Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

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Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Secret Alias » Thu Dec 07, 2017 7:11 am

Every once and a while I get an idea. An idea can break through the dogma that we instill in our own heads merely because it is convenient to keep our self-importance intact.

What I mean is that anyone who has ever thought about the problem of the origins of the gospel immediately finds the Marcionites intriguing. The idea that Irenaeus and company complain that these heretics 'cut things out' of the gospel strikes a chord with us because it seems like things have been added to the canonical gospels. One of the main things which seem to have been added to Christian scriptures is citations of Jewish prophet writings.

So on the one hand it doesn't appear as if our canonical gospels are the earliest written versions of the gospel, they and the Pauline writings seem to have had Jewish scriptural references added to them, the Marcionites are identified as making this charge in antiquity, their gospel and Pauline writings had less Jewish scriptural references (although they did not completely ignore the Jewish scriptures either). It all seems to be a neat package.

The one of difficulties of course is that the Church Fathers make the Marcionites out to 'hate' Judaism, 'hate' the Jewish scriptures - this in spite of the Marcionite canon having references to the Jewish scriptures and prominent Marcionites being identified by Church Fathers as translators of the Jewish scriptures and the Marcionites having actual interpretations of various Jewish scriptural texts.

Another difficulty is that the gospel itself - and its Passion narrative especially - seem to be modeled on Isaiah 53. The problem is that Isaiah seems very much at the core of the gospel. Isaiah 40 is cited at the beginning of most of the earliest canonical gospels. I have now a strong suspicion that the entire descent of Christ (not Jesus) from heaven was modeled on the first verses of Isaiah 40. In fact it's reference to pronouncing the gospel to Zion and the gospel to Jerusalem might well be the underlying context to why the gospel is called the gospel.

But there is more to it than this. If Isaiah 40 represents the beginning of the gospel (i.e. the verses not only cited at the beginning of the Christian gospel) but as a context for what is about to happen at the beginning of the narrative (i.e. Christ descending from heaven) and the passion narrative was developed around Isaiah 53 then isn't it possible -given that Isaiah 40 - 53 are taken to represent a unified 'section' of Isaiah by scholars - that the unit corresponds to the original sequencing of gospel 'events'?

Here is what scholars note:
On the basis of his analysis of the literary structure of Isaiah 40–55, Laato comes to the conclusion that Isaiah 54 is part of the afterword to the macrostructure of Isaiah 40–53. In his view, Isaiah 54 and 55 together constitute a supplement to Isaiah 40–53, in which the main themes of the previous chapters are summarized.
Well as I said this is all speculative but I think there is something to it. Of course the idea that someone just wrote a narrative about Christ descending from heaven taking Isaiah 40 - 53 as a template is intriguing but it would have to be recognized that how Isaiah was applied is an open question.

For the moment at least I'd like to assume:

1. that there was a common tradition from Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian
2. that even though this is now an 'orthodox' tradition it had knowledge and awareness of older traditions about how Isaiah related to the gospel.

If the readers will allow me this liberty I'd like to start by citing Justin's version of Isaiah 40 and then all the exegesis that applies to it and the gospel in the aforementioned authors:
And Trypho said, “You seem to me to have come out of a great conflict with many persons about all the points we have been searching into, and therefore quite ready to return answers to all questions put to you. Answer me then, first, how you can show that there is another God besides the Maker of all things; and then you will show, [further], that He submitted to be born of the Virgin.”

I replied, “Give me permission first of all to quote certain passages from the prophecy of Isaiah, which refer to the office of forerunner discharged by John the Baptist and prophet before this our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“I grant it,” said he.

Then I said, “Isaiah thus foretold John’s forerunning:

‘And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, Good is the word of the Lord which He spake: Let there be peace and righteousness in my days.’ And, ‘Encourage the people; ye priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and encourage her, because her humiliation is accomplished. Her sin is annulled; for she has received of the Lord’s hand double for her sins. A voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the ways of the Lord; make straight the paths of our God. Every valley shall be filled up, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way shall be plain ways; and the glory of the Lord shall be seen, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God: for the Lord hath spoken it. A voice of one saying, Cry; and I said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass has withered, and the flower of it has fallen away; but the word of the Lord endureth for ever. Thou that bringest good tidings to Zion, go up to the high mountain; thou that bringest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength. Lift ye up, be not afraid; tell the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold, the Lord comes with strength, and [His] arm comes with authority. Behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. As a shepherd He will tend His flock, and will gather the lambs with [His] arm, and cheer on her that is with young. Who has measured the water with [his] hand, and the heaven with a span, and all the earth with [his] fist? Who has weighed the mountains, and [put] the valleys into a balance? Who has known the mind of the Lord? And who has been His counsellor, and who shall advise Him? Or with whom did He take counsel, and he instructed Him? Or who showed Him judgment? Or who made Him to know the way of understanding? All the nations are reckoned as a drop of a bucket, and as a turning of a balance, and shall be reckoned as spittle. But Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts sufficient for a burnt-offering; and all the nations are considered nothing, and for nothing.’ ”

And when I ceased, Trypho said, “All the words of the prophecy you repeat, sir, are ambiguous, and have no force in proving what you wish to prove.”

Then I answered, “If the prophets had not ceased, so that there were no more in your nation, Trypho, after this John, it is evident that what I say in reference to Jesus Christ might be regarded perhaps as ambiguous. But if John came first calling on men to repent, and Christ, while [John] still sat by the river Jordan, having come, put an end to his prophesying and baptizing, and preached also Himself, saying that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and that He must suffer many things from the Scribes and Pharisees, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again, and would appear again in Jerusalem, and would again eat and drink with His disciples; and foretold that in the interval between His [first and second] advent, as I previously said, priests and false prophets would arise in His name, which things do actually appear; then how can they be ambiguous, when you may be persuaded by the facts? [Dial Trypho 50, 51]


But for the moment let's cite all the allusions for how Isaiah 40 is understood to foreshadow or know the beginning of the gospel by the aforementioned authors:

Isa 40.3 For if there had been no ministry of John at all----"the voice," as Isaiah calls him, "of one crying in the wilderness," and the preparer of the ways of the Lord by denunciation and recommendation of repentance [Tert AM 4.11.5]

Now, inasmuch as these predictions evidently related to the Creator's Christ----as we have proved in the examination of each of them----it was perverse enough, if he gave himself out to be not the Christ of the Creator, and rested the proof of his statement on those very evidences whereby he was urging his claims to be received as the Creator's Christ. Far greater still is his perverseness when, not being the Christ of John,686 he yet bestows on John his testimony, affirming him to be a prophet, nay more, his messenger,687 applying to him the Scripture, "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee." [ibid 4.18.7]

More easily, therefore, may heaven and earth pass away----as also the law and the prophets----than that one tittle of the Lord's words should fail."1316 "For," as says Isaiah: "the word of our God shall stand for ever."1317 Since even then by Isaiah it was Christ, the Word and Spirit1318 of the Creator, who prophetically described John as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord,"1319 and as about to come for the purpose of terminating thenceforth the course of the law and the prophets; by their fulfilment and not their extinction, and in order that the kingdom of God might be announced by Christ, He therefore purposely added the assurance that the elements would more easily pass away than His words fail; affirming, as He did, the further fact, that what He had said concerning John had not fallen to the ground. [ibid 4.33.9]

Isa 40.4

But for what end did He send His Son? "To redeem them that were under the law,"143 in other words, to "make the crooked ways straight, and the rough places smooth," as Isaiah says144 ----in order that old things might pass away, and a new course begin, even "the new law out of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,"145 and "that we might receive the adoption of sons,"146 that is, the Gentiles, who once were not sons. [ibid 5.4.3]

Isa 40.5, 6

You retain the scriptures by which the flesh is brought under a cloud: retain those also by which it is made glorious. You read when it is brought low: apply your eyes also whenever it is lifted up. All flesh is grass:5 not this pronouncement alone did Isaiah make, but also, All flesh shall see the salvation of God. [De Res. Car 10.5]

But when the apostle writes, Whether the world or life or death or things future or things present, all are yours,6 he appoints the same persons heirs even of things future. Isaiah gives you no support. When he says, All flesh is grass,7 and elsewhere, And all flesh shall see the salvation of God,8 he has made a distinction of destinies, not of substances. For who denies that the penalty? So all flesh is grass, which is destined to the fire: and all flesh shall see the salvation of God, which is ordained to salvation. I for my part am aware that it was not with some other flesh that
I committed adulteries, and that it is not now with some other flesh that I am striving towards continence. If there is any man who is carrying about two sets of privy members, he can even now strip off the grass which is impure flesh and reserve to himself that flesh alone which is to see the salvation of our Lord. But when the same prophet shows that the nations also are at one time reckoned as dust and spittle, and are at another time to hope and to believe in the name and the arm of the Lord, do we make any mistake about the nations? And is it because of diversity of substance
that some are to believe, while others are reckoned for dust? No, for even Christ shone forth as the true light of the nations, within the ocean, and from this sky which broods over us: and these very Valentinians have here learned to go astray: nor will there be some other fashion of the nations which believe, but only that which is theirs who do not believe, of flesh, and of soul. As then he has distinguished, not in species but in destiny, nations which are the same, so also the kinds of flesh, which in these nations is one substance, he has opposed to one another not in material but in reward.[ibid 59.2]

The human race has this fate: complete destruction for every soul stamped "earthy" or "material," because "all flesh is grass" (Isa. 40:6). We see that they think even the soul is mortal unless it finds salvation by faith. The souls of righteous men, namely ours, will be carried to the Demiurge in the shelter of his middle region--we are thankful; we will be happy to be counted with our god from whom we received our soul-like origin. Nothing is admitted into the palace of the Pleroma except the spirit-like swarm of Valentinus. These men then, men destined to enter the Pleroma, are unclothed first; to be unclothed means to put aside the souls with which they are only apparently endowed. [ibid Adv Val. 32.1]

Isa 40.8

"More easily, therefore, may heaven and earth pass away----as also the law and the prophets----than that one tittle of the Lord's words should fail." "For," as says Isaiah: "the word of our God shall stand for ever."1317 Since even then by Isaiah it was Christ, the Word and Spirit1318 of the Creator, who prophetically described John as "the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord,"1319 and as about to come for the purpose of terminating thenceforth the course of the law and the prophets; by their fulfilment and not their extinction, and in order that the kingdom of God might be announced by Christ, He therefore purposely added the assurance that the elements would more easily pass away than His words fail; affirming, as He did, the further fact, that what He had said concerning John had not fallen to the ground.[ibid Adv Marc 4.33.9]

He further declares, "that heaven and earth shall not pass away till all things be fulfilled."1576 What things, pray, are these? Are they the things which the Creator made? Then the elements will tractably endure the accomplishment of their Maker's dispensation. If, however, they emanate from your excellent god, I much doubt whether1577 the heaven and earth will peaceably allow the completion of things which their Creator's enemy has determined! If the Creator quietly submits to this, then He is no "jealous God." But let heaven and earth pass away, since their Lord has so determined; only let His word remain for evermore! And so Isaiah predicted that it should. [ibid 4.39.18]

Isa 40.9

Surely to Sion He brings good tidings, and to Jerusalem peace and all blessings; He goes up into a mountain, and there spends a night in prayer,423 and He is indeed heard by the Father. Accordingly turn over the prophets, and learn therefrom His entire course.424 "Into the high mountain," says Isaiah, "get Thee up, who bringest good tidings to Sion; lift up Thy voice with strength, who bringest good tidings to Jerusalem."425 "They were mightily426 astonished at His doctrine; for He was teaching as one who had power." [ibid 4.13.1]

For nobody had induced them to apostatize from58 the Creator, that they should seem to "be removed to another gospel," simply when they return again to the Creator. When he adds, too, the words, "which is not another,"59 he confirms the fact that the gospel which he maintains is the Creator's. For the Creator Himself promises the gospel, when He says by Isaiah: "Get thee up into the high mountain, thou that bringest to Sion good tidings; lift up thy voice with strength, thou that bringest the gospel to Jerusalem."60 Also when, with respect to the apostles personally, He says, "How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, that bring good tidings of good"61 ----even proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles, because He also says, "In His name shall the Gentiles trust; "62 that is, in the name of Christ, to whom He says, "I have given thee as a light of the Gentiles." [ibid 5.2]

Isa 40.10
Such being the state of the case, these infatuated men declare that they rise above the Creator (Demiurge); and, inasmuch as they proclaim themselves superior to that God who made and adorned the heavens, and the earth, and all things that are in them, and maintain that they themselves are spiritual, while they are in fact shamefully carnal on account of their so great impiety,—affirming that He, who has made His angels3245 spirits, and is clothed with light as with a garment, and holds the circle32463246 Isa. xl. 12, 22. of the earth, as it were, in His hand, in whose sight its inhabitants are counted as grasshoppers, and who is the Creator and Lord of all spiritual substance, is of an animal nature,—they do beyond doubt and verily betray their own madness; and, as if truly struck with thunder, even more than those giants who are spoken of in [heathen] fables, they lift up their opinions against God, inflated by a vain presumption and unstable glory,—men for whose purgation all the hellebore32473247 Irenæus was evidently familiar with Horace; comp. Ars. Poet., 300. on earth would not suffice, so that they should get rid of their intense folly. [Irenaeus 2.30]

isa 40.13, 14

. But you do not even deny God intelligently,15 you treat of Him ignorantly;16 nay, you accuse Him with a semblance of intelligence,17 whom if you did but know Him, you would never accuse, nay, never treat of.18 You give Him His name indeed, but you deny the essential truth of that name, that is, the greatness which is called God; not acknowledging it to be such as, were it possible for it to have been known to man in every respect,19 would not be greatness. [4] Isaiah even so early, with the clearness of an apostle, foreseeing the thoughts of heretical hearts, asked, "Who hath known the mind of the Lord? For who hath been His counsellor? With whom took He counsel? ... or who taught Him knowledge, and showed to Him the way of understanding? "20 With whom the apostle agreeing exclaims, "Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!"21 "His judgments unsearchable," as being those of God the Judge; and "His ways past finding out," as comprising an understanding and knowledge which no man has ever shown to Him, except it may be those critics of the Divine Being, who say, God ought not to have been this,22 and He ought rather to have been that; as if any one knew what is in God, except the Spirit of God.23 [ibid 2.2.4]
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Ben C. Smith » Thu Dec 07, 2017 8:55 am

A very interesting idea. Thanks. It reminds me of two other ideas:
  1. My own observation that Mark, like the book of Joshua, begins with the commissioning of its hero and ends with his death.
  2. Other people's observation that the three days spanning Jesus' death and resurrection can be interpreted out of three consecutive psalms: Psalm 22 (day 1, death: "why have you forsaken me?"), Psalm 23 (day 2, rest: "the valley of the shadow of death"), and Psalm 24 (day 3, resurrection: "lift up your heads, O gates").
Maybe the notion that book sections or even entire books influenced the shape of later texts and traditions in these ways ought to be pursued more often.
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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Secret Alias » Thu Dec 07, 2017 10:07 am

At the very least - and I hope this is interesting - WHEN CHRISTIANS of antiquity were asked or thought about the context of the title of the main Christian narrative 'the gospel' they inevitably went to Isaiah to find its context. Isaiah makes frequent mention to basrah and uses the verb basar (Gk euangelizesthai) which eventually crystalizes in the Christian term 'gospel.' Isaiah is very much the inventor if you will of the concept of the gospel.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Secret Alias » Thu Dec 07, 2017 10:42 am

What I also find interesting is the lengths to which the later canonical gospel writers/editors go to emphasize John the Baptist as the one crying out in the wilderness. Look at John 1:23 - John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet: “I am a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’"

This is so silly on one level. John the Baptists never said these words. There is no way that the author could have claimed to have known that John said them - so why go through all this lying? Because it must have been deemed to be important to frame the identity of 'the one crying out in the wilderness.'

A voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the ways of the Lord; make straight the paths of our God. Every valley shall be filled up, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way shall be plain ways; and the glory of the Lord shall be seen, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God: for the Lord hath spoken it. A voice of one saying, Cry; and I said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.

The difficulty is that Christ eventually comes down from heaven. This clearly has to be the context of the way of the Lord and the straightening business. The one who comes down from heaven is going to bring heaven down to earth. So he is the one who is being cleared for - and this doesn't seem to be Jesus.

So to my mind at least John the Baptist is introduced so as to deflect from the adoptionist understanding of Jesus and Christ being two different entities and the gospel describing Christ's descent from heaven making Jesus ultimately take John the Baptist's place in the traditional formula.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Giuseppe » Thu Dec 07, 2017 11:53 am

Secret Alias wrote:
Thu Dec 07, 2017 10:42 am
So to my mind at least John the Baptist is introduced so as to deflect from the adoptionist understanding of Jesus and Christ being two different entities and the gospel describing Christ's descent from heaven making Jesus ultimately take John the Baptist's place in the traditional formula.
At contrary, I think that John the Baptist may be introduced just to witness the adoptionist understanding of Jesus. So the latter didn't come down from heaven entirely in a secret way (as Terminator in any his movie :D ). But someone - a real historical figure - saw him who arrives in a precise historical time.

Celsus (or better, his Jew) despised this hypothetical human witness, if I remember well.

Contra Celsum 1,41:
Let us, then, see what he says when attacking the story of the physical appearance, as it were, of the Holy Spirit seen by the Saviour in the form of a dove. His Jew continues by saying this to him whom we confess to be our Lord Jesus: When, he says, you were bathing near John, you say that you saw what appeared to be a bird fly towards you out of the air. His Jew then asks: What trustworthy witness saw this apparition, or who heard a voice from heaven adopting you as a son of God? There is no proof except for your word and the evidence which you may produce of one of the men who were punished with you.
...the ''evidence'' given by ''one of the men who were punished with you'' is just the ''witness'' given by John the Baptist, the latter's death being naturaliter a prefiguration of the death of Jesus (afterall, John is the only person in the our canonical Gospels who dies after a punishment).

Note that Celsus, while despising the (presumed) witness given by this (presumed human) witness (John), concedes at the same time the existence of Jesus (baptized by John with the reference to dove, etc). So the his polemic about the presumed (true or false) witness of John was probably a polemic about the historicity of Jesus, his being relatively or absolutely famous in the his presumed time.
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Secret Alias » Thu Dec 07, 2017 12:09 pm

I don't think so. I think the Marcionites may have been adoptionists. I simply don't see any evidence of a Jesus coming down from heaven.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Giuseppe » Thu Dec 07, 2017 12:12 pm

Note that Celsus polemizes just against the separationist clue in Mark of a Jesus who - him only - saw the dove etc and not John his human witness. Clearly Celsus was enough astute to recognize the utility of John in the incipit of Mark: to witness the coming of a (otherwise invisibile) Great Man. Or of the descending of the Spirit on him (that is the same).
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Giuseppe » Thu Dec 07, 2017 12:23 pm

So the sequence of events for me:

1) a Gospel where Jesus comes down from heaven not seen by people

2) anti-Christian accusations: who saw this Jesus coming down?

3) Mark: John saw him but Jesus only saw the dove.

4) anti-Christian accusation by Celsus: who can confirm that Jesus saw the dove (apart him and, eventually, John)?

5) Matthew, Luke, etc.: John saw Jesus and ALSO the dove.
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Secret Alias » Thu Dec 07, 2017 12:32 pm

But there is no evidence for a Jesus coming down from heaven and Tertullian - as far as I know - always references a Christ or Christ coming down to Capernaum. The image of Christ coming down from heaven is from the gospel baptism narratives. There is no reason to think this is something different or at least provide the evidence for thinking so. Please don't cite weird nineteenth or early twentieth century books. Primary evidence please.
“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

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Re: Can Isaiah 40 - 53 Be Used as a Road Map to the Lost Ur-Gospel?

Post by Giuseppe » Thu Dec 07, 2017 12:43 pm

The evidence is Mark 14:62 :
Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven
last things = first things, for an apocalypticist view.

so the irony of Mark 14:62 is that the Son of Man is coming in the clouds of heaven etc just during the first apparition of Jesus on the Earth.
Nihil enim in speciem fallacius est quam prava religio. -Liv. xxxix. 16.

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