dianoigo blog

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Christadelphian apologetics, modern scholarship, and the historicist interpretation of Revelation

The appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship in Christadelphian apologetics
Modern scholarship and the historicist view of Revelation
Response in Christadelphian apologetics

The purpose of this article is to point out an inconsistency in recent Christadelphian apologetics, namely the tendency to appeal to mainstream biblical scholarship to 'confirm' the validity of Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions, but to dismiss or even ignore mainstream biblical scholarship where its conclusions contradict Christadelphian exegetical and theological positions. This seems to be a straightforward case of confirmation bias, 'in which people selectively attend to evidence that supports their conclusion and overlook contrary evidence.'1

In some Christadelphian circles, modern critical scholarship of the Bible is being pressed into service as a tool for apologetics. This seems to be particularly characteristic of the work of Jonathan and Dave Burke, two of the foremost Christadelphian apologists. Jonathan Burke has devoted a ten-part series of blog posts to advocating the use of 'scholarly literature' in Christadelphian biblical interpretation and apologetics. Here, Burke claims that his proposal is nothing new: 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

Moreover, the Christadelphian apologetics periodical Defence and Confirmation, for which both Burkes serve as editors, recently devoted an entire issue to discussing how modern, mainstream scholarship has, over the last century, 'increasingly supported the Christadelphian view on most of our doctrines'. The issue contains articles highlighting support in modern scholarship for Christadelphian beliefs in five areas: Jesus' self-understanding, baptism, the immortality of the soul, the atonement, and Satan/demons. These appeals to modern scholarship are problematic for several reasons,2 but my purpose here is simply to note the form of the argument.

If increasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint leads to increasing confidence in this position, to what does decreasing scholarly support for a Christadelphian viewpoint lead? We will revisit this question after demonstrating its relevance using a case in point.

Christadelphians have traditionally held to the continuous historical or historicist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which interprets the visions from chapter 4 onward as a long-term forecast of world history from the end of the first century through the present and into the eschatological future. This view was introduced to the Christadelphians by Dr. John Thomas (1805-71), the movement's founder, whose magnum opus was Eureka: An Exposition of the Apocalypse, a three-volume work written toward the end of his life. Dr. Thomas appears to have regarded the historicist interpretation of Revelation as virtually an article of faith. A Statement of Faith provided by Dr. Thomas to the editor of a magazine in 1869 included the following among the propositions that Christadelphians 'from the very first most surely believed and [which have been] taught by their recognized scribes and their literature':
19. They regard the Roman church as “the Mother of Harlots;” and the papal dynasty as “the name of blasphemy,” seated on the seven heads of Rome (Rev. xiii. 1; xvii. 9,) and the paramour of the Old Mother. They hold, also, that their harlot-daughters answer to the state churches of Anti-Christendom; and the “abominations of the earth,” to all the dissenting names and denominations, aggregately styled “names of blasphemy,” of which the European body politic, symbolized by the eight-headed scarlet-coloured beast, is said to be “full.” – (Rev. xvii. 3.) 
24. They teach we are living in the period of the sixth vial, in which Christ appears upon the theatre of mundane events; and that the two great leading and notable signs of the times are the drying-up up of the Ottoman Power, and the imperial French Frog Power in its political operations in Rome, Vienna, and Constantinople, during the past twenty-one years. – (Rev xvi. 12, 16)3
It seems Dr. Thomas took it for granted that all Christadelphians agreed with these interpretations of apocalyptic symbols. However, the Birmingham Statement of Faith authored by Robert Roberts after Dr. Thomas' death in 1871 omitted any explicit reference to symbols from Revelation, presumably reflecting a view that these did not form part of the core doctrines of the 'One Faith' necessary for fellowship. Consequently, the continuous historical view of Revelation has never been enforced as a boundary marker for Christadelphian fellowship (with the exception of certain ultra-conservative ecclesias.)4

Nevertheless, while not enforced as a matter of fellowship, the continuous historical view has dominated Christadelphian interpretation of Revelation. Jonathan Burke helpfully provides a table summarizing interpretations of Revelation through history. Among the Christadelphian expositors listed there are 48 historicists (49 if we count Burke himself), three futurists, one 'partial futurist', one preterist, one 'partial preterist', and two unknowns. Thus, according to this tally, over 85% of Christadelphians who have written on the Book of Revelation have advocated the continuous historical view. Indeed, no non-historicist Christadelphian appears in the table before 1956. This suggests that the continuous historical view enjoyed unchallenged status for the first century of Christadelphian history. Its popularity may be waning, however: of the nine Christadelphian works since 1980, plus Burke's own, only six (60%) have been historicist.

Quotations from a few scholars will suffice to establish the unfavourable verdict that modern scholarship has passed on the historicist interpretation of Revelation. Osborne writes as follows:
Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999; 46), few scholars today take this approach.5
The primary strength of this view lies in its attempt to make sense of Revelation for the interpreter by correlating the prophecies directed to the seven churches of Asia Minor with the stages comprising church history. The vast majority of scholars agree, however, that this single strength is far outweighed by its many weaknesses.6
The major problems [with the historicist view], of course, are apparent: (a) The book would have meant nothing to its first readers, who would have to wait centuries before it could be properly understood; (b) it misunderstands prophecy by reducing it to prediction; (c) the variety of interpretations cancel each other out and invalidate the method. Although widely held by Protestant interpreters after the Reformation and into the twentieth century, no critical New Testament scholar today advocates this view.7
In a popular-level book, Wagner and Helyer write:
The historicist interpretation has an impressive list of proponents from the past, including Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Knox, William Tyndale, Sir Isaac Newton, John Wesley, and C.H. Spurgeon. However, like disco music and tapered jeans, the historicist approach is out of style today. Few people in the twenty-first century subscribe to this perspective.8
In his book Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis (note the last word in the title), Newport remarks on 'how central historicism has been, and continues to be, to the Millerite-Seventh-day Adventist-Davidian/Branch Davidian tradition'.9 He continues:
it is clear from the evidence that while historicism and mainstream scholarly biblical studies were destined to go their separate ways during the course of the nineteenth century, historicism itself continues to live on, indeed to thrive, in this narrower, largely non-critical context.10
Response in Christadelphian apologetics

We observed earlier that Christadelphian apologists have recently been claiming that Christadelphian theology has increasingly been vindicated by mainstream biblical scholarship. However, we are now faced with a clear counterexample: a case where a traditional Christadelphian hermeneutic, despite enjoying reasonable popularity in centuries past, has now been abandoned by mainstream biblical scholarship.

How do Christadelphian apologists respond to this counterexample? Largely, it would seem, by dismissing or ignoring it. For instance, Jonathan Burke, the most vocal proponent of the 'vindication by modern scholarship' apologetic, published a table of interpretations of Revelation through history which we referred to above. Burke's list extends through 2007 and yet it omits virtually all the mainstream, technical commentaries on Revelation from the past 50 years, of which there have been plenty.11 Alongside numerous Christadelphian writers, Burke includes four non-Christadelphian defenders of the historicist view in his table from the past 50 years. They are as follows:
  • Francis Nigel Lee, a Presbyterian systematic theologian and Church historian whose books on eschatology seem to have been published by obscure denominational publishers.12 Lee was unquestionably a learned man and an ardent defender of the historicist view (or 'historicalist', as he preferred to call it). In his book John's Revelation Unveiled, Lee included a list of defenders of the 'historicalist' view down through history.13 The list is quite impressive through the nineteenth century but then conspicuously thins out!
  • David Pio Gullon, a Seventh Day Adventist exegete (apparently a faculty member at the Universidad Adventista del Plata in Argentina) who wrote a paper on the interpretation of Revelation in a SDA denominational peer-reviewed journal. Gullon notes that the historicist view has been gradually rejected by the mainstream but comments, 'It is difficult to say just why the historicist school of interpretation faded in popularity'.14 Gullon thus appears sympathetic to the historicist view (unsurprisingly, given his denominational affiliation), but he does not defend it in this article.
  • Alan Campbell, who apparently authored a webpage (now defunct) entitled Opening the Seals of the Apocalypse.
  • E.G. Cook, a Baptist who apparently wrote a work in 1970 (no bibliographical information is provided by Burke)
On another website, Burke has provided detailed information about 'historicist exposition' of specific sections and symbols within Revelation. For seven distinct sections within the book, Burke provides a separate table summarizing interpretation of the symbols down through history. Each page bears the subtitle 'Expositors Agree'. Curiously, though, each table truncates in the mid-twentieth century, and sources cited from the 20th century are mostly Christadelphian.

In short, Burke's work on Revelation shows a distinct interest in non-Christadelphian support for the historicist view, but an equally distinct failure to acknowledge the rejection of the historicist view by contemporary, mainstream biblical scholarship. It is not merely that Burke fails to critically engage with mainstream scholarship on Revelation; he seems to act as though it didn't exist! Yet Burke claims that Christadelphians have traditionally 'quick to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary (even from apostate theologians)'. Why has he been so slow to identify and use scholarly Bible commentary on the interpretation of the Apocalypse?

While one cannot presume to know Burke's motives, it seems entirely possible that mainstream biblical scholarship has been ignored in this case precisely because its unfavourable verdict on the historicist view of Revelation clashes with his apologetic narrative in which mainstream biblical scholarship progressively vindicates Christadelphian theology.

Dave Burke has published a paper online entitled Revelation: Four Interpretive Models. Perhaps written as an academic assignment, this paper is more forthright about the decline of historicism, acknowledging that it has been 'widely abandoned' and 'long overtaken in popularity by futurism'. However, he adds that 'it retains strong support among some conservative Christian denominations and sects, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christadelphians'. Burke does not cite a single Baptist or Presbyterian (or Seventh Day Adventist) in support of this statement, and also appears not to draw any distinction between scholarly and non-scholarly support here (odd in an academic paper). Burke does not appear to have appreciated historicism's complete lack of support within mainstream biblical scholarship today.

After describing the four models and their historical pedigrees, Burke moves on to evaluation. He judiciously asserts, 'None of the exegetical models reviewed by this paper is without its problems, however minor.' However, he then proceeds to lambast the preterist, futurist and idealist views, describing them with terms like 'demonstrably partisan', 'suspect', 'arbitrary', 'highly subjective', 'dubious', '[having a] severe weakness', and 'ad hoc'. When he gets to historicism, though, he does not admit any problems. Acknowledging its widespread abandonment, he dismisses this because 'it was the prevailing model for at [sic] 1,700 years'. Thus Burke thrusts aside modern scholarship via an appeal to tradition - the precise opposite of the approach favoured in Defence and Confirmation, where tradition is thrust aside via an appeal to modern scholarship! Moreover, Burke virtually ignores scholarly criticism of the historicist view.15


By comparing the 'appeal to mainstream scholarly opinion' argument used by prominent Christadelphian apologists with same apologists' neglect of or disdain for mainstream scholarly opinion on the historicist view of Revelation, what do we learn? We learn that the 'confirmation from mainstream scholarship' argument carries little weight, because it is a case of confirmation bias. Where scholarly opinion drifts toward the Christadelphian position on a particular exegetical or theological issue,16 it is heralded and celebrated; where scholarly opinion drifts in the other direction, it is dismissed or ignored.

If increasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is construed as strengthening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, but decreasing scholarly support for a position held by Christadelphians is not construed as weakening the dogmatic posture of Christadelphians, then the appeal to scholarship is arbitrary and tendentious.

This kind of engagement with scholarly literature contains little scope for self-criticism, and that is what makes it particularly dangerous. Indeed, while Burke says Christadelphians have traditionally been quick to 'use' biblical scholarship, often with an explicitly apologetic goal,17 Christadelphians have not traditionally been quick to do biblical scholarship - that is, to participate in it and make meaningful contributions to it. Christadelphians have traditionally 'used' biblical scholarship from the sidelines. Here, the apologist can weave together a literature review (often highly selective) that gives his claims the appearance of scholarly rigour, whilst remaining exempt from criticism by the scholarly community itself. Such use of critical scholarship is unfortunately not very critical or scholarly.

However, there is perhaps some reason for optimism. On Revelation specifically, non-historicist interpretations seem to be gaining ground among Christadelphians. On the broader issue of Christadelphians' relationship to mainstream biblical scholarship, it appears that the number of Christadelphians undertaking formal biblical and/or theological studies is on the rise (the Burkes included, I believe). Christadelphians seem poised to begin moving from the grandstand of biblical scholarship into the arena. This will no doubt be to the benefit of scholarship, which will be challenged by a fresh perspective in a number of areas, and to Christadelphian theology, which may finally have its day in the court of academic opinion.


  • 1 Prinstein, Michael J. (Ed.) (2013). The Portable Mentor: Expert Guide to a Successful Career in Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Springer, p. 128.
  • 2 Not least of these, in the area of Satan and demons, is the failure to acknowledge that the 'accommodation theory' of the Synoptic accounts of demon possession and exorcism has no standing in mainstream scholarship.
  • 3 Quoted in Hemingray, Peter. (2003/2008). John Thomas: His Friends and His Faith (2nd ed.). The Christadelphian Tidings, pp. 335-338.
  • 4 The Republic, Missouri Unamended Ecclesia has added articles to the Doctrines to be Rejected portion of its Statement of Faith explicitly rejecting the futurist and preterist views of Revelation and, indeed, rejects the notion 'that any theory that radically departs from the "continuous historical intepretation" as generally elaborated by John Thomas in Eureka is to be received.' The following qualifier is added: '(This does not require unqualified acceptance of the interpretation of all events  and symbols-simply that the events "which must shortly come to pass" began to transpire shortly after the Apocalypse was given to the Apostle John in Patmos and that they have continued to unfold in the nearly 1900 years since that divine revelation.)'
  • 5 Osborne, Grant R. (2002). Revelation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 19. Emphasis added.
  • 6 Pate, C. Marvin. (2009). Reading Revelation: A Comparison of Four Interpretive Translations of the Apocalypse. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, p. 9. Emphasis added. He continues, listing the weaknesses of the historicist view: 'The historicist outline applies only to the history of the Western church, ignoring the spread of Christianity throughout the rest of the world. Since images such as the beast of Revelation 13 are always identified with people and events contemporary to the interpreter, the historicist reading of Revelation is constantly being revised as new events occur and new figures emerge. Most problematic for historicism is the complete lack of agreement about the various outlines of church history. History is like a moving target for those who want to read Revelation in this way, and there is no consensus about what the book means, even among interpreters within the same school of interpretation.'
  • 7 Boring, M. Eugene. (2011). Revelation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 48-49. Emphasis added.
  • 8 Helyer, Larry R. & Wagner, Richard. (2008). The Book of Revelation for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley, p. 74. Emphasis added.
  • 9 Newport, Kenneth G.C. (2000). Apocalypse and Millennium: Studies in Biblical Eisegesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 17.
  • 10 ibid. Emphasis added.
  • 11 Beale, Osborne, Mounce, Aune, Kistemaker, Thomas, Patterson, Prigent, Witherington, Harrington, Ford, Thompson, Roloff, Kraft, etc.
  • 12 Lee's book John's Revelation Unveiled scarcely interacted with contemporary technical commentaries on Revelation, and appears to have been ignored or gone unnoticed by subsequent scholarship (for instance, Google Scholar finds only one citation of it).
  • 13 Lee, Francis Nigel. (2000). John's Revelation Unveiled. Lynwoodrif: Ligstryders, p. 6.
  • 14 Gullon, David Pio. (1998). Two Hundred Years from Lacunza: The Impact of His Eschatological Thought on Prophetic Studies and Modern Futurism. Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 9(1-2), 71-95. Here p. 79 n. 46. Gullon suggests 'excessive date-setting' and 'diversity in its interpretations' as possible explanations, but does not mention the first reason given by Boring, which seems to me to be the primary reason for scholars' rejection of historicism.
  • 15 Burke interacts with just one critic (Herrick) of historicism, and on just one point of criticism - which is relegated to a footnote. Burke's reference list is, moreover, noticeably light on scholarly commentaries on Revelation. The only book-length commentaries on Revelation he cites are those of Garrow and Cory, neither of which could be described as technical.
  • 16 One might go as far as to say, whenever support for a Christadelphian position is found in scholarship!
  • 17 As Burke writes, 'Professional scholarship has long been used by Christadelphians to help interpret the Bible and to defend our faith.'

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Incipient Trinitarianism in first-century Jewish Christianity: The evidence of the Ascension of Isaiah

The unitarian narrative of early Christian theological development

Three of the pillars upon which the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity rest are the personal pre-existence of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and Trinitarian devotion (i.e. worship directed to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). These three ideas (or practices, in the third instance) are not sufficient to construct a Trinitarian view of God, but they certainly represent significant steps in that direction. Hence, in Trinitarian-unitarian debates (such as the online debate between Rob Bowman and Dave Burke a few years back), these three issues inevitably receive substantial attention.

One of the central claims of unitarian apologists in recent years has been that these ideas are fundamentally un-Jewish and thus could only have arisen in circles where the original Jewish context of apostolic teaching had been supplanted by Hellenistic thought. This line of argument comes out clearly from Burke's corner in the debate with Bowman.1 2 Hence, Dave refers in the debate to 'my template in which the Unitarian reading of the NT is Jewish and the Trinitarian reading is Hellenistic'. In similar fashion, Christadelphian writers James Broughton and Peter Southgate, in their book The Trinity: True or False? regard as pivotal to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity 'that Judaism had already become tainted with Greek thought; and it was inevitable that the newly founded Christian Church should be subject to a similar process'.

In addition to the cultural dichotomy between Jewish and Hellenistic thought, unitarian apologists stress a temporal barrier: first-century Christians were purely unitarian and it is only later that ideas such as the pre-existence of Christ and personhood of the Holy Spirit appeared. Broughton and Southgate write, 'So as the first century closes there is no evidence in Christian writing of belief in the personal pre-existence of Jesus, or that he was held to be equal to God or worshipped as God.' They locate the 'first references to Christ's personal pre-existence' during 120-150 A.D. Even more remarkably, their historical timeline of the development of Trinitarian doctrine first mentions the Holy Spirit in 381 A.D.: 'The hitherto unexamined position of the Holy Spirit settled by its inclusion in the co-equal trinity.' Burke, similarly, summarizing his 'historical argument' at the end of his debate with Bowman, states that one can see 'the doctrinal foundations of Trinitarianism in early extra-Biblical Christian writings from the 2nd Century AD' (he seems to regard the Epistle of Barnabas as the first Christian text containing the idea of personal pre-existence).3 Burke does not offer any comment concerning when a personal view of the Holy Spirit began to develop, except that he contrasts what 'first century Christians' thought with what 'later Christians developed... via philosophical speculations'.

So, unitarian apologists have nailed their colours to the mast, positing a sharp contrast between first-century Christians, who operated within a Jewish thought-world, and later Christians, who progressively veered off course due to the influence of Hellenistic philosophical speculation. Now, this 'template', as Burke describes it, becomes a lens through which he reads the New Testament, so that verses which seem to presuppose Christ's personal pre-existence, or a distinct personality for the Holy Spirit, or which mention the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together, must be interpreted through Jewish, i.e. unitarian, lenses.

The question is, what would it mean for the unitarian narrative described above if we could point to a first century Jewish Christian text that unquestionably declares the personal pre-existence of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit and directs worship to God, Christ and the Spirit? In a word, it would explode it. Such evidence would prove that these ideas originated in a first century Jewish milieu and were not the results of second century (or later) Gentile Christian corruption of apostolic teaching. It would provide unitarians with a mandate to revisit the New Testament with new religion-historical possibilities in mind.

It may surprise the reader to learn that just such a text exists, namely, the Ascension of Isaiah. 

The Ascension of Isaiah: introductory issues

What is the Ascension of Isaiah? As Gieschen succinctly states:
The Ascension of Isaiah is a Jewish Christian apocalypse written from the perspective of the biblical prophet Isaiah in order to give expression to an angelomorphic Christology which is experienced through mystical ascent.4
Rowland5 and Knight6 also describe the work as a Jewish Christian apocalypse. Alexander states that 'This early Christian apocalyptic text draws on Jewish haggadic traditions'7 Gonzalez observes that 'The very close affinities between the Ascension of Isaiah with Jewish apocalyptic texts are undeniable.'8

Hall, after highlighting some Christological parallels between the Ascension of Isaiah and other ancient Jewish works, remarks:
Such references, too disconnected to establish that ancient Judaism knew a figure analogous to the Beloved, nevertheless adequately establish that the entire Vision can be read as a Jewish work; some ancient Jews understood Jesus in Jewish categories. The author of the Vision of Isaiah is no less Jewish than the authors of 11QMelch, the Prayer of Joseph, or the Similitudes of Enoch; the Vision of Isaiah is as Jewish as these other books.9
Hence, the Jewishness of this document is not in doubt. Where was this document written? According to Knight, 'The generally accepted provenance is Syria, and so presumably Antioch'.10 Antioch, as we know from Acts, was no backwater but had become 'a center of apostolic mission beside Jerusalem'11

The unity of the work has been much debated in the past, but a consensus has emerged over the past three decades: the 'dominant scholarly view' is that there are two parts to the Ascension of Isaiah, with chapters 6-11 written first and chapters 1-5 added later.12 Concerning date of composition, Knight summarizes the scholarly consensus:
the date of the apocalypse is now agreed within relatively close parameters. This consensus was reinforced at the very welcome conference which Tobias Nicklas organized in Regensburg in March 2013. The dominant view is that the apocalypse contains some first-century material, and that this first-century element is given by the substance of chs. 6-11. It is disputed whether the material in chs. 1-5 comes from the first or the second century CE, the greater weight of scholarship preferring the second century.13
In an earlier work, Knight states that this apocalypse 'by universal consent contains first-century elements'.14 Hence, we can affirm with overwhelming scholarly backing that at least chapters 6-11 of the Ascension of Isaiah consist substantially of first century Jewish Christian material. We can also note that within this early setting, the Ascension of Isaiah at least claims that its Christological teachings are apostolic.15

One further background observation should be made. Bauckham states, 'There are few signs that Ascension of Isaiah is dependent on any New Testament writings'.16 This means that the Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah probably does not represent a (mis)interpretation of apparent pre-existence passages in the New Testament. Rather, this document represents an independent witness to first century Christian theology against which the New Testament writings may be compared.17

The pre-existence of Christ in the Ascension of Isaiah

Both sections of the Ascension of Isaiah (chapters 1-5 and chapters 6-11) teach Christ's personal pre-existence. The reader is invited to read the following excerpts taken from Knibb's translation:18
For Beliar was very angry with Isaiah because of the vision, and because of the exposure with which he had exposed Sammael, and that through him there had been revealed the coming of the Beloved from the seventh heaven, and his transformation, and his descent, and the form into which he must be transformed, (namely) the form of a man, and the persecution with which he would be persecuted, and the torments with which the children of Israel must torment him, and the coming of the twelve disciples, and the teaching, and that before the sabbath he must be crucified on a tree, and be crucified with wicked men and that he would be buried in a grave, and the twelve who (were) with him would be offended at him; and the guards who would guard the grave; and the descent of the angel of the church which is in the heavens, whom he will summon in the last days; and that the angel of the Holy Spirit and Michael, the chief of the holy angels, will open his grave on the third day, and that Beloved, sitting on their shoulders, will come forth and send out his twelve disciples, and they will teach all nations and every tongue the resurrection of the Beloved, and those who believe in his cross will be saved, and in his ascension to the seventh heaven from where he came; and that many who believe in him will speak through the Holy Spirit, and there will be many signs and miracles in those days. (AscenIs 2.13-20)
And I heard the voice of the Most High, the Father of my LORD, as he said to my LORD Christ, who will be called Jesus, "Go out and descend through all the heavens. You shall descend through the firmament and through that world as far as the angel who (is) in Sheol, but you shall not go as far as Perdition. And you shall make your likeness like that of all who (are) in the five heavens, and you shall take care to make your form like that of the angels of the firmament and also (like that) of the angels who (are) in Sheol. And none of the angels of that world shall know that you (are) LORD with me of the seven heavens and of their angels. And they shall not know that you (are) with me when with the voice of the heavens I summon you, and their angels and their lights, and when I lift up (my voice) to the sixth heaven, that you may judge and destroy the princes and the angels and the gods of that world, and the world which is ruled by them, for they have denied me and said, 'We alone are, and there is no one besides us.' And afterwards you shall ascend from the gods of death to your place, and you shall not be transformed in each of the heavens, but in glory you shall ascend and sit at my right hand, and then the princes and the powers of that world will worship you. This command I heard the Great Glory giving to my LORD. (AscenIs 10.7-16)
AscenIs 10.17-31 then describes narrates the seer's vision of Christ's actual descent through the heavens; this is followed by an account of the virgin birth in chapter 11.19

Recent scholarship has described the Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah as angelomorphic.20 Gieschen defines what is meant by angelomorphic Christology:
ANGELOMORPHIC CHRISTOLOGY is the identification of Christ with angelic form and functions, either before or after the incarnation, whether or not he is specifically identified as an angel21 
Gieschen distinguishes angelomorphic Christology from angel Christology and specifically cautions, following Rowland, that 'angelic form, function, or terminology does not of necessity imply created ontology'.22

Knight argues that the religion-historical background to the Ascension of Isaiah's Christology is Jewish angelology, and that this text shows that 'it cannot be true to say that Jewish angelology contributed nothing or little to the earliest development of Christology',23 which specifically counters a premise of James D.G. Dunn's Christology in the Making. At the end of his paper, Knight briefly points out affinities between the Ascension of Isaiah and Phil. 2:6-11, wondering whether 'Jewish angelology might have influenced this strand in Pauline Christology'.24 He further calls for further research into 'the possibility of an intellectual connection between the Ascen. Isa. and Johannine Christology and the possibility of a wide-ranging angelomorphic understanding in the earliest Christianity.'25

As a side note on the Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah, it was previously commonly assumed that it was docetic, because of statements like 'they will think that he is flesh and a man' (AscenIs 9.14) and the odd account of the virgin birth in which Mary appears to find the infant Jesus rather than giving birth to him (AscenIs 11.1-16). However, recent studies by Hannah and Knight have challenged this interpretation. Hannah concludes that 'the Christology offered by the Ascension of Isaiah is not in any way docetic' and that 'the author's orthodox contemporaries would not have found his work objectionable, at least not on docetic grounds.'26 Knight concludes that the Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah is, if anything, anti-docetic.27 

The personhood of the Holy Spirit in the Ascension of Isaiah

In the Ascension of Isaiah, one encounters 'the consistent designation for the Holy Spirit as an "angel of the (Holy) Spirit"', reflecting 'an "angel pneumatology" in which the Holy Spirit is analogous, yet superior, to all the other angels.'28 This designation (similar to that which occurs in the Shepherd of Hermas) makes it obvious that the Holy Spirit is conceived of as a person. If that were not enough, the angel of the Holy Spirit receives worship (9.36), worships God (9.40), and sits on the throne at God's left hand (11.33).

Trinitarian devotion in the Ascension of Isaiah

Important to understanding the pneumatology of the Ascension of Isaiah is that, while the Holy Spirit is called an angel and is worshipped, no other angel receives worship. Indeed, angels refuse worship as they do in the Apocalypse of John: 'Whereas the seer is forbidden to worship other angels, in the seventh heaven the angel guide instructs him to worship the "angel of the Holy Spirit" (9:36).'29 Even concerning Michael, who seems to be on par with the angel of the Holy Spirit in AscenIs 3.15-17 (the risen Christ emerges seated on their shoulders), 'it remains that the Holy Spirit is superior, as nowhere is Michael said to be worshiped'.30

In the vision, Isaiah is commanded to worship Christ and the Holy Spirit in turn. He then observes Christ and the Holy Spirit worship the Great Glory, i.e. God. Hence, in the Ascension of Isaiah, 'three separate beings are rendered worship'31: God, the Beloved (Christ), and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, at the conclusion of the vision, Isaiah sees Christ sit down at the right hand of the Great Glory, while the Holy Spirit is seated on the left. Hence all three members of the 'Trinity' are depicted together on a throne. Stuckenbruck states:
Ascension of Isaiah constitutes our earliest evidence or worship being rendered to the Holy Spirit alongside Christ and God. From the above analysis it seems that this 'Trinitarian devotion' is a Christian development. While the function of the Holy Spirit reflects a development from ideas contained in the Jewish scriptures and angelological traditions, the worship of ‘the angel of the Holy Spirit’ is in the Ascension of Isaiah an extension of binitarian devotion which was so characteristic of Christian faith.32
This is not to suggest that the Ascension of Isaiah depicts a mature Trinitarian orthodoxy. Stuckenbruck stresses that the writer 'regarded Christ as superior to the Spirit'.33 Even more significantly, 'In the Ascension of Isaiah the unique position of God is undisputed.'34 Gieschen emphasizes the 'clear distinction between the two angelomorphic figures and the Great Glory: the former are subordinate to the latter'.35 Hence, there is evidently a hierarchy of persons: God - Christ - Spirit (cf. Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 13.3).36 Nevertheless, as Fatehi states:
Though the Spirit and the Lord Christ are clearly portrayed as inferior and subordinate to the Most high God, it is also clear that they are put on the side of God in contrast to all the other glorious angels. So one should understand the writer's portrait of the Spirit in Trinitarian terms.37
The hierarchy of persons, therefore, hardly diminishes the striking character of Trinitarian devotion found in this first century Jewish Christian text. It would surely have offended non-Christian Jews:
Non-Christian Jews would no doubt have considered Isaiah’s vision a breach of monotheism, as three separate beings are rendered worship; ‘three powers’ in heaven would simply have been too much! The author of the vision, however, drew on and elaborated Jewish cosmological tradition in order to substantiate the claim that, despite appearances, his understanding of Christian faith is very monotheistic after all.38

We have briefly considered certain aspects of the theology of the Ascension of Isaiah, which by scholarly consensus is a Jewish Christian apocalypse, the last six chapters of which dates to the late first century A.D. Within these chapters we have encountered clear evidence for (a) the pre-existence of Christ, (b) the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and (c) Trinitarian devotion, i.e. worship offered to God, Christ and the Holy Spirit that may not be offered to any other transcendent being.

The importance of these findings for the Trinitarian-unitarian debate is not that the theology of the Ascension of Isaiah should be considered normative as though it were a lost piece of the New Testament. Rather, the importance lies in the area of history of religions. Any reconstruction of early Christian theology presupposing that the pre-existence of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and Trinitarian devotion could not have arisen in a first century Jewish setting is shown to be flawed. These ideas unequivocally did originate within that very setting and not within a later Gentile Christian context. These ideas were seemingly contemporaneous with the time of composition of the later writings of the New Testament (e.g. Gospel and Letters of John, Epistle to the Hebrews, Revelation, Pastoral Epistles?) and thus provide valuable background for interpreting, for instance, apparent references to Christ's pre-existence in those documents. In short, the evidence of the Ascension of Isaiah demands a paradigm shift in the way we approach the New Testament.


  • 1 Concerning the Holy Spirit, Burke writes, 'The mainstream Trinitarian doctrine of the Holy Spirit bears no relation to the OT Jewish perspective which informed the NT understanding, because the mainstream doctrine is not derived from a Jewish context but a Hellenic one. First-century Christians found no need to elaborate upon their doctrine of the Spirit, and could speak of it in the same language that their forebears had used. Later Christians developed their doctrine of the Spirit via philosophical speculations predicated upon the same Hellenic ideas of essence and consubstantiality which had led so many of them to conclude that Jesus is God. Which position is more likely to be correct?'
  • 2 Burke quotes approvingly from Dewick in order to distinguish the concept of predestination, a Jewish idea, from pre-existence, a Greek idea. Elsewhere (not in the debate), Dave writes concerning Johannine Christology, 'The only way to reconcile the strict “Jewishness” of John’s gospel with his (apparent) references to Christ’s pre-existence, is to accept his words in the context of Jewish thought (as opposed to Greek philosophy) and realise that he speaks of a pre-destined Messiah, rather than the “Eternal Son” of modern Trinitarianism.'
  • 3 Burke continues: 'We saw that the heretical and apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas contains the very first example of Genesis 1:26 being used as a proof text for the pre-existence of Christ. This verse was not used by Jesus, his apostles, or the earliest post-Biblical Christians such as Polycarp, Clement of Rome and Ignatius.' As a side note, this is an odd statement, for several reasons. First, it makes it sound as though 'Genesis 1:26 being used as a proof text for the pre-existence of Christ' is the only kind of evidence that could qualify as doctrinal foundations of Trinitarianism. I don't think Dave is trying to say that, but still, odd. Second, the reference in the Epistle of Barnabas is, to my knowledge, the earliest direct quotation of Genesis 1:26 in Christian literature, so surely nothing can be made of it being the earliest use of this text as a proof text for Christ's pre-existence! Third, that Dave can build an argument from silence out of other writers' failure to use this specific text demonstrates only his unusual affinity for arguments from silence.
  • 4 Gieschen, Charles A. (1998). Angelomorphic Christology: Antecedents and Early Evidence. Leiden: Brill, p. 229.
  • 5 'the Jewish-Christian apocalypse the Ascension of Isaiah' (Rowland, Christopher. (1992). The Parting of the Ways: the Evidence of Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic and Mystical Material. In James D.G. Dunn (Ed.), Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135 (pp. 213-238). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 234.)
  • 6 Knight, Jonathan M. (1995). The Ascension of Isaiah. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, p. 9.
  • 7 Alexander, Loveday. (2010). Prophets and Martyrs as Exemplars of Faith. In R. Bauckham, D. Driver & T. Hart (Eds.), The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (pp. 423-439). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 430
  • 8 Gonzalez, Eliezer. (2014). The Fate of the Dead in Early Third Century North African Christianity. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 183.
  • 9 Hall, Robert G. (1994). Isaiah's Ascent to See the Beloved: An Ancient Jewish Source for the Ascension of Isaiah. Journal of Biblical Literature, 113(3), 463-484. Here p. 470.
  • 10 Knight, Jonathan M. (2013). The Political Issue of the Ascension of Isaiah: A Response to Enrico Norelli. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 35(4), 355-379. Here p. 358.
  • 11 Löning, Karl. (1987/1993). The Circle of Stephen and Its Mission. In Jürgen Becker, Ed., Christian Beginnings: Word and Community from Jesus to Post-Apostolic Times (pp. 103-131). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 121.
  • 12 Knight, Jonathan M. (2015). The Christology of the Ascension of Isaiah: Docetic or Polymorphic? In J. Knight & K. Sullivan (Eds.), The Open Mind: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland (pp. 144-164). London: Bloomsbury, p. 154.
  • 13 op. cit., p. 155.
  • 14 Knight, Jonathan M. (2012). The Origin and Significance of the Angelomorphic Christology in the Ascension of Isaiah. Journal of Theological Studies, 63(1), 66-105. Here p. 70.
  • 15 Hall stresses that 'Asc. Is. 3:13-20 summarizes the doctrine of the descent and ascent and establishes it as the doctrine of the apostles. Asc. Is. 3:21-31 attacks those who reject this doctrine of the apostles (3:21) - that is, the vision of he descent and ascent of the Beloved ascribed to Isaiah (3:31).' (Hall, Robert G. (1990). The Ascension of Isaiah: Community Situation, Date, and Place in Early Christianity. Journal of Biblical Literature, 109(2), 289-306. Here p. 291.)
  • 16 Bauckham, Richard. (1981). The Worship of Jesus in Apocalyptic Christianity. New Testament Studies, 27(3), 322-341. Here p. 336 n. 6. The only suggestion for literary dependence he makes is that AscenIs 11.2-17 (Ethiopic version only) 'seems dependent' on Matthew's birth narrative.
  • 17 Other comments on the literary relationship between the Ascension of Isaiah and the New Testament writings include the following. Massaux notes 'the very great fidelity in the Christian parts of the Ascension of Isaiah to ideas and themes already present in the New Testament writings' and asserts its 'very probable dependence' on Matthew, while stressing that 'the absence of the original text does not allow us to affirm a definite literary dependence'. (Massaux, Edouard. (1950/1990). The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian Literature before Saint Irenaeus, Vol. 2. Leuven: Peeters, p. 62.) Bauckham states, 'It is highly unlikely that the Ascension of Isaiah is dependent on the Apocalypse or vice versa, but the coincidence of ideas is striking. Both forbid worship of angels on the grounds that only God (in the seventh heaven) may be worshipped and that angels are not the seer's superiors but his fellow-servants.' (Bauckham, Richard. (1993). Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. London: Bloomsbury, p. 121). Nicklas cautions, 'it is not possible to state with certainty whether the Ascension of Isaiah is literarily dependent on the Gospel of Matthew.' (Nicklas, Tobias. (2015). 'Drink the Cup which I promised you!' (Apocalypse of Peter 14.4): Peter's Death and the End of Times. In Kevin Sullivan & Jonathan Knight (Eds.), The Open Mind: Essays in Honour of Christopher Rowland (pp. 183-200). London: Bloomsbury, p. 194). Lindgård states that the Ascension of Isaiah 'is probably not dependent on Paul.' (Lindgård, Fredrik. (2005). Paul's Line of Thought in 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 134 n. 105.)
  • 18 Knibb, Michael A. (1983/2011). Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah. In James H. Charlesworth (Ed.), Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2 (pp. 143-176). Peabody: Hendrickson. OTP Vol. 2, Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, pp. 156-176
  • 19 For other pre-existence texts, see AscenIs 1.7, 1.13, 8.25, 9.3-6, 9.12-15.
  • 20 E.g. Gieschen, op. cit.; Knight, 2012, op. cit.
  • 21 Gieschen, op. cit., p. 28.
  • 22 ibid.
  • 23 Knight, 2012, op. cit., p. 104.
  • 24 ibid.
  • 25 op. cit., p. 105.
  • 26 Hannah, Darrell D. (1999). The Ascension of Isaiah and Docetic Christology. Vigiliae Christianae, 53(2), 165-196. Here p. 195.
  • 27 'The present study has argued that the long-held assumption of a docetic Christology in the Ascen. Isa. will have to be revised on the grounds that this is not an accurate reflection of its contents. The text insists that Jesus really died, leaving open to question the manner of his earthly appearance but insisting nonetheless that the humanity is real. The Christology is, if anything, more obviously anti-docetic than docetic in terms of what it says about the passion in 3.13, 18 and 11.19-20.' (Knight, 2015, op. cit., p. 163.)
  • 28 Stuckenbruck, L.T. (1999). Worship and Monotheism in the Ascension of Isaiah. In C.C. Newman, J.R. Davila, & G.S. Lewis (Eds.), The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism: Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus (pp. 70-89). Leiden: Brill, p. 78.
  • 29 op. cit., p. 78; similarly Fatehi: 'One should note that the angel of the Holy Spirit in Ascension of Isaiah is not an ordinary angel. While Isaiah is strictly forbidden from worshipping angels, he is encouraged, in fact commanded, to worship the angel of the Holy Spirit' (Fatehi, Mehrdad. (2000). The Spirit's Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul: An Examination of Its Christological Implications. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 137). Cf. Bauckham, 1993, op. cit.
  • 30 Stuckenbruck, op. cit., p. 80.
  • 31 op. cit., p. 89.
  • 32 op. cit., p. 82. Similarly, Bauckham remarks, 'The worship which is prohibited in the case of angels is commanded in the case of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The carefully structured form of the account of the trinitarian worship in the seventh heaven should be noticed.' (1983, op. cit., p. 333.) Again, Knight says that the 'vision of the three divine beings' stands 'at the heart of the apocalypse' (2013, op. cit., p. 367.)
  • 33 ibid.
  • 34 op. cit., p. 73.
  • 35 Gieschen, op. cit., p. 235.
  • 36 'And we will demonstrate that we rationally worship the one who became the teacher of these things to us, and who was born for this, Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judaea at the time of Tiberius Caesar. For we have learnt that he is the son of the true God, and we hold him in second place, with the prophetic Spirit in the third rank.' (Minns, Denis and Parvis, Paul. (2009). Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 111, trans.)
  • 37 Fatehi, op. cit., p. 137.
  • 38 Stuckenbruck, op. cit., p. 89.