entails?

I look forward to learning more about the different perspectives and future discussions that will surely follow.

Till the next installment in this series . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Ascension of Isaiah: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition”

  1. Roger Parvus,

    Do you think it likely that acknowledged pillars — James, Cephas and John — had knowledge of Asc. Isa.? It’s not likely that a claimed revelation of/from Jesus would subsequently result in the production of AoI, is it?

    1. If the Vision of Isaiah was the source of Paul’s gospel, I expect that the Jerusalem church and its pillars knew that text and, at least initially, may have accepted it as authentic. I very much doubt, however, that they ever interpreted it the same way Paul did or gave it the same pride of place. The Vision looks different when overshadowed by other Scriptures, like Daniel, and by other impressive visions, like the ones in Revelation. So when Paul complains in his letters about different gospels he may be referring to that kind of situation.

      Did the pillars also accept some form of the text’s expanded version, i.e., the Ascension of Isaiah? Not, of course, if the expanded version was only written after their death. The author of 3:21-31 of the Asc. Isa.makes Isaiah prophesy that a time will come when pastors and elders will reject Isaiah’s earlier prophecy, referring apparently to the ch. 6-11 Vision. But there is no indication given that the Apostles too will reject it. Norelli and a number of other scholars think that the author is really speaking there about his own day, sometime after the death of the Apostles. If so, it may be that as early as the late 60s many in the Jerusalem church rejected the Vision of Isaiah. (I wonder whether the author of Revelation was one of them. The only place he mentions the crucifixion is at Rev. 11:8 and some question whether that is an interpolation).

      1. Roger, thanks for your response. I feel like I’m better able to get a handle on these things. It makes me wonder, who would it be if you could hang out with just one person in the world of antiquity? But with the condition that you would die if your wish turned out to be a non-historical person.

        1. Bob,

          You mean besides Cleopatra, right?

          If I wanted to play it safe, of course, I would pick someone like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. But I don’t know how much fun it would be to “hang out” with either of them. So if you were to ask the question after I had a few drinks, I would probably bet on the skeptical Lucian of Samosata. He comes across as easy-going and with a good sense of humor. He was well-travelled too, and well-read. Plus I could try to pick his pick his brain to see what he knows about the shadowy second century Christians whom I suspect created proto-orthodoxy.

          And if I was pretty sure I didn’t have much longer to live anyway, I would be willing play it riskier and bet on either Simon Magus, Paul, or Jesus (in that order).

          1. Ha. I appreciate your friendly and thorough answer. I was thinking Cephas might be a safe enough bet. And, if so, it looks like we should tease as much as possible out of 1 Peter. But, I’m sure you have done that anyway. Thanks, Roger, for accommodating an interested abecedarian.

  2. We see more and more clearly that the term of “apocryphal” applied to these writings served to marginalize them and exclude the groups responsible for them from the main Church.

    Yes, the writings considered “canonical” were, according to Church tradition beginning with Eusebius, IIRC, were the ones that were the most popular amongst the Christian communities scattered throughout the vast Roman Empire. Of course, they also or instead could have been the writings that served the Church hierarchy the best. Extrude one book from the canon (Shepherd of Hermas) and the result is our New testament.

  3. Exciting stuff!
    Am I the only one to imagine the means of executing Isaiah may be an allegorical feature? Did such sawing in two executions really take place? Or could it be a Simonite comment on how Simon’s “persecutors” divided him in two: Simon Magus, the Bad, and Paul, the Good. I realise this is merely a stray thought, and plays havoc with Roger Parvus’s chronology, but at least it is amusing.

  4. What I only suspected – that AoI is only a reaction against Marcion with marcionite influences in spite of his Jewish Christian identity – is already proved, in my view.

    I am referred by prof Vinzent to his <a href="https://www.academia.edu/6881279/Give_and_Take_amongst_Second_Century_Authors_The_Ascension_of_Isaiah_the_Epistle_of_the_Apostles_and_Marcion_of_Sinope"article where he maintains that the Ascension of Isaiah is a mid second century writing which is part of the post-Marcion discourse. In particular, I read very interesting and persuasive passages:

    The author does not entirely disagree with Marcion’s criticism of prophets, as he mentions
    false-prophets, but he asserts, they were Samaritans like Belchira who ‘dwelt
    in the region of Bethlehem, and was an adherent of Manasseh’ and ‘prophesied
    falsely in Jerusalem, and many belonging to Jerusalem were confederate with
    him’ (AscI III 1).

    The reason why Belchira was ‘in great wrath against Isaiah’ is identical with
    Marcion’s rejection of the prophets, namely Isaiah’s foreknowledge and vision
    of the arrival of the Saviour.

    The Ascension displays criticism of Israel (the Israelites are the torturers of
    the Beloved), although it does not draw Marcion’s conclusion in rejecting the
    Jewish past. Rather like Justin, it adopts both Jewish traditions and scriptures
    and creates a theological basis for their integration, at the core of which is the
    teaching of the Twelve. And, again, it is this combination that reflects both
    an influence of and a distancing from Marcion. With Marcion Christians have
    started discussing which of the writings should carry authority and should be
    read in the community, either Scriptures, or Paul’s letters, or other texts? Marcion
    insisted on Paul alone, and a gospel text, a different version from what we know
    as Luke, that enlightened Paul’s letters. The Ascension includes Moses and the
    prophets, and makes Isaiah even the protagonist of the cosmic drama. The authorities,
    however, on whom the Beloved entrusts the teaching of the Resurrection
    of the Beloved to all the nations and every tongue, are the Twelve apostles or
    the Twelve disciples – an expression found in Petrine texts58 – who are qualified
    as in Acts 1:21f. as those ‘who were with Him’ (III 14.18; IV 3).59 This qualification,
    of course, excludes Paul, Marcion’s sole authority.
    In the second part of the first vision, the Ascension speaks about the dispute
    over the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, their faith, love and purity – precisely
    the kind of accusations uttered by Marcion.

    If we read the four passages Matth. 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-7 and John 1:1-14 and
    the Ascension against Marion’s background, simply on the assumption that they
    were written post-Marcion,64 they all appear as counter-stories to his position
    with the Ascension reacting, but also referring to them. Or to be more precise,
    AscI is similar to Matth., also hints at John, but positions itself against Luke.

    Of course, for Matth.
    the Virgin Pregnancy is simply the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy – playing
    precisely on the same authority as the Ascension of Isaiah. However, even
    Matth. confronts Marcion by not only endorsing Luke’s story of the birth of
    Jesus, but also by referring it to the prophecy, ‘so that what was spoken by
    the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled’, a prophetic knowledge that
    Marcion had explicitly rejected.

    Prof Vinzent is a great scholar and I’m reading all his monographs. Maybe Neil didn’t read yet this my comment.

    Roger, do you are open to the possibility that was the simonian Marcion (Robert Price thinks Marcion was simonian as Cerdo’s student) the first to write a Gospel, triggering as side-effect a lot of Proto-catholic, Jewish-Christian and Gnostic reactions and responses?

    1. Hi Giuseppe,

      In brief:

      1. If, as you say, there is polemical intent behind the story of a false Samaritan prophet named Belchira, I think it more likely that it was directed against another false Samaritan prophet named Simon.

      2. I don’t see how the Asc. Isa.pocket gospel could be anti-Marcionite in intent. For one thing it is docetic. One of the biggest objections proto-orthodox Christianity had to Marcion was his Docetism. It doesn’t make sense that they would combat that by composing a docetic pocket gospel.

      3. Regarding Marcion: You have asked me the same question before. I have not changed my mind. As you know, I expIained my views about him in post 4 of A Simonian Origin for Christianity. I think he either misunderstood Simonian belief or deliberately modified it. He apparently believed that the Old Testament was inspired exclusively by the inferior God who created the world. I don’t think Simon believed that. The proto-orthodox only accused Simon of cherry-picking the Old Testament and of unjustified allegorical interpretation of it. Moreover Marcion apparently taught that the supreme God was totally uninvolved with our world until he sent his Son into it. Again, I doubt that Simon believed that. As you know, I think Simon was Paul and that the source of his gospel was the Vision of Isaiah. And that he considered Abraham, for example, to be someone who was contacted by the supreme God four hundred and thirty years before the world-making angels—including the god of the Jews—foisted the Mosaic Law upon the Jews.

      4. And no, I still don’t think Marcion was the first to write a gospel that featured a public ministry for the Son. There are elements in gMark that seem to me to be Simonian but not Marcionite. I think they are remnants of a proto-Mark that was Simonian, not Marcionite. Moreover, I suspect the first gospel was an allegory. It is the Simonians who are accused of being the earliest heretical allegorizers. The proto-orthodox never accuse Marcion of such. Marcion was a historicist.

      1. hi Roger,

        point 1: OK.

        point 2: It doesn’t make sense that they would combat that by composing a docetic pocket gospel only if you assume a priori gratis a strong hostility, geographical distance and mutual diffidence among the Christian sects of time. But if you admit geographical proximity among the sects, polemical exchange of ideas in search of a minimum common ground on which to agree, a kind of Reductio ad Unum in progress (first step to growing orthodoxy), then it is expected that the Jewish Christians convert the Docetism of Marcion in function anti-marcionite reconnecting it to the prophets Isaiah) and the Old Testament.

        point 3: I don’t know how reply, because a complete case for Marcion’s priority is expected in future by some scholars. At the moment I see surely only that the various Ireneus, Tertullian, etc, are very ambiguous when accused Marcion of mutilating Luke, making recourse to Matthew.

        point 4: Moreover, I suspect the first gospel was an allegory. It is the Simonians who are accused of being the earliest heretical allegorizers. The proto-orthodox never accuse Marcion of such. Marcion was a historicist.

        This is a crucial point to which I really can not answer… You claim that Marcion is historicist because he openly published his Gospel and didn’t operate ”with secrecy and looked inwardly”. It seems how if secrecy and allegory is more expected on mythicism, whereas ‘dogmatic realism’ à la Luke is more expected on historicity…

        I have to think about this.

        About Mark and his ”Jesus”/Paul, Roger, you’re going to read the book ”The Gospel of Mark, A Hypertextual Commentary” by Bartosz Adamczewski?

        Thanks for your explanations.

  5. Just reading the summary you give here, my initial impression is that the work is secondary. It seems to be designed to explain the cosmology of Christ descending. Like Apelles and certain gnostics, the Christ descends through the various heavens acquiring/changing his form borrowing the elements at each level until he is on earth. The Belial reference seems to be derived from 2 Corinthians 6:15 mention. The demonic powers ruling the earth also sounds rather gnostic. The story of the nativity reminds me of Chapter 12 of Revelation as well, which fits the cosmic origins and heavenly birth. Also the hiding from Satan.

    I do think Norelli is right on one point. To understand how a text developed, you need to first understand the text as it is, in its current form. Only then can you start to work backwards to possibly discern its development stages. That comment alone from Norelli makes me want to read his book.

    I do question the early dating. But that is another issue, and should be separated from the forensic analysis. Thanks for the review of this.

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