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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : THE ASCENSION OF ISAIAH.

Pseudepigrapha by William John Deane


Passing through Drury Lane in the year of grace 1819, and examining the bookstalls which then rendered that locality a happy hunting-ground for bibliomaniacs, Richard Laurence, Archbishop of Cashel, at the counter of one J. Smith, lighted upon an Ethiopic version of the Prophecy of Isaiah, to which was appended a further treatise, called the |Ascension of Isaiah.| The bookseller, not recognising the value of the work, sold it for a trifle; but the Archbishop, who was tolerably well acquainted with the language in which it was written, at once perceived that he had become the possessor of a long-lost book, and one which was a precious contribution to the study of Jewish-Christian thought in the first period of Christianity. Nor was it long before he made the literary world cognisant of his discovery, publishing the Ethiopic text with an English and a Latin version, critical notes, and observations on the date, contents, and bearing of the tractate. Of this pseudepigraphical work, considered to belong to the earliest Christian centuries, I propose to give some account.

The history of the text is soon told. The MS. on which Archbishop Laurence based his edition is now in the Bodleian Library, and was for a time deemed to be the only authority extant or available. It had previously passed through perilous experience. Written originally for the use of a monk, Aaron, who was about to travel in the Holy Land, it had been brought back from Jerusalem by Th. Petraeus, who, in his edition of the Prophecy of Jonah translated from the Ethiopic into Latin (A.D.1660), mentions that he had examined it. How it arrived at the bookstall in Drury Lane is unknown. At the time it appeared no other copy was known to exist.

But since that date supplementary aids for determining the text have come to light, and scholars on the Continent have exercised their ingenuity in correcting erroneous readings and renderings, and in elucidating and illustrating the work. In 1828, Angelus Mai published two fragments of an ancient Latin version of portions of the work, containing chaps, ii.14 to iii.13, and vii.1-19, without being aware of what work they formed a portion. Their right position was discovered by Niebuhr, and fully discussed by Nitzsch in Stud. und Krit.1830. Another section (chaps. vi.-xi), containing what is called the |Vision of Isaiah,| was known to have been printed at Venice in 1522, and was quoted by Sixtus Senensis in his Bibl. Sancta (lib. ii. p.59) under the title of |Anabasis| or |Anabatikon,| but no copy was forthcoming, till one was found in 1832 in the library at Munich, and edited with preface and notes by J. C. L. Gieseler. The Abyssinian war in 1868, as it was magnificently named, if it conferred no glory on its promoters and executors, brought into our possession some literary treasures which have proved of great interest. Among the plunder thus obtained at Magdala were two Ethiopic MSS. of the |Ascension,| which are now deposited in the British Museum. They are of no great antiquity, being attributed to the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries respectively; but they have been employed with good effect by Dillmann in preparing his useful edition of the work. By collating these MSS. with Laurence's text, he has been enabled to correct the latter in numerous places, to fill up lacunae, and to prove the existence of many interpolations and corruptions. In the year following this publication another discovery was made. The National Library at Paris was found to possess a Greek MS. with the title: |The Prophecy, Revelation, and Martyrdom of the holy and glorious and greatest of the prophets, Isaiah the Prophet,| and it was concluded that at length the original and long-lost text had been discovered. Further examination proved that this expectation was by no means realised. The document in question was a beautiful parchment of the twelfth century, containing a collection of Legends of the Saints commemorated in the Calendar between the first day of March and the last of May. In the Eastern Church Isaiah is commemorated, May 9, in company with the martyr Christopher, and as appointed for that day the MS. inserts the Legends of these two worthies. The Latin Church observes another day in memory of the prophet; but neither in the Roman Breviary nor in the Greek Menaion is there any trace of this particular form of the myth. Disappointment met the sanguine examiners of this manuscript. It was found to contain only a portion of the work, and that in a different order from that of the Ethiopic text, and with the omission of an important and lengthy passage. It is to be regarded merely as an extract from the original as contained in chaps, vi.-xi. and ii.-v., with many glosses and additions. The omitted part is that which, from internal evidence, is supposed to be of Christian origin, and was doubtless absent from the copy whence the Greek MS. was taken; otherwise, as it contains matter most suitable for a legendary, it would have found a place there. In this document, to the legend concerning Isaiah's death is appended a myth concerning his burial and the origin of the Pool of Siloam, which came into existence in answer to his prayers. The legend here takes the same form as that which is found in the Chronican Paschale of the Byzantine Histories. There is no doubt that it is not a correct copy of the original Greek work, but is a compilation from it, containing doubtless many genuine passages, retaining much of the actual wording, but with the whole story abbreviated, epitomised, and refashioned. The fragment is printed with prefatory remarks by Dr. Oscar von Gebhardt in Hilgenfeld's Zeitschrift for 1878, pp.330 ff. Since this publication I am not aware that any further aid for the settling of the text has appeared. Postponing for a time the consideration of the internal evidence for the date of the work, which will be more satisfactorily treated after we have glanced at the contents, we may proceed to examine its external claims to be regarded as contemporaneous with primitive Christian times. In suchlike investigations, where the original is no longer extant, we are reduced to searching for citations and references in early writers, whether acknowledged or recognisable. Speaking of the trials of God's servants in old time, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews mentions (chap. xi.37) that some of them |were sawn asunder.| Now to the other trials, or forms of death noticed, in the passage, we can find parallels in the histories of the worthies of the Old Testament, or in the Books of Maccabees; but there is no instance of a primitive saint meeting his death by the saw. It is true that David is said to have put the Ammonites under saws; but these were not martyrs, but enemies of Israel, and it is quite possible that the expression means no more than that they were put to the servile work of sawing timber. It is true also that, according to the Greek version of Amos, the Damascenes sawed asunder the Gileadite women; but the writer in the Epistle is not speaking of such wholesale cruelty practised on a large district, but of the tortures and murders of individuals. The only saint who is supposed to have experienced death in this manner is Isaiah; and the tradition which asserts that he was sawn asunder with a wooden saw is found embodied in the book which we are considering, where we are told that Manasseh, incensed at Isaiah's warnings, had him thus slain, and with his fawning false prophets around him stood by deriding the holy man's sufferings. Of course, the reference in the Epistle may belong to some other person than Isaiah, though we know of none to whom it would apply; or the writer may have derived the tradition from a different source than the |Ascension;| and therefore no argument for the date of the work can be grounded on this allusion; but there seems to have been a curious consensus of commentators in regarding the expression as appertaining to the peculiar end of Isaiah as detailed in the Jewish story, which also seems to have been known to Josephus, as he speaks of Manasseh not sparing even the prophets of the Lord (Antiq. x.3.1). But there are early references to the book itself under different names. Justin Martyr, indeed, who, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (chap. cxx.), alludes to the death of Isaiah, does not mention our book by name, but he refers unmistakably to the tradition therein embodied. He is showing from the Old Testament the mission and character of Christ, and he tells his antagonist that, had the Jews understood the full import of such passages, they would have removed them from the text, as they have removed |those relating to the death of Isaiah, whom,| he says, |ye sawed in pieces with a wooden saw.| It is not clear what part of Scripture Justin supposes to have been thus violently handled, but his reference to the mode of the prophet's death recalls the wording of the |Ascensio.| There can, however, be no mistake about Tertullian's acquaintance with the work, and with that part of it which is evidently of Jewish origin. In his treatise On Patience (chap. xiv.), he writes, |Exhibiting such powers of patience, Isaiah is cut asunder, and holds not his peace concerning the Lord.| Evidently he has in view that passage of the Ascension given below, where it is said that Isaiah continued to converse with the Holy Spirit till he was sawn asunder. In the so-called Apostolical Constitutions (vi.16), the work is mentioned among certain ancient productions and termed apokruphon Hesaiou. The same name is given to it by Origen, who more than once appeals to it as his authority for the martyrdom, and derives other observations therefrom. In his Epistle to Africanus (chap. ix.), after remarking that the Jews were accustomed to remove from popular cognisance all things supposed to be derogatory to elders and judges, while preserving many of such facts in secret books, he instances the story of Isaiah, which, he says, is confirmed by the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews, thus making the document that contains the legend of more ancient date than the Epistle. And he continues: |It is clear that tradition reports that Isaiah was sawn asunder; and so it is stated in a certain apocryphal writing (en tini apokrupho), which was perhaps purposely corrupted by the Jews who introduced incongruous readings in order to throw discredit on the whole narrative.| So again, in the Commentary on St. Matthew (xiii.57, xxiii.37), he writes: |Now, if any refuse to receive this story because it is recorded in the Apocryphon of Isaiah (en to arokrupho Hesaia), let him believe what is written in the Epistle to the Hebrews, even as the account of the death of Zechariah, slain between the temple and the altar, is to be believed on the testimony of the Saviour, though the tale was not drawn from the common and published books, but, as I suppose, from some apocryphal writing.| His acquaintance with our book is still further expressed in one of his Homilies on Isaiah (tom. iii. p.108), where the resemblance to a passage quoted below is perfectly obvious. |They say that Isaiah was cut asunder by the people, as one who depraved the law and spoke beyond what Scripture authorised. For Scripture says, No one shall see my face and live; but he says, I saw the Lord of Hosts. Moses, they say, saw Him not, and thou didst see Him! And for this cause they cut him asunder and condemned him as impious.| Quoted from memory, as this doubtless was, it is sufficiently close to the original to show whence it was derived. St. Ambrose (in Ps. cxviii. tom. i. p.1124) refers to Satan's attempt to make Isaiah save his life by apostasy, narrated in chap. v. of the Ascension. |It is recorded by many that a certain prophet, being in prison, and in danger of immediate execution, was thus addressed by the devil: Say that the Lord hath not spoken by thee in all that thou hast uttered, and I will turn all men's hearts and affections to thee, so that they who now are wroth at thy offence shall be the first to pardon thee.| The author of the Opus imperfectum on St. Matthew, inserted among the works of St. Chrysostom, which is assigned to the fifth century, gives some details which must have been derived from what is now the first and second chapters of our book. He is commenting on the name Manasseh in the genealogy of our Lord, and he asserts, resting on the etymology of the word, |one who forgets,| that he was proleptically so called, because he would forget all the holy conversation of his father and all the benefits which he had received, and at the instigation of the devil would do everything to provoke the anger of the Lord. This, as we shall see below, is in exact agreement with the beginning of the martyrdom in our book. But there is more than this. The passage that follows is evidently borrowed from the proëmium of the Apocryphon, as a comparison with the words in brackets will show: |Now when Hezekiah was sick at a certain time, and Isaiah the prophet came to visit him, he called for his son Manasseh, and began to admonish him that he ought to fear God, and told him how to reign, and many other things. (It came to pass in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, that he sent for his only son Manasseh, and called him before Isaiah, the son of Amos, the prophet, and before Josab, the son of Isaiah, that he might deliver unto him the words of truth in which he had himself been instructed . . . and the truths relating to the faith of the Beloved which had been communicated to him in the year of his reign when he was visited with sickness.) And Isaiah said unto him: These words of mine do not descend into thy son's heart, and therefore I myself must needs die by his hand. (And Isaiah spake unto King Hezekiah in the presence of Manasseh, and said: As God liveth, Manasseh thy son will surely disregard all these precepts and words, and by the deed of his hands, with great torment of body, shall I depart this life.) When Hezekiah heard this, he wished to kill his son, saying: It is better for me to die childless than to leave a son who will provoke the wrath of God, and persecute His saints. (When Hezekiah heard this he wept abundantly, rent his garments, put dust upon his head, and fell upon his face. . . . And Hezekiah secretly intended to kill his son Manasseh.) But the prophet Isaiah restrained him with difficulty, saying: May God frustrate this thy purpose; for he saw the piety of Hezekiah, that he loved God better than his son. (But Isaiah said: In these things I cannot indulge thee . . . the beloved hath frustrated thy purpose, and the thought of thy heart shall not be fulfilled.|) Epiphanius attests that certain heretics of the third century made use of our work, which he calls to anabatikon (Ascensio) Hesaiou, to support their opinions. Thus one Hieracas, an Egyptian heresiarch, grounded his position that Melchisedek (of whom it is said, Heb. vii.3, that he was like the Son of God, and abideth a priest continually) was the Holy Spirit, upon certain passages in chaps. ix. and xi. of the Ascension. |The angel showed me of all things before me, and said: Who is this on the right hand of God? And I answered: Thou knowest, O Lord. And he said: This is the Beloved. (I beheld one standing whose glory surpassed all things. . . . This is the Lord of all the glory which thou hast beheld.) And who is the other like unto Him coming on the left hand? And I answered: Thou knowest. This is the Holy Spirit that speaketh in thee and in the prophets. And He was like to the Beloved. (While I was conversing, I perceived another glorious being, who was like to Him in appearance. . . . The second which I saw was on the left hand of my Lord. And I asked: Who is this? And he replied: Worship Him, for this is the angel of the Holy Spirit who speaketh in thee and other saints. . . . I perceived that He sat down on the right hand of that great glory. I perceived likewise that the angel of the Holy Spirit sat down on the left hand.|) Epiphanius says of the Archontici (a sect who held that the world was created by angels, and that there were seven heavens, each presided over by an archon or ruler) that they derive their tenets from the Anabatikon Hesaiou, and other apocryphal works. The statement on which they relied is found in the seventh and following chapters of the Ascension, where Isaiah's passage through the seven heavens, with their presiding angels, is described. The work was also known to St. Jerome, who refers to it in his commentary on Isa. lxiv.4: |From of old men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen a God beside Thee, which worketh for him that waiteth for Him.| After comparing the analogous passage in 1 Cor. ii.9, he adds: |Ascensio enim Isaiæ et Apocalypsis Heliæ hoc habent testimonium.| We search in vain for this reference in the existing Ethiopic text, but it occurs as an interpolation in the Latin fragment printed at Venice, where we read (xi.34): |The angel said unto me: This is sufficient for thee, Isaiah; for thou hast seen what no other mortal man in the flesh hath ever beheld, what neither eye hath seen, nor ear hath heard, nor hath it risen into the heart of man what great things God hath prepared for all who love Him.| There is no record of our work after this in the Fathers, though it is mentioned under the names Anabaticon, Ascensus, Hesaiou horasis, in two or three catalogues of Scripture and apocryphal writings. In the Apostolical Constitutions (vi.16) a list of apocryphal works is given which are deemed pernicious and repugnant to the truth; among these appears apokruphon Hesaiou, which probably represents the Ascension. For some five or six centuries the book remained in obscurity; then, for an instant, it crops up in the Quæstiones et Responsiones of Anastasius in the eleventh century, where, in the catalogue of canonical and apocryphal books, we find Hesaiou horasis, the Vision of Isaiah, which describes the second section of our work. Under the same name Euthymius Zigabenus denounces it as the origin of the heresy of the Messalians with regard to the Holy Trinity. Many of the Gnostic sects found support in the statements or wording of the Ascension, and it is said to have been employed in the same way by the Cathari of Western Europe, the Albigenses, and similar sects. On the other hand, Archbishop Laurence adduces passages from the work in defence of orthodoxy against the Unitarians and depravers of the Gospel history, endeavouring, and with partial success, to show that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the miraculous conception and birth of our Lord were known to the author, as well as other events narrated in the Christian story. We shall meet with these statements when we investigate the contents of the book.

A critical examination of the work confirms Dillmann's opinion that it consists of three or four sections composed by different authors and at different periods, and very clumsily arranged as a whole, the writer introducing the prophet as relating to Hezekiah his vision, after he has been recounting the deaths of Isaiah and the king. This inversion is accounted for by the mode in which the present work was put together. There is markedly a Jewish portion containing an account of the martyrdom of Isaiah, and a purely Christian portion embracing the ascension or vision of the prophet. Combining together these two divisions come a preface and conclusion of Christian origin, though the introduction displays a not very evident connection with what follows; and interspersed occur many Jewish and Christian additions, interpolations, and supplements. The first part, which (according to Laurence's arrangement of the work into chapters and verses, is comprised in chaps. ii.1-iii.12, and v.2-14) contains the details of the murder of Isaiah, and may be reasonably supposed to have some historical basis. Thus the account runs: |It came to pass after the death of Hezekiah that Manasseh reigned, who forgat his father's precepts, Sammael [= Satan] dwelling in him and adhering to him. He likewise ceased to worship the great and good God of his father, serving Satan, and his angels, and his hosts. And he changed in his father's house the words of wisdom which had been in the presence of Hezekiah and the worship of Almighty God (Eth. ). And he turned his heart to serve Berial (Belial). (Now Berial is the angel of iniquity, holding the dominion of this world, whose name is Matanbukus, and he rejoiced over Jerusalem on account of Manasseh, and held him firmly in his perversion and in the impiety which he disseminated in the city. ) Magic likewise was multiplied there; incantation, augury, divination, fornication, adultery, and the persecution of the righteous, by Manasseh, by Balkira, by Tobias the Canaanite, by John of Anathoth, and by Zalik Nevaj. Now when Isaiah, the son of Amos, saw the manifold iniquity which was committed in Jerusalem, the worship of Satan, and the wanton conversation, he fled from the city, and dwelt in Bethlehem of Judæa. But finding that much impiety existed there also, he took up his abode upon a mountain in the wilderness. Then Micah the prophet, and Ananias the aged, and Joel, and Habbakuk, and Josab, his son, and many others who believed in the ascension into heaven, withdrew themselves, and dwelt upon the same mountain. All these were clothed in sackcloth; all were prophets, having nothing with them, naked and destitute; and all lamented with great lamentation the defection of Israel. And they had no food to eat except the wild herbs which they plucked upon the mountain and cooked as they could; and they and Isaiah remained among the hills two whole years. Afterwards, while they continued in the wilderness, there was a certain man in Samaria, named Balkira, of the kindred of Zedekiah, son of Canaan, a false prophet, who dwelt at Bethlehem. Zedekiah, the brother of his father, was he who, in the days of Ahab, king of Israel, was the master of four hundred prophets of Baal, and who smote upon the cheek and reproved Michaiah, the son of Amida. . . . Now Balkira perceived and marked the place where were Isaiah and the prophets with him; for he dwelt at Bethlehem, and was attached to Manasseh. He also prophesied falsehood in Jerusalem, where many consorted with him, though he was a Samaritan. . . . Now Balkira accused Isaiah and the other prophets, saying: Isaiah and his companions prophesy against Jerusalem and against the cities of Judah, saying that they shall be laid waste, and that Benjamin also shall go into captivity, and against thee, O king, that in a cage and in iron chains thou shalt be carried off. They also prophesy falsely against Israel and Judah. Isaiah says: I see more than Moses the prophet saw; Moses asserted, No man can see God and live; but Isaiah says, I have seen God, and, behold, I live. Know, therefore, O king, that these are false prophets. Jerusalem also Isaiah has called Sodom, and the princes of Judah and Jerusalem has he declared to be people of Gomorrah. Thus he constantly accused Isaiah and the prophets before Manasseh. Now Berial dwelt in the heart of Manasseh, as well as in the hearts of the princes of Judah and Benjamin, and of the eunuchs and counsellors of the king. And the accusation of Balkira pleased him exceedingly; and Manasseh sent and apprehended Isaiah. For Berial was very wroth with Isaiah on account of the vision, concerning the advent of Messiah, and sawed him asunder with a wooden saw. Now while they were sawing him, Balkira stood by accusing him, and all the false prophets stood there deriding and triumphing over him. Yea, Balkira and Mekembekus stood before him uttering derision and reproaches. Then Beliar said to Isaiah: Say, I have lied in everything which I have spoken, and the ways of Manasseh are good and right, and good are the ways of Balkira and those who are with him.' This he said to him when they began to saw him. But Isaiah was in a vision of the Lord, with his eyes open, and he beheld them. Then Malkira (i.e. Beliar) thus addressed him: Say that which I tell thee, and I will turn their hearts, and will compel Manasseh, and the princes of Judah, and the people, and all Jerusalem, to reverence thee.' But Isaiah answered and said: If the matter rests with me, cursed art thou in every word that thou speakest, thou, and all thy hosts, and all thy followers; for thou canst not deprive me of more than the skin of my body.' Then they seized Isaiah, the son of Amos, and sawed him asunder with a wooden saw. And Manasseh and Balkira and the false prophets, the princes and the people, all stood looking on. But Isaiah said to the prophets who were with him, before he was cut asunder: Go ye into the country of Tyre and Sidon, for the Lord Almighty hath mixed the cup for me alone.' And neither, while they were sawing him, did he cry out nor weep, but he continued in converse with the Holy Spirit till he was sawn asunder.|

Such, with a few omissions which merely add some particulars concerning persons named, is the original Jewish account of the martyrdom of Isaiah. This, as we have seen, was known to the early Fathers. Round it have gathered various legends and accretions, which the critical acumen of scholars has now separated from the body of the work and assigned to different authorship and later periods. But the simple record itself is founded on Jewish tradition which still exists in Talmudic writings, though there is some variety in details, one story being that the prophet, flying from his enemies, was miraculously hidden by a carob-tree which swallowed him up; and that workmen came and sawed down the tree, when the blood of Isaiah flowed. In this portion of the work there is no trace of a Christian hand; all is unmistakably Jewish, and is filled with Jewish names, Serial, Sammael, Matambukus, Balkira, Malkira, etc.; so that we may regard the section as an independent pamphlet, embodying a very ancient tradition, widely disseminated and largely credited.

The second division of the present book is an account of the Ascension or Vision of Isaiah composed by a Christian Jew, and probably in its original form quite distinct from the treatises with which it was afterwards associated. In the Venetian edition it appears as a complete work, with the title, Visio mirabilis Ysaiæ Prophetæ, etc., and concluding with the words, |Explicit visio Ysaiæ Prophetæ.| It is found in chaps. vi.1-xi.1, 23-40 (Eth.), the gap in chap. xi. between vers.1 and 23, which in the existing Ethiopic is occupied by a Christian interpolation, being supplied by a few words in the Venetian edition, where the interpolation is not inserted. It is separated from the rest of the work in the Abyssinian book by a distinct heading: |The vision which Isaiah, the son of Amos, saw in the twentieth year of the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah.| Herein Isaiah recounts to the king, his own son Josab, and the assembled prophets how that he was rapt in spirit and conducted by an angel through the firmament to the highest heaven, and shown first all the mysteries of the six lower spheres, and at last those of the seventh heaven, as well as Christ's future advent on the earth; His descent into hell; His return and glorious Ascension through each of the seven heavens in reward of the redemption which He won. Of this narrative the following particulars will give some idea. While Isaiah was conversing with Hezekiah on the subject of righteousness and faith, all those who were gathered there heard the door of the chamber opened and the voice of the Spirit, and they all fell down and worshipped the glorious God. And Isaiah held converse with the Holy Spirit: his soul was rapt in ecstasy; he no longer saw the men who were before him; his eyes were open, his mouth silent, yet he continued to breathe; and he beheld a vision which was shown to him by an angel sent from the highest heaven, whose glory and office were inexpressibly great, but his name was concealed. First, he was taken to the firmament where Sammael and his powers reigned, and were at continual strife with one another, even as the battle is always raging on earth, and will continue till He that is coming shall appear and put an end to it. Thence he mounts to the first heaven, where he sees a throne in the midst, and angels on the right hand and on the left glorifying One whom he saw not; but those on the right were more splendid and more perfect than the others. In the second heaven the same scene, only more magnificent, is beheld; and the prophet falls down to worship, but is checked by the angel, who bids him reserve his adoration till he reaches the seventh heaven. (Comp. Rev. xxii.8, 9.) |For,| he says, |above all the heavens and their angels thy throne is set, and thy clothing and thy crown which thou thyself shalt behold.| The third heaven, whither Isaiah was next conducted, was notable for there being no mention there of what goes on in this world, though all is perfectly known. The fourth heaven was reached, and the glory of the angels and of Him that sat on the throne was still greater than before, the distinction between those on the right and left hands being still maintained. The same effects still more intensified were found in the fifth heaven. But the sixth heaven was more glorious than any which he had seen, so that he deemed the brilliancy of the five lower spheres mere darkness in comparison with this. Here was no throne, and all the attendant angels were equal in splendour, the difference between the sides existing no longer; and all invoked with one voice the First, the Father, and His Beloved, and the Holy Spirit. At this stage of his ascension, Isaiah received a dim intimation of the fate that awaited him -- viz. that he should participate in the lot of the Lord, a tree being concerned in the future of both (i.e. the wooden saw and the cross). It was further said to him: |When from an alien body by the angel of the Spirit thou hast ascended hither, then thou shalt receive the clothing which thou shalt behold, and other numbered, laid-up clothings shalt thou see; and then thou shalt be equal to the angels in the seventh heaven.| Hearing this, the prophet entreats that he may never again return to earth, but is told that his time is not yet accomplished, Then, lastly, he is raised to the æther of the seventh heaven. And the angel who dwells above the splendour of the sixth heaven would fain have prohibited his ascent; but the Lord, whose name he cannot know while in the body, bade him come up, for his clothing was there. Arrived there, he saw a marvellous light and angels innumerable; he saw also all the saints from Adam, Abel, and Enoch, not clothed upon with flesh, but vested in their heavenly clothing, yet not seated on thrones or decorated with crowns, for these latter glories they should not attain to until the Beloved has descended into the world in the form of man. But the prince of this world will lay his hand on the Son of God, and hang Him on a tree, and slay Him, not knowing who He is; and His descent to the earth shall be concealed also from the heavens. Then he shall descend into hell and make havoc there, and, having escaped from the angel of death, on the third day He shall rise, and shall continue in the world five hundred and forty-five days; and He shall ascend into the seventh heaven, and many of the saints shall ascend with Him, and then at length they shall receive their clothing, and thrones, and crowns. Then Isaiah is shown books in which were contained all the history of Israel: and everything that is done upon earth is known in this region. He is bidden worship One standing, whose glory was great and wonderful, and whom all the saints adored, but who was transformed into the likeness of an angel before Isaiah worshipped Him; and also another glorious being on the left of the other, who, he was told, was the angel of the Holy Spirit who speaks in the saints and prophets. The great glory that was next revealed blinded him, and neither he nor the angels could look thereon; only the saints were enabled to behold it. |Then,| it is added, |I saw that my Lord worshipped, and the angel of the Holy Spirit, and both together glorified God Almighty.| He to whom all the worship in heaven and earth is addressed, is the Highest, |the Father of my Lord;| and He sends forth the Lord Christ into the earth, even unto the infernal regions, and no one, not even the angels of the lower heavens, know who or what He is, as He assimilates His form to that of the inhabitants of the various regions through which He passes, till the time come when judgment shall be executed on the evil principalities and powers, and He shall ascend with great glory and sit at the right hand of God. Then He is recognised, and all the saints and angels adore Him, while He sits at the right hand of the great Glory, and the angel of the Holy Spirit is seated on the left hand. Having seen and heard these things, Isaiah is dismissed, and his spirit returns to earth to wait till the time of his martyrdom is fulfilled. It is far from improbable that the author of this section was acquainted with the Revelation of St. John, if we may judge from the language and images which he employs, though unhappily his loose and unqualified expressions bore a very different meaning to Arians and other heretics.

Such is the second portion of our book, which, together with the first part containing the martyrdom, is combined into one volume by additions in the form of prelude and epilogue, which may be called the third part, and which is comprised in chap. i. (excepting vers.3 and 4a) and the two final verses of chap. xi. This part merely repeats the information, that Hezekiah in the twenty-sixth year of his reign delivered to Manasseh, in the presence of Isaiah and Josab, the visions which had been imparted to himself and the prophet, and impressed upon him certain warnings and instructions; all of which Manasseh soon forgot and disobeyed; and Isaiah predicted his own death at the command of Manasseh. These brief details are amplified by some rabbinical and Christian fictions. The tractate thus arranged has been at various times increased and decorated by many additions and supplements, the work of Christian hands, so that what Dillmann terms Part IV. contains a large amount of the present text -- viz. chaps, iii.13-v.1, xi.2-22, 41, i.3, 4a, v.15, 16. Of the first part of this section, viz. chaps, iii.13-v.1, there is, as we have said, no trace in the Greek legend lately published, which certainly contains extracts from the other three divisions of the work, and hence we may conclude that it was a separate tractate not at first connected with our book. In this fourth section we have not only an account of Manasseh's crime, but also an apocalypse of Christ's life upon earth, and the fate of the Christian Church between the Lord's ascension into heaven and His return to judgment. We may note a few points worthy of observation in this section. The rancour of Berial against Isaiah is here stated to be caused by the prophet's vision and denunciation of Sammael, and revelation respecting the coming of the Beloved, and the doings of His twelve followers. Christ's sepulchre is opened on the third day by the angel of the Christian Church which is in heaven, and the angel of the Holy Spirit, and the archangel Michael. The term |angel of the Spirit| occurs, as we have seen, elsewhere in our book (cf. xi.4), and is supposed by Dillmann to be used, because in the later writings of the Old Testament an angel is represented as discharging the prophetical office of the Spirit, e.g. in Zechariah, where the visions are unfolded by the angel that talked with him. Thus in the Pastor of Hermas we read of |the angel of the prophetical spirit,| and in the Apocalypse of Baruch there is mention of |Ramiel who presides over the visions of truth.| And by a loose kind of terminology all the inhabitants of heaven, save God the Father, are called angels; even as Origen speaks of |the two seraphim with six wings, the only-begotten Son of God, and the Holy Ghost.| In this portion of the book Isaiah foretells the existence of great disputes respecting the second coming of Christ, many on this subject forsaking the doctrine of the apostles, a fact which we know also from St. Peter's own words and from expressions of others, e.g. Clemens Romanus. There shall be multitudes of iniquitous |elders and pastors, oppressors of their flocks,' and but few prophets or teachers of assured truths, on account of the worldliness and vice which shall prevail. Before the end Antichrist will come, Berial, the prince of this world. Here we have an enunciation of the curious myth concerning Nero which is found in the Sibylline Oracles. According to this opinion, Berial descends from the firmament in the form of this impious monarch, |the matricide;| in his hand are all the powers of this world and the material forces of nature, and he shall use them to draw men unto him, and create a very wide Apostasy, so that numbers believe in him and serve him, and own him as God. This evil dominion lasts for three years, seven months, and twenty-seven days, the duration here specified being a little longer than the forty-two months of canonical Scripture; but the writer has arranged the 1335 days named at the end of Daniel's prophecy according to the Julian computation. It is interesting to note this quasi-solution of the |Beast| of St. John's Revelation (xiii.17, 18). Jolowicz reckons that, taking the death of Nero as happening June 9, A.D.68, the reign of Berial would begin October 29, A.D.64. At the close of this reign, |after 332 days| the Lord shall come from the seventh heaven with all His angels and saints, and shall cast Berial and his companions into Gehenna; and the resurrection shall then take place, and the final judgment. To the holy who shall be found on earth rest (anesis, 2 Thess. i.7) shall be given, and they shall be clothed with heavenly garments, and associated with the saints who descend with the Lord, and they shall leave their bodies in the world. There is no mention here, or elsewhere, of any millennial opinions, nor is Christ expected to reign on earth. He comes to judge and to |consume all the ungodly, who shall be as if they had never been created.| There are two or three other points in this section worthy of attention. The last portion (xi.2-22) is occupied with the life of Christ on earth, wherein can be recognised some of the additions contained in the spurious Gospels. To induce Joseph not to put away Mary, |the angel of the Spirit appears in the world;| Joseph does not approach her, but guards her as a holy virgin; after two more months the pair were alone in the house together, |and while Mary was gazing on the ground she suddenly perceived with astonishment an infant lying before her, and found that she had been delivered of a child.| Joseph, observing what had come to pass, |glorified God because the Lord had come to His inheritance.| He is warned to tell the occurrence to no one, lest the Divine nature of the child should be divulged. But reports were circulated in Bethlehem, some saying that the Virgin Mary was confined before she had been two months married; others affirming that she did not bring forth at all; for |all knew about Him, but knew not whence He was;| and He |was concealed from all the heavens, and the principalities, and the gods of this world.| This last assertion is found in many passages of the Fathers, and notably in the Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians (xix.), where it is said that the prince of this world comprehended neither the virginity of Mary, nor her bearing of the child, nor the death of the Lord. Christ's descent into hell is plainly affirmed, the expression being in one place (xi.19), |He descended to the angel| (i.e. of death), and in another (iv.21), |the descent of the Beloved to the infernal regions.| The old Latin of ix.15 adds particulars not in the Ethiopic version: |He shall descend into hell, and make it desolate and all its visions, and shall seize the prince of death, and shall make him His prey, and confound all his powers.| And in an earlier passage (x.8) a distinction is drawn between hell (inferi) and the abyss of perdition (abaddon); the latter region Christ does not enter. It is |the pit of the abyss| of St. John (Rev. ix.1, etc.). Isaiah adds that this event in the life of the Beloved is written in the section of his prophecy where the Lord says, |Behold my servant shall understand.| This can refer only to chap. lii.13, where we read: |Behold, my servant shall do wisely,| which is the introduction to the famous Messianic chapter liii. The following paragraph is remarkable: |All these things are written in Psalms: in the Parables of David the son of Jesse, and in the Proverbs of Solomon his son, and in the words of Kore, and Ethan the Israelite, and in the words of Asaph, and in the rest of the Psalms, which the angel of the Spirit has inspired; also in the words of those whose name is not inscribed, and in the words of Amos, my father,| and of the other eleven minor prophets, |and in the words of righteous Joseph and Daniel.| Here, we may note, |Psalms| is a general title, including what follows; |Parables| would be applied to the didactic poems in the Psalter, called Maschil in the titles. The composite authorship of the Psalter is acknowledged, the songs of the sons of Korah being distinguished from those of Ethan and Asaph. Ethan is called |Israelite| by the LXX. (Ps. lxxxviii.1), where the Hebrew gives |Ezra-hite.| It is strange that neither Jeremiah nor Ezekiel are mentioned; but Nitzsch gives a parallel from the Second Book of Esdras i.39, 40, where the twelve minor prophets are enumerated, and none of the four greater ones. The confusion between Amos the prophet and Amoz the father of Isaiah is not peculiar to our author; even the great Clemens Alexandrinus fell into the same error, owing to ignorance of Hebrew. What is to be understood by |the words of Joseph| is a disputed question. Dillmann conjectures that the expression refers to a pseudepigraphal work mentioned by Fabricius, and entitled The Prayer of Joseph, though it is not clear why this spurious book should be alone named among the canonical writings specified.

Having thus briefly examined the contents of the whole work, we are in a position to consider its origin and date.

That the book was written originally in the Greek language might be presupposed from the ascertained source of analogous works which have been found in Abyssinia; the presumption is confirmed by internal evidence. We are often confronted with expressions which are plainly derived from, or are clumsy or erroneous renderings of, Greek terms. Thus an angel is sent expressly from the seventh heaven to make a revelation to the prophet; but in vii.21 we read: |Worship not the throne of him who is of the sixth heaven, from whence I have been sent to conduct thee, . . . worship in the seventh heaven;| where the translator has been misled by the hothen, which here means |wherefore.| The Venetian edition gives |propter hoc.| Again, what is evidently di autou in the original (iii.13) is translated |on account of him,| instead of |by means of him.| |He who rests in the saints| is ho e9n hagiois anapauomenos (vi.8); in vii.9 the translator has confused homilia with homilos, and given |speeches| instead of |assemblies;| |I preserve thee,| xi.34, is a mistaken version of apallasso se, |I dismiss thee;| iii.26, 28: |there shall be calumnies and calumniators many,| |the spirit of empty honour (kenodoxias) and of love of money| (philargurias); |the pious worshippers,| tois eusebesi; |Him of the great glory,| ton tes megales doxes. Joseph |came unto her (Mary's) portion| (merida), i.e.she was allotted to him as wife; where Dillmann compares the expression in Protevang. Jacobi, viii.: su keklerosai ten parthenon Kuriou paralabein. There are many tokens of the use of the Greek version of the Old Testament. Thus we read, iv.19: |the remainder of the vision is written in the vision of Babylon.| The reference is to Isa. xiii.1, where the Hebrew has |the burden of Babylon,| but the Septuagint, |the vision which Isaiah saw against Babylon.| Again, Isa. lii.13 is quoted (Ascens. iv.21) thus: |Behold, my son shall understand,| which is in accordance with the Greek, while the Hebrew gives, |My servant shall deal wisely.| The Latin Vulgate, the Sibylline Oracles, and the Apostolical Constitutions agree here with the Greek and the Ascension. In calling Ethan |the Israelite,| our book, as we have seen, reproduces the error of the Septuagint. Zedekiah, son of Chenaanah (1 Kings xxii.11) is called (Ascens. ii.12) |son of Canaan,| which is the appellation given him by the LXX. In chap. iii.2, it is stated that Shalmaneser carried away nine of the tribes captive to Media, |and the rivers of Tazon;| the Hebrew has |Gozan,| but some MSS. of the Septuagint show |Tazan,| 2 Kings xvii.6 and xviii.11. There is evidence that the old Latin versions were rendered from the Greek; thus where the Ethiopia gives |will destroy| as the translation of a certain word (vii.12), one Latin version gives |interficiet,| another |emundabit,| which variety could arise only from the original verb being katharei or kathairesei. The presumption that the Abyssinian version was made from a Greek original is thus greatly confirmed. Indeed, throughout, so closely is the Greek followed that Dillmann avows that it would be an easy task to retranslate the Abyssinian into the very wording of the original. That the present version was made in the earliest days of the Abyssinian Church is considered to be demonstrated by its agreement in diction with other similar works composed under the same circumstances, by the occasional introduction of unusual or obsolete words, and by the uncertainty of the orthography which appertains to all primitive Ethiopic literature. But how it came to be thus honoured and preserved is a question not yet satisfactorily solved. Probably, as the |vision| was considered to support certain Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic opinions, it obtained currency in Egypt where such tenets prevailed, and the other sections were usually combined with it in one volume. Certainly Origen and Tertullian were acquainted only with the |martyrdom| proper, without any of the additions and interpolations afterwards added to it.

The section containing the martyrdom is doubtless of purely Jewish origin, and of earlier date than the rest of the work. It is simply a legendary narrative, invented, or compiled from tradition, in order to glorify the prophet, and containing nothing apocalyptic. The author, or authors, of the remainder were Jewish Christians, well versed in Hebrew lore and the legends which rabbinical literature had accumulated. The opinion that the heavens are seven in number is found in the Talmud, and in such works as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; the name Sammael, for Satan, is a rabbinical term not occurring in Scripture; the notion of the clothing of souls being stored up in heaven in readiness for assumption at the proper moment is one that appears in Talmudic writings. From such considerations we may conclude what were the religion and nationality of the writer. The vision is founded on the fact that Isaiah is represented in Scripture as having seen the Lord. This, of course, was felt to be impossible in the ordinary sense of the words. The vision must be vouchsafed under supernatural conditions; hence the prophet is raised to an ecstatic state; his soul is separated from its earthly tenement, and is exalted to the highest heaven. Accordingly, the work which records this rapture is properly named Anabatikon, Ascensio, as well as horasis, visio. We find a similar double appellation applied to the Revelation of St. John, which in the early Christian centuries was also known as Anabatikon. There is no similar trance recorded in the Old Testament; for an analogous transaction we must refer to the scene where the beloved apostle |became in the spirit on the Lord's day,| or where St. Paul was caught up even to the third heaven, and carried into Paradise on another occasion, whether in the body or out of the body he knew not, and heard unspeakable words. Both in St. Paul's case actually, and in that of Isaiah supposedly, the vision was granted in order to strengthen the recipients for the trials that awaited them, and to teach that all things are foreknown and foreordained, and that the troubles of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed.

As regards the date of this production, we see that its various parts belong to different ages and authors. The first section narrates an ancient Jewish tradition; but there is nothing found therein to afford any indication of its age. If, as we have seen to be probable, it was known to Justin Martyr, it was composed at least towards the beginning of the second Christian century. It is, however, probably very much earlier, and may be regarded as pre-Christian, as it contains not the remotest allusion to any but Jewish matters. But the ascension or vision contains many suggestions which would assign it to a period immediately succeeding the apostolic period, at any rate not later than the first ten years of the second century. One recognises a compilation of ideas gathered from the New Testament, and not yet reduced to a formal system or any authoritative statement. The spirit testified in old time the sufferings of Christ, which were not revealed unto the angels; the Lord comes down from heaven; ascends far above all heavens and principalities and powers, having overcome all enemies; the beatitude of the saints of the old covenant is not perfected till the Redeemer has triumphed; the glory of the righteous exceeds that of the angels. Such facts as these, based on Holy Scripture, are overladen or interspersed with notions very alien from the simplicity and purity of apostolic doctrine, and indicating the taint of Hebrew and Gnostic error; but it is Gnosticism in its early stage, as existing among the Essenes and Jewish sects, and recognised in some of the books of the New Testament. This section shows traces of having been edited and glossed by a Christian of unorthodox sentiments, who held the malignity of matter, and many of Origen's opinions, and likewise views concerning Christ which Arians found agreeable to their minds. Of the doctrine of Aeons and Emanations there seems to be no trace. The opinion touching the seven heavens was current among the Jews before Christian times, and is found in many apocryphal works as well as in the Talmud. The Homoousian controversy is unknown to the writer of the Ascension, who introduces statements which a later age justly branded with heresy. Thus he makes (ix.37-40) the Son inferior to the Father; and although he calls Him the Beloved, and Lord of all the heavens and thrones, whose voice alone they obey, he represents the Father as worshipped in heaven by Him and the Holy Ghost. It is true that They are supposed to have assumed the appearance and attitudes of angels when They pay this worship, but no one who held the Nicene faith would have made such a statement, which is evidently anterior to the closer definition of a later age. The assertion that Christ remained on the earth between His resurrection and ascension for one and a half years, or 545 days (ix.16), was a very early error, known, as I have already mentioned, to Irenæus, and therefore extant in the second century. Indeed, in the earliest times the tradition of the Great Forty Days which afterwards obtained seems not to have been universally held. St. Luke, in his Gospel, apparently joins the Ascension on to the resurrection, though in the Acts he speaks of Christ being seen at intervals during forty days; none of the other evangelists mentions the length of His earthly sojourn in this interval. In the Epistle of Barnabas (chap. xv.), that Father omits all mention of any space of time intervening between Easter Sunday and the ascension; Bede reckons forty-three days; so that opinion on this matter fluctuated, and had not arrived at a general conclusion in the primitive age. Another mark of high antiquity is found in the address to God (vi.8, x.6), |the God of righteousness, higher than the highest, that dwelleth in the saints,| which recalls the expressions in the apostolical Father, Clemens Romanus (Ep. ad Cor. lix.3). The occasional allusions to the Parousia of Christ denote a primitive time. The question, as we know from references in the New Testament, was largely debated in apostolic days, but ceased to have like interest in succeeding ages. In our author's view the Second Advent was close at hand, and there is in the work no trace of the early opinion being corrected by later circumstances or events. Again, the writer knows of only one persecution which takes place before the final judgment; and this can be none other than that which was organised by Nero; for he could not have omitted that under Domitian had he lived after that tyrant; and we have seen above that he plainly adumbrated Nero, when he prophesied of the coming of Berial under the form of an impious king. And as he assigned the end of the world and the day of judgment to less than a year after this event, it is reasonable to conclude that this part of the treatise was composed at the beginning of A.D.69. This inference, of course, proceeds on the assumption that the writer wishes his calculations to be understood literally; if his allusions and statements are to be regarded as ideal, emblematical, visionary, no definition of time can be assigned to them, but the references to events which they contain indicate the age of the author.

The apocalyptic section is of much the same antiquity. The corruptions of doctrine and practice spoken of in chap. iii., the disputes about the Second Advent, the vice and greed of the pastors who spared not their own flocks, the worldliness and immorality of professors of Christianity, the envy and hatred even among the teachers of religion -- such errors and declensions are noticed both in the New Testament and in the writings of the earliest Fathers, such as Hermas. The organisation of the Church was evidently still in its infancy; the rulers are called presbyters and pastors, and the title episcopus nowhere appears; whereas in the Didache both episcopus and diaconus are found. Prophecy is not yet silenced, though greatly diminished, being confined to a few localities and persons. It is mentioned, we may remark, as extant in Hermas's days, and rules are given in the Pastor for distinguishing the real from the false pretender to inspiration; and we meet with analogous statements in the Didache. These and such like hints indicate a primitive origin, and could not have been afforded by an age greatly exceeding the first Christian century. It is solely from internal evidence that we gather the date of this portion of the work, as none of the Fathers or early writers make any reference to it. Offering no special support of catholic dogma, -- or rather containing some very questionable statements and expressions, -- it was naturally disregarded and discountenanced by orthodox believers; and, indeed, the whole work was brought into public notice only for polemical purposes, first by Gnostic controversialists, and afterwards by Arians, and it was from a collection of the writings of these latter heretics that the old Latin versions were obtained.

From what has been said we may reasonably conclude that the purely Jewish section of our book was composed just before or in the first Christian century; that the second portion, containing the |Ascension| or |Vision,| is not of later date than the first ten years of the second century, after which it was known to various heretics, and used by them to confirm their erroneous opinions. The third and fourth parts are of somewhat later date, added probably towards the last half of the second century. The work continued known unto the fifth century, when it almost disappeared from notice, till rediscovered in the manner mentioned above, unless we may infer that it always formed part of the Abyssinian canon, and bad never fallen out of use in the Church of that country, which, as we know, retained much of Hebrew ceremonial and sentiment.

Unlike some of the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books, the |Ascension| was never admitted to the catholic canon of Scripture. Opinion for some ages fluctuated as to the admissibility of the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Judith, Tobit, etc. Some Conciliar and some private catalogues allowed their claim without hesitation; others admitted them only to a secondary position; but none assigned a first or even a second place to the |Ascension:| if it ever occurs in any of the lists it is mentioned as certainly apocryphal, and entitled to no respect as inspired. If, then, it be asked wherein lies its interest for us, we reply that it is a standing witness of the care taken in the early Church to confine the books of Scripture, in the highest sense, to those whose inspiration was approved by sufficient testimony. Shall we not say rather that the Holy Spirit guided the councils and authorities of the Church in their final arrangement of the canon, and that the rejection of such works as that which we have been considering was divinely ordered? In point of antiquity, indeed, parts of it might probably compete with portions of the New Testament, but weighed in the scale with undisputed Scriptures, and tried by the standard of Catholic doctrine, it failed to stand the necessary test, and was deservedly rejected.

It is interesting also for another reason. It affords a new example of that literature which, as we have said, has been called Pseudepigraphic, from the fact that the author writes under a false name, not so much with any intention of deceiving his readers, but with the view of obtaining a hearing for his own feelings and opinions.

And, lastly, as we have seen in the sketch which we have given, the book is capable of conveying valuable hints concerning the history of the early Church, and the heresies then coming into existence; and is a noteworthy contribution to that apocalyptic literature which prevailed so greatly in the centuries immediately preceding and succeeding the advent of Christ, and which even now for many minds possesses an absorbing interest.

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