Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument

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by Neil Godfrey

ascension-norelliLast month I began posting on Enrico Norelli’s arguments concerning the Ascension of Isaiah:

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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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument”

  1. Hmm. Unfortunately, Norelli’s line of argument here seems to lean heavily on his opponents’ presumed belief in sources (“M Sources” I believe they used to be called) underlying Matthew’s story here and is of less use to those of us who hold to a Occam-friendly, Goodacre-esque “Matthew invented everything he didn’t crib from Mark” view. It is probably a fair point to note that belief in “M Sources” (or “L Sources” for that matter) is something that has declined over time, more so than belief in Q (although Ehrman hadn’t gotten the memo by the time he wrote that Did Jesus Exist book).

    All that said, of course, there could still be an argument for a common source behind these parts of Asc. Isa. and Matthew; it just ought not to assume a source behind Matthew but rather argue for it (a lot of the detail-level work on the Synoptic Problem is probably relevant here).

  2. C. Detlef G. Müller writes (New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2, pp. 604-605): “Here also there is an interruption in the flow of the narrative, at XI 2-22, which again proves to be an interpolation; it reports on Mary and Joseph, the birth of the Saviour and his crucifixion.” and “Here XI 2-22 is an additional interpolation which makes more precise an already Christian document of the 2nd century.”

    I apologize that I have not read Norelli, but has anyone summarized the arguments that have been taken up against the above scholarly position that 11:2-22 were the most recent addition to the text?

    Some (not you, Neil) do seem to be dancing on the casket of that interpolation hypothesis, but I am not really sure why.

    1. I have not yet been able to access any detailed discussion of the reasons for Norelli’s rejection of the interpolation thesis. In desperation I even emailed Norelli himself (in French and English) but I imagine it’s a very long shot if I will get a response.

  3. There are also parallels between Asc. Isa. 11 and Infancy Gospel of James ( aka Protevangelium of James): 9-20. Look for the interposed lines of text, especially the capitalized words. Asc. Isa. 11, Infancy James 9-20, and Matthew 1:18-25 are interrelated. Asc. Isa. also contains docetic material, and the rabbinic tradition that Jesus was put on a tree. All in all, a rather tangled set of shared sources. These are only observations, I leave the explanations to others.

    CHAPTER 11
    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,
    (Infancy James 10: “Call to me the undefiled VIRGINS OF THE FAMILY OF DAVID” And the priest remembered the child MARY, that she was of the FAMILY OF DAVID … )
    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.
    (Infancy James 9: And the priest said to Joseph, You have been CHOSEN BY LOT to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord.)
    And when she was espoused, she WAS FOUND WITH CHILD,
    (Infancy James 13: he discovered that she WAS BIG WITH CHILD)
    and Joseph the carpenter WAS DESIROUS TO PUT HER AWAY.
    (Infancy James 14: “I WILL PUT HER AWAY FROM ME SECRETLY.”)
    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.
    (Infancy James 14: And night came upon him; and, behold, an ANGEL OF THE LORD APPEARS TO HIM in a dream, saying: Be not afraid for this maiden, for that which is in her is of the holy spirit; and she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20) And Joseph arose from sleep, and glorified the God of Isreal, who had given him this grace; and HE KEPT HER.)
    5. And HE DID NOT APPROACH MARY, but kept her as a holy virgin, though with child.
    (Infancy James 14: And Joseph was greatly afraid, and RETIRED FROM HER, …)
    6. And he did not live with her for TWO MONTHS.
    (Infancy James 12: And she remained THREE MONTHS with Elizabeth.)
    7. And after two months of days while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone.
    8. It came to pass that when they were alone that Mary straight-way looked with her eyes and SAW A SMALL BABE, and she was astonished.
    (Infancy James 19: And in a little that light gradually decreased, until THE INFANT APPEARED, …)
    9. And after she had been astonished, HER WOMB WAS FOND AS FORMERLY BEFORE HE HAD CONCEIVED.
    (Infancy James 19: And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth— A THING WHICH HER NATURE ADMITS NOT OF.-)
    10. And when her husband Joseph said unto her: “What has astonished thee?” his eyes were opened and he saw the infant and praised God, because into his portion God had come.
    11. And a voice came to them: “TELL THIS VISION TO NO ONE.”
    (Infancy James 20: And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, TELL NOT THE STRANGE THINGS YOU HAVE SEEN, until the child has come into Jerusalem.)
    12. And the story regarding the infant was noised broad in Bethlehem.
    13. Some said: “The Virgin Mary hath borne a child, before she was married two months.”
    14. And MANY SAID: “She has not borne a child, nor has a midwife gone up (to her), nor have we heard the cries of (labour) pains.” And they were all blinded respecting Him and they all knew regarding Him, though they knew not whence He was.
    (Infancy James 20: And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for NO SMALL CONTROVERY HAS ARISEN ABOUT YOU.)
    (Compare Ascension of Isaiah 14 to Infancy James 18-20, no midwife was present when baby Jesus :appeared:, the birth was painless without any maternal screaming, time stood still when he was born, they knew not when he was.)
    15. And they took Him, and WENT TO Nazareth in Galilee.
    (Infancy James 21, 21. And, behold, Joseph WAS READY TO GO into Judæa.)
    16. And I saw, O Hezekiah and Josab my son, and I declare to the other prophets also who are standing by, that (this) hath escaped all the heavens and all the princes and all the gods of this world.
    17. And I saw: In Nazareth He sucked the breast as a babe and as is customary in order that He might not be recognized.
    18. And when He had grown up he worked great signs and wonders in the land of Israel and of Jerusalem.
    19. And after this the adversary envied Him and roused the children of Israel against Him, not knowing who He was, and they delivered Him to the KING,
    (Infancy James 22: 22. And when (KING) Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under.)
    and crucified Him, and He descended to the angel (of Sheol).
    (See “Harrowing of Hell”, Jesus’ confrontation with ruler of Hell.)
    20. In Jerusalem indeed I was Him
    (Docetic tradition that a substitute was hung in Jesus’ place, or Jesus was crucified while the Christ looked on.)
    being crucified on a tree:
    (In rabbinic tradition Jesus was hung from a tree.)
    21. And likewise after the third day rise again and remain days.
    22. And the angel who conducted me said: “Understand, Isaiah”: and I saw when He sent out the Twelve Apostles and ascended.
    23. And 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.
    24. And there was much sorrow there, 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?”
    25. And He ascended into the second heaven, and He did not transform Himself, but all the angels who were on the right and on the left and the throne in the midst.
    26. Both worshipped Him and praised Him and said: “How did our Lord escape us whilst descending and we perceived not?”
    27. And in like manner He ascended into the third heaven, and they praised and said in like manner.
    28. And in the fourth heaven and in the fifth also they said precisely after the same manner.
    29. But there was one glory, and from it He did not change Himself.
    30. And I saw when He ascended into the sixth heaven, and they worshipped and glorified Him.
    31. But in all the heavens the praise increased (in volume).
    32. And I saw how He ascended into the seventh heaven, and all the righteous and all the angels praised Him. And then I saw Him sit down on the right hand of that Great Glory whose glory I told you that I could not behold.
    33. And also the angel of the Holy Spirit I saw sitting on the left hand.
    34. And this angel said unto me: “Isaiah, son of Amoz, it is enough for thee;… for thou hast seen what no child of flesh has seen.
    35. And thou wilt return into THY GARMENT (of the flesh) until thy days are completed. Then thou wilt come hither.”
    (Gospel of Judas: …For you will sacrifice the MAN THAT CLOTHES ME …)
    36. These things Isaiah saw and told unto all that stood before him, and they praised. And he spake to Hezekiah the King and said: “I have spoken these things.”
    37. Both the end of this world;
    38. And all this vision will be consummated in the last generations.
    39. And Isaiah MADE HIM SWEAR THAT HE WOULD NOT TELL (it) to the people of Israel, nor give these words to any man to transcribe.
    (Infancy James 20: And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, TELL NOT THE STRANGE THINGS YOU HAVE SEEN, until the child has come into Jerusalem.)
    40. …such things ye will read. and watch ye in the Holy Spirit in order they ye may receive your garments and thrones and crowns of glory which are laid up in the seventh heaven.
    41. On account of these visions and prophecies Sammael Satan sawed in sunder Isaiah the son of Amoz, the prophet, by the hand of Manasseh.
    42. And all these things Hezekiah delivered to Manasseh in the twenty-sixth year.
    43. But Manasseh did not remember them nor place these things in his heart, but becoming the servant of Satan he was destroyed. Here endeth the vision of Isaiah the prophet with his ascension.

    1. I once went through the writings of Justin comparing details with the gospels including the Gospel of Peter and the Protevangelium of James; last time I looked I saw it needed major revision and Asc. Isa.Asc. Isa. into the mix. I’ll keep your post in mind.

  4. I happened to notice today that in Norelli’s translation of Asc. Isa.I 9:32 the angel first introduces the Son to Isaiah thus:

    Celui-ci est le Seigneur de toute la gloire que tu as vue.” (Asc. Isa. 9:32, my bolding)

    In English that is:

    This is the Lord of all the glory that you have seen.”

    So here Norelli seems to have opted for the S/L2 versions which have “glory” (S) and “glories”(L2) instead of E (Ethiopic) version (“praises”) that both R.H Charles and M.A. Knibb followed in their translations. I don’t have access to Norelli’s larger work so I don’t know why he chose S/L2 over E in this instance.

    The reason I find this interesting is that S and L2 are closer to the way Paul identifies the Son in 1 Cor. 2:8. It is the only place in the Paulines that uses the expression “the Lord of glory:”

    None of the rulers of this world understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

    And in contrast to E, the S and L2 versions are the ones that contain the words Paul quotes in the verse that immediately follows 1 Cor. 2:8:

    But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.’

    1. I have read the book. It looks, however, like it may be superseded by a book Knight has coming out soon: The Theology of the Ascension of Isaiah: A First New Synthesis. It was due out in February but has not yet been released. I expect it will incorporate some proposals he made in a chapter he contributed (“The Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah: Docetic or Polymorphic,” pp. 144 – 164) to: The Open Mind — Essays in honour of Christopher Rowland. A few pages of the chapter can be previewed in Google books.

      Of related interest: In 2003 Enrico Norelli argued against one of Knight’s Asc. Isa. proposals in a chapter he contributed (“The Political Issue of the Ascension of Isaiah: Some Remarks on Jonathan Knight’s Thesis, and Some Methodological Problems,”) to the book Early Christian Voices: In Texts, Traditions, and Symbols: Essays in honor of François Bovon , edited by David H. Warren, Ann Graham Brock and David W. Pao. Norelli’s chapter is in English and, again, a few pages of it can be previewed in Google books. Ten years later Knight responded to Norelli in an article in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament (June 2013 issue, vol. 35., no. 4, pp. 355-379). The title of Knight’s article is: “The Political Issue of the Ascension of Isaiah: A Response to Enrico Norelli.”

  5. To see: “The Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah: Docetic or Polymorphic,”
    1) Google: The Open Mind: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland
    2)then google the ‘google books’ listing.

  6. I have finished reading it, and it has the stench of apologetic exegesis all over it. Of course he treats the Ascension as it is found currently with the pocket gospel included and doesn’t talk about the original part separately. He concludes as opposed by Norelli (and most scholars) that the Ascension is not docetic but polymorphic (semantics if you ask me) and actually anti-docetic. The gymnastics he uses to get to this conclusion is apologetics of the highest order. Actually, I find Roger’s argument about what should be found where the pocket gospel is and the possible relation to the revelation group to be much more persuasive.

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