On recent rereading of The Ascension of Isaiah (AoI), a composite Jewish-Christian pseudepigraphal writing, I discovered that specific historical information may be hidden behind this writing’s 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 a large amount of historical information. Below I give Knibb’s translation from Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha volume 2 (p. 158-159). Verse 9, identified by R.H. Charles as an editorial addition, and verse 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) gives καὶ τὴν πομπὴν αὐτοῦ, ‘and his triumph’.
** G2 has ἐν τῷ ὄρει, ‘on the mountain’
The fragment starts 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 encrypted name for the Roman emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, and their triumph in 71 CE.
From Jerusalem ‘Isaiah’ withdraws to Bethlehem, and after a great iniquity in that place his third location is ‘the mountain in a desert place’. Maybe in Bethlehem a similar iniquity – a defeat and accompanying destruction – as in Jerusalem took place. Josephus does not mention a battle in that city. However, if we take a look at the Bethlehem region, we see that the distance between this city and the hill fortress Herodion is only 5 kilometers. 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 (as recent successor of Cerealius Vetilianus) 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. In my opinion Bethlehem is the encoded name for nearby Herodion.
From Bethlehem/Herodion ‘Isaiah’ further retreats to ‘the mountain in a desert place’. In the aftermath of the war there are two options for this mountain, Machaerus and Masada. In combination with the ‘desert place’ (the Judean desert) and with verse 11, Masada is the preferable option. Verse 11 mentions a period of two years for Isaiah’s stay in the mountains, and this is important information as Herodion fell in 71 CE and Masada in 73 CE. In 3:1 Belkira, Isaiah’s opponent, dwells in the Bethlehem area. As already said Herodion is located in the Bethlehem area, and it is obvious that the Romans used this stronghold during their campaign against Masada. In 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 verse 2:10 and 3:1. This word allows their identification as Essenes, as Josephus makes a positive link between the Essenes and prophecy, and as in my opinion this word is used in the same sense in the New Testament, for example in Luke 13:33. Also the name ‘Isaiah’ is probably not chosen coincidentally for the leader of the last resisting Essenes. The Old Testament book Isaiah was the favorite of 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 of the Jews against 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 two more years. Belkira, the Roman commander-in-chief, was the opponent of the last resisting Zealots.