Ascension of Isaiah: Questioning Three of Earl Doherty’s Arguments

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Ascension of Isaiah: Other Questions. . . . 

. . . .

Earl Doherty without doubt was the major contributor to the Jesus myth perspective from the 1990s through to the early 2000s. I highly respected his grasp of both the big picture and the detail, his clear-headed engagement with the scholarship, and his alertness to valid logical reasoning. His discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah in The Jesus Puzzle and again and in greater depth in Jesus Neither God Nor Man have been mainstays in my own attempts to learn more about that ancient text. James Barlow has delved into the Asc. Isa. in even more detail since and finds even more support for Doherty’s view that it contains evidence of a heavenly crucifixion of Jesus and that its passage of an earthly sojourn of Jesus in one manuscript is a later addition.

Richard Carrier has additional arguments and I hope to address some of those, too, in a future post.

In this post I would like to revisit some of Earl Doherty’s discussion about the Asc. Isa.. (I will return in later posts to addressing James Barlow’s thoughts.)

On page 106 of The Jesus Puzzle Doherty writes:

Here is the key passage. The seer and his angelic guide have reached the seventh heaven. There they see the Lord, the Christ, and the angel foretells this to Isaiah (9:13-17):

13 The Lord will descend into the world in the last days, he who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form, and they will think that he is flesh and a man.

14  And the god of that world will stretch out his hand against the Son, and they will lay their hands upon him and hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is.

15 And thus his descent, as you will see, will be concealed from the heavens, so that it will not be known who he is.

16 And when he has plundered the angel of death, he will rise on the third day . . . .

(I have reformatted Doherty’s text and added underlining.)

The underlined section, more fully discussed in Jesus Neither God Nor Man, are quite possibly later additions. It does not appear in all manuscripts. At least one scholar of the Asc. Isa., Michael Knibb, proposes that all references to Jesus and Christ in the Asc. Isa. have been subsequently added. “They will think that he is flesh and a man” appears to be at odds with the rest of the Asc. Isa. that says Jesus will take on the appearance of lower angels, Doherty suggests.

Crucified on a tree (Giovanni da Modena)

In a shorter manuscript text we read “he will hang him upon a tree”,

showing that the focus is indeed on ‘the god of that world’ and not on any human agents on earth. The motif of not knowing who the Son is comes tellingly close to Paul’s “rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8) who were ignorant of God’s purpose and inadvertently crucified the Lord of glory. Since the identity of the Son is declared to be concealed “from the heavens,” this ignorance is on the part of those in heaven, not on earth.

(JNGNM, 121f)

The shorter text (in Slavonic/Latin manuscripts) thus reads (using R.H. Charles’ translation):

13. The Beloved will descend . . . into the world in the last days . . .

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. . . .

16. And when He hath plundered the angel of death, He will ascend on the third day . . . 

(An aside at this moment: I wonder of Doherty’s view that “the world” to which the Beloved descends includes the firmament, and can mean events happening solely in the firmament, is worthy of more critical attention.)

Also of note, Doherty points out, is that the passage has no clear “Christian theology” of the cross. There is no “dying for sin” or idea of atonement. The death is “a simple rescue operation” to free the prisoners of Hades from the evil angels. Doherty goes even further:

If “Jesus” and “Christ” are later additions, we would not even be able to label this document ‘Christian’ but rather a case of Jewish sectarianism, although something that was in itself ‘proto-Christian.

(JNGNM, 123)

But we come now to that pocket gospel, the account in 11:2-22 of Jesus’ time on earth. In JNGNM Doherty heads his discussion

Introducing an Historical Jesus into the Ascension

11:2-22 contains the account of the birth of Jesus, the actions of Mary and Joseph, Jesus performing miracles and his supporters being turned against him by demonic powers so that they hang him on a tree. Of this section Doherty states

There are many arguments to be made that the latter version should be considered a later expansion, despite Knibb’s opinion (p. 154) that “the primitive character of this narrative [11:2-22] makes it difficult to believe that it did not form part of the original text.”


Here are three arguments along with my thoughts on them.

Argument #1

Knibb says the 11:2-22 belongs to the original vision of Isaiah and the likely reason it was omitted from other manuscripts is its “legendary features”. The shorter manuscripts were written by scribes wanting to bring the narrative more into line with orthodoxy. Knibb explains that the shorter versions

are independent translations of a Greek version of the Vision of Isaiah which had been revised to make it more orthodox (thus e.g. the account of the birth and life of the Lord in the Ethiopic version of 11:2-22 has been replaced in Lat2 and the Slavonic by a short statement which lacks the legendary features of the Ethiopic).

(Knibb, 146)

Doherty responds:

But this would not seem to make much sense. What editor would have been willing to sacrifice a 20-verse account of the Son on earth, the only mention of such a thing in the document, and replace it with a simple “and he dwelt with men in the world, and they did not recognize him”? What Christian scribe ever showed aversion to “legendary features”? If it somehow did create a negative impression, experience shows that later scribes consistently revise—if anything, expanding and making things more detailed—not slash to virtually nothing. 

(JNGNM, 124)

The answer, I believe, is set out in my previous post. What Knibb labels “legendary features” are not legendary in the sense of folk tale elaborations. They are, in fact, doctrinal nuggets. They represent a contentious doctrinal position. The birth of Jesus was coupled with the declaration of his death to make a point about the nature of Jesus: was he spirit or man or some sort of mixture? The point was an indicator of heresy or orthodoxy.

But for other heretics, also, who maintain that the flesh in the angels ought to have been born of flesh, if it had been really human, we have an answer on a sure principle, to the effect that it was truly human flesh, and yet not born. It was truly human, because of the truthfulness of God, who can neither lie nor deceive, and because (angelic beings) cannot be dealt with by men in a human way except in human substance: it was withal unborn, because none but Christ could become incarnate by being born of the flesh in order that by His own nativity He might regenerate our birth, and might further by His death also dissolve our death, by rising again in that flesh in which, that He might even die, He was born.

(Tertullian, Against Marcion, 3:9)

Before Tertullian, there is the Epistle of the Apostles (Epistula Apostolorum) from around 140 to 150 CE. It contains a section that appears to be based on and a slight elaboration of the Ascension of Isaiah:

13 Now that which he revealed unto us is this, which he spake: It came to pass when I was about . . . to come hither from the Father of all things, and passed through the heavens, then did I put on the wisdom of the Father, and I put on the power of his might. I was in heaven, and I passed by the archangels and the angels in their likeness, like as if I were one of them, among the princedoms and powers. I passed through them because I possessed the wisdom of him that had sent me. Now the chief captain of the angels, [is] Michael, and Gabriel and Uriel and Raphael followed me unto the fifth firmament . . . , for they thought in their heart that I was one of them; such power was given me of my Father. And on that day did I adorn the archangels with a wonderful voice . . . , so that they should go unto the altar of the Father and serve and fulfil the ministry until I should return unto him. And so wrought I the likeness by my wisdom; for I became all things in all, that I might praise the dispensation of the Father and fulfil the glory of him that sent me . . . and return unto him. . . .

14 For ye know that the angel Gabriel brought the message unto Mary. And we answered: Yea, Lord. He answered and said unto us: Remember ye not, then, that I said unto you a little while ago: I became an angel among the angels, and I became all things in all? We said unto him: Yea, Lord. Then answered he and said unto us: On that day whereon I took the form of the angel Gabriel, I appeared unto Mary and spake with her. Her heart accepted me, and she believed . . . , and I formed myself and entered into her body. I became flesh, for I alone was a minister unto myself in that which concerned Mary . . . in the appearance of the shape of an angel. For so must I needs . . . do. Thereafter did I return to my Father . . . . 

(Series of dots . . . represent alternative text and notes that I have omitted)

In other versions, the link between being born and becoming a real flesh human is signalled out and of special relevance to explain the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection in the flesh.

Earlier still, according to conventional dating, are the letters of Ignatius stressing the same doctrinal importance (not mere legendary add-on) of the birth of Jesus:

For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith . . . being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh.

(Smyrneans, 1.1)

In another letter, Ignatius appears to come very close to a knowledge of the Ascension of Isaiah or at least its basic narrative of Jesus descending through heavens, not being recognized on earth, neither in his birth nor in his crucifixion, and then ascending back to the Father in full glory visible to all. Again, the birth to Mary is a necessary precursor to enable the death of Jesus to have meaningful power:

For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water

Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord; three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in silence by God. How, then, was He manifested to the world? A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else [in the heavens]. Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death.

(Ephesians 18-19)

I don’t think we should treat an account of the birth of Jesus as a “legendary accretion” but as a pointed doctrinal assertion about the meaning of Christ becoming a man and dying as a flesh and blood human. One can understand its deliberate omission by those of a different persuasion or those who opposed the idea of Jesus having more than the appearance of flesh.

Corollary #1

A question arises from the above argument. Doherty is giving his reasons for believing the shorter version, the one without the longer passage of birth and death that we read in 11:2-22, is the original. He knows many will wonder why the original should be so very brief. His answer is that the document was written prior to any knowledge of the gospel narratives about Jesus. It was a very early document that knew nothing more than the idea that Jesus had descended and been crucified by the prince of demons.

Can we argue in reverse, too? Can we not suggest that a scribe who rejected a flesh and blood Jesus simply removed the extended details of Jesus on earth?

Argument #2

The birth, career and death of Jesus in 11:2-22 is evidently more primitive than anything in the canonical gospels: there is no manger, no shepherds, no angels, no Herod or magi; Mary is not even warned about what is happening to her; there are no details of the miracles performed; no Pilate or priests involved in the crucifixion.

The sequence of events in these verses is clearly garbled, which suggests that the passage was tinkered with perhaps after the initial interpolation, as more detail developed. The seams and discontinuities are evident:

19 And after this the adversary [Satan] envied him and roused the children of Israel, who did not know who he was, against him. And they handed him to the ruler, and crucified him, and he descended to the angel who (is) in Sheol.

20 In Jerusalem, indeed, I saw how they crucified him on a tree,

21 and likewise (how) after the third day he rose and remained (many) days.

22 And the angel who led me said to me “Understand, Isaiah.” And I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended.

[This is followed by verse 23,And I saw him and he was in the firmament,which brings us back into the pre-interpolated text.]

Not only is this disjointed, with things out of sequence and crudely put together, it betrays no usage of independent historical traditions. Rather, the interpolator has simply taken up and reworked motifs that were present in the earlier, pre-historicist stage of the document itself. Satan envying, the children of Israel not knowing who he is, crucifixion on a tree in Jerusalem, the rising after three days: these are all motifs borrowed from the previous mythical layer of the document and recast into a primitive historical scenario.

(JNGNM, 124f. My formatting)

I am not so sure that the passage needs to be read as “disjointed, with things out of sequence”. If verse 19 were added at an early stage by one interpolater who wanted to involve “the children of Israel” in the killing, and later another reactor, having learned another detail, added that the crucifixion took place in Jerusalem, — there is no question that the final text lacks the sophistication of smoothly sequential storytelling. Yet, we also have evidence of a single author clumsily alternating between third person and first person narrative. It may be a series of redactions here, but there is little evidence of the same awkwardness in the preceding verses covering the birth of Jesus and his miracles. I don’t think a strong case for interpolation can be made on the view that these verses appear garbled.

Argument #3

There is also another indicator that 11:2-22 is an interpolation. The following verses recount the ascent of Christ back through the heavens. But the (evil) angels of the firmament only now recognize who he is:

23 And I saw him, and he was in the firmament, but was not transformed into their form. And all the angels of the firmament, and Satan, saw him and worshiped.

24 And there was much sorrow there as they said, “How did our Lord descend upon us, and we did not notice the glory which was upon him, which we now see was upon him from the sixth heaven?”

Yet if the Gospel story and an incarnation to earth were known to the writer, he would not have portrayed Satan and his angels as only now recognizing the Son, for they should have become aware of his identity as they witnessed his life on earth; the Gospels have even the exorcised demons recognizing Jesus as the Son of God.

(JNGNM, 125)

I like Doherty’s proposal that the midrashic tale about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark transferred an earlier tale of demons fighting against the Son in heaven to new “humanized demons”, the Jews, on earth. The Jews failed to recognize Jesus, but I don’t think we need to assume that the author of the Asc. Isa.‘s “pocket gospel” saw any difficulty with neither demons nor humans recognizing Jesus.

Doherty’s argument here is valid only if we begin with the assumption that the author of the Asc. Isa. knew the themes that we read about in our canonical gospels.

By our modern reasoning, the demons should have recognized Jesus when he started performing miracles but we have to be guided by the mind and story world of the narrator, not our post-Enlightenment logical perspective. The narrator stresses repeatedly the point that Jesus hides his identity from all. We see the exact same motif in the letters of Ignatius quoted above. The true identity of Jesus, in the flesh, was hidden from the prince of this world. Jesus became all things to all so he could be thought to be no different from others, so his identity could remain hidden.

I see no reason to think that there was any problem for original audiences when the heard or read that the demons failed to recognize the true identity of the Jesus they were responsible for crucifying, whether they crucified him directly or indirectly. The demonic ruler was motivated by envy, according to the fuller account in the Asc. Isa.. He envied this upstart human attracting so much awe and wonder because of his miraculous powers so had him murdered.

One may even go a step further and opine that if Jesus looked no different from the lower angels following the ruler of this world then it would be a challenge for an author to create a motive for those angels to crucify him. By placing Jesus on earth those demons can see Jesus doing remarkable things to attract a great following and thus arouse their murderous envy. What could Jesus have done to cause himself to be hated and killed if he remained unrecognized in the lower heaven?

. . . .

There are other arguments for interpolation that involve the resolving questions arising over the different manuscripts; James Barlow and Richard Carrier’s additional thoughts also need to be addressed. But here I wanted to focus on one aspect of Earl Doherty’s views. They have been a strong influence on me in the past. I have found myself for some years preferring to think that the earliest mythicist scenarios placed Jesus on earth.

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. 1999. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications.

———. 2009. Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications.

Knibb, Michael A. 1985. “Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (Second Century B.C.-Fourth Century A.D.).” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2: Expansions of the Old Testament and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms, and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works, edited by James H. Charlesworth. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday and Company.

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19 thoughts on “Ascension of Isaiah: Questioning Three of Earl Doherty’s Arguments”

  1. Re “Paul’s “rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8) who were ignorant of God’s purpose and inadvertently crucified the Lord of glory” uh, according to modern theology, Jesus’s death was planned to break the old curse, was it not? Words like “inadvertently” don’t exact support this view.

    I love these posts and yet … in the back of my mind, this “plan” to remove Yahweh’s curse on mankind is just too, too convoluted. How was the curse initially levied? It was spoken into being. Plain and simple. How was it lifted? Well it involves the Holy Ghost making a human woman pregnant to bear yet another form of Yahweh/Holy Ghost (making the magic number three versions of Yahweh?). Then Jesus, Yahweh incarnate, has to putter around in diapers, then as a toddler, and youth, and teenager, and finally a 30-year-old man who can begin his mission. And why is a mission necessary? Why not just proclaim “the end is nigh, I am the third form of god and I lift the curse (conditions may apply)” and let the Jews tear him apart?” (The Romans seemed to make sure his crucifixion was blamed upon the Jews, who never crucified anyone, so….)

    Why a “human” sacrifice in the story when such had been banned for centuries? Why not just have Jesus speak the lifting of the “original Sin curse” and be done with it? Why all of the references to blood magic which we know are bogus? Why the insistence that Jesus was the Jewish messiah when it makes no difference whatsoever to the Christians to come?

    This is a story with more holes than a huge wheel of Swiss cheese. And yet, we pick it apart examining the minutest details. There is a saying that implies that almost any activity can be sliced into finer and finer pieces, which makes the slicer appear knowledgeable, even wise, but really doesn’t clarify the activity or allow it to be replicated.

    And I enjoy reading your posts, Doherty’s books, and many others.

    “Is great puzzlement!”

    1. You have prompted me to return to some of the more recent studies on the nature of religion itself. I’ll have to refresh my memory of Boyer, Whitehouse, etc and catch up with some of what has been written since. It’s a fascinating subject. My brain does not have enough facets to enable pursuing all of my interests at once.

      1. The best guides to understanding religion remain (1) Schleiermscher, “On Religion” (1803); (2) Otto, “The Idea of the Holy,” (1901); Underhill, “Mysticism” (192?); Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (1979); Jung, “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”

        1. Whitehouse et al take a cognitive approach to understanding the nature of religion and religious concepts. Their conclusions are drawn from extensive controlled studies.

    2. Steve I like your big picture macro-analyis. I also agree that we are indebted to Neil for his determination to examine all the arguments, including the micro-analysis. The big picture looks different depending where you are looking at it from. Some of us have moved from one side of the fence (fundamental Christianity) to sit on the fence for a while then step off on the other side (atheistic). But can we all agree on the criteria of objectivity ? I suppose that’s where the value of debate is shown, such as the great debate between Richard Carrier and William Lane Craig on the Resurrection of Christ (25/4/12 Did Jesus Rise from the Dead) ? With two very sharp debaters, it’s a stimulating watch.
      The Asc. Isa. is surely a very interesting work. And who would have corrupted it and why ? Christians may have wished to tamper with it to disarm its power to expose the faith as based on myths ? Non-Christians may have corrupted it to disarm its sobering effect on people that would have followed Jesus. Given my focus on the 1,500 year plus dominion of the Roman Catholic Church and it’s corruption of truth and morality, you can work out where I stand. But I need to ask what is the historical evidence for the corruption of the truth and morality of religion by atheists ? Soviet, Chinese and communist regimes come to mind. If Neil ever does anything at this level, as he said he’s going to look at the nature of religion again, I’d be very grateful and interested. Thank you again.

    3. “Why a “human” sacrifice in the story when such had been banned for centuries? Why not just have Jesus speak the lifting of the ‘original Sin curse’ and be done with it? Why all of the references to blood magic which we know are bogus? Why the insistence that Jesus was the Jewish messiah when it makes no difference whatsoever to the Christians to come?”
      Totally! The original “good news” was “the Beloved will come from heaven to free the souls of the dead and take them to heaven. Believe it now or believe it later. The end.” (Asc. Is. L2)

  2. It is interesting also the possibility that the “king” is not Herod, in 11:9, but a planetary archon:

    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).

    The idea is that the Jews didn’t crucify Jesus directly, but they only delivered Jesus to the “king”, who crucified him in heaven. The action of the “king” is not necessary, if the “children of Israel” alone could crucify Jesus.

    Hence, also the pocket gospel would be not so historicist, after all.

    1. For what it’s worth, Jonathan Knight (Disciples of the Beloved One and The Ascension of Isaiah) translates the word as “ruler”, not king, and comments that it refers to Pilate. I don’t know the grounds for his choice of the world “ruler”, though. (The source text is in Ethiopic, as you know.)

      More reliable, it appears to me, is Enrico Norelli (Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius) who consistently uses the word “roi” (he writes in Italian, of course). In his commentary he ties the king to Herod, and justifies this view in several ways:

      1. by pointing to Luke’s gospel where the king Herod gives Jesus over “like a gift” to Pilate.

      2. the Gospel of Peter depicts Herod the king directly ordering the crucifixion of Jesus.

      3. the source for the “midrash” is Hosea 10:6 — where Israel is bound and given to the king as a gift. (Justin in Dialogue with Trypho, 103:3 is the witness to Hosea as the source.)

  3. “Surely you have taken leave of your senses, you men of Galatia! Who has cast this spell over you, before whose very eyes Jesus Christ has been exposed to view as nailed on a cross?” — Galatians 3:1, Cassirer’s translation. Is this evidence for Paul having taught how one might see a heavenly crucifixion by envisioning it? Is Paul reluctant to give credit to some version of Asc. Isa.? Is there any tie at all with Asc. Isa.?

    1. I don’t really understand that verse. I have tried to link it to “spiritual” visions, to demonstrations of divine presences/gods in the mystery religions, but without much success. Commentators say the words appeal to traditions of rhetoric — the idea being to create word images (or even with the assistance of props) to make a scene vivid for audiences.

      If the letter to Galatians is not a “genuine” letter in the sense of really being written to Galatians and all in it having therefore to read at face value, — if it is instead a literary device (as some have suggested, eg Brodie) then very likely the phrase is nothing more than a rhetorical flourish intended for readers like us (not any “real” Galatians).

      The letters of Paul generally don’t encourage the idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was ever presented in any detailed, vivid or graphic flourish. Even the Gospel of Mark appeals to only one witness of it, the centurion. The closest any disciples were to seeing it were some women from “afar off”.

      1. Paul uses a lot of language associated with the mystery cults; I wouldn’t be suprised if he was referencing an initionary performance. Where did drama originate from after all?

      2. He apparently is referring to Asc. Is., which he even quotes as scriptural:
        I Cor. 2:7 “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 are the things God has prepared for those who love him—”

        10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.”

  4. “What could Jesus have done to cause himself to be hated and killed if he remained unrecognized in the lower heaven?”
    Enter the ontological domain of demonic control, the realm of their domain, without providing the ‘signum’–passport, as expressly given in L2 Asc. Is.

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