Was the Ascension of Isaiah a Middle-Platonist document?

[April 4, 2009]

Somebody wrote in :

Is the Ascension of Isaiah a MP document? I don't think so since many NT scholars don't even regard it as docetist anymore. But is just the whole layered universe thing. Although, I suppose it doesn't really present any kind of MP cosmology. Allowing Isaiah to ascend like that and all.

I wrote back

Here's the data, but I should also point out that

  1. the Asc-Isaiah has a seven-layer heaven, instead of the two/three in MP… (and the three in Paul).

  2. Belier is Nero (in the traditional understanding of the text)…

  3. Christ starts at the HIGHEST heaven (too high for MP) and descends to the ‘firmament’ (MP sub-lunar?) in 10:29-31, and THEN is incarnated in the baby Jesus---fully human flesh etc—in Chapter 11).

  4. It is never mentioned in any of the technical literature on MP (e.g. Dillon) as being in that category of literature.


OK, the data:

1. It is said to come from the tradition of Jewish and Christian Apocalyse. –which has the ascent literature in it… like this description of Apoc. Of Abraham:

God now grants Abraham a series of visions, which God interprets. From the highest heaven Abraham looks down on the seventh, sixth, and fifth heavens, which are inhabited by various classes of angels (Apoc. Abr. 19). Abraham’s vision of the “powers of the stars” in the fifth heaven leads to God’s command that he count them and to the promise that Abraham’s innumerable descendants will be God’s chosen people (chap. 20; cf. Gen 15:5*). God’s reference to Azazel’s presence in the world causes the patriarch to inquire about the problem of evil.” [Nickelsburg, G. W. E. (2005). Jewish literature between the Bible and the Mishnah : A literary and historical introduction. "with CD-ROM". (2nd ed.) (286). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.]

Though this work has sometimes been treated as a Christian redaction of pre-Christian Jewish sources, it should probably be seen as an originally Christian apocalypse, employing some Jewish traditions about the martyrdom of the prophet Isaiah but largely inspired by the strong early Christian tradition of interpreting the prophecies of Isaiah as prophetic of Jesus Christ. Like the book of Daniel and some other Jewish apocalypses, it comprises a largely narrative section (Asc. Isa. 1–5) and a largely visionary section (Asc. Isa. 6–11). These contain two complementary accounts of Isaiah’s vision. The first (Asc. Isa. 3:13–4:18) takes the form of a prophecy of events from the incarnation of Christ (known in this work as “the Beloved”) to the Parousia and the end of history. The second narrates Isaiah’s visionary ascent through the seven heavens to the throne of God, where he sees in prophetic vision the descent of the Beloved from the seventh heaven to earth, his incarnation, life, death and descent to Hades, followed by his reascent through the heavens to enthronement at God’s right hand. The Jewish apocalyptic idea of a visionary’s ascent through the seven heavens to receive revelation from God in the highest heaven is thus adapted to a Christian purpose.” [Martin, R. P., & Davids, P. H. (2000, c1997). Dictionary of the later New Testament and its developments (electronic ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.]


2. Jesus, before His descent, originates in the HIGHEST heaven (unlike a daemon):

The Ascension of Isaiah (6–11) is also an account of what the prophet saw while in a visionary trance, but there is no indication that it is by the same hand responsible for 3:13–5:1. In contrast to the prophecies found in the canonical book of Isaiah, the writer states explicitly “the vision which he saw was not of this world, but from the world which is hidden from all flesh” (6:15). The unique character of the revelation is stressed by the repeated statement that the vision granted to the seer had never before been given to a man (8:11f; 11:34). Isaiah is conducted by an angel from the seventh heaven on a journey that takes him through the firmament, which serves as the realm of the fallen angels (7:9–12; 10:29–31), to an experience of ascent through successive realms of the heavenly spheres. What he sees and hears in each of the heavens is a chorus of angels engaged in the praise of God. What he experiences is an increasing awareness of glory, so that the prophet himself becomes transformed as he ascends from one realm to the next (7:25). His destination is the seventh heaven where he beholds the ineffable glory of “the Lord of all those heavens” and is privileged to see the mystery of the Son of God laying aside His glory progressively as He descends through the seven heavens and the firmament in the course of the incarnation (8:9f; 10:7ff). In the sixth heaven (8:16–22) and in the seventh (9:28–30, 33) Isaiah himself had joined in the chorus of praise-songs addressed to the Lord, but as the Son of God descends, unrecognized, through the realms of heaven to the earth he can only reflect in awe. The account follows Jesus’ life from His birth to His ascension, in capsule fashion, until He ascends through each of the heavens and sits down on the right hand of the ineffable glory of the Father (11:2–33). The vision is brought to an end on the note of assurance that all of this will occur “in the last generation” (11:37f).

This Apocryphon is interesting because it indicates two kinds of reflection that some Christians were bringing to biblical statements. One such statement is Jn. 12:41, “Isaiah … saw his glory and spoke of him.” Throughout the account there is repeated emphasis upon the quality of glory associated with each of the realms of heaven, the glory of the Son eclipsing that of all the realms. Even the Son, who is designated “the Lord of all glory” (cf. 2 Cor. 2:8) engages in the worship of the Father, whom Isaiah describes as “the glorious One whose glory I could not see” (10:2). The striving after a conceptualization of the glory of the Lord appears to account for this dominant note in the Apocalypse. But a second kind of reflection is also evident here: What was involved in the incarnation of the Lord who possessed such glory?; How could Christ Jesus, who was in the form of God, lay aside His robes of glory and assume human form (cf. Phil. 2:6–8)? It is in response to such questions that the Ascension of Isaiah makes its boldest suggestion. The Son descended from the seventh heaven through each of the heavenly realms, and from the fifth heaven downward He was unrecognized because His appearance became like that of those who inhabited that realm. Isaiah had observed an increasing gradation of glory as he travelled from the first to the seventh heaven; the Son divested Himself by degrees of the glory He possessed with the Father (cf. Jn. 17:5, 24) as He made His way to the earth, until finally He bore the image and likeness of man (8:9f). Behind the expression of the text can be detected an earnest searching after understanding by segments of the Church as men reflected upon the Incarnation in the light of such texts as Jn. 12:41 or 17:5, 24. This document may have originated in the 2nd or 3rd cent a.d. 

[both from Bromiley, G. W. (1988; 2002). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (1:174-175). Wm. B. Eerdmans.]


3. ASCENT literature predates MP, of course, reaching even back to the earliest parts of 1 Enoch:

This type of ascent involves a “round trip” from earth to heaven and back again, or some visionary experience of the heavenly court from which one returns to normal experience (ascent/descent). In contrast to the previous type, the journey or experience is appraised most positively. The earth, not heaven, is still understood as the proper human place, so that the ascent remains a “visit,” though not an intrusion, into the divine realm. ...The complex literary traditions surrounding the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai, now found in Exodus 24, though not explicitly referring to a journey to heaven, are closely related to this category. Moses (or alternatively Moses, Aaron, and the seventy elders), in ascending the mountain, enter the presence of God, the realm of the divine. He is given revelation in the form of heavenly tablets, then descends back to the mortal realm. Though he is not explicitly deified or enthroned, he becomes a semi-divine figure, eating and drinking in the divine presence and returning from the mountain with his face transformed like an immortal (Exod 24:11; 34:29–30). In later interpretation this was understood as full deification (see Philo, vita Mos 2.290–91; virt. 73–75; Ezekiel the Tragedian 668–82). The prophetic call of Isaiah is a further example of this same pattern (Isa 6:1–3). Since there is no specific reference to Isaiah being “taken up,” this is a “visionary ascent,” though the distinction between the two types is not always clear (see 2 Cor 12:2–4). He sees “The LORD sitting on a throne, high and lifted up . . .” (v 1). He is then given a message with a corresponding prophetic commission. As a mortal, he is out of place in the divine realm; he cries out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v 5). The throne visions of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1, 10) should be compared here, as well as the scene before the throne of the “Ancient of Days” in Dan 7:14 where a “son of man” is given cosmic rulership over all nations. Micaiah’s vision of the heavenly court also belongs under this category (1 Kgs 22:19–23). In all these texts the ascent or vision of the heavenly throne serves as a way of claiming the highest and most direct heavenly authority for the message. Such experiences are clearly evaluated as more noteworthy than the epiphany of an angelic messenger or receipt of a prophetic “word of the LORD.” … Widengren (1950) has traced this motif of royal or prophetic enthronement (ascent, initiation into heavenly secrets, receipt of a divine commission) into later Jewish traditions involving kingship, prophetic commissions, and the revelation of secret heavenly lore. This understanding of ascent dominates one of the oldest sections of 1 Enoch, the Book of the Watchers (chaps. 1–36). The legendary figure Enoch is taken through the heavenly realms and shown cosmic secrets, even appearing before God’s lofty throne. The Greek version of the Testament of Levi (2d century b.c.e.) draws upon the ascent motif in a similar way, as does the Latin Life of Adam and Eve (1st century c.e.) and the Apocalypse of Abraham. In each of these texts the ascent to heaven functions as a vehicle of revelation, offering divine authority to the cosmological and eschatological lore the authors were expounding. … The closest non-Jewish, or Greek, parallel to this notion of ascent is probably Parmenides’ prooemium, which survives in only a few fragments (Taran 1965). He tells of being taken in a chariot through the gate leading to daylight, where he is received and addressed by a goddess. On the whole, for Greeks in the archaic period, revelations came through epiphanies, oracles, dreams, omens, and signs of various sorts, not by being taken before the throne of Zeus. The fair number of Jewish (and Jewish-Christian) texts which make use of the ascent to heaven motif as a means of legitimating rival claims of revelation and authority is likely due to the polemics and party politics that characterized the Second Temple period. It became a characteristic way, in the Hellenistic period, of claiming “archaic” authority of the highest order, equal to a Enoch or Moses, for one’s vision of things.” [Freedman, D. N. (1996, c1992). The Anchor Bible Dictionary (3:92). New York: Doubleday.]

Just not very MP-ish at all…

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