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:
- 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;
- A Bible passage (Isaiah 53.2) that our author interpreted along with the entire Christian tradition as a Christological prophecy;
- 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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