Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: New Testament
Mostly straightforward but still some questions arise. Where does New Testament end and Church history and question of Christian origins, also certain roles of Marcion, begin? (Marcion’s argued influence on NT should be included here; also evidence of early readings found in Fathers like Tertullian.) Relevant manuscript discoveries and analysis belong here, including histories of their later copying.
In the previous post focusing on Heracles (or Zeus-Heracles) as Logos I omitted a quotation that paired Heracles with Hermes (Roman name, Mercury) for the sake of trying to keep the focus on a single point. Here I am catching up: what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark. (Don’t jump to wild conclusions, though. I am only exploring the religious/ideological contexts within which the gospels emerged.)
The Jewish philosopher Philo noted that Hermes was the prophet, the divine interpreter, but in particular, the messenger who brought to humanity “good news”:
ἄραοὐχὅτιπροσήκειτὸνἑρμηνέα [=interpreter] καὶπροφήτην [=prophet] τῶνθείων,ἀφ’οὗκαὶ Ἑρμῆςὠνόμασται,τὰἀγαθὰδιαγγέλλοντα [=messenger of good](Legatio Ad Gaium, 99)
— It’s worth trying to imagine living at the time the gospels were first heard. Jesus, the messenger who brought good news, surely evoked in the minds of some another deity with a comparable role.
Shortly after Philo (in the time of Nero) the Roman philosopher Cornutus wrote Epidrome (or Greek Theology) in which he described Hermes as reason (= logos) itself, “the preeminent possession of the gods” and the one they have sent to us from heaven so that we alone of earthly creatures are rational.
— As per the previous post focussing on Heracles, Jesus was not unique in being identified with the/a logos.
I copy the translation of the key section by Robert Hays from his 1983 thesis, Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ “Epidrome”. Cornutus has just described in depth those daughters of Zeus known as the gift-giving Graces [Charites].
1. The tradition holds that Hermes is their [i.e. “the Graces”] master, thus signifying that the bestowing of kindness must be reasonable: not random, but to those who deserve it. For the person who has been ungratefully treated [ho…acharistētheis] becomes more reluctant to do good. Now Hermes is Reason [hologos]. which the gods sent to us from heaven, having made man alone of all the living creatures on earth reasonable [logikon], a gift which they themselves considered outstanding beyond all others. He has received his name from his taking counsel to speak [ereinmēsasthai], i.e., to engage in rational discourse [legein]. Or, perhaps because he is our bulwark [eryma] and, as it were, our fortress.
Let’s once again imagine the canonical gospels in the thought-world of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Specifically, this time let’s focus on how Stoic philosophers thought about gods like Hermes (the Roman Mercury) and Heracles (the Roman Hercules) and then imagine what those philosophers might have thought about Jesus as they listened to a reading of the gospels.
Jesus is not the sort of messiah we normally think of when we think of “the Jewish messiah”. He is centred in heaven and acts as sustainer of the universe and the source of all spiritual wisdom, and so forth, rather than a Davidic king sitting on a throne in Jerusalem with all nations coming to bow to him. (We have addressed the various ideas of Jewish messianism several times before but here we are focusing on Knox’s interesting explanation for this more spiritual or heavenly concept of Jesus as messiah.)
Knox points out that Jesus is not explicitly described as a “saviour” (even though he clearly is a saviour) until the very latest books in the N.T. For Knox, this avoidance of the label can be explained by a reluctance to associate Jesus with the many other divine and human “saviours” that populated the Hellenistic landscape.
It is well known that the general desire of the hellenistic age was to find gods who were ‘saviours’. ‘Salvation’ might take many forms. . . . even Philo can describe Augustus as Soter [=Saviour] and Euergetes [=Benefactor], though normally such titles are reserved for the God of Israel and only applied sarcastically to rulers. . . .
[Flaccus] arrested thirty-eight members of our council of elders, which our saviour and benefactor, Augustus, elected to manage the affairs of the Jewish nation after the death of the king of our own nation . . . (Philo: Flaccus 74)
In Syll 347 (= 760)8, an Ephesian inscr. of A.D. 48, the Town Council of Ephesus and other cities acclaim Julius Caesar as θεòν επιφανή … καί κοινòν του ανθρωπíνου βíου σωτήρα, and in a i/A.D. Egyptian inscr. … reference is made to Nero as τώι σωτήρι καί ευεργετηι (cf. Lk 2225) τή[ς] οίκουμένης : cf. the description of Vespasian … tòv σωτήρα καί ευεργετην. (Voc. Gr. N.T. p.621 σωτήρ )
Jesus the Logos; comparing Heracles the Logos
Here we come to an interesting point, one that I had “sort of” known for some time, but Knox makes its significance clear:
Knox adds a detailed discussion of two examples (Asclepius and Sarapis) of this identification of a saviour god with the supreme God (Zeus) and of the descriptions by Aristides of this highly exalted god that match Philo’s account of the Logos. Cf. Wisdom 9:18ff.
But at its best the cult of a saviour could rise above man’s immediate needs of peace, health, and prosperity; a particular deity could be regarded as the manifestation of God in the cosmos, and be addressed by the votary in more or less monotheistic language as the saviour both of the worshipper and of the whole universe or one particular aspect of it. As a saviour in this sense he could be equated with the Logos or one of the Logoi through which the supreme deity ordered the universe, or with the supreme deity himself; which position was given him depended on his traditional position in the Pantheon or on the extent to which the worshipper was concerned to observe the proprieties of Stoic-Platonic theology. (38)
And then a detail even less expected for many of us who are not professional classicists:
Heracles is a particularly interesting specimen of this theology. (39)
[Destroying tyrants and establishing kingdoms was] what made him Saviour of the earth and of the human race [τῆς γῆς καὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων σωτῆρα] . . . (Dio Chrys. 1.84)
Saviour and Logos
Heracles was not only a “saviour” who delivered the world from barbaric tyrants and introduced civilization through the good governance of kings. But he was also the Logos who gave “strength and cohesion to the cosmos”. Thus the philosopher Cornutus identifies Heracles with the Logos that is the power and mind responsible for sustaining the universe:
‘Heracles’ is universal reason [= Ἡρακλῆς δ’ ἐστὶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς ὅλοις λόγος], thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well, and it also gives strength and power to its various parts. The name comes, perhaps, from the fact that it extends to heroes [hērōes] and is what makes the noble famous [kle(izesthai)]. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. ….. Both the lion skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility; for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer because he extends everywhere and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering—and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Coans have an apposite tradition according to which he lives with Hebe,198 as one more perfect than her in intelligence—as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.”203 I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to ‘Omphale’ refers to him [the god]; through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice [omphē] (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labors as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day. (Cornutus, Greek Theology, 31)
Seneca, also a Stoic philosopher, appears to have taken the same Stoic idea of the Logos (or head) spreading its health through the whole body when he instructed the young Nero, substituting Nero for the Logos of the empire:
To a great extent, Caesar, we may hope and expect that this will come to pass. Let your own goodness of heart be gradually spread and diffused throughout the whole body of the empire, and all parts of it will mould themselves into your likeness. Good health proceeds from the head into all the members of the body: they are all either brisk and erect, or languid and drooping, according as their guiding spirit blooms or withers. Both Romans and allies will prove worthy of this goodness of yours, and good morals will return to all the world . . . (Seneca, Of Clemency, 2.II.1)
Stoics sometimes wrote of God as if he/it were an immanent force permeating all; other times, though, they spoke of God as a first cause and transcendent ruler over all. Seneca declared God to be the
divine reason [= logos] which permeates the whole world and all its parts. . . . [A]ll things stay in place thanks to him, because he is their stayer and stabilizer. . . . [H]e is the first cause of all, the one on which all the other causes depend. (On Benefits 7.1-2)
I have compiled the three parts into a single file. Make whatever use you want of it. Copy it; share it. I only ask that you acknowledge its source on this blog as per the Creative Commons licence for all works here. Frank Feller was the translator but I refined his work here and there into more fluent English. Find the Download Button beneath the viewing frame.
A document I have not posted about yet is Secret Mark [link to earlychristianwritings.com] or the Secret Gospel of Mark [link to Wikipedia]. (The most controversial aspect of the passage and the letter accompanying it is the possible hint of a homoerotic Jesus.) The briefest introduction to the fragment is at the Gnostic Society Library, and a more detailed discussion is available at Westar Institute. If the fragment is genuine, it would appear that our canonical version of the Gospel of Mark is a shortened version for “lower grade” converts and that there was once a more complete version for those to whom higher secret doctrines were permitted.
A fresh approach to the document was posted on the Biblical History & Criticism Forum by Ken Olson and with his permission I am sharing it here with Vridar readers. Enjoy!
Tinker Tailor Soldier Forger
or What George Smiley Taught Me About Secret Mark: Lessons From John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic 1974 espionage novel by John Le Carre (the pen name of David Cornwell), which has been made into a good movie starring Gary Oldman (2011) and an excellent miniseries starring Alec Guinness (1979). Cornwell is a former agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) himself and his novels are far more realistic (or, if you prefer, have more verisimilitude), than Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, let alone the Bond movies. Anyway, if you haven’t read or watched it, you should.
The plot was inspired by the historical Cambridge Five spy ring, which included a top level MI-6 agent who was a mole passing secrets to the Russians. In the novel, a forcibly retired former agent named George Smiley is brought in by a government minister to try to uncover who among the top level agents of the Service (who are given the code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, etc.) is a mole working for the Russians.
There a number of gems in the book.
In one place, Smiley is asked for his opinion on a file containing a Soviet internal review of their naval capabilities, which is something the Service has been after, and has now come into their hands from a mysterious source. Smiley comments (in the TV version):
Its topicality makes it suspect
In another place, Smiley muses on why it’s so difficult to convince his fellows that some of the intelligence they’ve been receiving from the same source is actually being fed to them by the Russians:
Have you ever bought a fake picture? … The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt it. Silly, but there we are.
In a long passage, Smiley is reading over a personnel file concerning two of the Service’s agents, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux. The file contains an old letter from Haydon to a man named Fanshawe (addressing him as “Fan,” which suggests they had a warm relationship), who was his tutor (i.e., the talent spotter from the Service who had recruited him), recommending that he also recruit his new friend Prideaux. In the course of praising Prideaux, Haydon says a few things that could perhaps be taken to suggest the two were more than just friends:
he’s only just noticed that there is a World Beyond the Touchline, and that world is me.
He’s my other half, between us we’d make one marvelous man … you know that feeling when you just have to go out and find someone new or the world will die on you?
he asks nothing better than to be in my company and that of my wicked, divine friends.
Nothing explicit, but as Smiley turns the pages in the file he finds:
The tutors of the two men aver (twenty years later) that it is inconceivable that the relationship between the two was ‘more than purely friendly’ …
Why does John Le Carre, the author, add the note from the two men’s tutors that it was *inconceivable* that their relationship was ‘more than purely friendly’ immediately after the text of Haydon’s letter about Prideaux? Was Le Carre concerned that his readers might take some of Haydon’s fulsome praise of Prideaux as suggesting there was a homosexual attraction between the two, and wished to allay that suspicion? If so, it backfires spectacularly.
Readers are much more likely to wonder why it was necessary for the tutors to report that the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux was definitely not homosexual in nature. The report gives the readers a context in which to understand the contents of the letter. If they had suspected there was something homoerotic in the contents of Haydon’s letter before, their suspicions are only going to be heightened by the denial in the report, and if they hadn’t picked that up from the contents of the letter, they probably will after seeing the appended note.
It seems more likely that Le Carre, a gifted writer, knew perfectly well what effect the appended note from the men’s tutors would have on his readers and included it for that reason. It’s a literary device. (Well, Okay, Le Carre has talked about how he conceived the homosexual relationship between Haydon and Prideaux in interviews, so that part is not really in dispute. What I’m discussing is the literary technique he used to reveal it to his readers).
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain best-known birth narratives of Jesus but they have mystified many inquiring minds who wonder how they can be so totally different from each other. They are so different that many scholars cannot accept that Luke had ever read Matthew’s account: they had to be derived ultimately (and independently) from some remote common source.
Here’s what they do have in common (from a list by Raymond Brown in The Birth of the Messiah):
1. The parents are called Mary and Joseph, are engaged or married, but do not yet live together at the time of Jesus’ conception;
2. Joseph is a descendant of David;
3. an angel announces the future birth of Jesus, although this announcement is addressed to Joseph in Matthew, but to Mary in Luke;
4. Mary had the child without intercourse with Joseph;
5. conception takes place through the work of the Holy Spirit;
6. the angel prescribes that the child should be called Jesus;
7. an angel declares that Jesus will be the Saviour:
8. the child is born after the parents start living together;
9. the birth takes place in Bethlehem:
10. it is temporally connected to the realm of Herod the Great;
11. the child grows up in Nazareth.
Yet the two stories are quite simply incompatible. In Matthew the infant Jesus is taken to Egypt to escape the “massacre of the innocents” after Herod learned from the magi of the birth of a “future king”; in Luke there is no threat to Jesus’ life, shepherds worship the newborn, he is presented at the Temple, and so forth. (I happen to think it quite possible that Luke did know Matthew’s birth narrative but that is ultimately irrelevant to the main point of this post.)
Though these two canonical stories are the best known they are not the only early Christian narratives of Jesus’ birth. We also have the Infancy Gospel of James. Here we read that Mary gave birth in a cave and a midwife confirms Mary’s virginity immediately after the birth. Jesus’ step-brother James is presented as the narrator of that account. Then there’s the Ascension of Isaiah where we read that Jesus simply appears (without any angelic warnings to either parent) as if by magic in front of Mary who is in her house, and Mary’s belly is restored to normal and she appears to be left wondering “what happened?”
Further, there are other writings from as early as the second century that mention other details not found in any of our narratives that are believed to have been prophesied about the birth of Jesus. So in the Acts of Peter we read Peter declaring all sorts of proofs to Simon Magus that Jesus’ birth was surely prophesied in many ways in the Scriptures and other now-lost writings:
XXIV. But Peter said: Anathema upon thy words against (or in) Christ! Presumest thou to speak thus, whereas
the prophet saith of him: Who shall declare his generation? [or, His family, who will tell it?] — [Isa. 53:8]
And another prophet saith: And we saw him and he had no beauty nor comeliness. — [Isa. 53:2]
And: In the last times shall a child be born of the Holy Ghost: his mother knoweth not a man, neither doth any man say that he is his father. — [?]
And again he saith: She hath brought forth and not brought forth. — [From the apocryphal Ezekiel (lost)]
And again: Is it a small thing for you to weary men (lit. Is it a small thing that ye make a contest for men) — [?]
[And again:] Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb. — [Isa. 7:13f]
And another prophet saith, honouring the Father: Neither did we hear her voice, neither did a midwife come in. — [From the Ascension of Isaiah, xi. 14]
Another prophet saith: Born not of the womb of a woman, but from a heavenly place came he down. — [?]
And: A stone was cut out without hands, and smote all the kingdoms. — [Dan. 2:34]
And: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner; and he calleth him a stone elect, precious. — [Ps. 118:22]
And again a prophet saith concerning him: And behold, I saw one like the Son of man coming upon a cloud. — [Dan. 7:13]
Similar details are found listed in Justin’s writings. In his Dialogue with Trypho Justin writes that Mary is from the house of David (76); he further declares that Jesus has “no human generation (Trypho 32; First Apology 51); that he is not descended from human seed (Trypho, 63, 68); that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem (Trypho 78); that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a prophecy to take the power of Damascus and spoils of Samaria (Trypho 78); and that Jesus escaped all notice of others until he was an adult (First Apology 35).
Such lists of “fulfilled prophecies” do not derive from narratives. They have all the appearance of being found independently, as some form of “testimonia”. Readers had been pondering scriptures and divining what they had to say about how the heavenly messiah was to make his appearance in the world of humankind. From this pool of testimonies, presumably crafted by prophets of some sort, different scribes took raw material to create their narratives. Each of these narratives had its own theological theme. Thus, the Infancy Gospel of James was focused on demonstrating that “history proved” the sacred and eternal virginity of Mary; the Ascension of Isaiah took those elements that it could use to demonstrate that Jesus was not contaminated by flesh even though coming as flesh or in the appearance of it; Matthew sought to represent Jesus as a second Moses who brought out of Egypt a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and gentiles; Luke, to show Jesus began his career with the Jews alone, “to the Jew first“.
Such is the viewpoint of Enrico Norelli. The above is his thesis on how we have come to have such widely diverging nativity stories of Jesus. Quite likely, but I also think that certain authors — especially “Luke” — were themselves creative enough to find scriptural “prophecies” as needed for their respective narratives.
Norelli asks about the names of Mary and Joseph after lengthy discussions about the apparent creation of the “testimonia” listed above. He can’t see those details being found in scriptural fulfilment so suspects they probably were historically grounded as the names of the real parents of Jesus.
I find that reasoning problematic: every detail is taken from “fulfilled prophecy” except the names of two parents? Other scholars have indeed found the names of Mary and Joseph in “prophecy”:
Who bewitched you? Paul demanded to know of the Galatians. He continued:
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was written beforehand [προεγράφη, cf Rom. 15:4] as crucified.
Max Wilcox suggested (with some diffidence) at least the possibility of such a translation back in 1977 in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. The remainder of this post draws a few key points from a mass of fascinating details in that article, “Upon the Tree”: Deut 21:22-23 in the New Testament”. It focuses on what Paul and other early “Christian” exegetes found written in the Scriptures through a midrashic type reading.
A few verses after that opening Paul “bizarrely” links Jesus Christ with the pronouncement of a curse on anyone “hanging on a tree” as per the law of Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:13:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”
quoting Deuteronomy 21:23
. . . anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse . . .
Look at that Deuteronomy 21 passage in full and despair at trying to find any way Paul could have associated it with the crucified Jesus:
If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deut 21:22-23)
Wilcox finds clues to the association in the verses leading up to Galatians 3:13. If we are aware of the Scriptures Paul has been alluding to in those preceding verses we can find the answer to why the Deuteronomic tree-hanging curse applied to Jesus.
Look at Galatians 3:8-9
Now Scripture, having seen beforehand that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the good news of this in advance to Abraham in the promise, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
So then, those who are ‘of faith’ are blessed with faithful/believing Abraham.
For Wilcox the above passage looks very much like a mixed quotation based on three passages in a Greek translation of Genesis(Notice that Peter is assigned a similar quotation in Acts: the major difference being that in Acts the stress is on “seed” while in Galatians it is on “you”, referring to Abraham.)
Wilcox comments that Paul (and the author of Acts) are using a hybrid quotation to associate the promise to Abraham with the “nations”, the Gentiles.
Not only Genesis but Deuteronomy informs Paul’s thought
In Galatians 3:10 we begin to read a longer section of the cursing and blessing dichotomy. This motif comes from many passages throughout Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:10 even directly quotes Deuteronomy:
. . . for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them. . . .
Why is this topic of particular interest? The Asc. Isa. looks like it could have been known to, and even quoted by, Paul. The presence or otherwise of the pocket gospel then has several implications for Paul’s understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ.
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 Jesus mythicists, following Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier, have taken a special interest in the Ascension of Isaiah [Asc. Isa.], an early Christian text that has been used to support (not establish, as some critics have asserted) the argument that Jesus was in an early stage of tradition believed to have been crucified by demons in the firmament above the earth. Fundamental to this interpretation of the Asc. Isa. is the view proposed by some mainstream scholars that a passage describing Jesus being born on earth and finally crucified on earth in the text is a late insertion. Manuscript and some textual evidence are cited in support of this view. That passage is 11:2-22. It speaks of the virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, a mysterious birth of Jesus and Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast, a later time when Jesus performs miracles and so arouses the envy of ruling demons, and of those demons stirring up hatred against him to the point where people crucify him on a tree in Jerusalem. All the while Jesus’ true identity as the “Beloved” from God in the seventh heaven is hidden from the spirit and human realms.
I have long agreed with those who have shown why we should think that that passage, sometimes called “the pocket gospel”, was not an original part of the Asc. Isa.. A number of manuscripts of the text do not have it. Has not the tendency of mythical development been to elaborate rather than excise earlier traditions? If so, surely the simplest explanation is that the passage was a later addition to the story.
This is a difficult document to analyze in any exact fashion, since the several surviving manuscripts differ considerably in wording, phrases and even whole sections. It has been subjected to much editing in a complicated and uncertain pattern of revision. Many of its elements are quite revealing, not the least for the picture they disclose of the evolution of thought about the descending Son and his role. That picture indicates that in its earlier strata, the Vision speaks of a divine Son who operates entirely in the supernatural realm. (Doherty, JNGNM, 119)
I have come to have doubts, however. I have long been in two minds over various hypotheses that Jesus was crucified by demons in the firmament (Couchoud, Doherty, Carrier). There are several reasons to think that the earliest Jesus myth is the most obvious orthodox one: that Jesus came from heaven, was crucified on earth, descended beneath the earth, then ascended back to heaven. I can address the reasons later.
In this post I want to begin tackling some of the trickier questions surrounding the Ascension of Isaiah. The person I have to thank for this review of my thinking is James Barlow who, I understand, has Masters and Doctoral degrees in Divinity and until his retirement belonged to the Anglican clergy. I have been perusing on and off for over a year a detailed commentary he prepared on the Vision chapters (6 to 11) of the Asc. Isa.
JB presents a very detailed case for the Asc. Isa. being behind some of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians and for the pocket gospel being an interpolation into the original Asc. Isa..
1 Cor. 2:6-9
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 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”— the things God has prepared for those who love him—
1 Cor. 15:3-4
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
“As it is written” and “according to the Scriptures” should not be casually assumed to refer to the “Old Testament”. A very reasonable case can be made that Paul has less orthodox writings (viz the Asc. Isa.) in mind. I won’t take up that question now, either.
But because I know the Asc. Isa. has a particular interest for many readers of Vridar, I want to begin here to think through some of the reasons for concluding that the “pocket gospel” of 11:2-22 was not part of the original Ascension of Isaiah. I have begun to suspect it might be original after all. Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: Questions”
I’ve updated our archives to include an annotated page of links to all Vridar posts on the Nazareth question. Most are about the archaeology of the early first century period, but some address other questions such as the historical likelihood of Jesus being identified as “from Nazareth” and the supposed embarrassment behind the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke creating different narratives to explain how Nazareth entered the life of Jesus.
Check the right-hand column here and look under ARCHIVES by TOPIC. Look fo Nazareth under that heading.
This post questions the authenticity of the section in Paul’s writings where we read that “rulers of this age” crucified “the Lord of glory” followed by a passage said to be a citation of Scripture but that appears only elsewhere in the Ascension of Isaiah. The arguments for interpolation are derived from William O. Walker Jr’s chapter 6 of Interpolations in the Pauline Letters.
On the question of the identity of the “rulers of this age” — whether human, demonic, or both — see the posts addressing a range of scholarly interpretations in the archive for Rulers of this Age.
6 We speak wisdom among those who are perfect, although it is not a wisdom belonging to this world, nor to the governing powers [rulers] of this world [age], which are being brought to nothing,
7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God purposed before the worlds (or: ages), with a view to our glory.
8 This wisdom none of the governing powers [rulers] of this world (-age) has known. For if they had recognized it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
9 But as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard and that never entered into any man’s heart, all the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”
10 For to us God has revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit explores all things, including even the depths of God.
11 For who among men knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way no one has recognized what God is but the Spirit of God.
12 We, however, have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that comes from God, so that we may know what has been bestowed upon us by God.
13 And it is also of this that we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things in spiritual terms.
14 The unspiritual (“psychical”) man, however, does not receive the things of God’s Spirit. For they are foolishness in his eyes and he cannot recognize them, because they are (or: must be) spiritually interpreted.
15 The spiritual man, however, judges all things, but is not himself subject to anyone’s judgment.
16 For “who has discerned the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?” We, however, have the Spirit of Christ.
(Based on Conzelmann’s translation)
For readers impatient to get the main overview, here is a crude list of reasons some scholars have suggested the passage was not originally composed by Paul:
numerous linguistic peculiarities seriously call into question Pauline authorship;
the passage contradicts what Paul says elsewhere;
the consistent use of ‘we’ and other features distinguish 2.6-16 form-critically from its immediate context;
the presence of the passage in 1 Corinthians can plausibly be explained as an attempt by Corinthian ‘pneumatics’ to correct what they saw as Paul’s distortion of their position.
(Walker’s summary of Widman’s discussion: Widmann, Martin, “I Kor 2 6-16: Ein Einspruch gegen Paulus”, ZNW 70 (1979), pp. 44-53.)
Conzelmann writes in his commentary (p. 57),
The section 2:6-16 stands out from its context both in style and in content. It presents a self-contained idea, a commonplace of “wisdom.” It is a contradiction of his previous statements when Paul now announces after all a positive, undialectical possibility of cultivating a wisdom of the “perfect.”
Walker summarizes (p. 128) E. Earle Ellis’s view of the evidence for a non-Pauline origin:
the shift from the singular … to the plural with the “we”, i.e. the pneumatics as the subject …
the unity of the section independent of its context, and
the considerable number of phrases not found elsewhere in the Pauline literature’.
On the basis of such evidence, Ellis concludes that “on balance, 1 Cor. 2.6-16 is probably a pre-formed piece that Paul has employed and adapted to its present context”.
Walker thus points out three possibilities:
it was composed by Paul, using ideas and terminology taken from his opponents,
it was composed by someone other than Paul but was included in the Corinthian letter by Paul, or
it was both written and added to the Corinthian letter by someone other than Paul (not necessarily the same person, however).
Walker argues for #3. In doing so he addresses the counter-claims of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor who concludes that the passage is indeed by Paul (Interpolations in 1 Corinthians – link is to JSTOR article).
No Manuscript Evidence for Interpolation?
Some biblical scholars insist that we cannot make a serious case for interpolations unless we have anomalous manuscript evidence that physically demonstrates variations in editing lines. This is essentially an ostrich argument. The earliest manuscripts we have are those produced by the winners of the theological wars. We know editors fought their battles by modifying source texts. This state of affairs is not unique to the biblical texts since it is well-known that in other ancient literature interpolations were very common, and a problem that even ancient custodians (as in the Alexandrian Library) confronted. (See the Interpolations posts for additional discussion.)