Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Ascension of Isaiah

I've had another another discussion at the Secular Web with Earl Doherty, though it has not amounted to a full debate. I offered a full response to his propositions, but he opted only to give a short, general reply, and the discussion has not proceeded since then. He has since posted his best arguments at this page on his website.

It started when he opened a thread concerning an ancient Christian document called The Ascension of Isaiah, in which the Biblical prophet of that name tells how he was transported from earth, by an angel, all the way up through the seven heavens. In the seventh, Isaiah sees God the Father telling his Son to descend through the heavens, and the firmament or air above the earth, all the way to the underworld of Sheol, where the Son was to defeat the angel of death (Satan).

The oldest extant versions of this document tell of Christ being put to death on earth, but Doherty believes that the original form of the document spoke about a crucifixion in the firmament. He holds with most scholars that the Ascension is a combination of three originally independent documents, appearing in the text in this order: the Martyrdom of Isaiah, the Testament of Hezekiah, and the Vision of Isaiah. We may refer to them as the Martyrdom, the Testament, and the Vision. The Testament introduces the Son's descent through the heavens and his life on earth; the Vision tells essentially the same story, but with detailed ascents and descents through the heavens. Doherty proposes that the earliest author of the Vision had an unearthly crucifixion in mind. He holds, moreover, that we can read in our current texts of the Vision a belief in a multi-tiered firmament below the first heaven -- a point upon which his theory of a crucifixion above the earth depends.

Doherty's contention that our current versions of the Vision of Isaiah were preceded by an older one is not unreasonable. Two extant sets of manuscripts of the Vision appear to be independent of each other, yet they are substantially the same -- which is very similar to the independence between Matthew and Luke, and their common dependence on an earlier version of the gospel, namely Mark. But most scholars, of course, do not share Doherty's belief that the original author of the Vision was speaking about a crucifixion in the firmament rather than on earth.

They believe, moreover, that the document is Christian, because of its references to Christ, Jesus, and "the Beloved" (an ancient reference to Christ). I note this because Doherty builds upon the work of a scholar, Michael Knibb, who thinks that the document is Christian, and who calls it such in his work; yet as I suggested in our debate, Doherty misrepresents him as opining (Doherty's verb) that all references in the document to "Christ" and "Jesus" are later additions.

As for the evidence about the crucifixion, both of the independent sets of manuscripts have the angel telling Isaiah that the Son will descend and appear in "your form." That is important because the Son takes on the form of the inhabitants of each heaven as he descends, in order to conceal himself, and he takes on the form of Satan's angels in the firmament right before the section, which Doherty believes to be interpolated, where he descends to earth and takes on human form.

Further, the second of the three internal documents, the Testament, follows the story of the Vision rather closely, down to the earthly life of Christ, and refers to the vision as Isaiah's; yet Doherty can make no case that the earthly life was interpolated later into the Testament. He passes over the opinion of scholars (particularly Knibb) that the Testament's original form, telling of Christ's earthly life and the life of the early church, dates to about the year 100, since this opinion is contrary to his proposition and to his general mythicist theory; he builds his entire case on the Vision, and on dating its report of Christ's earthly life as very late.

And I noticed verses in the Vision which may support, as I told Doherty, his unusual contention about a multi-tiered firmament, but which would sink the idea of a crucifixion above the earth. Doherty did not notice these verses as evidence for his proposition about the firmament, and he chose not to analyze them when I brought them up.

I have begun to feel strongly that he is not fundamentally interested in dialogue with others. I feel this because he started the thread on the Ascension but opted not to engage the first substantive reply he got in disagreement, or even to proceed further; because he merely cuts his best arguments from his debates on the Secular Web and pastes them on his website, without a link to the debates and without mentioning the arguments of others; because in our first debate, as I've already talked about, he chose in various ways not to engage what I wrote; because in that debate as in others, when he does engage arguments he does not concede secondary points, even to opponents who concede as much as they can; because he so often dismisses his opponents as lacking the ability or willingness to consider data fairly.

If I'm right, it helps me to understand how Doherty can come up with his theory in the first place, and maintain it by dismissing all challenges as inadequate: he does these things because he is uninterested in deeply understanding the knowledge or thinking of theists, and is interested in understanding only where their knowledge fails, not where it succeeds.

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