Tag Archives: Ascension of Isaiah

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 4 / Conclusion – Historical Jesus?

The previous post concluded thus:

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my revised hypothesis basically adds only two things to Loisy’s scenario: (1) I would identify the above “Christian groups which believed themselves heirs of the Pauline tradition” as Saturnilians. (2) I would identify the above “mystery of salvation by mystic union with a Saviour who had come down from heaven and returned to it in glory” as the Vision of Isaiah. I also said, earlier in this post, that my recognition of the role the Vision plays in the Pauline letters had changed my perspective on a number of early Christian issues. Before closing I would like to say a few things about perhaps the most significant of them: the historicity of Jesus.

Continuing and concluding the series ….

Historical Jesus?

I am now much more open to the possibility that the version of the Vision used by Paul’s interpolators included the so-called “pocket gospel.” The Jesus of that gospel is docetic. He only appears to be a man. Such a Jesus could explain curious Pauline passages such as this one:

Thus it is written: There was made the first man, Adam, living soul; the last Adam lifegiving spirit. But the spiritual is not first, the first is the living, then the spiritual. The first man, being of earth, is earthy, the second man is of heaven. As is the earthy, so too are the earthy. As is the heavenly, so too are the heavenly. And as we have borne the likeness of the earthy, we shall bear the likeness of the heavenly… (1 Cor. 15, 45-49)

Commentators say that we have to understand here a resurrected Christ as the second man; that Christ too was first earthy, and became lifegiving spirit by his resurrection. But notice that the resurrection is not mentioned in the passage. And it doesn’t mention a transformation for Christ from earthy to spiritual. We are the ones who are said to be in need of transformation.

Moving on: In the pocket gospel there is not a real birth. As Enrico Norelli explains it:

If the story is read literally, it is not about a birth. It’s about two parallel processes: the womb of Mary, that had enlarged, instantly returned to its prior state, and at the same time a baby appears before her— but, as far as can be determined, without any cause and effect relationship between the two events. (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, pp. 52-53, my translation)

This could explain why, in Gal. 4:4, Jesus is “come of a woman, come under the Law.” The use of the word γενόμενον [genômenon] (to be made/to become) instead of the far more typical γεννάω [gennâô] (to be born) could signal a docetic birth. The Jesus of the Vision comes by way of woman—and since she was Jewish, he thereby came under the Law—but he was not really born of her.

The pocket gospel may actually give us an earlier and more accurate look . . . at what a historical Jesus could have been like.

And, in general, with the pocket gospel as background the interpretation of the crucifixion by “the rulers of this world” in 1 Cor. 2:8 ceases to be an issue. Likewise the improbable silences in the Pauline letters. We can account for why, apart from the crucifixion and resurrection, there is practically nothing in the Paulines about what Jesus did or taught. For the Jesus of the pocket gospel is not presented as a teacher. Not a single teaching is put in his mouth. He is not even any kind of a leader. He is not said to have gathered disciples during his lifetime. All we get is this:

And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and Jerusalem. (Asc. Is. 11:18)

These “signs and miracles” need be no more than the kind of bizarre things that, according to the pocket gospel, accompanied his so-called birth. They would be like the curious coincidences that happen to people all the time. But in his case they took on added significance once someone had a vision of him resurrected from the dead. “Hey, I remember once he put his hand on Peter’s mother-in-law when she was sick, and it was weird the way she seemed to get better right away.”

In other words, I think the pocket gospel may actually give us an earlier and more accurate look than the canonical gospels at what a historical Jesus could have been like. He was not a teacher or even a leader of any kind. If he went up to Jerusalem with some fellow believers in an imminent Kingdom of God—perhaps a group of John the Baptist’s followers—he was not the leader of the group. Once in Jerusalem he may have done or said something that got him pulled out from the others and crucified. That would have been the end of the story. Except that another member of the group had a vision of him resurrected, and interpreted it as meaning that the Kingdom of God was closer than ever. Jesus thereby began to take on an importance all out of proportion with his real status as a nobody. The accretions began. And the excuses for why no one had taken much notice of him before.

Why Jesus? Why not a vision of a more significant member of the group? Why not a vision of a resurrected John the Baptist? I don’t know. Maybe John was still alive at the time. Maybe Jesus just happened to be the first member of the group to meet a violent end. Hard to know.

And I’m not sure whether, according to Bayesian analysis, such a further reduction of Jesus increases or decreases the probability of his historical existence. But it does seem to me that such an extremely minimal Jesus can reasonably fit the kind of indications present in the Pauline letters. So sadly, I find I must change my affiliation from Mythicist to Agnostic (but leaning Historical).

 

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 1

Nicolas Poussin, “The Ecstasy of St. Paul”

This post revises a hypothesis I proposed a few years ago in the Vridar series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity.” In those posts I argued for a scenario in which Paul was in reality Simon of Samaria, and the seven allegedly authentic Pauline letters were in fact letters of Simon that, in the early second century CE, received a makeover by some proto-orthodox Christians. By means of certain additions and modifications to the letters these people in effect co-opted Simon’s work and turned him into a proto-orthodox Paul. I argued too that the gospel message embraced by the author of the original letters was some form of the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of the Ascension of Isaiah).

I had misgivings about the hypothesis even before I finished the series, but two years of mulling it over has left me even less enamoured. I am still quite convinced that the Vision of Isaiah is the correct background for several key passages: 1 Cor. 2:6-9; Phil. 2:6-11; 2 Cor. 12:1-10. I have come to doubt, however, that these passages belong to the earliest parts of the letter collection. My changed understanding of 2 Cor. 12:1-10 in particular has led me to think it more plausible that the bulk of the letters was composed not by Simon but by later followers of his who converted to Christianity sometime between 70 and 135 CE. In my revised scenario Paul, not Simon, is the author of the original letters; and the bulk of the additional material — material that turned letters into epistles — was likely composed by a circle of Saturnilians, a community founded by the ex-Simonian Saturnilus of Antioch. Proto-orthodox input consisted of some final sanitizing touch-ups.

This revised scenario bears a definite resemblance to that of the biblical scholar Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) and I acknowledge that a re-reading of his later writings has contributed to my change of heart. Loisy held that only a kernel of the seven allegedly authentic Paulines really went back to Paul, and that the rest consisted largely of stitched-together late first, early second-century materials. He characterized many of these materials as gnostic but preMarcionite. Where I go further than Loisy is in recognizing the role of the Vision of Isaiah in the letters, and in proposing a specific provenance for their incipient gnosticism: Saturnilian Christianity.

Before I explain this revised scenario in more detail I should first review the Pauline texts that show, in my opinion, that their author knew the Vision of Isaiah. It is clear, in general, that the Vision would be a congenial text for Paul’s congregations, for Isaiah is described as receiving his revelation in the midst of a gathering of forty prophets. They look to him for guidance and

And they had come to greet him, and to hear what he said. And they hoped he would lay his hands on them and that they might prophesy and he would listen to their prophecy (Asc. Is. 6: 4-5)

While this was going on

they all heard a door opened and the voice of the Holy Spirit (Asc. Is. 6:6)

Now recall the passages on pneumatic gifts in 1 Corinthians where Paul gives guidance and encouragement to his Spirit-filled congregation regarding the gifts of the Spirit and especially prophecy. In the church at Corinth we are again among a gathering of Spirit enthusiasts. But apart from this general affinity there are three texts in particular in which the Vision of Isaiah shows through.

(One last preliminary: Please note that when I refer to the Vision in this post I am also including the so-called “pocket gospel” as part of it. It is found at 11:2-23 of the Ethiopic [E] and first Latin [L1] versions of the Ascension of Isaiah. For reasons that will become clear as we go along I am willing to accept that it was part of the text that the Pauline interpolators knew.) read more »

Imagine No Interpolations

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. read more »

Paul’s and Isaiah’s Visions — A Possible Connection

See the Ascension of Isaiah archive for other posts on this source. I am sure over time more will be added and views will change.

Roger Parvus posted comments relating to the relationship between Paul’s letters and some things we read in the Ascension of Isaiah. (Recall that the Ascension of Isaiah is a two part text consisting of the Martyrdom of Isaiah and the Vision of Isaiah, and was interpreted by Earl Doherty as a piece of evidence for early Christian belief in a crucifixion of Jesus in the lower heavens.) I have been wading my way through various studies on the document and it is slow going because I find myself struggling through machine translations much of the time. I have as a result become open-minded to possible interpretations that may compete with Doherty’s initial proposals.

Roger Parvus has posted two major series on Vridar:

He’s been doing some more thinking about things since then and I found the following two comments of his thought-provoking.

First one:

Paul regularly appeals to revelation through Scripture. And as Doherty notes:

“The strong implication is that, if the key phrases in Paul are his own voice and not an interpolation, Paul must have had in mind something different in regard to Christ than simply being ‘born’ in the normal sense.” (Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 207).

So I am still quite open to the possibility that the Scripture Paul had in view was the Vision of Isaiah’s pocket gospel. Its Jesus is not really born in the normal sense. As Enrico Norelli puts it:

“If the story is read literally, it is not about a birth. It’s about two parallel processes: the womb of Mary, that had enlarged, instantly returned to its prior state, and at the same time a baby appears before her— but, as far as can be determined, without any cause and effect relationship between the two events.” (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, pp. 52-53, my translation)

At this point in general discussion Tim reminded me of Herman Gunkel’s view that Revelation 12 speaks of a birth of a saviour in heaven in Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton. (For a criticism of Gunkel’s hypothesis see Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis see Scurlock and Beal’s Creation and chaos : a reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf hypothesis.)

Second one:

Yes, there are grounds to suspect that Paul knew some version of the Vision of Isaiah. But my suspicions go further than that. I suspect Paul’s gospel was the Vision of Isaiah. His gospel was not just a message; it was a message based on a specific text: the Vision of Isaiah. And of course, if that was the case, it would seem to follow that he wrote the Vision, for he says in Galatians that he received his gospel by revelation and not from any man.

read more »

Updated post

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

 

Crucified on Earth? — What Did the “Ascension of Isaiah” Originally Say?

This post is long and technical and only for those who are serious about what we can learn from the Ascension of Isaiah about early beliefs about Jesus. Richard Carrier and before him Earl Doherty drew upon scholarship about the different manuscripts to conclude that the original text had Jesus crucified in the lower heaven by demons. Roger Parvus, however, has argued a different interpretation from what we can glean from the different manuscript traditions (in particular the Ethiopic with its lengthy account beginning with Jesus’ birth to Mary and the second Latin, L2, with its “absurdly brief” account of Jesus dwelling with men, full stop) and I have copied his argument below. For the original posts in context see parts 7 and 8 at Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity.

As for my own views, I am withholding judgement until I collect a few more publications, in particular the ten articles or essays that Enrico Norelli published as “addendums” to his commentary: Norelli, Enrico. 1995. Ascensio Isaiae: commentarius. Turnhout: Brepols. (If anyone can help me gain access to those ten essays – I understand they are all in Italian – please please do contact me!)

What follows are copies of one small section of A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 7: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel and the full text of A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 8: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (continued) — all written by Roger Parvus, not me.

–o0o–

Where?

But where, according to the Vision, did the hanging upon a tree occur? The Son will “descend into the world” (according to 9:13, in some versions of E) and “will be in the world” (per 10:7, in L2), but in no uncontroversial section of the extant text does it explicitly say which part of the world. I am inclined to think the location was understood to be on earth, not in its sublunary heaven. For one thing, 9:13 goes on to say that the Son “will become like you [Isaiah] in form, and they will think he is flesh and a man.” Earth is the home of men of flesh and so it is presumably there that the Son could expect to fool the rulers of the world into thinking he was a man.

martyrdomisaiah
King Manasseh doing the bidding of Beliar

I realize one could object that the Son’s persecutors appear to be the spirit rulers of the world and that their home was thought to be in the firmament. But it was also commonly accepted that their rule extended to earth and below it, and that they could exercise their power through human instruments. That is what we see right in the Martyrdom of Isaiah. Beliar kills Isaiah through King Manasseh:

Because of these visions, therefore, Beliar was angry with Isaiah, and he dwelt in the heart of Manasseh, and he cut Isaiah in half with a saw… Beliar did this to Isaiah through Belkira and through Manasseh, for Sammael was very angry with Isaiah from the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, because of the things he had seen concerning the Beloved, and because of the destruction of Sammael which he had seen through the Lord, while Hezekiah his father was king. And he did as Satan wished. (Asc. Is. 5:1 & 15-16)

True, as already mentioned, parts of the Martyrdom were written after the Vision. But it is nevertheless still a quite early writing, likely dating to the end of the first century. It does not quote or allude to any New Testament writings. But it does clearly allude to the Vision and so may provide us with an indication of how that writing was understood by at least one first century Christian community. If the Martyrdom portrays the rulers of the world attacking Isaiah through a human instrument, this may very well have been the way the prophesied attack on the Son of the Vision was understood too, for he was to become like Isaiah in form (Asc. Is. 9:13) and trick them into thinking he was flesh and a man.

Another consideration that leads me to think the Son’s death in the Vision occurred on earth is the way Irenaeus speaks of Simon of Samaria. One would think, based on what Irenaeus says, that Simon knew the Vision of Isaiah and claimed to be the Son described in it. And in his account the location of the Son’s death is specified as Judaea:

For since the angels ruled the world ill because each one of them coveted the principal power for himself, he [Simon] had come to amend matters, and had descended, transformed and made like the powers and authorities and angels, so that among men he appeared as a man, though he was not a man, and he seemed to suffer in Judaea, though he did not suffer (Against Heresies, 1, 23, my bolding).

In the Panarion of Epiphanius the reason why Simon made himself like the powers is spelled out. Simon is quoted as saying:

In each heaven I changed my form, in order that I might not be perceived by my angelic powers… (2, 2)

It seems to me that in the first passage Irenaeus is relaying an early claim made by Simon, and he is relaying it in the words that Simon or his followers used, not those of Irenaeus. The one “who suffered in Judaea” is not an expression that Irenaeus uses anywhere else to describe Christ. And the claims attributed to Simon in the passage look primitive.

  • He doesn’t claim to be the Son who taught and preached in Galilee and Judaea;
  • or who worked great signs and wonders among the Jews;
  • or who gathered together a band of disciples.
  • He doesn’t say he was the Christ who came to lay down his life to atone for the sins of mankind.

The limited claims attributed to him in the passage are reminiscent of the information about the Son in the Vision of Isaiah. Assuming that was Simon’s source, the place where the Son’s suffering was believed to have occurred is specified as Judaea.

–o0o–

read more »

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

This is why people like me when you read Carrier’s book you think, What the f*ck are you talking about? — Tim O’Neill
Response #1: Motives
Response #2: No fame outside Galilee

Tim spoke those words seconds before leading listeners to infer that he had checked the ancient text that Carrier was misrepresenting, the Ascension of Isaiah [AoI].

Listeners were led to understand that only readers with superior knowledge of the texts would know Carrier was giving them false information.

So to prove that Carrier did not know what he was talking about, that the AoI said the very opposite of what Carrier claimed, Tim quoted a passage from it.

What Tim failed to tell his viewers, and perhaps what Tim himself over time has forgotten, was that he was actually reading the same passage in the AoI that Carrier himself quoted and discussed in his book. One did not have to turn from Carrier’s book to check the AoI for oneself — as Tim clearly implies — but one simply had to read the so-called damning passage in Carrier’s text itself.

Tim’s claim that “only knowledgeable readers would know Carrier had no idea what he was talking about” makes no sense if Tim was alerted to the existence of the passage by Carrier himself. Tim did not draw upon his specialist background knowledge to expose Carrier’s “misinformation”. He simply read a translation of the very same text Carrier himself was quoting and discussing.

—o0o—

From Evan T, On the Way to Ithaca

Tim O’Neill informs us that Richard Carrier “tries to get around the lack of evidence” for mythicism by (in part) appealing to the Ascension of Isaiah. He begins giving some explanatory background to this text:

I’m responding to the presentation between 53:00 – 59:00 of the Non Sequitur video.

Tim:

It’s a fairly obscure text and we’ve got it in fairly fragmentary form … an Ethiopian translation … in Slavonic … in Latin… So it’s quite hard for us to piece together exactly what it would have said originally, because originally it would have been written in Greek.

What Tim does not make clear to his listeners is that those translations, and even different manuscript versions in the same language, contain very different contents in places. It is not just that we have different translations of a lost Greek version that causes difficulties. The difficulties arise because of the significantly varying content in the different versions. That’s an important point that we will see Tim appears not to recognize. Tim continues:

But we can work out that it was probably written maybe in the late first century, possibly early second century. . . . That puts it around the same time the gospels were being written. . . . It’s a Christian text and it describes a vision supposedly seen by the prophet Isaiah . . . . But in this text, Isaiah sees a vision, and he sees Jesus descending from the upper heavens, from the seventh heaven, down through the various heavens, and sees him crucified, and then sees him ascend when he rises from the dead back up through the heavens. And the whole point of this text is that no-one knows that it’s Jesus because he takes on a different form as he moves through these different heavens, and then it’s not until he rises from the dead and that he ascends back up through the heavens that he reveals himself to be the messiah and in some sense divine. And so the whole point of the text is that they thought they killed him but he fooled them and as he ascends back up through the seven heavens to take his place with the throne of God again he demonstrates who he really was.

If Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence

Now what Carrier argues is that this is the smoking gun. So he argues that this is a text that as I said did not exist, which is supposedly a text that has Jesus coming from the upper heavens, descending not to earth but to the lower heavens, so to what’s called the firmament, and he gets crucified there, not on earth, and then he rises from the dead there and then he ascends back into the heavens. He gets crucified there, by demons, not on earth by human beings.

Now if Carrier is right, then there’s your evidence. There’s the evidence that there actually was a belief in a Jesus who was purely celestial and not historical; purely heavenly, and died in the heavens, not earthly, and died on earth.

I do find myself wearying of this false dichotomy between celestial and historical. Literature is crammed full of nonhistorical figures who “lived” on earth. I suspect there are many times more earthly human form mythical figures in literature than there are celestial ones.

But there’s a problem. And the problem is that actually if you’re familiar with the text — this is why people like me when you read Carrier’s book you think, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ If you actually read Carrier’s book, he says, ‘Well, he descended just to the firmament and nowhere else, and he gets crucified on a tree that’s not a real tree, it’s a kind of celestial version of a tree, and he’s never depicted as going to earth.’

The only problem is that if you actually turn to the Ascension of Isaiah you read this:

And I saw one like the son of man (that’s Jesus, the messiah) dwelling with men and in the world and they did not recognize him.

It also says that an angel talks to Isaiah saying Jesus … taking on your form; in your form, human form.

So, the text does actually have Jesus coming to earth, it actually does have Jesus dwelling among men.

Tim could not be clearer. Tim is saying that we read one thing in Carrier’s book and quite something else if we turn to the Ascension of Isaiah itself. The clear suggestion is that Carrier does not know what the AoI says and one will not know of the “incriminating” passage unless one “went to” the AoI itself. Contrary to this clear inference, Carrier in fact informs readers by quoting and discussing that same passage.

But what the farnarkling is he talking about?

read more »

Jesus, from a corpse hung on a tree to a man slain on a cross

Stéphane, Marc. 1959. La Passion de Jésus : Fait d’histoire Ou Objet de Croyance. Dervy-livres Besançon, impr. Jacques et Demontrond.

The French historian Marc Stéphane took up the question of the existence of Jesus and after engaging with the critical scholarship of his day, in particular that of “anti-mythicists” Alfred Loisy and Charles Guignebert, as well as mythicist Prosper Alfaric, and after delicately warning devout believers that he was not seeking to undermine their faith but was endeavouring to write an argument from a point of view that believers were free to ignore, wrote his own perspective on the question.

In brief, and to zero in on points I think are of more interest to many today, Stéphane

  1. Argued that the Gospel of Mark was the first to create a narrative of Jesus in a historical setting, drawing upon other writings such as the Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul; fleshing out various images in these writings into narrative form;
  2. This gospel was probably written around the turn of the century, between 95 and 100 CE;
  3. Before the gospel was written, the view of the death of Jesus that was set out in 1 Cor 2:8 aligned with the same narrative we read in the Ascension of Isaiah: the Prince of this world, Satan and his archangels, killed the Lord of Glory and hung him up on a cross;
  4. The Ascension of Isaiah, in a Latin manuscript, conforms with the standard Jewish law that an executed criminal’s body would be hung on a tree as a public warning; that is, the hanging of a body on the tree an act that followed the execution; this was the standard Jewish understanding of what it meant for a body to be cursed by hanging on a tree;
  5. In one manuscript line of the Gospel of Mark Jesus is said to have called out at his moment of death, “My God, my God, why have you cursed me?” — thus adhering to what Paul wrote about the fate of the Son of God;
  6. The author of the Gospel of Mark had no historical material to shape into a narrative; there are many indications of this in the gospel itself (in addition to the evidence of source material from the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s letters): the lack of background and explanatory setting, characters and crowds just come and go as needed for each piece of story, the story is written in the style of a master narrator, breathlessly bringing his audience along with him “immediately” scene by vivid scene; the stylized structuring of three-fold sections throughout the narrative, especially with the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the Passion; and also the many anachronistic and unrealistic details of the narrative itself (e.g. Pharisees are portrayed unlike the sect they really were, and Pilate is also depicted most unlike his actual self);
  7. The author was writing for a Roman audience and decided to change the Jewish custom of hanging the body on a tree after death and place the crucifixion in a Roman setting: this further involved the need to have a Roman magistrate issue the final order for the crucifixion, and the name Pontius Pilate was well enough known and came conveniently to hand;

Seven points. I’ll stop there. Why spoil God’s design!

 

More on that very strange birth of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah

c. 1437-1446
c. 1437-1446 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing the series currently archived here . . . .

There are more interesting questions than the one I addressed in the previous post about that bizarre “birth” of Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). What is the point of creating such an odd explanation for how the Son of God made his entrance to the world?

Orthodox Christian theology has Jesus save the world by means of the incarnation. The AoI, however, teaches that this is not how Jesus saved and has no room for Jesus literally becoming a man. God’s will was for Jesus to rescue humanity by having him hide his glory behind a mere human appearance and so by means of this deception to defeat the angelic powers. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

Recall how the Son of the Beloved sloughs off a layer of his glory as he passes through each of the seven heavens on his descent so that he appears no different from the inhabitants of each realm.

Notice, too, how the description of Jesus’ birth turns into a vision for Joseph and Mary:

It came to pass that when they were alone that Mary straight-way looked with her eyes and saw a small babe, and she was astonished.

And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.

And when her husband Joseph said unto her: “What has astonished thee?” his eyes were opened and he saw the infant and praised God, because into his portion God had come.

And a voice came to them: “Tell this vision to no one.”

So it is through revelation that Joseph and Mary understand and know that Jesus is not a man like other humans. (Norelli 1993, p. 53)

In the previous post we saw the possible link between Isaiah 53:2 and the miraculous appearance of the child. Enrico Norelli explores further the AoI’s sources for this scene and the message it was meant to convey.

We saw in another earlier post Norelli’s reasons for rejecting the view that the AoI was adapting the nativity scene in the Gospel of Matthew. He argues that the AoI was most likely written about the same time as that canonical gospel (or before it).

Comparing with the Acts of Peter

The AoI continues (Charles’ translation): read more »

A Very Strange “Birth” of Jesus (Ascension of Isaiah / Norelli)

This continues on from the earlier post, Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument, in which I covered Norelli’s take on the opening verses of the very odd nativity scene in the Ascension of Isaiah. . . .

In the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI) there is a very strange tale of how Jesus came into the world. Is it a bizarre “heretical” rewriting of the nativity scenes in the canonical gospels or is it a very early (pre-gospel) groping for an explanation of how a divinity could appear on earth as a man in supposed fulfillment of Jewish scriptures? 

AoI 11:6-11 (R.H. Charles’ translation)

And [Joseph] did not live with [Mary] for two months.

And after two months of days while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone.

It came to pass that when they were alone that Mary straight-way looked with her eyes and saw a small babe, and she was astonished.

And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as formerly before she had conceived.

And when her husband Joseph said unto her: “What has astonished thee?” his eyes were opened and he saw the infant and praised God, because into his portion God had come.

And a voice came to them: “Tell this vision to no one.”

Jesus suddenly appears before them not, apparently, after a normal birth but coincidentally with the rise and fall of Mary’s belly. The child is “real” enough but the parents are told to “tell this vision to no one”. read more »

Ascension of Isaiah: Continuing Norelli’s Argument

ascension-norelliLast month I began posting on Enrico Norelli’s arguments concerning the Ascension of Isaiah:

I am quite sure Norelli’s new perspective won’t be the final word. Before I can come to any view myself, however, I obviously need first to understand at least the core of his analysis. So as I plough through the slim French language popular summary of his argument I will copy chunks of my bad translation and semi paraphrase here. This section covers pages 48 to 52 of Ascension du prophète Isaïe and continues on from the post AoI: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition. I have added translated text from the AoI at earlychristianwritings.

In this section Norelli is explaining why be believes the AoI is independently adapting a source also known to the author of the Gospel of Matthew. That the composer of the AoI could do this is a sure sign that he was writing before a time when the Gospel of Matthew took on any authoritative status.

The heavenly ascent through a distinctive genre (7-11) read more »

Ascension of Isaiah: Contents, Manuscripts and the Question of its Composition

Hi Neil,

I have a copy of Norelli’s Ascension d’Isaïe and I consulted it when I wrote parts 7 through 9 of my blog series on a Simonian origin for Christianity. In part 7 of the series I noted in passing that Norelli put the date of composition for the Vision of Isaiah at the end of the first century. And in post 8, as part of my Jan. 30, 2014 response to George Hall, I quoted from page 52-53 of Norelli’s book.

However, just judging from this one book of Norelli’s, I’m skeptical that his work will prove to be, as Bauckham says, “definitive.” And I don’t see that Bauckham himself really considers it all that definitive either for, as I recall, Bauckham argues that Norelli is wrong about assigning a different author to each of the two parts of the AoI and about Norelli’s dating of the second part (theVision of Isaiah) earlier than the first (chapters 1-5).

In regard to the AoI’s chapter 11 “pocket gospel:” I explain in post 8 my reasons for questioning whether it was part of the original Vision. As you know, I share Carrier’s and Doherty’s suspicions that it was not, but we have different guesses about what was originally there. I proposed that some kind of early passion narrative like the one now found in gMark would fit in better with the rest of the Vision.

Roger Parvus

Continuing from A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah . . . 

Roger Parvus has thankfully reminded me that he addressed aspects of Enrico Norelli’s book on the Ascension of Isaiah in his earlier posts. See his comment on my previous post (in side-box) for links to these and for his more general response to Norelli’s work.

This post overviews the contents of the AoI, a little of how we came to possess it, and what I understand to be Norelli’s argument for a fresh approach to the study of the text.

Ascension of Isaiah: Contents

The AoI was most likely originally composed as a Greek text but its most complete version today is in the Ge’ez or classical Ethiopic script. This has come down to us as part of the Ethiopian Old Testament that has preserved a number of books rejected from the canons of Jews and Christians (such as Enoch and Jubilees).

In its present form the AoI consists of two parts.

The first part (chapters 1-5) borrowed the Jewish tradition of the death of Isaiah who was sawn in two by King Manasseh.

King Hezekiah, the father of Manasseh, summoned his son to hear Isaiah recount his vision — the one that we will read about in part 2. But Isaiah informed Hezekiah privately that Manasseh would lead Israel astray from the true faith and that he would kill the prophet.

After Manasseh became king he was influenced by the false Samaritan prophet Belchira to capture Isaiah and saw him in half. We also learn that the real power behind these two men inspiring them to murder Isaiah was the devil, named Beliar.

Beliar was incensed against Isaiah because the prophet had exposed the his scheme to deceive and be worshiped by humanity.

Isaiah’s vision that had so enraged the devil is summed up in between the arrest of Isaiah and his martyrdom. In this section we read additional material that is not found in the later account of the vision (3:13-4:18):

  • after the resurrection and ascension of Christ the church will flourish uncorrupted for a time

  • a time will come when sinful pastors and elders who reject the Holy Spirit and the prophecies (including Isaiah’s prophecy) will lead the church astray

  • the future coming of the Beliar, the devil, in the form of the Antichrist who will persecute the true believers

  • the second coming of the Christ who puts an end to the work of the Antichrist.

The second part (chapters 6 to 11, except for 11:41-43) brings us to the vision so often referred to in the first half. This vision, therefore, is a flashback to the twentieth year of Hezekiah’s reign and the vision of Isaiah that angered the devil.

Chapter 6 begins with Isaiah leading the prophets in worship in the king’s house in Jerusalem. Isaiah falls into a trance and is transported in vision through the seven heavens up to the presence of God (7:2-9:26). There he witnesses heavenly worship in progress, this one led by Christ (who had not yet visited earth) and the Holy Spirit (9:27-10:6).

Isaiah is then shown God’s plan of salvation:

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A New (Completely Revised) Look at the Ascension of Isaiah

ascension-norelli
“Ascension du prophete d’Isaie” by Enrico Norelli (1993)

Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier have suggested that there is an ancient text outside the Bible that stands as direct evidence for some early Christians believing that Jesus Christ was crucified by demons in a celestial realm. That text is The Ascension of Isaiah (AOI), believed to be a composite document whose earliest parts were quite likely authored as early as the late first century.

Scholarly work on AoI has been on the move. 1995 saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus. Enrico Norelli has been a key player in this research.

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

I don’t have access to those but yesterday a copy of Norelli’s 1993 Ascension du prophète Isaïe arrived in the mail.

I have only struggled through chapter 2 with my very rusty French so far but it is already clear that the old views are being challenged.

Here are the highlights:

  • The work is not nearly so fragmented as earlier studies have believed. Both the first part, chapters 1 to 5, depicting the martyrdom of Isaiah, and the second part, chapters 6 to 11, portraying Isaiah’s vision of the descent of the Christ figure (the Beloved) down through the seven heavens to be crucified, harrow hell and return to sit beside God again, are Christian works.
  • The Christian sect responsible for the AoI (all of it) was exalted revelations through visions and saw themselves competing with rival sects, each blaming and persecuting the other as false prophets.
  • The account of the birth of the Beloved to Mary in Bethlehem is not a late addition but was original to the vision chapters (6-11). That means The Beloved did indeed descend to earth and was crucified on earth — unrecognized by the demons.
  • The details of the nativity scene draw on a source also known to the evangelist responsible for the Gospel of Matthew. The AoI does not know the canonical gospel but both are using a common source. The two nativity versions — Matthew’s and the AoI’s — represent competing theologies. That is, the AoI was (and several reasons are given for this conclusion) written around the same time or environment that produced the Gospel of Matthew.
  • The reason for the Beloved appearing to be flesh and dying was to save humanity by means of conquering their demonic rulers.

To me this is fairly mind-blowing stuff if true. We would need to account for a view of the “gospel” that stood in stark contrast to all the assumptions and “traditions” behind Matthew appearing on the scene at around the same time. That question alone poses enormous questions for the traditional view of gospel origins, surely.

Further, if we accept Norelli’s revisions to our understanding of the AoI then it would appear that the AoI might support in part Roger Parvus’s interpretation of the original (“mythicist”) gospel: that Jesus descended to earth to be crucified before ascending again. Except that Roger, I think, argued for Christ only appearing for a short time on earth for this purpose. The AoI has the Beloved hiding his identity from the demons by means of slipping into the world through Mary.

Okay, my head is still spinning. Keep in mind that the above is my impression as discerned through some very fuzzy memories of my French. I would like to roughly paraphrase (not translate!) the different sections of chapter 2 to share with others here over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, here is a diagram I prepared for an older post of mine (before I had a copy of Norelli’s book) that shows something of the complexities of the history of interpretations of the AoI:  read more »

McGrath Reviews Carrier: Part 2, Ascension of Isaiah

Related pages:

After addressing the introduction to James McGrath’s initial post reviewing Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus I now discuss his primary focus — the Ascension of Isaiah (AoI). I should be able to say that I will discuss McGrath’s treatment of what Carrier himself writes about the AoI but just as we saw with McGrath’s treatment of Earl Doherty’s mythicist case McGrath gives readers very little idea of what Carrier himself is actually arguing.

One does read at length McGrath’s own viewpoint but without fairly addressing Carrier’s own point the reader has no way of understanding the potential validity of McGrath’s criticisms. No-one reading McGrath’s review would realize, for example, that Carrier includes strong arguments for believing that significant sections of the original text describing the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath (including a one and a half year span of time in the lower firmament) have been lost.

Anyone who has read Carrier’s book also quickly realizes McGrath has read little more than the pages he is discussing.

Carrier introduces the AoI as part of his definition of “the minimal Jesus myth theory”.

For those not aware of the AoI, the AoI is an early Christian composite text:

  1. chapters 1 to 5 describe Isaiah’s altercations with false prophets and culminate in his martyrdom;
  2. the second half (6 to 11) narrates a heavenly vision in which a Beloved Son, one who is predicted to be called Jesus on earth, descends to the lower regions to be crucified, resurrected and exalted again in the highest of the seven heavens;
  3. nested in this second part is another section (11:3-22), in the view of many scholars evidently much later and quite out of character with the style and theme of the surrounding vision, that pictures graphic details of Jesus’ nativity and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.

That outline is a simplified overview (other verses are also thought to be interpolations and there is some debate about sequences of interpolations) but the general idea can be grasped from this image (also simplified). I have also tried to capture the different viewpoints one is likely to encounter in the various studies on this text:

ascisaiah

1995 was a turning point in the study of the AoI. That year saw two pivotal Italian works that have paved the way for a new consensus:

  • Ascensio Isaiae: Textus, ed. P. Bettiolo, A. Giambelluca Kossova, E. Norelli, and L. Perrone (CCSA, 7; Turnhout, 1995);
  • E. Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (CCSA, 8; Turnhout, 1995).

These were both included in volumes 7 and 8 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum in 1995.

Significance of the AoI

Richard Carrier, like Earl Doherty, argues on the basis of the New Testament epistles that the earliest Christian belief about Jesus was that he was understood to have carried out his works of salvation in the heavenly realm and not on earth. Other texts from the era are drawn in as supporting evidence for this belief. Both Carrier and Doherty see in one of these supporting texts, the AoI, direct evidence external to the epistles for an early Christian belief that Jesus was crucified by demons in a region above the earth.

How Early is the AoI?

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