Ascension of Isaiah

ASCENSION OF ISAIAH (̓Αναβατικὸν ̔Ησαΐου). This title was affixed, as early as Epiphanius (Panar. xl. 2) to a pseudepigraphal, apocalyptic work of eleven chapters. Origen (Comm. on Matt. 13:57) called the work ̓Απόκρυφον ̔Ησαΐου, “The Apocryphon of Isaiah.” Two other titles given to the complete work, Διαθήκη ̓Εζεκίου, “The Testament of Hezekiah,” and ̔́Ορασις ̔Ησαΐου, “The Vision of Isaiah,” prob. should apply only to the sections thus named.

Evidently the work was well-known in early Christian centuries since it was mentioned by several Church Fathers. In modern times it came to light in 1819 when R. Laurence published an Ethiopic MS (E1) of part of it.


Most modern scholars, following Ewald, think the work is a composite of three major sections joined by editorial additions: (1) The Martyrdom of Isaiah, i. 1-2a, 6b-13a, ii. 1-8, ii. 10-iii. 12, and perhaps v. 1b-14; (2) The Testament of Hezekiah, iii. 13b-iv. 18; and (3) The Vision of Isaiah, vi. 1-xi. 40. Needless to say, scholars disagree on the exact limits of a given work, esp. in ch. 1 which some (including A. Dillmann) consider editorial additions. Others (including R. H. Charles) regard ch. 1 as part of the Martyrdom on the basis of Opus Imperfectum which seems to use i. 7-13. Dillmann, one of the first scholars to study the work, thought that an ed. combined the early Jewish martyrdom with the Christian visions, and that the Testament was added later. R. H. Charles thought that there were three independent works combined by the final ed. J. A. Robinson (HBD [1899], II, p. 500) believed a Christian author had added his own material to the Martyrdom (cf. Rowley, p. 124n.). Recently, J. Fleming and H. Duensing (NTAp. II, p. 642f.) have carried this tendency even further, denying the unity of both the Martyrdom and the Vision. They say iii. 13-v. 1 is extraneous, as is also xi. 2-22, which was omitted from both the 1522 Lat. ed. and the three Slavonic MSS. However, it would seem that this textual family is not as reliable as the family related to G1.

Defenders of the unity of the entire work have not been wanting. F. C. Burkitt (Jewish and Christian Apocalypses [1914], pp. 45ff., 72ff.) and Vacher Burch (JTS, XX, pp. 17ff., XXI, pp. 249ff.) have argued for the unity of the entire work except for xi. 2-22.


Little is known concerning the authorship of the Ascension of Isaiah. The contents would indicate that the section known as the Martyrdom originated in Jewish circles, while the Testament of Hezekiah and the Vision of Isaiah seem to have come from Christian circles. C. C. Torrey (The Apocryphal Literature [1945], pp. 133-135) regarded the entire composition as Christian. Charles points out that the following passages are understandable only on the basis of a Sem. background. In ii. 1 “Manasseh did not remember,” there is a play on words, נשׁה מנשׁה; in i. 8 the proper name Malchira may be a derivative of משׁור עץ, “King of evil.” The “wooden saw” (πρίων ξύλινος) of vv. 11, 14 he thinks is a mistranslation of משׁור עץ. The “Greek Legend” at iii. 14 reads πρίων σίδηρος, “a saw for sawing wood.” It seems impossible to go beyond these general statements regarding authorship.


The complete work as it now stands prob. did not exist prior to the latter part of the 2nd cent. a.d. G. T. Stokes dates the completed work in the 3rd cent. Most scholars would date parts of it as early as the 1st cent. Charles pointed out that the Martyrdom was known to the writer of the Opus Imperfectum, and to the Church Fathers Ambrose, Jerome, Origen, Tertullian, and prob. to Justin Martyr (Dial. c. Trypho, cxx. 14, 15). It is even possible that it was known to the anonymous author of Hebrews (cf. 11:37). On the grounds that 2nd cent. Christians would not be likely to circulate a Jewish work, Charles dates the Martyrdom in the 1st cent. R. H. Pfeiffer (IB, I, 1952, p. 424) dates it 1st cent. b.c.

J. Vernon Bartlett dated the section iii. 13-iv. 21 (approx. the Testament of Hezekiah) between a.d. 64-68. This is on the basis of 1332 (1335?) days of antichrist’s reign, and obviously, here Nero must be the antichrist. Others, on the grounds that the Testament says some who knew Christ incarnate would be alive at His coming, say it cannot be later than a.d. 100. G. Beer, however, dated it in the early 2nd cent. (cf. SHERK, IX [1959], p. 341). Flemming and Duensing (NTAp. II, p. 643) say its date is uncertain, but the substance of it prob. goes back to the 1st cent.

The Vision is dated in the 2nd cent. by Flemming and Duensing (ibid.). M. Rist (IDB, II, p. 745) believes it should be dated in the late 2nd cent. because of the Gnostic elements contained in the document. These Gnostic elements can now be dated earlier because certain Nag Hammadi texts attest their prevalence in the first half of the cent.


Many texts and VSS of the work, in whole or in part, have been attested and/or published. Basically, they seem to fall into two groups, stemming from the original Gr. texts labeled G1 and G2. Perhaps G1 and G2 go back to an original “G” known to the author of the Opus Imperfectum. By language groupings the following can be listed.


1. G1 existed in the 3rd cent. but is now lost. The Ethiopic and one Lat. (L1) VS descend from it.

2. G2 is composed of fragments of a variant Gr. text (ii. 4-iii. 12), prob. dating from the 5th and 6th centuries.

3. Grenfell and Hunt published a Gr. fragment which included parts of the Martyrdom and the Testament in the Amherst Papyri I (1900).


This is a faithful reproduction of G1 and is the only complete text extant. Its three Ethiopic MSS were published by Dillmann in 1877.


1. L1, a text published by Mai in 1828, includes ii. 14-iii. 13; vii. 1-29, prob. dates from the 6th cent.

2. L2, a text published in 1522 at Venice and again in 1832 by Gieseler includes most of the Vision, vi. 1-xi. 19, xi. 23-40.


Two extant Slavonic texts along with L2 seem to be trs. of G2 and contain the Vision of Isaiah.


Fragments of the Martyrdom and the Vision, in Sahidic, and of the Vision, in Achmimic, were published by LeFort in Le Muséon, (1938, 1939). Other fragments, including parts of each major section were published by Lacau (Le Muséon [1946]), pp. 453-467).

A reworking of the text G1 called the “Greek Legend” was extant in the 12th cent. and later. The “Legend” was published by O. Gebhardt in 1878 and reproduced by Charles. Precisely when the “Legend” originated is unknown.

R. H. Charles brings together all these texts (except the Coptic) in his text and tr.


Martyrdom of Isaiah,

i. l-iii, 13a, v. 1-14 (with variations). This is a sermonic account or Midrash of 2 Kings 21:16. In it Isaiah prophesied events in the reign of Manasseh, including Isaiah’s own martyrdom. Manasseh would be a follower of Beliar, and indwelt by Sammael/Satan (an equation also found in Jewish and Gnostic texts). After Hezekiah’s death, Manasseh led his people into apostasy, encouraging witchcraft, fornication, and lawlessness (ii. 1-8). When Isaiah fled to the mountains, Belchira, the false prophet, found him and accused him before Manasseh of (1) prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem, (2) claiming that he was God (cf. Exod 33:20, contra Isa 6:5), and (3) calling Jerusalem “Sodom,” and its rulers “Gomorrah” (iii. 1-12).

Belchira (Malchira) tempted Isaiah to recant by promising the prophet his freedom and the reverence of the king and people. Isaiah did not yield, so died a martyr by being sawn asunder. This legend of Isaiah’s fate seems to be attested in Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and the Talmud (Yebamoth, 49b, Sanhedrin, 10), while specific mention of the “martyrdom of Isaiah” is made in Origen and IV Baruch (i.e. “The Rest of the Words of Baruch,” cf. Charles APOT, p. 471).

Testament of Hezekiah,

iii. 13b-iv. 18. This apocalyptic section contains a vision of Isaiah which he reported to Hezekiah. It reveals the descent of the Beloved (a term for the Messiah found throughout the Ascension of Isaiah) from the seventh heaven, His Incarnation, earthly career, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. Then follows a sketch of Early Church history, revealing apostasy before the Second Advent of Christ. There would be unworthy leaders and pastors. The OT prophets would be ignored (as in Gnostic heresy). Beliar would assume a royal form and be guilty of matricide (cf. Nero), iv. 2. Belair acts like Christ by performing miracles, and like Yaldabaoth in Gnostic myth, calls himself God (iv. 6). He erects an image of himself to be worshiped, and demands sacrifice. His reign is said to last three years, seven months, and twenty-seven days (1332 or 1335 days) (iv. 11, cf. Dan 12:12).

After this the Lord and His angels return and defeat Beliar and his hosts. Then follows a Messianic reign for those living and sharing in the first resurrection. Afterward there is a second resurrection and the judgment of the godless who are annihilated by fire. This section of the Ascension of Isaiah resembles Revelation 13 (cf. Mark 13; 2 Thess 2:1-12) which some commentators have viewed as a reference to Nero as is the section under consideration. Common elements are the destruction of antichrist by Christ, the first resurrection of only the righteous, and their participation in the Messianic kingdom, a second resurrection, and judgment by fire. However, in the Testament the righteous, without physical bodies, dwell in the seventh heaven.

Vision of Isaiah,

vi. l-xi. 40. Although this section has linguistic similarities to the preceding Testament, its general content is more Gnostic. In a vision Isaiah is taken into the seventh heaven—the abode of God, the Beloved (Christ), the Holy Spirit, and the righteous dead (in spiritual bodies). Beneath the seven heavens is the firmament wherein dwells Sammael/Satan, ruling over the earth and physical bodies (which, in typical Gnostic fashion, are evil).

The Vision gives a Docetic account of Christ’s birth (i.e. without labor after two months of pregnancy). Christ does not reveal His identity. When Christ is grown He performs miracles. His death on the cross is secured by Beliar. The Vision recounts His descent into hell, Resurrection, stay on earth for 545 days (again a Gnostic conception), and the commissioning of the Twelve. After His Ascension to the seventh heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Great Glory, with the Holy Spirit on the left hand. This vision is the cause of Manasseh’s execution of Isaiah (cf. xi).

The Vision closely parallels the typically Gnostic, perhaps Ophite (Iren. I, 30) drama of the descent of the Redeemer from heaven. In the Gnostic myth a preexistent Christ descends from the seventh heaven. He is disguised as a resident as He passes down through seven successive spheres. A virgin-born Jesus becomes the receptacle for the Christ. At the moment of crucifixion, Christ leaves Jesus who is put to death. Christ assists Jesus to rise in a spiritual resurrection. He receives knowledge, stays with His disciples for 545 days and teaches them the mysteries. At His Ascension He is seated at the right hand of Yaldabaoth, where He welcomes those who knew Him in the flesh when they put off their earthly bodies.


G. T. Stokes, “Isaiah, Ascension of,” DCB, III (1882), 295-301; R. H. Charles, The Ascension of Isaiah (1900); E. Littmann, JE, VI (1904), 642, 643; R. H. Charles, “The Martyrdom of Isaiah,” APOT, II (1913), 155-162; F. C. Burkitt, Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (1914); H. L. Davis, “The Ascension of Isaiah,” HDAC, I (1916), 99-102; R. H. Charles and G. H. Box, The Ascension of Isaiah (1919); V. Burch, “The Literary Unity of the Ascensio Isaiae,” JTS, XX (1919), 17-23; V. Burch, “Materials for the Interpretation of the Ascensio Isaiae,” JTS, XXI (1920), 249-265; D. Flusser, “The Apocryphal Book of Ascensio Isaiae and the Dead Sea Sect,” IEJ, III (1953), 30-47; H. H. Rowley, The Relevance of Apocalyptic, 3rd. ed. (1963), 123-126, 159, 160; J. Flemming and H. Duensing, “The Ascension of Isaiah,” NTAp. II, ed. by W. Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson, (1964), 642-663; A. K. Helmbold, “Gnostic Elements in the Ascension of Isaiah,” NTS XVIII (1972), 222-227.

See also

  • Apocalyptic Literature