dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label early Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label early Church. Show all posts

Monday, 9 May 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (3): "It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them" (Isaiah 63:9)

Continuing our series on Christological texts in Isaiah, we turn to the rich and fascinating text that is Isaiah 63:9. We will first look at the text in its context in the Hebrew Bible and its translation in the Septuagint. We will then look at its reception in the New Testament before surveying its interpretation in the early Church.

Isaiah 63:9 in Context 

Isaiah 63:1-6 is a "divine warrior scene" in which a figure comes from Edom and "marches toward Zion wearing red garments, which at first glance appear regal (63:1) but actually are covered with the blood of the nations (63:3)."1 Although the figure is not explicitly identified, the lofty language used of the figure and the connection with the earlier divine warrior scene in Isaiah 59:15b-21 (where the Warrior is explicitly YHWH) leaves no doubt as to his identity.2 The Divine Warrior comes to save his people and to destroy their enemies.

The Divine Warrior scene ends at 63:6 and gives way to a "communal lament" that runs from 63:7-64:11. The lament "begins in hymnic style in verse 7 by urging the people to commemorate YHWH's glorious deeds," an appeal followed by "two historical reflections in verses 8-10 and vv. 11-14."3 63:7-14 as a whole establishes "the covenantal nature of the human-divine relationship," strains in which are lamented in vv. 15-19a, eliciting a petition for God to visit Israel anew as he had once done at Sinai.4 Despite the shift from divine warrior scene in 63:1-6 to communal lament from 63:7-64:11, there are obvious connections between the two passages. Above all, "theophanic themes" involving YHWH's deliverance and judgment, past and present, are evident throughout.5

Isaiah 63:9 is a verse with significant textual difficulties in the Hebrew text. As Bogdan G. Bucur explains, the textual variations hinge on two short words, לא and ער:
In the former case, the question is whether to choose the ketiv לא ('not') or the qere, the homophone לו ('to him'). As for צר, the question is whether to accept the MT vocalization of צַר ('constraint,' 'distress,' 'affliction') or to vocalize it as צִיר, which would yield 'messenger.'6
Depending on the textual decision one makes and how one reads the syntax, one arrives at one of two quite different renderings:7
8 [...] and he became their savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (RSV)

8 [...] and he became their savior 9 in all their affliction. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (NRSV)
The second of the above readings was followed by the Septuagint translators:
8 [...] And he became to them salvation out of all affliction. It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them, because he loved them and spared them; he himself ransomed them and took them up and lifted them up all the days of old.8
The idea is similar to that in Isaiah 35:4 LXX, the text we looked at in the previous article: "God...himself will come and save us." There is a notable difference, in that Isaiah 35:4 is a prophecy of the future whereas Isaiah 63:9 recalls past events—probably, above all, those of the Exodus. However, given the prominence of New Exodus language in Isaiah, the wider idea in this communal lament is that what God had done in the past, he will do in the future: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence" (64:1 NRSV).

What is particularly significant about the second reading of Isaiah 63:9 above—the one that the Septuagint followed and that was therefore dominant in early Christianity—is that it contrasts God's direct saving activity with the notion of his working through an agent such as a messenger or an angel. Bucur notes that this contrast also features in rabbinic Jewish exegesis of the Exodus story, with several rabbis insisting that it was the Holy One himself and no agent who undertook certain key acts of deliverance.9

Isaiah 63 in Revelation 19

Isaiah 63:9 is never quoted in the New Testament. The Divine Warrior Scene that shortly precedes it, however, is alluded to in Revelation 19. Interestingly, while the Divine Warrior in Isaiah 63:1-6 is undoubtedly God, Revelation 19 applies this imagery to Christ:
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. 13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a scepter of iron; he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (Revelation 19:11-16 NRSV)
There is no mistaking that this figure wearing a robe dipped in blood and treading the winepress of the wrath of God is the figure described in Isaiah 63:2-3. And yet Isaiah 63:3-5 contains language similar to 63:9 about God working alone rather than through an agent or messenger: "I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me... I looked, but there was no helper; I was abandoned, and there was no one to sustain me, so my own arm brought me victory". It is difficult to understand how Revelation could identify the Divine Warrior of Isaiah 63:1-6 as someone other than God—unless there is someone other than God who is also fully divine, as the names "the Word of God" and "King of kings and Lord of lords" already suggest.10

Isaiah 63:9 in the Early Church

Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180-185 C.E., comments thus on our passage: 
And Isaias says that those who served God are in the end to be saved through His name… And that He was Himself to bring about these blessings in person, Isaias declared in the words: Not an intercessor, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself hath given them life, because He loves them and has pity on them; He Himself redeemed them. (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 88).11
In his better-known work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus offers a similar interpretation: 
So again, that He who was to save us would not be purely a man, nor a being without flesh—for angels have no flesh—Isaiah announced by saying: "It is not an elder, nor an angel, but the Lord himself who will save them; because he loves them and spares them, himself will deliver them." (Adv. Haer. 3.20.4)12
The anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, usually grouped among the Apostolic Fathers but dated to c. 200 A.D., does not quote Isaiah 63:9 but probably alludes to it in the following words:
But the truly all-powerful God himself, creator of all and invisible, set up and established in their hearts the truth and the holy word from heaven, which cannot be comprehended by humans. To do so, he did not, as one might suppose, send them one of his servants or an angel or a ruler or any of those who administer earthly activities or who are entrusted with heavenly affairs, but he sent the craftsman and maker of all things himself, by whom he created the heavens, by whom he enclosed the sea within its own boundaries, whose mysteries all the elements of creation guard faithfully, from whom the sun was appointed to guard the courses that it runs during the day, whom the moon obeys when he commands it to shine at night, whom the stars obey by following the course of the moon, by whom all things are set in order and arranged and put into subjection, the heavens and the things in the heavens, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things in the sea, fire, air, the abyss, creatures in the heights, creatures in the depths, creatures in between—this is the one he sent to them. (Ep. Diognetus 7.2)13
In his work On the Flesh of Christ, Tertullian, writing in the early third century, seeks to refute those who say that Christ was clothed with an angel. At the conclusion of his argument, he writes, "What more do we need, when we hear Isaiah crying out, 'Not an angel nor a delegate, but the Lord himself hath saved them?'" (De Carne Christi 14.6)14

Origen, the great Alexandrian exegete, quotes the passage a few decades later in his commentary on the Song of Songs. He regards the woman's longing for her lover as signifying the Church's longing for Christ himself and no mere minister: 
This is the content of the actual story, presented in dramatic form. But let us see if the inner meaning can also be fittingly supplied along these lines. Let it be the Church who longs for union with Christ… [after the Law] But, since the age is almost ended and His own presence is not granted me, and I see only His ministers ascending and descending upon me, because of this I pour out my petition to Thee, the Father of my Spouse, beseeching Thee to have compassion at last upon my love, and to send Him, that He may now no longer speak to me only but by His servants the angels and the prophets, but may come Himself directly and kiss me with the kisses of His mouth—that is to say, may pour the words of His mouth into mine, that I may hear Him speak Himself, and see Him teaching. The kisses are Christ’s, which He bestowed on His Church when at His coming, being present in the flesh, He in His own person spoke to her the words of faith and love and peace, according to the promise of Isaias who, when sent beforehand to the Bride, had said: Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself shall save  us. (Commentary on Song of Songs 1.1)15

Highlighting the similarity between Isaiah 35:4 (discussed in the previous article) and 63:9, Cyprian of Carthage—a contemporary of Origen—quotes the two texts in immediate succession in his list of proof texts supporting the proposition "That Christ our God should come as the Enlightener and Saviour of the human race" (Ad Quirinum 2.7).16


Isaiah 63:1-6 is a divine warrior scene that depicts YHWH's theophanic deliverance of Israel and wrathful judgment of her enemies. Following on that, Isaiah 63:7-64:11 is a communal lament that petitions God to make just such a theophanic intervention. It recalls how God has done this in the past, and one possible reconstruction of the text of Isaiah 63:9—which the Septuagint follows—emphasises that it was God himself and no mere agent (messenger or angel) who intervened.

Already in the Book of Revelation, the Divine Warrior of Isaiah 63:1-6—who had emphasised that he worked alone, because there was no helper—is interpreted as Jesus, the Word of God. In like manner, the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries consistently interpret the language of 63:9 ("It was no ambassador or angel but the Lord himself that saved them") as a reference to the Incarnation, in which the divine Son of God personally came in human flesh to save humanity from their enemies.
  • 1 Matthew J. Lynch,  "Zion's Warrior and the Nations: Isaiah 59:15b-63:6 in Isaiah's Zion Traditions," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70 (2008): 245, 256.
  • 2 These two divine warrior scenes "form an inclusio around and are textually joined to chaps. 60-62," which speak of Zion's restoration (Lynch, "Zion's Warrior," 245).
  • 3 Judith Gärtner, "'...Why Do You Let Us Stray from Your Paths...' (Isa 63:17): The Concept of Guilt in the Communal Lament Isa 63:7-64:11," in M. J. Boda, D. K. Falk & R. A. Werline (eds.), Seeking the Favor of God. Volume 1: The Origins of Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), 146.
  • 4 Richard J. Bautsch, "Lament Regained in Trito-Isaiah's Penitential Prayer," in Boda, Falk & Werline, Seeking the Favor of God, 87.
  • 5 Lynch, "Zion's Warrior," 259.
  • 6 Bogdan G. Bucur, "The Lord Himself, One Lord, One Power: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Isaiah 63:9 and Daniel 7:13," in Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism, ed. Andrei A. Orlov (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 241-42. The ketiv refers to the orthographic consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, and the qere to the suggested vocalisation of the Masoretic Text.
  • 7 In fact two further renderings are possible; see Bucur, "The Lord Himself," 242 for the details.
  • 8 Moisés Silva, "Esaias," in New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 872. The Greek text reads: 8 [...] καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτοῖς εἰς σωτηρίαν 9 ἐκ πάσης θλίψεως. οὐ πρέσβυς οὐδὲ ἄγγελος, ἀλλʼ αὐτὸς κύριος ἔσωσεν αὐτούς διὰ τὸ ἀγαπᾶν αὐτοὺς καὶ φείδεσθαι αὐτῶν· αὐτὸς ἐλυτρώσατο αὐτοὺς καὶ ἀνέλαβεν αὐτοὺς καὶ ὕψωσεν αὐτοὺς πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας τοῦ αἰῶνος. (Septuaginta, ed. Joseph Ziegler [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983], 14:355.)
  • 9 See Bucur, "The Lord Himself," 243-54.
  • 10 On the latter title, see my article, "Lord of lords" and "King of kings" as Hebraic Superlatives.
  • 11 Trans. Joseph P. Smith, S.J., St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostlic Preaching (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1952), 102.
  • 12 This is my translation of the French translation by Adélin Rousseau: "De même encore, que Celui qui devait nous sauver ne serait ni purement un homme, ni un être sans chair - car les anges n'ont pas de chair -, Isaïe l'a annoncé en disant: «Ce n'est pas un ancien, ni un ange, mais le Seigneur lui-même qui les sauvera, parce qu'il les aime et qu'il les épargne, lui-même les délivrera.»" (Adelin Rousseau, Irénée de Lyon: Contre les hérésies [Paris: Cerf, 2001]).
  • 13 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2:145.
  • 14 Trans. Ernest Evans, Tertullian's Treatise on the Incarnation (London: SPCK, 1956), 53.
  • 15 Trans. R. P. Lawson, Origen, The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies (New York: Newman, 1956), 59-60.
  • 16 Trans. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1840), 3:37.

Sunday, 1 May 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (2): "God...will repay; he himself will come and save us" (Isaiah 35:4)

Let us continue our series on the Christological significance of Isaianic texts. In the last article we looked at Isaiah 48:16, observing that the speaker of this text is enigmatic, that the text is alluded to in the Gospel of John, and that early Christian exegetes (specifically Origen of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea) understood the speaker to be Christ.

In this article, we will look at Isaiah 35:4. Let us first consider the passage in its immediate context:
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:1-6b NRSV)1
The Septuagint version of v. 4 reads, "Give comfort, you who are faint of heart and mind! Be strong; do not fear! Look, our God is repaying judgment; yes, he will repay; he himself will come and save us" (NETS). It is this last clause (αὐτὸς ἥξει καὶ σώσει ἡμᾶς in Greek) that demands our close attention. The statement places special emphasis on the subject; hence the translation "he himself will come and save us."2 Moreover, the verb ἥκω does not merely mean "come" in a generic sense (like ἔρχομαι does) but, when used of persons, specifically means "to be in a place as the result of movement to, have come, be present".3 Focusing on the result of the movement more than the movement itself, it signals that God will come and be present with his people.4 While the text certainly does not make explicit reference to the Incarnation, this is one means by which God could have come to be present with his people and so heal their infirmities, as Jesus did according to the Gospels.

Given the emphatic use of αὐτὸς here ("God...will repay; he himself will come and save us"), it is worth noting some similar language in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, a reference to Christ's second coming when he will raise the dead: "For the Lord himself (αὐτὸς ὁ κύριος)...will descend from heaven..." "The Lord" here is obviously Christ; but why has Paul added αὐτὸς for emphasis? It could, in fact, be an allusion to another Isaianic text:
But now the Lord will stand up to judge, and he will make his people stand to judge them. The Lord himself (αὐτὸς κύριος) will enter into judgment with the elders of the people and with their rulers. (Isaiah 3:13-14 LXX, NETS)

It is possible that early Christian readers would have seen in the verb "stand" here an allusion to the resurrection.5 But what is clear is that the text foretells that "the Lord himself" will come and be present for judgment (the verb is again ἥκω). "The Lord" in the context of Isaiah 3:13-14 is obviously God, but Paul apparently interprets it to refer to Christ. This provides at least prima facie evidence that Paul might have likewise understood the "God" who would himself come in judgment according to Isaiah 35:4 to be Christ.

Isaiah 35 in the New Testament

Isaiah 35 is a chapter that lends itself easily to eschatological interpretation. The image of the desert blossoming, associated with the people seeing the glory of God (vv. 1-2) is a picture of restoration (cf. Acts 3:21). The author of Hebrews, in calling his readers to perseverance that they may receive their eschatological reward, alludes to Isaiah 35:3 ("Be strong, you weak hands and feeble knees") in 12:12.6 The list of miracles in Isaiah 35:5-6 has certainly influenced statements about Jesus' healing ministry, especially in Matthew 11:4-5 and 15:30-31.7 The picture in Isaiah 35:10 of pain and sorrow and sighing having fled away forms part of the background to Revelation 21:4, which states that "mourning and crying and pain will be no more".8 Thus, while the NT never quotes verbatim from Isaiah 35, there is ample evidence that it was understood in the early Church to refer to the blessings of the Messianic age, including those inaugurated at Christ's first coming.

Isaiah 35:4 in the Early Church

At least five ante-Nicene Christian writers interpret Isaiah 35:4 (together with vv. 5-6) as a prophecy about Christ. The first of these is Tertullian (late 2nd or early 3rd century), who writes (within a polemic against the Jews):
Moreover, [I shall demonstrate] the feats of strength [Christ] was going to perform from the Father: ‘Behold, our God shall restore judgement, God shall come and make us well. Then the weak shall be cared for, the eyes of the blind shall see, the ears of the deaf shall hear, the tongues of the mute shall be loosened and the lame shall leap like the dear’, etc. 9.31. Nor are you denying that Christ has done these things, seeing that it is you who used to say that you were throwing stones at him, not on account of his works but because he was doing them on the sabbath. (Adversus Judaeos 9.30-31)9
Evidently, Tertullian takes the words "God shall come and make us well" as fulfilled in Christ's ministry, but does not explicitly state that "God" in this verse refers to Christ. In view of the reference to feats of strength that he performed "from the Father," it is possible that he meant that God (the Father) came vicariously in Christ, or that Christ (here called "God") came from the Father.   

Around 248 A.D., Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote two books of Testimonia, that is, of "topically arranged proof-texts,"10 to one Quirinus. Having quoted many biblical texts (from both Testaments) to show "That Christ is God" (Ad Quirinum 2.6), Cyprian next marshals a series of texts proving "That Christ our God should come as the Enlightener and Saviour of the human race" (Ad Quirinum 2.7).11 The first proof text quoted is Isaiah 35:3-6. This leaves no doubt that Cyprian understood "God" in Isaiah 35:4 to refer to Christ, and thus to be a prophecy of the Incarnation.

At about the same time (c. 240-250), the Roman presbyter Novatian wrote his work de Trinitate, a polemical work defending the Church's doctrine "against the errors of Docetism, Adoptianism, and Modalism."12 Novatian discusses our passage at some length:
(4) The same prophet [Isaiah] says: ‘Be strong, you feeble hands and weak knees; be comforted, you that are faint-hearted, be strong, fear not. Behold, our God will render judgment: He will come and save us; then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf shal hear; then shall the lame man leap as the hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall be eloquent.’ (5) If the prophet says that these signs—which have already been wrought—will be the future signs of God’s advent, then let the heretics either acknowledge that Christ is the Son of God, at whose coming and by whom these miracles were wrought, or—defeated by the truth of Christ’s divinity and falling into the other heresy—inasmuch as they refuse to confess that Christ is the Son of God and God—let them confess that He is the Father. Since they have been restrained by the words of the prophets, they can no longer deny that Christ is God. (6) What, then, can they reply, when the miracles which were prophesied as taking place at the coming of God, were actually wrought at the advent of Christ? In what way do they think Christ is God? For they can no longer deny that He is God. Do they think He is the Father or the Son? If they accept Him as the Son, why do they deny that the Son of God is God? If they accept Him as the Father, why are they not following those who are seen to hold such blasphemies? At any rate, in this debate with them about the truth, it suffices for our present purpose that, no matter how they are refuted, they confess that Christ, whose divinity they wished to deny, is also God. (de Trinitate 12.4-6)13
Novatian, like Cyprian, believes that Isaiah 35:4 proves Christ's deity. If Isaiah refers to the coming of God and then describes healing works that were in fact performed in history by Christ, it follows that Christ is the "God" that Isaiah prophesied would come.

In the 268/9, a synod in Antioch deposed the Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, in part for Christological heresy.14 A letter survives addressed to Paul by six other bishops, of whom Hymenaeus of Jerusalem is named first. This letter is known as the Letter of the Six Bishops or the Letter of Hymenaeus.15 I am not aware of any published English translation; what follows is my translation of the Greek.16 The bishops write,
But whomever would resist the Son of God, believing and confessing him not to be God before the foundation of the world, thinking two gods to be announced if the Son of God is declared God, we regard this as alien to the ecclesiastical rule, and all the catholic churches agree with us. For about him it is written…
The bishops proceed to quote a series of biblical proof texts that, in their view, establish that the Son of God is God. The first is Psalm 44(45):6-7, and the second is our text, Isaiah 35:4-6.

Finally, Eusebius of Caesarea discusses our text in his work Proof of the Gospel, written c. 314-324.17 After quoting from Isaiah 35 at length, he writes:
Now we have this prophecy fulfilled in the Gospels, partly, when they brought to our Lord and Saviour a paralytic lying on a bed, whom He made whole with a word; and partly, when many that were blind and possessed with daemons, yea, labouring under various diseases and weaknesses, were released from their sufferings by His saving power. Nor should we forget how even now throughout the whole world multitudes bound by all forms of evil, full of ignorance of Almighty God in their souls, are healed and cured miraculously and beyond all argument by the medicine of His teaching. Except that now we call Him God as we should, as One Who can work thus, as I have already shown in the evidence of His Divinity... For it is God and the Word of God, not one like Moses or the prophets, that was not only the Worker of the Miracles, but is also the Cause of your own strength. And the strongest confirmation of the Divine Power of the Saviour here foretold, by which He really used to cure the lame, the blind, the lepers and the palsied with a word according to that which is written concerning Him, is the power even now energizing through the whole world from His Godhead... And He is our God, since He is the Word of God, [as] it says, 'Gives judgment and will give, He will come and save us.'... He repays justly to the Jewish people the fit penalty for their presumptuous treatment of Him and His prophets, and ever saves in justice as well those who come to Him... And the judgment on them that shall be saved by Him is foretold next in the words, 'He will come and save us; then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf hear,' and that which follows." (Proof of the Gospel 9.13)18
Like Cyprian and Novatian before him, Eusebius saw in this text proof that Christ is God.


Isaiah 35:4 LXX declares that God himself will come and be present and save us. We have observed that Church Fathers both in the West (Cyprian, Novatian, possibly Tertullian) and in the East (Hymenaeus and other bishops, Eusebius) understood Isaiah this text to be a prophecy of the Incarnation, in which God truly did come and make himself physically present to us in the person of his Son, the Word Incarnate. This interpretation is supported by NT allusions to Isaiah 35—which show that the text was understood Messianically—and by the language used in the Septuagint Greek, especially when compared with Paul's language in 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

  • 1 All biblical quotations herein, except those from the Septuagint, are taken from the NRSV. Quotations from the Septuagint are taken from Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (eds.), A New English Translation of the Septuagint (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) (hereafter NETS).
  • 2 αὐτὸς is the third-person pronoun, i.e. "he." However, an ancient Greek sentence does not require a subject to be supplied explicitly, since it is implicit in the verb; hence ἥξει καὶ σώσει ἡμᾶς already means "he will come and save us." The inclusion of αὐτὸς thus places emphasis on the subject. Secondly, word order in ancient Greek is highly flexible; the sentence could have been worded ἥξει αὐτὸς καὶ ἡμᾶς σώσει and would still mean, "he will come and save us." Thus, that αὐτὸς is the first word places further emphasis on the subject.
  • 3 BDAG 435.
  • 4 Of course, the Masoretic text is no less impressive in declaring, "Here is your God" (cf. Isa. 40:9-10).
  • 5 The verb ἵστημι ("stand") is the root of the verb ἀνίστημι (literally, "stand again") that is a technical term for "raise (from the dead)" in the NT.
  • 6 "Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees".
  • 7 Matthew 11:4 "refers again to specific healing miracles as  having messianic significance, as already in the LXX of Isa. 29:18-19; 35:5-6; and 61:1" (Craig L. Blomberg, "Matthew," in Commentary on the Old Testament Use of the New Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], 38). "The categories of sick people and the healings performed in Matt. 15:30-31 again recall the prophecies of the miracles that would demonstrate the arrival of the messianic age (esp. Isa. 35:5-6)" (ibid., 54).
  • 8 G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough, "Revelation," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 1151.
  • 9 Trans. Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 90.
  • 10 Martin C. Albl, "And Scripture Cannot Be Broken": The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 132.
  • 11 Trans. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1840), 3:37.
  • 12 Russell J. deSimone (trans.), Novatian: The Trinity, The Spectacles, Jewish Foods, In Praise of Purity, Letters (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1974), 14-15.
  • 13 Trans. deSimone, Novatian, 50-51.
  • 14 "Paul rejects the idea that the Logos should be composed (σύνθετος) with a human body, for this would be equivalent to a kind of mingling which is contrary to his dignity or rank as the Son of God… Malchion insists that Jesus Christ is one, composed out of two simple elements, the God-Logos and the human body, which is from the seed of David. The charge laid on Paul is that his rejection of such a model of ‘composition’ implies a denial of the substantial union of the Son of God with the human body. It is insinuated that he conceives of the union in Christ as a participation, presumably of the man Jesus, in the divine Wisdom, who is said to dwell in the former. According to Malchion, Paul’s doctrine of the inhabitation of divine Wisdom is motivated by the intention to protect the Son of God from the humiliating consequences of his kenosis, i.e. from suffering the cost or loss (dispendium) of his being united with a human body." (U. M. Lang, "The Christological Controversy at the Synod of Antioch in 268/9," Journal of Theological Studies 51 [2000]: 66-67.
  • 15 Lang states that de Riedmatten has argued convincingly in favour of its authenticity ("Christological Controversy," 71).
  • 16 Greek text in Martin Josephus Routh, Reliquiae Sacrae, 5 vols. (Oxford: Typographeo academico, 1846-48), 3:291.
  • 17 According to Aaron P. Johnson, the Proof of the Gospel was written during the period 314-324 ("Narrating the Council: Eusebius on Nicaea," in The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea, ed. Young Kim [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021], 203). W. J. Ferrar dates the Proof of the Gospel to 314-318, reasoning that some of theological language is too "unguarded" to have been written after the Arian controversy erupted c. 319 (The Proof of the Gospel, Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea [2 vols.; London: SPCK, 1920], 1:xiii).
  • 18 Trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 2:178-79. The word "as" has been inserted in square brackets by me, since Ferrar's translation does not make sense without it. An alternative emendation would be, "And He is our God. Since He is the Word of God, it says, 'Gives judgment...'"

Saturday, 28 July 2018

The Use of the Deuterocanonical Books in Early Christian Literature

1. Introduction
2. Some References to the Deuterocanonical Books in Ante-Nicene Christian Literature
2.1. Judith
2.2. Tobit
2.3. Baruch
2.4. 1 Maccabees
2.5. 2 Maccabees
2.6. Wisdom of Solomon
2.7. Sirach
2.8. Greek Additions to Esther
2.9. Greek Additions to Daniel
3. Conclusion

One of the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants concerns the boundaries of the biblical canon.1 The Catholic Bible contains 73 books, while the Protestant Bible contains 66. The respective New Testaments are identical, but seven books found in the Catholic Old Testament are not found in the Protestant Old Testament: Judith, Tobit, Baruch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, and Wisdom of Sirach. These books are known to Catholics as the deuterocanonical books and to Protestants as apocrypha. Additionally, the books of Esther and Daniel in the Catholic Bible contain material not found in the Protestant versions of these books. 

To briefly rehearse the history, some regional—not ecumenical—councils in the West confirmed the 73-book canon in the late fourth century A.D. (see here for a list reflecting the decision of the Council of Carthage), as did Pope Innocent I in 405. St. Jerome, who at this time translated the Latin Vulgate, was one prominent voice holding that the books that were composed in Hebrew and considered canonical by the Jews were of first importance—though he deferred to the Church's judgment and thus included the deuterocanonical books in the Vulgate (which for many centuries became the Bible used liturgically in the West). In the East, the canon was never formalised, and to this day there is regional variation in which Scriptures are used liturgically in the Orthodox Churches (though, invariably, most or all of the seven deuterocanonical books are used, sometimes with others besides). The 73-book status quo continued unchallenged in the West for over a millennium until the Reformers rediscovered and augmented St. Jerome's position, aligning their Old Testament to the Jewish Bible and thus demoting the seven deuterocanonical books to the status of non-canonical apocrypha. The Catholic Church responded to the Reformers' move by reaffirming the long-standing 73-book canon in the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (1546).

The purpose of this article is to offer a sampling of evidence related to one aspect of this canonical debate: the status of the deuterocanonical works in the early Church. In short, I will be quoting from early Christian writers of the ante-Nicene (pre-325 A.D.) period who quote from the deuterocanonical books as Scripture or call them Scripture. This in itself does not settle the debate—for instance, even the New Testament writers sometimes treat as Scripture works that did not finally make it into the canon (e.g., 1 Enoch in Jude 14 and an unknown text, probably the Book of Eldad and Modad, in James 4:5). However, ceteris paribus, that Christian writers of the first three centuries were treating the deuterocanonical books as Scripture supports the view that the Western consensus reached at the end of the fourth century was not a late innovation, but a formalisation of the tradition.

The seven deuterocanonical books were all written by Jews living before Christ (though some scholars date the Wisdom of Solomon as late as the early first century A.D.) Some of them were composed in Hebrew (much of Sirach and fragments of Tobit were preserved in Hebrew among the Dead Sea Scrolls and elsewhere) while others (2 Maccabees and Wisdom of Solomon) were unquestionably composed in Greek. At some point—it is difficult to say precisely when—these writings began to be transmitted together with the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures created in the third and second centuries B.C. The Septuagint was the Bible of the early Church throughout the Gentile (and Hellenistic Jewish) mission, where most of the faithful did not understand Hebrew or Aramaic. The Septuagint's importance is evident from New Testament writers' frequent reliance on it in their quotations of Scripture—even favouring it in some instances where its rendering diverges from the extant Hebrew text. The compilation of the deuterocanonical books with the Septuagint cannot be strictly equated with canonisation, since other books were, at least on occasion, so compiled (e.g., 3 & 4 Maccabees; the Prayer of Manasseh). Nevertheless, the transmission of the deuterocanonical books within the Septuagint meant that these books were part of the Scriptures used liturgically in churches throughout the ancient world (at least outside Syria-Palestine), which explains how they came to be regarded by Christians as Scripture.

We will now survey a couple of early Christian citations of each of the deuterocanonical books along with the Greek additions to Daniel and Esther. This survey is by no means comprehensive. St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen cite nearly all of the books, but I did not want to focus solely on them because this might give the incorrect impression that the use of the deuterocanonical books was a localised phenomenon in Alexandria (where the Septuagint had been created).

In 1 Clement, composed in the late first century A.D., the writer exhorts his readers with biblical examples of humility and faith in a section beginning, "For you know the sacred Scriptures, loved ones—and know them quite well—and you have gazed into the sayings of God. And so we write these things simply as a reminder" (1 Clem. 53.1).2 Thus the writer is appealing to a body of "sacred Scriptures" that he assumes is shared by his own congregation in Rome and his readers in Corinth. Within this extended reminder is the following passage:
Many women were empowered by the gracious gift of God to perform numerous 'manly' deeds. The blessed Judith, when her city lay under siege, asked the elders for permission to go out to the foreigners' camp. And so she handed herself over to danger, going out because she loved her homeland and the people under siege. And the Lord handed Holofernes over to the hand of a female. (1 Clem. 55.4-5)3
This story about Judith is taken from the Book of Judith chapter 8. It follows that the Book of Judith was part of the "sacred Scriptures" known to the churches of Rome and Corinth in the late first century.

A century later, around 200 A.D. Tertullian of Carthage mentions Judith in his work On Monogamy:
They will have plainly a specious privilege to plead before Christ — the everlasting infirmity of the flesh! But upon this (infirmity) will sit in judgment no longer an Isaac, our monogamist father; or a John, a noted voluntary celibate of Christ's; or a Judith, daughter of Merari; or so many other examples of saints. (On Monogamy 17.1)4
For Tertullian, then, Judith is one more of the many examples of saints down through the ages—a conviction he could scarcely have reached without regarding the Book of Judith as Scripture.

There is a possible, though not certain, allusion to Tobit in 2 Clement, a Christian work from the mid-second century. In 2 Clement 16.4, the writer states:
Giving to charity, therefore, is good as a repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but giving to charity is better than both. Love covers a multitude of sins, and prayer from a good conscience will rescue a person from death. How fortunate is everyone found to be full of these things. For giving to charity lightens the load of sin.5
Tobit 12:8-10 reads thus:
Prayer is good with fasting and almsgiving and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with injustice. It is better to give alms than to store up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who practice almsgiving will have fullness of life, but those who sin are enemies of their own life. (NETS)6
The three terms "prayer," "fasting," and "charity/almsgiving" are identical in the Greek. The confluence of these three virtues, the main emphasis on almsgiving, and the concern with deliverance from death combine to make literary dependence likely.

At the end of the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria paraphrases the same passage of Tobit and calls it "Scripture":
And first he will ask forgiveness of sins; and after, that he may sin no more; and further, the power of well-doing and of comprehending the whole creation and administration by the Lord, that, becoming pure in heart through the knowledge, which is by the Son of God, he may be initiated into the beatific vision face to face, having heard the Scripture which says, ‘Fasting with prayer is a good thing.’ (Stromateis 2.12)7
Earlier in the same book, St. Clement mentions Tobit by name and summarises the book's narrative (Stromateis 1.21).

At the beginning of the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome alludes to Tobit 3:16-17 in his commentary on Daniel, making no distinction between the quality and authority of this material and that of the Book of Daniel (which is his main focus).
In which manner also happened to Tobit and Sarah. For they, after praying, in the same hour and the same day the entreaty of the two was heard and the angel Raphael was sent out to cure the two. (Commentary on Daniel 29.6-7)8

St. Clement of Alexandria, again writing at the end of the second century, quotes Baruch 3:16-19 and calls it "Divine Scripture":
Excellently, therefore, the Divine Scripture, addressing boasters and lovers of their own selves, says, ‘Where are the rulers of the nations, and the lords of the wild beasts of the earth, who sport among the birds of heaven, who treasured up silver and gold, in whom men trusted, and there was no end of their substance, who fashioned silver and gold, and were full of care? There is no finding of their works. They have vanished, and gone down to Hades.’ (Paedagogus 2.36)
A decade or so later, Tertullian quotes from Baruch 6:4-6 and refers to the material as "the words of Jeremiah." Chapter 6 of Baruch is an originally independent text that is known as the Letter of Jeremiah.
For they remembered also the words of Jeremias writing to those over whom that captivity was impending: ‘And now ye shall see borne upon (men's) shoulders the gods of the Babylonians, of gold and silver and wood, causing fear to the Gentiles. Beware, therefore, that ye also do not be altogether like the foreigners, and be seized with fear while ye behold crowds worshipping those gods before and behind, but say in your mind, Our duty is to worship Thee, O Lord.’ (Antidote for the Scorpion’s Sting 8.5)

Tertullian, writing around 200 A.D., writes generally of the Maccabees historically:
For in the times of the Maccabees, too, they did bravely in fighting on the sabbaths, and routed their foreign foes, and recalled the law of their fathers to the primitive style of life by fighting on the sabbaths. (Adversus Judaeos 4.10)9
St. Hippolytus, a decade or so later, refers explicitly to "the first book of the Maccabees" in his commentary on Daniel, alluding specifically to 1 Macc. 1:9:
For while dying, Alexander distributed it to his companions who were of his race, four men, Seleucus, Demetrius, Ptolemy, and Philip, and these all put on crowns, just as Daniel predicts and was recorded in the first book of the Maccabees. (Commentary on Daniel 3.810
In the mid-third century, St. Cyprian of Carthage alludes to the story of Mattathias (found in 1 Macc. 2) as authoritative and normative history:
 …bold and steadfast, they maintain the honour of the divine majesty and the priestly dignity, with full observance of fear. We remember and keep in view that, although others succumbed and yielded, Mattathias boldly vindicated God's law; that Elias, when the Jews gave way and departed from the divine religion, stood and nobly contended…” (Epistle 67 § 8)

In a general sense, it is likely that Christian concepts of martyrdom in the early to mid-second century, as captured for instance in the letters of Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, were influenced by the martyrdom account in 2 Maccabees 7. As Jefford writes:
The early church, as first witnessed in the imagery of Ignatius, was greatly influenced by the famous martyrdom sequence of 2 Maccabees, a graphic accont of the struggle and persecution of pious Jews during the time of the Greek rule of Palestine under Antiochus Epiphanes IV.11
While both 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees were attached to several LXX manuscripts, there seems to be little evidence of their influence in Jewish literature and tradition... However, there is a strong influence of the Maccabean martyr tradition upon the early Christian church in the second century and beyond. Familiarity with the Maccabean martyr tradition is seen in Shepherd of Hermas, To the Ephesians (Ignatius), Martyrdom of Polycarp, and Origen's Exhortation to Martyrdom.12
Indeed, the mid-second century Roman Christian work Shepherd of Hermas—itself a work so important to the early Church that it was considered quasi-Scriptural by some—may allude specifically to 2 Macc. 7:28 in Mandates 1.1. In 2 Macc. 7:28, we read how the mother of a young man facing martyrdom exhorts him by appealing to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo:
I implore you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. (NETS)
The angelic shepherd similarly exhorts Hermas:
First of all, believe that God is one, who created and completed all things, and made everything that exists out of that which did not, who contains all things but is himself, alone, uncontained. (Mandates 1.1)13
Nowhere in the Old Testament other than 2 Maccabees 7:28 is a doctrine of creation ex nihilo explicitly articulated. This makes it likely that The Shepherd of Hermas depended on this passage.

At the beginning of the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome quotes from 2 Macc. 7:1-2 in his commentary on Daniel (just as he mentioned the first book of the Maccabees):
Be educated, O man, about the things which happen under Antiochus Epiphanes. While the seven brothers together with their mother were taken, they were struck with scourges and whips, but one of them answered the whips, and he said, ‘Why do you delay to ask and to learn? For we are prepared to die rather than to transgress our patriarchal laws.’” (Commentary on Daniel 20.3-4)14
Again, St. Cyprian of Carthage, in the mid-third century, quotes from 2 Macc. 7:16 and describes the words spoken by the martyr there as "animated...by the Spirit of divinity":
The fifth [brother], besides treading under foot the torments of the king, and his severe and various tortures, by the strength of faith, animated to prescience also and knowledge of future events by the Spirit of divinity, foretold to the king the wrath of God, and the vengeance that should swiftly follow. ‘Having power,’ said he, ‘among men, though you are corruptible, you do what you will. But think not that our race is forsaken of God. Abide, and see His great power, how He will torment you and your seed.’" (Treatise 11 § 11)

The Wisdom of Solomon may be alluded to already in the canonical Letter to the Hebrews. The Son is described in Heb. 1:3 as "the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being" (NABRE). This closely parallels Wisdom 7:26, which refers to Wisdom as "a reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image of his goodness" (NETS). What makes literary dependence particularly likely here is that both passages use the rare Greek word apaugasma ("refulgence"), which occurs nowhere else in the Septuagint or the New Testament.

Another book with a close literary relationship with Hebrews, the late-first century 1 Clement (already discussed in connection with Judith), quotes directly from Wisdom of Solomon 2:24 as an authoritative source demonstrating that death entered the world through jealousy:
Instead, each one walks according to the desires of his evil heart, which have aroused unrighteousness and impious jealousy—through which also ‘death entered the world’ (1 Clem. 3.4)15
The Muratorian Fragment is a fragmentary list of books accepted by the catholic Church for reading in church. It is generally dated to c. 200 A.D. The surviving portion of the text begins by mentioning Luke and John and only discusses Christian (what we would call New Testament) writings, with one notable exception: the Wisdom of Solomon.
Moreover, the epistle of Jude and two of the above-mentioned (or, bearing the name of) John are counted (or, used) in the catholic [Church]; and [the book of] Wisdom, written by the friends of Solomon in his honour. (Muratorian Fragment 68-70)
The Wisdom of Solomon was thus considered canonical by the end of the second century. The oddity of this "Old Testament" book appearing in what is otherwise a discussion of "New Testament" books may be due to the date when Wisdom of Solomon was written. It is widely considered the latest of the deuterocanonical books and is dated by some to the early first century A.D.

The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach (sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus) is the longest of the deuterocanonical books, and the only one that seems to have been considered at all for the Jewish canon: some rabbinical texts emphasise that this book does not "defile the hands" (is not sacred), which may imply that some Jews thought otherwise. The translator of this work into Greek was the grandson of the original author.

There are possible allusions to Sirach in the late-first-century Christian work The Didache and the early-second-century work The Epistle of Barnabas. Sirach 4:31 reads thus:
Do not let your hand be extended to receive and withdrawn when paying back. (NETS)
The Didache and Barnabas, in their "Two Ways" catechetical material that undoubtedly reflects a common source, state:
Do not be one who reaches out your hands to receive but draws them back from giving. (Didache 4.5; Barnabas 19.9)16
Although this ethical principle is general enough to have arisen independently in Sirach and the Two Ways tradition used by Didache and Barnabas, it is equally plausible that the Two Ways material took the idea from Sirach. Barnabas's Two Ways material may also quote Sirach in Barnabas 19.2: "Love the one who made you" (agapēseis ton poiēsanta se; the identical Greek clause occurs in Sirach 7:30). 

St. Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century, characterises the words of Sirach 19:22 as spoken by God:
For true above all is that Psalm, ‘The just shall live to the end, for he shall not see corruption, when he beholds the wise dying.’ And whom does he call wise? Hear from the Wisdom of Jesus: ‘Wisdom is not the knowledge of evil.’ (Stromateis 1.10)
Origen, in the mid-third century, quotes from Sirach 21:27:
For if Satan is one, how can he both be crushed under the feet of the servants of God and also take action again? For if he has been crushed, and crushed by God, he certainly is no longer able to act. Therefore, perhaps there must be as many Satans as there are those who do the works of Satan. For this seems to me to be indicated also in the book of Wisdom [i.e. of Sirach], where it is said, ‘The impious who curse Satan are cursing their own soul.’ But also in a certain other little book that is called the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, although it is not considered part of the canon, we nevertheless discover the same such meaning—that individual Satans ought to be understood in individual sinners.” (Homilies on Joshua 15.6)17
By referring to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs immediately after Sirach, and offering the qualification that the latter "is not considered part of the canon," Origen implies that the former (Sirach) is considered part of the canon.

At the end of the first century, in the same passage quoted above concerning Judith, the author of 1 Clement writes:
No less did Esther, a woman perfect in faith, put herself in danger to rescue the twelve tribes of Israel who were about to perish. For through her fasting and humility she petitioned the all-seeing Master, the God of eternity, who saw the humbleness of her soul and rescued the people for whom she put herself in danger. (1 Clem. 55.6)18
Now, it is well-known that the Hebrew Book of Esther never mentions God. It is only in the Greek additions that Esther petitions God (Esth. 4:17-5:1) and that God is said to have "rescued" (Greek: rhuomai) his people (Esth. 10:3). It is therefore obvious that 1 Clement is basing his account of Esther's faith on the Septuagint version of the book that included the Greek additions. Thus the earliest Christian writer to refer to the Book of Esther understands the Greek additions to be part of the "sacred Scriptures."

Two centuries later, St. Methodius of Olympus emphasised that Esther "filled her head with ashes and dung, when she prayed to the Lord for her fellow-countrymen" (De Cibis 14.7).19 Like 1 Clement, this work refers to a detail found only in the Greek additions to Esther (4:17).

St. Clement of Alexandria, at the end of the second century, recounted the stories of the fiery furnace and the lion's den from the Book of Daniel. He describes how "Daniel was thrown into the den of lions; but being preserved through the providence of God by Habakkuk, he is restored on the seventh day" (Stromateis 1.21). The involvement of Habakkuk in the rescue of Daniel from the lions' den is a detail found only in the Greek additions to Daniel (cf. Dan. 14:33-39), which shows that the Greek additions were part of the book read by St. Clement.

The earliest surviving commentary on Daniel is that of St. Hippolytus of Rome, dating from about the first decade of the third century. Here, too, it is evident that the book commented on by St. Hippolytus included the Greek additions, since for instance he refers to the story of Susanna (cf. Commentary on Daniel 29.6-7).

One might make an argument that material added to a divinely inspired book by a different, later writer in a different language could not possibly also be divinely inspired Scripture. However, this argument only works at a superficial level. It is well known to biblical scholars today that numerous Old Testament books are composite works that went through additions and redactions by multiple authors before reaching their canonical form (Isaiah is a prime example). Moreover, the Book of Daniel itself in the Hebrew Bible contains lengthy passages in Aramaic—a sure sign that it was already a composite book before Greek material was added.

There is ample evidence from the first three centuries of Christianity—including some from the first century—that the seven deuterocanonical books and the Greek additions to Esther and Daniel were being read and revered as Scripture. This tradition culminated in the formal recognition of these books as part of the canon of Scripture at the end of the fourth century—a recognition that the Catholic Church has upheld to this day.


  • 1 One should not overstate the theological significance of this canonical difference. 66 books in common out of 73 is still very high. Moreover, by calling the other books deuterocanonical ("secondly canonical") Catholics acknowledge that their status is in some sense secondary, although they are affirmed to be divinely inspired, true, and authoritative, just as the rest of Scripture. Conversely, although Protestants do not consider the "apocrypha" to be divinely inspired or canonical, many Protestants still revere these books as valuable repositories of wisdom, to the point of Protestant publishers sometimes including them in printed Bibles (e.g., some printings of the KJV; NRSV). Nevertheless, the point remains that Catholics and Protestants are not using the same biblical canon and differ on the inclusion of these books.
  • 2 trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers (2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:128.
  • 3 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:133.
  • 4 trans. J. J. Thelwall, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (accessed at http://tertullian.org/anf/anf04/anf04-17.htm).
  • 5 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:191.
  • 6 This translation follows the GII text, regarded by most scholars as the older form. The GI text reads slightly differently but there are no important differences for our purposes here.
  • 7 My apologies to the reader that I have not had a chance to access some of the writings quoted herein in a recent critical text. St. Clement of Alexandria's works are quoted from the older public domain translation at NewAdvent.org.
  • 8 trans. T. C. Schmidt, Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel (accessed at https://www.preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/0205_hippolytus_commentary-on-daniel_2010.pdf).
  • 9 trans. Thelwall, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3 (accessed at http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-19.htm).
  • 10 trans. Schmidt, Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel.
  • 11 Clayton N. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 19.
  • 12 Bryan R. Dyer, "The Epistle of James and the Maccabean Martyr Tradition: An Exploration of Sacred Tradition in the New Testament," in The Language and Literature of the New Testament: Essays in Honor of Stanley E. Porter's 60th Birthday (ed. Lois K. Fuller Dow and Craig A. Evans; Leiden: Brill, 2017), 710.
  • 13 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 2:237.
  • 14 trans. Schmidt, Hippolytus of Rome: Commentary on Daniel.
  • 15 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:41 (quotation marks added).
  • 16 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:423, 425; 2:79.
  • 17 trans. Barbara J. Bruce, in Origen: Homilies on Joshua (ed. Cynthia White; Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 149.
  • 18 trans. Ehrman, Apostolic Fathers, 1:133.
  • 19 trans. Ralph Cleminson, Methodius of Olympus: On the distinction between foods (De cibis) (accessed at https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Methodius-De_Cibis_20151.pdf).

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Taking a Gamble On Church Leadership: What We Learn From the Early Church

This is a guest post by Matthew Farrar.

To the modern reader, perhaps one of the strangest parts of the pre-Pentecost narrative in Acts 1 is the selection of Judas’ replacement, Matthias, a figure nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament. Having narrowed the decision for Judas’ replacement down to two (Joseph called “Barsabbas” and Matthias), the decision is made by a combination of prayer–which agrees well with most Christian sensibilities–and the more dubious practice of casting lots. Indeed, despite early precedent, I am aware of no current Christian tradition in which Church leadership is decided by the practice of coin flips or shooting dice. So why, when the Church was literally in its infancy, was this all-important decision decided by means of what we would consider gambling? And why does the author of Acts1 include this story at all, given that Matthias plays no further role in the Acts narrative?

Let Another Take His Office

Perhaps the first question for us to consider is what exactly was being replaced. From the immediate context, it seems clear that he is being inducted into “the Twelve”, which had temporarily become the unofficial “Eleven”. This point in itself is significant for a number of reasons.

First, we note that the Twelve were chosen by Christ Himself (John 6:70). By way of contrast, we here (Acts 1:15-22) see Peter lay out the case that the assembly has an imperative to replace Judas. We must therefore ask the question, “If the authority to appoint the Twelve rested with Christ Himself, on what authority did Peter presume to be able to appoint a new Apostle?” For Catholics, the answer is clear: Christ effectively made Peter His viceroy (Matt. 16:19). Thus, Peter–of himself and not by an electoral process–assumes the authority to appoint a new Apostle, though he does not reserve the process of selection to himself.

Second, in quoting Psalm 69 (“Let his homestead be made desolate, and let no one dwell in it” (NASB), Peter makes clear that the legacy of Judas himself is ended, but in quoting Psalm 109 (“Let another man take his office”) shows that Judas occupied an office that was to continue beyond the life of the office holder. By extension, the other Apostles occupied this same office. The question then must be asked, “Did the Apostles see their offices as continuing beyond their natural life?” While the Bible itself offers little in the way of answer to this question directly, the late-first-century First Epistle of Clement (1 Clement)2 answers this question definitively:
1 So too our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that strife would arise over the office of the bishop. 2 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. (1 Clement 44.1-2)3
From this quotation, it is not clear whose office it is that would continue by succession. However, the quotation in Acts 1:20 is from the Septuagint, and the Greek word in the psalm rendered “office” is episkopē, the same root word for the office of the New Testament overseer, or (traditionally) bishop, episkopos.4 Thus, the office of Judas–which was that of an Apostle–and the office of episkopos are at the very least, intricately linked.

However, what was the nature of the office of Judas? It is one thing to give the office a name, but that doesn’t tell us what the actual office entailed. As it happens, the method of selecting Matthias gives us a clue.
Decision By Lot

When the notion of decision by lot is floated out for consideration, my mind immediately goes to two places, both with negative connotations. The first is Jonah, who is identified by casting lots as the cause of a storm (Jonah 1:7-8). In this instance, pagan superstition appears to have been the instigating factor in the practice, since the text identifies the sailors as “each crying to his god” (Jonah 1:5). Not exactly a “go-to” reference for choosing Church leaders! The second place is at the crucifixion of the Lord, when the soldiers cast lots for ownership of his garments (Matt. 27:35, John 19:23-24). So example number two is an example of pagan Roman soldiers acting in an especially callous manner. Again, not a model to follow for guidance on Church leadership.

However, there is a third place where the casting of lots is used to make sacred decisions, and in fact, pertaining to an office. In 1 Chronicles 24, we find that the offices of the priesthood were decided by casting lots. We also see the use of lots in the assignment of particular priestly duties in the New Testament, where “according to the custom of the priestly office, he [Zacharias] was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9). Thus, at the dawn of the early Church, it was common practice to cast lots as a means of making sacred decisions in the Jewish ministerial priesthood. Thus, the Apostles’ decision to use the casting of lots in the selection of Judas’ successor–which at first appears bizarre and arbitrary–suggests that the Apostles saw their office as that of a new order of ministerial priests, an office for which the casting of lots had significant precedent.


The narrative in Acts 1 give us insights into the early structure of the Church. In a definitive way, we see Peter exercising authority to appoint new Apostles, an authority that had previously rested only with Christ. Second, we see that the Twelve were particular persons who occupied offices that were not unique to their persons (i.e. Judas died; his office remained). Finally, the decision to choose Matthias over Barsabbas by the casting of lots is indicative of the priestly nature of the office being filled.

As a former Protestant, I can appreciate that the notion of the Pope–the successor of Peter–and the existence of a ministerial priesthood remain two significant barriers to Christian unity, with the paucity of Biblical support for these offices being cited as a reason for their rejection. My prayer is that this brief post might help close that gap, if only a little, so that we might all be one.


  • 1 Widely believed to be Luke.
  • 2 1 Clement is believed by many to have been written around the time of the persecution of Domitian (d. A.D. 96), and is thus possibly contemporary with Revelation. It thus represents a very early understanding of Church offices. The letter's content also has noticeable parallels with the canonical Epistle to the Hebrews, suggesting a similar date and setting.
  • 3 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:113).
  • 4 The word episkopē also occurs in 1 Clem. 44.1, where it is translated "bishop" above.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Shawna Dolansky on 'How the Serpent Became Satan'

In this post I want to offer a few comments on a recent article by Shawna Dolansky entitled How the Serpent became Satan from Biblical Archaeology magazine. In this article, Prof. Dolansky puts forth two main theses to a popular audience. First, she argues from a history of religions point of view that the serpent of Genesis 3 cannot be identified as Satan, 'for the simple reason that when the story was written, the concept of the devil had not yet been invented'.

She proceeds to describe in outline the development of the concept of Satan, beginning with the noun satan in the Hebrew Bible, and proceeding through intertestamental Judaism and early Christianity. She then arrives at her second thesis, that 'there is no clear link anywhere in the Bible between Satan and Eden’s talking snake'. She does not suggest a theory on when a 'clear link' was first made, but does note that Justin Martyr (died 160s C.E.) assumed this association. 

While some Christian readers may find Dolansky's article startling (or even offensive, judging from some of the comments), from a biblical studies point of view she is for the most part stating the obvious. Few biblical scholars today would defend an identification of the serpent with Satan using historical-critical exegesis of Genesis 3.

Dolansky's overview of the development of the Satan concept begins with the Hebrew Bible. She acknowledges, as is widely agreed among Old Testament scholars, that there are numerous passages where the Hebrew word satan simply means a human adversary, but that in four passages the word denotes a divine being. In particular, she acknowledges that in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, the satan is a member of YHWH's heavenly council, and also notes the debate around whether satan functions as a proper name in 1 Chronicles 21:1 (the weight of scholarly opinion today probably favours a 'no').

Hence, she rightly and uncontroversially asserts that 'the idea of an evil prince of darkness' was not in the consciousness of the Israelites in the Old Testament period. Referring to a handful of intertestamental texts, she traces out the development of the 'devil' concept. Dolansky is willing to allow that the serpent is linked with an angel in 1 Enoch and possibly with the devil in Wisdom of Solomon (though the meaning of diabolos in this text is very much debated). Her only contention is that the serpent is not yet linked with Satan. 

Again, her summary of the 'adoption' of the Satan/devil concept by the early church is brief but uncontroversial (though I would give the early church, and the historical Jesus in particular, more credit in founding a distinctly Christian concept of Satan than the word 'adopt' suggests).

Coming to Dolansky's second thesis, the statement that there is no 'clear link' between the serpent and Satan even in the New Testament turns on the qualifier 'clear'. Certainly there is no explicit assertion that the serpent of Eden was Satan or was used by Satan. However, there are a number of New Testament texts in which some link between the two seems to be presupposed. Of these, Dolansky mentions only Revelation 12:9 and 20:2, where the great red dragon of the apocalyptic vision is identified as 'the ancient serpent, called Devil and Satan'. While it is true that divine combat myths lie in the background of the dragon/serpent imagery, there is good reason to think that an allusion to the serpent of Eden is also in view. The picture of eternity in Revelation draws heavily on allusions to the Garden of Eden (Revelation 2:7; 22:1-2, 14, 19). The immediate context of the vision in which the dragon/serpent is introduced, moreover, is fairly laced with allusions to Genesis 3. The antagonists are a woman and a dragon/serpent. The serpent is identified as 'the one that deceives the whole world'; deceit is of course the serpent's modus operandi in the Garden of Eden ('the serpent deceived me', Genesis 3:13). Then, of course, there is the conflict between the dragon/serpent and the seed of the woman (the singular, male child and 'the rest of her seed', Rev. 12:5, 17), which can hardly be other than an allusion to Genesis 3:15. Hence, Dolansky's assertion that 'the reference in Revelation 12:9 to Satan as “the ancient serpent” probably reflects mythical monsters like Leviathan rather than the clever, legged, talking creature in Eden' (emphasis added) is a false dilemma. Both form part of the background. Hence, while it is debatable whether in Revelation the author seeks to actually identify the serpent of Eden with Satan, there certainly is a 'clear link' between the two.

There are a number of other passages in which a link is arguably presupposed between the serpent and Satan. Scholars debate the source of Paul's allusion in Romans 16:20 ('The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet'), but Genesis 3:15 is one of the primary candidates, along with Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 (the options may again not be mutually exclusive). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul may reflect a Jewish tradition in which Satan disguised himself as an angel of light in the Garden of Eden (though the age of this tradition is debatable, since it is attested only in the later Life of Adam and Eve, which may be of Christian provenance). In John 8:44, the reference to the devil as the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning seems to implicate the devil in the events of Genesis 3 (the deceit of Eve) and possibly Genesis 4 (Cain's murder of Abel). Indeed, in 1 John 3:12 the same writer describes Cain as having been 'of that evil one', which clearly assumes the devil's existence in the primeval world. By ignoring the allusions to Genesis 3 in Revelation 12 and failing to take note of these other texts, Dolansky understates the evidence for a link between Satan and the serpent of Eden in the New Testament.

While Dolansky does not say so explicitly, her conclusion gives the impression that she thinks the direct identification of the Edenic serpent with Satan was a post-New Testament, Christian innovation. This is problematic not only because of the New Testament evidence summarized above, but also because such an identification can be found in rabbinic literature. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 3:6 describes an encounter between Eve and the serpent and then with Sammael, the angel of death (although no explicit link is made between the serpent and Sammael). In later rabbinic tradition, Sammael is closely associated or even identified with Satan. The ninth-century rabbinic work Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer clearly identifies the serpent with Samael, a satanic angel figure. Tracing out the tradition-history behind this identification, Dulkin writes that 'there exists sufficient cumulative evidence to prove that Samael/Satan is a known, recognizable figure in rabbinic sources generally and in the case of Gen. Rab. 20:5 is represented in early rabbinic depictions of Genesis 2–3'.1 The Jewish pseudepigraphon 2 Enoch, dated by some scholars to the first century C.E. (and by others much, much later), identifies a fallen angel named Satanail as the seducer of Eve. Hence, either an identification between Satan and the serpent developed separately in Judaism and Christianity, or this idea was present before the 'parting of the ways'. The evidence of the New Testament suggests that the latter is a more likely scenario.

Hence, it is plausible that later Church Fathers who place Satan in the Garden of Eden were not merely making a conflation that 'seemed natural', but were handing down a tradition received from the first century Church.

Returning to Dolansky's first thesis, if it is untenable for biblical scholars using modern exegetical methods to read Satan into Genesis 3, and if the early church nevertheless did read Satan into Genesis 3, where does that leave today's church? Enter theological interpretation. The Church does not limit her reading of Scripture to historical-critical interpretation, but reads Scripture through the lens of Christian faith. An analogy may help. There is a long and venerable tradition in the Church of reading Genesis 3:15 as a veiled Messianic prophecy. Yet if someone were to stand up at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting and suggest that the 'seed of the woman' refers to Jesus Christ, they would be met with disbelief and probably loud laughter - and rightly so, from a history-of-religions point of view. This interpretation is every bit as anachronistic as the interpretation that identifies or associates the serpent with Satan. The same is true of many other alleged Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 7:14. One must read the Old Testament with the eyes of Christian faith in order to find Christ there. The same is true (albeit on a far lesser scale) with Satan.


  • 1 Dulkin, Ryan S. (2014). The Devil Within: A Rabbinic Traditions-History of the Samael Story in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 21(2), 153-175. Here p. 174.

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.