Ascension of Isaiah: More Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

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

. . .

Robert Henry Charles (Wikimedia)

In this post I address what some will consider is the strongest reason for doubting that the pocket gospel (11:2-22) portraying the birth of Jesus, his miracle working and crucifixion) was part of the original text. If it had not been part of the original text then the Asc. Isa. stands as a document lending some support to the view that the earliest Christian gospel, or that known to Paul, did not imagine an earthly sojourn or crucifixion for Jesus, but rather that his crucifixion was entirely at the hands of demonic powers in an other worldly dimension. This is the view of Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier (and Paul-Louis Couchoud in the early twentieth century). In this series I am looking again at the arguments that point to the Asc. Isa. as a support (not a foundation!) of this thesis, especially as they have been elaborated and strengthened by James Barlow. (I think the points made by Barlow are very strong. They are worth discussing and reviewing.)

R. H. Charles, author of a major study (1900) on the Asc. Isa.‘s manuscript lines along with commentary on their similarities and differences, set out several reasons for accepting the originality of 11:2-22, even though it appears only in an Ethiopian manuscript and is omitted by extant Latin and Slavonic versions. Charles reasoned that other sections in the Asc. Isa. led a reader to expect to find a narrative like the pocket gospel, thus strongly suggesting that it is surely an integral part of the first composition.

Next from the command which Isaiah hears given to Christ to descend to the earth and to Sheol (x. 8), and afterwards to ascend therefrom (x. 14), we naturally expect Isaiah to witness these events in the vision in xi. [i.e. 11:2-22], seeing that he witnesses all else that is mentioned in x. 8-14.

(Charles, xxii-xxiii)

Here is that passage that Charles says leads us to expect to see the account of Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph, his miracle-working and crucifixion on earth:

On 10:8 – The manuscript line that contains the pocket gospel of 11:2-22 (the Ethiopic) is the only one with “descend to the firmament and that world”. The manuscript line without the pocket gospel reads only, “descend to that world“, not to the “firmament” of that world.

On 10:10 – The shorter reading in the manuscripts without the pocket gospel omits verse 10. Verse 10 is found only in the manuscript line also containing the pocket gospel. Charles comments that the command for the Beloved to become like the death angels in Sheol (in brackets) is an interpolation that makes no sense in the narrative:

This last statement I have bracketed, as the release of the souls in Sheol could not have been effected without a recognition of Christ on the part of the angels of Sheol. (Charles, p.70)

8. ‘Go forth and descend through all the heavens, and thou wilt descend to the firmament and that world: to the angel in Sheol [=angel of death] thou wilt descend, but to Haguel [=Abaddon or Gehenna] thou wilt not go.

9. And thou 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 Lord 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, and their angels and their lights, even unto the sixth heaven, in order that you mayst judge and destroy the princes and angels and gods of that world, and the world that is dominated by them:

13. For they have denied Me and said: “We alone are and there is none beside us.”

14. And afterwards from the angels of death Thou wilt ascend to Thy place, and Thou wilt not be transformed in each heaven, but in glory wilt Thou ascend and sit on My right hand.

I agree with James Barlow that there is little basis for Charles’s reasoning here. There is surely little in the above section from chapter 10 to prepare a reader for an account of Jesus’ miraculous birth to Mary. One has to agree with Barlow that Charles is surely reading the canonical narrative into the text here.

Yet there remains a catch, I think. The manuscripts without the pocket gospel are understood by Doherty, Carrier, Barlow, to be better representations of the original text. Yet it is those shorter manuscripts that also state that the Beloved is to descend “to that world” — not to the firmament above that world. (See side box above.) That sounds to me like the Beloved is to stand on earth.

Now Doherty/Carrier/Barlow are right to point out that the overall picture of that passage is one of the Beloved’s manoeuvres around demons and angels. That is correct. But it should also be noted that the reason for this is that the demons are the ones who hold humanity captive — under subject to death. For the Beloved to rescue humanity he must take on the demons.

However, it is at this point where we encounter another problem: the Asc. Isa. says the Beloved is to remain unrecognized by the demons in the firmament. Fine, that agrees with the passage in 1 Cor. 2:16 where we read the demons did not know who they were crucifying. But what narrative trigger is there to cause those demons in the firmament to crucify the Beloved if they see he looks like one of them and is therefore presumably mistaken for one of them?

None of the angels or demons “of that world” will know who the Beloved really is. That fact seems quite clear in all manuscript lines.

But the Beloved is to go beyond the world and down into Sheol itself. What of the demons of the underworld? Will they recognize the Beloved? The shorter manuscripts do not answer that question. But the Beloved does overcome the power of those demons of hell or Sheol so it can be presumed they do discover who the Beloved is. From that moment God calls the Beloved back to the highest heaven and all demons and angels at all levels can see clearly what was hidden from them before — that the Beloved himself has descended into the world and Sheol to rescue the dead.

Look now at the pocket gospel itself. Barlow is right to note that it changes the scene from Jesus vis a vis the demons; it extends the scene to place primary focus on Jesus in the world. That means with people of Bethlehem who hear about the birth of Jesus and ask questions. It is certainly true that the Beloved’s presence in the world is noticed but what remains hidden is his true identity. In that world the Beloved can arouse wonder among other mortals by performing miracles and that can lead the prince of demons to envy him. By this means the Beloved’s identity remains hidden from all creatures, human and angelic, and still enable the prince of demons, filled with envy, to instigate the crucifixion.

Agreed, the Asc. Isa. does not prepare us in advance for such details that are to eventuate in the world. It does, though, keep our focus on the primary battle being spiritual and does alert us to an upcoming scene “in the world”.

Charles adds another reason for thinking the pocket gospel to be original. If we turn to those manuscripts that lack the pocket gospel we find even more difficulty because they don’t even describe a crucifixion or death of the Beloved in any way at all where we would expect to read it.

But the genuineness of xi. 2-32 is still more apparent, if we consider that in the short account of G2 in xi. there is not a single reference to the crucifixion, descent into Sheol, and resurrection on the third day, though from ix. 13-17 we cannot do otherwise than expect a definite portrayal of these events in the vision.

(Charles, xxiii)

Charles is saying that 9:13-17 leads the reader to expect to find something at the critical moment about the crucifixion of Jesus. Here is 9:13-17, — I give it with the broader context from verse 6:

The sections underlined and in italics are found only in the longer manuscript line (Ethiopic) with the pocket gospel. They are not found in the shorter manuscripts that lack the pocket gospel.

Compare 10:8 above where we read of the Beloved appearing “in the world” in the shorter manuscripts, while here in 9:13 we read the Beloved appearing “in the world” only in the longer manuscript (the one with the pocket gospel).

The bracketed words in verse 16 are widely considered a later gnostic interpolation.

(There are other manuscript variations in this passage but I have not highlighted them since I have not considered them relevant to the main discussion of this post.)

6. And he raised me up into the seventh heaven, and I saw there a wonderful light and angels innumerable. 7. And there I saw all the righteous from the time of Adam. 8. And there I saw the holy Abel and all the righteous. 9. And there I saw Enoch and all who were with him, stript of the garments of the flesh, and I saw them in their garments of the upper world, and they were like angels, standing there in great glory. 10. But they sat not on their thrones, nor were their crowns of glory on them. 11. And I asked the angel who was with me : ‘How is it that they have received the garments, but have not the thrones and the crowns?’ 12, 13. 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 . . . into the world in the last days . . . . 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 he 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, [and he will remain in that world five hundred and forty-five days]. 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. 18. Then indeed they will receive their . . . thrones and crowns, when He has ascended into the seventh heaven.

Here all manuscripts, both those with and without the pocket gospel, say that the Beloved will appear “in your form”, that is, in the prophet Isaiah’s form. In 10:8 we read that he is to descend “to that world”.

All manuscripts foretell a crucifixion but only the one with the pocket gospel makes any mention of that crucifixion having actually happened as foretold. That is the reason Charles is convinced the pocket gospel is part of the original narrative. A narrative without any reference to the crucifixion after it had been prophesied as the way for the Beloved to enter Sheol seems unnatural. Is too much missing from the shorter texts?

James Barlow responds to Charles’s logic by suggesting he has been influenced too much by the canonical gospel narrative. That is certainly possible, even likely. I suspect that there are some indications in the Asc. Isa. texts that nonetheless justify some events involving Jesus appearing to be like a man on earth — as indicated above.

Continuing . . . . 

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.

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21 thoughts on “Ascension of Isaiah: More Questions”

  1. I am curious about this James Barlow relatively to his mythicist views. Is there something about his views in the web?

    I hope that part of his argument is the mention of 6:15:

    Visio quam videbat, non erat de seculo hoc, sed de abscondito omni carni.

    And the vision which the holy Isaiah saw was not from this world but from the world which is hidden from the flesh.

    Which means, accordingly: insofar the actions of Jesus are seen by Isaiah, then these actions happen “not from this world”, hence, in heaven.

  2. Interesting is also the Culianu’s views about the location of Sheol in Asc. Isa. as distinct from Hell.


    In short, his argument is that the Ascension of Isaiah placed Sheol in the “air” (precisely: the lowest heaven), since the intrinsic moral opposition between Sheol and Haguel (the place of the righteous souls versus the place of the evil souls) requires a geographical opposition, too.

    Culianu doesn’t conclude the extreme implication of his view. If the Son can’t go to Hell, in virtue of the divine order:

    to the angel in Sheol [=angel of death] thou wilt descend, but to Haguel [=Abaddon or Gehenna] thou wilt not go.

    …then it would be surprising (=unexpected, = improbable) the fact that the order doesn’t assume the following form:

    to the EARTH thou wilt descend, but to Haguel [=Abaddon or Gehenna] thou wilt not go.

    Culianu says that theAngel of Death (who is the Lord of the celestial Sheol) is a good angel, not an evil angel, because Jesus, to enter in Sheol, has to assume the form of the angels in Sheol and he can’t assume the form of an evil angel.

    But I doubt that this is true: afterall, Jesus can be killed before to enter in Sheol, hence in Sheol he enters as the soul of a human being.

  3. Again, so The Beloved is able to change his form and semblance to go undetected, but has to enter the world as a newborn baby?

    And, Jesus could do his assigned task without entry into Sheol, because it had to be done there? What do these limitations on an all-powerful god mean? How can an all-powerful god be limited? Isn’t that a contradiction?

    Gosh, this couldn’t be a collision between various myths, each being employed to make up stories to provide power to the story tellers, now could it? It certainly seems so. What a jumble of various actors with varying abilities.

    1. Think modular. Each mythical tale is modular. Only believers attempt in idle moments to try to fit them all into a single, coherent narrative but they will only be able to rationalize their reconstructions by imputing thoughts, motives, character dispositions into the gods to explain why they did not use all their powers that were on display in another module.

    2. Precisely. The descent of the Beloved through the heavens and as described precludes his sudden appearance on earth as a baby, itself the most cogent argument why 2-22 isn’t ‘Heilgeschichte’ for the original Asc. Isa. author, but a later interpolation meant to legitimize later incarnational belief.j

      1. On the other hand, the “birth” in 11:2-22 can be seen as contrary to “orthodox” incarnation belief. André Vaillant, for one, suggests that the birth was so close to a presentation of docetic belief that it was excised in the Greek source used by the Bogomils in south-east Europe in order to preserve an orthodoxy (https://www.jstor.org/stable/43269521).

        Mary does not know she is pregnant. She does not have a normal birth (contrast the Protovangelium of James); suddenly sees the infant in front of her with her belly restored and still a virgin; and people round about question whether she actually gave birth. One is reminded of the “heretical” view that Jesus was funnelled into the world through Mary as through a hermetically sealed chute — no contamination even from the virginal flesh.

        1. Indeed. But the descent of the Beloved is that “like a son of man.” Another reason for suspecting xi.2-22 to be a rather lame addition meant to harmonize the original cult beliefs with a nascent historicity.
          Soon “he sent his preachers into the world” (L2) became “the 12 Apostles” (L1) {‘sent ones’}

        2. Yes, xi. 2-22 can be seen as “contrary to orthodox incarnational belief,” except that ‘orthodox incarnational belief’ wasn’t orthodox incarnational belief until the middle of the second century and wasn’t fully codified until the resolution of the monophysite controversy (at which time the famous remark you allude to was made by Theodore of Mopsuestia (sp?) {known affectionately by Russian Orthodox monks in Alaska as “Teddy the Mop”}.

  4. I should point out that it isn’t necessary for my interpretation to have a slaying of the Beloved NOT occur ‘on the earth’. And further, explicit argumentation for the unoriginality of the 2-22 incarnation story will be apparent when Neil publishes my commentary in toto.

  5. Feel strongly that only when laid out as a totality does the argumentation clarify itself.
    Use of term “forma” e.g.—but that is in the heart of the commentary. Thus far you’ve touched upon only the preliminaries in the intro.

    1. Hi James,

      from what I see, you argue only for the removal of the ‘pocket gospel’ as interpolation in Asc. Isa., but not for a crucifixion in heaven. Is it correct ? What are your views about the place of the crucifixion?

      Thanks in advance,

      1. I am content to think, as some do, that the crucifixon took place “in the world,” and that this was hardened into “on earth” concomitant with apostolic, visionary claims of having seen Him. (Doherty on I Cor. 15)
        His mission was to find his way to Sheol to free souls then ascend to heaven. It’s not implausible the early Christians located these eventualities in their own time owing to their own visions and experiences of a Son ‘resurrecting’ from Sheol (ascension, transfiguration, etc.)

  6. What triggers the demons to do what they did to the Beloved was the fact that he entered their ontological realm as an interloper thus threat, he not having provided them the proper and essential password (see Commentary)

  7. One place where I feel bound to disagree a bit with Neil, where he writes above:
    “All manuscripts foretell a crucifixion but only the one with the pocket gospel makes any mention of that crucifixion having actually happened as foretold.”
    We have to remember that the entirety is a prophecy of events that will take place, not visionary reports of events that have already transpired (xi. 2-22 excluded, which seems to demonstrate further suspicion of its lateness). How could the vision provide mention of an event to have transpired when Isaiah is SEEING it as a future occurrence?
    And the matter is only relevant for the sake of historical eventualities meant to justify and bolster a faith defined as belief in the efficacy of a sacrifice for sin by means of a cross etc. The urgospel was faith the Beloved liberates the soul from death: period. You can glimpse a residual remnant of this prehistorical Jesus faith in Irenaeus (c.180), whose reputedly ‘apostolic’ version of the atonement has nothing to do with an execution as a sacrifice for sin but rather the notion that Christ was triumphant and victorious over death thereby saving all of humanity from the grip of –not sin– but death.
    He has conquered death–this is the soteriology of Asc.Is. and the protochristian cultus, I feel.

    1. “All manuscripts foretell a crucifixion but only the one with the pocket gospel makes any mention of that crucifixion having actually happened as foretold.”

      A faux pas of mine. Of course, the Asc. Isa. does not say the crucifixion “has happened”. The vision of the crucifixion itself is a vision of an event to happen in reality in the future. Isaiah is not witnessing a vision of history but a prophetic vision.

      Isaiah had been promised to see this event (in vision) — from when he lived in the days of Hezekiah. 11:2-22 is the fulfilment of that promise. Without 11:2-22 there is no fulfilment of the promise to Isaiah to be able to see these future events.

  8. “There is no account of the crucifixion, birth, ministry where we would expect to see it.” (Charles)
    Precisely….where WE would expect to see it (!).

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