Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Martyrdom of Isaiah

Introduction to the Text:

The Martyrdom of Isaiah (henceforth MartIs) was written, at the earliest, during the 2nd century BCE in Hebrew. Eventual textual additions led to its title Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, inserting text outside of and in-between the primary narrative (1:1-3:12; 5:1-16). MartIs tells the story of how Isaiah eventually met his death due to Isaiah’s truthful prophecies and the wickedness of Manasseh.[1]

Additionally significant is how MartIs elaborates on the world of heavenly beings, namely angels and demons. In this account, Sammael Malkira, a chief archangel in Jewish traditions, is the power source of wickedness behind Manasseh. Sammael attaches to Manasseh and Manasseh eventually abandons God and serves Satan, “and his angels, and his powers”. The spiritual influence is also the drive behind the prophetic nature of the text. The whole of MartIs is riddled with prophetic conflict: one prophet is telling a lie versus the Other who is being truthful. All in all, it is important text to understanding how prophecy, and heaven and earth intersected in the Jewish conceptual world during the 2nd century BCE.

I, however, plan on focusing on a small portion of text in which Isaiah says “I see more than Moses the prophet” (3:8b).

From Yahweh to Moses:

MartIs notes in 3:8b that Isaiah sees “more than Moses the prophet”. Interestingly, the text (MartIs) notes that Moses said, “There is no man who can see the LORD and live”. In the Hebrew Bible, though, Yahweh says, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (NASB, Ex. 33:20). The author of MartIs basically attributes to Moses words originally spoken (at least based off of current manuscripts) by Yahweh. Why is such a shift necessary, though?

The answer, I think, is simple. Imagine if the author of MartIs had not changed the words. Rather than disagreeing with Moses that man cannot see Yahweh’s face, Isaiah would be disagreeing with Yahweh himself, a grave and potentially dangerous offense of religious sensibilities. Furthermore, it justifies Isaiah in the eyes of Manasseh. After all, were Isaiah to call out Yahweh and say he was wrong, Isaiah would look like the fool and liar in the situation. Simply put, the author placed the Yahweh’s words in the mouth of Moses so as to depict Isaiah as truthful.

Consequently, this textual shift indicates an important fact about biblical traditions in the 2nd century BCE. Although it is already a well-established idea, this brief analysis reinforces the idea that central to the religious practices c. 200 BCE was not so much the Hebrew Scriptures, but the biblical tradition. Unlike the modern era in which the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is canonized and the final form of the text is the object leading towards veneration of God, in the 2nd century BCE the biblical tradition was the object leading towards veneration of God. I emphasize tradition because the religiosity in that period was more focused on how to redact, develop, and build upon traditions of the past, not maintain stagnate beliefs and practices which never changed.

Reinhard Kratz summarizes this idea well: “During the time in question, neither “the Bible” as some fixed canon nor a uniform textual tradition normative for all had yet come into being. Accordingly, the para-biblical literature (Pseudepigrapha) and the biblical tradition exist on the same level, the former no more or less “biblical” than the latter. The para-biblical literature continues only what began in biblical tradition: the ongoing interpretation and reinterpretation of traditional texts conceptualized as authoritative in the course of literary production” [2].

[1] M. A. Knibb, “Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah”, ed. J. H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 143-176.

[2] Reinhard G. Kratz, Historical & Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015), 129.



6 thoughts on “Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Martyrdom of Isaiah

    • I deleted it for the sake of the webpage wanting to charge substantial sums of money for it. He seemed pretty serious about his copyright stuff. I figured I’d rather be safe than sorry. 🙂

    • I use the term biblical tradition in the way that Kratz does. He defines “biblical” as “those writings that later found their way into the Hebrew Bible but already – and almost exclusively – enjoyed an authoritative status and regular citation in the Dead Sea Scrolls”. The tradition is, as also demonstrated through the quotation in the post, “continuously regenerated by those who move within it, the new appearing in the garments of the old and the preserved”.

      So, yes and no. The biblical tradition is too a certain extent tied to the texts; however, as you note, the oral traditions lived before the biblical traditions. By the composition of MartIs, I would say that the traditions are primarily written, although oral traditions were definitely still a part of the development.

      As for how it was expressed, it seems to me that they are primarily expressed through common motifs. I need to explore this more, though.

      Thanks! I sort of just let my thoughts run here. In many ways I am not sure of the specifics.

      What do you think?

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