The Ascension of Isaiah is a pseudepigraphical Jewish-Christian text. Scholarly estimates regarding the date of the Ascension of Isaiah range anywhere between the final decades of the first century to the early decades of the third century, though scholars prefer some time in the early 2nd century. The reason for this large range in dating is due to the fact that there is virtually no information that allows for a confident dating into any specific period. Many scholars believe it to be a compilation of several texts completed by an unknown Christian scribe who claimed to be the Prophet Isaiah, while an increasing number of scholars in recent years have argued that the work is a unity by a single author that may have used utilized multiple sources.
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 AD 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 (chapters 6-11) 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. Most scholars agree that a mid to early second century date for the principal portion of the document is probable, dateable in its present to the least the early part of the second century.
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 this 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 Oracles. Finally, Isaiah's journey through the Seven Heavens parallels that of Enoch in the Second Book of Enoch.
Some scholars have noted that the Ascension reflects a proto-Trinitarian perspective, such as when the inhabitants of the sixth heaven sing praises to "the primal Father and his Beloved Christ, and the Holy Spirit". Larry Hurtado writes;
The most extended narrative of heavenly worship is in 9.27-42, however, where a similar triadic view is presented. Having reached the seventh heaven, which is bathed in incomparable light, Isaiah sees innumerable angels and "all the righteous from the time of Adam onwards" (9.6-9). Then, after his angel guide explains how the descent of the Beloved One will make it possible for the righteous to receive their robes, crowns, and thrones (9.10-26), Isaiah sees a figure "whose glory surpassed that of all" being worshiped by Adam, Abel, and all the other righteous and angels (9.27-28). Crucially, at this point the angel guide directs Isaiah to "Worship this one," whom the angel identifies as "the Lord of all the praise which you have seen" (9.31-32), the Beloved One; Isaiah joins in the worship and sung praise directed to this figure. Then another glorious figure approaches, subsequently identified as "the angel of the Holy Spirit who has spoken in you and also in the other righteous" (9.36), and Isaiah is likewise told to join the angels in worshiping this one (9.35-36). Finally, in a carefully prepared climax to this scene, Isaiah sees "the Great Glory" (but with his spirit, for it appears that his eyes are blinded by the light of this glory, 9.37), and he relates how "my Lord" and "the angel of the Spirit" both offered worship to this third figure, along with "all the righteous" and the angels (9.40-42).
The Ascension of Isaiah suggests early Christian belief in subordinationism, similar to that of Origen and, later, Novatian. The text describes the worship of the "Great Glory" by the "Beloved" and the "Angel of the Holy Spirit," implying hierarchy in the ranks of the trinity. Further, it is suggested that the angels escorting Isaiah in his ascension are none other than Jesus ("the Beloved") and the Angel of the Holy Spirit. By the text labeling Jesus and the Holy Spirit as angelic beings, a Christology and pneumatology are established that distinguish "the LORD" from "my LORD" and the Holy Spirit. This would be cause to label the story as heretical in the Western Orthodox tradition, along with similar theological beliefs, such as Arianism. Nonetheless, early Jewish-Christians, most likely in the Palestinian region, would have found this story influential in understanding theology, pneumatology and Christology, largely due to its referral to the Hebrew scriptures' prophets.
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:
- Ch. i. 1-2a, 6b-13a; ii. 1-iii. 12; v. 1b-14.
- 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.
- The Vision comprises ch. vi. 1-xi. 40, ch. xi. 2-22 being thus an integral part of this section.
- 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. Recently, other scholars have rejected characterizing the Ascension of Isaiah as a docetic text.
The text exists as a whole in three Ge'ez 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 were based, and the other on which the Slavonic and the other Latin version were 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.
- Gieschen, Charles (1998). Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence. Boston: Brill. pp. 195, 196, 229–237.
- Hurtado, Larry. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Eerdmans, 2005, 595-602.
- Hannah, Darrell D. "Isaiah's Vision in the Ascension of Isaiah and the Early Church." The Journal of Theological Studies 50.1 (1999): 84-85.
- 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
- Gieschen, Charles (1998). Angelomorphic christology : antecedents and early evidence. Leiden Boston: Brill. p. 229. ISBN 9004108408.
- Stuckenbruck, Loren T. (2004). "The Holy Spirit in the Ascension of Isaiah". In Dunn, James (ed.). The Holy Spirit and Christian origins : essays in honor of James D.G. Dunn. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. p. 308. ISBN 0802828221.
- Knight, Jonathan, "The Portrait of Mary in the Ascension of Isaiah", page 96 
- Hannah, Darrell D. "Isaiah's Vision in the Ascension of Isaiah and the Early Church." The Journal of Theological Studies 50.1 (1999): 90-99.
- 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
- Hannah, Darrell D. "The ascension of Isaiah and docetic christology." Vigiliae christianae 53.2 (1999): 165-196.
- 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
- Charles, Robert Henry (1911). . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 14 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 864–865. This is primarily a study of exegesis, as understood at the time; Charles cites himself several times.