Hebrews 11 contains a famous list of people and events from the Old Testament. It’s a kind of hall-of-fame chapter in which many great heroes are commemorated, including Abraham, Moses, and David.
Toward the end, it refers to events that are not as well known. In verse 37, it describes the sufferings of the righteous in former days and says, “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated.”
We can find examples of many of these types of suffering in the Old Testament, but there is one that we can’t: being sawn in two. That doesn’t happen to anyone in the Bible.
So, what’s the author referring to? The early Christian writer Origen says, “Some of these things have been preserved in the apocryphal books. For an example, we shall give the story about Isaiah, witnessed by the epistle to the Hebrews but not written in any of the canonical books of the Old Testament” (Letter to Africanus 9).
The apocryphal book to which Origen is referring is the Ascension of Isaiah (AI), and it does record him being sawn in two.
An unnamed author
The Ascension of Isaiah is an early Christian apocalypse. An apocalypse is a work where a prophet is given (1) a tour of the invisible world, (2) a vision of the future, or (3) both. In the Ascension, Isaiah gets both.
The book is about 9,000 words long in English translation, making it about the same length as Revelation or Daniel. The book does not claim to be written by Isaiah. It is a narrative written by an unnamed author, though the narrative contains speeches attributed to the prophet.
It’s thought that the original language of the book was in Hebrew, but today it survives—to different degrees—in Ethiopic, Greek, and Latin. The book is found in some Ethiopian Orthodox Bibles, but it has not been received as canonical in other Christian communities.
When was it written?
An earlier generation of scholars believed that most biblically related books were composed in stages, over a long period of time, before being edited into their final form.
This used to be the common view of the Ascension of Isaiah, but more recent scholars have challenged this and argued it was the product of a single author.
It also was written early, with scholars agreeing that it was written in either the first or second century.
I’ve done a careful study of the dating of this book, and the evidence points to an early date that indicates it was written alongside the books of the New Testament—making it one of the earliest works of Christian literature.
The most important clues for when it was written are found in AI 4:2-14. In this passage, Isaiah is having a vision of the Christian age, and he sees Satan—whom he calls Beliar—descend to Earth in the form of a king.
We’re told that this king is “a murderer of his mother—this is the king of this world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved [i.e., Christ] will have planted; some of the twelve will be given into his hand” (AI 4:2-3).
For those familiar with this period of history, this clearly indicates that Satan has entered the Roman emperor Nero (reigned A.D. 54-68). Nero is famous for persecuting Christians and executing St. Peter (and possibly St. Paul), but in his own day he was famous for conspiring to kill his mother, Agrippina the Younger.
The passage thus indicates that Nero, inspired by Satan, will persecute the Church (“the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted”). Most significantly, it says that “some of the twelve will be given into his hand,” though there is doubt about this, because a variant exists that says only “one of the twelve” will have this fate.
That one is certainly Peter, and this tells us that the book was written after Peter’s martyrdom, which took place in Nero’s persecution of Christians after the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64. The execution most likely took place in 65 or 66, making that the earliest possible date for the book.
Yet it could not have been written much later than that, because it envisions Nero continuing to reign for only a short period before the Second Coming of Christ, at which point Jesus “will drag Beliar, and his hosts also, into Gehenna” (AI 4:14).
Obviously, the Second Coming did not occur during the reign of Nero, and Nero himself died by suicide in June of 68. Therefore, the book was written during the short period between the martyrdom of Peter and the suicide of Nero, most likely in 67.
This makes the Ascension of Isaiah slightly older than the book of Revelation, which by my calculations was most likely written in the second half of 68. (Also, Revelation indicates that the end of the world will not happen immediately—that there will be a long period of time, symbolized by a thousand years, before the end comes; see Revelation 20.)
What happens in the book?
The Ascension of Isaiah has two parts. The first (chapters 1-5) begins in the twenty-sixth year of King Hezekiah’s reign (690 B.C.), and it is biographical, telling the story of Isaiah’s death.
Hezekiah is a righteous king, but Isaiah warns him that Beliar will enter his son Manasseh, who will lead Israel astray with idolatry and put the prophet to death. After Hezekiah’s time, Manasseh does go astray, and he promotes many kinds of sin in Jerusalem, causing Isaiah and other holy prophets to flee into the wilderness.
A Samaritan named Belkira denounces Isaiah to the new king, telling Manasseh that Isaiah has been prophesying against him. He also says Isaiah claims to be better than Moses, since Moses could see God only from the back, while Isaiah sees him sitting on his throne (Isa. 6:1). And he says Isaiah denounces Jerusalem and its people as being like Sodom and Gomorrah (Isa. 1:10).
The author also reveals that this happened because Beliar was angry that Isaiah had received a vision of Jesus Christ, his Church, and how Beliar will be defeated at the Second Coming.
Isaiah is seized and brought before the king. They give him a chance to go free if he will denounce his former prophecies and say that the ways of Manasseh and Belkira are good. But Isaiah refuses. He is then sawn in two with the kind of saw used to cut wood—though, amazingly, he does not cry out or weep while being cut in two. Instead, he continues to prophesy by the Holy Spirit.
The second part of the book (chapters 6-11) is a flashback to the twentieth year of Hezekiah’s reign (696 B.C.), and it records a vision Isaiah has in which an angel takes him through the seven heavens. The way the author conceptualizes the world, there is a place below the Earth referred to as Gehenna or Perdition—the place of the damned. This is the deepest part of Sheol, which is the place of the dead in general.
Above the surface of the Earth is the firmament—that is, the atmosphere. This is where Satan and his demons live. (Note how Paul calls the devil “the prince of the power of the air” [Eph. 2:2].) Above the firmament is a series of heavens, with God’s throne being in the seventh and last heaven.
An angel takes Isaiah from Earth up to the seventh heaven. Isaiah gives brief descriptions of the heavens and the angels in them, but these are rather vague. In general, he just says that each heaven was better and more glorious than the previous one.
Upon reaching the seventh heaven, Isaiah sees the blinding light of God (“the Great Glory”), the pre-incarnate Christ (“the Beloved”), and the Holy Spirit, who is referred to as “the angel of the Holy Spirit” (more on that later).
Referring to the incarnation, life, and death of Christ, God tells Jesus to descend through the heavens and the firmament and to go down as far as Sheol but not as far as Perdition.
But he is to do so in an interesting way: as he descends, he is to transform himself into the likeness of the types of angels that live in the different heavens—and those in the firmament—and finally into the form of a man, so that nobody realizes it’s him.
After being born, Jesus grows up and does mighty miracles in Israel, which the devil envies. Satan then stirs up the children of Israel against him, they hand him over to “the ruler,” who has him crucified in Jerusalem, after which he descends to Sheol, completing his mission to descend.
Because of the different likenesses Jesus took on during the descent, nobody—including the devil—has realized that he is the Son of God. But now, everything changes.
Jesus rises on the third day and spends time on Earth before ascending again to the seventh heaven. This time, he does not take on other forms, and so the angels and demons recognize him as he ascends and wonder how he descended without them noticing. They also worship him and give him glory as he returns.
Isaiah says, “Then I saw that he sat down at the right hand of that Great Glory, whose glory I told you I could not behold. And also I saw that the angel of the Holy Spirit sat on the left” (AI 11:32-33).
The vision concludes with Isaiah’s angelic guide telling him to keep these things secret, though they will be known in the last generation of the world, when all he has seen will happen.
Relation to the New Testament
The Ascension of Isaiah is non-canonical, is not inerrant, and should not be treated as Scripture.
However, it provides a fascinating window on the ideas circulating in some Christian circles in the mid-first century, and it has notable similarities and differences with the books of the New Testament.
A major theme of the Ascension is the idea that Jesus’ identity was hidden from the demons, which is why they ended up crucifying him and thus fulfilling God’s plan.
This appears to be based on something Paul says: “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).
The author of the Ascension—and some others in the early Church—took “the rulers of this age” to be a reference to demonic powers, which led to the idea that they didn’t know who Jesus was.
It is more likely that Paul meant the human rulers involved in Jesus’ death—such as Caiaphas and Pilate, who did not realize Jesus was the Son of God.
According to the Gospels, the demons did know who he was—at least after the devil tested Jesus in the desert. After that, they show demons repeatedly knowing who Jesus was (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:24, 34, 5:7).
The contrast between how the Ascension portrays the demons’ knowledge and how the Gospels do is another sign that the work was written very early, before the Gospels were in wide circulation and universally recognized as authoritative in the Christian community.
Another thing that does so is the way the author of the Ascension portrays the demons in the firmament in conflict with each other (AI 7:9-12). That is at variance with the Gospels, where Jesus depicts Satan as having control of his demons, for “no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matt. 12:25-26).
On the other hand, the book stresses many of the same themes as the New Testament. Thus, it identifies the devil as the ruler of the world in Jesus’ day (AI 2:4; cf. John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).
And the eschatological scenario in the book is clearly drawing on the same prophetic traditions that are found in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25). The author of the Ascension even refers to the flight of the faithful into the wilderness that Jesus describes (AI 4:13; cf. Matt. 24:15-20) and the implication that some of the faithful will fall away (AI 4:9; cf. Matt. 24:24, Luke 18:8).
The book’s themes also interlock tightly with those discussed in Revelation and 2 Thessalonians, with a particular focus on an Antichrist-like figure, which the author of the Ascension identifies as the Roman emperor Nero.
Beyond the New Testament
The Ascension of Isaiah contains traditions about Jesus that are not found in the New Testament.
For example, it says that Jesus “will rise on the third day and will remain in that world for five hundred and forty-five days” (AI 9:16). Luke tells us that Jesus remained with the disciples for forty days before he ascended (Acts 1:3), but the Ascension of Isaiah has Jesus remaining more than thirteen times that long! (This is another sign the book was written before the Gospels and Acts were in wide circulation.)
One of the most interesting sections in the book concerns the birth of Jesus (see sidebar). While some of the traditions it preserves correspond with those found in Matthew’s infancy narrative (Matt. 1-2), it also goes beyond them, supplying new details about how long Joseph and Mary were together before Jesus was born and indicating that the birth was miraculous in nature.
There are other accounts in the first and second centuries of Jesus having a miraculous birth, but this shows just how early such traditions were in circulation—before the New Testament was even finished!
The understanding of God
Because of its early date, the Ascension of Isaiah does not express its view of God using the language that would later be developed to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity. However, it clearly recognizes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three distinct Persons.
The question is what status they have. The Father is clearly recognized as God, and with him the Son and the Holy Spirit receive worship from the angels, the righteous, and Isaiah (AI 9:27-42).
Confusingly, the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the angel of the Holy Spirit,” but the term angel can have more than one meaning. It can simply mean messenger, and since the book recognizes the Holy Spirit as bringing God’s message through the prophets, he could be conceived of as a messenger in this way.
The significant thing is that the Holy Spirit does receive worship in the book (AI 9:33-36), and the book makes it clear that angels are not to be worshiped (AI 7:21, 8:4; cf. Rev. 19:10, 22:8-9).
This suggests that the author recognizes all three Persons of the Trinity as divine, even though he does not articulate this the way later ages would.
How did Isaiah really die?
The truth is, we don’t know. The Ascension of Isaiah was written more than 700 years after the prophet’s death, which is a challenging length of time for a purely oral tradition to be accurately preserved.
The book of Isaiah itself lists the kings during whose reigns he prophesied (see Isa. 1:1), and the list ends with Hezekiah. This suggests—contrary to the Ascension—that he did not live into or prophecy during the reign of Manasseh.
Also, 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles discuss Isaiah, and neither mentions his death, suggesting that it wasn’t anything as dramatic as recorded in the Ascension.
Still, the tradition that Isaiah was sawn in two was a common one in the Second Temple era and afterward, and other writings mention it, including both the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, and various Church Fathers.
Sidebar 1: A Vision of the End
The Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-14:
After [the world] has been brought to completion, Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother—this is the king of this world—and will persecute the plant which the twelve apostles of the Beloved will have planted; some [or “one”] of the twelve will be given into his hand.
This angel, Beliar, will come in the form of that king, and with him will come all the powers of this world, and they will obey him in every wish. By his word he will cause the sun to rise by night, and the moon also he will make to appear at the sixth hour.
And he will do everything he wishes in the world; he will act and speak like the Beloved, and will say, “I am the Lord, and before me there was no one.”
And all men in the world will believe in him. They will sacrifice to him and will serve him, saying, “This is the Lord, and besides him there is no other.”
And the majority of those who have associated together to receive the Beloved he will turn aside after him. And the power of his miracles will be in every city and district, and he will set up his image before him in every city. And he will rule for three years and seven months and twenty-seven days.
And many faithful and saints, when they saw him for whom they were hoping, who was crucified, Jesus the Lord Christ—after I, Isaiah, had seen him who was crucified and ascended—and who believed in him, of these few will be left in those days as his servants, fleeing from desert to desert as they await his coming.
And after [one thousand] three hundred and thirty-two days the LORD will come with his angels and with the hosts of the saints from the seventh heaven, with the glory of the seventh heaven, and will drag Beliar, and his hosts also, into Gehenna.
Sidebar 2: The Birth of Jesus
I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name was Mary, and she was a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, a carpenter, and he also was of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. And he came into his lot.
And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone.
And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. And he did not live with her for two months.
And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone, it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as it was at first, before she had conceived.
And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, “What has made you astounded?” his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord, because the Lord had come in his lot. And a voice came to them, “Do not tell this vision to anyone.”
But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem. Some said, “The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months.” But many said, “She did not give birth; the midwife did not go up to her, and we did not hear any cries of pain” (AI 11:2-14).