More on that very strange birth of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah

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by Neil Godfrey

c. 1437-1446
c. 1437-1446 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing the series currently archived here . . . .

There are more interesting questions than the one I addressed in the previous post about that bizarre “birth” of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah (Asc. Isa.). What is the point of creating such an odd explanation for how the Son of God made his entrance to the world?

Orthodox Christian theology has Jesus save the world by means of the incarnation. The Asc. Isa., however, teaches that this is not how Jesus saved and has no room for Jesus literally becoming a man. God’s will was for Jesus to rescue humanity by having him hide his glory behind a mere human appearance and so by means of this deception to defeat the angelic powers. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

Recall how the Son of the Beloved sloughs off a layer of his glory as he passes through each of the seven heavens on his descent so that he appears no different from the inhabitants of each realm.

Notice, too, how the description of Jesus’ birth turns into a vision for Joseph and Mary:

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.”

So it is through revelation that Joseph and Mary understand and know that Jesus is not a man like other humans. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

In the previous post we saw the possible link between Isaiah 53:2 and the miraculous appearance of the child. Enrico Norelli explores further the Asc. Isa.‘s sources for this scene and the message it was meant to convey.

We saw in another earlier post Norelli’s reasons for rejecting the view that the Asc. Isa. was adapting the nativity scene in the Gospel of Matthew. He argues that the Asc. Isa. was most likely written about the same time as that canonical gospel (or before it).

Comparing with the Acts of Peter

The Asc. Isa. continues (Charles’ translation):

12. And the story regarding the infant was noised abroad 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.

Recall that the child just happened to appear before Mary and her belly returned to normal size at the same time and she remained a virgin. The child could be said to owe nothing of his body to Mary. The evidence was both for and against Mary having given birth to the child. Some said she had, others denied it.

In these verses 12 to 14 Norelli finds striking similarities to the Acts of Peter. Not that one has borrowed from the other, but that the evidence points to both of these texts most likely using the same source.

Peter is in Rome and publicly arguing with Simon Magus. Simon had just declared that it was utter nonsense to think that a god could be born or crucified. Peter responds with a barrage of proof-texts to refute the hostile sophisticated intellect:

XXIV. But Peter said: Anathema upon thy words against  Christ! Presumest thou to speak thus,

1. whereas the prophet saith of him: Who shall declare his generation?

2. And another prophet saith: And we saw him and he had no beauty nor comeliness.

3. And: In the last times shall a child be born of the Holy Ghost: his mother knoweth not a man, neither doth any man say that he is his father.

4. And again he saith: She hath brought forth and not brought forth.

5. And again: Is it a small thing for you to [struggle against] men? Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb.

6. And another prophet saith, honouring the Father: Neither did we hear her voice, neither did a midwife come in.

7. Another prophet saith: Born not of the womb of a woman, but from a heavenly place came he down.

8. And: A stone was cut out without hands, and smote all the kingdoms.

9. And: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner;

10. and he calleth him a stone elect, precious.

Verses 1 and 2 we have already encountered in the Asc. Isa.. The proof-texts Peter uses in verses 3, 4, 6 and 7 are not in our versions of the “Old Testament”. Norelli tells us that such lists of quoted proofs of a theological point were generally from the Bible but often the author would slip in a few from other sources now lost to us and that is what our author has done here with these four texts.

Verse 4, She hath brought forth and not brought forth, appears to derive from an apocryphal work of Ezekiel. Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ, 23) attributes the same passage to an Ezekiel and from other Christian authors we know there was once a work of an apocryphal Ezekiel. These other longer quotations of the same passage tell us that it is a heifer that “brought forth yet did not bring forth”! — but we don’t know the context of the original.

What is interesting is that the text has not been quoted word for word in the Asc. Isa. but its content has been woven into the narrative instead. The two contradictory statements are attributed to two groups in Bethlehem who are astonished at both the unexpected appearance of the newborn and the virginity of Mary.

Then look at verse 6 in the Acts of Peter (Neither did we hear her voice, neither did a midwife come in) and 11:14 in the Asc. Isa.: in both it is protested that no-one heard Mary cry out in the pains of labour nor did anyone see a midwife attend to her.

The Acts of Peter probably dates from the late second century so it is a most unlikely source for the Asc. Isa.. Nor has the Acts of Peter borrowed from the Asc. Isa.: the author of the Acts attributes the passages found in Asc. Isa. to two different prophetic sources. Norelli concludes that both the Asc. Isa. and Acts of Peter independently drew upon a similar set of passages used to prove the virgin birth was a fulfillment of prophecy.

Verse 7 (Born not of the womb of a woman, but from a heavenly place came he down) was another text used by the gnostic opponents of Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ, 19-20). Again the Asc. Isa. does not quote a passage word for word but incorporates its message into its narrative: the child is the Lord who has come down from heaven and Asc. Isa.‘s description scarcely allows us to think that he took any of his bodily substance from Mary’s womb.

Norelli concludes with an observation on verse 5’s proof text that comes from Isaiah 7:13 (LXX). The virgin birth is set in the context of a struggle among men:

Is it not enough for you to [contend with men, that you will [contend with] my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son . . .

The author of the Acts of Peter has dramatized this human contest in the conflict between Simon Magus and the apostle Peter. In the Asc. Isa. the author has adapted the struggle to the conflict between the two groups in Bethlehem arguing over how the child came to be. In both books the dispute is related to the miraculous birth of Jesus.

Summary and reason for Asc. Isa.‘s nativity narrative 

The account of Jesus’ birth in the Asc. Isa. serves to show that heavenly being Isaiah saw in the seventh heaven with God and who is called the Lord and Well-Beloved disguised himself as a man and descended to this world.

We therefore finds that Asc. Isa. 11.2 to 14 is based on three kinds of texts:

  1. A narrative tradition about the birth of Jesus that was authoritative in some circles who was authority in some circles. The evangelist Matthew has also taken this as the raw material for his narrative. Since the Asc. Isa. has many points of contact with the traditions found in Matthew Norelli concludes that the two authors occupied the same environment;
  2. A Bible passage (Isaiah 53.2) that our author interpreted along with the entire Christian tradition as a Christological prophecy;
  3. An anthology of biblical proof-texts, some of which were apocryphal.

These various materials have been transformed into a narrative according to a midrashic method often used in the apocryphal Christian works. (Yes, Norelli uses the word “midrashic” in apparent defiance of what a few other pedantic scholars might say.)

In summary, the Ascension tale from 11.2 to 14 is based on texts about the appearance of Jesus that its author considered authoritative. Norelli draws the conclusion from this that the entirety of the second half of the Asc. Isa., chapters 6 to 11, were originally included to convey the following message: Isaiah was taken up to the seventh heaven to learn that the virginal conception and birth of Jesus (both traditions received by his community) must be included as part of a doctrine of salvation centered on the descent of a celestial being and which takes place without the knowledge of the angelic powers and men.

That concludes Norelli’s argument up to page 60 of Ascension d’Isaïe (1993).

I have yet to study Norelli’s reasons for believing that this passage (11:2-22) is part of the original text of the Asc. Isa. and not an interpolation as has long been widely believed by the specialist scholars.

If Norelli is a devout Roman Catholic then I probably should keep in mind a potential bias in his arguments for the originality of the virgin birth narrative in Christian documents. But I’m open to being persuaded either way.


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27 thoughts on “More on that very strange birth of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah”

    1. Well, unpolished crudity as well as the absence of familiar plot points of the canonical nativity stories (manger, massacre of the innocents, etc. etc.). That is, it seems unlikely that the author of Asc. Isa.‘s nativity account had a copy of Matthew or Luke available to consult.

      1. Actually, crudity is sometimes a useful authenticator, to those of us used to reading very ancient texts from the original.

        It is also useful to consider the final, more polished Bible. Which refers to Mary and her “confus”ion on her child. Which in this frame, makes sense as a later editor’s summary. of this early text.

  1. You should also compare the descent to the teaching of Apelles, as described in the Refutation of All Heresies 7.27 ascribed to Hippolytus, in which Apelles teaches how Christ had a body, so as to show his wounds, but was not really human, just appeared so.

    “However, that he formed his body by taking portions of it from the substance of the universe: that is, hot and cold, and moist and dry. And upon receiving in this body cosmic powers, lived for the time he did in the world. ”

    “And so it was that after he had once more loosed the chains of his body, he gave back heat to what is hot, cold to what is cold, moisture to what is moist, dryness to what is dry. ”

    The theology is strikingly similar to that of the Ascension of Isaiah. One does wonder if this is a work of the Apellean sect.

    1. Apelles was at pains to distinguish himself from the docetists by claiming that Christ had a physical body, although it was not made of earthly materials. Ascension of Isaiah does not seem to weigh in on that distinction one way or the other. It is clearly implying that the Christ child doesn’t have a normal physical body, but that could just as easily mean that he has no physical body at all (indeed, from an outsider’s perspective Apelles’ view vs. docetism could easily seem like a distinction without a difference).

  2. //I have yet to study Norelli’s reasons for believing that this passage (11:2-22) is part of the original text of the Asc. Isa. and not an interpolation as has long been widely believed by the specialist scholars.//

    I’ll probably write something about this for you on my blog before the summer’s over.

  3. Norelli’s analysis of the sources for Asc. Isa. 11.2 to 14 is fascinating.

    It seems to me that, if the rest of the Vision text can be shown derive from the same sources, then this is strong evidence that 11.2 to 14 is not an interpolation. And, on the other hand, if the rest of the Vision text cannot be shown derive from the same sources, then this is strong evidence that 11.2 to 14 is an interpolation.

  4. That said, it seems to me that only the line “Neither did we hear her voice, neither did a midwife come in” in the Acts of Peter is, by itself, a strong indication of a common source. The other examples given seem to represent themes and plot elements that were generally in the atmosphere 2000 years ago for someone in the right circles.

    This source (M. R. James The New Testament Apocrypha, https://books.google.com/books?id=aUHlC6XW1-AC&pg=PA325#v=onepage&q&f=false) simply concludes that Acts of Peter in verse 6 is quoting from or paraphrasing the Ascension of Isaiah. The other proof-texts cited, then, resemble Asc. Isa. only indirectly: they share ambient themes and plot elements. Does Norelli provide an argument against this conclusion?

    I noticed this while googling to try to find a source for verse 3: “In the last times shall a child be born of the Holy Ghost: his mother knoweth not a man, neither doth any man say that he is his father.” Does Norelli give any indication of its provenance?

    1. It occurs to me that the reference to “two different prophetic sources” might not indicate that the Acts of Peter had a separate source other than the Ascension of Isaiah. It might mean that the Ascension of Isaiah was being used as a source for finding prophetic words by reverting the narrative itself, on the assumption that the narrative was prophetically predicted in any case.

      1. Before expressing my own thoughts on the question I’d like to know if Norelli’s words below provide a more nuanced slant on the argument than what I’ve outlined so far. I’m not confident that my own surviving French comprehension has done this passage full justice. Anyone with competent French care to translate?

        Quant au texte n° 6 des Actes de Pierre , il trouve une
        correspondance litterale dans !’affirmation des habitants
        de Bethlehem rapportee au v. 14 de l’ Ascension. Sous
        cette forme, la citation ne se trouve que dans ces deux
        textes, ce qui oblige a supposer un rapport litteraire
        entre eux. II est invraisemblable que l’Ascension depen-
        de des Actes de Pierre , qui sont sans doute d’origine plus
        tardive. Mais la dependance inverse est egalement
        improbable, car les Actes de Pierre attribuent a deux
        prophetes differents les testimonia 4 et 6 et ne les ont
        par consequent pas tires de la meme prophetie d’lsaie.
        De plus, les Actes de Pierre n’ont pas puise dans
        V Ascension la phrase « Elle a engendre et n’a pas engen-
        dre », en reunissant les deux enonces attribues a deux
        groupes divers; en effet, cette citation se retrouve —
        sous la meme forme «compacte » que dans les Actes et
        non sous la forme d’un dialogue comme dans
        l’Ascension — chez d’autres auteurs qui ne dependent
        ni des Actes de Pierre , ni de l’Ascension.

        Il s’en suit que le recit de la naissance de Jesus dans
        Ascension 11,12-14 utilise un recueil de testimonia sur la
        naissance virginale qui est proche de celui qu’utilisent
        les Actes de Pierre.

  5. One thing I’ve wondered about is how 11.2 seems concerned to establish Davidic ancestry for both Mary and Joseph. I thought this was a much later phenomena that arose specifically because of the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and also to explain how Jesus could be of David if Joseph wasn’t really his father. It seems even more odd here where Jesus is barely even “of” Mary either.

    Originally I thought that might indicate a late date for the 11.2 section. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

    1. I’ve always thought that Mary being of David was a notion that may well have originally appeared before the genealogies of Joseph were written. Declaring Mary to be descended from David is a more natural and direct way of explaining how Jesus fulfilled the prophetic claim to be of David than Matthew’s and Luke’s Davidic line to a father who is not a father. The early sources speaking of Mary being of David indicate no knowledge of Joseph’s genealogy.

      On the other hand, in support of your point, I think it more likely that the veneration of Mary was a later development.

      Does anyone know how the following from Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho (ch 43) should be understood?

      And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all men may equally obtain it. But since the mystery of His birth now demands our attention I shall speak of it. Isaiah then asserted in regard to the generation of Christ, that it could not be declared by man, in words already quoted: ‘Who shall declare His generation? for His life is taken from the earth: for the transgressions of my people was He led to death.’ The Spirit of prophecy thus affirmed that the generation of Him who was to die, that we sinful men might be healed by His stripes, was such as could not be declared.

      1. Jeremiah 26.30 & 36.30

        Mark 6.3
        Galatians 4.4
        Romans 1.3
        John 8.41
        Hebrews 7.14,17
        Revelation 5.5
        Such criteria shape the narratives.

        See also Jean Schaberg, “The Illegitimacy of Jesus” (2006 ed.)
        Wikipedia. User:Ret.Prof/Celsus

  6. “These other longer quotations of the same passage tell us that it is a heifer that “brought forth yet did not bring forth”! — but we don’t know the context of the original.”

    In the Eastern Orthodox church’s Akathist Hymn to Mary they sing

    Rejoice, O heifer that gave birth to the unblemished calf for the faithful.
    Rejoice, O ewe that conceived the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
    Rejoice, O warm mercy seat, our fervent intercessor.


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

    Doesn’t this indicate a redaction from the original story as understood?

      1. I interpret the point in a way the original conclusion of Mark is often understood. “And they spoke to no-one for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8) is sometimes interpreted as the author’s explanation for why his story had never been heard before. Was the author of the Asc. Isa.‘s nativity scene indirectly hinting why it was “true” even though not known before? It’s not as “evident” as Mark’s verse but there is wiggle room for wondering, I think. Aaron may correct me, of course.

        1. That’s interesting. In the case of the short ending of Mark, I certainly agree that this implies the author was explaining “here’s why you’ve never heard about this before”. Perhaps the same is true of Ascensio 11:11, as well. In neither case is it entirely clear what the “this” is. I mean, what is the new plot element that Mark has introduced? The resurrection? Presumably not; more likely, the empty tomb near Jerusalem. Or perhaps something to do with the reappearance in Galilee. And what is the new plot element that the author of Asc. Isa. 11 would be introducing in this scenario? Heck, maybe this author himself created the whole nativity story with Mary and Joseph from scratch, for all we know.

          On the other hand, I agree that it’s much less evident that that is the purpose of Ascensio 11:11. “And a voice came to them:
          “Tell this vision to no one.'” might be included simply to create a suspenseful atmosphere. I imagine there had been quite enough “secret” prophecies circulating in those days and several centuries prior that this author would have known secrecy as a plot flourish that adds to the sense of realism or importance.

        2. You read my point correctly, and that Mary is already referenced as The Virgin Mary as a title makes it seem like this birth story is an after thought in the overall Asc. Isa..

            1. First explanation possible and “early”; cf. James D. Tabor, “The Jesus Dynasty” (2007 ed).

              Second: hero figures require a special and/or supernatural conception/birth. See above on some criteria in this case.

              Speculation: Jesus resulted from deliberate impregnation by the Servant of a Healer God (Abdes) to fulfill a “Magian” expectation of a redeemer to appear in accord with the 70 weeks prophecy of Daniel?

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