A Very Strange “Birth” of Jesus (Ascension of Isaiah / Norelli)

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by Neil Godfrey

This continues on from the earlier post, Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument, in which I covered Norelli’s take on the opening verses of the very odd nativity scene in the Ascension of Isaiah. . . .

In the Ascension of Isaiah (Asc. Isa.) there is a very strange tale of how Jesus came into the world. Is it a bizarre “heretical” rewriting of the nativity scenes in the canonical gospels or is it a very early (pre-gospel) groping for an explanation of how a divinity could appear on earth as a man in supposed fulfillment of Jewish scriptures? 

Asc. Isa. 11:6-11 (R.H. Charles’ translation)

And [Joseph] did not live with [Mary] for two months.

And after two months of days while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone.

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.

And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.

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.

And a voice came to them: “Tell this vision to no one.”

Jesus suddenly appears before them not, apparently, after a normal birth but coincidentally with the rise and fall of Mary’s belly. The child is “real” enough but the parents are told to “tell this vision to no one”.

Enrico Norelli wonders if the inspiration for this very odd scenario was the Greek version of Isaiah 53:2. Recall that it is in the same prophetic book that the author of the Gospel of Matthew found the “prophecy” that “a virgin would conceive” and the child would be called Immanuel (=God with us). So what do we find in the Septuagint (Greek) Isaiah 53:2?

Translated into English we generally read:

For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form nor comeliness. When we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

But “tender plant” is not the literal translation. If you check the interlinear you will see that the Greek word is παιδιον, literally “a child”.

But why should the “son of God” (if that’s how the Christian reader of Isaiah interpreted the passage) be without “form or comeliness” and without “beauty”? The Greek word here is δοξα, literally “glory”.

We will recall that the Asc. Isa. describes the “Well Beloved”, our Christ figure or Son of God, descending through the seven heavens from the scene of God’s throne down towards the firmament, earth and sheol/hades (hell). As he entered each lower level he sloughed off another layer of his glorious appearance so that he would not be recognized by the angelic beings who witnessed him.

Finally in the lowest region he had lost all glory completely and none could recognize him for who he really was.

Norelli asks (through my machine-inspired translation of his French):

Is it too bold to think that [this passage in Isaiah 53:2] has inspired our author’s description of the appearance of the child Jesus?

To be continued, etc. I have managed to locate a copy of Norelli’s larger work from 1995 so may in the next post try to add more detail about his arguments from that.



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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “A Very Strange “Birth” of Jesus (Ascension of Isaiah / Norelli)”

  1. I still find Ascensio Isaiae 11 to be a fascinating puzzle, for which I have yet to hear a compelling solution. I tend to be sympathetic to the possibility that the S/L2 version might be the original, very likely with several sentences simply excised. I try to be open-minded about the opposite possibility that the E/L1 version is original, but I find this very unsatisfying because, to my eye, they mark an abrupt change of style and break the narrative flow. So, the question in my mind is, what might AI 11 have said originally that would instead maintain the style and narrative flow of what comes before? And what would, at the same time, motivate two different Christian interpolators to alter the text in that spot – what would offend their sensibilities so?

    (Unless it’s really the case that S/L2 is the entirety of the original version, in which case we’re really talking about a subsequent Christian author simply embellishing it. There’s also the possibility that neither is original but the author of the S/L2 passage only had access to a copy that had already been modified by the E/L1 author. In this scenario, we still need to explain two different authors being offended by the text, but it would not have been the same text in question).

    1. I’m interested in the same questions as you are. I have access now to Norelli’s larger volumes and hope to eventually work my way through the Italian to grasp his arguments. I need to set out all the arguments for and against 11:2-22 being an interpolation into the second half of the work once I’ve done that.

  2. The tough thing in apocrypha, is dating them. So is Ascention precursor to, or subsequent confusion from, the gospels.

    Many parts of even canonical Isaiah by the way though, are contested as to date

    Currently I am taking much apocryphal material as preceeding the gospels.
    In that case, this example becomes very Interesting

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