Continuing from Ascension of Isaiah: Questions. . . .
. . . .
Is the “pocket gospel” (an account Jesus’ earthly birth and crucifixion in 11:2-22 of the Ascension of Isaiah) an original part of the Ascension of Isaiah and not a later interpolation?
In the previous post we looked at one disputed reason to think so. Here we look at a couple more. (Like the first reason addressed these are taken from an early commentary on the Asc. Isa. by R.H. Charles.)
In the pocket gospel we read that no-one on earth recognizes who Jesus is, neither when he is a newborn arrival into the world nor when they crucify him. A long-standing argument that this mini-gospel of Jesus’ birth and death is original is that this theme of ignorance fits in nicely with the rest of the Asc. Isa..
Before we come to the pocket gospel in chapter 11 we read in chapter 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.
Even more often stressed in the lead up to chapter 11 is that no-one, no angel, no demon, will recognize Jesus as he passes through the lower heavens. Jesus will look no different from any of the other inhabitants of those spirit worlds. Thus in chapter 10:
9. And thou [God speaking to his Beloved, Jesus] wilt become like unto the likeness of all who are in the five heavens.
10. And thou wilt be careful to become like the form of the angels of the firmament [and the angels also who are in Sheol].
11. And none of the angels of that world shall know that Thou art with Me of the seven heavens and of their angels.
12. And they shall not know that Thou art with Me, till with a loud voice I have called (to) the heavens . . .
The disputed passage, the pocket gospel of 11:2-22, contains these matching statements:
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.
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).
Now for the reason for thinking the latter passages are part of an interpolation:
If an editor wanted to continue to with the lack of recognition theme then it seems to be unlikely he would introduce details that seem to make that lack of recognition implausible. Why not simply continue the Asc. Isa. theme of having the Beloved look no different from those around him? That’s enough elsewhere. Why then have the Beloved appear in vision performing remarkable miracles that surely must give his identity away? One could go further and note that Jesus’ birth in Jerusalem was certainly not kept secret from anyone.
If the only purpose of the Beloved not being recognized was to have him killed so he could enter Sheol and recapture the dead back to life, thus defeating the power of the Angel of Death, then what point could there be to introducing other details of Jesus’ earthly sojourn that had to have been kept hidden? In the undisputed sections of the Asc. Isa. the Beloved’s identity is hidden by means of changing his appearance. In the disputed passage, however, we appear to see quite a leap: the Beloved does things that must surely reveal his identity but miraculously God somehow stops people from “knowing who he is”.
Another problematic detail is in 11:21
20. In Jerusalem indeed I saw Him being crucified on a tree:
21. And likewise after the third day rise again and remain days.
If Jesus is shown to have “remained days” on earth after his resurrection then we have another contradiction with the stated theme of the larger Asc. Isa.. The “Beloved” is said in the larger Asc. Isa. to descend for the purpose of defeating the power of death. His death is his ticket of access to Hades. Once done, he is said to ascend back to the seventh heaven. Conclusion: there is no place for introducing a longer stay on earth after his resurrection. Such a detail must be an addition from later orthodoxy. It flies in the face of the otherwise stated point of the Beloved’s descent, death and return in the Asc. Isa..
Such are more reasons James Barlow advances in this instance for interpolation. If I have misrepresented the point I would appreciate a correction. Barlow suggests that Charles appeals to orthodox faith as the measure of authenticity: when Charles expresses dissatisfaction that the shorter version of Asc. Isa. contains no details of the crucifixion, descent to Sheol and resurrection on the third day, he is arguing in a pious circle. That is, he cannot accept an original story that lacks what he thinks should be in it.
Further, we read in the last line of this disputed passage, v.22
and I saw when He sent out the Twelve Apostles and ascended.
James Barlow suggests that this detail is surely late. In our Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus sent out the Twelve very early in his career, in chapter 3, not after his death. In the book of Acts the Twelve are “sent out” by being commanded to remain in Jerusalem.
So there is clearly room for doubt about the authenticity of the pocket gospel’s authenticity.
Are there counter-reasons to think that the passage is original?
Some of the above reasons stated for doubting the originality of the passage might be considered appeals to ignorance. A favourite quote of mine from Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea . . .
I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (p. 178)
The “pocket gospel” is incompatible with Paul
Here are reasons for treating the pocket gospel as both later than and contrary to Paul’s narrative.
If the pocket gospel is part of the original Asc. Isa. then the Asc. Isa. must be dated after the traditional dates for Paul’s activity.
We come here to details that impinge on where we date the Asc. Isa.. The pocket gospel knows of the existence of Nazareth as the place where Jesus grew up:
11:12. And the story regarding the infant was noised broad in Bethlehem. . . .
11:15. And they took Him, and went to Nazareth in Galilee. . . .
11:17. And I saw: In Nazareth He sucked the breast as a babe and as is customary in order that He might not be recognized.
According to archaeological evidence Nazareth was not an inhabited town until the late first century, probably after 70 CE, but certainly from 50 CE on.
Our earliest datable evidence of the view that a resurrected Jesus sent out Twelve apostles to evangelize the world is with Justin of the mid-second century [link is to page setting out reason for dating First Apology to ca. 150 CE]:
For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God.
(First Apology, 39 – note that this statement is not based on anything we read in our canonical New Testament texts)
The Gospel of Matthew comes close by concluding with Jesus sending out only eleven apostles but these were sent from Galilee, not Jerusalem. Our canonical forms of Luke-Acts only infer that the Twelve at some point went out to preach to other nations and they have been dated by means of independent evidence as late as the mid-second century.
Paul himself makes no mention of Twelve being sent out to preach the gospel. The narrative of Twelve Apostles being sent out to proclaim the gospel is indeed contrary to the narrative of Paul’s mission. If Paul claimed to be the apostle to the gentiles then there is no room for the Twelve preaching the gospel to all nations. If the Twelve are preaching to all nations then there is no need for Paul.
So if the pocket gospel is part of the original Asc. Isa. then the Asc. Isa. becomes part of a tradition independent of, even in opposition to, the Pauline narrative.
But is it original?
It is true, according to James Barlow’s commentary, that the details in 11:2-22 go beyond the simple prophecy earlier in the Asc. Isa. that the Beloved is to descend unrecognized to both angels and demons in order to be crucified by demonic powers. Adding details of an earthly visitation that also need to be prevented from alerting audiences to the Beloved’s identity can be considered superfluous.
Yet, is it really so contradictory?
When we read of the birth of Jesus to Mary in 11:2-10 then we are reading about an important detail that signified Jesus was to become “more human” than in mere appearance. Jesus could deceive angels by merely sloughing off his higher glory and toning down his appearance to match those of other angels. The doctrine of Jesus being either a “son of man” or, simply, “man”, in order to save “mankind”, takes us a step further than mere outward appearance. In 11:2-22 Jesus is never fully human but he is “more human” than in just looks. He has to die like a human, after all. That’s the central point of his descent from the seventh heaven.
The birth of Jesus to Mary can be understood as a necessary part of making Jesus human enough to die as a man in the same way all flesh dies. That Jesus “becomes a man” to die for mankind is a key doctrinal point. (Another extra-canonical narrative suggested that Jesus was incapable of death because he remained entirely spirit; another had to die in his place to fool everyone into falsely thinking they killed Jesus.)
So Jesus is born into the world through a woman. (The Asc. Isa. still has difficulty with this concept since Jesus simply pops out to appear in front of Mary and Mary’s body returns instantly to her earlier pre-pregnant state. It is not even clear that Jesus was actually “born” normally: one moment he is in her womb; the next he is outside of her as if by a magic trick.)
One can say that all of this detail is superfluous to the otherwise stated theme of the Asc. Isa., agreed. I don’t think the detail is inconsistent with other parts of the Asc. Isa., however. The author has explained how the Beloved remains unrecognized by spirit beings, but in order to explain how he becomes flesh in some fashion so as to die as a fleshly human, he needs to go beyond being a spirit merely appearing in the shape of a man.
This section of the Asc. Isa. describes a Jesus who is born to flesh, is in a sense flesh, but at the same time is more than mere flesh. He is born from a woman in some sense (though not strictly as we are all born). He is both spirit and flesh. He is a man but he is also the Beloved from the seventh heaven. He never loses that spirit identity. What is hidden from others in the world is his higher, spirit identity. He is thought to be only a man when in reality he is “the Beloved” from God.
So when the pocket gospel says the infant suckled Mary’s breast,
11:17 In Nazareth He sucked the breast as a babe and as is customary in order that He might not be recognized
we are informed that people are deceived into thinking that he is “only” another human. He is human in more than appearance, though. After all, he has to die as a human to save humanity.
At this point we are reminded of Tertullian’s opposition to Marcion and his teachings in the later second century. Marcion had taught that Jesus was not born but nonetheless appeared in the flesh and did die on the cross. Tertullian thought such an idea was nonsense. For Tertullian, only one born could possibly die as a man on a cross (Against Marcion, 3.9).
Now we can speculate that this birth narrative was a later interpolation that went beyond the bare necessities of other prophecies in the Asc. Isa., but we can also suggest that the author believed that the birth narrative was necessary to explain how the core prophecy of the death of Jesus was fulfilled. Philippians 2:6-11 expresses the idea that Jesus only appeared as flesh yet still died on the cross and this teaching was picked up by Marcion in the early second century. From the mid to late second century we find Tertullian scoffing at that doctrine. Only one born of a woman could die on the cross, he insisted. (We might recall Galatians 4:4 where again we read of Jesus “being made” from the flesh of a woman, but we also need to keep in mind that that passage is also an interpolation: it does contradict Philippians 2:6-11, after all.)
The next detail of the vision of Jesus’ earthly sojourn is that he performs many miracles. That detail can also be understood as a necessary addition in order to explain how the demons were able to rouse up other mortals to kill Jesus. The demons were insanely jealous of this character (they did not know who it was) gaining such admiration so they whipped up his erstwhile admirers into hating him and crucifying him.
The details of the pocket gospel can thus be interpreted as minimalist — they are all that is necessary to explain to the author’s satisfaction how Jesus came to die on the cross.
Other schools of Christian thought had other ideas. Some said he did not need to be born to die. But those were arguably not the view of the author of the Asc. Isa..
The Asc. Isa. with the pocket gospel included is no doubt a very early document. It either precedes or is certainly independent of what we read in our canonical gospels.
It survives in multiple manuscripts and some of these omit the pocket gospel. That detail could be explained in one of two ways:
- either the manuscripts omitting the pocket gospel were earliest and the pocket gospel was added later;
- or the manuscripts omitting the pocket gospel were later and the pocket gospel was omitted because of disagreement with its theology (i.e. the necessity of a human “birth” of Jesus in order to die).
More to follow…..
Barlow, James. n.d. Commentary on the Vision of Isaiah.
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