10

I understand that there is a scholarly position that holds that the book of Isaiah was written by three authors, termed First Isaiah (chapters 1-39), Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), and Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). I was recently reading my handy ESV Study Bible introduction which summarizes and rejects this view, and I’ve seen hints elsewhere that it is an outdated theory.

I have a basic idea of the thematic/historical reasons for dividing it up, and I also have a basic idea of the reasons Christians have frequently rejected this view, based in part on the NT witness. What I’m wondering if somebody can address here is whether there is a significant scholarly view (independent of arguments from the NT) that the book was written by a single individual. If not, is the model of 1-2-3 Isaiah still widely held?*

This is obviously a bigger question than can be addressed here in full, but I’m hoping that a summary of some sort is possible.


* If relevant and feasible, in an answer defending this position I would be very interested to know what the relationship is posited to be between the authors. Were they writing independently and were later collated? Or they were intentionally building on the work of the earlier writer(s)?

  • 3
    Stanley Horton supports the unity of Isaiah in his thesis and in commentaries. He supports it partially based on knowledge of Israel's flora, geography, and fauna in the "latter Isaiahs" that a member of the dispersion would not have. Likewise, those "latter Isaiahs," writing from the Babylonian captivity, do not make reference to Babylonian flora, fauna, geography. amazon.com/Isaiah-A-Logion-Press-Commentary/dp/0882433016 – Frank Luke Jul 31 '15 at 15:08
  • Thanks, Frank. By "unity of Isaiah" do you (/does he) mean a single author? This sounds like an answer in the making.... ;-) – Susan Jul 31 '15 at 16:48
  • Yes, single Isaiah. I'd write it up as a full answer if I remembered more details. ;) – Frank Luke Jul 31 '15 at 17:27
  • The history of historical criticism of the Old Testament is something that is properly treated by starting in the late middle ages not the enlightenment and it really is sideshow of a sideshow, a big distraction from the task at hand which is understanding the text as we have it which was demonstrated by the Qumran Isaiah to be very ancient. Don't know why we need to dredge up all this tedious review of antiquated arguments, what F Scott Fitzgerald refereed to as "nibbling at the edges of stale ideas." – C. Stirling Bartholomew Aug 1 '15 at 1:43
  • 2
    @C.StirlingBartholomew Are you aware of when the division of Isaiah into the three parts OP mentions was first proposed? "Understanding the text as we have it" didn't start in 1947, nor do the DSS contribute anything to the analysis of the origins of the book of Isaiah. – Dɑvïd Aug 1 '15 at 11:51
4

In short, No, there is no “significant scholarly view (independent of arguments from the NT) that the book was written by a single individual.”

My source for such an assertive reply is Dr. Benjamin D. Sommer, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York (Ph.D. Religion/Biblical Studies, University of Chicago, 1994). The following notes are selected from his introduction and annotations for the Book of Isaiah in The Jewish Study Bible (Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2004). I reference Dr. Sommer because his work is recent, and he not only follows the consensus of critical scholarship on the authorship issues – as opposed to a theological or idiosyncratic position – but at several points Sommer gives an indication of the relative strength of the consensus (e.g. some, many, most, or all scholars) which may address the OP’s concern about significant scholarship.

Sommer divides Isaiah into at least two major time periods – as do “all modern scholars” – and he credits most of the first part, ch.1-39, to the 8th century prophet Isaiah. His specific arguments can be found online, but his conclusions follow, in outline:

Ch.1-33: “Many modern scholars believe that large sections of Isaiah chs 1-33 were written by additional prophets and scribes who lived later than the historical Isaiah – that is, later than the 8th century. Others, including many leading Jewish biblical critics, attribute most or all of these chs to Isaiah himself.” The possible exceptions:

  • Ch.13: “This oracle assumes that Babylonia, rather than Assyria, is the world power. Hence it is addressed to an exilic audience in the mid-6th century, not to the 8th-century audience of Isaiah son of Amoz.”

  • Ch.24-27: “These chs share some features with later apocalyptic literature ... Consequently, many date chs 24-27 to the Persian or even the Hellenistic period. On the other hand, they also share many features with prophecies of Isaiah, such as the doctrine of the remnant and a thoroughgoing universalism. Whether these Isaianic features result from Isaiah's own authorship of these chs, and they should be considered protoapocalyptic, or from the influence of Isaiah's genuine writings on them cannot be determined, but most modern scholars opt for the latter explanation.”

  • Ch.30:18-26: “... similar in outlook and language to chs 24-27, and in all likelihood ... written in the postexilic era, several centuries after the life of Isaiah himself.”

Ch.34-35: “All modern scholars” date these chapters with ch.40-66 to a period after the 8th century.

Ch.36-39 “narrate certain events in which Isaiah played an important role. They were not written by Isaiah but are taken, in a modified form, from the book of Kings.”

Ch.40-66: “All modern scholars ... believe that chs 40-66 (and also 34-35) were composed during and after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century.”

Ch.54-66: “Many scholars believe that chs 56-66 or (more likely) 54-66 were written by yet another prophet, or perhaps a group of prophets, whom they call Trito-Isaiah or Third Isaiah. According to these scholars, Trito-Isaiah was a disciple of Deutero-Isaiah ...” Sommer outlines the reasons for thinking Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah the work of one author or many, but concludes “it seems clear that chs 34-35 and 40-66 as a whole are a single literary unit,” at least in their final composition.

And finally, on the Book of Isaiah in its current form:

“It is not clear to us when, or why, the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah were combined with those of Isaiah son of Amoz. The strong emphasis in both literary corpora on God's universal kingship, the messianic era, and the future exaltation of Zion may have suggested that these texts belonged together. Already at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, the Jewish sage Ben Sirach ... knew a version of the book of Isaiah that combined both blocks of material ... The great scroll of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating to the late 2nd century BCE) also contains the entire book of Isaiah as we know it today.”

| improve this answer | |
1

I believe the scholarly view is still mainstream among critical scholars - see Wikipedia. However, some scholars could potentially be led by to this conclusion by any preconceptions they have, including that multiple authorship solves the problem of Isaiah being able to predict the future, just as a reverse of this is a potential preconception among theologically minded scholars who wish for evidence that Isaiah could predict the future.

Evidence Unseen provides arguments for single authorship, but these arguments fall short of the rigour normally associated with scholarship. Their argument, in part:

  • First, this original author of “Second” Isaiah would be lying. If the author of “Second” Isaiah is claiming to be writing as an eighth century author in Judea and Jerusalem, then he would be lying. Since God cannot lie, this would create a massive theological problem.
  • Second, the best evidence for splitting the authorship of Isaiah is fulfilled predictive prophecy. If as Christians, we begin gutting the Bible of predictive prophecy, then we will have to deny roughly one quarter of the Bible! In other words, there are important theological reasons not to accept multiple authorship of Isaiah.
  • Third, “Second” Isaiah would fail the test of a true prophet.
  • Fourth, the NT authors believed in single authorship, as apparently did early Jewish writers.
  • There is no manuscript evidence for this theory.
  • So-called “First” Isaiah contains fulfilled predictions. [At this stage, I could point out that some of these 'predictions' had already occurred; others are contained in passages regarded for linguistic reasons as interpolations.]
  • Babylon is mentioned more in the first portion, than in the second.
  • Geography, flora, and fauna of Palestine are mentioned in “Second” Isaiah.
  • [Alleged] unity of theology and language throughout the book.

I found a better defence of sigle authorship at Religious Study Center. This relies mainly on statistical analysis of authorship style. The conclusion was that the book of Isaiah has a surprisingly large number of function prefixes indicating single authorship. Previous attempts at computerised statistical analysis of the Book of Isaiah, independently performed by two different researchers, Yehuda Radday and Asa Kasher, concluding that the book of Isaiah was written by multiple authors, were dismissed as based on inappropriate assumptions.

As seen above, it remains possible to argue in favour of single authorship of Isaiah, although in my experience, it remains a minority view among critical scholars. I have largely presented these views without comment or contrary evidence, so that arguments for single authorship are not to be read through my own biases.

The model of 1-2-3 Isaiah still widely held, but a single answer can not adequately cover the single-author' position and the critical analysis.

| improve this answer | |
-1

As stated in the comments by the OP this answer is off-topic, as it relies on an NT textual observation. However it's still worth noting that in John 12:38 John the Evangelist quotes (deutero) Isaiah 53:1

so that the word of Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled. He said, "Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" NET

Then John continues in John 12:39-40 to quote (proto) Isaiah 6:10

For this reason they could not believe, because again Isaiah said, "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and understand with their heart, and turn to me, and I would heal them." NET

John, using the adverb "again" (πάλιν), attributes both passages to the same Isaiah.

πάλιν [in the context of John 12:39] - again, i. e. further, moreover (where the subject remains the same and a repetition of the action or condition is indicated) especially where to O. T. passages already quoted others are added [emphasis added] THAYER'S GREEK LEXICON

As an aside, I wonder if a proto/deutero Isaiah theory existed in John's day and part of the reason for this narrative pause is to use his commentary to refute that theory.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    Thank you for your thoughts, but I'm not sure this is really an answer to the question, particularly since it specifically requested arguments independent of the NT witness. In any case, the topic you bring up was addressed in another Q&A. See also, the article that prompted that discussion (starting from the top of the second column on p. 366; the part addressing the citation in John begins in the second column of p. 370). – Susan Aug 25 '16 at 1:22
  • @Susan thank you so much for this very helpful information. Quick question - You have such a substantial understanding of Greek, in John 12:38, when the translation reads "Isaiah the prophet said," what is it about the original Greek that indicates the object is not the person Isaiah the prophet but instead the book? – Neville Aug 25 '16 at 15:18
  • @Susan from the reference link p370-371 the authors state The NT...contexts of "Isaiah" may be perfectly well understood as a reference to the book, not the author. The only passage where the prophet himself is involved in action rather than as speaker or author in the argument is at John 12:41 ("Isaiah said this becuase he saw his glory and spoke about him [NRSV]") How is it the person Isaiah is only ever the subject when "seeing" but not the subject when "speaking" (all in the same passage)? – Neville Aug 25 '16 at 15:24
  • Hi Neville, for more extended discussion it's best to go to Biblical Hermeneutics Chat. – Susan Aug 26 '16 at 2:27
  • Jesus does not speak in John 1:38-40. It is a commentary written by John, the Evangelist. – user15733 Aug 28 '16 at 13:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.