Once more on The Ascension of Isaiah and the Cathars

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by Neil Godfrey

One more note on the medieval Cathars and their use of the Ascenion of Isaiah. . . . .

Among the texts that they obtained from the Bogomils was the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of Asc.Isa.), a Greek Gnostic text of the first century A.D., which presented a cosmic view of the creation that was in conformity with dualist beliefs. The Cathars did not use the partial Latin translation made in late antiquity, but commissioned a new Latin translation from the Old Slavonic text, a version which the Bogomils had amended to conform with their own teachings.38

(Hamilton, 107f)

The author is relying on R. H. Charles — as per the footnote:

38 The medieval Latin version exists only in a text printed at Venice in 1522 by Antonio de Fantis and reprinted by A. Dillmann, Ascensio Isaiae Aethiopice et Latine (Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1877), 76–83. It was read by the moderate dualists of Lombardy, Moneta di Cremona, II, ix, 4, ed. Ricchini, p. 218. For the full edition of the texts in all versions: R.H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900).

(Hamilton, 108)

But a question arises. If the Cathars held a belief in an appearance of Jesus into another world beyond ours, where he was both born and crucified, what need would there have been to modify the Asc. Isa. by removing that “little gospel”? Surely it could be understood as happening in that other world. If the original Asc. Isa. lacked that passage depicting Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and eventual crucifixion in Jerusalem it presumably was not because the original audience for the text related in any way to the beliefs in the “other world” later reflected among the Cathars.

Hamilton, Bernard. 2006. “Bogomil Infuences on Western Heresy.” In Heresy and the Persecuting Society in the Middle Ages: Essays on the Work of R.I. Moore, edited by Michael Frassetto, 93–114. Leiden ; Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.



How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)

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by Neil Godfrey

In a recently published volume on the Ascension of Isaiah is a chapter with these arresting words:

It is the thesis of this paper that readers and authors of ancient oracular literature did not assume that meaning lies in the text, that the meaning is what the text says. Rather ancient revelatory authors wrote to open windows on meaning that lay beyond what their texts say, and ancient readers read to look through those windows to the meaning beyond. Perhaps an ancient way of reading can explain ancient translators’ decisions and can lead modem readers to appreciate them – and can open a door through which modern readers can understand the Ascls as its authors and earliest readers may have wished. 

(Hall, 146-47. my bolding)

That reminded me of a conflicted time in my own past life trying to make sense of my church’s teachings against the reality of what the Bible itself said. “Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10), was the phrase that our church leaders had taught to us: scripture, we were taught, could only be understood by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it was written so that only the spiritually guided ones could truly understand it. One passage was to be interpreted by another passage in some other book. You wonder what Hosea meant when he wrote,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1) ?

Why, turn to Matthew and you will read the answer:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15)

Matthew explains the meaning of Hosea, you see. That’s how the Bible works, we were taught.

My difficulties began one day quite some years ago when I decided study each book in isolation from the other books just to try to get a firm handle on exactly what each book really was saying — in its “own write” — in its own context, without any input from any other book in the Bible. That was an eye-opener. I fairly quickly found myself in a position where I knew more about what the Bible itself says than what our pastors and evangelists and ministers who were teaching us. There begins another tale for another day.

But now I’m studying Christian origins and the more I learn the more I realize that my old church was right — the sacred texts were not meant to be read for literal meaning but as gateways into other texts and visions of the mysteries. At least, that’s how they were read so very often. Such a method is the fundamental assumption of midrashic readings, too. That is how Matthew read Hosea, after all. (Of course, there remains one serious difference between church readings “here a little, there a little”: church authorities have had a habit of cementing their jig-saw readings of the Bible as set doctrine, the departure from which amounts to the crime of heresy; the early explorers of midrashic interpretations of text were apparently free to explore and discover new “insights”, at least for a time.)

The author of the Gospel of John understood the principle well. He even had Jesus propound it:

Robert G. Hall

Nicodemus respectfully offers a careful, precisely consistent interpretation of what Jesus said, and Jesus berates him for it, ‘Are you a leader of the Jews and you do not know these things’? (John 3.10). Jesus refuses to define his statements. Instead, Jesus stokes Nicodemus’ bewilderment by piling on puzzle after puzzle. Jesus had said, ‘Unless one be born άνωθεν, one cannot see the kingdom of God’. Does Jesus mean ‘born again’? or ‘born from above’ or ‘born from the beginning’ or ‘born anew’? When Nicodemus tries ‘born again’ and asks Jesus to explain what he means, Jesus simply replies with another puzzle: ‘Unless one is bom from water and πνεύμα, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’ (3.5). Jesus’ words do not refute Nicodemus; Nicodemus’ interpretation works as well as ever. Furthermore, Jesus’ second puzzle does not define the meaning of the first; rather it multiplies meaning: Is Jesus speaking of resurrection? ‘Unless one is born again, born from water (death, Lam 3.53; Ps 69.14-15] and breath [Ezek 37.9] one cannot enter the kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of life in the Spirit? ‘Unless one is born from above, born from water [water of life flowing from Jesus who comes from above, John 4.10-15] and Spirit [water from Jesus is the Spirit, John 7.38-39], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of a new creation? ‘Unless one is born from the beginning, born from water and wind [think Gen 1.2], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Jesus’ subsequent statements solve nothing; they simply add depth to the ambiguity. Nicodemus tries to understand the words as propositions, as statements containing meaning. Jesus refuses to fix the meaning: the statements are not propositions; they are windows to meaning that goes beyond what they say. Only by interpreting windows by windows can the statements remain windows; to fix the meaning is to kill them. Jesus refuses to do so.Authors of ancient revelatory literature wrote not to fix meaning but to open windows. Their goal is not a well- expressed message but the readers’ enlightened mind. They expect a reader who will join the inquiry, who will try to see through the text into the realities beyond.

(149-50. italics original, bolding mine)

To add to the “windows of opportunities” for various meanings Hall reminds us that books were far more often heard performed than silently read. And each reading performance was surely different in some way given that Hebrew manuscripts lacked vowels and Greek manuscripts lacked word divisions.

Readers had to decide what to pronounce. Every performance might be different; each would beget its own insight. (150)

Take the most central conundrum of the Jewish Scriptures, the very name of God:

I AM WHO I AM, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Ex 3.14) is complex. The imperfects denote continual action in the present, the past, the future, continual action always. The Septuagint translates έγώ είμι ό ών. ’Εγώ είμι denotes present continual action; ό ών is timeless, denoting the act of being simply, έγώ είμι ό ών pretty well captures continual action always – much better than έγώ είμι ός είμι έγώ. This last is elegant, but captures only continual present action. Of course, the divine name is carefully composed; readers meditating on it will see much more than ‘continual action always’ and the Greek repays meditation, too. Translators of the Septuagint have tried to open a window rather than simply to translate what the text says. (152)

Recall that the Psalms have those curious musical terms popping up here and there:

The Psalm titles are difficult to understand because they contain musical terms the significance of which is lost. Even the Septuagint offers little help because it prefers to translate the titles as windows for insight rather than as notes to musicians. For instance, the NRSV translates the title to Psalm 45 (LXX 44) as ‘To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song’. The LXX has delved for insight: εις τό τέλος ύπέρ των άλλοιωθησομένων τοΐς υίοΐς Κορε εις σύνεσιν φδή ύπέρ του αγαπητού, ‘For the end concerning the things that shall be changed a song by the sons of Korah for insight concerning the Beloved’. The Septuagint translates the title to urge readers and hearers to penetrate to what the song is really about: it is not simply the marriage song of the king, but it opens insight into the transformations at the end for the sake of the Beloved, for David. In the Septuagint the Psalm title offers Psalm 45 as transparent to insight that is behind and beyond its words. (152-53)

The Descent and Ascent of Jesus in the Psalms?

Continue reading “How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)”


The Ascension of Isaiah: Another Set of Questions

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by Neil Godfrey

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barlow responds,

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

To which I would respond, No.

Longer or shorter?

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





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

. . . Continue reading “The Ascension of Isaiah: Another Set of Questions”


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”


“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)



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.


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”


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.”


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


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.


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”


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”


“Rulers of this Age” as part of an Interpolation into 1 Corinthians

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by Neil Godfrey

This post questions the authenticity of the section in Paul’s writings where we read that “rulers of this age” crucified “the Lord of glory” followed by a passage said to be a citation of Scripture but that appears only elsewhere in the Ascension of Isaiah. The arguments for interpolation are derived from William O. Walker Jr’s chapter 6 of Interpolations in the Pauline Letters.

On the question of the identity of the “rulers of this age” — whether human, demonic, or both — see the posts addressing a range of scholarly interpretations in the archive for Rulers of this Age.

6 We speak wisdom among those who are perfect, although it is not a wisdom belonging to this world, nor to the governing powers [rulers] of this world [age], which are being brought to nothing,

7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God purposed before the worlds (or: ages), with a view to our glory.

8 This wisdom none of the governing powers [rulers] of this world (-age) has known. For if they had recognized it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

9 But as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard and that never entered into any man’s heart, all the things that God has prepared for those who love him.”

10 For to us God has revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit explores all things, including even the depths of God.

11 For who among men knows what a man is but the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way no one has recognized what God is but the Spirit of God.

12 We, however, have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that comes from God, so that we may know what has been bestowed upon us by God.

13 And it is also of this that we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught us by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things in spiritual terms.

14 The unspiritual (“psychical”) man, however, does not receive the things of God’s Spirit. For they are foolishness in his eyes and he cannot recognize them, because they are (or: must be) spiritually interpreted.

15 The spiritual man, however, judges all things, but is not himself subject to anyone’s judgment.

16 For “who has discerned the mind of the Lord, so as to instruct him?” We, however, have the Spirit of Christ.

(Based on Conzelmann’s translation)

William O. Walker, Jr. (Westar Institute; Trinity University)

For readers impatient to get the main overview, here is a crude list of reasons some scholars have suggested the passage was not originally composed by Paul:

    1. numerous linguistic peculiarities seriously call into question Pauline authorship;
    2. the passage contradicts what Paul says elsewhere;
    3. the consistent use of ‘we’ and other features distinguish 2.6-16 form-critically from its immediate context;
    4. the presence of the passage in 1 Corinthians can plausibly be explained as an attempt by Corinthian ‘pneumatics’ to correct what they saw as Paul’s distortion of their position.

(Walker’s summary of Widman’s discussion: Widmann, Martin, “I Kor 2 6-16: Ein Einspruch gegen Paulus”, ZNW 70 (1979), pp. 44-53.)

Conzelmann writes in his commentary (p. 57),

The section 2:6-16 stands out from its context both in style and in content. It presents a self-contained idea, a commonplace of “wisdom.” It is a contradiction of his previous statements when Paul now announces after all a positive, undialectical possibility of cultivating a wisdom of the “perfect.”

Walker summarizes (p. 128) E. Earle Ellis’s view of the evidence for a non-Pauline origin:

    1. the shift from the singular … to the plural with the “we”, i.e. the pneumatics as the subject …
    2. the unity of the section independent of its context, and
    3. the considerable number of phrases not found elsewhere in the Pauline literature’.

On the basis of such evidence, Ellis concludes that “on balance, 1 Cor. 2.6-16 is probably a pre-formed piece that Paul has employed and adapted to its present context”.

Walker thus points out three possibilities:

  1. it was composed by Paul, using ideas and terminology taken from his opponents,
  2. it was composed by someone other than Paul but was included in the Corinthian letter by Paul, or
  3. it was both written and added to the Corinthian letter by someone other than Paul (not necessarily the same person, however).

Walker argues for #3. In doing so he addresses the counter-claims of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor who concludes that the passage is indeed by Paul (Interpolations in 1 Corinthians – link is to JSTOR article).

No Manuscript Evidence for Interpolation?

Some biblical scholars insist that we cannot make a serious case for interpolations unless we have anomalous manuscript evidence that physically demonstrates variations in editing lines. This is essentially an ostrich argument. The earliest manuscripts we have are those produced by the winners of the theological wars. We know editors fought their battles by modifying source texts. This state of affairs is not unique to the biblical texts since it is well-known that in other ancient literature interpolations were very common, and a problem that even ancient custodians (as in the Alexandrian Library) confronted. (See the Interpolations posts for additional discussion.)

Contextual Evidence for Interpretation

There is an abrupt shift at verse 6 Continue reading ““Rulers of this Age” as part of an Interpolation into 1 Corinthians”


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”


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

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by Roger Parvus

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

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by Roger Parvus

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.) Continue reading “Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 1″