2020-06-09

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)

Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Questions”


2020-06-08

“The Ascension of Isaiah” and Paul – a case made by James Barlow

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by Neil Godfrey

James Barlow has granted permission for his full argument to be posted here. The best way to summarize his thesis is to quote a section of an email he sent me last year:

I no longer remember when I began this project— sometime between eighteen months and two years ago. But it all began while coming across what Mr Doherty had to say about Asc. Is. back in 2010 when I was a Cathedral Dean in British Columbia. When I read Mr Parvus’ suspicion that this work was a kind of Urgospel I felt vindicated in feeling intuitively that it is indeed what is behind Paul (and not JUST Paul!). For not only is it quoted by Paul at I Cor.2:9 (a solemn fact no one wants to delve into the consequences of, for whatever reason), but it is also referred to (I believe) by Paul in I Cor. 15, there too as Scripture as well. Throw in the impossibility of xi. 2-22 being germane to the original text of the Vision, which is dateable (if quoted by Paul) to before c. 50 c.e. and voila, the case for an ahistorical Jesus being the subject of Paul’s letters is undeniable—once the language of the Vision is scrutinized side by side with that of Paul. — James Barlow, 2019

In the discussion Barlow regularly refers to different manuscript lines of the Asc.Is. Since trying to follow references to E, L1, L2, S, G1, G2, G, Greek Legend, can be daunting for a while, the following simplified table may be of use to readers not familiar with the labels:

James Barlow’s files (refresh browser if they do not appear) Look for the “Download (PDF…)” link below each of the two popouts.

Download (PDF, 304KB)

 

Download (PDF, 300KB)

 


2020-06-06

Medieval “Christ Mythicists” and the Ascension of Isaiah

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by Neil Godfrey

The thirteenth-century Cathars in southern France that I compared with today’s political opposition in my previous post embraced the Ascension of Isaiah as one of their core texts. (The reason I was re-reading the Sibly translation of Peter’s chronicle of the crusade against them was to try to get a clearer picture of the history of different manuscript lines of the Ascension of Isaiah — those containing and those lacking the “pocket gospel” (11:2-22) of Jesus being born through Mary in Bethlehem and being crucified in Jerusalem.)

Peter begins by describing the beliefs of these Cathars and at one point makes this intriguing note:

[11] Further, in their secret meetings they said that the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified at Jerusalem was ‘evil’, and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine – and that she was the woman taken in adultery who is referred to in the Scriptures; the ‘good’ Christ, they said, neither ate nor drank nor assumed the true flesh and was never in this world, except spiritually in the body of Paul. I have used the term ‘the earthly and visible Bethlehem’ because the heretics believed there is a different and invisible earth in which – according to some of them – the ‘good’ Christ was born and crucified. Again, they said that the good God had two wives, Oolla and Ooliba, on whom he begat sons and daughters. There were other heretics who said that there was only one Creator, but that he had two sons, Christ and the Devil; they said moreover that all created beings had once been good, but that everything had been corrupted by the vials referred to in the Book of Revelations.

What was that about Christ being crucified not on earth but in some spiritual counterpart to earth?

Cathars were dualists. They believed that this world was created by Satan. Note, though, that Peter writes that “some” of the Cathars believed Jesus was crucified (and born!) in a “celestial” realm of some kind. Most texts discussing the Cathars that I have come across do not mention that this was a belief of “some” of them. The Cathars did have a religious hierarchy, though — the “perfects” who lived a most ascentic life-style and “the rest” of the followers. It is tempting to speculate that the “some” who believed in a “heavenly” crucifixion were the “perfects”. But that is only speculation.


Peter. 1998. The History of the Albigensian Crusade: Peter of Les Vaux-De-Cernay’s Historia Albigensis. Translated by W. A Sibly and M. D Sibly. Woodbridge: Boydell.



2020-06-05

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. Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: More Questions”


2020-05-30

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

. . . .

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

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

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

On page 106 of The Jesus Puzzle Doherty writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucified on a tree (Giovanni da Modena)

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

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

(JNGNM, 121f)

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

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

14. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son , and they will crucify him on a tree, and will slay him not knowing who He is. . . .

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

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

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

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

(JNGNM, 123)

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

Introducing an Historical Jesus into the Ascension

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

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

(ibid)

Here are three arguments along with my thoughts on them. Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: Questioning Three of Earl Doherty’s Arguments”


2020-05-28

Ascension of Isaiah: Other Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Ascension of Isaiah: Questions. . . . 

. . . .

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.

and

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?

Continue reading “Ascension of Isaiah: Other Questions”


2020-05-27

Ascension of Isaiah: Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

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,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”


2020-05-08

Gospel According to Ignatius

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by Neil Godfrey

I should have included a column for the gospel according to Ignatius in my earlier post on the Gospel according to the Ascension of Isaiah. Better late than never:

Continue reading “Gospel According to Ignatius”


The Gospel According to The Ascension of Isaiah

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by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here a worksheet I have prepared for my own ongoing reading around the Ascension of Isaiah. There are some good reasons to think that the “pocket gospel” in the Ascension of Isaiah, 11:2-22, is an interpolation and not part of the original text. But on the other hand there are others who are persuaded that 11:2-22 was part of the original text. That’s a question I will address, pros and cons, in a future post.

The following table expands on the gospel as found in chapter 11 by adding details mentioned in earlier chapters.

Just as fascinating is the account in Asc. Isa. of what happens after the ascension of Jesus to heaven. We read of a story of apostasy and some sort of Anti-Christ figure emerging on the eve of Christ’s return to resurrect and condemn all the wicked.

So the following highlights of the Asc. Isa. “gospel” are not presented with the suggestion that they were part of the original text. No, I really don’t know if they were or not. But either way they clearly are an early form of gospel that in many ways stands quite apart from our canonical gospels.

The table is hardly a comprehensive layout of the other early non-canonical gospels. I’ve only selected a few details that in some way relate to the Asc. Isa. and/or show other non-canonical parallels with Justin’s account of the gospel.

There are several quite interesting details in the Asc. Isa. gospel account when we read it carefully. For instance, Mary is said to be from the family of “David the Prophet”. Why is David said to be “the Prophet” and not the King? An answer may come to mind when we realize that a larger theme of the Asc. Isa. is false versus true prophets and the persecution, even martyrdom, of the true prophets. This is another little detail of a larger theme I have brought up in other posts — that the David motif in the intertestamental period was often wrapped in ideas of suffering, unjust persecution, righteousness, rather than conquering militarily. Continue reading “The Gospel According to The Ascension of Isaiah”


2020-05-05

The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?

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by Neil Godfrey

Prof. Dr. Jan Willem van Henten

The Christian dying saviour who atones for his people was a development of Hebrew ideas but the Greek influence cannot be ignored either. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Greek idea was embraced by Hebrew authors. (This post is sharing a few pages from J. W. van Henten’s The Maccabean Martyrs As Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. I work with Henten’s date for the composition of 2 Maccabees as around 124 B.C.E.)

We read in 2 Maccabees 6:12-17 that the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Seleucid kings is a sign of God’s special love for his people. God seeks to discipline his people before their sins get too far out of hand. That’s not how he treats the gentiles. He lets their sins continue until the reach some ultimate height and presumably then they will really suffer.

12 Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. 13 In fact, it is a sign of great kindness not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately. 14 For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, 15 in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. 16 Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. 17 Let what we have said serve as a reminder; we must go on briefly with the story.

The martyrs who suffer do so not only for their own sins but primarily because of the sins of all their people. (The only sins mentioned are those of the Jewish traitors.) A mother and her seven sons are martyred one by one, and before the sixth son was taken to suffer a gruesome fate  we read in 2 Maccabees 7:18 his words spoken to Antiochus:

18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.

The mother engaged in a philosophical discourse with her seventh son before he suffered his gruesome fate, the point being to rationalize the notion of the resurrection for readers. (Henten, p. 176)

“These things” that are suffered embrace both the suffering of the martyrs and the afflictions of the whole nation.

The seventh son expressed the same in 2 Maccabees 7:32

32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.

The same phrase “our own sins” is again found in 10:4 after the restoration of the Temple and prayers are made expressing hope never to suffer again the same way for their sins:

When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations.

The seventh son’s last words (7:37-38) were a declaration that his and his brothers’ martyrdom would bring an end to the sufferings of their people:

37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.

Henten interprets the above passages as meaning that the martyrs are suffering as a result of the sins of all the Jews:

The pattern of the narrative . . . as well as certain remarks in 5:17-20 and 6:12-17 support this interpretation (cf. 4 Macc. 4:21). The wicked deeds of some Jewish leaders have led the whole people including the martyrs into a state of sin. This explains why the youngest brother can say at 2 Macc. 7:38 that the wrath of the Lord “has justly fallen on our whole nation”. The godless actions of Simon, Jason, Menelaus, Lysimachus, Alcimus and the unfaithful soldiers of Judas are the only sins of Jews reported in 2 Maccabees. Nowhere are the sins of the martyrs themselves mentioned. The martyrs . . . die because of the sins of the people and in this way show their solidarity with the people

(Henten, 137)

The martyrs are acting on behalf of the entire people:

The references to “we”, “us” and “our” in 2 Macc. 7:16, 30, 32-33, 38 are intended to be inclusive; they point not only to the martyrs but also to the people. The youngest brother says in 7:30 to the Seleucid king that Moses has given the law of the Lord to “our ancestors”, thereby making the entire people responsible for keeping the Torah. In 2 Macc. 7:31, Antiochus is not called the adversary of the martyrs but of “the Hebrews”.

(Henten, 138)

The sufferings that the martyrs in chapter 7 speak of are the sufferings of “the entire Jewish people” as well as to the martyrs. Reconciliation will follow the short period of torment, as the last son makes clear:

33 And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. . . . . 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

Immediately after the deaths of the seven sons and their mother the reconciliation begins. From chapter 8 the tide turns and Judas Maccabeus soundly defeats the army of Nicanor.

40 So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. 41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. . . . 

8 Meanwhile Judas, who was also called Maccabeus, and his companions secretly entered the villages and summoned their kindred and enlisted those who had continued in the Jewish faith, and so they gathered about six thousand. They implored the Lord to look upon the people who were oppressed by all; and to have pity on the temple that had been profaned by the godless; to have mercy on the city that was being destroyed and about to be leveled to the ground; to hearken to the blood that cried out to him; to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name; and to show his hatred of evil.

As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy. Coming without warning, he would set fire to towns and villages. He captured strategic positions and put to flight not a few of the enemy. He found the nights most advantageous for such attacks. And talk of his valor spread everywhere.

The story flow leads the reader to understand that the martyrdoms were the turning point in God’s intervention and working through Judas Maccabeus to free the people from foreign domination.

This pattern is repeated when Razis kills himself to save his people — 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. Stabbing himself didn’t work, so he threw himself off a tower into the enemy below, but that didn’t work either, so he finally ripped out his entrails and flung them at his opponents. The following chapter sees Judas Maccabeus announcing to his troops a dream-sign from God (Jeremiah giving him a golden sword) with the only possible outcome, 15:27:

So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low at least thirty-five thousand, and were greatly gladdened by God’s manifestation.

These stories of deaths that became turning points for the liberation of the Jews are core themes in 2 Maccabees. What was their source of inspiration?

[I]n 2 Macc. 7:37-38 classical and Hellenistic Greek vocabulary concerning the death for one’s fatherland (Hellas), home town, laws, friends, relatives or beloved131 is combined for the first time with conceptions about atonement in the Hebrew Bible . . . .

(Henten, 157)

The Greco-Roman influence

The devil is in the details of the vocabulary used. Continue reading “The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?”


2020-03-19

How Second Temple Jews Related to their Greco-Roman World

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by Neil Godfrey

From E. Gruen's chapter 2, Hellenistic Judaism, available online at DOI: 10.1515/9783110375558

Greek towns dotted Palestine along the Mediterranean coast, in the Lower Galilee, and on both sides of the Jordan. Even Jews in Judea could not isolate themselves completely from Hellenism. Many Jews, especially those in the Diaspora, even lost touch with Hebrew.

Judaism is a very elastic term. It is a mistake to imagine two types of Judaism, a Palestinian Judaism that is “pure” and “Torah” based on the one hand, and a Hellenistic Judaism on the other hand. Rich diversity was found in both.

Diaspora Jews did not confront daily angst over whether or how much to assimilate with their surroundings. They were Greek-speaking and integrated into their local communities and institutions.

Jews used Hellenistic media to express their own traditions and self-definitions.

Jewish works in Greek genres

— they wrote tragic drama modelled on the plays of Greek playwrights — Ezekiel the Tragedian (2nd C bce) wrote a play about Moses that introduced incidents that are more familiar to Hellenistic drama than the biblical story.

— they wrote epic poetry modelled on Homer — Theodotus (2nd C bce) composed a poem about the rape of Dinah and destruction of Shechem, whitewashing the biblical story but demonstrating how everything worked out according to the divine will.

Joseph and Aseneth: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_and_Asenath_(San_Marco).jpg

— they wrote novels in the vein of Greek romances — the most well known to us being Joseph and Aseneth. This novel promotes the virtue and power of Joseph and the respect Egyptians have for him, and how those who scorned him at first came to stand in awe of him and even convert to worshipping his god. Even Pharaoh prays to Joseph’s god. Relations between Jews and Egyptians is harmonious but only because Egyptians recognize the superiority of Joseph’s character and faith.

— they wrote histories modelled on Greek histories — Demetrius (late 3rd C bce) rewrote much of the biblical history but with an attempt to explain and reconcile contradictions and loose ends in the biblical narrative. Eupolemus (2nd C bce) wrote a glorification of the reign of David having him conquer everything from the Euphrates to the Taurus mountains in the north and the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. Solomon, in his account, repays foreigners who helped him build his temple by given them assistance with building their own temples to their pagan deities.

— Another text, the Letter of Aristeas (2nd C bce), presents the Egyptian king marshalling extensive resources just to have the Jewish Scriptures translated into Greek and added to the great Alexandrian royal library. The king, Ptolemy, reveres the Jewish customs and is overwhelmed by the wisdom of Jewish scribes. The Jewish scribes in fact express the noblest of Greek philosophy by speaking of moderation, avoiding extremes, etc. Greek philosophers are inferred to be inferior.

The notion of a barrier that had to be overcome between Jewish and Hellenistic cultures casts precisely the wrong image. The Jewish intellectuals who sought to rewrite their past and redefine their traditions grew up in Diaspora or even Palestinian communities suffused with Hellenism. For them it was their culture. Their ideas and concepts expressed themselves quite naturally in Greek forms. But this in no way compromised, diminished, or undermined their sense of Jewish identity. On the contrary, Jewish thinkers and writers showed little interest in the Trojan War, the house of Atreus, the labors of Heracles, the customs of the Scythians, or the love of Cupid and Psyche. They mobilized the Hellenic crafts of epic, tragedy, philosophy, romance, and historiography to reproduce the record of their own people, to convey their conventions, and to enhance their achievements. (p. 40)

Jewish Construction of Greek Culture and Ethnicity

Continue reading “How Second Temple Jews Related to their Greco-Roman World”


2019-02-26

“Logos, a Jewish Word”

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by Neil Godfrey

Philo’s Logos is neither just the Wisdom (Gk sophia; Heb okhmah) of the Bible, nor is it quite the Platonic logos, nor the divine Word (Heb davar), but a new synthesis of all of these.

A response to the post Gospel of John as a Source for Jewish Messianism:

This seems interesting. Though the opening of GJohn insists that Jesus is the “word,” or logos. A very Greek word, concept, from as early as Heraclitus, c. 500 BCE (?).

So if this Logos or “Word” is found in Jewish culture, it was probably borrowed by them from the Greeks. . . .

Hellenized Jews like Philo used this Word especially.

An interesting engagement with this critical perception can be found in a short article by Daniel Boyarin, “Logos, A Jewish Word: John’s Prologue as Midrash”, in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, conveniently available via academia.edu.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, the idea of the Word (Gk Logos) was known in some Greek philosophical circles as a link connecting the Transcendent/the Divine with humanity/the terrestrial. For Jews, the idea of this link between heaven and earth, whether called by the Greek Logos or Sophia (“wisdom”) or by the Aramaic Memra (“word”), permeated first- and second-century thought. Although monotheistic, Jews nevertheless recognized other supernatural beings who communicated the divine will. The use of the Logos in John’s Gospel (“In the Beginning was the Word/Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [Jn 1.1]) is thus a thoroughly Jewish usage. (546)

As for the “Hellenized” Philo, Boyarin points out that he writes of the Logos “as if it were a commonplace”, demonstrating that at least in some quarters of pre-Christian Judaism “there was nothing strange about a doctrine of a manifestation of God, even as a “second God”; the Logos did not conflict with Philo’s idea of monotheism.”

Philo and his Alexandrian Jewish community would have found the “Word of God” frequently in the Septuagint (LXX), where it creates, reveals, and redeems. For example, speaking of the exodus, Philo writes:

whereas the voice of mortals is judged by hearing, the sacred oracles intimate that the words of God (logoi, the plural) are seen as light is seen, for we are told that all of the people saw the Voice [Ex 20.18], not that they heard it; for what was happening was not an impact of air made by the organs of mouth and tongue, but the radiating splendor of virtue indistinguishable from a fountain of reason. . . . But the voice of God which is not that of verbs and names yet seen by the eye of the soul, he [Moses] rightly introduces as “visible.” (Migr. 47–48)

This text draws a close connection between the Logos and light, as in John 1.4–5:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John’s Prologue depicts the Logos as both a part of God and as a being separate from God. Compare Philo: Continue reading ““Logos, a Jewish Word””


2019-02-08

Imagine No Interpolations

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by Neil Godfrey

What if the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus and his followers, in Antiquities by Josephus was written in full (or maybe with the exception of no more than 3 words) by Josephus? I know that would raise many questions about the nature of the rest of our sources but let’s imagine the authenticity of the passage in isolation from everything else for now.

What if the passage about Christ in Tacitus was indeed written by Tacitus? Ditto about that raising more questions as above, but the same.

What if even the author attribution studies that have demonstrated the very strong likelihood that Pliny’s letter about Christians to Trajan was not written by Pliny were wrong after all?

What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)

What if 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which has Paul saying the Jews themselves killed Jesus in Judea was indeed written by Paul thus adding one more inconsistency of Paul’s thought to the already high pile?

What if, contrary to what has been argued in a work opposing (sic) the Christ Myth hypothesis, the passage about Paul meeting James the brother of the Lord was originally penned by Paul after all?

Would the above Imagine scenarios collectively remove any reason to question the assertion that Christianity began ultimately with a historical Jesus?

I don’t think so. Continue reading “Imagine No Interpolations”


2018-11-10

Updated post

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by Neil Godfrey

I have updated the post discussing Tim O’Neill’s Non Sequitur discussion of the Ascension of Isaiah.

Response #3: Non Sequitur’s Tim O’Neill presentation, The Ascension of Isaiah