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Ascension of Isaiah

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Estimated Range of Dating: 150-200 A.D.

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Information on the Ascension of Isaiah

M. A. Knibb writes (The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, p. 143): "The Ascension of Isaiah is a composite work which falls very obviously into two parts, chapters 1-5 and chapters 6-11; the first part is now known as the Martyrdom of Isaiah, the second bears the title the Vision of Isaiah. However, the Martyrdom of Isaiah is itself composite; included within these chapters is an independent section, 3:13-4:22, which is sometimes called the Testament of Hezekiah. Apart from these three main sections there are a number of additions and insertions which are to be attributed to the final editor of the whole book."

C. Detlef G. Müller writes (New Testament Apocrypha, vol. 2, pp. 604-605):

Composition and date: in its present form the Ascensio Isaiae is a Christian work, which was put together at the earliest in the second half of the 2nd century. It was intended to combat, in the manner of an ancient apocalypse, certain contemporary evils, the lack of discipline and the divisions in the Church. One cannot however fail to recognize that the work takes up traditions already in existence and makes them serve its purpose.

Chapters I to V present the martyrdom of the prophet Isaiah. The activity of Sammael, the prince of this world, is there portrayed in all its wickedness for all to see. III 13-V. 1 interrupts the narrative, already hints at the prophet's ascension, and then presents an apocalypse which is indisputably Christian. It refers to the Saviour and his twelve apostles. This part must be put to the account of the Christian author of the work as a whole. Here too, naturally, he will be dependent on traditions in circulation. In chapters VI to XI we then have the second main section, which presents the ascension or vision of the prophet Isaiah. Here also there is an interruption in the flow of the narrative, at XI 2-22, which again proves to be an interpolation; it reports on Mary and Joseph, the birth of the Saviour and his crucifixion.

The book thus uses old tradition and interpolates it with Christian material. We therefore cannot in any case affirm a uniform origin for the Ascension of Isaiah. A literary unity, such as Vacher Burch still postulates (JTS 21, 1920, 249-265), can only relate to the activity of the compiler, who naturally adapted the material - so far for example as the prophet's martyrdom is concerned - to his own purposes. The oldest part may be this martyrdom of Isaiah - a document of Jewish origin which uses material the existence of which is attested by Heb. 11:37. For the transmission of the document and its prestige the most important factor was without doubt the prophet's ascension or vision, which portrays the seven heavens and refers to the coming deliverance by the Redeemer. Here XI 2-22 is an additional interpolation which makes more precise an already Christian document of the 2nd century. The martyrdom must have been prefaced to the ascension only later, and on this occasion expanded by the Christian apocalypse.

M. A. Knibb writes (op. cit., pp. 149-150):

Both Justin Martyr and Tertullian refer to the tradition that Isaiah met his death by being sawed in half, and this same tradition about Isaiah was probably in the mind of the author of Hebrews 11:37. If this last point is correct, it suggests that the Martyrdom was composed not later than the first century A.D. But the narrative, like the stories of the martyrdom of Eleazar and the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother (2Mac 6:18-7:42), is probably much older than this and goes back ultimately to the period of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167-164 B.C.

There are a number of indications which point to the view that 3:13-4:22 was copmosed at about the end of the first century A.D. This section of the Ascension is clearly later than the death of Nero in A.D. 68 because it refers to the expectation that Nero would come again as the "Antichrist" (see 4:2b-4a); presumably a little time would have been needed for this belief to develop, and this suggests a date at the earliest toward the end of the first century. On the other hand, the picture of the corruption of the Church which is given in 3:21-23 invites comparison with the descriptions of the Church given in 1 and 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, and 1 Clement 3; the similarities with these writings likewise suggest that 3:13-4:22 dates from about the end of the first century. Two other pieces of evidence also point towards this date. First, the author of 4 Baruch 9:18, 20, a work attributed to the early second century, betrays a knowledge of chapters 1-5 of the Ascension in their Christian form and may even have known the complete book; he gives in 9:18 what appears to be a loose quotation of 3:17 of the Ascension. Second, this same passage of the Ascension (3:17) provides a description of the emergence of the Beloved (Jesus) from the tomb which is similar to the description given in the Gospel of Peter 39f., a work which dates from the middle of the second century. Taken together, these indications suggest a date for the composition of 3:13-4:22 at about the end of the first century.

The date of the Vision of Isaiah is rather more difficult to determine. The fact that Jerome refers to 11:34, and that Epiphanius gives a quotation of 9:35f., suggests that this part of the Ascension was in existence, at the latest, by the end of the third century A.D. But it is probably much older than the third century. The Acts of Peter 24, which dates from the second half of the second century, appears to quote 11:14, while the narrative of the miraculous birth of the Lord in 11:2-16 shows some similarities with the Protevangelium of James, a work attributed to about A.D. 150. It thus seems likely that the Vision comes from the second century A.D. The date of composition was carried back even earlier (to the close of the first century) by Charles, because he believed that 11:16 was quoted in Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 19, "And hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord." But it is not at all clear that Ignatius really is quoting from the Ascension.

It is not known when exactly the three sections of the Ascension were combined. The Greek fragment (from the 5th-6th cent.), the palimpsest giving the text of the fragments of the first Latin translation (likewise from the 5th-6th cent.), and the Ethiopic translation (which was made some time during the 4th-6th cent.) all presuppose the existence of the complete work. But the character of the mistakes in the Greek fragment and the Latin palimpsest suggests that the complete work had already been in existence for some time when these manuscripts were copied. It thus seems likely that the three sections of the Ascension were brought together in the third or fourth century A.D., and this is confirmed by the fact that Jerome seems to have known the complete book. It is possible that there were two stages in the process, first the combination of 3:13-4:22 with the Martyrdom, and second the combination of the enlarged Martyrdom with the Vision.

Thus, the Ascension of Isaiah seems to have been redacted in stages over a long period of time. If the text had not been compiled into one work by the third century, most of the materials existed by the time of the second half of the second century.

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Kirby, Peter. "Ascension of Isaiah." Early Christian Writings. <>.