- A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah
- Ascension of Isaiah: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition
I am quite sure Norelli’s new perspective won’t be the final word. Before I can come to any view myself, however, I obviously need first to understand at least the core of his analysis. So as I plough through the slim French language popular summary of his argument I will copy chunks of my bad translation and semi paraphrase here. This section covers pages 48 to 52 of Ascension du prophète Isaïe and continues on from the post Asc. Isa.: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition. I have added translated text from the Asc. Isa. at earlychristianwritings.
In this section Norelli is explaining why be believes the Asc. Isa. is independently adapting a source also known to the author of the Gospel of Matthew. That the composer of the Asc. Isa. could do this is a sure sign that he was writing before a time when the Gospel of Matthew took on any authoritative status.
The heavenly ascent through a distinctive genre (7-11)
The second part describes the ascension of the prophet Isaiah into the heavens. The Heavenly Ascent is a well-known genre. But a comparison of the Ascension of Isaiah’s ascent with the celestial journeys documented in other literature in Judaism reveals a difference. In the first six heavens the vision of Isaiah does not depict the content we find in traditional celestial geography (e.g., the home of the blessed contrasted with that of the damned; the scenes of the heavenly Jerusalem and the Temple; the angelic creatures surrounding God such as in the vision of Ezekiel). It is only in the seventh heaven that we find the glorious angelic choir singing their praises where God dwells with his Well-Beloved (the pre-existent Christ) and the Holy Spirit. The use of a literary genre (the heavenly travel narrative) known to the reader builds up an expectation that will be quickly dashed. The reader is thus alerted to the realization that the text is not going to convey the usual information about the celestial geography and is prepared for new messages.
Not even God himself is described and neither does he bring any new revelation to light. The mission itself that Isaiah is about to see is therefore the reason for his ascension and the revelation that he wants to convey in this text. This is highlighted by the angel’s words:
“Understand, Isaiah and see” (10.18 for the descent; 11.22 for the ascent).
But these words reappear in a particularly solemn form in 11.1
“Understand, Isaiah son of Amos, because for this I have been sent by the Lord.”
We can conclude that the passage on the “human” life of Christ (11.2-21) contains the bulk of the revelation made to Isaiah – that is, the message that the author of the second part wants his readers to take in is the mission of Christ to down to earth.
The tale of the virginal conception (11.2-5)
Matthew 1:18-25 (NIV)
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
AFTER this I saw, and the angel who spoke with me, who conducted me, said unto me: “Understand, Isaiah son of Amoz; for for this purpose have I been sent from God.”
2. And I indeed saw a woman of the family of David the prophet, named Mary, and Virgin, and she was espoused to a man named Joseph, a carpenter, and he also was of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem Judah.
3. And he came into his lot. And when she was espoused, she was found with child, and Joseph the carpenter was desirous to put her away.
4. But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after that Joseph did not put her away, but kept Mary and did not reveal this matter to any one.
5. And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, though with child.
When we compare the Ascension of lsaiah 11.2-5 and the narrative of the virginal conception of Matthew 1.18-25 we immediately notice a close resemblance that presupposes a literary relationship between the two. The unanimous opinion of the scholars is that the Ascension depends here on Matthew: an apocryphal text can only ever be secondary to a canonical text! Our thesis is different: we think the Ascension and the evangelist have drawn from the same tradition. The exegetes who have studied this passage from Matthew (without any attention to the Ascension) have identified a source behind Matthew, a pre-existing narrative that the evangelist has reworked according to his own theology. What is striking is that the words and phrases that these exegetes see as Matthew’s additions to his source – as editorial elements – are absent from the Ascension.
The most obvious example is the citation of Is 7.14, with its introduction in Mt 1.22-23. Everyone agrees that this quote comes from the evangelist; but it is absent in the Ascension, or rather it appears in another context, in 11.13, where it cannot have come from Matthew. Another example: the expressions “her husband” and “not wanting to expose” in Mt 1.19 are thought to be additions of the evangelist; yet they do not appear in the Ascension. In the same verse (Mt 1,19), the exegetes attribute to the pre-existing tradition the words “he wanted” and “return her”, which are found in the Ascension, but they attribute to Matthew himself the adverb “secretly”, missing from the Ascension, in between these two words. According to several exegetes the motif of the Joseph’s “dream” mentioned in Mt 1.20 and 1.24 but absent from the Ascension, comes from the common tradition; but I think there is good reason to attribute it to the evangelist. If the Ascension had it in its source, it is poorly explained why it would have been removed; however, its presence in the Gospel is explained better if one grants that Matthew himself introduced it to link the episode to the two accounts of dreams that follow (2,13-14. 19-21) than if he received from the tradition.
I conclude that the Ascension does not here use the Gospel of Matthew, but rather the source used by the evangelist in Matthew 1.18-25.
Additions and changes the Ascension makes to its source can be explained by the theological perspective of the Ascension: thus, in v. 4 the identification of the angel with the angel of the Spirit, that is, with the Holy Spirit itself; elimination of the message from the angel in Mt 1.20; the insistence on Joseph’s silence in the Ascension in order for the devil to ignore the human form taken by the Lord on earth.
The proof of the independence of the Ascension in relation to Matthew certainly requires a very technical analysis, but it has not only an academic interest. It requires us to give up the image of an author who, seated at his desk in some indeterminate time, composes a tale from a gospel laden with indisputable canonical authority, and replace it with the image of an author who, in parallel to Matthew, performs the same job as him, and reinterprets the tradition about the birth of Jesus, set in a very specific period of early Christianity.
This work of interpretation can only have occurred very early, when one could still access the tradition without going through the Gospel of Matthew, and where the Gospel had not yet acquired the canonical authority that allowed it to displace all competition.
Next: the strange tale of the nativity.
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