Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

Responses to Critiques of the Mythicist Case

"Earl Doherty, the Jesus Myth and Second Century Christian Writings"

Follow-Up II:
Debates on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board
On the subject of the Ascension of Isaiah

My recent exchanges on the IIDB included a debate on an important piece of "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha" known as The Ascension of Isaiah, probably to be dated to the late first or early second century, with a predominantly Jewish sectarian cast, though squarely in the "intermediary Son" category of religious thought of the period. It was later to evolve into a "Christian" document with a couple of Gospel-based insertions. (The most up-to-date study on the Ascension is to be found in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J. H. Charlesworth, vol. 2, p. 143-176, with translation and commentary by Michael Knibb.) I am reproducing here a selection of my own postings in that debate. The Ascension is also extensively discussed in Part Two of my response to Bernard Muller's critique, with contributions by Richard Carrier. (While I am not reproducing postings by others in the IIDB exchange, some of their comments, to which I am responding, will appear as quotes in my own postings.)

Posting #1:

First, let me pick up a couple of points from GakuseiDon’s last posting in the old thread (“Reply to 3 of Carrier’s claims against Muller…”) which will help lead into my discussion of the Ascension.

Originally Posted by GakuseiDon
Earl: This was the domain of the demon spirits—in Jewish parlance, of Satan and his evil angels—and it was regarded as closely connected to the earthly sphere. The demonic spiritual powers belonged to the realm of flesh (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, p.128) and they were thought of as in some way corporeal, though they possessed 'heavenly' versions of earthly bodies (Ibid., p.143).

Kind of, though a bit confusing the way it's stated. Demons possessed their own bodies, variously described as consisting of air or fire, or of an unknown nature. But they weren't "heavenly" versions of earthly bodies, in the sense as being similar to the heavenly creatures above the firmament.
And yet, what would you say the demons are closer to? The nature and bodies of material humans, or the nature and ‘bodies’ of heavenly creatures? Obviously, it’s the latter. So even if they inhabit the sublunar realm, they are more closely akin to those beings that live in the supra-lunary realm, even if they behave and undergo things related in counterpart fashion to the material sphere. They are part of the sublunary realm (whether in a “separate” sphere or not, take your pick) because they have been banished there, tied to the realm where they can themselves suffer and do violence as is their nature, and because they have taken up residence there to divide earth from heaven, which is one of the things the crucified Christ is going to correct. Note that as far as the Ascension is concerned, the principal tasks of Christ are to deal with the demons, and to rescue the souls of the righteous from Sheol, both of which entail activities that are in non-human locales. It stands to reason, then, that Christ need only take on a form that functions in those particular locales, which is to say non-material (though closely related to fleshly forms in the sense of resembling them and their capacities).

You state that the demons, in possessing “heavenly versions of earthly bodies” as noted by the TDNT, do not possess heavenly bodies “in the sense of being similar to the heavenly creatures above the firmament.” But surely this is a contradiction. What is the definition of a “heavenly body” if not something related, or “similar to” the heavenly creatures in general? Otherwise it wouldn’t be called a heavenly body. It is a heavenly body cast, somehow, similar to the form of an earthly one, but it is still heavenly. It is still a spirit, and as such behaves as a spirit, but with certain capabilities that are associated with the material sphere, such as the ability to suffer. But it suffers as a spirit; it is the spirit form taking on certain capacities of the material. And it suffers at the hands of spirit entities, not human ones. None of this, of course, bears any sense in light of modern science and rationality, but it’s the way the ancients saw things, and it enabled them to postulate a spiritual deity who could suffer as a redeeming act, as long as he descended to that area below the moon which the demons inhabited and took on a spirit form which entailed those human-like capacities. More than this wasn’t necessary, and when that descending deity was eventually brought all the way to earth itself and incarnated in human flesh, it introduced a new dimension of divine activity that was not originally envisioned or needed. That progression we can see in the Ascension, to which we now turn.

I’m going to do things in reverse order, addressing chapter 11 first, as it is best to demonstrate the strong likelihood that the chapter 11 scene on earth is a later addition to a document that shows many signs of revision and interpolation.

The translator and commentator on the Ascension of Isaiah in the The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Michael Knibb (vol. 2, p.143-176) suggests that the chapter 11:2-22 passage is authentic to the original text, but his argument makes little sense (see below). First of all, there are three classes of surviving manuscripts of the Ascension: the Ethiopic, second Latin, and Slavonic. The first seems to be based on one Greek text, the other two on a different Greek text. There are notable differences between the Ethiopic on the one hand, and the second Latin and Slavonic on the other (the latter two including only the second section, the Vision of Isaiah, chapters 6 to 11). There is no reason to think that either one of those preceding Greek texts was itself the original, as they too could have undergone revision in their preceding development. The earliest we can possibly date any of the existing versions is the 4th or 5th centuries, and that only for fragments, so there was certainly scope for changes preceding the texts we have.

Following two ‘visionary’ descriptions of the descent of the Son in chapters 9 and 10 (the first is an account of the future event, but mainly the key portion of it involving the crucifixion in the firmament; the second is an account of the Father’s instructions to the Son for that descent, followed by the descent itself through the various layers of heaven in full detail—we’ll compare those two shortly), we are led into the scene on earth in this way. In the Latin/Slavonic class of manuscripts it proceeds, picking up from the final verses of chapter 10:
10:30-31: And I saw when he descended and made himself like the angels of the air, that he was like one of them. And he did not give the password, for they were plundering and doing violence to one another. 11:1: And after this I looked, and the angel who spoke to me and led me said to me. “Understand, Isaiah, son of Amoz, because for this purpose I was sent from the Lord.”…

Here, as Knibb relates in note ‘a’ (p. 174), “Lat2, Slav add ‘…to show you all things. For no one before you has seen, nor after you will be able to see, what you have seen and heard. And I saw one like a son of man, and he dwelt with men in the world, and they did not recognize him.’ Lat2, Slav thereafter omit the whole of vss. 2-22.”
For comparative purposes at this point, that omitted passage, 2-22, begins this way, picking up from the last phrase common to both manuscript lines, as above:
“…because for this purpose I was sent from the Lord. [verse 2:] And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet…”
Now, which one should we consider to be closer to the original? Knibb, as I said, suggests (p.154) in regard to the 11:2-22 passage, that “the primitive character of the narrative makes it difficult to believe that it did not form part of the original text.” But this is hardly compelling, or even sensible, since no reason suggests itself as to why subsequent versions of the text would cut it out. Knibb also suggests (p.146) that it was “revised” because of its “legendary features.” But since when have we seen Christian editors show aversion to “legendary features”? And if it did somehow strike them negatively as “primitive” or “legendary,” experience shows that editors always revise (if anything, expanding and making things more detailed), not slash to virtually nothing. What editor would have been willing to sacrifice a 20-verse account of the Son on earth and replace it with a simple “and he dwelt with men in the world, and they did not recognize him”?

Not only common sense tells us that the Lat/Slav version is the more primitive and the 2-22 is an enlargement of the idea (whether directly derived from that version or from a common ancestor or ancestral idea), such a progression conforms to the overall pattern we see in the documentary record as a whole: the introduction of basic concepts of a Christ on earth being expanded to add more detail. That progression we can see reflected and paralleled in 1 John’s bare “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” to Ignatius’ basic biographical details about that coming in flesh, to an expanded (but still primitive and pretty bare, based on scripture) use of life-on-earth motifs in the epistle of Barnabas, to the ever widening appearance of elements of the Gospel story as the second century progresses. That progression is epitomized in the difference between the two ‘versions’ of the Ascension. And even the content of the interpolation itself, as we shall see, shows a primitive state of ‘knowledge’ over which the later Gospels, as we have them, are an advance.

Another consideration: If we can accept the almost guaranteed likelihood that the bare verse of the Lat/Slav version is closer to the original, this can hardly represent the knowledge on the part of that writer or editor of an entire tradition about an earthly Jesus and a Gospel-like story attached to him. For what on earth would prompt him to deal with it in such a perfunctory fashion? He goes into such minute detail about the descent of the Son through the heavens and his dealings with the spirit entities that inhabit the non-material spheres. When he gets to the climax of the Son’s descent, his incarnation on earth, if he knows an entire story containing a wealth of tradition (from the Gospels or otherwise) is he going to reduce it to a single anti-climactic phrase “he dwelt among men” which tells us virtually nothing? Why would Isaiah’s “vision” not encompass the life on earth, if that is where the great salvific act took place? That makes no sense whatsoever. The only context in which it makes sense is if the writer or editor knew virtually nothing in detail about a life on earth, but only the bare concept itself, in its most primitive stage, and he is introducing it into the text. A later stage, in which more developed ideas are available, is introduced in the interpolation passage.

What happens if we delete not only the interpolation 2:22, but the brief mention of a life among men of the Lat/Slav which is equivalent to the former? We get this progression from 11:1 to 11:23:
And after this I looked, and the angel who spoke to me and led me said to me, “Understand, Isaiah son of Amoz, because for this purpose I was sent from the Lord…[---]…And I saw him, and he was in the firmament, but was not transformed into their form. And all the angels of the firmament, and Satan, saw him and worshiped. And there was much sorrow there as they said, “How did our Lord descend upon us, and we did not notice the glory which was upon him, which we (now) see was upon him from the sixth heaven?”…
What was in the hiatus? What else but the descent, after death at the hands of those angels of the firmament, into Sheol where he remained for three days (as described in chapter 9) after which he ascended with the souls of the righteous. At that point, he reenters the firmament in the opposite direction, this time not in disguise, and those angels now recognize him. If what intervened was a life on earth, in full view of those in the sublunary realm (after all, that is what Don is claiming, that it was all one sphere, and if humans could see what was going on among the evil angels simply “by looking up” then one presumes the demons could see what was happening on earth simply “by looking down”), thus they should have been well aware of the identity of the Son operating on earth—even if only at the point of his emergence from the tomb—making their surprise on his reascent into the firmament puzzling to say the least.

That missing hiatus is not only accounted for in chapter 9, as we shall see, it is pointed to by the primary purpose of the Son’s descent: to raise the righteous of Sheol (and make possible a similar rising of the righteous who shall die in the future), to inherit their destined thrones and crowns in heaven. This is to be accomplished by the victory the Son will achieve over the evil angels (thanks to their own complicity), and the “plundering of the angel of death” (9:16). That is the focus of the whole vision (to which there is a very strong parallel in the Similitudes of Enoch in regard to the guaranteed fate of thrones and crowns for the righteous who believe in the Righteous One in heaven, though there is no descent or sacrifice in that document). Thus the interpolated career on earth in 2:22 stands out like a sore thumb, having no preparation outside itself.

In regard to that interpolation, the bulk of it, curiously, is taken up with a rather primitive Nativity story, in which Jesus is born in Mary and Joseph’s house in Bethlehem (no manger, shepherds, angels, Herod or magi), to a Mary who has not been forewarned or was even aware that she was pregnant—an obviously more primitive version than either of the Gospel Nativity stories. A few verses are then devoted to mentioning the performance of “great signs and miracles in the land of Israel” (no examples given), to the children of Israel being roused against him, handing him to the ruler (no one specified, though Knibb “assumes” it is Pilate), and he is crucified on a tree in Jerusalem and rose after three days. The sequence of events in these few verses is clearly garbled, and shows that the passage was tinkered with after the initial insertion, as a little more detail ‘emerged’ into various editors’ consciousness. The seams and discontinuities are very evident:
And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel, who did not know who he was, against him. And they handed him to the ruler, and crucified him, and he descended to the angel who (is) in Sheol. In Jerusalem, indeed, I saw how they crucified him on a tree, and likewise (how) after the third day he rose and remained (many) days. And the angel who led me said to me “Understand, Isaiah.” And I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended. [Followed by, “And I saw him and he was in the firmament,” which links back up with the pre-interpolated text.]
Not only is this disjointed, with things out of sequence and crudely put together, it betrays no usage of independent historical traditions, but is rather a reworking of motifs that were present in the pre-interpolated, pre-historicist stage of the document itself. The adversary (Satan) envying, the children of Israel not knowing who he is, crucifixion on a tree in Jerusalem, the rising after three days, are all motifs that have been taken over from the mythical stage and simply reworked into a primitively put together historicist version. This pattern of developmental evolution (it’s a pretty basic form of literary criticism) is found in many guises not only in this document, but in the documentary record as a whole, consistently and logically supporting the mythicist paradigm.

Once this principle of insertion of a career on earth is recognized, the rest of the document falls into place. We can see that chapter 9, with its focus entirely on what happens to the Son in the firmament, is pre-historicist. Chapter 10’s focus on the Father’s instructions leaves out all mention of the Son on earth. It is nowhere so evident as in 10:8-16:
Go out and descend through all the heavens. You shall descend through the firmament and through that world as far as the angel who (is) in Sheol, but you shall not go as far as Perdition. And you shall make your likeness like that of all who (are) in the five heavens, and you shall take care to make your form like that of the angels of the firmament and also (like that) of the angels who (are) in Sheol….
Note that there is absolutely no mention of a stop on earth, let alone anything to do there, and to claim (as some have) that this is implied is desperation in the extreme. The Son, having hidden his identity from those angels, will then be summoned by the voice of the Father. At that point,
you may judge and destroy the princes and the angels and the gods of that world, and the world which is ruled by them, for they have denied me….
The Son’s work relates entirely to the demon spirits, who are to be ‘destroyed’ along with their realm. The “world” referred to is the sublunary realm as a whole, including Sheol, and the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice is to destroy the power and power base of the evil demons (a prime concept in primitive Christianity, as we can see in the Pauline corpus). But while such a “world” can be said to encompass the earth, the instruction hardly includes the destruction of the earth itself (even figuratively) or the rulers of the earth. The Son’s mission relates entirely to the spiritual aspects of that “world,” which again is another indicator that distinctions are made within the sublunary realm, and that the spiritual dimension of it can be singled out and treated separately. Following that mission against the spirit powers in the spirit dimensions (including Sheol), the Father says:
And afterwards you shall ascend from the gods of death to your place, and you shall not be transformed in each of the heavens….
No mention is made, nor room given, for a sojourn and activity on earth, and this parallels our reconstructed original above, without the interpolation, from the firmament at the end of chapter 10 down into Sheol (excised once the reference to earth was inserted) and back up into the firmament in the latter part of chapter 11. Seen in this way, the two passages follow in lockstep.

Now in our regressing progress we can go back to chapter 9, and see that this details what happens to the Son in the firmament and how he deceives the angels of the firmament, is sacrificed unwittingly by them, dies into Sheol and there rises to plunder the angel of death and reascend with the righteous, who receive their thrones and crowns when they reach the seventh heaven:
And he said to me, “They do not receive the crowns and thrones of glory—nevertheless, they do see and know whose (will be) the thrones and whose the crowns—until the Beloved descends in the form in which you will see him descend. The Lord will indeed descend into the world [the sublunar realm, although as Knibb points out, ‘into the world’ is omitted from some manuscripts] in the last days, (he) who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form, and they will think that he is flesh and a man…
The quoted text to this point is different in the Lat/Slav line, rearranged and somewhat simplified, and the reference to “Christ” and “they will think he is flesh and a man” is not included. We have already seen evidence that the text has been much edited and tinkered with in places, and this is more evidence that we cannot trust anything in particular in this document to reflect the original, much less base arguments for orthodoxy on any specific wording. In a footnote on 9:5, Knibb voices the possibility that “all references to ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ in chapters 6-11 are secondary”—that is, added later (note ‘g’, p.170).
…And the god of that world will stretch out [his hand against the Son], and they will lay their hands upon him and hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is. And thus his descent, as you will see, will be concealed even from the heavens so that it will not be known who he is. And when he has plundered the angel of death, he will rise [lit., ‘ascend’ so Knibb notes, which would thus seem to remove it from orthodox resurrection] on the third day…
For that last sentence, Lat/Slav has: “And he will seize the prince of death, and will plunder him, and will crush all his powers, and will rise on the third day.” This makes it even clearer that the Son’s purpose, and what he does prior to his ‘rising’, is nothing on earth, much less the Gospel events, but dealing with the evil spirit forces who up to this time have controlled the souls of the dead, now freed. If Jesus had lived on earth, if his career was perceived as anything resembling the Gospel events and meaning, this total and exclusive focus on what he does in the spirit world would not be possible.

Note that this action takes place entirely in the heavens. “The god of that world” (meaning Satan) stretches out his hand, and “they” hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is. Since the next verse goes on to elucidate that this descent and true identity of the Son is declared to be concealed “from the heavens,” this ties the idea to the preceding. It is not figures on earth who do the hanging, but Satan and his demons, who do not recognize the Son. All the references throughout these passages outside the interpolation to “concealing” his identity through assuming native forms refer only to the angelic inhabitants of each region, not to any humans. In view of such passages, it simply is not feasible to suggest that the crucifixion takes place on earth. (Or that Satan is “stretching out his hand” to earth, as Ted suggested—which is really “stretching” things!)
…and will remain in that world for five hundred and forty-five days…
A clear insertion, based on Valentinian and similar gnostic doctrine that, as Knibb points out (note ‘v’, p.170) “believed that Jesus remained with the disciples after the resurrection for eighteen months (i.e., approximately 545 days).”
…And then many of the righteous will ascend with him, whose spirits do not receive (their) robes until the Lord Christ ascends and they ascend with him. Then indeed they will receive their robes and their thrones and their crowns, when he has ascended into the seventh heaven.
I don’t claim to know the Ethiopic vocabulary here, but I am going to assume the probability that the word for “ascend” in the latter verses is the same as the word Knibb translates as “rise” in the earlier verse, indicating the imposition of his own Gospel-oriented slant on what can increasingly be seen as something quite different from standard ‘orthodoxy’. In fact, I will point out something else in that vein which may not have occurred to those who try, or even unintentionally tend, to view everything through orthodox-colored glasses. There is indeed something very primitive and even “non-Christian” about all this. Where is the sense of universality in the underlying soteriology, where is the atonement concept we associate with standard Christianity? It is not there (it’s not even intimated in the Gospel-like interpolation). What we have is a simple rescue operation on the part of the Son, freeing prisoners from the clutches of the evil angels who control the lower parts of the universe and prevent access to heaven. One might even style it ‘proto-gnostic’ in that respect, with the descending Son related to the descending Redeemer of some Gnostic sects though on a more primitive level. The atmosphere of the ‘righteous inheriting their destined thrones and crowns in heaven’ is strongly sectarian, the salvation of an elite, which to me bears resemblance to some of the thought found in Revelation, and in the Similitudes of Enoch. If “Jesus” and “Christ” are later additions, as Knibb opines, we would not even be able to label this document ‘Christian’ but an example of Jewish sectarianism (within the broad “intermediary Son” tendency I have discussed elsewhere) that was itself ‘proto-Christian’ much as the Odes of Solomon is, or the Shepherd of Hermas. We thus have yet another example, another puzzle piece, in the picture of uncoordinated diversity in intermediary Son belief, none of which goes back to a Jesus of Nazareth, but becomes gradually drawn like filings to a magnet into the Gospel-story gravitational field, with editings and insertions performed as features of that field multiply and expand.

Finally, I have already pointed out that the language of chapter 7 implies a perceived distinction, at least for certain practical purposes, between various regions of the firmament. “As above [here referring to the firmament], so also on earth.” This defines the two as in some way separate, with counterpart entities and features. This in itself supports that principle of ‘paradigmatic guarantee’ I have put forward in regard to mythical Jesus and other savior-god soteriology. That separation between layers of the sublunary region is even more clearly stated in 7:28:
And again he took me up into the fourth heaven, and the height from the third to the fourth heaven was greater than (from) earth to the firmament.
For this writer (who, unlike Ocellus, is presenting his picture in the context of religious belief regarding a Son who is killed in the heavens—in other words, it’s from the horse’s mouth in the only race and racetrack we need to be concerned with), there is clearly a distinction between the earth and the firmament.

In conclusion, I want to comment on someone’s question (I think it was Ted): why, if the descending Son was in disguise, resembling the denizens themselves of that region, would Satan and the demons have killed him? This might be a good question, but only in the context of our modern rationality. I’m sure the writer, and the thought circles he represents, couldn’t have answered that question to any rational person’s satisfaction, certainly not to us who attempt to subject it to logical literary analysis. But it requires the same sort of insight that we ought to bring to all questions of this sort. We have to judge the development of such ideas not by their logicality, but by what led to the formation of these patterns of belief, as in the idea that the heavenly Christ had to be said to be “of David’s stock.” In regard to the Ascension, we might trace a pattern of development in this way: Salvation by God can only be provided through an intermediary divine figure, his own emanation, or Son. The mechanism of that salvation has to be a sacrifice. (The “why” of that is never explained.) To undergo that sacrifice, the Son must descend into a region where that is possible. There must be an agency performing that sacrifice: who else but evil spiritual forces? But chief among that sacrifice’s purpose is the destruction of those evil spirits, which are the agency of evil and misfortune in the world (God himself cannot be held responsible for it). Thus the spirits have to unwittingly perform the killing, which is made possible by their not recognizing his true identity, nor receiving warning of his approach. Aside, perhaps, from the rationale that evil spirits by nature do evil things, it probably did not trouble those who put all this together that they provided no ostensible or logical reason for the demons to kill this unknown passerby who entered their territory. No more than they were troubled by the larger question of why the Son’s killing would effect the release of the Righteous. Let’s not look for consistent logicality in religious doctrine—of any era.

Posting #2:

Originally Posted by TedM
Something I don't understand is why the Lat2/Slav version would omit any reference in Chapter 11 to the crucifixion, the descent to Sheol, the plundering of the angel(s) of death there (which was the PURPOSE), and the ascent back into the firmament, and replace those things with the short verse about the son of man on earth...
Ted has posed some thoughtful and intelligent questions. I have myself wondered why the Lat/Slav version would show only that brief, rather cryptic reference to 'one like a son of man' on earth (not to be confused with the Q/Gospel "THE Son of Man"), unrecognized, assuming that something more in keeping with a parallel to those points Ted lists was cut to make way for it. Any suggestion would only be speculative, and the idea that the presumed missing material might have dropped out by mistake seems unlikely.

We might be thrown back on speculating that the very original version didn't in fact have much of anything here regarding the crucifixion and the actual rescue of the righteous from Sheol because it had been covered in previous passages, and perhaps at this point the original author wanted to simply focus on the descending progression through the spheres and the reverse ascent. It may be the reaction of the spirits he is interested in here, their ignorance on the way down, their recognition on the way back up. The latter he certainly devotes a vivid passage to. As I said, any 'explanation' would be speculative.

Also, if we assume for the moment that the reference to the crucifixion in chapter 9 is an interpolation, and that all references to Jesus are interpolations, then we have a story of God coming down, destroying the angels and princes of the world under the firmament, including in Sheol, and then being worshipped. In other words, isn't it possible that ORIGINALLY this WAS a Jewish document that says nothing of a crucifixion in the air, but is just a story of God's agent (maybe a high angel?) descending in disguise, and having a war with the spirits that denied him, winning, and then being worshipped? IF that is the case, then how much value is there to be found in the document at all?
First of all, I think Ted has gone too far. Because a specific reference to the crucifixion is missing at the chapter 10 to 11 juncture does not mean that it is likely missing everywhere else. Postulating that the term "Christ" is a later addition does not mean that the whole idea of crucifixion is missing. That would gut the document almost to the point of vapidity. I would say that it was indeed an agent of God that descended, but almost certainly a "Son" (the focus on the Son idea throughout the Vision can hardly be gutted entirely). In other words, an "intermediary Son." And the focus on the rescue of the righteous and especially the destruction of the evil powers virtually requires the sacrifice idea to make such things possible. (A close parallel to the latter certainly exists in Paul.)

Anyway, this is my point. Whether you want to style this document "Christian" in some way, or more specifically "proto-Christian," it speaks to the overall picture I have tried to create, of a very diverse and almost amorphous tendency toward a type of religious belief which took many forms and expressions. The Ascension, I believe, demonstrates that some of the basic ideas behind the Christ story could exist in a primitive form with no connection to an historical figure, let alone a Gospel Jesus of Nazareth. And the evolution of the document in the direction of encompassing the addition of such a figure simply shows that what was to become the dominant expression of that broad amorphous tendency eventually imposed itself on everything else.

But one can't take refuge in thinking that the role played by this 'dominant expression' rescues the historicity of its central character and events. Rather, the overall picture, offering all these individual components that exist behind the Gospel story (not just in the Ascension), is an indicator that it was out of this kind of diversity that the Gospel concept itself coalesced. This is far more likely than that many different sects and doctrines relating to an intermediary Son across the empire arose which had little or no connection with each other, while at the same time one particular phenomenon based on an historical man happened to arise as well which embodied them all.

What we have here is a classic case of the evolution of ideas coming from many different sources (even if under a common, broad umbrella) developing into a form which tied them all together and took a new leap in translating them into the story of an imagined historical figure.

Posting #3:

Don is still stymied by his obsession with literalism, while I think Vorkosigan has put it best and most succinctly:

“…the key point is to realize that Paul does not know these events as historical events but understands them as events that have occurred in some other reality that is near or overlaps our own.”

I will present a modern parallel which I hope will clarify things, but to lead into it I’ll try to answer a few of Don's points first

Clearly, you are blurring the distinction between Middle Platonists' beliefs in a supra-lunar/sub-lunar cosmos, and the more allegorical approach of Julian and Plutarch.
No, the blurring is what took place among various people’s outlook on the mythical stories of the savior-gods. Both outlooks were based on Middle Platonism. I have said that we cannot be sure, due to the dearth of writings on the subject, exactly how the devotee-in-the-street regarded the myths. Since they began as stories placed in primordial times on earth, they may have survived in that interpretation in some people’s minds. Moving further along the spectrum, others would regard them as taking place in some real fashion in a higher reality. Whether you want to label that ‘fashion’ as a literal happening, or some other definition, may be difficult to decide, and in any case doesn’t matter. The believer was convinced that they happened in some fashion in that higher reality. I would place Paul in such a category. He knew they had happened (whether he could envision them graphically or not, I don’t know) because scripture told him so. Then we have at the other end of the spectrum those philosophers who were too sophisticated to accept any ‘literal’ interpretation of the myths and interpreted them entirely as allegory, but even in that case they would still represent real spiritual processes that the human mind had no other way of describing.

Note, by the way, that when Plutarch admonishes Clea not to regard these myths as having literally happened, this indicates that it was a common practice to do just that, to interpret them literally.

Note, too, that if Middle Platonists postulated a sub-lunar realm where the demons operated, this had to entail the idea that such demons actually did something in that realm. One couldn’t say that the demons acted ‘allegorically’. If Middle Platonism thereby involved the concept that spiritual activities by spiritual beings took place in spheres above the surface of the earth, then why are you baulking at the idea that certain religious groups could regard their gods as actually doing something in those spiritual spheres? And since one of the fundamental concepts of the age (Platonic and otherwise) was that things existed in the heavens which were the spiritual counterpart of material things on earth, what is the problem in accepting that believers imagined their gods doing earth-like things, in earth-like landscapes, using earth-like utensils, and so on? Some minds no doubt imagined those things quite literally, others perhaps reserved judgment on how literal the counterpart nature was, still others would have labeled it all allegory representing very non-literal processes. The fact that it is all, from one end of the spectrum to the other, gibberish to us (or ought to be) should not prevent us from realizing that for the ancients it constituted a thriving philosophical and religious industry. And that by attempting to bring our modern scientific understanding to it we are engaging in an exercise in futility.

1) Did Paul believe that Christ was crucified in the sub-lunar realm by demons? That is, are you suggesting that Christ actually descended, took on an "aerial" body, and was literally crucified?
The answer is yes, but within the context of mythical thinking. The problem is, neither I—nor you—are able to get our minds around that manner of thinking, as evidenced by your use of the word “literally” above. If it is used to mean ‘in some dimension of reality’, then yes. If it means—which you are implying—in a literal fashion such as we understand it, then the answer is no. One could ask the same question of the Ascension of Isaiah. Here is an elaborate description of the descent of the Son, various activities he performs as he passes through each heavenly sphere, and a crucifixion portrayed as occurring in the firmament at the hands of spirit forces. Does the author mean this “literally”? He certainly doesn’t say it’s allegorical. It’s a vision supposedly experienced by Isaiah, so he must have regarded it as ‘factual’ in some supernatural context.

2) Was Attis actually crucified [I think Don meant to write “castrated”] with a knife in the celestial realms? That is, at some point, did Attis take a knife and castrate himself? Or is this an allegory, and something that never happened? (I think you are suggesting that it is an allegory)
A proper answer to this question would require asking it of an ancient. Ask it of the eunuch-priests of Cybele, who explained their practice of self-castration by the myth of Attis’ own castration. I doubt that they would say “it never happened,” that it was mere allegory, but I can’t tell you exactly how they envisioned it as ‘happening’ in the mythical world.

ALL writers that I have seen have the demons existing in our world either in the air or on earth. The implication is that for Christ to have been crucified by demons, it HAS to have been done in the air. And there are no trees in the air.
There are the spiritual equivalent to trees. And if you ask me to explain how that could be, what they constitute, how an intelligent adult mind of the time could conceive of such a thing, I can’t give you an answer. But maybe I can illuminate it in this way:

For the Greeks, Hades was an actual physical place under the earth. (Whether every Greek actually believed that, I don’t know.) For the early Christians, I suspect, Hell was an actual physical place as well, with material fire, no doubt envisioned as within the earth (just as heaven was a place ‘up above’, though in God’s highest spiritual sphere rather than a material one). Leaving the more sophisticated minds aside, the average believer for many centuries believed that Hell was where the damned’s resurrected fleshly bodies would go to be tortured for eternity. Then along comes modern science, which reveals the true structure of the universe, what the interior of the earth is like, that it contains no hell, and that there is no heaven above, no matter how high one goes. Do believers stop believing in heaven and hell? Unfortunately not, at least not many of them. How do they explain hell in light of this new knowledge? Well, they might say, it’s not strictly material, but it must be some form of equivalent. After all, our fleshly bodies go there, and they have to suffer in some way. There must be some kind of fire, a spiritual equivalent to it. It’s in a reality that bears some resemblance to our own, but different. As to where it is, today’s believer might be hard pressed to say in any specific fashion, but if we had a contemporary philosophy which identified a “where” to put it (such as the ancients did with Middle Platonism), then that question would be answered: ah, it’s in that sphere of ‘other reality’ identified by the philosophers. Then there are those few, progressive theologians (if that’s not an oxymoron) who go the Plutarch route: oh, Hell isn’t ‘anywhere’ and certainly doesn’t exist as a place of torture. Hell is an allegorical representation of a state of being separated from God and the pain that this creates.

As in ancient times and minds, so in modern times and minds. The determined believer will adjust, he will backtrack, he will move toward 'otherworldly' explanations and envisionings. If I insisted to you that you can't believe in hell or heaven (if you believe in such things) because a strict application of the accepted rules of reality don't make room for such places, if I produced a modern Ocellus which made it seem impossible, would you stop believing?

If this doesn’t help you grasp how the ancients could have viewed their spiritual realms where the activities of gods took place, or how they could have insisted on doing so regardless of theoretical impediments, then I don’t know what else to suggest.

Finally, I note you say in your latest post:

A "reality that is near or overlaps our own" is an idea that is familiar to our modern mindset, but from what I've read, the choices available to Middle Platonists (other than allegorical) were (1) above the firmament, and (2) below the firmament. Since demons didn't exist above the firmament, that means Christ had to have been crucified below the firmament. And the evidence is that the earth and air below the firmament formed one continuous realm. There is no "reality that is near or overlaps our own" below the firmament.
You seem to think that you have a silver bullet here, with which if you just keep firing it you can bring the whole Jesus mythicism case crashing down. I think enough has been said to show that this just isn’t so. If none of the ancient view of the supra-/sub-lunary universe bears any relation to reality, and there is no scientific standard it has to adhere to, you just don’t seem to accept that the believer is free to do anything he likes with it, he is free to allow anything to take place within it. He doesn’t have to answer to you, or to me, or to some principle of consistency which you are ferociously hanging onto. He can do whatever he wants with that sublunary realm. He won’t be arrested for it, and he probably won’t be ridiculed for it (which he would ignore anyway). If he wants to have his Jesus crucified on some kind of spiritual tree 3 miles up, he’ll go ahead and do it, and we can sputter all we like. I showed you, as clear as day, that the writer of the Ascension of Isaiah regarded the earth and the firmament as, for certain practical purposes, two separate realms, or two distinct parts of one realm, or however he might have phrased it. He probably never heard of Ocellus. For all I know, he may never have heard of Plato. But he took the ideas of his time, adapted or fudged them, built on ancient precedents and created his picture of the descending god crucified by the demons to rescue the souls of the righteous. If you think you can reach back 20 centuries and impose on him what you think he should or shouldn’t have written or believed according to what you think should have been the proper interpretation of Middle Platonism, well, lots of luck.

Posting #4:

Don, you seem to have completely missed the point of my post. So I will try to spell out the bottom line. You are trying to impose a literal, common-sense (even 'scientific') understanding of the workings of the Platonic universe, and specifically the activities of savior gods like Christ within it, but it doesn't make that kind of sense. And even though it did not, they still believed in it anyway, and I gave you a pretty thorough explanation of why this was so, but it all went by you, apparently. That's the aspect you need to address, not simply restating your personal, modern preference for scientific accuracy.

You also continue to argue a point I virtually conceded. I said that I don't know if the believers and philosophers involved regarded the firmament as a "separate" dimension, if they ever drew up a chart and submitted it to the Library of Congress. There was no standardization, and in any case, it doesn't matter. Things could still go on there, in the air, in spirit form by spirit beings. You seem fixated on whether people standing on earth could see such things, or whether Isaiah in his ascent could still be visible to earthlings using telescopes. But this is all theoretical. Are you going to judge ancient world poppycock by modern rational considerations? If you're claiming that the ancients themselves would have claimed that, yes, it would be possible to see the warring angels and an ascending Isaiah if we had a telescope, I would ask how you would know that? None of our sources are that specific. In any case, what would it prove? Again, your bottom line is that, due to types of considerations we regard as rational, the ancients couldn't have believed such-and-such, and I'm saying that this is simply unfounded. In the 21st century, people still believe in wildly irrational things. (As in your above: "It's where Christ will break through with the hosts when he arrives on clouds in the last days.")

You quote Ocellus:
"Ocellus understood the cosmos as divided in two parts, the supra-lunar and the sub-lunar, the gods existing in the former and daemons and humans in the latter. It is only in the sub-lunar regions, he argued, that generation and decay occurs, for it is in this region that "nonessential" beings undergo alteration according to nature."
And what does this prove? That gods couldn't descend into the firmament and undergo suffering and death there? Hardly. Anyway, that's Ocellus. Were his particular views universal? This is a nicety, or semantic distinction of interpretation which is hardly going to lead any follower of a mystery cult (including Christianity) from deciding that Attis or Osiris or Christ couldn't have undergone death, burial and resurrection in the firmament. We don't even know if the Attis 'passion week' celebrations had Attis dying in the firmament, because no sources are that specific. We don't know if Osiris was 'buried' in the firmament because no sources are that specific. We don't know if Christ died for our sins and was buried in the firmament, because Paul and the others aren't that specific. But because of our understanding of the thought of the time, we can assume these specifics.

But the Ascension of Isaiah chapter 9 is that specific. The descending Son was hung on a tree by the god of that world (Satan). His identity is hidden from those spirits ("concealed from the heavens," the spirits who crucifiy him), not from humans. And the later Julian the Apostate was at least specific in bringing Attis down into the sublunary realm.

Posting #5:

Originally Posted by GakuseiDon
Maybe we are still disagreeing about what the firmament is? I say that it is the dome that separates the world below from the heavens above. Satan and the demons were on the world side of the firmament. Satan was the "god of this world", which extended from the earth to the firmament.
But Don, surely you can see that this doesn't work. If the "firmament" is merely a border, a "line" between the air and the supra-lunary heavens, how can anything go on "in" it? How can it be "entered"?
Ascension of Isaiah 7:9 - "And we went up into the firmament...for the likeness of what is in the firmament is here on earth."
Even likenesses are three-dimensional. The firmament must be three-dimensional for anything to go on in it. Ascension 11:2 says:
"And I saw him, and he was in the firmament, but was not transformed into their form. And all the angels of the firmament..."
The firmament is a space, a region. Even taking the text as it stands, Jesus (actually, the name "Jesus" does not appear once in the chapter 11 interpolation, and the only antecedent within striking distance is "the Lord, the Son")
"sent out the twelve disciples and ascended. And I saw him, and he was in the firmament..."
which clearly, for this writer, is a region, not a border or a line between one sphere and another. He ascended from the earth and went into the firmament. It's as clear as day, Don. If Ocellus would differ, it only shows that there was no firm, consistent understanding, which has been my point all along.

I have no problems with that. As I think we both agree, it comes down to the evidence. What I don't see is any evidence that it represents "some other reality that is near or overlaps our own" under the firmament.
But that is precisely what the Ascension of Isaiah constitutes. If the writer presents the firmament as a region of space above the earth and distinct from it, in which demons operate in spirit form, doing things in spirit form, then this is indeed evidence that it represents "some other reality that is near or overlaps our own." Once that is established, then we must accept that when this document represents the Son as descending into the sublunary realm, concealing his identity ("from the heavens") and is hung on a tree by Satan and his demons who don't know who he is, then it's pretty clear that the author is presenting this crucifixion as taking place in a spirit reality, part of the firmament that is distinct from the surface of the earth.

And I don't think it was ever said that the demons possessed human "flesh". Rather, they possessed "corporeal forms" that resembled flesh. They possessed "heavenly versions of earthly bodies." (TDNT, VII, p. 128: The angels "have flesh or at least appear to have it" though it is a different "corporeality" between humans and angels.)

Posting #6:
"In the firmament" means "in the sky". Certainly birds weren't flying in a spirit world.
No, Don, if you would open your mind a little instead of trying to fight a rearguard action at every step of the way, you would see that this still doesn't work. Consider:
Ascension of Isaiah 7:9 - "And we went up into the firmament...for the likeness of what is in the firmament is here on earth."
Does it make any sense to say:
"And we went up into the sky...for the likeness of what is in the sky is here on earth."?
Obviously not. The whole point of counterpart correspondences between material and spiritual is that they exist in two different dimensions. That's basic to Platonic thinking, going right back to Plato. This is the principle being stated here. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, that as far as this writer and this statement and this document is concerned, the firmament and the earth are two different regions, possessing two distinctive natures.

Earl, the dome of the firmament was regarded as a structure that held back the waters above. I don't think there is any doubt about that. Some people thought it was a crystalline structure, others that it was metal, still others that it was Zeus himself.
Yes, and still others thought....

So you agree that there was no universal standardization of what all these regions and structures of heaven constituted. You go on to quote Theophilus, saying that the firmament "was also used to mean the sky," but this simply shows that there were different concepts and different usages of terms and ideas; and Theophilus quotes Genesis, whose ideas were far different and less developed than those of Middle Platonism. All of which fits into what I have been saying. Theophilus might well have disagreed with the writer of the Ascension over the strict application of those ideas. And the fact that Theophilus did not have a religion involving the descent and sacrifice of a god in lower celestial regions could very well explain why he had no interest in presenting the cosmological imaginings of the writer of the Ascension or of Paul.

If by "the region of space above the earth" you mean the air, then fair enough. You'll then need to show that there was trees in the air, which I don't think there is evidence for.
And here I am pretty well going to wash my hands of this whole debate, because we are simply going around in circles. I have not managed to make a dent in your obsession with literalism, no matter how often I point out that ancient savior-god mythology did not require that everyone believed literal knives, nails, trees, bulls, caves, Davids, birth canals as we know them on earth existed in some heavenly spiritual realm. I haven't been able to get you to see that, regardless of how they might or might not understand it, scripture told apostles like Paul, as it told the writer of the Ascension, that certain things relating to God, his Son, and salvation, went on in spiritual dimensions. I haven't been able to get across to you the philosophical idea practically universal in the ancient world that things on earth had "genuine" correspondences in heaven to which the former were copies, regardless of whether our modern scientific minds can find any sense in it. Did the "heavenly Jerusalem" not contain trees, or walls, or cobblestones? Or perhaps people who believed in such a place in the heavens simply didn't think things through with your 21st century, scientific, literal mind. The point is, they still believed in it.

And the point is, until you abandon your apologetic mindset, you will never understand things either, and the western world will continue its "monumental misconception" of how Christianity began and what its mythical Christ Jesus was all about.

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