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Historical fact in Ascension of Isaiah ‒ Part 2: The days of signs and miracles (σημεῖα καἱ τέρατα) in 3:13-20

Historical fact in Ascension of Isaiah ‒ Part 2: The days of signs and miracles (σημεῖα καἱ τέρατα) in 3:13-20

In this second contribution on the Ascension of Isaiah, I will be discussing chapter 3:13-20, the first part of the so-called Testament of Hezekiah (3:13 – 4:22), an extensive Christian section of this work.
In Knibb’s translation (1), the text reads as follows, with ‘the Beloved’ a designation for Jesus:

(13) For Beliar was very angry with Isaiah because of the vision, and because of the exposure with which he had exposed Sammael, and that through him there had been revealed the coming of the Beloved from the seventh heaven, and his transformation, and his descent, and the form into which he must be transformed, (namely) the form of man, and the persecution with which he would be persecuted, and the torments with which the children of Israel must torment him, and the coming of the twelve disciples, and the teaching, and that before the sabbath he must be crucified on the tree, and be crucified with wicked men, and that he would be buried in a grave,

(14) and the twelve who (were) with him would be offended at him; and the guards who would guard the grave;

(15) and the descent of the angel of the church which is in the heavens, whom he will summon in the last days;

(16) and that the angel of the Holy Spirit and Michael, the chief of the holy angels, will open his grave on the third day,

(17) and that Beloved, sitting on their shoulders, will come forth and send out his twelve disciples,

(18) and they will teach all nations and every tongue the resurrection of the Beloved, and those who believe in his cross will be saved, and in his ascension to the seventh heaven from where he came;

(19) and that many who believe in him will speak through the Holy Spirit,

(20) and there will be many signs and miracles in those days.

After an introductory phrase (from the beginning of the fragment to Sammael), this passage describes the coming and teaching, and also the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. At first sight there is no single chronological indicator present in this fragment. However, its concluding phrase reads ‘there will be many signs and miracles in those days’. If ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις (in those days) refers to a period, we should carefully examine what period the author intended.

We should first stress that the signs and miracles of verse 20 do not refer to Jesus’ spectacular display of miracles and exorcisms. The position of this possible time indicator at the end of the section suggests otherwise. Also, Josephus does not report any extraordinary events that could be interpreted as signs and miracles in the thirties of the first century CE. So perhaps a different question could be raised: is there another period in that era that is identifiable as a period – or maybe the period – of ‘signs and miracles’ (σημεῖα καἱ τέρατα)?

Below, I discuss several fragments of Josephus’s War that include these two words. It will be demonstrated that there is a pattern to Josephus’s use of σημεῖα and τέρατα: these words are frequently used in a context of catastrophe, war, destruction or calamity. In the quotes below I underline the nouns that pertain to ‘signs’ and ‘miracles’ (or ‘portents’) and I highlight in bold the words or phrases related to war or catastrophe.
In War, Josephus uses the words σημεῖα and τέρατα together only once, at the very beginning of this work (Book I verse 28) when discussing its scope: I will describe the burning of the Temple, perpetrated contrary to Caesar’s wishes, and the number of sacred treasures seized as booty from the flames; the capture of the city, and the signs and portents that preceded it.
In War I:377-378 the word τέρας is used twice, and σημεῖον once: Do not let the convulsions of inanimate nature disturb you or imagine that the earthquake is a portent (τέρας) of further disaster. These accidents to which the elements are subject have physical causes, and beyond the immediate injury inflicted bring no further consequences to mankind. A pestilence, a famine, subterranean commotions may possibly be preceded by some slighter premonition (σημεῖον), but these catastrophes themselves are limited by their very magnitude to their instant effects. I ask you, can war, even if we are defeated, do us more harm than the earthquake?
Our adversaries, on the other hand, have one grave portent
(τέρας) of impending destruction in a recent incident, due neither to natural causes nor to the actions of others.

Elsewhere Josephus uses τἐρας (portent) alone:

  • War IV:287: Such a convulsion of the very fabric of the universe clearly foretokened destruction of mankind, and the conjecture was natural that these were portents (τέρατα) of no trifling calamity.
  • War V:411: This same miracle (τέρας) you saw happen once before at the capture of the city when the Babylonians whom I have mentioned marched against it, captured and burnt both the city and the sanctuary, although the Jews of that generation, I imagine, were surely guilty of no such impiety as yours. So I believe that the Deity has fled from the holy places and stands now on the side of those with whom you are at war.
  • War VI:288: Thus it was that the wretched people were deluded at that time by charlatans and pretended messengers of the deity; while they neither heeded nor believed in the manifest portents (τέρασιν) that foretold the coming desolation, but, as if thunderstruck and bereft of eyes and mind, disregarded the plain warnings of God.
  • War VI:295: This again to the uninitiated seemed the best of omens (τέρας), as they supposed that God had opened to them the gate of blessings; but the learned understood that the security of the temple was dissolving of its own accord and that the opening of the gate meant a present to the enemy, interpreting the portent (σημεῖον) in their own minds as indicative of coming desolation.
  • Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah – A New Translation and Introduction by M.A. Knibb, in J.H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha volume 2, p. 160.

This verse is followed by the enumeration of different omens in verses 289-294). Then, in verse 295, Josephus again uses both τέρας and σημεῖον.

It may be clear that Josephus uses σημεῖον and τέρας several times to describe ominous portents of a specific catastrophe, the destruction of the Temple and the capture of Jerusalem during the war against the Romans.

While at first there appear to be no chronological clues in Ascension of Isaiah 3:13-20, a closer reading reveals this section ends with a veiled time indication of Jesus’ life and passion. According to Josephus, one specific catastrophe was preceded by signs and miracles in this period, namely the catastrophic end of Jerusalem and its temple. It is in this period that Ascension of Isaiah 3:20 places Jesus’ activity, passion and resurrection.