The ascension and martyrdom of Isaiah.

Counted among the pseudepigrapha.


Attributed author(s).
Isaiah, anonymous (editor).

Text(s) available.
Skeptik (Greek only).
OT Pseudepigrapha: Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (English only).
Pseudepigrapha: Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (English only).
Absalom: Ascension of Isaiah.
ECW: Ascension of Isaiah (English only).
Wesley Noncanonical: Martyrdom (English only).
Google Books: Dillman (Ethiopic and Latin; full view).
Google Books: Bettiolo, Kossova, Leonardi, Norelli, Perrone (Greek, Latin, Coptic; no preview available).

Useful links.
Ascension of Isaiah in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
Apocrypha in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
EJW (Peter Kirby).
ECW (Peter Kirby).

Jewish background texts (Jim Davila).

The ascension of Isaiah is counted among the pseudepigrapha and appears to be a composite text. Essentially, 1.1-3.12 and 5.1-16 comprise the martyrdom of Isaiah; 3.13-4.22 is a separate text sometimes simply grouped with the martyrdom of Isaiah and sometimes separately called the testament of Hezekiah; and 6.1-11.43 is the vision of Isaiah. It is all these texts together that are usually called the ascension of Isaiah, and they exist in various recensions and versions.


Peter Kirby (Early Jewish Writings).

Peter Kirby surveys scholars writing on the martyrdom and ascension of Isaiah:

Michael A. Knibb writes: "The Martyrdom of Isaiah is a Jewish work which has come down to us as part of a larger Christian composition known as the Ascension of Isaiah. The Ascension consists of three separate writings: (1) the Martyrdom itself (the basic material in AscenIs 1:1-3:12+5:1-16). (2) An account of a vision seen by Isaiah (AscenIs 3:13-4:22) to which the title the Testament of Hezekiah has sometimes been given. The contents of this Christian writing are summarized below on p. 190. (3) A Christian work known as the Vision of Isaiah (AscenIs 6-11), which describes Isaiah's journey through the seven heavens. While in the seventh heaven he sees the descent to earth, life, death, resurrection an ascension of the Lord. It is this account of Isaiah's journey, or ascension, through the heavens which gives the title to the whole work. Here, however, we are only concerned with the Martyrdom of Isaiah." (Outside the Old Testament, p. 178)

James Charlesworth writes: "The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, like many pseudepigrapha (especially 1 Enoch) is composite, comprising three separate sections: the Martyrdom of Isaiah (basically chs. 1-5, except for THez); the Testament of Hezekiah (3:13-4:18); and the Vision of Isaiah (chps. 6-11). Some specialists see only two sections, chapters 1-5 and 6-11, but argue for the existence of extraneous material in each section (viz. Flemming and Duensing, no. 920, pp. 642f.; A. Vaillant, no. 943). Two or three of the writings originally may have circulated independently (see Box in Charles' The Ascension of Isaiah, p. vii; M. Philonenko, no. 231, p. 2; contrast C. C. Torrey, Apoc. Lit., esp. pp. 133-35). The first writing is Jewish, dating from around the second century B.C., and the other two are Christian, having been composed around the end of the second century A.D. A few scholars think that all three compositions already existed in the first century (Charles in APOT 2, pp. 157f.; Box in Charles' The Ascension of Isaiah, pp. x, xiii; E. Hammershaimb, no. 914, p. 19), and it is conceivable that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews knew the Martyrdom of Isaiah (see Heb 11:37), but it should not be forgotten that Isaiah's martyrdom is also recorded in the Lives of the Prophets (see below). The probable original language of the Martyrdom of Isaiah is Semitic, perhaps Hebrew (cf. Hammershaimb, no. 927, p. 19; Philonenko, no. 231, p. 2), that of the other sections Greek (cf. Hammershaimb, no. 927, p. 19). Some scholars (D. Flusser, 'The Apocryphal Book of Ascensio Isaiae and the Dead Sea Sect,' IEJ 3 [1953] 30-47; J. van der Ploeg, 'Les manuscrits du désert de Juda: Etudes et découvertes récentes (Plauches IV-V),' BO 11 [1954] 145-60, see esp. pp. 154f.; R. Meyer, no. 934a; L. Rost, no. 66, p. 114; Philonenko, no. 231, p. 10) have been persuaded that the Martyrdom of Isaiah is related to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some parallels are interesting, espcially the denigration of Jerusalem and the retreat from Jerusalem to the desert; but noticeably absent are peculiarly Qumranic termini technici, the light-darkness paradigm, mention of the Teacher of Righteousness, an eschatological emphasis, and the general Qumranic Zeitgeist (see V. Nikiprowetzky, no. 162; Hammershaib, no. 927, p. 19; A. Caquot, no. 914, p. 93). A Palestinian provenance, however, is probable (A.-M. Denis, no. 917, p. 175; L. Rost, no. 66, p. 114)." (The Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research, pp. 125-126)

Raymond F. Surburg writes: "Chapters 1-5, which comprises the Martyrdom of Isaiah, are mainly the narrative in which the prophet Isaiah prophesies to Hezekiah that Manasseh would worship Beliar in place of Jehovah and that Isaiah would be sawn in half. After Hezekiah's death, Manasseh commits all manner of evil, necessitating all true believers, including Isaiah, to flee to the wilderness. A man of Samaria, Bechira by name, accused Isaiah of prophesying against King Manasseh, resulting in the prophet's arrest and martyrdom (5:1b-14). In 3:13-5:1a, considered a Christian interpolation, Beliar is portrayed as hating Isaiah because the prophet predicted redemption through Christ. The second part of the work, the Vision of Isaiah (6:1-11:40), was written by a Christian. In this portion, in the 20th year of the reign of Hezekiah, Isaiah had a vision which he related to the king. In the seventh heaven he saw the saints, beginning with Adam and God Himself. After hearing God announce His plan to send His Son to the earth, Isaiah returned from the seventh heaven. Again by means of a vision all the events from the birth of Jesus to His return were shown Isaiah. It was because of this vision that Satan caused Manasseh to have Isaiah cut in sunder." (Introduction to the Intertestamental Period, p. 133)

Emil Schürer writes: "There is no connection whatever between the vision and the martyrdom. Not only so, the vision is with singular awkwardness made to follow the martyrdom which, in the order of time, it should of course have preceded. Nor does the martyrdom again form one connected whole. Above all is the whole passage iii. 13 - v. 1, which interrupts and disturbs the connection, obviously to be regarded as a later interpolation, as is also the kindred passage in the second part, xi. 2-22. And lastly, the introduction again has only an apparent connection with what follows. On closer examination we find reason to suspect that in all probability that introduction was inserted at some subsequent period. On the strength of these facts Dillmann has propounded the following hypotheses regarding the origin of our book. In the first place we are to distinguish two elements that are independent of each other. (1) The account of the martyrdom of Isaiah, chaps. ii. 1-iii. 12, and v. 2-14, whic is of Jewish origin; and (2) the vision of Isaiah, chaps. vi.-xi. (exclusive of xi. 2-22), which is of Christian origin. Then we are to regard these two elements (3) as having been amalgamated by a Christian who at the same time composed and inserted the introduction (chap. i.). Lastly, when the work had assumed this shape, another Christian would afterwards insert the two sections (chaps. iii. 13-v. 1, and xi. 2-22). These conjectures may at least be regarded as extremely probable. They are borne out not only by the internal indications already referred to, but by external testimony as well. In the free version of the whole book edited by Gebhardt no trace is to be met with of sections iii. 13-v. 1 and xi. 2-22. Besides this later section (xi. 2-22) does not occur in the Latin version, which, as has been previously observed, embraces only chaps. vi.-xi. It is evident therefore that the sections in question must be later interpolations. But the circumstances that the vision and the vision alone is all that has come down to us in the Latin version, goes to confirm the assumption that this vision of itself originally formed an independent whole." (Literature of the Jewish People at the Time of Jesus, pp. 143-144)

Leonhard Rost writes: "The author was a Palestinian Jew. Since he considers that the marks of a true prophet of Yahweh include not only hairy clothing—cf. Elisha—but also the lifestyle of an anchorite and the use of wild plants exclusively for nourishment, he may well have been an Essene or at least someone closely related to the Essene movement. Thus a connection with Qumran is possible. In this case, the work may have been written as early as the second century B.C., perhaps under the influence of the oppressive rule of Antiochus Epiphanes. So far no trace of it seems to have been found at Qumran. On the other hand, Hebrews 11:37 appears to allude to it." (Judaism Outside the Hebrew Canon, p. 151)

Michael A. Knibb writes: "Consideration of the demonology of the Martyrdom indicates that it is appropriate to talk of a dualistic theology. Behind Isaiah, his fellow prophets and followers, stands God himself; over against them are ranged Manasseh and his court, and Belkira and the other false prophets, the earthly representatives of the spiritual forces of evil. This dualistic theology has been compared to that of the Qumran writings (see especially 1QS III.13-IV.26), and the view has been advanced that the Martyrdom is a Qumran work, or even that it provides a veiled history of the Qumran community and its leader, the Teacher of Righteousness. The idea that we have to do with a veiled hitsory of the qumran community seems rather unlikely, and although there are general similarities between the dualistic theology of the Martyrdom and that of the Qumran writings, the fact that the distinctive language and theological emphases of the Scrolls are lacking in the Martyrdom make it seem unlikely that it should be regarded as a Qumran work. No trace of the Martyrdom has been found among the Qumran writings." (Outside the Old Testament, p. 181)

Emil Schürer writes: "An apocryphal work containing an account of the martyrdom of Isaiah is repeatedly mentioned by Origen. He simply calls it an αποκρυφον, tells us nothing of its contents beyond the statement that Isaiah had been sawn asunder, and plainly describes it as a Jewish production. Again in the Constitutiones apostol. reference is made merely in a general way to an Apocryphum Ησαιου. On the other hand, in the list of the canon edited by Montfaucon, Pitra, and others there is a more precise mention of a Ησαιου ορασις. Epiphanius knows of an αναβατικον Ησαιου, which was in use among the Archnotics and the Hieracites. Jerome speaks of an Ascensio Isaiae. It is extremely probable that these references are not all to one and the same work, that, on the contrary, Origen had in view a purely Jewish production, while the others referred to a Christian version of it, or to some Christian work quite independent of it. For there exists a Christian Apocryphum on Isaiah which, at all events, is made up of a variety of elements, though the oldest of them may be pretty clearly seen to be a Jewish history of the martyrdom of Isaiah. This Apocryphum, like so many others, has come down to us in its entirety only in an Ethiopic version, and was published for the first time by Laurence (1819). The second half of it is likewise extant in an old Latin version, which was printed at Venice in 1522, but had long disappeared until it was brought to light again by Gieseler (1832). This whole material, accompanied with valuable disquisitions and elucidations, has been embodied in Dillmann's edition (Ascensio Isaiae, Lips. 1877). Lastly, Gebhardt published (1878) a Greek text, which however does not profess to be the original book, but an adaptation of it in the shape of a Christian legend of the saints." (The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, pp. 141-142)

Jonathan Knight comments on the date of the Ascension of Isaiah: "It is difficult to date the Ascension of Isaiah with precision but helpful to specify some parameters which can determine any decision. It is argued here that the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan in c. 112 CE explains many of the allusions in the First Vision. This means that the apocalypse was probably not written before the second decade of the second century CE, but it is difficult to say how much later than this it appeared. Perhaps a few years must be allowed for Pliny's procedure to have been adopted by governors in other parts of the Roman empire. Given that the First Vision alludes to the myth of Nero's return (4.4), as does Book 5 of the Sibylline Oracles (see below), the material may have been written as late as the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132-135 CE) but probably not later than the death of Hadrian (138 CE). A number of differences from the Gnostic literature indicate that the Ascension of Isaiah was written before 150 CE, the date of the earliest Gnostic writings. The apocalypse may thus provisionally be assigned to the period 112-138 CE, and it may possibly come from the period before the Second Revolt." (The Ascension of Isaiah, p. 21)


Peter Kirby (Early Christian Writings).

Peter Kirby surveys scholars writing on the martyrdom and 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.