I have been reading the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah for my daily quiet time. The date given underneath the title in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha is the second century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. The book was originally Jewish, but it has a lot of Christian interpolations. The Christian parts are actually the most interesting to me, since they show me what some Christians believed in the first four centuries C.E., and I like to compare and contrast that with the New Testament and my understanding of normative ancient Christianity (i.e., what was considered orthodox).
A while back, I read a book by evangelical fiction writer Lynn Austin
about the reign of the wicked King Manasseh of Judah. It was called Faith of My Fathers (see my write-up about it here).
Austin usually draws from a variety of ancient sources in her novels
about the Bible, and I bet that the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah
was one of them. In her novel and in the Martyrdom and Ascension of
Isaiah, someone from Samaria (Northern Israel) is encouraging King
Manasseh to execute the prophet Isaiah; his name is “Zerah” in Lynn
Austin’s book, and “Belkira” in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah.
In both, one of the charges against Isaiah is that he contradicts the
Torah by claiming to have seen God, something the Torah says that no one
can do. In both, Isaiah is accused of being a traitor: in Lynn
Austin’s book, it was because Manasseh believed that Isaiah was close
with the royal adviser Eliakim and was refusing to use his prophetic
abilities to benefit Manasseh; in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah,
it was because Isaiah prophesied against Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem.
A key theme in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah is that Satan,
called Beliar in the book, hates Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming
Christ. These prophecies are about Beliar’s downfall. In my reading of
the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah so far, the theory of atonement
that is promoted seems to be the ransom theory—-the view that Satan got
Jesus killed, not realizing that Jesus’ death would deliver people from
Satan’s dominion. I do not recall reading anything in the book so far
about Jesus’ death washing away or atoning for people’s sins. Rather,
the focus is on Jesus shattering the power of Beliar.
There was something that caught my eye in my reading yesterday.
Isaiah ascends through the seven levels of heaven, then he accompanies
Christ as Christ comes down from heaven to earth. Through each level of
heaven, Christ reduces himself to become like the angels there, so the
angels do not recognize him or honor him as Christ, and they require him
to use a password to get through the gate. In chapter 10, Christ comes
to the realm of heaven where the prince of this world is, and the
angels there envy and fight each other.
The prince of this world is probably Satan. That seems to be the
case in John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11. In Ephesians 2:2, he is called
the prince of the power of the air. In II Corinthians 4:4, he is called
the god of this world. Even in the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah,
Beliar is an iniquitous angel who has ruled this world since its origin.
What is intriguing, though, is that the angels in Satan’s realm are
envying and fighting each other. On the one hand, that is not
surprising. You have probably heard the expression that there is no
honor among thieves. Wouldn’t one expect for wicked angels to be
fighting and envying one another?
On the other hand, that picture does appear, at least on the surface,
to undercut Jesus’ argument in Mark 3:23-26 against certain Pharisees.
Some of the Pharisees were saying that Jesus casts out devils through
the power of Satan, and Jesus’ response was that this made no sense: why
would Satan undermine himself and his influence by enabling someone to
cast demons out of people? A house divided against itself cannot stand,
Jesus said. Yet, the picture we get out Satan’s realm in the Martyrdom
and Ascension of Isaiah is a house divided against itself!
People may question whether one needs to try to harmonize a Gospel
with the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, but I am just playing with
ideas here. Both texts in juxtaposition seem to raise an interesting
question: how can evil beings unite with each other, when evil by itself
is destabilizing and divisive? Well, they may unite with each other to
pursue the cause of evil. And, even there, each demon may be asking,
“What’s in it for me?” Being allowed to prey on people may be one of
the rewards that Satan gives them. I think of Scar and his hyenas on The Lion King.
The hyenas were supporting Scar, not because they liked or respected
him, but because, once Scar ruled, they could eat whatever they wanted,
even if that did not preserve the delicate balance of the circle of
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