Some Jesus mythicists, following Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier, have taken a special interest in the Ascension of Isaiah [Asc. Isa.], an early Christian text that has been used to support (not establish, as some critics have asserted) the argument that Jesus was in an early stage of tradition believed to have been crucified by demons in the firmament above the earth. Fundamental to this interpretation of the Asc. Isa. is the view proposed by some mainstream scholars that a passage describing Jesus being born on earth and finally crucified on earth in the text is a late insertion. Manuscript and some textual evidence are cited in support of this view. That passage is 11:2-22. It speaks of the virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, a mysterious birth of Jesus and Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast, a later time when Jesus performs miracles and so arouses the envy of ruling demons, and of those demons stirring up hatred against him to the point where people crucify him on a tree in Jerusalem. All the while Jesus’ true identity as the “Beloved” from God in the seventh heaven is hidden from the spirit and human realms.
I have long agreed with those who have shown why we should think that that passage, sometimes called “the pocket gospel”, was not an original part of the Asc. Isa.. A number of manuscripts of the text do not have it. Has not the tendency of mythical development been to elaborate rather than excise earlier traditions? If so, surely the simplest explanation is that the passage was a later addition to the story.
This is a difficult document to analyze in any exact fashion, since the several surviving manuscripts differ considerably in wording, phrases and even whole sections. It has been subjected to much editing in a complicated and uncertain pattern of revision. Many of its elements are quite revealing, not the least for the picture they disclose of the evolution of thought about the descending Son and his role. That picture indicates that in its earlier strata, the Vision speaks of a divine Son who operates entirely in the supernatural realm. (Doherty, JNGNM, 119)
I have come to have doubts, however. I have long been in two minds over various hypotheses that Jesus was crucified by demons in the firmament (Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier). There are several reasons to think that the earliest Jesus myth is the most obvious orthodox one: that Jesus came from heaven, was crucified on earth, descended beneath the earth, then ascended back to heaven. I can address the reasons later.
In this post I want to begin tackling some of the trickier questions surrounding the Ascension of Isaiah. The person I have to thank for this review of my thinking is James Barlow who, I understand, has Masters and Doctoral degrees in Divinity and until his retirement belonged to the Anglican clergy. I have been perusing on and off for over a year a detailed commentary he prepared on the Vision chapters (6 to 11) of the Asc. Isa.
JB presents a very detailed case for the Asc. Isa. being behind some of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians and for the pocket gospel being an interpolation into the original Asc. Isa..
1 Cor. 2:6-9
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—
1 Cor. 15:3-4
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
“As it is written” and “according to the Scriptures” should not be casually assumed to refer to the “Old Testament”. A very reasonable case can be made that Paul has less orthodox writings (viz the Asc. Isa.) in mind. I won’t take up that question now, either.
But because I know the Asc. Isa. has a particular interest for many readers of Vridar, I want to begin here to think through some of the reasons for concluding that the “pocket gospel” of 11:2-22 was not part of the original Ascension of Isaiah. I have begun to suspect it might be original after all.
I will shape these posts around JB’s very thorough commentary. Of course, I welcome corrections anyone might point out as well as opposing ideas and rebuttals. The Asc. Isa. is a problematic text for several reasons. The views I will express now are not the views I have always held and I cannot be confident they will be my views a year or so from now. They are tentative, even now.
A good place to start is with the passage itself, 11:2-22:
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 May, but kept her as a holy virgin, though with child.
6. And he did not live with her for two months.
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.
9. And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.
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.”
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.
15. And they took Him, and went to Nazareth in Galilee.
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, and crucified Him, and He descended to the angel (of Sheol).
20. In Jerusalem indeed I was Him being crucified on 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.
In the landmark translation and commentary on the Asc. Isa. in 1900 R.H. Charles set out his reasons for the above passage belonging to the original narrative despite some manuscripts lacking it. Earlier in the Asc. Isa. we read that Isaiah is promised a vision of the Beloved descending and transforming into the appearance of a man (10:8-14); he is further promised a vision of his crucifixion on a tree and ascent from death (9:12-17).
8. . . . I have therefore been empowered and sent to raise thee [=Isaiah] here that thou mayest see this glory.
9. And that thou mayest see the Lord of all those heavens and these thrones.
10. Undergoing (successive) transformation until He resembles your form and likeness.
11. I indeed say unto thee, Isaiah; No man about to return into a body of that world has ascended or seen what thou seest or perceived what thou hast perceived and what thou wilt see.
12. For it has been permitted to thee in the lot of the Lord to come hither. . . . “
12. And he said unto me: “Crowns and thrones of glory they do not receive, till the Beloved will descend in the form in which you will see Him descend [will descend, I say] into the world in the last days the Lord, who will be called Christ.
13. Nevertheless they see and know whose will be thrones, and whose the crowns when He has descended and been made in your form, and they will think that He is flesh and is a man.
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.
15. And thus His descent, as you will see, will be hidden even from the heavens, so that it will not be known who He is.
16. And when He hath plundered the angel of death, He will ascend on the third day, . . . .
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.
According to Charles these earlier passages lead the reader to expect to read what we find in 11:2-22. This expectation makes sense of 11:2-22 as an integral part of the original account.
JB, however, points out the logical flaw in Charles’ reasoning. It does not follow that a passage must have been part of the original text simply because it is what a reader expects to read. He gives two examples:
- we expect to see resurrection appearances at the end of the Gospel of Mark but the author chose not to add them;
- we expect to see at least a mention of the death of Paul at the end of Acts but the author ended rather abruptly with a “kind of happy” conclusion.
We need better examples to reinforce JB’s point. In the Gospel of Mark we read three prophecies by Jesus that tell the reader what to expect:
Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34
And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day.
Saying, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again.
Is not that exactly what we read in the final chapter of Mark? All of those things are included in the narration as expected. I wonder if we “expect resurrection appearances” because of the influence of the other gospels that portray them so graphically. In the Gospel of Mark, however, there is no prophecy of Jesus will appear to any of his disciples. We read that he will rise again the third day and that event is exactly what is presented to readers in the final chapter with the women discovering the empty tomb and hearing the young man’s proclamation.
As for the ending of Acts, again, I wonder if our expectation to read about Paul’s death is a consequence of what other legends have told us about Paul. In Acts itself, if my memory serves, there is only a prophecy that Paul will suffer much and be bound, and “preach before Gentiles, Kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15; 21:11). The prophecy guiding the Book of Acts is that the gospel will be preached to all nations (1:8) and that is how the final chapter in Acts can be understood. Paul has reached the centre of the world, the ruling capital of all nations, and from there he is preaching to all who come to him. If Rome is not geographically the “farthest end of the world” it is certainly representative of the world’s peoples and serves as an apt place for the gospel finish (Moore, 390f).
Narratives can surprise readers. But as for this one point I think it best to agree with R.H. Charles here. There is much more to follow, though, and I’ll try to cover as much of it as possible in upcoming posts.
Barlow, James. n.d. Commentary on the Vision of Isaiah.
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: London : A. and C. Black. http://archive.org/details/cu31924014590529.
Doherty, Earl. 2009. Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications.
Moore, Thomas S. 1997. “‘To The End Of The Earth’: The Geographical And Ethnic Universalism Of Acts 1:8 In Light Of Isaianic Influence On Luke.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40 (3): 389–99.
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