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The Apocryphal Old Testament Collection of the most important non-canonical Old Testament books designed for general use.

The Ascension of Isaiah - Introduction

A tradition that Isaiah was ‘sawn in two’ by Manasseh was known by both Jews and Christians. Most early Christian writers give no details, 1 e.g. Tert. (pat. 14; scorp. 8). although some specify that the saw used was made of wood. 2 e.g. Justin (Tryph. cxx. 14–15). The Talmud, however, is more explicit. In one version Isaiah is brought to trial before Manasseh: at the conclusion of the hearing Isaiah pronounces the Name and is immediately swallowed up by a cedar-tree: the cedar is sawn in two, and ‘when the saw reached his mouth he died’. 3 T. B. Yebamoth, 49 b. In another Talmudic version Manasseh resolves to kill Isaiah: Isaiah hears of it and flees and hides himself inside a cedar-tree: unfortunately a piece of his garment sticks out and betrays him: so Manasseh orders the cedar to be cut through; and it is this crime which is alluded to particularly at 2 Kings xxi. 16 (‘Manasseh shed so much innocent blood, that he filled Jerusalem with it up to the brim’). 4 T. J. Sanhedrin, x. 2. Yet another variant of the same story is to be found in a fragment preserved as a gloss attached to Isa. lxvi (the last chapter in the book) in two MSS of the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets — Codex Reuchlinianus and Cod. Vat. Ebr. Urbin. 1: according to this account, Isaiah, outraged by Manasseh's profanation of the Temple, prophesied its destruction by Nebuchadrezzar: when Manasseh heard of it he was filled with fury,

‘He said to his servants, Run after him, seize him! They ran after him. He fled from before them, and a carob tree opened its mouth and swallowed him. They brought saws [+ of iron Cod. Reuch.] and cut through the tree until Isaiah's blood flowed like water.’ 5 See P. de Lagarde, Prophetae Chaldaice (Leipzig, 1872), p. xxxiii; P. Grelot, ‘Deux tosephtas targoumiques inédités sur Isaie LXVI’ in R Bibl lxxix (1972), pp. 515–518.

The first indication of the existence of a separate apocryphal work concerned with this incident is found in Origen. ‘It is clear’, Origen writes, ‘that tradition relates that Isaiah the prophet was sawn asunder and the circumstances are recorded in a certain apocryphon.’ 6 Ep. ad Afric. 9. In a similar passage he names this apocryphon ‘the Isaiah apocryphon’. 7 Comm. in Matt. tom. X. 18 (on Matt. xiii. 56 ): cp. Matt. comm. ser. 28 (on Matt. xxiii. 37–39 ). And in yet another passage (in Jerome's translation) he mentions a tradition that Isaiah was condemned for blaspheming Moses and the Law; 8 In Es. hom. i. 5. and the terms in which Origen states this charge have obvious points of contact with Balchira's accusation in Ascension iii. 6–10.

In the century after Origen, Didymus the Blind, when describing the details of Isaiah's martyrdom in the course of his comment on Ps. xxxv. 15 , mentions a second charge as having been brought against Isaiah also — that he had described his contemporaries as ‘rulers of Sodom’ and ‘a people of Gomorrah’; 9 Comm. in Pss. 2183–14 (= M. Gronewald, Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen, viii (Bonn, 1969), pp. 354–357). and it is to be noted that precisely the same second charge follows immediately on the heels of the blasphemy charge in Ascension iii. 10. Again, when commenting on Eccl. xi. 6, Didymus refers to Christ's journeying through the heavens and adds that his source is the description ‘by Isaiah … in the Ascension’ (a clear allusion to Ascension x. 20–31). 10 Comm. in Eccl. 32921–23 (= G. Binder and L. Liesenborghs, Pap. Texte und Abh. ix (Bonn, 1969), pp. 66–67). Epiphanius, too, about the same time (end of 4th cent.), refers twice to ‘The Ascension of Isaiah’ as accepted and used by heretics: the Archontici used it: 11 Haer. XL. ii. 2. the Egyptian heretic Hieracas appealed to it for confirmation of his doctrine of the Spirit; and in this last connection Epiphanius cites Ascension ix. 35–36 in full. 12 Haer. LXVII. iii. 4.

In the early 5th cent. Jerome provides three pieces of evidence:

  • (1) He records that contemporary Jewish opinion gave two reasons for Isaiah's condemnation — first, Isaiah had offended all classes in Jerusalem by addressing them as ‘rulers of Sodom’ and ‘a people of Gomorrah’ (Isa. i. 10 ); and second, whereas God himself had laid it down through Moses, ‘No man may see me and live’ (Exod. xxxiii. 20 ), Isaiah had dared to claim ‘I saw the Lord’ (Isa. vi. 1 ). The same two charges, as we have seen, are found in conjunction both in the mouth of Balchira at Ascension iii. 6–10 and in Didymus: Jerome, however, has them in the reverse order, influenced, perhaps, by the order of the passages in the canonical Isaiah. 13 Comm. in Es. i. 10.

  • (2) Two interpretations of Isa. lvii. 1–2 , Jerome says, are possible. Either the passage can be taken generally as a reference to all those whose ‘innocent blood’ Manasseh shed, or it can be taken as a prophecy by Isaiah of his own martyrdom. Both interpretations are allowed by the Jews of Jerome's day, and the tradition that Isaiah was ‘sawn in two by Manasseh with a wooden saw’ is ‘a very firmly established tradition among them’. 14 Comm. in Es. lvii. 1–2.

  • (3) In commenting on Isa. lxiv. 4–5 Jerome remarks that these verses are paraphrased by St. Paul at 1 Cor. ii. 9 : he then adds ‘The Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Elijah also quote this passage’. The quotation is found (in its Pauline form) in the Latin and in the Slavonic versions at Ascension xi. 34, though not in the Ethiopic. 15 Comm. in Es. lxiv. 4–5.

In the mid-sixth century the unknown author of the Pseudo-Chrysostom Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum gives an account of an interview of Hezekiah with Manasseh and Isaiah, which is not only generally very similar to the scene described in Ascension i, but also exhibits many detailed points of contact. 16 Op. imperf. in Matt. Hom. i (= PG lvi. 626). But since Pseudo-Chrysostom mentions no source, it is impossible to say whether he was dependent upon the Ascension as we know it, or (possibly) upon a source of the Ascension, or whether he derived his information independently from tradition.

And finally, in the eleventh century, Georgius Cedrenus says that Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Antichrist, the duration of the Antichrist's rule on earth and his being cast into ‘Tartarus’, the coming of Christ, and the resurrection to judgement of both good and evil, ‘in the Testament of Hezekiah King of Judah’ 17 Historiarum Compendium (= Corp. scr. hist. Byz. (ed. I. Bekker; Bonn, 1838, vol. i, pp. 120–121: also PG cxxi. 152). – a work whose existence is otherwise unattested. If Cedrenus had not named his source so distinctly, it would naturally be assumed that he was alluding to Ascension iv. 12–18. Was Cedrenus, then, guilty of a slip in naming his source? Or was ‘The Testament of Hezekiah’ a recognised alternative title for the Ascension? Or was it, perhaps, the title of one of the Ascension's constituent parts, which may still have survived in the eleventh century as a separate work?

The complete text of the Ascension here translated is preserved only in Ethiopic. Three Ethiopic manuscripts are available: A (Bodl. Aeth. d. 13 – formerly Huntington 626; 15th cent.), B (B. L. Or. 501; 15th cent.), and C (B. L. Or. 503; 18th cent.). For comparison with the Ethiopic there are also available: (1) seven leaves of a papyrus codex of the 5th–6th centuries in the Amherst Collection (now part of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York), giving a Greek text of ii. 4–iv. 4 with some lacunae, first published by B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt in 1900 ; (2) two Latin fragments from a Vatican MS (Vat. lat. 5750; 5th–6th cent.), containing ii. 14–iii. 13 and vii. 1–19, first published by A. Mai in 1828 ; (3) a Latin text of vi–xi, first printed by Antonius de Fantis in 1522 from an unknown MS and subsequently reprinted from de Fantis by J. K. L. Gieseler, C. F. A. Dillmann, and R. H. Charles (‘with certain corrections’); and (4) a Slavonic text of vi–xi, now known from six MSS, first published by A. N. Popov in 1879 . All these texts will be found conveniently assembled in parallel columns in Charles's edition (pp. 83–139). 18 It is to be observed that Charles printed the Slavonic text in a Latin translation made by Bonwetsch.

As further authorities may be listed: (5) two very fragmentary leaves of a mid-to-late 4th century papyrus codex giving the Sahidic text of iii. 3–6, 9–12, and xi. 24–32, 35–40; (6) thirteen even less well preserved fragments of a papyrus roll giving scraps of an Akhmimic text extending from the very beginning of the book to very near the end, and probably also dating from the 4th cent.; (7) the so-called ‘Greek Legend’, published by O. von Gebhardt in 1878 from a 12th century Paris MS (B. N. Gr. 1534), which contains a number of legends of saints commemorated between 1 March and 31 May – the Isaiah legend seems to be based on at least some knowledge of the contents of the Ascension, and Charles, in reprinting from von Gebhardt the major part of it in his edition (pp. 141–8), has picked out the possible literary parallels by the use of heavy type; and (8) another Slavonic text published by L. Stojanović in 1890 .

The translation which follows is a translation of the Ethiopic; and in the apparatus all the more important variants of the three Ethiopic manuscripts are recorded. Similarly recorded are all important variants in the Amherst Greek text (= ‘Gk’), in the Latins (Vat. Lat. 5750 = ‘L 1 e.g. Tert. (pat. 14; scorp. 8). ’: de Fantis = ‘L 2 e.g. Justin (Tryph. cxx. 14–15). ’), in the Sahidic (= ‘Sah’), in the Akhmimic (= ‘Akh.’) and in Popov's Slavonic (= ‘Slav’). On a few occasions the evidence of the Greek Legend has been cited (= ‘GkL’).

As it now stands in Ethiopic, the Ascension divides naturally into two parts — i–v and vi–xi. The first part describes the events that led up to the death of Isaiah and the details of his martyrdom at the hands of Manasseh: the second part takes the reader back to ‘the twentieth year of the reign of Hezekiah’ and describes a vision which Isaiah saw in that year, preceded by the title ‘The vision which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw’. And this twofold division in the Ethiopic is supported by both L 2 e.g. Justin (Tryph. cxx. 14–15). and Slav., which are not fragments, but versions of the vision and no more (i.e. of vi–xi only); and they also both have the title at the beginning ‘The vision …’ Chapters vi–xi, therefore, circulated independently of the rest of the work. It is possible of course that some late editor of the Ascension detached from it the last six chapters and so turned them into a separate work which he called ‘The Vision’. Nevertheless the fact that the Ethiopic also has the title before vi makes it much more likely that these chapters were originally separate and that it was only later that they were joined on to i–v because they also were about Isaiah. In any case, vi–xi show clear signs of Christian authorship (e.g. ix. 12–17 and xi. 1–22), whether we are prepared to leave it at that or prefer to particularize further and attribute their origin to ‘Christian–Gnostic circles’ (so Helmbold).

Chapters i–v raise more difficult questions. Not only is the story of Isaiah's martyrdom rooted firmly in Judaism, but there are in the story as it is told in these chapters not a few features that suggest a Jewish origin for them (e.g. the statement at ii. 2 that Balchira was a Samaritan). On the other hand, there is even more evidence of a Christian origin (e.g. i. 7 and iii. 13–20). At the very beginning there is some confusion about whether Hezekiah's purpose in summoning Manasseh was to give him ‘commands’ (i. 6; ii. 1) or to ‘deliver to him’ the written records of his own vision in his fifteenth year and of Isaiah's vision in his twentieth year (i. 2–6). And the progress of the narrative between iii. 12 and v. 1 is very awkwardly interrupted by the details of another vision of Isaiah, in which are discussed the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the early history of the Church, the events leading up to the End, and the Last Judgement.

The generally agreed solution of these difficulties is that the basis of i–v is a document recounting Isaiah's martyrdom, probably Jewish in origin, into which a Christian editor has inserted a Christian apocalypse (iii. 13–iv. 22) and made also a number of other additions and adaptations. Whether or not it was this same editor who at the same time added vi–xi to i–v it is impossible to say. Certain it is that, inasmuch as i. 5 looks forward to vi–xi, this verse at any rate is unlikely to have been added until very near the final stage in the Ascension's history.

That this final stage was reached by the mid-fourth century at the latest is proved by the Sahidic fragments. These fragments represent two leaves from a single codex: they preserve sections of text from opposite ends of the book; and they are to be dated c. AD 350–375. If we are prepared to allow a reasonable margin for the circulation of the work in Sahidic before our particular MS was copied, for its translation into Sahidic from Greek, and for its circulation in Greek after final editing, we are taken back to AD 350 as the latest possible date. 19 If we can rely on the approximate 4th cent. date suggested for the Akhmimic fragments, they will, of course, support this conclusion. And the actual date is in all probability very much earlier. Indeed, Charles committed himself to a date in ‘the latter half of the second century’ and went on to claim that the three ‘constituents … circulated independently as early as the first century’. 20 R. H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (London, 1900 ), pp. xi–xii.

Charles may very well be right. What is important to remember is that Origen's ‘Isaiah apocryphon’ may have been no more than the section recording the martyrdom, and, further, that although Epiphanius and Jerome refer explicitly to ‘The Ascension of Isaiah’ as the source of quotations from chaps. ix and xi, this is no clear proof that they knew the book in its final form – ‘The Ascension of Isaiah’ may have been their name for vi–xi only. This last possibility is, however, unlikely. Whatever Origen's ‘apocryphon’ may have contained, the likelihood (especially in view of the evidence of the Sahidic fragments) is that ‘The Ascension’ known to Didymus, Epiphanius, and Jerome, was the Ascension as we know it to-day.

If the section recounting the martyrdom was of Jewish origin, a good case can be made for its having had a Hebrew or Aramaic original, which was later translated into Greek. But the original language of the other two sections was undoubtedly Greek (as was the language of the complete book). And, to judge from the evidence of the surviving Greek fragments, the Ethiopic is a very faithful translation.

Notes:

1 e.g. Tert. (pat. 14; scorp. 8).

2 e.g. Justin (Tryph. cxx. 14–15).

3 T. B. Yebamoth, 49 b.

4 T. J. Sanhedrin, x. 2.

5 See P. de Lagarde, Prophetae Chaldaice (Leipzig, 1872), p. xxxiii; P. Grelot, ‘Deux tosephtas targoumiques inédités sur Isaie LXVI’ in R Bibl lxxix (1972), pp. 515–518.

6 Ep. ad Afric. 9.

7 Comm. in Matt. tom. X. 18 (on Matt. xiii. 56 ): cp. Matt. comm. ser. 28 (on Matt. xxiii. 37–39 ).

8 In Es. hom. i. 5.

9 Comm. in Pss. 2183–14 (= M. Gronewald, Papyrologische Texte und Abhandlungen, viii (Bonn, 1969), pp. 354–357).

10 Comm. in Eccl. 32921–23 (= G. Binder and L. Liesenborghs, Pap. Texte und Abh. ix (Bonn, 1969), pp. 66–67).

11 Haer. XL. ii. 2.

12 Haer. LXVII. iii. 4.

13 Comm. in Es. i. 10.

14 Comm. in Es. lvii. 1–2.

15 Comm. in Es. lxiv. 4–5.

16 Op. imperf. in Matt. Hom. i (= PG lvi. 626).

17 Historiarum Compendium (= Corp. scr. hist. Byz. (ed. I. Bekker; Bonn, 1838, vol. i, pp. 120–121: also PG cxxi. 152).

18 It is to be observed that Charles printed the Slavonic text in a Latin translation made by Bonwetsch.

19 If we can rely on the approximate 4th cent. date suggested for the Akhmimic fragments, they will, of course, support this conclusion.

20 R. H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (London, 1900 ), pp. xi–xii.

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