Recently, while rereading The Ascension of Isaiah (AoI), a composite Jewish-Christian pseudepigraphical writing, I realised that specific historical information may be hidden behind its apocalyptic façade. In this first part of my discussion of this text, I concentrate on verses 2:7 – 3:1 because these verses may contain considerable historical information. Below I give Knibb’s translation from Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha volume 2 (pp. 158-159). Verse 9, identified by R.H. Charles as an editorial addition, and verses 12b-16, described as a digression by Knibb in his introduction (p. 143), are left out.
(2:7) And when Isaiah the son of Amoz saw the great iniquity which was being committed in Jerusalem, and the service of Satan, and his wantonness*, he withdrew from Jerusalem and dwelt in Bethlehem of Judah. (8) And there also there was great iniquity; and he withdrew from Bethlehem and dwelt on a mountain** in a desert place. (9) … (10) All of them were clothed in sackcloth, and all of them were prophets; they had nothing with them, but were destitute, and they all lamented bitterly over the going astray of Israel. (11) And they had nothing to eat except wild herbs (which) they gathered from the mountains, and when they had cooked (them), they ate (them) with Isaiah the prophet. And they dwelt on the mountains and on the hills for two years of days. (12a) And after this, while they were in the desert, there was a certain man in Samaria named Balkira. (12b-16)…
(3:1) And Belkira discovered and saw the place of Isaiah and of the prophets who were with him, for he himself dwelt in the district of Bethlehem, …
* The Greek version (G2) offers καὶ τὴν πομπὴν αὐτοῦ, which can be translated into English as ‘and his triumph’.
** G2 has ἐν τῷ ὄρει, ‘on the mountain’
The fragment begins in Jerusalem, and this place, combined with ‘great iniquity’, ‘Satan’ and ‘his triumph’ (in the G2 manuscript), points to the destruction of Jerusalem, with Satan as the codename for the Roman emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, and their triumph in 71 CE.
‘Isaiah’ withdraws from Jerusalem to Bethlehem where a great iniquity subsequently forces him out to a third location ‘the mountain in a desert place’. Maybe in Bethlehem the iniquity referred to – a defeat and accompanying destruction – is similar to the one that took place in Jerusalem. Josephus doesn’t mention a battle in that city. However, if we look at the Bethlehem region, we see that the distance between this city and the hill fortress Herodion is only 5 kilometres. This fortress was one of the remaining refuges (together with Machaerus and Masada) of the Essene/Zealot rebels after the fall of Jerusalem. Lucilius Bassus was the commander of the X Legio Fretensis (named successor to Cerealius Vetilianus only shortly before) that captured Herodion in 71 CE. Josephus, War VII:163: A new legate had been sent to Judaea, Lucilius Bassus, who took over the command from Cerealius Vetilianus; he first captured the fortress of Herodion with its defenders. It could be argued that Bethlehem is the codename for nearby Herodion.
From Bethlehem/Herodion ‘Isaiah’, retreats further to ‘the mountain in a desert place’. In the aftermath of the war there are two candidates for this mountain, Machaerus and Masada. In combination with the ‘desert place’ (the Judean desert) and verse 11, Masada is the most likely option. Verse 11 indicates that Isaiah stayed in the mountains for a period of two years, which is important information considering Herodion fell in 71 CE and Masada in 73 CE. In 3:1 Isaiah’s opponent, Belkira, dwells in the Bethlehem area. As stated above, Herodion is located in the Bethlehem area, and it is obvious that the Romans occupied this stronghold during their campaign against Masada. Given this historical context, the mysterious Belkira can be identified as the Roman governor of Palestine (and at the same time commander of the Roman troops). A last element of this short analysis is the use of the word ‘prophets’ for Isaiah’s followers in verses 2:10 and 3:1. This categorisation allows them to be identified as Essenes, a link already established by Josephus and which I believe also applies to the New Testament, for example, in Luke 13:33. It is also probably no coincidence that ‘Isaiah’ was the name chosen for the leader of the last resisting Essenes. The Old Testament book Isaiah was the favourite for the Essenes, as the Dead Sea scrolls show.
In summary, we can say that The Ascension of Isaiah 2:7 – 3:1 points to the historical situation of the aftermath of the war between the Jews and the Romans. After the fall of Jerusalem, the remaining Essene rebels, with ‘Isaiah’ as their leader, withdrew to the south, first to Herodion where they were defeated in 71 CE and then to the nearly impregnable Masada table mountain where they held out for a further two years. Belkira, the Roman commander-in-chief, was the nemesis of the last resisting Zealots.