Ascension of Isaiah
The book Ascension of Isaiah is a pseudegraphical Christian text. Theories as to the date of its composition place it in a range from the late 1st century AD to the beginning of the 3rd century AD. As for its authorship, it is believed almost universally to be a compilation of several texts completed by an unknown Christian scribe.
Dating of the text
It is generally believed that the text is composed of three different sections written at different times, by different authors. The earliest section, regarding chapters 3:13-4:22, was composed at about the end of the first century A.D. or perhaps early second century and is believed to be a text of Jewish origins which was later on redacted by Christian scribes. The date of the Vision of Isaiah is rather more difficult to determine, but it is no more recent than the third century, since Saint Jerome (c. 347-420 AD) cites a fragment of the work in some of his writings, but from internal evidence it seems that the text is to be placed before the end of the second century AD. The whole work was on a later date assembled as M.A. Kinibb writes:
It is not known when exactly the three sections of the Ascension were combined. The Greek fragment (from the 5th-6th cent.), the palimpsest giving the text of the fragments of the first Latin translation (likewise from the 5th-6th cent.), and the Ethiopic translation (which was made some time during the 4th-6th cent.) all presuppose the existence of the complete work. But the character of the mistakes in the Greek fragment and the Latin palimpsest suggests that the complete work had already been in existence for some time when these manuscripts were copied. It thus seems likely that the three sections of the Ascension were brought together in the third or fourth century A.D., and this is confirmed by the fact that Jerome seems to have known the complete book. It is possible that there were two stages in the process, first the combination of 3:13-4:22 with the Martyrdom, and second the combination of the enlarged Martyrdom with the Vision.
Knibb thus dates the whole text as being written between AD 150 and 200 but assembled at a later time. Richard Carrier gives an earlier possible date of the first or second century:
Though extant manuscripts date from the fifth to the twelfth century, all the evidence we have for this text and within it indicates it was originally composed sometime in the first or second century CE. The earliest version in fact was probably composed around the very same time as the earliest canonical Gospels were being written.
The book has three main sections:
- The first part of the book (chapters 1-5), generally referred to as the Martyrdom of Isaiah, recounts and expands on the events of 2 Kings chapter 21. Isaiah warns the dying Hezekiah that his heir, Manasseh, will not follow the same path. When Manasseh takes over, and Isaiah's warning proves true, Isaiah and a group of fellow prophets head into the desert, and a demon named Beliar inspires a false prophet named Belkira to accuse Isaiah of treason. The king consequently condemns Isaiah to death, and although Isaiah hides in a tree, he is found, and Belkira leads the execution.
- Into the middle of this (3:13-4:22) is a Christian apocalypse called the Testament of Hezekiah, describing a vision of the coming of Jesus, the subsequent corruption of the Christian church, the rule of Beliar, and the second coming. All of which is phrased in such a way that it is clearly a code for the persecution of the Church by Nero, and the belief that Nero was an Antichrist.
- The second part of the book (chapters 6-11) is referred to as the Vision of Isaiah and describes an angel-assisted journey, prior to the events of the first part of the book, by Isaiah through the Seven Heavens. In its surviving form it is clearly written from a Christian perspective, concentrating on Jesus' death and his resurrection, and especially the ascension of Jesus. The birth of Jesus is curiously described as being preceded by Jesus descending through each of the heavens, disguising himself as an angel appropriate to each as he goes. The extant complete manuscripts of the Ascension of Isaiah include a brief account of Jesus' nativity, birth, and crucifixion (11:2-22). However, according to Jonathan Knight, "the problem with chapter 11 is that these traditions are found in only one branch of the textual tradition, that represented by the Ethiopic translation (E). The Slavonic and one of the two Latin translations (S and L2) replace them with a short summary of the earthly appearance so that their authenticity—including the Marian material—is disputed."
Elements of the Ascension of Isaiah are paralleled in other Jewish and Christian writings. The method of Isaiah's death (sawn in half by Manasseh) is agreed upon by both the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud, and is probably alluded to by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:37). The demon Beliar appears in quite a number of apocryphal works, including the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Sibylline Books. Finally, Isaiah's journey through the Seven Heavens parallels that of Enoch's in the Second Book of Enoch.
Theological demons noted in the text are:
- Belial is the angel of lawlessness (Antinomianism) and is also identified as Samael and Satan.
And Manasseh turned aside his heart to serve Belial; for the angel of lawlessness, who is the ruler of this world, is Belial, whose name is Matanbuchus.— (Ascension of Isaiah 2:4)
- Samael is identified in the vision that Isaiah experienced, wherein he ascended to the firmament and notes, "there I saw Sammael [sic] and his hosts, and there was great fighting therein. ...as above so on the earth [below] also; for the likeness of that which is in the firmament is here on the earth." Samael is also often identified as Malkira (Heb.: מלך רע melek ra - lit. "king of evil", "king of the wicked"; or מלאך רע malach ra - "messenger of evil", "angel of iniquity"), which are all epithets of the false prophet sent by Belial to accuse Isaiah of treason.
According to the theory of R. H. Charles, the text incorporates three distinct sections, each once a separate work that is a single compilation here. Of these, one, the first, appears to have been written by a Jewish author, and the other two by Christians. According to this author, The Martyrdom consists of: i. 1-2a, 6b-13a; ii. 1-iii. 12; v. 1b-14. (2) Ch. iii. 13b-iv. 18 are to be counted as a separate work, added by the first editor of the entire work, probably before the "Greek Legend" and the Latin translation were written. (3) The Vision comprises ch. vi. 1-xi. 40, ch. xi. 2-22 being thus an integral part of this section. (4) Editorial additions are: ch. i. 2b-6a, 13b; ii. 9; iii. 13a; iv. 1a, 19-22; v. 1a, 15-16; xi. 41-43.
E. Norelli suggests on the contrary that the whole text, even if written in different times, is the expression of a docetic Christian prophetic group related with the group attacked by Ignatius of Antioch in his letters to the Smyrnaeans and to the Trallians. According to this scholar chapters 6-11 (the Vision) are older than chapters 1-5 (which represent a later pessimistic introduction to the original Vision), the date of composition is the end of the 1st century AD, and the narrative of Mary's pregnancy (AI 11:2-5) is independent from the Gospel of Matthew.
The text exists as a whole in three Ethiopic manuscripts of around the 15th-18th centuries, but fragments have also survived in Greek, Coptic, Latin, and Old Church Slavonic. All three component texts appear to have been in Greek, and it is possible that the "Martyrdom of Isaiah" derives from a Hebrew or Aramaic original. Comparison of the various translations suggests that two different recensions of the Greek original must have existed; one on which the Ethiopic and one of the Latin versions was based, and the other on which the Slavonic and the other Latin version was based. Fragments of both Greek versions have survived. The work's current title is derived from the title used in the Ethiopic manuscripts ('Ergata Īsāyèyās – "The Ascension of Isaiah"). In antiquity, Epiphanius also referred to it by this title (in Greek: Τὸ Αναβατικὸν Ἡσαΐου), as did Jerome (in Latin: Ascensio Isaiæ).
- Jonathan Knight (1995), The Ascension of Isaiah
- Enrico Norelli (1995), Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (Corpus Christianorum. Series Apocryphorum)
- Enrico Norelli (1994), L'Ascensione di Isaia. Studi su un apocrifo al crocevia dei cristianesimi.
- Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
- M. A. Knibb - The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, 1985
- C. Detlef G. Müller writes (New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2
- M. A. Knibb - The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, 1985
- Carrier, Richard (2014). On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield Phoenix Press. pp. 36–37. ISBN 978-1-909697-49-2.
- Knight, Jonathan, "The Portrait of Mary in the Ascension of Isaiah", page 96 
- Rogers, Mark (30 July 2014). The Esoteric Codex: Demonology I. Lulu.com. p. 215. ISBN 978-1-312-39743-9.
- Charles, Robert Henry (1900). The Ascension of Isaiah: Translated from the Ethiopic Version, Which, Together with the New Greek Fragment, the Latin Versions and the Latin Translation of the Slavonic, is Here Published in Full. A. & C. Black. p. 48.
- "Ascension of Isaiah". earlychristianwritings.com. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
- "BIBLICAL APOCRYPHA: The Ascension of Isaiah". On the way to Ithaca. 8 August 2012. Retrieved 16 August 2016.
- Knight, p. 26.
- Norelli 1994, pag. 271
- Norelli 1994, pag. 140
- Online translation of the Ascension of Isaiah
- Information on Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah
- Online translation of the Ascension of Isaiah ch. 6-11
- The Ethiopic version of the Ascension of Isaiah (with Greek and Latin fragments), edited by Robert Henry Charles in 1900
- Martyrdom of Isaiah: 2012 Translation & Audio Version