Age of ReasonThe Jesus Puzzle
Supplementary Articles - No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?
Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.



Further Supplementary Articles:

  • No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate
  • No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John
  • No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?
  • No. 4: The Odes of Solomon
  • No. 5: Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria
  • No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel
  • No. 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity
  • No. 8: Christ as "Man": Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?
  • No. 9: A Sacrifice In Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews
  • No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question
  • No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John/li>

A Two-Edged Sword

In the first Gospel story of Jesus' trial and crucifixion, the author of Mark engages in a carefully crafted and delicate balancing act over the question of responsibility for Jesus' death: between Jew and Roman, between the Jewish religious establishment and the secular arm of the Empire. Mark knew full well that only the Roman governor could condemn a man to the cross, but he also wanted to allot to the Jewish leaders and to the Jewish people as a whole an equal if not greater role in Jesus' execution.

And so throughout his story Mark set the scene by having the chief priests, scribes and elders plot to do away with Jesus, and it is their forces who first arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane. He invented a follower of Jesus, Judas by name to symbolize all Jewry, who betrays Jesus to his enemies and leads the arresting force to him. And it is the High Priest and Sanhedrin who first question Jesus and abuse him, finding him guilty of blasphemy and deserving of death—on grounds which have never made much sense. Indeed, the entire circumstances of Mark's trial before the Jewish Council can be seen to contravene so many known conventions and prohibitions that some scholars have been led to reject its very historicity. But that's a story for another time.

When Jesus is finally turned over to the Roman governor, Mark makes Pilate behave in a manner which is entirely uncharacteristic of what we know of him from historical sources, and of Roman policy in general. By whitewashing Pilate, by having the demands of the Jewish leaders and Jewish people override his attempts to free Jesus, by having the crowd choose Barabbas over Jesus (an option no governor of Judea would ever have offered, and there is no record of such a Roman policy anywhere), Mark places the primary responsibility for Jesus' death at the feet of the Jews.

A Two Edged Sword
A Sweet Sacrifice
Crucified under Pontius Pilate
The Rulers of This Age
Descending Gods
The Descent of the Son
Christ Reaches Earth
When Pilate finally washes his hands of the affair, official Roman brutality takes over, and Jesus is further abused, scourged and finally crucified. But the Jews immediately reenter the picture in the jeers of the spectators at the foot of the cross, and their obstinate unbelief is contrasted with the Roman centurion who declares in an act of faith that "truly this man was the Son of God." Finally, Mark brings God himself into the picture to hide the sun's face behind a blackened sky, and to repudiate his treacherous people by rending the very veil of his own holy sanctuary. Mark thus set the course for the Jews' wretched fate at the hands of Christians and the Christian church for the next two millennia, and Matthew would seal its ferocity with the most heinous line of fiction ever penned: "His blood be upon us and upon our children!"

Such is the picture of Jesus' death presented in the Gospels: the unjust execution of an innocent man, beset by betrayal and false accusations and a pitiless establishment. Its lurid details should have been indelibly branded into the mind of every Christian preacher and writer, every convert to the new faith. Instead, there is scarcely a murmur of it until Mark—drawing on a multitude of scriptural passages and an old literary formula found throughout centuries of Jewish writing, known as the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One—sits down to pen his tale, a good half century or more after it all supposedly took place.


A Sweet Sacrifice

Amid all the references to Jesus' sacrificial death in Paul and the other first century epistle writers, we get not a single detail of the vivid trial and crucifixion story portrayed in the Gospels. Beyond two passing references we will presently examine, none of its rich panoply of characters appear, none of its memorable places, nor any of its horrifying litany of abuse and torture. The words of Jesus on the cross are never quoted, while the response of the universe to his passing goes unrecorded by anyone.

Indeed, a figure like Pilate, who delivered this innocent Jesus up to scourging and execution, seems far from Paul's mind when he says (Romans 13:3-4) in a general defense of the secular authority: "Rulers hold no terrors for them who do right . . . (the ruler) is the minister of God for your own good."

In Romans 8:32 he extols the magnanimity of God who "did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all." And for the writer of Ephesians (5:2), it is Christ himself who in love "delivered himself up on your behalf as an offering and a sacrifice whose fragrance is pleasing to God." (Note that the word usually translated "arrested" or "betrayed" in 1 Corinthians 11:23 is literally "to deliver up" which, as we can see above, implies no necessary Gospel setting: see Part Two of the Main Articles.) Wherever Paul and the other epistle writers of the first century envisioned this sacrifice as having taken place, it seems far from the dread hill of Golgotha and the expression of God's dark wrath toward the towering sin of deicide.

The Jews "Who Killed the Lord Jesus"

What then are we to make of the passage in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, about the Jews "who killed the Lord Jesus"? Well, many scholars (e.g., Mack, Koester, Pearson, Meeks, Perkins, Brandon: see the Bibliography at end) have tended to make short work of it, dismissing it as an interpolation by some later editor or copyist. They do so on two grounds.

One is what they consider to be an unmistakable allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in verse 16, an event which happened after Paul's death. Here is the passage in its entirety, courtesy of the New English Bible:

14You [referring to the Christians of Thessalonica] have fared like the congregations in Judea, God's people in Christ Jesus. You have been treated by your countrymen as they are treated by the Jews, 15who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God's will and enemies of their fellow-men,16hindering us from speaking to the gentiles to lead them to salvation. All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt, and now retribution has overtaken them for good and all."

This finality of God's wrath must refer to an event on the scale of the first Jewish War (66-70), when the Temple and much of Jerusalem were destroyed, not, as is sometimes claimed (e.g., by R. E. Brown), to the expulsion of Jews from Rome (apparently for messianic agitation) by Claudius in the 40s. This gleeful, apocalyptic statement is hardly to be applied to a local event which the Thessalonians may or may not have been aware of several years later. Besides, Paul's reference in verse 14 (which many take as the end of the genuine passage) is to a persecution by Jews in Judea, and even the killing of Jesus was the responsibility of Jews in that location. Offering a local event in Rome as a punishment for either crime seems somehow inappropriate. There are also those who question whether any such persecution of Christians took place prior to 70 (see Douglas Hare, The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, p.30ff.), indicating that perhaps even verse 14 is part of the interpolation, by someone who had little knowledge of the conditions in Judea at the time of Paul's letter. (Pearson, below, suggests this.)

This finality of God's wrath must refer to an event on the scale of the first Jewish War (66-70), when the Temple and much of Jerusalem were destroyed, not, as is sometimes claimed (e.g., by R. E. Brown), to the expulsion of Jews from Rome (apparently for messianic agitation) by Claudius in the 40s. This gleeful, apocalyptic statement is hardly to be applied to a local event which the Thessalonians may or may not have been aware of several years later. Besides, Paul's reference in verse 14 (which many take as the end of the genuine passage) is to a persecution by Jews in Judea, and even the killing of Jesus was the responsibility of Jews in that location. Offering a local event in Rome as a punishment for either crime seems somehow inappropriate. There are also those who question whether any such persecution of Christians took place prior to 70 (see Douglas Hare, The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, p.30ff.), indicating that perhaps even verse 14 is part of the interpolation, by someone who had little knowledge of the conditions in Judea at the time of Paul's letter. (Pearson, below, suggests this.)

It has been pointed out that there are no different textual traditions of 1 Thessalonians without the disputed passage. Since this is so, it is claimed, the insertion would have to have been made very early (soon after 70), when there would hardly have been enough time for the evolution from the mythical to the historical Jesus phase. But this is an unfounded assumption. Recently (see The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, Epp and MacRae, eds., 1989, p.207f.) some scholars have abandoned the old idea that the first corpus of Pauline letters was assembled no later than the year 90. They now see such a collection as coming around the time of Marcion in the 140s. Even though a few individual letters, like Romans and the two Corinthians, do seem to have been known by the turn of the century to people like Ignatius, the first witness to the epistle 1 Thessalonians in the wider Christian record (beyond the writer who used it to compose 2 Thessalonians, probably in that city) comes no earlier than that first corpus.

Thus the interpolation in 2:15-16 could have been made considerably later than 70. Even into the second century, Christian anti-Semitism remained high and the catastrophic events of the first Jewish War were very much alive in the memories of both Jew and gentile in the eastern empire. The inserted passage could have been made in the letter's own community, before it entered the corpus. It is even barely conceivable that verse 16 refers to the outcome of the second Jewish Revolt (132-5), when Bar Kochba was crushed, Jews were expelled from Palestine, and a Roman city was built over the ruins of Jerusalem.

The second reason scholars tend to reject this passage as not genuine to Paul is because it does not concur with what Paul elsewhere says about his fellow countrymen, whom he expects will in the end be converted to Christ. The vicious sentiments in these verses is recognized as an example of "gentile anti-Judaism" and "foreign to Paul's theology that 'all Israel will be saved'." (See Birger Pearson: "1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation," Harvard Theological Review 64 [1971], p.79-94, a thorough consideration of the question.)

We might also note that in Romans 11, within a passage in which he speaks of the guilt of the Jews for failing to heed the message about the Christ, Paul refers to Elijah's words in 1 Kings, about the (largely unfounded) accusation that the Jews have habitually killed the prophets sent from God. Here Paul breathes not a whisper about any responsibility on the part of the Jews for the ultimate atrocity of the killing of the Son of God himself. This would be an inconceivable silence if the 2:15-16 passage in 1 Thessalonians were genuine and the basis of the accusation true.

Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

If the one reference in the New Testament epistles to the guilt of the Jews for the death of Jesus can reasonably be rejected as a later insertion, what about the other side of the coin of responsibility? The sole reference to Pontius Pilate in the canonical correspondence comes in 1 Timothy 6:13, and every scholar who recognizes that the three Pastoral epistles are not by Paul dates them no earlier than the beginning of the second century. Can we possibly imagine that the man who executed their founder and divinity would immediately sink from the consciousness of Christian letter writers for some three-quarters of a century, that all the references to Jesus' death in Paul would contain not a hint of him, nor of the trial process he presided over?

Even in 1 Timothy, some commentators have found reason to question the integrity of the reference to Pilate, since there are problems in seeing it as appropriate to the context. But since this epistle is late, when conceivably it could reflect the beginnings of the idea that Jesus had been crucified by Pilate (it is at least no earlier than the time of Ignatius, who is the first Christian writer outside the Gospels to mention Pilate's name), the question is not critical, and I will place the arguments in favor of interpolation for 1 Timothy 6:13 in an Appendix at the end of this article. Personally, I support interpolation since the Pastorals as a whole contain strong indications that their writer is still unfamiliar with an historical Jesus.

Back to Items The Rulers of This Age

If both references to the Gospel agents of Jesus' crucifixion are to be discounted (these are the only passages in all the epistles I would claim as interpolations, plus one or two other 'possibles'), how then does the early record deal with the circumstances and responsibility concerning the death of the Son of God? Who does Paul identify as having slain Christ? Let's look at 1 Corinthians 2:6-8:

6And yet I do speak of a wisdom for those who are mature, not a wisdom of this passing age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. 7I speak of God's secret wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and predestined by God for our glory before time began. 8None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory."

A great amount of scholarly ink has been spilled over the meaning of "the rulers of this age" (ton archonton tou aionos toutou, verses 6 and 8). In both pagan and Jewish parlance, the word archontes could be used to refer to earthly rulers and those in authority (as in Romans 13:3). But it is also, along with several others like it, a technical term for the spirit forces, the "powers and authorities" who rule the lowest level of the heavenly world and who exercise authority over the events and fate (usually cruel) of the earth, its nations and individuals. That invisible powers, mostly evil, were at work behind earthly phenomena was a widely held belief in Hellenistic times, including among Jews, and it was shared by Christianity. J. H. Charlesworth (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, p.66) puts it this way:

"Earth is full of demons. Humanity is plagued by them. Almost all misfortunes are because of demons: sickness, drought, death and especially humanity's weaknesses about remaining faithful to the covenant (with God). The region between heaven and earth seems to be almost cluttered by demons and angels; humanity is often seen as a pawn, helpless in the face of such cosmic forces."

There has not been a universal scholarly consensus on what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 2:8, but over the last century a majority of commentators (see below), some reluctantly, have decided that he is referring to the demon spirits. The term aion, "age," or sometimes in the plural "ages," was in a religious and apocalyptic context a reference to the present age of the world, in the sense of all recorded history, since the next age was the one after the Parousia when God's Kingdom would be established. One of the governing ideas of the period was that the world to the present point had been under the control of the evil angels and spirit powers, and that the coming of the Kingdom would see their long awaited overthrow. Humanity was engaged in a war against the demons, and one of the strongest appeals of the Hellenistic salvation cults was their promise of divine aid in this war on a personal level.

Thus, "rulers of this age" should not be seen as referring to the current secular authorities who happen to be in power in present political circumstances. Rather, Paul envisions that those in the present age who have controlled the earth and separated it from heaven, the evil angelic powers, are approaching their time of "passing away" (2:6). They did not understand God's purposes, namely their own destruction, when they inadvertently crucified "the Lord of glory."

Ephesians 3:9-10 echoes these hidden purposes of God, and declares that they have now been brought to light:

9. . . the application of this mystery which has been hidden for long ages in God the creator of the universe, 10so that through the church the wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavens, in accordance with his eternal purpose which he carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Here the rulers are clearly identified as the ones in heaven. And we might note that the writer is consistent with general Pauline expression in allotting the task of revealing God's long-hidden mystery to the "church," to men like himself, not to any recent historical Jesus. That last phrase refers to the workings of Christ in the higher spiritual world, his redeeming actions within God's eternal realm and time. In other words, the world of myth.

A prominent first century Christian idea was that Christ by his death had subjected all the spirit powers and authorities, both good and bad, to his control. In this light, Colossians 2:15 again places Jesus' crucifixion in a spiritual milieu, for it is difficult to see any historical scene on Calvary contained in this idea:

"On the cross he discarded the cosmic powers and authorities like a garment; he made a public spectacle of them and led them as captives in his triumphal procession."

Ephesians 6:12 also speaks of the fight which is not against human foes, but against the "cosmic powers, authorities and potentates of this dark world, the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens." These were even thought of has having political organizations like rulers on earth. They were certainly well placed and capable of executing a spiritual Christ who had descended from the higher divine realm into their territory, and we will look in a moment at a document which paints this picture of the Son descending from heaven to be crucified by the evil angels.

Scholars who balk at this interpretation of Paul's words and declare that he simply means the earthly powers which the Gospels specify (e.g., Anchor Bible, p.164), are bucking even ancient opinion. Ignatius uses the term archon in a thoroughly angelic sense (Smyrneans 6:1). Origen regarded the archonton of 2:8 as evil spiritual beings, and so did the gnostic Marcion.

Modern scholars like C. K. Barrett (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p.72), Paula Fredriksen (From Jesus to Christ, p.56), and Jean Hering (The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, p.16-17, a brief but penetrating analysis), have felt constrained to agree. Delling in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (I, p.489) notes that the spirit rulers are portrayed by Paul as "treating the Lord of glory as prey in ignorance of the divine plan for salvation." They operated in the spiritual realm, which S. Salmond (The Expositor's Greek Testament, Ephesians, p.284) describes as "supra-terrestrial but sub-celestial regions." Paul Ellingworth, A Translator's Handbook for 1 Corinthians, p.46, states: "A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here."

S. G. F. Brandon (History, Time and Deity, p.167) unflinchingly declares that although Paul's statement "may seem on cursory reading to refer to the Crucifixion as an historical event. . .the expression 'rulers of this age' does not mean the Roman and Jewish authorities. Instead, it denotes the daemonic powers who . . . were believed to inhabit the planets (the celestial spheres) and control the destinies of men. . . . Paul attributes the Crucifixion not to Pontius Pilate and the Jewish leaders, but to these planetary powers."

However, Brandon (like everyone else) fails to address the question of how Paul could have spoken in such terms if he had the tradition of Jesus' recent death in Judea before his eyes, providing not so much as a hint of qualification to this supernatural picture. It will not do to suggest that since earthly rulers are considered to be controlled by heavenly ones, the latter are seen as operating "through" the former. Paul would not likely have presented things in this way without an explanation. And once we get to the Gospel picture which first makes a clear reference to earthly rulers in the death of Jesus, any heavenly dimension which supposedly lies behind those rulers completely disappears.

Back to items Descending Gods

The concept that a god, in order to perform a salvific act, had to approach or even enter the "world of flesh" was arrived at by philosophical reasoning. In the higher celestial spheres where deity was perfect and unsullied by any contact with matter and the world of humans, gods existed in their fully divine state. There they could certainly not do something as human as to suffer. Pain, blood, death: these were the unfortunate features of the lower, baser levels of the universe.

To undergo such things, the god had to come down to humanity's territory. He had to take on material characteristics and capacities. If contact between flesh and divinity was to be made, the initiative lay with the god. Deity had to pity its unfortunate, fallen creation. It had to humble itself, compromise its spiritual purity. It had to descend. And descend it did, for the concept of the "descending redeemer" seems to have been a pervasive idea during this era, though the evidence for the pre-Christian period is patchy and much debated.

The ancient mind at the turn of the era saw the universe as multi-layered. Under the influence of Platonism, there was first of all a dualistic division between the lower material world where humans lived, and the higher, spiritual world where divinity dwelled. The former was only a transient, imperfect copy of the latter. Spiritual processes and the activity of gods in the higher realm had their corresponding effects on the world below. Paul thus lived at a time when the world of matter was viewed as only one dimension of reality, the observable half of a larger integrated whole whose other, invisible, half was referred to as the "genuine" reality, accessible to the intellect.

But most views of the universe also saw a division of the upper world into several levels—usually seven, based on the known planets. As a deity descended from the higher reaches of pure spirit, he passed through ever degenerating levels of the heavens, and took on an increasing likeness to lower, material forms as well as an ability to suffer fleshly fates, such as pain and death. The first level of the spirit world was the air, or "firmament," between the earth and the moon. This was the domain of the demon spirits—in Jewish parlance, of Satan and his evil angels—and it was regarded as closely connected to the earthly sphere. The demonic spiritual powers belonged to the realm of flesh (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, p.128) and they were thought of as in some way corporeal, though they possessed 'heavenly' versions of earthly bodies (Ibid., p.143).

Thus it was wholly conceivable for Paul's savior deity in that spiritual world to descend into the realm of the demon spirits. Here he would be in the sphere of flesh, which fits the early writers' almost universal use of such stereotyped phrases as "in flesh," "according to the flesh." (C. K. Barrett translates kata sarka in Romans 1:3 as "in the sphere of the flesh." See his Epistle to the Romans, p.20; compare C. E. B. Cranfield, International Critical Commentary: Romans, p.60.) Here Christ possessed or could assume counterpart characteristics to those of the visible world; he could undergo suffering and death at the hands of the spirits as a blood sacrifice, and be raised by God back to the highest heaven. Even if it was all a part of God's "mystery," something that had taken place in God's eternal time, hidden for long generations and knowable to men like Paul only through divine revelation in scripture (as in Romans 16:25-27,  Ephesians 3:5, etc.).

Such ideas were not restricted to Judaism and Christianity, although the few surviving writers who touch on the Greek mysteries and the activities of their deities tend to be sophisticated philosophers like Plutarch and Sallustius. These men saw the stories of the Greek salvation cults as "eternal meanings clothed in myths." They were "allegorical interpretations" only, even if the minds of "ordinary men" saw them as more literal. (Some of those average devotees of the cults may also have retained a more traditional way of viewing the myths of the savior gods as belonging to a primordial past on earth.)

The fourth century Sallustius regarded the story of Attis as "an eternal cosmic process, not an isolated event of the past" (On Gods and the World, 9). His mentor, the "Apostate" emperor Julian, describes (in Orations V, 165) Attis' descent to the lowest spirit level prior to matter, undergoing his death by castration to give the visible world order and fruitfulness; but he regards this as a symbol of the annual cycle of agricultural rebirth, the generative power which descends into the earth from the upper regions of the stars.

Myths of the descent and ascent of deity are often interpreted (especially in gnosticism and neoplatonism) as symbolizing the ancient idea of the fall of the soul into matter, its suffering and death within that base, imperfect world, followed by a reascent into its proper abode and state, an exaltation. The myth of the redeeming god, the paradigm for the soul's descent and ascent, guarantees this destiny for the believer.

There are clear echoes of such thinking in Paul (e.g., Romans 6:5). And the earliest uncoverable layers of Christian cultic mythology, such as the christological hymn found in Philippians 2:6-11, often allude to such a paradigmatic "descent and suffering leading to exaltation":

"For the divine nature was his from the first; yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the nature (or form) of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, revealed in human shape, he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death—death on a cross. Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven, on earth, and in the depths—and every tongue confess, 'Jesus Christ is Lord', to the glory of God the Father." (The NEB translation)

This pre-Pauline hymn is the early Christian epitome of the descending-ascending redeemer myth, and there is not a breath of identification with any Jesus of Nazareth. Three times does the hymn allude to the idea that this divinity took on a likeness to base, material form, but never does it say that he became an actual man, much less give him a life on earth. Instead, this deity descends to undergo death (some commentators, such as Norman Perrin, Dennis C. Duling in The New Testament: An Introduction, 2nd ed., p.61, feel that the phrase "death on a cross" is probably a Pauline addition, since it interrupts the pattern of the poetic lines) and is raised back to the highest heaven, where he is exalted. Note, by the way, that this divinity is given the name "Jesus" only after his exaltation following death, indicating that the hymnist knew of no previous life on earth under that name. (The term "Lord" is a title, not a name.)

The shorter hymn in 1 Timothy 3:16 offers a similar descent-ascent pattern performed by a divine being:

"He who was manifested in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels; was proclaimed among the nations, believed in throughout the world, glorified in high heaven."

Once again there is no identification with a human man, and any suggestion of a ministry is pointedly lacking. This deity seems to have been seen only by angels and engaged in no proclaiming of his own. The "in flesh" of the first line (en sarki) can be translated "in the sphere of the flesh," as noted above.

However, no Christian writer or hymnist expresses the view that the Christ myth is allegorical or symbolic. Paul seems to have very much believed in the divine Jesus' literal suffering at the hands of the demon spirits.

The Descent of the Son

In a Jewish/Christian piece of writing called the Ascension of Isaiah we can find corroboration for the picture of a divine Son who descends into the lower reaches of the heavens to be crucified by the demon spirits. This document falls into two sections which were originally independent. The second section, the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11), underwent its own evolution before being combined with the first, and it contains a detailed picture of the descent-ascent motif we have been discussing.

This is a difficult document to analyze in any exact fashion, since the several surviving manuscripts differ considerably in wording, phrases and even whole sections. It has been subjected to much editing in a complicated and uncertain pattern of revision. But a couple of passages seem to indicate that in its earlier layers the Vision speaks only of a divine Son who operates entirely in the spiritual realm. The community that wrote this, probably toward the end of the first century, lived in a world of apocalyptic expectation and revelation from the Holy Spirit (6:6f). Salvation is expected for the righteous elect, who will be exalted as a consequence of the death and exaltation of the Son. Isaiah is granted a vision, in which he ascends through the seven heavens of a layered universe and receives a view of God and his Beloved, also called the Chosen One and Christ. He learns that this Son is to descend to the lower world, where he will be killed and rise, rescuing the souls of the righteous dead from Sheol as he re-ascends to the highest heaven.

Here is the key passage. The seer and his angelic guide have reached the seventh heaven. There they see the Lord, the Christ, and the angel foretells this to Isaiah (9:13-17):

"13The Lord will descend into the world in the last days, he who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form, and they will think that he is flesh and a man. 14And the god of that world will stretch out his hand against the Son, and they will lay their hands upon him and hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is. 15And thus his descent, as you will see, will be concealed from the heavens, so that it will not be known who he is. 16And when he has plundered the angel of death, he will rise on the third day and will remain in the world for 545 days. 17And then many of the righteous will ascend with him."

This looks like a fleshing out of the implication behind Paul's reference to the crucifixion in 1 Corinthians 2:8. We have the descent of the Son through the layers of heaven, a taking on of the "likeness" of men. "They will think that he is flesh and a man" clearly implies that he is not. There is no suggestion of Jesus of Nazareth here. Nor is it likely to be a reference to docetism (Christ having an earthly body which only "seems" human), since the phrase looks to be related to the idea in verses 14 and 15 that his identity has been concealed. Nor is the Gospel trial and execution anywhere in sight in the reference to the hanging upon a tree. Rather, this hanging is something performed by "the god of that world," meaning Satan. (Some manuscripts read: "he will hang him upon a tree.") Though it is set "in the last days" (Jewish apocalyptic writers tend not to be so Platonically strict), the entire thing has the ring of a mythological scene.

To undergo this fate, the Son has entered the firmament (the "air" between the earth and the moon) where Satan and his evil angels dwell. At the beginning of his ascent (7:9-12), Isaiah has passed through the firmament where he saw Satan and his warring angels, a struggle, his guide tells him, which "will last until the one comes whom you are to see, and he will destroy him." As in 1 Corinthians 2:8 and Colossians 2:15, one of the Son's principal tasks will be the conquest of the demon spirits.

Verse 14 tells us that those who do the hanging do not know who this Son is. Once again, this would not seem to be a Gospel reference to Romans or Jews, but means the evil angels of the firmament, for verse 15 indicates that it is the layers of heaven where the concealment and the ignorance about the Son's identity lie. This ignorance on the part of the "god of that world" is similar to that of the "rulers of this age" who unwittingly crucify the Lord of Glory in 1 Corinthians 2:8.

Thus the crucifixion is something perpetrated by the supernatural powers and takes place in the spiritual world. The reference to rising on the third day and remaining for 545 days is, in the opinion of M. Knibb, the translator and commentator on the Ascension of Isaiah in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (II, p.143f.), a later addition to the text based on gnostic sources which believed that Jesus remained on earth after his resurrection for 18 months (p.170, n.'v'). Other bits and pieces throughout the Vision are the reworkings of editors, so that it is difficult to uncover and differentiate the various strands. Knibb even voices the possibility (p.170, n.'g') that all entries of the names Jesus and Christ are later additions.

As part of Isaiah's vision (10:8-14), the Father gives instructions to the Son about his coming descent into the lower world and his reascent to the seventh heaven. There is nothing in this divine directive which speaks of an incarnation into flesh and earthly history, nothing of a ministry, nothing of a death at the hands of humans. There is not a whisper of any knowledge of the Gospels. The Son's activities seem to relate entirely to the spirit realm, layers of heaven extending through the firmament and including Sheol. God's instructions focus on how he is to proceed through these heavenly spheres, and on the task of destroying the power of Satan and the evil spirits.

When Mark came to write his midrashic tale about a Jesus on earth, the war by heaven and the Son against the demons was translated into Jesus' war on earth against the new, humanized demons: the Jews. Just as the "rulers of this age," the evil spirits, were the murderers of Christ in the Pauline phase, the earthly Jews became the Christ-killers in the Gospel version, an allegory which very quickly got turned into history.

Christ Reaches Earth

Simplistically put, there are three types of surviving manuscripts of the Ascension of Isaiah: Ethiopic, second Latin, and Slavonic. The first is thought to be based on one Greek text, the other two on a different Greek text. There are notable differences between the Ethiopic on the one hand, and the second Latin and Slavonic on the other. Also, the latter pair include only the second section of the work, chapters 6 to 11, which is the part we are concerned with.

In the Ethiopic text we encounter an unusual passage in 11:2-22, not a word of which appears in the other two. It recounts (as part of Isaiah's vision of the future) first the birth of the Lord to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. This passage agrees with no Gospel Nativity scene. Here Jesus is born in his parents' house, to a Mary who has not been forewarned of who this infant is. Lacking any details concerning Herod, magi, census, manger, shepherds, etc., it would seem to be an early, more primitive formulation of a birth story. The passage goes on to make bare reference to the great signs and miracles the adult Jesus performed in Israel, how the children of Israel turned against him, how he was handed over to the "ruler" (Knibb presumes that this must be Pilate) to be crucified, and how he descended to the angel in Sheol. It then concludes (verse 20): "In Jerusalem, I saw how they crucified him on a tree, and how after the third day he rose and remained (many) days. And I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended."

Knibb (op.cit., p.154) remarks that "the primitive character of this narrative makes it difficult to believe that it did not form part of the original text." Elsewhere (p.146), he suggests that the Greek text on which the second Latin and Slavonic manuscripts were based was a "revision" of the one on which the Ethiopic was based, and that the 11:2-22 passage had been cut from the latter because of its "legendary features." But this would not seem to make much sense. Why would a "reviser" choose to delete such a key passage, the only one in the Vision which has anything to say about Jesus' life on earth? And why would such details be seen as "legendary," implying that they were undesirable? If they seemed primitive to a later editor, experience has always shown that when a Christian copyist or redactor does not like something, he changes it to make it conform to current outlook. Rarely does he drop it altogether—or reduce it to a phrase, such as is found at that point in the other versions

An earlier scholar of the Ascension, R. H. Charles, also regarded 11:2-22 as part of the original text, but he did so the basis of preconception. Since chapter 9, he says, "leads us to expect a definite portrayal of these events in a vision," (i.e., crucifixion, descent into Sheol, resurrection on the third day), 11:2-22 fulfills this expectation (The Ascension of Isaiah, 1900, p.xxii). Of course, such an expectation is based on the assumptions of the Gospels.

Would not a better explanation be that the Latin and Slavonic texts are earlier, and that the Greek text behind the Ethiopic has enlarged upon an earlier Greek version lying behind the others? Even within the Ethiopic text of 11:2-22, we can detect signs of incremental expansion and revision. For example, in 11:21, in referring to how long Christ remained on earth after rising, different manuscripts in the Ethiopic have varying lengths of time, one being "forty days," no doubt under the influence of Acts. In general, the Ethiopic seems to show expansions on more primitive passages in the other two.


I would argue that the Ascension of Isaiah may reveal an evolution from a spiritual Christ operating in a supernatural setting, to a physical Christ living a life in an earthly setting. A document is being periodically revised (by multiple redactors in different versions) to reflect new developments in thought and doctrine, even if not every detail is always brought up to date. The Ethiopic manuscripts can contain a brief account of Jesus' life on earth and yet not have descriptions of the Son's descent enlarged to include an earthly dimension. Perhaps it was felt to be implicit—as some modern scholars would assume.

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Is the Reference to Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13 an Interpolation?

1 Timothy 6:12-14 reads ("Paul" addressing "Timothy"):

"12Run the great race of faith and take hold of eternal life. For to this you were called and you confessed your faith nobly before many witnesses.13Now in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Jesus Christ, [who himself made the same noble confession and gave his testimony to it before Pontius Pilate,] 14I charge you to obey your orders irreproachably and without fault until our Lord Jesus Christ appears."

1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (called "the Pastoral Epistles") were written in Paul's name so as to claim the authority of that famous apostle for the views the writer is advocating. Most critical scholars date them between 100 and 125. They can be a product neither of Paul nor of his time. As J. L. Houlden says (The Pastoral Epistles, p.18): "Neither in vocabulary and literary techniques nor in atmosphere and teachings is it plausible to suppose that these writings come from the same pen as the main body of Paul's letters." The Pastorals reflect the beginnings of a church system which only came into existence around the beginning of the second century: a bishop, supported by a group of elders and deacons. As well, all sense of immediate expectation of the Parousia has passed. The church is becoming acclimatized to the world and a future.

Timothy's confession of faith before many witnesses (verse 12) is interpreted as referring to one of two possible occasions: either the baptismal ceremony upon his conversion to the faith, or his ordination as a minister. Commentators usually choose the former, since baptism is the more likely event at which one is "called to eternal life." The sacrament was publicly administered before the congregation, providing the "many witnesses" referred to. Timothy is confessing his faith before God and fellow Christians. The content of that statement of faith no doubt had to do with a belief in Christ.

The way the reference to Pilate is introduced into the text (the clause in square brackets above) shows that it is intended as a parallel to Timothy's confession in the previous sentence. But there is much to be concerned about in this assumption. (See J. H. Houlden, The Pastoral Epistles, p.100-1; J. N. D. Kelly, The Pastoral Epistles, p.143.) Jesus' situation on trial before Pilate is not the same as Timothy's at his baptism, or even his ordination. Timothy's confession is before God and friendly witnesses; Jesus' is not, and it puts Pilate in parallel to God, which is at best inappropriate, at worst irreverent. Jesus' declaration before Pilate is presumably a statement about himself, which is an awkward equivalent to the believer's declaration of faith in Jesus. With all of these difficult features in such a comparison, one might wonder what would have led the original writer to think of making it.

Commentators discount the possibility that the occasion of Timothy's confession was before a magistrate, when he might have been on trial for his Christian beliefs. No such event, from which the writer could have drawn, appears in the genuine Pauline letters. Besides, such a trial would hardly be called a summons to eternal life. However, we must consider the possibility that a later scribe may have misinterpreted things in this way. Perhaps by some time further into the second century a tradition had grown up that Timothy had in fact been prosecuted for his faith. This may have prompted such a scribe to insert the idea that, just as Timothy had declared before hostile magistrates his faith that Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah, Christ himself before a hostile Pilate had declared these things about himself. Such an editor may have felt that while "God" (in verse 13) had a qualifying phrase, "who gives life to all things," something was lacking after "and of Jesus Christ," and the comparison with Jesus' trial was what came into his mind.

It has also been pointed out that in the account of the trial before Pilate in the synoptic Gospels, Jesus barely says anything, maintaining a stoic silence. His simple agreement, "It is as you say," in answer to the question "Are you the king of the Jews?" is hardly a "noble confession" to inspire such a comment as we find in 1 Timothy 6:13. However, John, when he came to revise the synoptic passion story, had Jesus engage in a dramatic debate with the Roman governor, which might well have been the source of the comment. Since attestation for the Gospel of John is lacking during the period to which the Pastorals are usually assigned, this would suggest that the clause is indeed an interpolation from a later point in the century, when John was more widely known. The Pastorals are not included in the earliest corpus of the Pauline letters, so the fact that there is no manuscript evidence of the letter without this reference to Pilate does not pose a problem.

Moreover, only a few verses later (6:16), when speaking of God, the epistle makes this sweeping statement: "No man has ever seen or ever can see him." If the man Jesus of Nazareth had recently been on earth, standing before Pilate, a man who had in fact seen and come from God, one would not expect the writer to have said such a thing—at least without some qualification.

The possibility of interpolation is supported by something suspicious which occurs a few verses earlier. In six places in the Pastoral letters the writer uses the phrase "wholesome teaching." In five of these, there is no indication of the source of such teaching. In fact, the first time the phrase appears, in 1 Timothy 1:10, the writer (speaking as Paul) says that such teaching "conforms with the gospel entrusted to me, the gospel which tells of the glory of God." This pointedly ignores any identification of Jesus as the source of the teaching.

But in 1 Timothy 6:3 an unexpected phrase intrudes:

"If anyone . . . teaches differently and does not agree with wholesome words—those of our Lord Jesus Christ—and with pious teaching, I call him puffed up and ignorant."

The phrase "those of our Lord Jesus Christ" (tois tou kuriou hemon Iesou Christou) has the look of a scribal notation originally made in the margin which later got inserted into the text. (This was a common occurrence in the transmission of ancient manuscripts.) If it were part of the original writer's text, the word "those" (tois) would have been redundant and would not likely have been written. Rather, it conveys the impression of an afterthought. The whole thing seems carelessly done, because the insertion fails to cover the succeeding phrase, "and with pious teaching," which we would expect to find identified with Jesus as well.

(Note that taken by itself, the passage in 6:3 is not required to be an interpolation in order to maintain that the Pastorals know no historical Jesus. Even if tois tou kuriou hemon Iesou Christou is part of the original text, it need imply no more than that the "teaching" is considered to be revealed through the spiritual Christ, in much the same sense as Paul's "words of the Lord." Most gods were regarded as "teaching.")

We have here a very likely interpolation made some time after the letter was written, and it occurs just a few verses before another phrase, the one about Pilate, which seems similarly out of place. It is admittedly in my own interest to regard the reference to Pontius Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13 as a possible interpolation, but there are clearly good reasons for doing so.

These are some of the scholars who have pronounced 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 an interpolation:
- Birger A. Pearson: "1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation," Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971) p.79-94
- Burton Mack: Who Wrote the New Testament? p.113
- Wayne Meeks: The First Urban Christians, p.9, n.117
- Helmut Koester: Introduction to the New Testament, vol. II, p.113
- Pheme Perkins: Harper's Bible Commentary, p.1230, 1231-2
- S. G. F. Brandon: The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, p.92-93
- Paula Fredriksen: From Jesus to Christ, p.122