Skip navigation to content

Loren Stuckenbruck

ABSTRACT: "WORSHIP AND MONOTHEISM IN THE ASCENSION OF ISAIAH"

Loren Stuckenbruck

The purpose of my study is to explore the language of worship in the Ascension of Isaiah as it relates to God and to mediating figures in order to assess the monotheistic character of the work. Although Asc.Isa. is a Christian document which may be dated to the early 2nd century CE, the role of worship in the author's theology may contribute something to the discussion about the origin of the worship of Jesus. Asc.Isa. is the end product of a creative fusion of many Jewish and Christian traditions. Its combination of two features is noteworthy: (a) its application of worship language to beings other than God (i.e. Christ; "the angel of the Holy Spirit"; and even--but in a very limited sense--angels from the lower heavens) and (b) its reflected attempt to structure this stratified worship activity into a monotheistic framework.

Though few, there are some traces of a worship of angels in Asc.Isa. (7:15-Eth.; 7:21-variously in Lat., Slav., and Eth. versions). This worship is only described as offered by angels. Isaiah is forbidden (7:21-22) when he attempts to join in. Thus the angel veneration allowed for in the first and second heavens is of a qualitatively different kind that that which is directed towards Christ and Holy Spirit in the seventh heaven, a worship which is enjoined upon Isaiah (9:27-32, 33-36).

The worship of "the angel of the Holy Spirit" is in Asc.Isa. modelled on the worship of Christ. This is still a remarkable development, and Asc.Isa. provides our earliest extant witness for the worship of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is prominent because of the author's conviction that his own activity is continuous with that of the biblical Isaiah. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit in Asc.Isa. remains subordinate to Christ.

The worship of Christ is not only anticipated in 7:21 but also, and especially, in 8:4-5, in which the guiding angel refuses to be addressed as 'my Lord'. From this point on in chs. 6-11, Christ is frequently called 'Lord' ('my Lord' in 8:13; 9:39,40; 10:16). This suggests that the angel's refusal, which in Jewish (and sometimes Christian) tradition functions to focus attention on God, is adapted to underscore more immediately the significance of Christ.

The worship of God is a principle component of Jewish faith in antiquity, and Asc.Isa. shares this fundamental perspective. However, since the vision in chapters 6-11 allows for the worship of other beings as well, it is not worship itself which is ultimately distinctive about God. Worship is subordinated to a cosmological hierarchy: God is at the top, transcendent above the seventh heaven, and in this position is properly worshiped by all who are below. Thus all worship thought to be directed to Christ and the Holy Spirit is considered ultimately to be directed at God, since they themselves worship God from a subordinate position in the seventh heaven.

Whereas the worship of angels in Asc.Isa. is continuous with the limited forms of such veneration known through Jewish sources, the worship of Christ is less built on non-Christian Jewish tradition than on christological developments in the first century. At the same time, as the presentation of the 'Son of Man' in the Similitudes of 1 Enoch shows, Jewish apocalyptic thought was pushing in this direction. The crucial step in the Christian setting was the anchoring of honorific and worship language applied to mediating figures into a context of ritual worship. Given such a development, the author of Asc.Isa. elaborated Jewish cosmological tradition in order to substantiate his claim that, despite appearances, his understanding of Christian faith is monotheistic after all.


Summary of response by Richard Bauckham:

The idea that in the lower heavens angels worship the thrones in those heavens or those who sit on them would be almost unprecedented in early Jewish and early Christian literature (the only parallels alleged even in Dr Stuckenbruck's own study are the two manuscripts 4Q400 and 4Q403 from the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice). This paucity of parallels makes it less likely that the readers could be expected to be already familiar with the notion.

The two texts in question (Asc. Isa. 7:21 and 7:15) need not be read as implying the worship of angels. Rather, it looks as though the Ascension of Isaiah, like other early Christian and Jewish texts, correlates worship with the uniqueness of God as creator and sovereign lord of all. Christ is worshipped because he is, with the Most High, the source of the glory of all the heavens and the lord of all the heavens. Absolute authority over all is God's unique prerogative and the Ascension of Isaiah clearly includes the pre-existent Christ in it.

Two complicating factors are that the angel of the Holy Spirit is also worshipped and that Christ and the angel of the Spirit worship the Most High. Subtle exegesis of Isaiah may explain both factors. The almost unparalleled term 'the angel of the Holy Spirit' combines ideas from Isa 63:9 and 63:10-11, without necessarily attributing ontological significance to the term 'angel.' The seraphim of Isaiah 6 appear to have been interpreted as Christ and the Holy Spirit offering worship to the Most High.

The Ascension of Isaiah is attempting a trinitarian doctrine of God by means of Isaianic exegesis, perhaps uniquely deploying worship for this purpose: defining the one God as inclusive of the Son and Spirit, and subordinating the Son and Spirit to the Father. Neither function, however, has much to do with the veneration of angels in non-Christian Judaism. (JRD)


(c) 1998
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the authors.

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852