Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

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

. . .

In these posts I am reexamining the place that the Ascension of Isaiah has in those “Christ myth” arguments that use it as supporting evidence for an early Christian belief, perhaps even a pre-Pauline belief, that Jesus was crucified in a celestial world beyond this physical one. Three mythicist authors have published this viewpoint: Paul-Louis Couchoud, Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier. James Barlow has focused on making a case for the Ascension of Isaiah being known to the apostle Paul and in the process has offered the most in-depth case for the shorter version of the Asc. Isa., the version that omits the account of Jesus’ birth and death on this earth (11:2-22), being the original text. (I further posted my growing doubts about Earl Doherty’s line of reasoning in the same direction: Ascension of Isaiah: Questioning Three of Earl Doherty’s Arguments.)

These posts have been focussed on specific points made by James Barlow because his are the ones that are so detailed and thorough. In doing so, however, I have not given Barlow’s overall thesis its strongest presentation for review in its own right. To make amends but also to make public an important hypothesis that deserves serious examination I posted his thesis in full: see “The Ascension of Isaiah” and Paul – a case made by James Barlow.

I continue here to follow my own questioning of a range of arguments that have been made to favour the view that the shorter version of the Asc. Isa. (the one without the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem) is closer to the original version. My perspective is open to change and by the time I finish this series I may even have changed my mind again. But till then, let’s examine some more points set forth by James Barlow.

So we continue . . .

We start with one more point made back in 1900 by R. H. Charles that he believed indicated the originality of the “pocket gospel”, 11:2-22 as found in the Ethiopic manuscripts, the same passage narrating the birth of Jesus, his move to Nazareth, his performing miracles and eventual crucifixion in Jerusalem. (We start with R. H. Charles because his 1900 work was a foundational text upon which many subsequent discussions have been based even if and when they revise and update his discussion.)

Not knowing who he is

In all versions — Latin, Slavonic, Ethiopic — of the Asc. Isa. that contain chapter 9 there is the prophecy that those who crucify the Beloved will do so not knowing who he is.

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. (Asc. Isa. 9:14)

We read the same phrase again in the longer Ethiopic version’s “pocket gospel” when those responsible for the crucifixion are said to crucify the Beloved “not knowing who he was”.

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). (Asc. Isa. 11:19)

That’s all as we would expect.

In the shorter version, however, the one that Doherty, Carrier, Barlow suggest is closer to the original, we have the phrase repeated in a different context and with a different connotation. It is no longer used to describe the fulfilment of the prophecy found in all relevant versions in 9:14. When we come to the beginning of chapter 11 in the shorter version we read not an account of the birth and death of the Beloved but a short statement as follows, one not found in the longer Ethiopic text:

“. . . to show you everything. For no one before you has seen, nor after you will be able to see, what you have seen and heard.” And I saw one like a son of man, and he lived with men in the world, and they did not know who he was

And that’s it. No more. No account of the prophecy of chapter 9 being fulfilled with those crucifying the Beloved “not knowing who he was”.

Charles sees the shorter version as a corruption of a longer narrative. In the longer Ethiopic account we read that, as prophesied, those who crucify Christ do so not knowing who he is. On the other hand, Charles interprets the shorter account as a removal of the longer one, with the leftover phrase, “not knowing who he was” now having taken on a different context and significance from its original intent as prophesied in chapter 9. The phrase no longer imputes ignorance to the killers but rather shifts the meaning to the son of man not being recognized among other humans on earth.

Therefore, Charles concludes, the longer version is more likely (he says “surely”) the original text.

Now several arguments have been raised against Charles’s viewpoint and conclusion.

The first objection raised by James Barlow is this one:

First off, it is not merely those who crucify him who do not know who he is in xi. 2-22, but virtually everyone.

That is quite correct. The “pocket gospel” does note that no-one recognizes Jesus throughout his time on earth beginning from the moment of his “birth”. At the same time, though, I think one has to acknowledge that the narrative reason for this ignorance is so that the humans who are roused up to crucify Jesus by the prince or ruler of the world will do so, will crucify him, “not knowing who he is” — and that same prophesied phrase from chapter 9 is repeated in the same point of its fulfilment in chapter 11. Neither humans nor demons know who it is they are crucifying.

Hanging on a tree

There is another objection Barlow raises:

Secondly, in xi. 19, Charles translates the Ethiopic “and crucified him” whereas the original L2 ix. 14 has “and suspended (hung) him on a tree”—the difference, if we are to take into full consideration the fact of what Isaiah ‘saw’, is formidable, the former decidedly post-Pauline.

Indeed, “hung him on a tree” does sound very primitive. Yet — primitive though it sounds, we find it appearing in another decidedly post-Paul text, the Acts of the Apostles 5:20

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging Him on a tree.

(Also in Acts 10:39 and 13:29, and again in 1 Peter 2:24.)

If Acts was composed as late as the mid-second century as some scholars propose then we cannot assume that the phrase (hanging on a tree) is decisive in dating a text to a pre-Paul era.

On expansions and omissions

Finally, it is hard to see how the “thorough inadequacy with which the earthly life and destinies of the Messiah are treated in SL2″ have taken a great qualitative leap in xi. 2-22; suffice to say that if there was no extensive ‘earthly life and destiny of the Messiah’ to speak of SL2’s treatment of the matter is bolstered by a type of honesty; Charles’ complaint would have us think that the fullest account is the most reliable, reminiscent of St. Bonaventura’s belief it is always better to err on the side of piety at the expense of veracity than on the side of brevity on behalf of paucity. 

The bolding is mine. Doherty makes a similar point:

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)

(Richard Carrier’s arguments will be addressed in a separate post.)

Agreed, we do often find expansions to texts as scribes tend to add, re-write, explain, qualify, rather than delete and omit. But that is not an iron-clad rule. It is a frequently found principle but it is not a law. One of the “Twelve Basic Rules for Textual Criticism” set out by Kurt and Barbara Aland in The Text of the New Testament (2nd ed) warns us against taking a general principle as an unbreakable rule:

The venerable maxim lectio brevior lectio potior ( “the shorter reading is the more probable reading”) is certainly right in many instances. But here again the principle cannot be applied mechanically. It is not valid for witnesses whose texts otherwise vary significantly from the characteristic patterns of the textual tradition, with frequent omissions or expansions reflecting editorial tendencies (e.g., D). Neither should the commonly accepted rule of thumb that variants agreeing with parallel passages or with the Septuagint in Old Testament quotations are secondary be applied in a purely mechanical way. A blind consistency can be just as dangerous here as in Rule 10 (lectio difficilior).

(Aland, 281. my emphasis)

Many of us familiar with the canonical gospels can see one major instance of a “great omission”. The author of the Gospel of Luke had before him a copy of the Gospel of Mark and followed it reasonably closely, often adding to his source and certainly elaborating much of it, especially with his birth narrative. However, the same author for some reason chose to entirely omit any hint of Mark 6:45-8:26. In scholarly discussions this is known as “the Great Omission”. Some scholars have suggested narrative cum theological reasons for such an omission: the author of Luke wanted to remove any hint that Jesus had extended his ministry into gentile regions. In previous posts we have seen how the pocket gospel could have been read as a docetic-like narrative at odds with “orthodox” teaching.

The point is made explicit

I am not saying that the longer text, the pocket gospel, is definitely original. The questions I have raised about the above arguments are only questions: they are not dogmatic rejections of the points addressed. My intention is to rethink carefully the arguments before us and not to be too quick to jump either way.

. . .

This attempt to review the arguments in favour of the shorter Asc. Isa. being original — partly to support a thesis that Jesus was crucified in a non-earthly realm, but also to strengthen the case for Paul’s knowledge of the text — is slow going. But I want to be thorough.

Continuing . . . 

Aland, Kurt, and Barbara Aland. 1989. The Text of the New Testament: An Introduction to the Critical Editions and Toi the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism. Translated by Erroll F. Rhodes. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans.

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.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Questions”

  1. Hi Neil, I appreciate your hard work on this one. In case it’s of help or even entertainment, and if I have not mentioned it before, there is a great You Tube series of lessons based partly on the A of I called “Jesus Hebrew Human or Mythical Messiah” by a US gentleman who publishes under the name Truth Surge. I have found his work scholarly albeit zany at times. His case is largely built around the evidence in the NT that Jesus’ so called expected “second coming” was not understood in the Pauline or Johannine epistles as his second time on earth. Rather, the language is proven to imply that this awaited visit to earth was hoped for in those NT writings as the first visit, after Jesus in human form had some sort of dealings with the demons in the lower heavens before or at the start of the present age. This allows the assertion that the 4 Gospels were written later with a disconnect to the epistles. The book of Acts is then the most suspicious work as it ties the epistles to the gospels in the form of a historical narrative. Acts contains many miracles, bizarre events and psychological phenomenon and I ask myself if I want to believe that these are signs of a wholly fraudulent effort to proselyte the ignorant masses, and why.

        1. Thank you. And the videos are short, too. Even better.

          Added later:

          Have seen the first two videos. They do look very good. I might post about them more prominently.

  2. Re “If Acts was composed as late as the mid-second century as some scholars propose then we cannot assume that the phrase (hanging on a tree) is decisive in dating a text to a pre-Paul era.” Could not the phrase be an allusion to AoI? I don’t see how the use of the term when Acts was written shows anything per se. Was this a common usage or was this a “one off” in Acts? It seems these people get their exercise by jumping to conclusions.

    1. My laziness and impatience for shortcuts in not initially citing all instances. Not a “‘one off’ in Acts” but found in three places in Acts – 5:30; 10:39; 13:29, all within a context directed at the fundamental confessional message: (1) the death and (2) resurrection of (3) an innocent (4) condemned by (5) those in ignorance of who he was. This is the same constellation of five images that we find repeatedly in a wide range of early Christian writings. That suggests a certain early developed and complex idea that was central to Christian origins — since discussed in some respects further at https://vridar.org/2020/06/12/how-paul-found-christ-crucified-on-a-tree-in-the-scriptures/

  3. Glad you guys raised this question. It led me to some fascinating reading that I’ll be posting about. Till then, in short . . .

    Hanging on a tree in this context appears to have arisen from a very early midrash on the Akedah — the story of Isaac carrying the wood and then being placed on the wood for his sacrifice (wood = tree). Compare Jesus carrying the cross before being placed on it. It originated as another way of identifying Jesus with the Isaac figure.

    Its use in Acts may be related to a desire to put the emphasis on Jewish responsibility for the death and as prophesied “in the writings” as opposed to crucified as an insurrectionist by the Romans.

  4. This is more of a tangent on this topic, but I think it’s relevant to the main question about what the celestial Jesus did as he arrived undetected on Earth. Being born suggests a scandalous problem with the mother who would have to explain how she gave birth to a god.

    I think this scandalous component of early tellings of this celestial Jesus story of descent through the heavens may have been known and ridiculed.

    I keep coming back to the odd stories of Paulina and Fulvia– two women caught up with mischievous men in Rome. These stories immediately follow the controversial “Testimonium Flavianum” in Josephus’s Antiquities, which is highly suggestive that there’s more here than meets the eye.

    In the first story, Paulina was tricked into having sex with Decius Mundus who had the priests of Isis in Rome convince Paulina that he was the god Anubis (god of the afterlife).

    Decius Mundus may mean “ten worlds” — perhaps this is a take on the “ten heavens” in Enoch.

    Paulina was so proud of her act that she even got her husband on her side. Three days later the truth is revealed. The Emperor Tiberius finds out and has the priests of Isis crucified, and the statue of Isis thrown into the river. Decius Mundus gets off and is just banished.

    The second story of Fulvia has an unnamed Jew in Rome tricking her and stealing riches she intended for Jerusalem. Tiberius again finds out and kicks 4000 Jews out of Rome and punishes a lot of others. All because of this one “wicked” Jew and his thieving buddies.

    These stories seem like urban legends or folk tales. But I see some possibilities that another story lies underneath — about a man transgressing laws of his religion, involving mischief, disguise, and guile, and corrupting good women.

    The names are fishy — Paulina (Paul), Anubis (god of afterlife), Isis (later often equated with Mary), Decius Mundus (ten worlds — maybe levels of heaven).

    This placement of these stories right after the Testimonium Flavianum suggests something very interesting may originally have been here. The theme is a disruptive new belief causing suffering to the Jews in Rome. And that belief may have involved men in the outs with their fellow Jews, telling a story of a savior god in disguise, descending through the heavens, and impregnating a woman as part of the process.

    I think the earliest versions of the Ascension of Isaiah may have included a story of a woman and her giving birth to the celestial Jesus, and that story was dropped, and later versions reinstated something like it with other details. That type of celestial Jesus story may have been satirized or treated critically by both Jews and Romans upon initial hearing, but with some reworking and embellishing it may have taken hold and gained new traction as “scriptural” proof of a new kind of Messiah — a god or archangel born and dying on Earth, for some greater good.

    1. “… telling a story of a savior god in disguise, descending through the heavens, and impregnating a woman as part of the process…. story was dropped, and later versions reinstated something like it with other details. That type of celestial Jesus story may have been satirized or treated critically by both Jews and Romans….”

      To go on a tangent on your tangent, I was provoked to wonder whimsically whether popularity of such hypothetical naughty jokes might have had something to do with the warning that saying bad things about the Holy Spirit was the worst sin of all for which no forgiveness was possible. I do not know this material, and for this and other reasons am not making this as a serious suggestion.

      Christians offended by naughty jokes would however not have had the recourse of going to Twitter etc and demanding that offending Jews and Romans’ accounts be suspended for hurtful religiously divisive humor and hate speech.

  5. Neil is right to employ Aland’s warning. My point however is not so much that one ought always presume the “shorter reading” (‘version’ by implication) the more original by ironclad rule of thumb, (one ought not), but rather that Charles ALWAYS presumed the longer version the more original.
    Secondly—and I think this is more important than is immediately grasped–if what Isaiah is given to have actually SEEN in his vision is one slain hung on a tree, this differs from xi. 2-22 in such a way that the latter more cogently and readily appears as an attempted emendation by way of addition, rather than a confused explanation of the original vision tacked on to the original as a kind of dramatic addendum.
    Indeed, Paul may have been the first to actively theologically employ the passage in Deuteronomy (“Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree”) to reach the conclusion that the Beloved’s suffering was an actual sacrifice for sin.

    1. Just to address your first point — “ALWAYS” is an overstatement, yes? After all, Charles does not follow the longer text in L2/S at 11:34 where we read the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9. Further, doing a text search (“omit” “add” etc) through Charles’s book one finds many instances where he has not followed a longer reading. Would not a confessional bias find a way to embrace that longer text? Sometimes there are better arguments for a longer over a shorter reading and I think Charles does do more than default to a longer reading merely because it is longer — or because it coheres with a gospel reading. (I don’t believe 11:2-22 is consistent with our gospels, by the way.)

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