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Showing posts with label Ascension of Isaiah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ascension of Isaiah. Show all posts

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Apostolicity of the Post-Apostolic Church (Part 3 of 3): Historical evidence for apostolic succession

In the first part of this series, I outlined the three aspects in which the post-apostolic Church is apostolic, according to Catholic teaching: it has apostolic origins, apostolic teaching (both written and oral) and apostolic succession. In the second part of the series, I clarified what the Catholic Church claims—and does not claim—regarding the early history of apostolic succession. The Church does claim that the apostles themselves, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, instituted apostolic succession, and that today's bishops continue this unbroken line of succession. However, this does not necessarily entail that apostles' earliest successors were monarchical bishops as that office is understood and executed today.

In this third installment, we finally get into historical evidence relevant to the doctrine of apostolic succession.

1. 2 Timothy and Titus
2. Pseudepigraphy in the New Testament
3. 1 Clement
4. Didache
5. Ascension of Isaiah
6. Ignatius and Polycarp
7. Ptolemy's Letter to Flora
8. The succession lists of Hegesippus and Irenaeus
9. Conclusion

1. Timothy and Titus1

Within the New Testament, Paul's Second Letter to Timothy reads very much like the efforts of an apostle (2 Tim. 1:1) who regards his own death as imminent (2 Tim. 4:6-9) to groom a successor for the challenge of carrying on the ministry after he is gone. This successor, Timothy, has been ordained through a formal, public rite of laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6) and has the authority to lay hands on others (1 Tim. 5:22). He is, accordingly, charged with the task of preserving the "pattern of the sound words" he heard from the apostle; "By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you"—the apostolic tradition, which Paul believes the Lord is capable of preserving until "that Day," i.e. the day of the Lord's coming (2 Tim. 1:12-14).2 2 Timothy depicts Timothy as an apostolic delegate on his way to becoming an apostolic successor. (Indeed, an apostolic successor is chronologically what an apostolic delegate is spatially.)

The case of Titus is similar. Paul has left Titus in Crete "to complete what still needed to be done and to appoint elders in every city, as I myself commanded you" (Tit. 1:5), with these elders either equivalent to or including the "overseer" of v. 7. Clearly, Titus is functioning as an apostolic assistant and protégé.3 In light of what we have seen in 2 Timothy, is there any doubt that Paul would have expected Titus to succeed him in shepherding the churches in Crete in the event of his own death? Moreover, Paul addresses both Timothy and Titus as "true child in the faith" (1 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4). Since a son is his father's successor in many ways, this filial imagery adds weight to the idea that Timothy and Titus are heirs to Paul's ministerial responsibilities.


Most contemporary New Testament scholars reject the traditional view that the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy and Titus) were written by Paul. They regard them instead as pseudepigrapha written after Paul's death, perhaps in the early second century, by members of the Pauline circle. If this is correct, we cannot cite 2 Timothy and Titus as firsthand evidence (that is, evidence from an apostle) of apostolic succession. However, if the Pastoral Epistles are pseudepigrapha then we have early (and still canonical) evidence from within the Pauline circle that Timothy and Titus were understood as Paul's hand-picked successors. We also have evidence that someone within the Pauline circle believed they had sufficient apostolic authority to write a letter in Paul's name. The same argument can be made regarding the Petrine Epistles (especially 2 Peter), which most scholars likewise regard as pseudepigraphic. We have an author or authors writing in the late first or early second century claiming the authority to write in Peter's name. Such a person must regard himself as a legitimate successor to Peter's ministry!

The letter known as 1 Clement was written from the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, probably near the end of the first century, to address an internal dispute in the latter church. During the patristic period the letter was very highly esteemed; in the important fifth-century biblical manuscript Codex Alexandrinus it is bound together with the New Testament! The author does not identify himself but has traditionally been identified as Clement, an early bishop of Rome. The letter narrates the martyrdom of Peter and Paul (5.1-7), whom the author obviously holds in very high regard. It is possible that he knew them personally (Irenaeus and Tertullian claimed as much—see below), since both are believed to have been martyred under Nero about three decades prior. Although the author's intention is not to provide a theory of church leadership, he makes some comments in this respect that are very significant, especially in chapters 40-44. The reader is encouraged to read these in their entirety; I will provide some excerpts, following Bart D. Ehrman's translation (which can hardly be accused of a Catholic bias!)4

In chapter 40, the author refers to the ministerial orders of the old covenant (high priest, priests, Levites and laity) to show that the Master desires "the sacrificial offerings and liturgical rites" to be performed in an orderly fashion. He continues by exhorting the brothers, "let each of us be pleasing to God by keeping to our special assignments with a good conscience, not violating the established rule of his ministry" (41.1). Within the Church, then, there are specially assigned orders, just as under the old covenant. He continues:
The apostles were given the gospel for us by the Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. Thus Christ came from God and the apostles from Christ. Both things happened, then, in an orderly way according to the will of God. When, therefore, the apostles received his commands and were fully convinced through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and persuaded by the word of God, they went forth proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God was about to come, brimming with confidence through the Holy Spirit. And as they preached through the countryside and in the cities, they appointed the first fruits of their ministries as bishops and deacons of those who were about to believe, testing them by the Spirit. And this was no recent development. For indeed, bishops and deacons had been mentioned in writings long before. For thus the Scripture says in one place, 'I will appoint their bishops in righteousness and their deacons in faith.' (1 Clement 42.1-5) 
It would be anachronistic to read "bishops" here in its later technical sense; as discussed in the previous article, it took time for ecclesiological terminology to become standardised. Nevertheless, there is evidently some kind of implied correspondence between the "special assignments" under the old covenant and those within the Church, which include not only apostles but also bishops and deacons. By adducing Scriptural support (in the first-person voice of God, no less) for "bishops and deacons," the author implies that these are not man-made offices but that they were appointed by the apostles as part of "the established rule of [God's] ministry." This writer obviously holds these ecclesiastical offices in very high regard. He continues with the rhetorical question, "And why should it be amazing if those who were in Christ and entrusted by God with such a work [i.e. the apostles] appointed the leaders mentioned earlier [i.e. bishops and deacons]?" (1 Clement 43.1) He proceeds by again drawing on the old covenant as a template for the rule of Christian ministry. He argues that, just as Moses had anticipated strife over the office of priesthood and so offered divine proof (Aaron's blossoming rod) of the Levites' authority,
So too our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that strife would arise over the office of the bishop. For this reason, since they understood perfectly well in advance what would happen, they appointed those we have already mentioned; and afterwards they added a codicil, to the effect that if these should die, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. Thus we do not think it right to remove from the ministry those who were appointed by them or, afterwards, by other reputable men, with the entire church giving its approval. For they have ministered over the flock of Christ blamelessly and with humility, gently and unselfishly, receiving a good witness by all, many times over. Indeed, we commit no little sin if we remove from the bishop's office those who offer the gifts in a blameless and holy way. (1 Clem. 44.1-4)5
This passage is so important to the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession that it is quoted almost verbatim in the discussion of apostolic succession in Lumen Gentium (III.20). What does it tell us about apostolic succession? Firstly, note that the entire passage focuses on bishops, not deacons, suggesting (as do the words episkopos and diakonos) that overseer/bishop is the higher office. Secondly, note that bishop is an "office," just as was the Levitical priesthood according to 1 Clem. 43.2 (cf. also 1 Tim. 3:1). Thirdly, the apostles did not merely create and fill this office as a once-off measure; they legislated for the perpetuity of the office by succession (just as Moses had done for the priesthood). Fourthly, the means by which a vacancy in the office of bishop was to be filled was that, just as the apostles had appointed bishops, so should bishops be appointed by "other reputable men." The writer adds that the bishops who had been deposed in Corinth had been appointed "with the entire church giving its approval."

What we find in 1 Clement coheres well with what we find in 2 Timothy and Titus: the apostles appointed bishops who had the delegated authority to appoint other ministers, including other bishops, thereby ensuring the survival of the apostolic ministry through succession.


Within the Didache, the three most important kinds of ministerial functionaries are apostles, prophets and teachers. Every apostle who comes is to "be welcomed as if he were the Lord" (11.4). Prophets too are very highly regarded: they can give thanks at the close of the Eucharistic meal however they wish; they are not bound by the prescribed liturgy (Did. 10.7). Prophets who speak in the spirit may not be tested; this is an unforgivable sin (11.7). The prophets are to be given the firstfruits of wine, wheat and livestock, "for they are your high priests" (Did. 13.3)! Teachers, too, are to be welcomed as one would welcome the Lord (Did. 11.1-2) and are worthy of their food (Did. 13.2). All three of these ministries seem to be itinerant rather than resident.6 Like the office of bishop in 1 Clement, the role of the prophets and teachers in the Didache seems to be understood by analogy to the Levitical priesthood. Given this and the close link between the prophets and teachers and the apostles, it is possible to understand the prophets and teachers as among, or including, early apostolic successors. Timothy and especially Titus also seem to have been itinerant rather than resident in one local congregation (see Tit. 1:5), and so could easily be classified as "teachers" (or "prophets," if they had a prophetic gift) in Didache terminology.

The Didache also contains a passing reference to bishops and deacons, who are apparently resident as opposed to itinerant:
1 And so, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are worthy of the Lord, gentle men who are not fond of money, who are true and approved. For these also conduct the ministry of the prophets and teachers among you. 2 And so, do not disregard them. For these are the ones who have found honor among you, along with the prophets and teachers. (Did. 15.1-2, trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:441).
This passage might give the impression of an autonomous, congregational, democratic leadership structure for the local church, since the congregation is told to "elect for yourselves bishops and deacons." However, the matter is not as simple as that. Firstly, we must remember the voice of the Didachist here: "elect for yourselves" is an imperative from an external authority.7 Secondly, the statement that the bishops and deacons "conduct the ministry of the prophets and teachers" may imply the subordination of bishops and deacons to prophets and teachers (similar to the bishops' and deacons' subordination to the apostles in 1 Clement 42).8 Thirdly, the text is very light on detail concerning how this election process was meant to work: were the bishops and deacons "elected" by vote, by lot or some other means? De Halleux assumes that "the bishops are elected democratically, by a vote of hands raised in assembly," but the text does not say this. Nevertheless, de Halleux helpfully observes that such a democratic process would "not exclude however a consecration of the newly elected by the laying on of hands by their peers."9 One would not necessarily expect to find instructions about ordination or consecration in the Didache, especially if this were understood to be the prerogative of external ministers such as prophets and teachers.10 All told, while the Didache does not contain the kind of unambiguous evidence for apostolic succession that we find in the Pastoral Epistles and 1 Clement, it is consistent with that evidence (after allowances are made for the non-standardised terminology in use in this early period).


The Ascension of Isaiah is an apocalypse that is now understood by scholarly consensus to be a Christian composition, with chapters 6-11 most likely written in the late first century and chapters 1-5 added in the early second century. There is material relevant to ecclesiastical orders in Asc. Isa. 3.13-4.2. The key passage is as follows:
21 And afterwards, at his approach, his disciples will abandon the teaching of the twelve apostles, and their faith, and their love, and their purity. 22 And there will be much contention as his coming and at his approach. 23 And in those days (there will be) many who will love office, although lacking wisdom. 24 And there will be many wicked elders and shepherds who wrong their sheep, [and they will be rapacious because they do not have holy shepherds].(Asc. Isa. 3.21-24)11
The words translated "elders" and "shepherds" are respectively presbuteroi and poimenes.12 Norelli states that the Ascension presupposes a time when the twelve apostles are no more and prophets are regrettably scarce (3.27).13 Moreover, notwithstanding the author's negative perception of the "elders and shepherds," the community structure presupposed by the text is a college of presbyters, among whom the shepherds or bishops seem to be distinguished by particular authority.14 By condemning the presbyters and shepherds for loving office but lacking wisdom, the author may be drawing attention to their lack of charismatic gifts.15

As Knight points out, the situation reflected in Ascension of Isaiah 3-4 is that of "a dispute about authority," centering on "the question of whether the prophets or the institutional leaders should hold authority in the church."16 "The Ascension of Isaiah was written by a group of prophets, perhaps a small group (cf. 2.7-11), who had seen their authority eroded and who found themselves without power in their dealings with the church leaders (3.31)."17 Knight sees the situation in Ascension of Isaiah as a reversal of that in the Didache. In the Didache, the prophets are dominant and the bishops and deacons need to be legitimated in relation to the prophets and teachers. In the Ascension of Isaiah, however, the institutional leaders are dominant and the prophets are in decline. In this sense, the Ascension of Isaiah anticipates the Montanist controversy that would arise a few decades later.18


Seven letters of Ignatius are generally accepted as authentic (in the so-called "middle recension"). Most scholars maintain the traditional dating of the letters to the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) in line with Eusebius's dating of Ignatius's martyrdom (Eccl. Hist. 3.36),19 though some would allow for a slightly later date, c. 125-150.20 Ignatius wrote these letters while en route from Antioch (where he was bishop; cf. Rom. 2.2) to his martyrdom in Rome.

Ignatius has surprisingly little to say about apostolic succession per se, but provides crucial evidence for the monarchical episcopate in the early second century. In the Letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius refers to "the bishops who have been appointed throughout the world [who] share the mind of Jesus Christ" (Eph. 3.2; cf. Smyrn. 10.2).21 The honour that is due the bishop recalls the honour due the prophets and teachers in the Didache: "And so we are clearly obliged to look upon the bishop as the Lord himself" (Eph. 6.1). Even a youthful bishop should receive "all due respect according to the power of God the Father," because to defer to the bishop is to defer to "the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of all" (Magn. 3.1). Ignatius presupposes a three-tiered ministerial order, "the harmony of God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and the deacons, who are especially dear to me, entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ" (Magn. 6.1). The bishop and presbyters are repeatedly related to the apostles by analogy or association (cf. Magn. 7.1; 13.1-2; Trall. 3.1; 7.1; 12.2; Smyrn. 12.1), though Ignatius never explicitly states that the bishops (or presbyters) are the apostles' successors. Nevertheless, the bishops' ministry is divinely ordained. The bishop of Philadelphia, according to Ignatius, "did not obtain his ministry to the community from himself, nor through humans, nor according to pure vanity, but by the love of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philad. 1.1). The monarchical character of the episcopate is made clear in passages such as Philad. 4.1: "For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup that brings the unity of his blood, and one altar, as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves." The "council of the bishop" (Philad. 8.1) should be understood by analogy to the Jewish Sanhedrin (with the bishop presumably presiding), for which the same Greek word sunedrion is used.

Ignatius's understanding of episcopacy is corroborated by the testimony of his contemporary, Polycarp of Smyrna. One of Ignatius's letters was addressed to Polycarp and another to his church, and Ignatius refers to Polycarp as "the bishop of the Smyrnaeans" (Magn. 15.1; Polyc. prescript). In Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians we have the earliest reception-history of Ignatius's letters. Polycarp tells the Philippians that he has received Ignatius's letters, that he is forwarding them along with his own letter, because the Philippians "will be able to profit greatly from them" (Phil. 13.1-2). We have here a ringing endorsement of Ignatius's letters, including their characterisation of Polycarp himself as bishop of Smyrna and their monarchical understanding of the episcopal office.22

Polycarp's implicit support for Ignatius's view of the episcopate is highly significant because of Polycarp's importance in early Christian history. Irenaeus, writing a few decades later, likewise refers to Polycarp as the bishop of Smyrna (Against Heresies 3.3.4), reports that he was appointed to this office by the apostles, and mentions his successors. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, which is widely regarded as having a historically accurate core, states that at the time of Polycarp's death (c. 155 A.D.) he had been in Christ's service for 86 years (M. Polyc. 9.3). This corroborates that he was a contemporary of the apostles and could have been appointed by them as a bishop. Thus Polycarp provides a direct link between second-century, monarchical episcopacy and the apostles, which supports the claim that the monarchical bishops of the second century were in fact successors of the apostles.


The Letter to Flora is one of the few surviving examples of literature from the early days of the school of Valentinus, who was a leading Gnostic thinker in Rome during the mid-second century. The fourth-century Church Father Epiphanius preserved the Letter to Flora in full in his heresiological work Panarion. The author of this letter was Ptolemy, a disciple of Valentinus. Irenaeus also discusses and condemns Ptolemy's teachings in Book I of his work Against Heresies (written c. 180 A.D.)

Many scholars believe the Ptolemy who wrote the Letter to Flora is the same Ptolemy martyred in Rome under the prefect Urbicus as discussed by Justin Martyr in his Second Apology (chapter 2).23 This would allow us to date the Letter to Flora to c. 150 A.D. (since Justin's Apologies are generally dated to the early 150s); if the two cannot be identified, it may be a decade or two later.24

The Letter to Flora is basically an argument for the existence of the Demiurge, a divine being who created the world and gave the Law of Moses but who is not "the perfect God." Toward the end of the letter, Ptolemy makes an important claim about the authority behind his teachings:
For, if God permits, you will receive further enlightenment about their principle and their generation, when you are judged worthy of the apostolic tradition that we too have received by succession, and once again you will measure all of our teachings against the words of the Saviour. (Letter to Flora 7.9, my translation)25 
Ptolemy here refers explicitly to a concept of apostolic tradition (tēs apostolikēs paradoseōs) transmitted by succession (diadochē), and claims that "we" (his school) have such a tradition and succession. What is particularly interesting is that he says we too. Throughout the letter Ptolemy has been attempting to refute Christians who disagree with his position on the Demiurge. Thus, by referring to "the apostolic tradition that we too have received by succession," he is effectively conceding that his proto-orthodox opponents have received apostolic tradition via succession. Indeed, it is precisely because his proto-orthodox opponents have a strong claim to have received apostolic tradition via succession that Ptolemy needs to make the same claim.26 Thus, Ptolemy is a hostile witness showing that the notion of apostolic tradition transmitted by succession was well-established in the mid-second century proto-orthodox Church. The mid-second century is precisely when we would expect the theological importance of apostolic succession to have become pronounced, since living memory of the apostles was fading.


In the second half of the second century, we find the first detailed explanation of the doctrine of apostolic succession. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, writing c. 180-185, argues that the catholic Church's ability to trace its doctrines back to the apostles via succession vindicates their validity. This is similar to Ptolemy's earlier claim, but unlike Ptolemy, Irenaeus produces concrete historical data in support: a succession list for the church at Rome going back to the apostles Peter and Paul, whom he names as its founders:27
After founding and building up the church, the blessed apostles delivered the ministry of the episcopate to Linus; Paul mentions this Linus in the letters to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21]. Anacletus succeeded him, and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement received the lot of the episcopate; he had seen the apostles and met with them and still had the apostolic preaching in his ears and the tradition before his eyes. He was not alone, for many were then still alive who had been taught by the apostles… Evaristus succeeded this Clement; Alexander [followed] Evaristus; then Xystus was appointed, sixth from the apostles; from him, Telesphorus, who achieved martyrdom most gloriously; then Hyginus; then Pius, whose successor was Anicetus. After Soter had succeeded Anicetus, now in the twelfth place from the apostles Eleutherus holds the episcopate. With the same sequence and doctrine the tradition from the apostles in the church, and the preaching of truth, has come down to us. This is a complete proof that the life-giving faith is one and the same, preserved and transmitted in truth in the church from the apostles up till now.28
How historically reliable is Irenaeus's succession list? Contemporary critical historians offer various judgments. Hall asserts that "[Irenaeus's] list is probably valid from Sixtus (also called Xystos) onwards" but that the earlier names were deduced by "inventive manipulation."29  Lampe avers that Irenaeus's list is "with highest probability a historical construction from the 180s...a fictive construction,"30 while emphasizing (in contrast to Hall) that "The names that were woven into the construction were certainly not freely invented but were borrowed from the tradition of the city of Rome... They had belonged to the presbyters of Roman church history." Strand suspects that Irenaeus probably relied on Hegesippus's work (see below) but also "may very well have consulted records at Rome when he visited there ca. 178."31 The upshot is that we should neither uncritically accept this as an authentic list of monarchical bishops going back to the apostles, nor should we dismiss it via a "hermeneutic of suspicion." It is quite probable, given other information about early church order in Rome, that some of the individuals in Irenaeus's list functioned more like leading presbyters than monarchical bishops. This is still sufficient for the doctrine of apostolic succession.

Irenaeus was actually not the first to compile a Roman succession list. This distinction belongs to Hegesippus, c. 160 A.D. Hegesippus's writings do not survive, but fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us:
Hegesippus has left a full record of his beliefs in five books that have come down to us. In them he tells of traveling to Rome and finding the same doctrine among all the bishops there. After some comments about Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, he writes: 'The Corinthian church remained in the true doctrine until Primus became bishop. I conversed with the Corinthians on my voyage to Rome, and we were refreshed by the true doctrine. After arriving in Rome I compiled the succession down to Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. Anicetus was succeeded by Soter and he by Eleutherus. In each succession and in every city, preaching corresponds with the Law, the Prophets, and the Lord.'32
Scholars have proposed two models for the origin of the concept of episcopal succession, one being the succession of philosophers in a philosophical school and the other being "Jewish, Maccabean sacerdotal succession lists."33 The fourth-century writer Epiphanius (Panarion 27.6.1-7) also provides a Roman succession list that he claims to have taken from "certain historical works," widely regarded as a reference to Hegesippus's works.34 Epiphanius's list is identical with Irenaeus's except that Anicletus is called Cletus and that Epiphanius's list ends with Anicetus. Lampe argues that Hegesippus's comments show no concern with "a succession of monarchical bishops from the apostles to the present," but rather with "chain bearers of correct belief."35. I think Lampe's statement is correct up to a point. Hegesippus is explicitly concerned with the succession chain at the level of local churches, and he explicitly ends his list with an individual, Anicetus, who was his contemporary and whom he regarded as holding an individual office (monarchical bishop?), since he "was succeeded by Soter." Though one must concede that Hegesippus is not explicitly interested in a monarchical episcopate here, it does appear that he understood his list to consist of individual leaders in the church at Rome.

At the beginning of the third century, Tertullian makes an argument similar to that of Irenaeus, though he does not provide full succession lists:
But if any heresies venture to plant themselves in the apostolic age, so that they may be thought to have been handed down by the apostles because they existed in their time, we can say, Let them exhibit the origins of their churches, let them unroll the list of their bishops, coming down from the beginning by succession in such a way that their first bishop had for his originator and predecessor one of the apostles or apostolic men; one, I mean, who continued with the apostles. For this is how the apostolic churches record their origins. The church of Smyrna, for example, reports that Polycarp was placed there by John, the church of Rome that Clement was ordained by Peter.36
Tertullian's statement that Clement was ordained by Peter appears to conflict with the list of Irenaeus and Epiphanius, in which Clement is the third successor from the apostles. Epiphanius is already aware of this problem and discusses possible solutions. Bévenot has also suggested a solution under which Linus and Anencletus are mentioned parenthetically in Irenaeus's list.37

Thus we have reasonably early and reliable historical testimony from several writers concerning a succession of individual bearers of apostolic tradition going back to the apostles. The succession lists appear in the historical record right where we would expect them to, because by the mid- to late second century living memory of the apostles had faded, and competing Gnostic claims to have true apostolic doctrine had to be countered.


This article has served to introduce the reader to some of the most important historical evidence related to the doctrine of apostolic succession. The Pastoral Epistles and 1 Clement provide strong evidence that the apostles appointed other individuals to succeed them in their ministry, made provision for this succession to continue beyond the lifetime of their direct successors, and understood this office of "bishop" to be divinely ordained. The phenomenon of apostolic pseudepigraphy (represented, according to many scholars, in New Testament epistles such as 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians and 1 and 2 Peter), suggests that there were individuals in the early post-apostolic period who understood themselves as having apostolic authority to the extent that they could write under an apostle's name. In the Didache and the Ascension of Isaiah, we find some tension between the itinerant leadership of prophets and teachers and the resident leadership of bishops and/or presbyters and deacons. The ministry of the itinerant prophets and teachers is linked closely to that of the apostles, while the ministry of the resident bishops and deacons is identified with that of the itinerant prophets and teachers. In Ignatius of Antioch's letters we find for the first time a strong notion of monarchical episcopacy, a notion that receives the implicit endorsement of no less a figure than Polycarp of Smyrna in his Letter to the Philippians. In his mid-second century Letter to Flora, the Valentinian Gnostic Ptolemy tacitly concedes his proto-orthodox opponents' claim to have received apostolic tradition by succession. By the late second century, we have a well-developed doctrine of apostolic succession substantiated by succession lists for the church at Rome. By contrast, as Jones states, "In no case [in the first and second centuries] do we have any evidence of a loose egalitarian, wholly collegial form of government".38 All of this evidence is consistent with the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, as defined in the previous two articles.


Footnotes

  • 1 I hope Catholic readers will not take offence at my decision not to use the prefix "St." with the names of apostles and other saints in this article. I do so to avoid the appearance of anachronism in what is primarily an historical study.
  • 2 Towner states that "the command 'guard the deposit' involves both preserving and proclaiming the apostolic gospel", adding that "Within the flow of thought, succession is very much in mind" (The Letters to Timothy and Titus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 476). He adds that "at v. 12 it becomes clear that Paul is not simply calling Timothy to a renewal of previous duties; he is rather preparing Timothy to be his successor in the mission" (ibid., 476-477). Again, "The continuity between Paul's ministry and Timothy's (and of those who will follow; cf. 2:1-2, which uses the same language) is underscored in the phrase 'what you heard from me.' It is precisely this apostolic continuity that ensures the purity of the message on into the next generation" (ibid., 477).
  • 3 Concerning Titus's task of appointing elders in every town, Towner writes, "Paul uses a verb that signifies official appointment, but he does not indicate much more about the procedure and how it is to be carried out. Most of the discussion in the commentaries concerns the degree to which the task is Titus's or to be shared by the church. At a minimum, given the Cretan churches' early state, probably the candidates would have been selected by the communities that knew them best, with Titus's delegated apostolic authority being applied as the final seal of recognition and appointment to leadership (signified publicly by the laying on of hands; cf. 1 Tim 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim 1:6)" (ibid., 680).
  • 4 translations of Apostolic Fathers texts are taken, unless otherwise indicated, from Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 5 Note the vexing text-critical problem surrounding the Greek phrase that Ehrman translates, "added a codicil." Holmes translates, "they gave the offices a permanent character," and comments, "lit. (reading epimonēn, the emendation printed by Lightfoot) have given permanence, i.e., to the offices of bishop and deacon. The witnesses vary widely, with the most likely reading being that of A, epinomēn. But it is difficult to make sense of the word unless one either assumes the existence of a secondary meaning such as 'injunction' (a meaning otherwise unattested) or gives it the same meaning as the cognate word epinomis, a 'codicil' or 'supplement'. The translation would then run something like 'added a codicil' or 'made a decree'" (Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 78 n. 108). The possibility of an apostolic decree is supported by the decree on requirements of Gentile converts found in Acts 15:22-29.
  • 6 Cf. Stephen J. Patterson, "Didache 11-13: The Legacy of Radical Itinerancy in Early Christianity," in Clayton N. Jefford, ed., The Didache in Context: Essays on its Text, History, and Transmission (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 315-318.
  • 7 See Towner's comment in note 3 above about Titus's modus operandi in appointing elders in every town: this may have involved a process where the local congregation elected a candidate whom Titus then approved and ratified. Note also how Ignatius urges Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, to "call a council that is pleasing to God and to elect someone whom you hold most dear and resolved" to travel as a messenger to Syria (Polyc. 7.2). This illustrates how a communal "election" was not necessarily a wholly egalitarian process but could occur under the instructions and supervision of authority figures. Note also de Halleux's comment on the Didachist's voice: "as soon as the compiler emerges timidly from the traditions which he transmits and betrays something of his identity, it is in order to appear as the messenger of a ‘teaching’, in other words as a teacher 1:3; 2:1; 6:1; 11:1-2). However, unlike the prophet, an inspired teacher who receives revelations from on high and penetrates the secrets of the heart, the humble teacher is a man of tradition, of halakah, only concerned with faithfulness in the transmission of the past. That our Didachist fits into this last category, stands out clearly from the content and style of all he has written, and the appeal to the prophet as guardian of the traditional doctrine of the church, sanctioned by the Spirit, would not here be an abuse of language." (André de Halleux, "Ministers in the Didache," in Jonathan A. Draper (ed.), The Didache in Modern Research [Leiden: Brill, 1996], 319).
  • 8 "It is clear that, whenever this instruction was added to the Didache, such persons were not routinely being given high honours—and perhaps never had been. The prophets, not surprisingly, emerge as highly honored persons (see, e.g., Did. 13.3), and together with the teachers their treatment sets the example for the honour to be given these others.” (Jonathan Schwiebert, Knowledge and the Coming Kingdom: The Didache's Meal Ritual and its Place in Early Christianity [London: T&T Clark, 2008], 95).
  • 9 De Halleux, op. cit., 313.
  • 10 Sullivan states, "Would the community have asked a prophet to lay hands on those whom they chose as overseers and deacons? There is no mention of this, but it does not seem unlikely, as this was a gesture of prayer, calling down the Spirit on those chosen for ministry. One can recall that at Antioch, the other prophets laid hands on Barnabas and Saul when they were sent out as missionaries (Acts 13:3)" (Francis Aloysius Sullivan, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church [Mahwah: Newman, 2001], 90). Similarly, Carrington: "The local churches had a ministry of bishops and deacons which they were directed to appoint for themselves, the first and indeed the only case in which appointments are said to be made by the congregation. In the Acts, seven ‘deacons’ were nominated by the congregation for ordination by the apostles, and possibly the Didache visualized a similar procedure, but it says nothing about the manner of ordination" (Philip Carrington, The Early Christian Church, 2 vols. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957], 1:495). Milavec, too, although he is critical of another scholar for discovering "episcopal ordinations hidden behind the silence of the text," himself states: "While the Didache makes no mention of ordination, one can allow that, given the Jewish roots of the framers of the Didache, the laying on of hands may have been used as the normal means whereby bishops admitted an elected candidate into their circle of bishops" (Aaron E. Milavec, The Didache: Faith, Hope, and Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. [Mahwah: Newman, 2003], 609, 613).
  • 11 Trans. M. A. Knibb, "Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah: A New Translation and Introduction," in James H. Charlesworth (ed)., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols. [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1983/2011], 2:161.
  • 12 Paolo Bettiolo, Alda Giambelluca Kossova, Claudio Leonardi, Enrico Norelli, and Lorenzo Perrone, Ascensio Isaiae: Textus (Brepols: Turnhout, 1995), 45. This passage is, fortunately, part of the fragment of the Ascension that is preserved in a Greek manuscript.
  • 13 Enrico Norelli, Ascensio Isaiae: Commentarius (Brepols: Turnhout, 1995), 194-95.
  • 14 This is a loose translation of Norelli's comment, which in Italian reads thus: "La struttura della comunità supposta da AI 1-5 pare fondarsi su di una direzione collegiale di presbiteri, tra i quali sembrano distinguersi i pastori / episcopi dotati di particolare autorità" (Norelli, op. cit., 219).
  • 15 Norelli, op. cit., 195.
  • 16 Jonathan Knight, Disciples of the Beloved One: The Christology, Social Setting and Theological Context of the Ascension of Isaiah (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996), 198.
  • 17 Knight, op. cit., 202.
  • 18 Knight, op. cit., 202-204.
  • 19 Ehrman, op. cit., 1:205-207.
  • 20 Paul Foster, "The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, part 1," Expository Times 117 (2006): 492.
  • 21 Trans. Ehrman, op. cit., 1:223.
  • 22 Polycarp's letter is from "Polycarp and the presbyters who are with him" (Phil. prescript), which implies his own preeminence and is consistent with a self-understanding as a monarchical bishop with presbyters subordinate to him.
  • 23 Three points favour this identification. First, both men were Christian teachers named Ptolemy living in Rome in the mid-second century. Justin's Ptolemy was denounced and eventually martyred for teaching Christianity to a certain unnamed woman, while Ptolemy's Letter to Flora contains elementary Christian teaching (of a Gnostic variety) addressed to a woman, Flora. The woman mentioned by Justin was involved in a difficult marriage situation but was implored by her Christian advisers to remain in the marriage; the Letter to Flora mentions and reinforces Jesus's teachings against divorce. These parallels seem too great to be coincidental. The main argument against identifying the two Ptolemies is that Justin paints a very favourable portrait of Ptolemy, whereas the Ptolemy who wrote the Letter to Flora is condemned as a heretic from the Valentinian school by Irenaeus and later authors. What is more, Justin himself, in another work, names the Valentinians among the heretics whom he calls "impious atheists and wicked sinners, men who profess Jesus in name only, but do not really worship" (Dialogue with Trypho 35.5-6, Thomas P. Halton, St. Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, ed. Michael Slusser, trans. Thomas B. Falls [Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003], 55). This difficulty is not insurmountable, however. Justin's Dialogue with Trypho is generally believed to have been written a few years later than the Apologies (the Dialogue mentions an Apology), so it is possible that Justin was not yet familiar with the Valentinians' teachings when he wrote about Ptolemy. Alternatively, Justin may have been familiar with the Valentinians already but may not have known that Ptolemy was a Valentinian. Thus, while we cannot be certain, it appears likely that Ptolemy the author was also Ptolemy the martyr.
  • 24 In Irenaeus's Against Heresies, he refers twice to Ptolemy's followers and only once to Ptolemy directly, which may suggest Ptolemy himself was no longer active by 180 A.D.
  • 25 Quispel's French translation of the verse is as follows: "Car, si Dieu le permet, vous recevrez plus tard des éclaircissements plus précis sur leur principe et leur naissance, quand vous aurez été jugée digne de connaître la tradition des apôtres, tradition que, nous aussi, nous avons reçue par voie de succession. En ce cas aussi, nous confirmerons nos conceptions par les paroles du Sauveur." (Gilles Quispel, Ptolémée, Lettre à Flora: Texte, Traduction et Introduction [Paris: Cerf, 1949], 69).
  • 26 Quispel notes Clement of Alexandria's observation that the heretics claimed that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas, a pupil of Paul (Strom. 7.106; Clement rejects this and claims that the heretics arose after the apostles' time, during the reign of Hadrian). Perhaps this is what Ptolemy is referring to in his assertion to Flora about apostolic succession. However, the proliferation of "secret gospels" and the like suggests that the Gnostics did not have a reliable claim to apostolic succession, in contrast to the proto-orthodox Church where the apostles' successors held public ecclesiastical office.
  • 27 He claims that such succession could be proven for every church, but that to avoid tedium he is reproducing the list only for Rome, which he considers the preeminent church.
  • 28 Against Heresies 3.3.3, trans. Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons (New York: Routledge, 1997), 7-8.
  • 29 Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 60-61.
  • 30 Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus, trans. Michael Steinhauser, ed. Marshall D. Johnson (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 404-406.
  • 31 Kenneth A. Strand, "Peter and Paul in Relationship to the Episcopal Succession in the Church at Rome," Andrews University Seminary Studies 3 (1992): 221.
  • 32 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.22, trans. Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History: Translation and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 139.
  • 33 Allen Brent, Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century: Communities in tension before the emergence of a monarch-bishop (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 446.
  • 34 So Strand, op. cit., 221.
  • 35 Lampe, op. cit., 404.
  • 36 Tertullian, Prescriptions against the Heretics 32, trans. Stanley L. Greenslade, Early Latin Theology: Selections from Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Jerome (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1956), 52-53.
  • 37 "Now Clement is ‘in the third place from the apostles’. For us, with this context, 'from the apostles' is equivalent to ‘after the apostles’, and we instinctively think of Linus and Anencletus as being the first two. But ‘after the apostles’ would have been μετὰ τοὺς ἀποστόλους, and not, as Irenaeus wrote, από των αποστόλων. In his mind, the first two were Peter and Paul, the founders of the Roman Church, whom he had just named, and not Linus and Anencletus, in spite of his mentioning them. Had Irenaeus been merely giving the order of those who followed the apostles and had meant to include Linus and Anencletus among them, there was no reason for him to add τρίτῳ τόπῳ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀποστόλων when introducing Clement. He showed by this that he was by-passing those two, putting them in a kind of parenthesis, and linking Clement directly with the apostles. This is a necessary conclusion from the correct use of από in connexion with some ordinal number; it meant 'beginning with, inclusively', and not ‘from’ in the sense of ‘after’… Irenaeus no doubt found Linus and Anencletus mentioned in his source—the first especially, as having been a companion of St. Paul—but he knew that the one to whom had been transferred the full apostolic authority was Clement and no other. That is why he felt it necessary to add ἀπὸ τῶν ἀποστόλων, which otherwise seems so superfluous, and he repeated the phrase twice more (for Sixtus and for Eleutherus), to remove all doubt that it was indeed from and including the apostles that he was making his enumeration. When he wanted to say ‘after’, he used μετά, which occurs three times in the course of his list. He little realized what problems he was raising; even Eusebius mistook his meaning. But Tertullian did not…" (Maurice Bévenot, “Clement of Rome in Irenaeus’s Succession-List,” Journal of Theological Studies 17 [1966]: 102-105.)
  • 38 David Albert Jones, "Was there a Bishop of Rome in the First Century?", New Blackfriars 80 (1999): 138.

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
Conclusion

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.

Footnotes

  • 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.