Saturday, July 18, 2009

9. Critical Issues in Isaiah

Previous posts in this series include:

1. Faith, Evidence, and Biblical Scholarship
2. The Old Testament Canon
3. Genres in the Pentateuch
4. Critical Issues in the Pentateuch
5. Critical Issues in the Historical Books
6. The Poetic Sub-Genre
7. Critical Issues in the Psalms
8. Critical Issues in Wisdom Literature
As we mentioned earlier, the Hebrew Bible is divided into three parts: the Law, Prophets, and Writings. We can further divide the Prophets into two parts: the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve). Isaiah thus leads off the prophets proper.

Prophecy was not a phenomenon limited to ancient Israel. The Old Testament itself illustrates this point not only with reference to the prophets of Ba'al (e.g., 1 Kings 18:19) but also in the character of Balaam, who is not an Israelite and free lances for whatever god from which a person might want to hear (e.g., Num. 22:4-6). Texts discovered from throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE) reinforce this observation.

The primary function of a prophet would seem to be that of a messenger from the gods, with the message uttered in the form of a prophetic oracle. The intended audience of such oracles was not a generation centuries in the future but the message was for those who were the actual individuals standing in front of the prophet as the message was given. In that sense, the prophetic texts of the Old Testament are, at least in the first instance, compilations of speech uttered orally on previous occasions.

It is now recognized that the transition from oral prophecy to written record of prophecy need not have been long. For example, Isaiah 8:16 mentions Isaiah's testimony being bound up by his followers. Jeremiah 36:4 mentions Baruch as his "secretary." At the same time, nothing about inspiration requires that it had to be the prophet himself that wrote it down, let alone edited the prophecies of a lifetime into a collection of prophecies.

The nature of such collections is such that the writings of the prophets have probably to some extent been "de-contextualized" from their original settings in real life (their Sitz im Leben, situation in life) and "re-contextualized" because of being repackaged as a new literary whole. The same is of course true of the sayings of Jesus as well in the gospels. Such re-contextualization inevitably results in some change in meaning and connotation. The larger the prophetic book, the more relocation and thus the greater potential shift in meaning.

We witness an apparent transition from the early days of prophecy in Israel to the prophets of the later monarchy (rule by king). This transition follows the shift from a period when Israel was a loose collection of tribes with no real common leadership to the more centralized days when kings ruled. The prophets and "seers" of the earlier days (cf. 1 Sam. 9:9) were apparently very "charismatic" figures, for lack of a better word, who often acted in groups. Saul comes on a group of such prophets after he is anointed king. He finds them processing from sacrifice with musical instruments.

When Saul joins them, a spirit from God possesses him and he goes into a kind of prophetic frenzy (1 Sam. 10:10). In another part of 1 Samuel, Saul actually strips his clothes off when this happens, and he lies naked for a whole day and night (1 Sam. 19:24). Similarly, when David brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, he dances and leaps largely uncovered (2 Sam. 6:14, 16, 20).

These sorts of texts remind us that the concept of the Satan was not yet around when they were written. What 2 Samuel 24:1 attributes to God, 1 Chronicles 21:1 attributes to Satan. It is difficult for us, from a New Testament perspective to think that it was God directly who sent an "evil spirit" on Saul and led him to throw a spear at David (1 Sam. 16:14)! And so from a Christian perspective, it is not completely clear to us which spiritual powers were really responsible for various spiritual activities attributed to God in the Historical Books.

By contrast, the prophets of the Latter Prophets date from the later monarchy on. At least in presentation, they seem much less frenzied than the earlier companies of prophets (Ezekiel is a noticeable exception at points). Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel may all have been priests. Their messages often have to do with social justice (concern for the poor, widows, orphans, etc.), although we do find engagement with geo-political events, concern for appropriate worship of Yahweh, and so forth.

Christian Interpretation
The New Testament quotes Isaiah and the Psalms more than any other books in the Old Testament. And as we have seen with the Psalms, the New Testament tends to take its words in a "fuller sense," a sensus plenior. To varying degrees, the New Testament was somewhat unconcerned to read Isaiah in context. Its paradigm for reading Scripture was not wired to look for original, contextual meaning but for how the words might be read spiritually in relation to Christ and the concerns of the early church.

We arguably find this hermeneutic at play in a number of well known instances. For example, when the Old Testament portion of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) first came out in 1952, a good deal of controversy rose over its translation of Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." The issue of course is that this verse is a classic prophecy of the virgin conception in Matthew 1:23.

But the RSV was not denying the virgin birth. Indeed, it uses "virgin" in its translation of Matthew 1:23. The issue is that the Hebrew word 'alma in Isaiah 7 would not seem to demand a miraculous birth. Young women--in fact virgins--conceive all the time. They just conceive by way of sex rather than by miracle!

The original context of Isaiah 7 is the LORD giving a sign to King Ahaz in relation to two kings that were threatening him from the north. A young woman would give birth to a son as a sign to him, and before the child grew up, God would take the threat to the north away (7:16). Now if this prediction only applied to Jesus, then it was not a sign to Ahaz in any way. He died over 700 years before Jesus! Matthew reads Isaiah 7 with Spiritual eyes and sees a meaning no one, including Isaiah, had ever seen before Jesus.

We find this pattern of interpretation consistently throughout the New Testament. Prophecies that originally had to do with the immediate situations of the prophets are read figuratively, spiritually, in relation to the New Testament context. For this reason, the prediction-fulfillment argument for the truth of Christianity is dangerous and potentially counter-productive. It seems primarily through spiritual eyes that the Old Testament words are understood of Christ and New Testament events. So we potentially provide an opportunity for the skeptic when we argue that these verses "predict" Jesus.

One of the most important texts in Isaiah for us as Christians is Isaiah 53, a text that we relate to the sufferings of Jesus on our behalf. Interestingly, the New Testament does not actually engage this text as a witness to Christ's suffering very often. For example, Matthew 8:16-17 is the only text in the gospel that quotes it, and it uses it in relation to Jesus' healing ministry rather than his death. The main texts that read it in this way are 1 Peter 2:22-25 and Acts 8, where God uses this text to provide an opportunity for Philip to bring the gospel to an Ethiopian.

What is interesting about this text hermeneutically is that it poses some challenges to read in its literary context. The broader literary context equates the servant in question with Israel (e.g., 44:1, 21; 45:4; 49:3). But Isaiah 53 speaks about the servant suffering for "our" transgressions (53:5). If the "our" is Israel, then we have Israel suffering for Israel. In short, we can identify with the Ethiopian eunuch's question in Acts 8:34, "About whom is the prophet speaking?" Thus some Old Testament passages have elements that seem to have pushed later readers toward more than literal interpretations.

"Three Isaiahs"
The fact that New Testament authors were not wired to read the Old Testament in context immediately provides a warning for those who insist we must limit our understandings of Old Testament authorship to the names by which the New Testament references the Old Testament. When it comes to Isaiah, we have no good reason to suggest that the core material of the first half of the book does not incorporate prophesies that Isaiah himself uttered in the 700s BC. The points of debate come with the packaging of those prophecies together in the first half and with the authorship of the second half.

If you approach Isaiah inductively, letting its text generate your thoughts on matters like dating and authorship, you will immediately be struck with its second half. For example, Isaiah 36-39 is not prophetic material, but a historical narrative of events near the end of King Hezekiah's reign. This material is virtually word for word the same as material in 2 Kings 18-20. Like the Pentateuch, this material talks about Isaiah and things he does. Inductively, however, it does not read as if Isaiah is writing these chapters. In th light of what follows, it reads more like someone has excerpted Kings to provide a bridge between the time of Isaiah and a time two hundred years later.

Since the New Testament does not quote these chapters, the main reason someone would ascribe them to Isaiah is the current packaging of them in a book that begins in 1:1 to say, "The vision of Isaiah..." Proverbs also begins by saying its contents are "The proverbs of Solomon" but then goes on to include proverbs of the wise (24:23), of Agur (30:1), and of Lemuel (31:1). It is at least possible that the ancients did not think of such headings as having to extend to everything that followed.

However, the real controversy comes when we get to Isaiah 40-66. Once again, from an inductive perspective, Isaiah is mentioned nowhere in these pages. These chapters do not attribute their material to Isaiah. It is only the packaging of them in the same book as Isaiah 1:1 that starts us out with this expectation inductively.

But as we proceed inductively through the rest of these chapters, they do not seem to picture a setting in the time of Isaiah. The setting is that of Israel about to return from exile around the year 539BC. Isaiah prophesied in the late 700s. Nowhere is this setting clearer than in Isaiah 45:1, where the Persian king Cyrus is mentioned. Cyrus is the king who in 538BC allowed the Jews to return to Israel from Babylon. Isaiah 45 addresses him in the present and even past tense in 45:1.

We therefore cannot simply say that someone who dates this portion of Isaiah to the 500s does not believe in prophecy. These words would not have made much sense at all during the time of Isaiah or the intervening century until 586BC when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. For example, Isaiah 61:4 speaks of God rebuilding ancient ruins and destroyed cities. The literary context both before and afterwards indicates that it is Jerusalem that is in view, a city that was not destroyed for 150 years after Isaiah and could not have been considered ancient ruins for some time after that.

Once again, the primary reason the authorship of these chapters in Isaiah is an issue is the way the New Testament quotes them. It is the fact that Jesus and the New Testament cite this material as material from Isaiah (e.g., Matt. 12:17). Unlike the Psalms, however, no New Testament author makes an argument on the basis of Isaiah's authorship. It is rather a matter of how the New Testament and Jesus reference the material in these later chapters. Each believer will have to decide whether the New Testament quotes such material within the categories of its day or whether God wants us to take from these references a timeless statement of authorship.

It is thus conventional since the commentary of Bernhard Duhm in 1892 to speak of Isaiah 49-55 as "deutero" or second Isaiah and Isaiah 56-66 as "trito" or third Isaiah. Material from the first part ("proto" Isaiah) thus was thought to go back to Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55 was thought to date from the time right before Cyrus allowed Israel to return from captivity and Isaiah 56-66 was thought to date from the period immediately following return in the late 500s BC. The idea is not that there were three different people named Isaiah. At most, some have suggested that a group of Jews preserved and extended the Isaianic tradition in the late sixth century.

As with Wellhausen's theory of the Pentateuch, the specifics have not gone unquestioned in the intervening days. And with the rise of literary approaches to the Bible in the 70s and 80s such as the narrative criticism we mentioned earlier, the study of Isaiah has focused more attention on the literary unity of the sixty-six books rather than the partitioning up of the book into parts. Common themes such as God as the "Holy One" appear throughout. Regardless of what one thinks about the historical origins of Isaiah's content, therefore, it is possible to read it literarily and theologically as a unity.

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