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 life.