When Encyclopedias Fail: “Ascension and Martyrdom of Isaiah” in RPP

Critic of Wikipedia? Get over it. When Wikipedia is wrong, you can fix it. When a venerable print encyclopedia, such as Religion Past and Present (RPP), is wrong, it’s just a shame, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This short post can be classified as a critical notice, or a rant. Maybe both. Read on for details.

Today, while doing my DD (“due diligence”) in preparation for more advanced writing on the Ascension of Isaiah, I decided to look up the entry on the work in the well respected German encyclopedia Religion Past and Present (or RPP, in English translation; in German it is known as Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart or RGG).

Cover Image of Volume 1 of Religion Past and Present

Cover Image of Volume 1 of Religion Past and Present

Here’s the bibliography for the entry I am dealing with here:

Irina Wandrey, “Ascension and Martyrdom of Isaiah” in Religion Past and Present (Leiden: Brill, 2007) Vol. 1, page 428.

I regret to state that this is a singularly bad article. I might even have wanted to tear it out of the volume, it is that bad, but I’m using a library book. You have to take care of such things.

What is wrong with Wandrey’s piece? Let me list only four problems with this short article. That is enough.

1) Bibliography. The article lists only two sources. Now, both of them are monographs from the well respected series “Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit,” which one might think, ought to suffice. But are Hammershaimb’s 1973 short monograph, Das Martyrium Jesajas and Lehnardt’s 1999 general Bibliographie zu den jüdischen Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit adequate sources for grounding an encyclopedic introduction to the “Ascension of Isaiah”?

Comment: No, they are not adequate. The omissions from this bibliography are significant. Neither of the works cited represents a current approach to the text or context of the Ascension of Isaiah. Both of these sources—appropriately, given their publication context—focus on the Jewish elements in this text. However, it is well known that the Ascension as we have it has been thoroughly worked over by a Christian redactor; thus, in today’s scholarship, whether you cite the English, French, or Italian, you will find it increasingly common for scholars to treat the work as a Christian unity. Some scholarship reflecting that position should have been cited. At a minimum Norelli’s Commentarius (1995), which makes just this argument, should appear in the bibliography. (It is, however, quite unfortunately, in Italian.) The CCSA critical edition of the text, of which Norelli is one of the editors (1995), should also appear. Another important monograph that is more recent than Hammershaimb is by Ascerbi (1987; also Italian). A 1983 edited volume of papers on the Ascension (also, dagnabit, in Italian!) is another important source: Isaia, il diletto e la chiesa. Also published in the 1990’s are some foundational articles by Robert G. Hall (1990 and 1994, both in Journal of Biblical Literature) and by Darrell D. Hannah (1999, in Vigiliae Christianae). Finally, two English volumes by Jonathan Knight, published in 1995 and 1996 by Sheffield, ought to be considered as basic introductory works. The various approaches to the text articulated in this scholarship should have been sketched out.

2) Concerning the structure and origins of the work. Wandrey writes, uncontroversially, about the “two distinct parts” to the Ascension: chapters 1-5, called the “Martyrdom of Isaiah,” and long considered by many to be Jewish in origin—though of course it has “a Christian insertion” at 3:13–4:22—and chapters 6-11, called the Vision of Isaiah, considered by some to be later (but by Norelli to be earlier), and Christian in origin. However, Wandrey’s account of the origins of these documents has been skewed, apparently by Hammershaimb. Of the first part, chs. 1-5, she writes: “The Martyrdom of Isaiah was very likely written in Hebrew in Palestine,” adding that it is “a Jewish martyr legend dating back to the religious persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes.”

Comment: although many people share the opinion that the Martyrdom of Isaiah is originally Jewish and the vision is originally Christian, not all scholars, and perhaps not even the majority of scholars share these views. At a minimum, the early history of debate on the composition of the text (from Lawrence, 1819, to Dillmann, 1877 to Charles, 1900) could have been flagged, and arguments relating to its probable dating could have been mentioned and evaluated. More troubling than this omission, however, is Wandrey’s overconfident assertion about the origins of the Martyrdom text. It is certainly not widely agreed that the Martyrdom, in any form remotely as we have it today, ever existed as a Hebrew text in Palestine in the second century BCE. That is pure wishful thinking. We have, rather, only second century CE evidence from Rabbinics and Patristics that both Jews and Christians knew of the bare minimum facts of the martyrdom of Isaiah. There are no testimonies to the text prior to the second century CE. Dillmann’s discussion (1877) of the external testimonies remains foundational. There is absolutely no textual evidence that would support the claim that the original language of our text was Hebrew, and it is a tendentious, wishful argument that sees a Seleucid context for its origin.

3) Concerning the language of transmission and extant versions. There is a serious error of fact in this encyclopedia article. It needs explanation, and the more I think about it, the more I think it may have been some kind of awful mistake that crept in during the translation of RPP from RGG. Wandrey writes: “A complete version of the Vision of Isaiah is only available in Egyptian translation… additionally, some Greek and Latin fragments exist, and the Vision also exists in another version (Latin and Old Slavonic).”

Comment: where to start with this? First, what does Wandrey mean by “Vision of Isaiah” here? Does she refer to 6-11 only, or to the whole? From the content of what follows, it looks as though she has, inconsistently, applied the term “Vision” to the whole work (quite in defiance of the article title). That’s a problem in itself. But however that question is answered, the truth of the matter is that the none of the so-called “Ascension of Isaiah” is preserved “in Egyptian translation.” Rather, the text as a whole (chapters 1-11) is preserved only in Ethiopic—and to be clear, this language is not in any sense “Egyptian” and should never be confused with Egyptian by anyone who has done even minimal philological research. Perhaps this is merely an error in translation; maybe Wandrey wrote, in German, “Äthiopisch” and the translator simply made an error. After all, German for Egyptian is “Ägyptish.” I guess they have the same first and same last three letters? I really don’t know how this basic error could have taken place. But in any case, between the ambiguous name that is used for the text here, and the erroneous statement about the transmitted language, and the confusing statement about the versions (“some Greek and Latin fragments” and “another version” in Old Slavonic), Wandrey has made a muddle of this portion of the article. It’s utterly useless for a novice student of the text. Wandrey may have spent little or no time examining the philology of the work (remember, she cites neither Charles nor the CCSA). Certainly she doesn’t treat the philology of the text as an important issue. So, we have here a fatal combination of ambiguity, error, and neglect of philology. Whether all this happened somehow inadvertently (through poor planning, editing, and translation) or because of ignorance, ultimately, the problem is inexcusable in a printed encyclopedia.

4) The summary and content of the text. There is nothing strongly to object to in Wandrey’s summaries of the text contents, except to state that summaries of content in Encyclopedia articles are tiresome, and that the generalities Wandrey highlights do not really serve the readers of this entry. Although Wandrey offers a few general statements—e.g. “interesting from a theological point of view are the demonology in the Martyrdom and, in the Vision of Isaiah, the probable influence of Gnosticism shown in the report of the heavenly journey (6:1–10:6)”—and presents a few cross references to early Christian parallels to significant themes in the text, she doesn’t have much to say about the scholarly inquiries that have examined these issues or what they have concluded.

Comments: About these phrases, “theological point of view” and “probable influence of Gnosticism”—what can we make of them? Flusser’s article on the Dead Sea Sect and the Ascension of Isaiah (1953), even if it was a demonstrable failure at establishing its main point, contains a rich discussion of the demonological terms used in the text; yet it is hardly a “theological” point of view explored by Flusser. I suppose it depends on what you mean by Theological. Hannah’s article, mentioned above (on the alleged docetism of the text) would be one place to look for discussion of “gnostic” influences, and Knight’s work (along with a number of other short treatises including some dissertation sections) have attended to the theology of the text. Basically most contemporary scholars would say that this text is more likely to reflect Hellenistic Jewish cosmological ideas than any form of developed “gnosticism.” If anything, the direction of influence probably runs the other way; certainly the early heresiologists reported the later use of the Ascension by gnostics.

All things considered, the good old Dictionary of Christian Biography article on the “Ascension of Isaiah,” contributed by G. T. Stokes way back in 1882, offers a much better introduction to the text and the problems of its interpretation: see for yourself!.

Can it really be true that in the 125 year span between Stokes (1882) and the English translation of Wandrey (2007), we have hardly “advanced” in our understanding of the Ascension of Isaiah, and have maybe even regressed in the sophistication of our approach to the text? Thankfully, it is not true. There has been a great deal of work done—though too much of it has been done by Italians, for my taste (relax, only kidding!)—unfortunately, you would never know that from reading this entry in the RPP.

Students and novices, try Wikipedia instead!

When an encyclopedia article goes bad, who is to blame? The author? The translator? The editors? Surely, since the finished, translated form of the article appears to get at least one very basic fact about the text completely wrong, it is the editors of RPP — with all due respect to these eminent scholars, some being mentors and teachers of mine as well — who deserve the lion’s share of the blame here.

what do you think?

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