Tim spoke those words seconds before leading listeners to infer that he had checked the ancient text that Carrier was misrepresenting, the Ascension of Isaiah [Asc. Isa.].
Listeners were led to understand that only readers with superior knowledge of the texts would know Carrier was giving them false information.
So to prove that Carrier did not know what he was talking about, that the Asc. Isa. said the very opposite of what Carrier claimed, Tim quoted a passage from it.
What Tim failed to tell his viewers, and perhaps what Tim himself over time has forgotten, was that he was actually reading the same passage in the Asc. Isa. that Carrier himself quoted and discussed in his book. One did not have to turn from Carrier’s book to check the Asc. Isa. for oneself — as Tim clearly implies — but one simply had to read the so-called damning passage in Carrier’s text itself.
Tim’s claim that “only knowledgeable readers would know Carrier had no idea what he was talking about” makes no sense if Tim was alerted to the existence of the passage by Carrier himself. Tim did not draw upon his specialist background knowledge to expose Carrier’s “misinformation”. He simply read a translation of the very same text Carrier himself was quoting and discussing.
Tim O’Neill informs us that Richard Carrier “tries to get around the lack of evidence” for mythicism by (in part) appealing to the Ascension of Isaiah. He begins giving some explanatory background to this text:
I’m responding to the presentation between 53:00 – 59:00 of the Non Sequitur video.
It’s a fairly obscure text and we’ve got it in fairly fragmentary form … an Ethiopian translation … in Slavonic … in Latin… So it’s quite hard for us to piece together exactly what it would have said originally, because originally it would have been written in Greek.
What Tim does not make clear to his listeners is that those translations, and even different manuscript versions in the same language, contain very different contents in places. It is not just that we have different translations of a lost Greek version that causes difficulties. The difficulties arise because of the significantly varying content in the different versions. That’s an important point that we will see Tim appears not to recognize. Tim continues:
But we can work out that it was probably written maybe in the late first century, possibly early second century. . . . That puts it around the same time the gospels were being written. . . . It’s a Christian text and it describes a vision supposedly seen by the prophet Isaiah . . . . But in this text, Isaiah sees a vision, and he sees Jesus descending from the upper heavens, from the seventh heaven, down through the various heavens, and sees him crucified, and then sees him ascend when he rises from the dead back up through the heavens. And the whole point of this text is that no-one knows that it’s Jesus because he takes on a different form as he moves through these different heavens, and then it’s not until he rises from the dead and that he ascends back up through the heavens that he reveals himself to be the messiah and in some sense divine. And so the whole point of the text is that they thought they killed him but he fooled them and as he ascends back up through the seven heavens to take his place with the throne of God again he demonstrates who he really was.
If Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence
Now what Carrier argues is that this is the smoking gun. So he argues that this is a text that as I said did not exist, which is supposedly a text that has Jesus coming from the upper heavens, descending not to earth but to the lower heavens, so to what’s called the firmament, and he gets crucified there, not on earth, and then he rises from the dead there and then he ascends back into the heavens. He gets crucified there, by demons, not on earth by human beings.
Now if Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence. There’s the evidence that there actually was a belief in a Jesus who was purely celestial and not historical; purely heavenly, and died in the heavens, not earthly, and died on earth.
I do find myself wearying of this false dichotomy between celestial and historical. Literature is crammed full of nonhistorical figures who “lived” on earth. I suspect there are many times more earthly human form mythical figures in literature than there are celestial ones.
But there’s a problem. And the problem is that actually if you’re familiar with the text — this is why people like me when you read Carrier’s book you think, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ If you actually read Carrier’s book, he says, ‘Well, he descended just to the firmament and nowhere else, and he gets crucified on a tree that’s not a real tree, it’s a kind of celestial version of a tree, and he’s never depicted as going to earth.’
The only problem is that if you actually turn to the Ascension of Isaiah you read this:
And I saw one like the son of man (that’s Jesus, the messiah) dwelling with men and in the world and they did not recognize him.
It also says that an angel talks to Isaiah saying Jesus … taking on your form; in your form, human form.
So, the text does actually have Jesus coming to earth, it actually does have Jesus dwelling among men.
Tim could not be clearer. Tim is saying that we read one thing in Carrier’s book and quite something else if we turn to the Ascension of Isaiah itself. The clear suggestion is that Carrier does not know what the Asc. Isa. says and one will not know of the “incriminating” passage unless one “went to” the Asc. Isa.I itself. Contrary to this clear inference, Carrier in fact informs readers by quoting and discussing that same passage.
But what the farnarkling is he talking about?
Now when I heard that my first thought was, ‘What the farnarkling are you talking about?’ Tim does not give us the source for the translation he is reading from but it sounds as good as Carrier’s own translation.
Tim’s translation sounds similar to one found in a footnote as an alternative manuscript reading by R. H. Charles and revised by J. M. T. Barton in The Apocryphal Old Testament edited by H. F. D. Sparks.
There is nothing amiss with Carrier’s translation. It conveys the same meaning as that by Charles/Barton.
Carrier is quoting, or rather he is translating, a section from what is known as the “second Latin” or L2 manuscript that varies significantly from the main manuscripts that normally serve as the basis for English translations. This particular L2 passage is not elsewhere only in another Latin translation of the Slavonic manuscript:
Et uidi similem filii hominis, et cum hominibus habitare, et in mundo, et non cognouerunt eum.
Charles concludes that the L2 words are not original to the Ascension of Isaiah (it was originally composed in Greek) and Norelli finds evidence that the line has been taken from passages in the New Testament Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John. Tim provides his viewers with none of this pertinent information.
How far does one have to look outside Carrier’s own quotations of the Asc. Isa.?
We return to something I have previously labelled a “Sam Harris moment” of doublespeak. Tim assures us that anyone who did not know the text of the Ascension of Isaiah before reading Carrier’s argument would be misled into thinking that that text does not describe an earthly descent of Jesus, but at the same time he somehow concedes that Carrier does actually discuss the passage and acknowledge that it describes a short appearance of Jesus on earth.
So how does Carrier deal with this? He kind of sort of does. He says on page 43 of his book … that this does describe some sort of earthly sojourn but in an absurdly brief fashion. Well, it doesn’t matter if it’s “absurdly brief”. The point of the text is that he descends, he dies, and then he ascends. It says, he dwelt, on earth. He didn’t visit. It’s not a sojourn. It says he lived there. Now it says that they didn’t recognize him; that’s the whole point of the text….. but he does come to earth. So there goes the smoking gun. There’s no way you can argue your way around this. Carrier is just wrong.
Tim says a more knowledgeable reader with the requisite background knowledge would need to “turn to” the text in order to learn about the text even though Carrier quotes and addresses the very same passage of the Asc. Isa..
Tim accuses Carrier of misinforming readers that the Asc. Isa. does not say Jesus dwelt on earth and informs listeners that only someone who knows the material would not be deceived. But on the other hand he accuses Carrier of quoting and explaining the very words in the Asc. Isa. that he is supposed to be hiding from readers, and that only better informed readers will know exist and contradict Carrier!
More than just “absurdly brief”
So what is Carrier saying about that passage in L2? Carrier agrees with those specialist scholars of the Ascension of Isaiah who enumerate reasons for believing that a large portion in our most complete manuscript, a portion that describes Jesus being born to Mary and then being crucified on earth and sending out his twelve disciples after his resurrection (11:2-22), was not part of the original text. It was inserted much later. In an attempt to decipher what might have been in place of that interpolation originally Carrier turns to the L2 manuscript and repeats (with his own take) a number of arguments that are again found among the specialist scholars of the Asc. Isa.. These arguments are that neither was this short passage (the one Tim read out, presumably from Carrier’s translation, convinced that it was the original text!) part of the original Greek text. Carrier agrees with those scholars who see in that short passage a later hand inspired by other texts such as Baruch 3:38 that speak of God dwelling on earth among men.
What is missing, in Carrier’s view, is what earlier chapters of the Asc. Isa. have led us to expect. I list the prophecies in the text that the reader is waiting to see fulfilled in this 11th chapter, but finds instead only tampered and interpolated passages instead:
9:14 And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will crucify Him on a tree, and will slay Him not knowing who He is.
9:17 And then many of the righteous will ascend with Him, whose spirits do not receive their garments till the Lord Christ ascend and they ascend with Him.
10:12 And they shall not know that Thou art with Me, till with a loud voice I have called (to) the heavens . . .
We never read of those events being fulfilled and one is left wondering if their accounts originally occupied the questionable lines in the extant 11th chapter.
In fact, Carrier’s discussion informs readers that scholars who study the Ascension of Isaiah are fully aware of variant texts in the different manuscripts and the problematic questions of interpolations and otherwise doctored and omitted passages. The way Tim presents the passage he reads from the Asc. Isa. (from Carrier’s translation?) misleadingly suggests that there is no doubt among scholars about the originality of the passage. I know of no scholar who accepts that passage as original.
“Those of us who actually know the material”
So Tim is not strictly correct when he says that Carrier “sweeps aside” the passage on the weak grounds that it is “absurdly brief”. Carrier’s view coheres with mainstream scholarship on the Ascension of Isaiah.
And the interesting thing about this is that people who read Carrier’s book, who don’t then go and check the texts in question, who don’t have the background — because that is a very complicated text — don’t have the background to be able to do that, are going to read Carrier saying, “Ah, well, here’s a text that says he didn’t come to earth, that he died in the heavens, and ascended back into the upper heavens,” are going to think that he’s making a good argument. Whereas those of us who actually know the material, we read Carrier’s book and page after page after page you come across arguments like this and you just think, “He’s wrong!” But most people don’t have the background to be able to tell that he’s wrong.
No, they only have to read Carrier’s book to read the very passage you indicate they would not suspect exists. Tim appears to be unaware of the scholarly doubts surrounding the passage he reads.
One more point Tim brings to our attention is that the Asc. Isa. says Jesus will take on human form. Tim equates this with an account of a historical Jesus. A number of scholars, however, see such references as further interpolations and indicators of a later theological warfare between docetists and “orthodox” Christians.
I have focused on Tim’s review of Carrier’s Ascension of Isaiah argument in this post. I have not attempted to present a wider discussion of the Asc. Isa.. There are other possibilities and interpretations that belong to another post another time.
Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.
Charles, R. H. (Robert Henry). 1900. The Ascension of Isaiah : Translated from the Ethiopic Version, Which, Together with the New Greek Fragment, the Latin Versions and the Latin Translation of the Slavonic, Is Here Published in Full. London : A. and C. Black. http://archive.org/details/cu31924014590529.
Jesus, What A Question! 2018. The Non Sequitur Show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUDP0Wc31o8.
Norelli, Enrico. 1995. Ascensio Isaiae: commentarius. Turnhout: Brepols.
Norelli, Enrico. 1993. Ascension du prophète Isaïe. Turnhout: Brepols.
Sparks, H. F. D., ed. 1985. The Apocryphal Old Testament. Oxford : New York: Oxford University Press. (contains the Charles’ translation)
Perhaps someone knows another source for Tim’s translation.
Norelli, Enrico. 1995. Ascensio Isaiae: commentarius. Turnhout: Brepols.
Norelli, Enrico. 1993. Ascension du prophète Isaïe. Turnhout: Brepols.
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