2020-06-11

The Ascension of Isaiah: Another Set of Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

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

. . .

In points 6, 7 and 8 of section III of James Barlow’s Commentary on the Vision of Isaiah we enter into detailed discussions of how to assess the priority of different manuscript lines based on comparing particular differences of wording across the manuscripts. Barlow is challenging Charles’s conclusions: Charles argues that the manuscript line that leads to the Ethiopic text with the full pocket gospel is closer, overall, to the original Greek Asc. Isa. that is now lost; Barlow argues the reverse, that the manuscript line closer overall to the original Asc. Isa. is the one without the pocket gospel. The details are available in the linked article.

My thought on the entire debate may be considered dismissive or unfairly biased by some, but I suspect that no conclusion on the originality of the pocket gospel can be derived from the detailed discussions addressed by either Charles or Barlow. Charles at one point writes that it is “no doubt true in a few cases” that there are more original passages in the manuscript without the pocket gospel. That is, a lot of corruption in both manuscript lines has crept in since the original Greek Asc. Isa.

In other words, even if the shorter manuscripts without the pocket gospel contain a good number of passages that may be assessed as closer to the original Greek Asc. Isa. than the manuscripts containing the pocket gospel, it is not valid to conclude on that basis that the pocket gospel or much else in the manuscripts containing the pocket gospel is all a later development and that the pocket gospel is also a late interpolation.

To make sense of the abbreviations like SL2, G2, etc. see the larger table here.

Obviously there is room for disagreement with that viewpoint.  In response to Charles’ words (p. xxii),

If SL2, in other words G2, represent faithfully the text as it stood in the archetype G, then it is clear that in such passages the fuller text of E or G1 is the work of the editor of G1. This is no doubt true in a few cases. 

Barlow responds,

But if this logic is insurmountable, only wouldn’t it be true in ‘every’ case?

To which I would respond, No.

Longer or shorter?

On the other hand, some sections of the longer Ethiopic text look more original according to Charles. In the following text columns I have set out Charles says the longer text found in E is closer to what was in the original Asc. Isa. while the shorter L2/S manuscripts are abridgements of an original. Which column looks more original to you?

E

10:25-28

L2/S

10:25-28

25. And again I saw when He descended into the second heaven, and again He gave the password there ; those who kept the gate proceeded to demand and the Lord to give. 25 . . . into the second heaven,
26. And I saw when He made Himself like unto the form of the angels in the second heaven, and they saw Him and they did not praise Him ; for His form was like unto their form. 26.
27. And again I saw when He descended into the first heaven, and there also He gave the password to those who kept the gate, and He made- Himself like unto the form of the angels who were on the left of that throne, and they neither praised nor lauded Him ; for His form was like unto their form. 27.  . . . into the first heaven, . . . and they neither praised nor lauded Him ; for His form was like unto their form.
28. But as for me no one asked me on account of the angel who conducted me. 28.
29. And again He descended into the firmament where dwelleth the ruler of this world, and He gave the password to those on the left, and His form was like theirs, and they did not praise Him there ; but they were envying one another and fighting ; for here there is a power of evil and envying about trifles. 29. And again He descended into the firmament . . . , and He gave the password . . . and His form was like theirs, and they did not praise Him there ; . . . 

. . .

11:27-30

L2/S

11:27-30

27. And in like manner He ascended into the third heaven, and they praised and said in like manner. 27. And in like manner He ascended into the third heaven, . . . 
28. And in the fourth heaven and in the fifth also they said precisely after the same manner.  28. And in the fourth heaven and in the fifth . . .
29. But there was one glory, and from it He did not change Himself. 29.
30. And I saw when He ascended into the sixth heaven, and they worshipped and glorified Him. 30. . . . into the sixth heaven, . . .

Charles argues for the longer text being original:

On the other hand, we cannot suppose that the short summaries which S L2 offer of x. 25-28 and xi. 27-30 are original, and that the fuller text in E is an expansion of these; for the text of E observes a due proportion which is wanting in S L2. Here undoubtedly the editor [behind 2/L2]  abridges the [original] text of G. 

(Charles, xxii)

To which Barlow replies:

But the supposed exclusion has to do with the giving of passwords at the gate of each heaven during the Beloved’s descent, whereas L2 only presents the necessity of stating this for terrain bossed by the princeps mundi, the firmament and the air. The ‘change’ may be due to the editor of L1, who has introduced phrases for the sake of appearance (‘due proportion,’ in Charles’ anachronistic literary criteriology).

(Barlow, III, 8)

I suppose we enter the realm of aesthetics here and that may be a hard one to argue “objectively”. My personal taste is for literary completeness with cogency. If words find a natural and coherent place in a text then they are more likely to be original to that text than words that appear to be disjointed, incomplete, etc.

Compare earlier (III, 6) where Barlow reverses Charles’s argument:

Repeatedly what Charles considers to be “additions” to L2, compared to L1, by an editor or reductions to the text of L1 by the editor of L2 turn out to be the elimination of stylistic or thematically irrelevant redundancies or ‘additions’ that turn out just as easily to have been reductions by the editor of G1, as a close examination of ch. vii—which Charles cites as containing the decisive textual indices—has provided.

Perhaps, but perhaps not. Robert Alter’s famous little book The Art of Biblical Narrative demonstrates the at least in the literary world of the Bible how many types of repetitions are deployed as

at once a unifying device and a focus of development in the narrative . . . 

What we find, then, in biblical narrative is an elaborately integrated system of repetitions, some dependent on the actual recurrence of individual phonemes, words, or short phrases . . .

(Alter, 94-95)

But Alter continually compares these repetition devices with those found in other literature. They are not a special preserve of the Bible but they are especially pronounced in the Bible, and I would suggest, in literature that emulates biblical narratives such as certain pseudepigrapha like the Asc. Isa.

The uses of repetition, then, that we have been reviewing are to an appreciable degree shared by the Bible with other kinds of narrative literature. What most distinguishes repetition in biblical narrative is the explicitness and formality with which it is generally employed, qualities that, to return to our initial difficulty, support an unusual proportion of verbatim restatement. In order to appreciate the artfulness of this kind of repetition, a modern reader has to cultivate the complementary opposite of the habits of perception he or she most frequently puts to use in reading. . . . 

(Alter, 96)

Alter would warn against being too quick to dismiss repetitions “irrelevant redundancies”. There is something to be said for “appearances” and “due proportion” in the kind of literature we have here.

Barlow’s argument covers much more material than I have addressed here and it is available in complete form in the earlier post.

Like the son of man

In the shorter manuscripts (L2/S) we read of Isaiah “seeing one like a son of man”, as per Revelation 1:13 and 14:14. The Latin phrase vide simile filii hominis can also mean “one who looks like a man”, Barlow points out. . . .

which fits in nicely with the interpretation of verses mentioning the transformation of the Beloved into an angelomorphic, humanlike appearance prior to entrance into Sheol. 

(Barlow, III, 9)

As a title, although it appears in the canonical gospels, it is not used by Paul. Charles suggests it was not used as a messianic title “from the close of the first century A.D.” (implying, I believe, from after the canonical gospels) because of its debatable implications in theological disputes over the nature of Christ. Charles infers that the phrase may well have been found in the original Greek Asc. Isa. (and thus has been preserved in the shorter version), and that it is not implausible that an editor for theological reasons somewhere along the line has removed it from those manuscripts leading towards the fuller text that includes the pocket gospel.

What no eye has seen or ear heard

And this angel said unto me : Isaiah, son of Amoz, . . . thou hast seen what no child of flesh has seen.

Compare 1 Corinthians 2:9

. . . What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard . . . 

Sadly, we don’t see that biblical passage in the longer Ethiopic text in association with the vision Isaiah has been given. It does appear in the shorter L2/S versions, however. If the pocket gospel was part of Isaiah’s original vision then why was this line not included if it had been part of the original text? Charles sees no reason an editor might have for removing it. Rather, he is sure that if the line had been in an earlier Greek manuscript before him the editor would certainly have copied and preserved it.

The line is only found in the shorter versions of L2/S, however. Barlow does see the line as part of the original document. Contrary to Charles, he finds “plenty of intratextual reasons” an editor might remove it:

More than once all of our manuscripts have Isaiah seeing what no man has seen before, making it untrue to say that no ear has heard the heavenly praises or seen the divine beings and crowns and thrones etc., for Isaiah has already. What God has prepared “for those who love Him” has thus been seen and heard by Isaiah: the statement was in all probability deleted by the editor of G1 because it presents a prima facie contradiction to the sum total of eventualities presented in the vision thus far. The verse as it stands nevertheless says ‘you have seen what no man has seen, and no one has seen or can imagine it’. 

I think there is room to doubt this argument. Telling Isaiah he has seen what no man has seen is hardly a contradiction because Isaiah as a man has seen such things. Perhaps other arguments would support the view that Paul was quoting the Asc. Isa. in 1 Cor. 2:9.

From this point, James Barlow undertakes a detailed commentary on R. H. Charles’s discussion of the Vision of Isaiah (6-11).


Alter, Robert. 1981. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books.

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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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “The Ascension of Isaiah: Another Set of Questions”

  1. I’m interested to know how literal Bible believing Christian scholars view these matters, starting with the big picture. I was never a scholar, but during my time as a Christian I probably would have thought that the cosmic episodes of Christ were a derivative from the Gospel story i.e. later trying to understand and describe the true nature of the God-man who had visited our world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to bring salvation, then returned to heaven.
    .
    I expect that view would not focus as much on the canon of Hebrew Scripture that the epistles relate to, which might have shaped the backdrop to the epistles.
    .
    Can anyone with a literal Bible viewpoint comment on the value of A of I and what we can learn from it about Christian origins ?

    1. Actually consideration of the whole ‘historical Jesus’ question wasn’t even thought of until the Enlightenment and then only in protestant circles. Until then the person of Jesus was so mystically conceived in the believing mind for centuries his birth wasn’t even celebrated as Christmas, until relatively recently.
      Even today, literalistic Christians are stunned to discover contradictions in the four gospels, even after having read them dozens of times….
      No one knew who he was from the getgo, then and niw

  2. ” ‘If SL2, in other words G2, represent faithfully the text as it stood in the archetype G, then it is clear that in such passages the fuller text of E or G1 is the work of the editor of G1. This is no doubt true in a few cases.’
    Barlow responds,
    ‘But if this logic is insurmountable, only wouldn’t it be true in ‘every’ case?’
    To which I would respond, No.”
    (?!) But why not, if the assertion is true that “SL2 (G2) represents faithfully the text as it stood in archetype G”? (!)
    Does it make sense to say, (1)”It is clear X1 is true to X compared to X2. (2)”Therefore additions to X2 not in X1 aren’t original to X.” (Conclusion:) “But some are….”(!?!).

    1. Not sure if we are on the same wavelength here.

      If X is sometimes true, it does not follow that X is always true. Each case needs to be examined on its own merits.

  3. It seems the stronger argumentation for thinking I Cor. 2;9 a Pauline quote of Asc. Is. has been bypassed for the sake of their weaker sister:
    “Perhaps other arguments would support the view that Paul was quoting the Asc. Isa. in 1 Cor. 2:9.”
    Check out the Commentary.
    (It just seems odd that the angel would tell the seer no man will ever be able to see or imagine what you have just seen.)
    Paul quotes the saying as Scripture—and he never quoted spurious or dubious books as Scripture—so Asc.Is., (but only G2L2), had to have been regarded as inspired by the protochristian cultus. I suspect it survived the later expanded G1L1 much as GMark survived its expansion into GLuke & GMatthew.

    1. Yet we have good reasons to believe that Paul knew translations of Scripture that have been lost to us. I am not using this as an argument, only to state a qualifier that must always lurk behind conclusions drawn from specific wordings in manuscripts removed from their authors by centuries.

  4. I like “literary completeness for the sake of cogency” and its aesthetic, too. But it’s clear the authors of Asc Is. sought to mimic biblical stylistics across the board, and inasmuch as L1 appears redundant, in this csse it seems purposelessly so.
    If cogency and completeness were the criterion I would definitely like the long ending of GMark post 16;8 and the unanalyzed Flavian Testimonium (!).
    But do see what the Commebtary has to say re. this narrative section and “forms.”

    1. Just to add to my original words:

      . . . literary completeness with [not “for the sake of”] cogency. If words find a natural and coherent place in a text then they are more likely to be original to that text than words that appear to be disjointed, incomplete, etc.

      The point of that comment was in relation to 11:27-30 as set out in the two columns of the table. It is quite another thing to “use criteria”, say “a criterion of completeness”, to justify adding a whole episode of narrative to a story. Criteriology is a kind of generally invalid game; each case of proposed addition or deletion needs to be argued on its own merits, not woodenly by some “criterion” that supposedly applies the same “rule” to all situations. Once we go down the path of mechanically applying this and that criterion then we end up in a real mess, having to decide each time which criterion to apply and which not — gosh, if we did that to the study of a historical Jesus we’d end up with scores and scores of quite different “historical Jesuses”.

      In 11:27-30 we can see how the longer passage does contain a rhythmic and repetitive pattern that reads lie a folk tale or poetic narrative building up a colourful narrative — in the same type of pattern as we find in Genesis 1 with its repetitions with each new point of progressive creation.

      This is quite a different argument from the ones relating to the longer ending of Mark or the TF.

      The TF actually breaks the immediate thematic context of a list of disasters and portents for the end of Judea. There is nothing “cogent” about it in its context.

      Ditto for the longer ending of Mark: there is nothing in the longer ending that “coheres” with narrative context, no fulfilment of prophetic promises made earlier. It is clearly an add-on that is manufactured for the sake of a happier and more satisfying ending — which is not the same thing as “words finding a natural and coherent place within a text”.

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