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The last Essene resistance during the Jewish-Roman war in Ascension of Isaiah 2:7-3:1

Posted: Mon Dec 03, 2018 8:47 am
by FransJVermeiren
In recent Ascension of Isaiah (AoI) threads on this forum I suggested that the ‘king and his son’ of AoI 9:14 is an encrypted mention of Vespasian and Titus, and that the king/emperor of 11:19 likewise refers to the Flavians. In both cases the Flavians are staged as responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Recently I asked myself if possibly more political content could be discerned in AoI. I believe that this may be the case in 2:7 – 3:1 (and also in chapter 4 which I will not discuss here). 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 the combination of ‘great iniquity’, ‘Satan’ and (thanks to the G2 manuscript) ‘his triumph’ points to the destruction of Jerusalem, with Satan as the encrypted name for the Roman emperor Vespasian, and his triumph in Rome 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’. In Bethlehem an iniquity takes place like in Jerusalem, probably also a defeat and accompanying destruction. To what capture or defeat in Bethlehem could be referred here in connection with the fall of Jerusalem? If we take a look at the Bethlehem region, we see that the distance between this city and Herod’s mountain fortress Herodion is only 5 kilometers. This fortress was one of the remaining refuges (with Machaerus and Masada) for the Essene/Zealot rebels after the fall of Jerusalem. Lucilius Bassus was the commander of the Legio X Fretensis (as 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.

From Bethlehem (Herodion) Isaiah further retreats to ‘the mountain in a desert place’. For this mountain there are two options, Machaerus and Masada, but 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 attractive information as Herodion fell in 71 CE and Masada in 73 CE.
In 3:1 Belkira, Isaiah’s opponent, dwells in the Bethlehem area. This is not a surprising location after the capture of nearby Herodion. Also in Life 420 Josephus mentions that the Romans were already scouting the Tekoa area, close to Bethlehem and Herodion, at the end of the siege of Jerusalem in preparation of the construction of a military camp for the southern campaign. It is clear that the mysterious Belkira in this historical context can be identified as the commander of the Roman troops (in his quality as Roman governor of Palestine).
Verse 11a describes a situation of food shortage for Isaiah and his followers, which is in contradiction with Eleazar’s boasting speech in Josephus that food shortage was not at a factor in the collective suicide of the defenders of Masada (War VII:336).
A last element of this short analysis is the use in verse 2:10 and 3:1 of the word ‘prophets’ for Isaiah’s followers. 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. 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 this encrypted AoI fragment 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, then to the Masada table mountain where they held out for two more years. Belkira, the Roman commander-in-chief, was their opponent.